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Old Town Theater Fades To Black — Again

This could well be the final encore for another landmark.

Once again Alexandria's Old Town Theater has gone dark. This time the primary reason was not lack of attendance or the inability to offer first run movies. This time the blame can be placed directly with the owner and a disregard for City responsibility to protect the public.

"It was definitely my fault. But I didn't think I needed a permit to install another screen," said Roger Fons, owner.

It was the installation of that screen on the balcony level that triggered a total inspection by City Code Enforcement. They found that Fons had not only installed a movable, suspended screen without their approval but also had committed 70 plus other code violations of City ordinances.

Those violations covered everything from unapproved electrical installation to bringing in seating that is designed for residential use rather than commercial due to its fire resistance, according to Jannine Pennell, acting director, Code Enforcement.

"What we are really concerned with is that the second screen is suspended from a track attached to the ceiling and it overhangs seating on the first floor. It was installed without our permission or inspection," Pennell said.

The screen is actually a folding wall comprised of panels similar to those found in many hotel ballrooms that are used to divide rooms for separate functions. The difference is that those walls are floor to ceiling.

Over the past decade the theater has gone through a series of renovations to make it more competitive with new multiplex venues and to give it more flexibility of use. Prior to Fons' ownership it had been totally redecorated and somewhat altered to place a greater emphasis on stage productions than movies.

ORIGINALLY OPENED IN 1914, the theater at 815 and a half King Street served as one of the City's prime entertainment sites from World War I through the Cold War. As competition grew with the construction of more theaters offering multiple screens and stadium seating, Old Town Theater attendance steadily declined.

In the early 1980s the owner at that time decided to install a second screen in the balcony level offering the possibility of two shows being run simultaneously. However, that screen was on a solid wall, not cantilevered over first floor seating.

That experiment to increase attendance proved futile and the theater was closed. In 2001 it was leased to Mark W. Anderson and reopened as primarily a live stage theater which called for the removal of the second floor screen and a return to its former configuration. It was at that time much of the redecoration and restoration took place. Anderson threw in the towel in 2003 and it went back to dark.

Fons purchased the theater for $1.1 million shortly thereafter with the intent of creating a first-run cinema draft house after Anderson abandoned his lease. His plans also envisioned the theater being used for special events and live performances.

This called for the removal of several rows of seating on the first floor, installation of a small food preparation area so patrons could enjoy food with either a movie or as part of the special event, and the creation of a bar/lounge on the mezzanine level. Fons also invested in a new projector and other technical upgrades to gain the ability to offer first run films.

But, competition from the modern venues has remained formidable. "It has barely made money since it was redone. With one screen I have been averaging about 700 patrons a week. With two I figured I could double that," Fons said.

Within the last year, Fons incorporated the theater as a nonprofit entity seeking membership donations to keep it operating. The marquee, which extends over the sidewalk, now has a plea for donations for "your theater."

When he established the theater's nonprofit status he expected an outpouring of local support. In fact, that effort has also imploded. Thus far less than 50 donors have participated.

"If I don't get more capital I will probably sell it. I have been offered enough to recoup my investment and walk away with a very comfortable profit. But, that will be the end of the Old Town Theater," he said.

"It will probably be turned into a multi-use building with retail on the first floor, offices above and some residential. I really want to see it remain a theater. It is part of Old Town," Fons said sitting on a stool in the mezzanine lounge with the City inspection reports spread out in front of him.

CODE ENFORCEMENT shares his desire to keep it as a theater. "We'll work with him any way we can but safety has to be our first priority. We do not want a repeat of the Rhode Island fire occurring in Alexandria," Pennell said in referring to the nightclub fire that killed scores of patrons.

"We told him we will expedite the plan review when he gets it to us. We also told him to go to Planning and Zoning about the second screen but he didn't pursue that application," she said.

"We were talking almost every day until last week. He seems to truly want to get the theater operational and we support that," she said.

"But, he [Fons] has done a lot of wiring work without the proper permits that included punching holes in the wall for wiring. He has replaced some theater seating with residential couches that aren't fire resistant as seating used in commercial enterprise," she said.

All of these violations came to light when inspectors discovered the newly install folding screen/wall on Oct. 31. At that time a movie was being show upstairs with a Halloween party on the first floor.

On Nov. 1 and 2 a full City staff compliment returned and conducted a thorough investigation. Following that the 70 plus item corrections list was issued to bring the theater into compliance.

Fons was told not to use the balcony level and to have a structural engineer evaluate the building. The theater has been closed since then.

That fact has not sat well with his commercial neighbors. They view the closed theater as a detriment to the 800 block overall. "When it is open it attracts business. Anything that attracts business is good for all of us. A closed building doesn't help the block or the area," said Joseph Vallieres, owner, Flying Fish restaurant two doors from the theater.

That was buttressed by Digna Mejia, supervisor, Bittersweet restaurant on the corner of King and Alfred streets. "Customers are upset to see it dark. It was good to have it operating," she said.

As Pennell emphasized, "The ball is in his court." Fons also recognizes that and is taking steps to correct the situation.

"I have hired Masters Engineering and Designs and hope to submit electrical and structural plans by Dec. 1. Kolb Electric is also in the process of testing all the electrical circuits," Fons said.

"After that we will be inspected again and hopefully it will be approved. But, if this doesn't work out I'm really considering

selling this and moving on," he said.

Roger Fons has moved on before through a series of careers that have included everything from flying helicopters to owning an insurance company and golf range to being a loan officer for Washington Mutual.