After being closed for more than eight months, the projectors at Old Town Theater are once again rolling — now with a second screen in the balcony. The theater is a landmark on King Street, known to generations of Alexandrians as the Richmond Theater. So many people were concerned when city code-enforcement officials shuttered the theater’s doors in November after owner Roger Fons made several major renovations without first obtaining the necessary permits. Now, with permits in hand and state code requirements fulfilled, Fons is focused on the future.
"It’ll take us a year — maybe two years — to get back to where we were," said Fons, who has owned the theater since 2003. "I’m still pulling money out of my own pocket because I am determined to make this work."
Aside from installing a second screen, Fons has other changes in mind for the Old Town Theater. The most significant is the addition of Klaus Keckeisen to handle food service and day-to-day operations. Keckeisen — a former owner of Bistro Europa — said that his vision for the King Street landmark is much more expansive than a place to see movies. He wants to work with Fons to develop the theater into a place for live entertainment, business meetings and holiday parties
"We want this to be a Chuck E Cheese for adults," said Keckeisen. "It’s not just a place to see movies."
CITY RECORDS show that the theater was constructed in 1922 and was originally used as a dance hall. Later the theater became a popular spot for movies. In 1976, the City Council granted a permit for the operation of a puppet theater at the building although it remained a movie theater. In 2000, the City Council approved a permit for the operation of a live theater to include musicals, comedies and dramas. Fons bought the theater in 2003 as an investment opportunity.
"Basically, I bought it because I didn’t want it to be turned into a condominium," Fons said. "But then I got involved."
His enthusiasm for the theater is something of a personal mission for Fons, one that keeps him at the building almost all of his waking hours. Those who walk the 800 block of King Street can frequently see him in the barstools outside the theater chain-smoking Marlboro Lights. Inside the building, he has invested a good deal of himself in the operation. The movable wall that hangs from the ceiling to create a second screen on the balcony, for example, was an original design that Fons engineered himself to fit in the historic building and muffle sound from the big screen on the first floor.
"There’s not another wall like this on the planet," said Fons. "And with the increased insulation we installed, it keeps the noise from bleeding into the other screen."
BUT CITY CODE INSPECTORS shut down the theater last November after an inspection revealed that he had made extensive renovations to the building without obtaining the necessary permits. Inspectors presented Fons with a lengthy list of violations — everything from improper storage methods to concerns about the fire safety of using residential couches in the front row. The code-enforcement officials were most concerned about the structural integrity of the new hanging screen and Fons’ failure to obtain the necessary permits needed to conduct electrical wiring.
"We'll work with him any way we can, but safety has to be our first priority," said acting Code Enforcement Director Jannine Pennel in a November 2006 interview. "We do not want a repeat of the Rhode Island fire occurring in Alexandria," referring to a 2003 inferno that killed 93 people during a Great White concert at a club known as "The Station."
For eight months, the theater was closed as a sign on the marquee begged for donations to restore "your theater." In February, City Manager Jim Hartmann announced the appointment of John Catlett as the new director of the department and Fons set up an appointment to meet with him shortly afterward. By late June, Catlett felt that Fons had finally addressed all the violations and granted him a permit for reoccupancy.
"He could have been open sooner if he had been more aggressive about addressing all the code violations," said Catlett. "Our concern was that we wanted to make sure that the building was safe, and we got to the point where we felt like it could have safe occupancy."
FONS DESCRIBED the code-enforcement violations as "mostly housekeeping measures" and insisted that he would rather focus on the future of his business than dwell on the eight-month period that nearly bankrupted him. Recent days have seen a resurgence of business at the theater, with the building hosting a wine tasting event featuring a screening of the 2006 film "Fatwa" by Alexandria director John Carter. Weekend screenings included "No Reservations" downstairs and "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" upstairs. Nevertheless, Fons said, the eight-month hiatus did damage that will be difficult to mend.
"People’s habits changed in terms of where they see movies, and now we have to let people know that we’re open again," said Fons, whose reopening event featured the premiere of the new Harry Potter movie. "We were the lowest grossing theater for Harry Potter in the whole country."
THE ECONOMICS of operating a successful small movie theater are difficult in a market where parking is as tight as Old Town, and Fons has already invested a great deal of money into making a return on his investment. During the period when the theater was closed, Fons tried to put a plan together with a group that books stand-up comedians but the deal fell through. Offers to purchase the theater were denied, and Fons vowed to make his theater on King Street a successful venture.
"It’s a cool theater, and I know it can do really well," said Greg Godbout, owner of Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse, who expressed interest in purchasing the theater in the last two years. "I hope it works out for Roger.
Fons is not yet totally out of the woods yet, and his permit of occupancy may still be revoked if he fails to please the Board of Architectural Review and the Planning Commission. Future consideration by both of these bodies could cause further headaches for Fons.
"From a code-enforcement perspective, the only outstanding issue at this time is that we need to check the second-floor projector room for the proper ventilation," said Pennell, the former acting director who is now Catlett’s deputy. "After that is addressed, Fons will have to get through the BAR and planning."