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What was probably the worst film theater in Washington has apparently irritated its last customer.

The Cineplex Odeon Inner Circle 3, at 2301 M St. NW, closed its doors suddenly on Tuesday, Feb. 10, not even waiting for the week’s movies to play out their runs. If no one resurrects it, the Inner Circle will deservedly join such bad memories as the K-B Studio in Tenleytown, the Janus 3 in Dupont Circle, and the Capitol Hill Twin in the dustbin of D.C. movie-exhibition history.

“[The theater] was sort of odd,” admits George Pedas, vice president of Circle Management Co., which owns the Inner Circle’s building. “It had a certain charm to it, but it had limited presentation quality.”

And how. One theater in the 227-seat complex had a screen the approximate size and shape of a ceremonial postage stamp. Another had two 4-foot-wide concrete pillars amid its seating area, which was raked so gently that you might never realize the foreign-language feature you were watching was subtitled. Or, given the swamp-murky projection, that you were watching anything at all. Add the low-hovering ceilings and stiff-backed seats of this former retail space and you were basically watching Dad’s Super-8s in the basement.

Then again, you often had the Inner Circle to yourself—because most people who’d wanted to see the film you’d come for already had. Ever since its construction in the early ’80s, by the Circle Theatre Co., the theater had basically served as a “moveover” house, showing second-run films in an effort to milk them for a few extra bucks and keep distributors happy.

“It was a place where films went to die, and I tried to catch them there before they expired completely,” says Nina Ayoub, an Arlington resident who went to the Inner Circle a couple of times a month for foreign or indie films she’d missed elsewhere.

Nowadays, though, huge multiplexes such as the Loews Georgetown 14 can function as moveover houses on their own, thank you very much. And Pedas says the kind of art films that used to slide to the Inner Circle from the Loews Cineplex Dupont Circle 5 are now being gobbled up by Visions Bar Noir, the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, Landmark’s E Street Cinema, and other new venues.

“[The Inner Circle has] been a marginal theater for years,” says Pedas, whose father, Ted Pedas, and uncle, Jim Pedas, started Circle Theatre in 1957 and built it into a 80-screen, 22-theater chain before selling it to Cineplex Odeon in 1987. “It was just sort of tugging along and then—the death knell was that E Street came along.”

So what’s the area’s worst film-watching experience now? Is it the elbow-in-your-rib-cage intimacy of the Dupont Circle 5? The mostly pornographic Foxchase Cinema in Alexandria? Or the virtually lobbyless Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle on Wisconsin Avenue?

If you’re partial to the last, you’d better get your moviegoing in soon: According to David Crowley, vice president of the D.C. real-estate brokerage firm Randall Hagner Ltd., the Outer Circle’s owners and its operator, Loews Cineplex, have agreed to part ways when its lease runs out this summer.

“[The Outer Circle] started out as a Safeway 45 years ago, and it could be a Safeway again,” says Crowley, who’s currently fielding redevelopment bids for the property. “There’s life after movies.”

DON’T BREAK A LEG

Scheduling nighttime rehearsals. Sending out floods of head shots. Working in—gasp!—children’s theater.

Just a few of the consequences local actors and theaters are discovering in the wake of an October 2003 policy change that made it a lot tougher for Actors’ Equity Association members to get health insurance through their union. By most estimates, fewer than half of the nearly 700 Equity members in the D.C. and Baltimore metro areas will be able to find the 20 annual weeks of work now required for coverage. Up until this past summer, an actor had to work only 10 weeks annually to qualify.

“An actor has [now] got to get three shows within [a year],” says local Equity-liaison committee co-chair Bill Largess, who explains that declines in the union’s health-fund investments prompted the change. “Now when you go into an audition, not only do you have to worry about whether your monologue or your song is good enough—now you’re thinking, I need this job to maintain my health insurance.”

Although the change happened a few months ago, the effects are cascading, according to David Elias, an Arlington actor whose $70,000 heart-valve-replacement operation two years ago was paid for by Equity insurance. “A lot of it hasn’t hit yet,” he says. “[Actors] are only beginning now to get the lack of qualification.”

For Elias, however, the future is now: Despite working 24 weeks last year at Ford’s Theatre and the Wayside Theatre in Middletown, Va., he says he needs to rack up eight more weeks of work before the end of April to qualify for another full year of checkups and Coumadin tablets.

Theater officials say they’re caught in the squeeze, as well, being inundated with résumés and photos from desperate actors, even as they triage among their own casts. “Women are going to get hit harder by this sort of thing, because they’re competing for fewer roles,” says Ann Norton, executive director of the Washington Stage Guild. “You get into a situation of [having] to turn the blind eye and say, ‘I’m not going to care—I don’t have the roles.’”

Local nervousness about the change hasn’t yet turned to panic, although everybody in D.C. theater seems to know a casualty. “I have a friend who was having a hard time getting his weeks,” says D.C. actor Eric Sutton. “He basically had to search high and low to find any job, lower his standards to take any work. This guy had to take a children’s show.”

Elias, for his part, thinks that would be good enough. “If you’ve got a choice between children’s theater and nothing, you take children’s theater,” he says. “And they’re the toughest damn audience you’ll ever have.”

STIR IT UP

Reggae band of the year? Check. Reggae songwriter of the year? Of course. But reggae carryout of the year? Wait just a one-lovin’ minute.

The 2004 DC Annual Reggae Music Awards, to be held March 5 at King Solomon’s Lodge on Rhode Island Avenue NE, will hand out 75 trophies not only to the usual artistic overachievers, but also to those who feed them: restaurants, carryout joints, and even caterers.

“The food is always at community affairs,” explains Tony Java, founder, president, and CEO of the event. “We’re trying to uplift the Jamaican community from the negative connotations of the past, from drug smuggler and pot smoker.”

To that end, Java has added awards for Best Reggae Carry Out and Best Reggae Restaurant to long-standing categories such as Best Reggae Female Promotion, Best Reggae Web Site, and, naturally, Best Reggae Caterer. That last is a title that 61-year-old George “Juicy” Lyttle of Hyattsville has won every year since its inception in 1997—the first five without any competition.

Past rumblings in the local reggae community about the integrity of the awards have moved Java to go public with the names of all 10 of the event’s judges, which include himself and Tony Carr of WPFW-FM. Though Java refuses to say whether Lyttle has this year’s award locked up, here’s something to consider: Juicy is catering the ceremony. And his fellow nominees, Ms. Maxine and Burro, are already slated to receive other awards that night for community service.

“[Juicy] grew up with Tony Java in Kingston,” says Juicy’s daughter, Maria Lyttle, who adds that her father did all the cooking in the house when she was growing up and makes a mean jerk chicken.

Still, Maria says that Juicy, who’ll be returning from Jamaica just in time for the awards, is looking over his shoulder. “There’s been a lot of competition around this year,” she says. “We’re just hoping for the best.”

AND BABY

RATES THREE

You’ve come a long way, baby. But at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), you might have to leave your pricey stroller at the door.

That’s what Kayla Beckert of Silver Spring found out on Feb. 12, after she’d brought her 10-month-old son to the museum to see “Passionate Observer: Photographs by Eudora Welty.” For special exhibitions such as this one, it turned out, the museum had banned large strollers as too potentially damaging to the art. A security guard also wouldn’t allow Beckert to leave her $100 Graco at the front desk.

“The policy effectively bans women with babies who are either not rich enough to not worry about having their strollers stolen or not strong enough to carry their babies for long periods of time,” says Beckert by e-mail.

Ann Greer, the museum’s director of communications and marketing, says Beckert “caught us in between policies.” The current policy? You can now leave your big stroller at the front desk and a driver’s license and a phone number at the box office, and you get to push one of the museum’s new loaner strollers anywhere in the building. These “umbrella” models, according to Greer, are “more maneuverable in tighter corners.”

“We did a lot of research,” she says. “Stroller policy [for museums] is all over the map.” But maybe the NMWA should have checked with some of its high-powered local competitors: Neither the National Gallery of Art, nor the Phillips Collection, nor the Corcoran Gallery of Art bans strollers of any size.

“On Family Day this weekend, we had hundreds and hundreds of strollers,” says Jan Rothschild, the Corcoran’s chief communications officer.

The number of loaners in the NMWA fleet? Three. —Robert Lalasz

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