Photo of the Strand Theater by DreamCity4IFE on Flickr.
Before the modern era of corporate-owned multiplexes, the area east of the Anacostia River had independently owned neighborhood movie theaters from Deanwood to Anacostia. However, there are now no open movie theaters in all of Ward 7 or Ward 8.
With architectural skeletons of the Strand Theater and the Senator Theater still standing, it has been more than two decades since a movie lit up the screen of a theater east of the river. (THEARC has occasionally shown a movie, but is primarily a performing arts stage.)
“We don’t know where movies were first shown there, but there were probably some venues for films before 1909,” says Robert Headley, author of the definitive guide to DC’s movie theater history, Motion Picture Exhibition in Washington, DC: An Illustrated History of Parlors, Places, and Multiplexes in the Metropolitan Area, 1894-1997.
“A man named T. B. Stallings was showing movies on Nichols Avenue, now MLK Jr. Avenue, in 1909. There was an open-air theater called the Proctor, also on Nichols, in 1910,” according to Headley. “Lloyd Wineland, who would go on to build 4 movie houses in the area, started out in a former Masonic Hall at 2002 14th Street SE in 1923. He converted it into a movie theater and called it the Logan.”
In 1929, Wineland opened the two-story brick-and-stone Fairlawn, the first theater in Anacostia, “built from the ground up” at 1342 Good Hope Road. Early ads made special mention that the theater would show silent and sound movies, known as “talkies.”
Wineland then built the Congress Theater at 2931 Nichols Avenue to serve the Congress Heights neighborhood. Opening on December 30, 1939 with a live performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” by Lean Brusiloff’s String Ensemble, several speakers from local citizen associations spoke in welcoming the new neighborhood theater. Double or Nothing starring Bing Crosby and Martha Raye was the first feature with admission 20 cents for children under twelve and 30 cents for adults. During its last years, in the 1970’s, so many objects were thrown at and through the screen that it was removed and movies were shown on the painted rear wall of the auditorium. A liquor store now occupies the building.
The Strand Theater opened on November 3, 1928 at 5129-5131 Grant Street NE, now Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE, by Abe Lichtman to serve the black community in the Deanwood neighborhood. Lichtman, known for running the Howard and Lincoln Theaters, retired in 1946. By that time he ran 46 theaters in DC, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina with a staff of 425 employees, approximately 400 being black and representing all management positions.
“The Strand was an extension of the neighborhood in the sense; we played all kinds of games, hide-n-seek, riding bikes, roller skating, jacks, jump rope. We played in each other’s yards so going to the Strand was an extension of our street we played on,” says Celestia Tobe, who grew up on Grant Street NE.
The experience of seeing movies at the Strand made a lasting impression on Tobe. “Imitation of Life stands out, because the neighborhood tough guy cried along with the rest of us.”
“Today moving going is so different. The theaters today are surrounded by so many stores and restaurants, they seem more commercial. My memories of our neighborhood theaters were more like home,” remembers Tobe.
On February 19, 1942 the Senator Theater opened at 3946-3956 Minnesota Avenue NE, built by K-B Theaters. In late 1951 it was leased by the Bernheimer organization to operate as an African-American theater. It was closed for a time in the 1970’s but was reopened in November of 1979.
The art-deco building is in use today with a Subway eatery and beauty supply store occupying the ground floor with the Senator’s blue marquee still as visible as it was when it played its last movie in 1989.
“After cutting grass and making some money in the neighborhood we used to go there as kids in the seventies and see Bruce Lee movies,” said Stephon Gray, who works at the DC Public Library’s Adult Literacy Resource Center.
The first non-segregated theater to open in the area was the Carver Theater at 2405 Nichols Avenue in July of 1948. The theater was not successful and closed in 1957. The Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum opened in the building in 1967 and was there until 1987 when they moved to their current location at 1901 Fort Place SE. The Howard Road Academy’s Middle School campus now occupies the former theater.
In 1940, the Highland Theater opened at 2533 Pennsylvania Avenue SE and in March of 1947 the Anacostia Theater, designed by John Eberson, opened at 1415 Good Hope Road, replacing the Fairlawn as the main theatre along Good Hope Road. Both theaters were maintained by Wineland.
The Anacostia Theater closed in 1967 and was subsequently razed. In 1977 the Highland was closed and converted into a clothing store and is now a child development center.
The largest movie house east of the river was the Naylor Theater at 2834 Alabama Avenue with 990 seats. It was built by K-B Theaters and opened following the end of World War II on November 1, 1945. At the time of its opening, a newspaper article predicted that “it will take the Southeast community at least 25 years to outgrow the Naylor Theater.” Acquired by Wineland in 1961, the theater eventually closed in 1970, approximately 25 years after it opened.
Today, there are seven movie theaters in DC from the independent Avalon Theatre the oldest surviving movie theater in the city, first opening in 1923 as the Chevy Chase Theater in the uptown neighborhood of the same name, to the corporate Regal Gallery Place downtown to the Uptown Theater on Connecticut Avenue NW.
I have often heard residents east of the river talk of the need for a bookstore. What about a movie theater?
A version of this article appeared in the February edition of East of the River.