Photo by dewitahs on Flickr.
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.
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.