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The Adventures of Roger Fons

Old Town Theater owner’s life could be a motion picture.

The setting is an old vaudeville theater on King Street, and the star of the show is Roger Fons. Our camera begins a slow advance, moving toward the oversized marquee with a sense of imminent arrival. Cue the music, “Un bel dì vedremo” from “Madame Butterfly.” Fons sits on a barstool in front of the theater smoking a cigarette, its wafts of white ribbons swirling toward the sky. He is charming and effervescent as patrons, employees and strangers greet him.

Cut to a flashback. The backstory involves a small Michigan town circa early 1960s where Fons was champion of the pole vault. The plot progresses as he is drafted into the Army and spends a decade trying to sign up for enough training exercises to outrun the war. He learns karate in Georgia, fights pneumonia in Kentucky and masters the art of helicopter maintenance in Alabama — all in an effort to beat the clock.

In 1971, his government sends him to Vietnam. War is hell. Fade to black.

Slowly, light filters back to the screen to reveal suburban Detroit. Fons returns from Southeast Asia with a sense of wanderlust. He decides that small-town life in Michigan is not for him, so he sets out to tour the continental United States in a beat-up Chevrolet pickup truck — crisscrossing the country for years before winding up in Alexandria.

Cut to the present. Roger Fons is king of Old Town’s only silver screen. His stage hosts a wide variety of shows: major motion pictures, art films, live music and standup comedians. He is an ever-present figure on King Street, chainsmoking Marlboros in front of the business that he has spent three years building.

“Nobody believes this will work except me,” Fons says, staring into the camera, wafts of smoke emitting from his nostrils. “If the story of my life was a movie, it would be a long journey with multiple turns."

AS A TEENAGER, Fons’ athletic ability was in high demand at Troy High School, in Troy, Mich., where his graduating class had 60 students. Fons was dedicated to the pole vault, a sport that allowed him to deploy his talent for physical precision and subtle calculation. He spent many hours vaulting on a makeshift setup in his backyard. After months of pleading, he was able to persuade his father to buy him a $135 fiberglass pole — a luxury that Fons was only able to use once.

“It raised me to 14 feet, which was pretty good in those days,” Fons said. “But then it fell to the ground and broke into a thousand pieces.”

After graduating from high school, Fons studied engineering at Michigan State University. His education was funded by an uncanny ability to play left wing on the university’s hockey team — a position he now sees as an ironic counterbalance to his right-wing views on taxes. He graduated in 1968 and was immediately drafted into the Army.

The Michigan draft board put him on a bus to Detroit for a physical, then put him on another bus to Fort Knox for training. Kentucky’s balmy weather gave Fons pneumonia, a condition that confined him to a stuffy infirmary where the nurses woke the patients up every hour in an effort to battle an outbreak of meningitis. Fons was able to use chilled orange juice and good timing to trick his way out of the infirmary.

“I watched the thermometer,” Fons said. “When it got to 98.6 degrees, I took it out.”

He studied military police tactics in Georgia and karate in Kentucky before enrolling in officer training school at Fort Belvoir. Fons became a second lieutenant, then moved to Texas to learn about helicopters. In his off hours, he traveled to Las Vegas to gamble at the old Rivera Hotel — staring down the likes of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Sammy Davis Jr.

“Sinatra was a bad poker player, and he could get really angry when he lost,” Fons said. “Elvis was very polite, a really wholesome kind of a guy. Sammy Davis Jr. was a great poker player — one of the best. But I still beat him.”

The narrator tries to get details the war, but Fons cuts him off.

“We don’t have to talk about Vietnam, do we?”

AFTER THE WAR, Fons toured through the country in his pickup truck. He ate breakfast in small South Carolina towns, ran with the bulls in Mexico and rode a donkey to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. He returned to the poker tables of Las Vegas and went skiing at Lake Tahoe. He took a helicopter to the top of the Hoover Dam and cheered for the vaqueros in a Texas rodeo.

“I learned that Middle America should be Middle America,” Fons said. “They’ve got their front porches and they wave to everybody. We don’t do that here. We keep our porches in the back yard and nobody knows their neighbor.”

Nevertheless, Fons chose Northern Virginia to be his new home. He moved to Springfield and sold used cars on Edsall Road in Alexandria. He founded an insurance agency and became a real-estate mogul, eventually moving to Old Town and becoming a senior loan officer for Allied Bank. By 2003, he was looking for something to do with the “pile of money” he made in the marketplace.

One day, he visited an old abandoned theater on King Street and fell in love.

“Basically, I bought it because I didn’t want it to be turned into a condominium,” Fons said. “But then I got involved.”

OLD TOWN THEATER was constructed in 1922. The old vaudeville stage was later used as a dance hall and then a movie theater. In 1976, City Council approved a special-use permit for the National Puppet Center. For some reason, the puppet theater was never launched and the permit expired. Instead, a movie theater operated at the site for 25 years. Ultimately, all of the business that tried to establish itself in the theater died.

On Sept. 30, 2003, according to city property records, Fons bought the building for $1.1 million. The financial transaction became an emotional investment, and Fons has sunk an additional $1.4 million into the theater. Although he expected 1,000 customers a week, Fons admits that most weeks bring in about 400 people.

“I don’t know what his business model is,” said Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald. “But I give him great credit for restoring that old theater. He took a building that was in severe disrepair and brought it back to life.”

Fons’ friends say that his love of the Old Town Theater has transformed the building into a King Street treasure. Even if business is slow now, they say, Fons has the instincts to refine the operation until it’s a well-oiled machine — like the helicopters he once flew over the rain forests of Vietnam.

“I think he’s on a heroic quest,” said Miles Holtzman, a longtime friend. “I don’t think that the City Council or the Old Town Civic Association gave him a lot of help. But Roger made the system work.”

MUSIC BURSTS into full force. It is “Die Walküre” from Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen.” During the pause that follows the last triumphant chord, we hear Fons’ voice. He talks about his love of opera, his unending devotion to the theater’s restoration and the future expansion of the theater’s upstairs space.

“If my life was a movie, I probably wouldn’t watch it,” he says. “I don’t see half the films that play here.”

The camera begins closing in on Fons. His facial expressions become larger than life as cigarette smoke creates a hazy gauze. Fons looks directly into the camera to make a final point — one he wants to emphasize.

“I’m the most eligible bachelor in Old Town,” he says with a wink and a mischievous smile.