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Old Town Theater sold, likely to become retail space

The Old Town Theater in Alexandria closed its doors in early January and the King Street location will likely be rented out for retail, the former owner said. With the closing, go memories of a bygone era and the incredible potential of this unique building.


Photo by dewitahs on Flickr.

Everyone has their own theories as to why the theater failed: some point to small screens and old audio equipment, others to the lack of parking (though there are four public parking lots within two blocks). Some think it was just inevitable and that all movie theaters are on their way out.

The Old Town Theater opened in 1914 as the Richmond Theater and was the first permanent theater in the City of Alexandria. Over the years, it was everything from a vaudeville theater and dance hall to the National Puppet Center. For the majority of its life, however, it was a motion picture venue.

Former owner Roger Fons bought the then-closed Old Town Theater in 2003 with the intention of opening a live music venue but it quickly became a movie theater once again.

The Old Town Theater was in a thriving and popular part of town, a "date night" area. It was a unique building surrounded by a supportive community. With the right approach, it could have become a destination in its own right.

Instead, it was a mess. The theater was not cleaned well. Posters and lighting units were stored in plain sight. Movies never started on time, leaving patrons crowded in the small lobby or spilling out onto the sidewalk.

One reason the movies never started on time is that Fons couldn't resist a captive audience. When there was a full house, instead of showing coming attractions, Fons would stand in front of the theater and opine about anything that happened to be on his mind. The topics were generally related to the movie industry, but he would sometimes meander into stranger topics such as military conspiracy theories and tips on safe driving.

For years, the theater did not work with online services such as Fandango. The theater's Facebook presence was not consistently maintained, even though it once generated significant activity.

Fons did not recognize the neighborhood demographic and staged movies inappropriate for the old, small theater. Old Town residents are more likely to want to see smaller, arty, independent movies than big Hollywood blockbusters. Non-residents tend to come to Old Town for "date night" trips. Neither of these audiences wanted to see "Twilight" or "The Hangover." Those who do want to see blockbuster movies such as "Transformers" want to see them on the biggest screen possible with the full surround sound experience. The Old Town Theater could never compete on those technical fronts.

But it could have competed on another front. There are very few theaters in Northern Virginia which show independent films. Fons could have carved out a niche into that market. He was told this by many people many times over the years. He said that he tried but that no one came.

New owner Rob Kaufman said he has tried to find and is looking for a tenant who will keep the space a theater. But Kaufman said consultants have told him the space is not financially viable as a theater. Kaufman has also received permission from the Board of Architectural Review to proceed with a plan to demolish the 1940s-era marquee and box office, making the chances of the space reaching 100 years as a movie theater seem very slim. Rumor has it that J. Crew is interested in the space.

Despite the sale of the property and the planned destruction of the marquee, with proper management, marketing and demographic understanding, the Old Town Theater could be a charming gem instead of an ersatz dump.

Catherine Moran is a librarian, sometimes GGW commenter, and lifelong movie buff who has been a proud resident of Old Town since 2005. 

Comments

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I kept wanting to go to Old Town Theater, given I don't live that far away. But, as you say in this article, there was rarely a compelling reason to go there instead of, say, Hoffman or Arlington Cinema and Draft House.

I finally attended a movie there as part of the Alexandria Film Festival, and found it to be the near-dump you described. They had a sign posted even that said, in some words, "Concession purchase required". Which pretty much sealed the deal that I'd never attend a movie there.

by Byron on Jan 27, 2012 1:01 pm • linkreport

I went there two years ago to see the new "Star Trek" movie and the film started an 1 1/2 hours late with *no* explanation or offer of a free movie ticket for another movie or anything. If that's how they did business most of the time, it's no wonder they had no return customers.

by Dave Riley on Jan 27, 2012 1:09 pm • linkreport

Total dump, very poor quality projection equipment, plus the same movies that they're showing just up the road at Shirlington. What do you expect?

by Simon on Jan 27, 2012 1:20 pm • linkreport

It'd be nice to have it kept as a performance space but I'd take a well run J. Crew over a poorly managed artistic venture.

by Canaan on Jan 27, 2012 1:22 pm • linkreport

There is a similar theater in downtown Colorado Springs called the Peak Theater (in reference to Pikes Peak). The owner, years ago, realized he couldn't compete technically with the megaplexes and turned it into more of an art-house/indy theater (with the occasional "nerdy" big budget Hollywood film like LOTR). He's done quite well by catering to a population that enjoys those types of movies. He also created a niche by being able to serve adult beverages which I'm sure helps his bottom line.
It's certainly possible to run a successful, local, small, indy-type theater but it doesn't sound like this particular owner ran it very professionally.

by thump on Jan 27, 2012 1:26 pm • linkreport

What a shame it would be for another big-box yuppie clothing store to move into Old Town. If a new owner would use the business plan of the Arlington Drafthouse or the Shirlington theater, this could be a successful arts space. A facelift, drinks and food that aren't over-priced, and an alternative selection of movies could have saved the space.

by ACG on Jan 27, 2012 1:33 pm • linkreport

The theater sold beer and wine & still the owner couldn't manage a profit. The required beverage purchase was a real turn-off, the place was a dump, there was nowhere inside to wait for a show to start when it was freezing outside, and the sound was horrible. Such a shame, I wanted to love it.

by Sharyn on Jan 27, 2012 1:41 pm • linkreport

I'll pile on. A complete mess. Best of luck to whatever replaces it.

by spookiness on Jan 27, 2012 2:40 pm • linkreport

"When there was a full house, instead of showing coming attractions, Fons would stand in front of the theater and opine about anything that happened to be on his mind. The topics were generally related to the movie industry, but he would sometimes meander into stranger topics such as military conspiracy theories and tips on safe driving."

Holy crap, are you serious? That's mind boggling.

Too bad a citizens group like the one that saved the Avalon couldn't get together and save the Old Town. Maybe that group that was fighting the development could focus their energies on something more worthwhile like this?

by TM on Jan 27, 2012 2:50 pm • linkreport

I took my wife there a couple months ago to see the Rum Diaries, and the whole property was a bit messy. But that mandatory concession purchase--we weren't prepared for that. My wife and I swore we would never return for that reason. What a fatal management decision. I'll bet very few customers returned after getting that surprise smack in the face, which occurs, by the way, AFTER you buy your tickets at the box office window. It actually felt like a scam.

by John Kennedy on Jan 27, 2012 3:15 pm • linkreport

It was something like $8 for a tiny box of popcorn the one time I went. Everything was outdated. With a real cash infusion maybe the place could be made special again.

by NikolasM on Jan 27, 2012 4:04 pm • linkreport

@John Kennedy--I totally forgot about the drink minimum. It was there for so long and I usually got a beer anyway that it just didn't occur to me! I actually do understand why it was there. Basically, each movie a theater owner buys from a studio gets its own "deal"--for guaranteed successes the deal is usually along the lines of "studio gets 96% of the box office take for the first two weeks, drops to 70% after that". For other types of movies, second run, or movies that everyone knows will bomb, the deal is different (but usually involves the majority of the box office sales going to the studios). Of course, the Megaplexes, with their strength in numbers can often cut a better deal than the little guys.

Theater owners have little choice than to take these deals if they want to have the latest and greatest on offer (note the *if*...this is yet another good reason to have smaller or second run films at a small indie theater).

So, all the income pressure is on concessions...and less than 20% of moviegoers buy concessions. Add in the fact that your theater is surrounded by restaurants, next to a convenience store, and mandatory minimums might start to make sense. Other entertainment venues have cover charges and/or drink minimums and I think that that's fair enough and COULD work in the movie theater model.....if you don't charge the industry rate for a ticket as well as have a drink minimum.

I'm not saying it wasn't a poor decision, but I at least understood where it came from, and wanted a beer with my movie anyway so it's probably the last thing that I minded about the place.

@TM, First of all, yep. Though in fairness, not before EVERY showing but with enough frequency that it was a "thing". And I thought about the potential for a citizen's group, too. But I think that would have taken some sort of cooperation or request from the owner. Also, I'm not sure anyone really knew this was eminent (it was clear that was going to happen eventually); this sale was done pretty quietly and there was only about a week between the sale date and the theater closing.

Thanks for commenting, all! I'm glad that others see the potential that was (and technically still is) there.

by Catherine on Jan 27, 2012 4:57 pm • linkreport

years ago there was a theater in Shirlington, I think it was Shirlington, that used to show art house/indy movies in the evening and x rated films during the day. (There were posters for both types of movies showing on the theater walls.) Sometimes the two audiences would cross when the last of the days x's was letting out and the first of the evenings' arty/indies was about to start...

by Tina on Jan 27, 2012 5:08 pm • linkreport

@Tina, I believe the Biograph in DC did the split between art and X films.

But! I think the theater you're remembering was the old Foxchase movie theater on Duke St near Jordan. It's now a Harris Teeter after they redeveloped the shopping center.

I do, recall, however, going to see Being John Malkovich at Fox Chase with my grandparents when I was a late teen and being able to hear the X-rated movie sounds through the theater wall. Good times.

by Byron on Jan 27, 2012 5:44 pm • linkreport

It would be a shame to lose this movie theatre. It has real charm.

New management could bring it back to life with a creative approach.

If lost, it will not only be a loss to the community that wants a place to see Academy Award quality indy, foreign, animated and other films, but it will harm the economic viability of the area.

At its best, a movie theatre can be an economic engine for the businesses around it - particularly the restaurants. People who come to watch movies, almost always prefer to eat close by.

I urge the new owner to find the right people to run it and give it one more try.

by Paul Friedman on Jan 27, 2012 6:39 pm • linkreport

I really wanted to like this place, but I thought the inside was ugly. They painted everything a depressing black. Rather than feeling like you're in an old, glorious movie house experiencing something special, it felt like a an old porn theater. And I agree that it wasn't well run.

by DelRay on Jan 27, 2012 7:44 pm • linkreport

@Paul Friedman

It would be very difficult to make this go. The interior would have to be completely reconstructed, perhaps to three or four separate auditoria (not Fons's half-assed separation of the balcony) and new, perhaps digital, projection equipment bought. And then, one would be competing with Cinema Arts in Fairfax and the West End Cinema in DC, not to mention the Landmark E Street and Bethesda Row Cinemas with their already existing industry contacts. It's not that easy to get indie releases (really; their distributors have their own roll-out plans) and very hard to get them on an area-exclusive basis.

by jim on Jan 27, 2012 8:29 pm • linkreport

It is sad to see it go. I remember when they showed more independent movies. There wasn't much of a crowd for those either. Live music & theater seemed to do a little better. Even a small crowd meant long lines for the concession stand. The lobby area was tiny too. In the end, I think its too hard to compete with multiplexs.

by jd on Jan 28, 2012 10:13 am • linkreport

The AMC Hoffman theater complex also really limits the geographic scope from which Old Town Theater compellingly draws. Easy & inexpensive parking (for those coming by car), closer to the Metro than Old Town, a couple of restaurants right there for those less-discerning in their one-stop walkable date night desires, and actually a shorter walk to much of the Old Town area high-density residential.

Moreover, AMC usually seems to run at least one of the "major studio art films" that might otherwise be the bread-and-butter of an independent-minded Old Town Theater.

Given that degree of competition in addition to the management quirks (that "drink purchase required" was a dealbreaker more than once for us, too), I'm not surprised the theater failed.

by Arl Fan on Jan 28, 2012 10:59 am • linkreport

The demise of the theater can be laid entirely in the lap of Roger Fons, its eccentric (to put it mildly)and narcissistic owner. In 2003 a citizens group had formed and was working with the then owners to lease it or purchase it. A model is the County Theater in Doylestown PA www.countytheater.org. Saved and operated by a terrific local non-profit, The County is a gem in a downtown much like King Street.

Leaders of the emerging Old Town group were stunned when Fons bought it. We tried to work with him, he had no room for ideas other than his own grandiose ones that made no sense even at the time. A few years later, he was closed down by the city for dangerous code violations: Without professional help or permits, he (personally, according to news articles) propped up the roof and balcony in ways that would have led to collapse from the weight of a serious snow storm. He was not incorporated as a non-profit, yet crying crocodile tears of mistreatment by the city, he appealed to the community for donations. It was closed for a long time, he finally managed to reopen, but seemed to learn nothing from his by then years of experience running a small theater.

Its loss is tragic, for it made Alexandria such a "complete" walkable, livable city. And a Doylestown / Avalon approach could have been made to work.

by notjustmary on Jan 29, 2012 8:33 am • linkreport

I liked that you could buy beer or wine and enjoy it during the movie. But I hated that you were forced to purchase a drink (water, soda, beer, wine). What I hated more was the way it was messaged to the customers. The owner made it clear on the signs he posted all over the doors and lobby that it was our (customers) fault that the fee was imposed on all of us. You know who else requires a drink purchase? Strip Clubs.

by Doug on Jan 30, 2012 9:18 am • linkreport

The Byrd Theatre in Carytown, Richmond, is another example of a theater that counter-programs--low prices, second run films, midnite showings, etc.--and is able to survive (granted it needs some investment) despite the trend to large cineplexes.

The Byrd is much larger and grander than the Old Town Theater though, and likely costs more for upkeep.

The odd thing about this story is that it sounds very similar to the Takoma Theatre under its eccentric owner, and how the building just sit and moulders as a result.

by Richard Layman on Jan 30, 2012 2:17 pm • linkreport

Thanks, all, again for the insightful comments.

I understand those who don't think that it would be financially viable, but a lot of that opinion seems to reach back to the old way of running the place. I still think that with a fresh, innovative (and functional) approach, it could be viable--even great.

And that said, @notjustmary in particular, I wonder if people would still be interested in organizing a non-profit to run the place? Any thoughts?

by Catherine on Feb 1, 2012 2:33 pm • linkreport

I'm sad to see it go. I hope it does not become a J. Crew. It be nice if it became a mini Alamo Drafthouse. http://drafthouse.com/blog/entr /a_brief_introduction_to_the_world_of_the_alamo_drafthouse
They are planning on building one of those all the way out in Ashburn and are looking at other locations. Like the Old Towne Theater they don't play ads before the movie (one of the reasons I went there) and they care about movies. They may also have the capital be able to fix it up (I think a non-profit would have trouble in this regard). It would be a small but great location. Also, the added bonus is that they have a no texting and talking policy which would make me want to actually go out and see a movie.

by E on Feb 9, 2012 8:38 pm • linkreport

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