“I am big. It was the pictures that got small.” — Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Boulevard, 1949.
On a Saturday night in July, I took a stroll up Connecticut Avenue NW to the Uptown Theater to see a 10:30 p.m. screening of Ant-Man and The Wasp, then the No. 1 movie in America, in its second weekend. Where better to take in the latest adventure by the Marvel Universe’s smallest hero than on what was once the city’s largest commercial movie screen?
I counted 11 people in the audience, about the same number I remembered counting when I’d bought a ticket for the 40th anniversary re-release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind last November. When I attended a screening of Ali during its brief return to theaters after Muhammad Ali’s death in 2016, the crowd didn’t even break double digits.
When I thought about it, I realized my most recent memory of being in a more-than-half-full Uptown audience was for a Saturday matinee of Gravity in 2013. The last time I’d stood in a long line stretching south down Connecticut Avenue waiting to for the Uptown’s doors to open—a custom that once attended the release of every new blockbuster—was for Iron Man 3, half a year before that.
I’ve noticed other changes, too. The number of beloved old films like Close Encounters being shown at the theater where I’d caught re-releases of Vertigo, Touch of Evil, and Blade Runner, among others, seems to have dropped off precipitously in recent years. And when it came to the kinds of big blockbusters that bring out armies of cosplayers on opening night, the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater at the National Air and Space Museum has replaced the Uptown as my go-to venue for Star Wars and Marvel films, or Christopher Nolan joints, or the latest Mission: Impossible. Basically, anything that demanded to be experienced on the biggest screen available.
For at least 40 years—specifically, the span between the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 and The Dark Knight in 2008—The Uptown owned that business for Washingtonians. It had been my favorite place for “event” movies ever since I’d ventured from the suburbs as a kid to see the 1993 extended cut of The Abyss, James Cameron’s lone box office flop.
The Uptown opened on the evening of October 29, 1936, showing the Clark Gable and Marion Davies-headlined musical Cain and Mabel. It wasn’t the city’s only movie palace back then. But for more than 30 years, it’s been the only one left—the only one with a balcony at any rate. Just across the border in Silver Spring, there’s the American Film Institute’s Silver Theatre, a beautiful venue that initially opened in 1938, closed in 1985, and was refurbished and reopened by the AFI as a cinephile’s temple in 2003. That was where I’d gone to see Lawrence of Arabia, all 222 glorious minutes of it, on a Labor Day several years ago, and where I’d gone for 70mm presentations of new releases like The Hateful Eight and Phantom Thread.
In earlier times, the Uptown would’ve shown those movies. In 1956, it was renovated as a venue for the new, high resolution 70mm Todd-AO format, one of many novelties the film industry introduced to try to beat back the emerging threat of television. A second, more extensive remodeling six years later gutted the theater’s interior to allow for the adoption of the even-wider-screen three-projector Cinerama format, which included the installation of an 85-foot-wide wraparound screen. This revamp reduced its seating capacity from 1,364 to 964.
But it brought the Uptown to national prominence as a world-class movie house, one that hosted the world premieres of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jurassic Park. It was one of the first 32 theaters in the world to get Star Wars on its day-of release, May 25, 1977. (For context, last May’s Star Wars movie, Solo, opened on more than 4,300 screens.) As initially the only place in the region you could see Star Wars, and then, months later, the only place you could see it in 70mm, the Uptown earned a reputation as the region’s most desirable venue for blockbusters. This reputation was undiminished as recently as a decade ago, when I joined a sold-out crowd of rabid nerds for the first public screening of The Dark Knight at 12:01 a.m. on July 18, 2008.
The surrender of its film projectors in favor of a fully digital system in 2010, combined with the the Air and Space Museum making its giant IMAX screen, once reserved for documentaries, available for general-release commercial movies, seemed to imperil the Uptown’s dominance. (Because the Uptown is no longer equipped to project 70mm movies, last month’s 50th anniversary screenings of 2001 were at the AFI. It’s like even the Uptown’s history is being taken away.)
In 1996, Cineplex Odeon, who bought the theater along with several others from local entrepreneurs Jim and Ted Pedas in 1988, gave the interior its most recent makeover, installing the high-backed seats that remain there today. The Uptown reopened on October 9, 1996 with a restored print of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. This pointed to the theater’s dual identity as both a blockbuster venue and a first-rate revival house catering to cinephiles. But with more modern theaters offering amenities like recliner seats, reserved seating, and higher-quality concessions (including alcoholic drinks), and the AFI hosting revival screenings year-round, both those identities are imperiled.
I asked a number of currently or formerly Washington-dwelling journalists, cinephiles, and preservationists to share their memories of the city’s premier movie palace, many more than those whose comments we’ve been able to include here. Their remarks have been condensed for clarity.
Former theater chain publicist, NPR arts critic, 1984–present
Back when I was growing up, theaters tended to be 600 seats and more, because they were all singles. It was a model that worked for the 1940s and ’50s until television came along. You’ve got smaller audiences midweek and all of a sudden you were playing to, like, 10 people in a place that seated 600. So it made sense to carve them up into multiplexes, and you’d get 10 people at each of the four movies.
The Uptown was the grandest house left after you got rid of the downtown houses that were down around 14th Street and E. So you had Loewe’s Palace and the RKO Keith’s and the Trans-Lux. And those were big ornate palaces and it was like our Broadway, if you had a Broadway for film. And the Uptown was uptown. It was further out, and it would have just been another suburban theater until they turned it into Cinerama. And when they did the Cinerama screen it became one of the prestige houses in the country. That’s why they opened 2001: A Space Odyssey there rather than in New York. Because it was just a great house.
We went to the Uptown to see How the West Was Won in Cinerama because it was this experience. [Cinerama] was three separate pictures; you could see the dividing lines. When I saw it, I remember one of the screens went dark. You had three different projectors doing this thing. And when it went dark, the three projectionists had to shut down the three projectors and then line everything up and figure out how to re-sync them. The process took maybe a half an hour. But it was great. It was amazing.
NBC4 movie critic 1974–2006, ABC7 critic 2007–2015, co-host of At The Movies with Arch and Ann podcast with Ann Hornaday and Marc Sterne
I think even today, the good feeling people have for the Uptown goes back to Star Wars because that’s where everybody saw it. It was the only theater that ran it. They would run a movie for a year or longer before there was streaming and VHS and all that stuff.
Once Star Wars hit, every summer there was a big movie and the Uptown got into sort of a contest with The Cinema Theatre, which was across the street from Channel 5 on Wisconsin Avenue. It’s a health club now. Anyway, the Cinema got The Empire Strikes Back [in May 1980].
But the Uptown got Alien [in May 1979] and so then every summer there’d be a back and forth as to who had the biggest movie. And over time the Uptown just became the place, because the screen is so big and the theater is so big.
They started having all these premieres at the Uptown. One I remember is Dances With Wolves. Kevin Costner came, and Mary MacDonald. They had the premiere in Washington because I think the American Indian Museum had just opened. [Editor’s note: In fact, the screening was a benefit for the museum, which at the time was projected to open in 1998. It eventually opened in 2004.] So they start the movie and they get into the second reel and all of a sudden the reel stops. What had happened is Orion Pictures had said, “We insist that you put a new bulb in the projector.” And the projectionist said, “That’s a bad idea. Often new bulbs blow out, whereas one that’s been broken in will play for a long time.” They said, “No, you’ve got to have a new bulb.”
Sure enough, the bulb on the projector blew. Costner and all these people run up to the projection booth. The poor projectionist can’t get the burst bulb out because it’s about a million degrees. They’re screaming and yelling. And finally the guy gets a new bulb in and he’s so rattled that he puts the wrong reel on. As it turned out, Dances With Wolves won the Oscar and was one of the best movies of the year.
The other big premiere I went to at the Uptown was the one for Dick Tracy, when Warren Beatty was dating Madonna. So Beatty and Madonna came to the Uptown, and Madonna had a documentary crew following her for what became Truth or Dare. You see a shot of me in the movie waving the Channel 4 microphone, mouthing the words “Madonna! Come talk to me!”
I must have covered two dozen premieres. They used to have them all the time, especially when Jack Valenti was running the MPAA. That was his way of of juicing congressmen and senators.
Owned the Uptown with his brother, Jim Pedas, as part of their Circle Theatres chain between 1978 and 1988
It was the most fun time ever. It was a sweet spot, nothing like what the theater business is today. Little independents could start out and compete against the big guys.
The Uptown, when we acquired it, was for event films. These are the real blockbusters that would only open in five markets in the U.S. and Canada: Toronto, New York, D.C., Chicago, and L.A. Those five screens had to be available if you wanted to launch a big movie in those days. There was a lot of power in a theater like the Uptown. And there was a great demand for a theater with a lot of seats.
[In the late ’80s,] the film companies were all financing and acquiring theaters. They had all this cash they were supplying to Cineplex Odeon and some others. They were bankrolled; they didn’t have to borrow money. They were scooping up the neighborhood theaters. Everybody was being squeezed. We knew then that it was inevitable [we would sell].
Musician, author, spoken-word artist, radio and TV host
I went to school with George Pedas. His dad owned or partially owned the Uptown. George was one of those guys: super nice and, like me, not a great student, but just a really good guy. We were on the same school bus every day so I knew George from like seventh grade to graduation. That was my initial connection to the Uptown: I went to school with George.
I saw Star Wars’ first run there, in May 1977. It was just where that film was being shown. I was told it premiered there because of something having to do with the screen size, or it just being a place that could really accommodate the hugeness of that film. That could all be a bunch of B.S., but I do remember seeing Star Wars there and it was cool.
I don’t know if I ever met George’s dad, nor was I ever given free tickets. However, I did get into that theater more than once for free, because if you go down—and this is 100 years ago; this is the Carter administration—but if you go down the far right aisle, keep on going beyond the screen. There’s a door to the back parking lot. One guy would pay the three dollars to get in, walk back there, pop the door and all his dumbass friends (me) would pile in. There’s no usher; there’s nobody in authority there to bust you. I can’t remember which films I saw for free there but I’m thinking maybe Animal House? It was maybe a total of three films I saw for free, basically by breaking in.
Cinephile and film lab worker
In 1990, around November or December, the Uptown had the exclusive screenings of Dances With Wolves. I’m sure there was some article in Premiere magazine about it. It was three hours long, and in my mind I was like, “Oh this is like an old Hollywood epic.” So I was like, “I really need to go to The Uptown to see this.”
So we go in, and I’m like, “Wow this is like an old school movie theater.” And then I see the sign: THIS WAY TO THE BALCONY. And I was, like, “There’s a balcony?”
I was really swept up in this theater that was like that kind of movie palace that I would read about, or I would see in a movie like Radio Days or The Purple Rose of Cairo or some movie set in the past.
’96 was the year I started going to the Uptown hardcore. On July 4th weekend, they were open 24 hours a day, just running Independence Day continuously. Up until then, my experience had been going to matinees to see Dances With Wolves or The Player or Twelve Monkeys. Arty movies. Nothing with big lines. You’d arrive pretty close to showtime, and just buy your ticket and go in. But now I was well into my teenage years, so I was like, “Hey, there’s a one o’clock show! Let’s go see a movie at one in the morning!” So we roll up at probably 11:30, and it was just pandemonium. The line. People just hanging around. News crews. And they’re completely sold out. The only tickets left are for the 4 a.m. screening. This is the moment that separates the true film geeks. So half of us are like, “I’m not seeing a movie at four o’clock in the morning!” But I bought a ticket and a couple of my friends did, too.
It was almost like a rock concert. The movie was over at like 6:30 in the morning. It was the only time I’ve ever gone into a movie theater at night and come out into the sunlight. I remember a news crew coming to me and saying, “Hey, what’d you think?” I had one friend who was kind of skeptical about it, and I was like, “What are you talking about? That was the greatest movie ever!” It finally clicked that I could see these movies at my mall theater, but it’s not going to have that same energy.
We went there opening night for The Thin Red Line, four of us, and it was so packed we each had to find individual seats. I went up to the balcony, my usual spot. We were rabid Terrence Malick fans, but I could tell most of the people there were not. The Thin Red Line came out the same year as Saving Private Ryan, which was a huge hit, and I think this crowd was expecting a similarly action packed, star-studded World War II movie. And maybe 30 or 45 minutes in, I notice the audience getting restless. This is pre-cell phone, but everyone had those watches with the green LED light-up face. And after half an hour, from the balcony, I can see people wiggling, and then I start noticing the green lights from those watches going on. And an hour and a half in, the lights are increasing. And by two hours into the movie, the Uptown was a sea of people checking their watches. Afterwards, my friends and I were all, “That was great! Malick, back on form! Very poetic!” And everyone else was saying, “What a boring piece of shit!”
In 1997, George Lucas rereleased the three films of the Star Wars trilogy in January, February, and March—with digital alterations that made some fans livid—as a way of building interest for the Star Wars prequels that would go into production later that year. In May 1999, Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace arrived, to monumental levels of hype.
Director, Waiting for Jar Jar, a 28-minute documentary about fans camped out on Connecticut Avenue NW awaiting the opening of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
If you were a diehard fan, and you wanted to go see Star Wars on opening day, the Uptown was where you wanted to be.
Washington, D.C. line coordinator for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, 1999
In 1997, the Star Wars special editions came out. And I was watching TV one night, on the local news, and they showed a group of people who were lining up and camping out to see Star Wars down at the Uptown. And the light bulb went on over my head. I was born in ’71. I was 6-and-a-half when Star Wars came out. When I saw the people camping out on the sidewalk at the Uptown, I looked at my sister and said, “Lisa, you’ve got to drive me down there.” I was already married, but my wife was in bed. So I got down there after midnight, and I slept on the sidewalk in a sleeping bag to see the first show of the Star Wars special edition that following morning at 10 a.m.
So when the prequels were coming out two years later, I’d already established that the Uptown was the place to see it. There was these groups out in California at Mann’s Chinese Theater that we’re doing these like massively long campouts for Episode I, camping out like a month.
So they set up these online forums for other cities to do campouts. I think it was Counting Down dot com or something. Anyway, the Uptown is the coolest theater—the most historic, the most iconic. And they have this huge sidewalk for the line.
If you’ve never been there before, you’re kinda taken aback at first. When the curtains open, they just never stop opening. They keep going and going and going. And the sound system was state of the art back in the ’90s. Now every theater has an awesome sound system.
The special editions came out in the winter and early spring, so there weren’t nearly as many people camping out for those, because it was freezing. But the theater manager would still tell us, “People are getting upset.” The cops would come by and remind us to keep the noise down. So we knew going in to the campout for Episode I that we had to get ahead of the issue, so the Cleveland Park folks wouldn’t instantly be trying to kick us off the sidewalk.
I went to that neighborhood association meeting and I shot all of that. That was two hours and then it only made a brief blip in the film.
I had to go to a town hall meeting. They were pretty cool about it. They just wanted to make sure we didn’t trash the place. I would definitely deem it a success. We never had any major problems.
Everyone quickly realized that we’re getting a lot of media coverage. The businesses along the street there were supporting us. They would bring us food and stuff. They wanted to use us as advertisers, basically. So the community quickly realized we weren’t that much of an annoyance. We were cognizant that we had to behave. We weren’t acting like idiots.
The crowd energy for [2005’s] Revenge of the Sith, maybe just because everyone knew it was going to be all over after this, was a lot higher. While we were waiting for the show to begin, a giant, nerdy lightsaber battle occurred in front of the screen. Everybody in jedi robes, everybody who had lightsabers, went up front and started this lightsaber battle that probably lasted five minutes. I don’t remember a lightsaber battle before The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones. And it was varying degrees of authenticity, from people with professional looking lightsabers on down. And somebody had been passing out these Cheerios General Mills free lightsaber spoons that lit up. So as the battle is raging, somebody gets in the center of it and then unsheathed the glowing lightsaber spoon. That pretty much broke up the lightsaber battle.
In 2010, the Uptown installed a digital projection system, bringing an end to its ability to show 70mm celluloid film.
Post-Avatar, theaters were starting to convert to digital. I knew it was only a matter of time that was going to happen at the Uptown. The first movie that the Uptown was going to show digitally was Tron: Legacy.
When it started, my heart sunk. I’m a film purist, but I realize that this is a commercial theater. Part of me wishes they’d kept the projectors so they could still show film. Their booth is big enough where they could have done that. But it was a poor experience. The focus was soft. The 3D didn’t look that great. But the heartbreaking thing to me was that this huge curved screen, because of the limitations of the digital projection, the image couldn’t fill out the entire screen. So the presentation is not what it once was.
I did see The Force Awakens at the Uptown opening night. It was fun, but then the next day we went to go see it again at the Air and Space Museum.
Washington Post film critic, 1969–1984, Washington Times film critic, 1989–2009
One of the most memorable events there for us as a family was the premiere of Superman there, which must must have been I guess it was either at the end of November or early December of 1978 [Editor’s note: Some other sources remember Superman premiering at The Kennedy Center]. Our third daughter had been born on October 14th, Esther, and we had two older girls. Pauline was 7 and Jane was 4. We sat in the last row the Uptown on the left-hand side. My wife was nursing Esther at the time, and weren’t really sure if this was going to work out. The whole prologue, as you remember, as Krypton is dying, is full of shrill sound effects. So the baby was startled by that on a couple of occasions. The director, Richard Donner, was standing at that door at the back of the auditorium. On two or three occasions he served as a doorman as my wife ducked out of the auditorium into the lobby. He was very gallant all evening long. We loved the movie.
I always sort of wish that it would be feasible for the management to spend maybe a couple of summer weeks or some time in what might be the kind of slack season and revive a lot of the large scale older movies there. You know, the AFI theater does it I think annually with Lawrence of Arabia and Spartacus. I think the Uptown would be an ideal place for that if there’s still a decent 70 millimeter print around.
Washington Post Style section editor, Reliable Source columnist, 2005–2013
It’s such a vivid, tactile experience going there. Just the carpet in the lobbies and the fact that there’s an upstairs. The ladies room is kind of this somewhat oversized one, with art deco touches, and then the theater itself is so grand, and yet the seats are so lousy!
There were a couple of premieres there, and they’re all weird movies that you wouldn’t think of as being Uptown movies. I saw [2007’s] Lions for Lambs. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes were there. You can see why people are drawn to that area because it’s this grand space that looks like a movie theater, which most movie theaters in Washington don’t look like anymore.
Even people who aren’t cinephiles revere the Uptown as a specimen of art deco architecture. In 2017, AMC Theatres, which acquired the Uptown when it merged with Loews in 2005, announced plans to replace the cinema’s distinctive red neon sign with one bearing the AMC logo. A small tempest ensued.
Director, Cleveland Park Historical Society
There’s a ton of discussion about the economic health of our little Cleveland Park part of the Connecticut Avenue NW corridor all the time. The discussion about the service lane never ends. Everybody panics every time a restaurant closes.
The Uptown, in recent years, has not been a matter of concern until the issue of the sign came up. It’s always been the kind of art deco anchor of the street, and all of the conversation focuses on the other side of the street. The Uptown just sits there as the Grand Dame of our little bit of Connecticut Avenue NW.
So we had the Uptown as the anchor of this interesting late ’20s early ’30s historic area, but it hadn’t been the kind of thing where all the preservationists rush in and feel like they have something to galvanize about, until the question of possibly replacing the sign came up a few months ago. We were all surprised by the strength of feeling. People who can’t agree about anything about Cleveland Park all said, “Oh my God, the Uptown sign! We have to save the Uptown sign! It’s an icon.”
So that was heartening. Everybody loves the Uptown sign! And I think it made those of us who are preservation focused think, “A-ha! We don’t just have a reliable large building that happens to be a movie theater. We actually have a kind of design icon here.” If everybody is so invested in that sign, which is very much part of the kind of period design of the building, then that’s something that we could capitalize on.
We had a presentation from the sign company that AMC has retained to actually do the work. And they they did some detailed investigation of the feasibility of saving the current Uptown sign. The original proposal was to get rid of the word “Uptown,” and that’s what made everybody freak out. So that’s not happening. It will still say “Uptown,” it will still be red.
I think the members of the committee generally went into the meeting thinking, “No you cannot replace the sign; you have to repair the sign. But those letters are anchored into the facade with iron rods, which have rusted and are in danger of falling onto the street. Those letters could physically come down and each of them is 4 feet tall. So we came away convinced that replication in LED is a reasonable way to proceed.
A less thrilling addition is that AMC wants to put 2-foot high, similar looking red freestanding red letters on top of the marquee that say “AMC.” AMC actually applied to put three of them, one on each side of the marquee. Our committee said one would be sufficient, thank you very much. AMC is very concerned with their own branding. Honestly, I think hell will freeze over before anybody says, “I’m going to go to the AMC to see a blockbuster movie!” No, I’m going to the Uptown. I don’t think anybody really cares who owns movie theaters. But AMC thinks people care who owns the theaters. So they want their branding up there.
Washington Post film and arts critic, 1993–present
I remember going there last in 2011 for the finale of the Harry Potter movie series, The Deathly Hallows, Part 2. It’s always been known as kind of like an event theater. Every so often you get these lines around the block for something like a Harry Potter. My son was 10 or 11 then. So we stood in line and on the sidewalk for like two hours, there were all these people in Harry Potter costumes and wizard costumes and that’s part of the fun of it.
Some of [D.C.’s former movie palaces] are still around, and the ghosts of their past as a movie theater haunts them. If you visit them for whatever reason you can kind of hear those ghosts. I guess I’m bracing myself for that to happen to the Uptown. Sometime in my lifetime it will become something other than what it is. Maybe not. I hope not. But I’m preparing myself for that eventuality because market forces seem to be pushing things in that direction.
The author of this story gratefully acknowledges the contributions of Robert K. Headley’s book Motion Picture Exhibition in Washington, D.C. A new book, Movie Theatres of Washington, D.C., by Headley and Pat Padua, will be published by Arcadia in October.