Greater Greater Washington

See Georgetown's historic movie theatres

Like many DC neighborhoods, Georgetown historically had several movie theatres. While none of them are still in operation today, almost all of the buildings that once held movie theatres are largely intact.


The former Key theatre. Photo by Constantine Hannaher on Flickr.

Jonathan O'Connell of the Washington Post ran a fantastic feature Monday on the history of theatres in DC, with a map showing where historic theatres were and existing theatres are. The city had 116 movie theatres and playhouses during the 20th century, six of which were in Georgetown. Let's tally them up!

Above you see a photo of the Key Theatre. Of the historic theatres, it was on the young side. It was opened in 1969 and closed in 1997. Nowadays it (along with the former Roy Rogers next door) is occupied by Restoration Hardware.


The Biograph. Photo by joe on Flickr.

Here is the Biograph. It was even younger than the Key Theatre. It was built in 1976 in a former car dealership and lasted until 1996. Like the Georgetown theatre, in its later years it mixed art house with adult fare, but was unable to stave off closure. Like many former theatres in DC, it now houses a CVS.


The Georgetown. Photo by Tony on Flickr.

Familiar to many, the Georgetown Theatre building has lasted several decades, gutted and decrepit as it may be today. However, the facade as we now know it is thankfully not long for this world. Local architect Robert Bell has a contract to buy the building and plans to restore the neon sign and rip off the formstone exterior.

Bell only intends to restore the facade to its state immediately before the formstone was applied. That is apparently a simple stucco style, but unfortunately I couldn't locate a picture of what that looked like. Bell confirmed that he had no plans to restore the facade of the Dumbarton Theatre, which was what became the Georgetown in the 1950s. It was opened in 1913, shortly before this photo was taken:


The Dumbarton in 1913. Photo by joe on Flickr.

Bell plans to restore the neon side, making it red, while returning the frame to its original black color. I predict it will displace the old Riggs Bank dome as the iconic Georgetown image once it's finally repaired.


Tommy Hilfiger, once home to the Lido theatre. Photo by Bill in DC on Flickr.

This obviously isn't a theatre, but the Tommy Hilfiger stands at the site of the former Lido Theatre. The theatre was open from 1909 to 1948. I unfortunately could not find any picture of the original theatre. The facade was changed significantly for Tommy Hilfiger, here's what it looked like in the 1990's:


The former Lido Theatre (on the far left). Photo courtesy of the author.

I'm not certain, but chances are that this isn't really the original building. It just looks way more mid-century than turn-of-the-century. The theatre shut in 1948, and that building looks awfully 1950's-ish. I suspect that's when the current structure was built, or it may mean the building's facade was redone later on. So maybe this is one that should be considered "lost."


The former Barnes and Noble. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

This is also obviously not a photo of a theatre, but before this building held Nike or Barnes and Noble, it held the Cerebus 1-2-3 Theatre. Like many of the large and similar looking buildings on 14th St., this property was also originally built as a car dealership. The theatre occupied the space from 1970 to 1993.


The Foundry. Photo by kiev_dinamo on Flickr.

Last, but not least, on O'Connell's list is the Foundry Theatre. The photo above shows it as it is today, but it hasn't really changed much since the theatre closed in 2002. It was the youngest theatre on this list, having been opened in 1984. For all intents and purposes, it was replaced by the Georgetown AMC theatre, which opened the same year.

So at one point in the late 1970's, there were four different movie theatres open in Georgetown. Now there's just one (two if you count Letelier Theatre) but we've got almost all the old shells. In the age of Netflix and on-demand movies, maybe we should be happy we've even got that.

Crossposted on Georgetown Metropolitan.

Topher Mathews has lived in the DC area since 1999. He created the Georgetown Metropolitan in 2008 to report on news and events for the neighborhood and to advocate for changes that will enhance its urban form and function. A native of Wilton, CT, he lives with his wife and new daughter in Georgetown.  

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I had no idea that many of those buildings used to be theaters; thanks for the classic photos.

Suggestion: consider adding more photos of the current uses, or at least include the addresses or intersections of the structures. I was able to figure it out by going back and forth to the map from the Post article, but it would've been nice to have it listed inline.

by Peter K on Nov 14, 2013 1:26 pm • linkreport

Thanks for the fun though somewhat sad piece since DC has really netted out to having far fewer theaters than it used to have - you could write a companion piece about the lost theaters of Wisconsin Avenue too.

A bit outside of Georgetown but AFI used to show movies in the basement of the Kennedy Center and there was also a multiplex at 23rd & L where the Ritz Carlton now is.

And thanks for including the Foundry but I would not quite agree that it was replaced by the Georgetown AMC (though no doubt the new theater hastened its closing) but the Foundry was a second run "Dollar" theater that used to get most of the funky arthouse & foreign movies after they ran at the Dupont & Inner Circle theaters. I used to see 30-40 movies a year there, often in a mostly empty theater, so it was not a surprise when it closed but I was saddened nonetheless when it was gone and still feel that a second run movie theater and a real bowling alley are a couple of things DC could really use.

by TomQ on Nov 14, 2013 3:09 pm • linkreport

CVS bought up a lot of them.

by Capt. Hilts on Nov 14, 2013 3:35 pm • linkreport

A couple of corrections: The AFI was not in the basement of the Kennedy Center, it was in an area off the Hall of States now occupied by the Family Theater. The AFI theater there was a gift of Jack L. Warner of Warner Brothers fame. And the theater in Georgetown that was replaced by a Barnes and Noble was the Cerberus, not the "Cerebus". It was originally opened by the owners of the Janus Theatres. The Cerberus had three screens, and so was named after the mythological three-headed dog. (The Janus was originally two screens, and was named after the two-faced mythological god. When KB Theatres took it over, they added a third auditorium to the Janus, rendering the theater name meaningless.)

by RichM on Nov 14, 2013 4:07 pm • linkreport

Thanks for that history, Rich.

I have fond memories of the Janus.

by Capt. Hilts on Nov 14, 2013 5:07 pm • linkreport

Most cities had tons of theaters--usually several grand palaces downtown along with a couple grind houses (continuous shows of second run or B-movie fare), one or two burlesk places that showed risque fare, and often a newsreel theatre. The more prominent neighborhood business districts usually had at least one fairly grand theater that sometimes had movies while they still played downtown and many neighborhoods hat at least one small second or third run theater. Because of segregation, DC had a number of "Black" theaters like the Lincoln and the Howard (plus some others now gone). Baltimore had a cluster of these on Pennsylvania Avenue.

The Biograph showed x-rated movies during the day and "art"/foreign/idie at night. The Key was cut up in awkward theaters, as were two small cineplexes in Dupont--people who complain about the West End would have hated these places.

Even in the District, quite a few theaters opened up after WWII, some opened as late as the 60s or 70s, plus the Foundary which came later. This makes DC very unusual. Most central cities simply lost theaters over time w/o any new ones, while suburbs received ever more mall cineplexes. Many of these theaters showed foreign or what were called "art" films (counterparts to indies). In most cities, those wound up in smaller neighborhood theaters in upscale or "boehemian" neighborhoods. here, they were clustered in Upper NW, g'town and teh West End.

by Rich on Nov 14, 2013 5:46 pm • linkreport

Each film studio owned its own theatres. So, The Warner, was Warner Bros. and the Loew's would be Metro Goldwyn Mayer, etc.

by Capt. Hilts on Nov 14, 2013 5:48 pm • linkreport

The local nickname of the Dumbarton Theater was "the Dump", per my Mom.

I remember watching "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" in the Biograph back in the 1980s.

In "No Way Out" (1987, with Kevin Costner), the entrance to the "Georgetown Metro Station" was in the general vicinity of the Foundry.

by Frank IBC on Nov 14, 2013 9:31 pm • linkreport

Of the theaters that are open now, and being used to show movies, only three were open before 2000 - The Avalon (1922), The Uptown (1936) and The Inner Circle (1985, now West End Cinema). The AMC Mazza Gallerie 7 (2000) is in a different part of the building than the original KB Paris theater.

Here is a website showing current and previous theaters in the District as well as the entire rest of the country:

http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/united-states/district-of-columbia

by Frank IBC on Nov 14, 2013 9:42 pm • linkreport

KB Theaters was the dominant chain in Washington for many decades. Owned by two great Washington families, the Kogods and Burkas, they ran the great "inner suburbs" movie houses like the MacArthur in the Palisades and the Apex in Spring Valley. They were actively building first-run screens well into the 1960s, including the KB Cinema in Friendship Heights DC and the much-lamented KB Fine Arts on M Street between 19th and 20th. Imagine building and running an 800-seat theater in that neighborhood today. They were also very classy -- the MacArthur had a separate balcony screening room overlooking the theater that could be rented for private parties. The icing on the cake was the fact that for my first few years in Washington, KB served pre-showtime complimentary hot chocolate and vanilla wafers to patrons waiting in the lobby. Where are the snows of yesteryear?

by Publius Washingtoniensis on Nov 15, 2013 10:29 am • linkreport

Having come of age in the 1970s, I actually miss the smaller theaters that were common back then - they had a nice intimate feel. However the sound insulation in those theaters was awful. Invariably, the noise from the action-adventure flick in the next theater would intrude upon a quiet scene in the movie you were watching.

by Frank IBC on Nov 15, 2013 10:50 am • linkreport

I enjoyed reading your piece on the old theatres of Georgetown. I was one of the co-owners and the programmer for the Biograph Theatre. BTW, we opened October, 1967 (not 1976) and lost our lease in June, 1996.

It's hard to believe 17 years have flown by since we closed. In addition to showing films, we had a lobby art space for local artists and changed the show every 2 months. The final art show was my own work and I am a full-time artist now (alanrubin.com) and enjoying my new "career". My Biograph partner, Len Poryles, married a French woman, has 2 kids in college, and lives 40 miles south of Paris. Alan Rubin

by Alan Rubin on Nov 15, 2013 11:22 am • linkreport

I am sharing this article with readers of the "Old Time D.C." site on Facebook. They continually post there, pictures of life in the city in earlier decades.

by slowlane on Nov 15, 2013 12:25 pm • linkreport

You can see the Georgetown Theatre lit up in St. Elmo's Fire.

by TB on Nov 18, 2013 2:42 pm • linkreport

This is not Georgetown, Washington. Georgetown, Washington is south of Seattle in Washington State. Stop calling Washington DC "Washington".

by TheReal on Jan 15, 2014 4:23 pm • linkreport

@TheReal:
We had the name first.

The fact that you had to call it "Washington State" in your comment is proof enough that you don't have a monopoly on the name.

Also, you should actually call the state, "Washington state" with a lower case "s". "Washington State" with a capital "S" refers to Washington State University.

by Matt Johnson on Jan 15, 2014 4:30 pm • linkreport

My mother used to work with the KB theater chain as an executive secretary back in the 50s and 60s. I remember seeing major US premiers in the MacArthur (complete with full-size color programs) including Lawrence of Arabia, The Sand Pebbles, The Longest Day, and Sound of Music. A previous post reminded me of the private balcony screening room with a full-width viewing window enclosing it. As young children, we were able to sit in there (when unused) to watch the movies without disturbing anyone, especially when it was a boring film we didn't care for. Also, can't recall the name of the cinerama theater KB ran in DC, but we saw that 3-projector widescreen version of 2001: A Space Odyssey there.

by Ira White on Oct 6, 2014 10:57 pm • linkreport

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