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Another Encore For Old Town Theater

New ownership, new grand opening in April.

Alexandria's Old Town Theater is about to make yet another incarnation the weekend of April 16 — 90 years after the original permit was issued to debut the original Richmond Theater in 1914. It's doors first opened in August of that year, less than 30 days after the commencement of World War I.

Roger Fons and Brenda Meyer recently purchased the Alexandria landmark, located in the 800 block of King Street, from the Pedas Trust. Prior to their Grand Opening in April, they plan to hold several "training exercises to orient their staff and test the upgraded physical plant" in preparation for the main event.

"Because our entertainment will be more flexible, we hope to draw more from the community where walk-in traffic will be more viable," Meyer said. "It's going to be a pretty good mix with certain time frames for live entertainment and certain times for movies," Fons added.

The theater has been dark since mid-2003. That was when Mark W. Anderson, one of the founders of Washington's Improv Theater on Connecticut Avenue, threw in the towel on his hopes to bring live, commercial, theater-style entertainment to Old Town.

AFTER A SERIES of false starts and missed target dates, Anderson finally opened the doors on the renovated theater February 14, 2002, with an offering named "Crazy Love." A "For Lease" sign again appeared on the marque last spring.

Although Anderson did extensive renovation and upgrading to return the edifice to its previous days of glory, one of the problems from the beginning was patron parking. Many of the off street parking spaces, particularly the large lot at the intersection of Columbus and Cameron streets, had been gobbled up by development.

Anderson made initial arrangements with several parking facilities to take $1 off the evening parking rate for theater patrons.

"We have an agreement with the Alfred Street garage. They will charge theater patrons $4 instead of their usual rate of $5," Fons explained. "We hope to develop similar arrangements with other parking facilities in the area."

Although Anderson had signed a 20-year lease, he was freed from that obligation upon purchase by the new owners, according to Fons.

"But all the equipment and new additions he had installed were left in place," Fons explained.

THE NEW OWNERS plan to operate the theater as a full range community entertainment center. This will include regular programming of movies, second run, festival, art, and classic; weekend children and family educational entertainment; and a venue for meetings and special events.

"We will be offering special performances including plays, lectures, music and whatever else we can think of to keep our community well rounded and involved," they said. "One of the things we are planning for Monday and Tuesday nights are local talent contests with a winner being picked each month."

With an eye to special audiences, Meyer and Fons foresee children's days when moms and dads can bring their children for special movies and live entertainment. They also envision Senior Movie Matinees. "We've had a lot of requests for these," Meyer acknowledged.

The plan is to run movies primarily on weekday evenings as well as on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. "We have installed enough equipment to do 35 millimeter, DVD, VHS, a new generation of LCD, and a theatrical cinema projector," Fons said. "There is also a new retractable screen as well as a 12 by 22-foot stage."

Fons admitted, "I had hoped to buy this place in 1999, but the owners did not want to sell at that time. After Anderson, I turned around and offered to buy it again. This time I was successful for approximately $1.1 million."

It was the possibility of offering a cinema drafthouse coupled with, "We really wanted to do something of a business nature in Old Town," that made Fons so tenacious about owning the theater, he revealed. "I have spent most of my adult life in this area after first coming here when I was in the Army."

It also seemed like a very good business opportunity, according to Fons. "Even at one third occupancy you are going to make it financially," he said. They explained that by showing second run movies, they would not be under the same financial demands of theaters that have to meet first run requirements from the industry.

ALTHOUGH ANDERSON had put in all new seating and brought the theater back to a single screen/stage venue, plus revitalizing many of the classic architectural aspects, the new owners have done further significant renovations. One of the most obvious is the addition of a mezzanine gathering area for patrons.

What was originally inaccessible to the public and used for office space has been opened and renovated with arched doorways, new lighting, decorated walls and new carpet.

"Since the main lobby is so small this will offer a good area for people to gather. We hope to install standup tables for food and beverages," Meyer said.

Other improvements include a new sound wall, new stage curtains, a dolby EX sound system and a Bose surround sound system, new glass door at the entrance, a re-done marque roof and underside, new neon lighting, more color on the lower level, and an antique brass chandelier for the main lobby.

There will also be a one-of-a-kind gastronomic offering called the "OTT Dog." These are specially made hot dogs named "OTT Dogs" for Old Town Theater Dogs.

Joining the OTT Dog at the concession stand will be foot-long Buffalo dogs, as well as a variety others such as hot dogs made from chicken and vegetables geared to the weight conscious patron, according to Meyer. Other food offerings will also be available.

"And we have applied for a beer and wine license," Fons revealed.

TOTAL SEATING capacity is 409 with a total occupancy potential of 424, counting ADA compliance areas, Fons said. When fully operational, the owners will employ approximately 20 people.

Supplementing regular ticket sales will be the possibility of purchasing an annual membership for $1,200 per year. "This will admit the holder to one entrance per offering," they explained. "It also allows the holder to get a 20 percent discount on a companion ticket for the same performance."

Fons noted, "By making the membership applicable to the holder it can be used by anyone in a family or organization and is not tied to a particular individual. We felt this made it more desirable because an individual is probably not going to be able to attend every movie or performance."

Complimenting the regular offerings, Meyer and Fons plan to make the theater available for organization meetings and special group events. Two in the latter category tentatively booked is a special presentation of the movie "Fiddler On The Roof" by a local synagogue "with a sing-along" and large screen viewing of the NCAA Basketball Tournament by a group of hoops enthusiasts.

Additional information on the entire venture can be found at their newly established web site: oldtowntheater.com.