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Question: How many Takomans does it take to renovate a theater? Answer: It’s Takoma, so they’re too busy debating to take a head count.
The slow rehab of the Takoma Theatre at 4th and Butternut Streets NE is a quintessential Takoma story, marked by painstaking consensus building and a high-mindedness that some argue has ignored practicality. With its smashed poster window and its marquee obscured by a tree, the Takoma looks more like a down-at-the-mouth storefront than the movie palaces its designer, John Jacob Zink, created in Cleveland Park’s Uptown and Baltimore’s Senator. Built in 1923, the theater has hosted everything from Warner Bros. double features to a Chris Rock HBO special. But the venue has been largely dark since 1995, when owner Milton McGintyfather of Channel 9 news anchor Derek McGintygave up on producing his own and other plays there despite having renovated the stage for live theater in the early ’80s.
In April 2002, though, the Takoma Theatre Arts Project (TTAP), a nonprofit group born of a community groundswell in “Greater Takoma”both the D.C. neighborhood and Maryland’s Takoma Parksecured a sweetheart lease from McGinty, who was eager to see the space used. The group faced challenges such as a leaky roof, a rickety stage, a substandard lighting system, and dressing rooms built to accommodate 20 people maxinfrastructure issues adding up to a $1 million renovation project, according to Brian Heller, Arena Stage’s facility project manager. Optimism ran high at the outset, however, and the TTAP quickly raised approximately $65,000, including a $50,000 grant from the D.C. Council.
But the group has been largely unable to find fresh funds since. Unlike the task force behind the refurbishment of the Avalon Theatre, which won an identical D.C. grant at the same time, the TTAP has not partnered with developers or vigorously hit up wealthy neighbors. Instead, it has tried to hammer out agreement on its artistic direction while offering volunteer-staffed, community-oriented fare (everything from Catholic University orchestra concerts to poetry slams) and making residency overtures to area theater companies.
While praising the group’s hard work, some local activists and former TTAP board members knock this go-slow, amateur approach. “I think what they’ve done is to try to live on the cash flow from rents,” says Loretta Neumann, vice president for preservation of Historic Takoma, a citizens’ and preservationist group. “They haven’t gone back to the community to ask for more money.” Angela Lauria, a former TTAP board member, also thinks the group’s seemingly endless capacity for discussion has hampered its decisiveness. “Takoma is a place where consensus is very important,” Lauria says. “That’s lovely, but it doesn’t get that much done.”
Joe Martin, a board member who’s directing the Open Theatre/DC production of August Strindberg’s A Dream Play, now running at the Takoma, reads community sentiment differently. “Unlike [at] the Avalon, people here didn’t want to have a developer come in and then do commercial programming to pay for everything,” Martin says. “Our goal is to provide an inexpensive venue for arts and kids in Takoma and for the more or less suffering groups in town who can’t pay the rents [at other stages].” He says that $15,000 has been spent on new lighting, and that other improvements, such as full access for the disabled, are close at hand, all with an eye toward making the Takoma the city’s premier venue for alternative theater.
McGinty, who remains the Takoma’s most important constituency, is pleased by the TTAP’s programming. “When I look at the list of activities at the theater, I get satisfaction,” he says. Yet Martin admits that the TTAP still has its work cut out for it, even close to home. “I am really surprised at the number of Takomans I meet who don’t know there is a Takoma Theatre,” he says. “I am astonished.” Robert Lalasz