We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Robert K. Headley looks like a movie actor. Well, like Richard Attenborough, anyway. He’s even appeared on screen once, as a talking head in an ’80s documentary about Washington theaters called 25 Cents Before Noon, directed by Jeff Krulik, the local filmmaker who also made the cult hit Heavy Metal Parking Lot. But Headley, who lives in University Park, has been spending most of his time researching life in D.C. movie houses past and present for his new book, Motion Picture Exhibition in Washington, D.C.: An Illustrated History of Parlors, Palaces and Multiplexes in the Metropolitan Area, 1894-1997 (McFarland). In case you ever find yourself angry at Washington movie theater owners for their obstructed-view seats, their nasty restrooms, or the chewing gum stuck to your shoe, Headley can put matters into context with his wide-screen view of local movie history, which is as hellish as it is heavenly. He’s like the guy in the old freedom-of-speech joke who walks into a crowded firehouse and screams, “Movie!”
There used to be some great movie palaces around the city, such as the lavish Fox Theater, which opened in 1927 within the National Press Building. According to a description in the Evening Star of the Fox’s opening (which featured President and Mrs. Coolidge), “The entrance from F Street opens practically direct into the heart of the theater on the mezzanine floor, a work of art in itself with marble columns, bronzed railed balconies, oddly shaped chandeliers…The grand stairway looks as if it might have been lifted from a medieval castle and modernized.”
In the years before the Fox, however, D.C. theaters were disgusting, unsafe, or both. Headley dug up a 1909 complaint to the Washington board of commissioners that described theaters in this city-on-a-swamp as “fetid.” The complainant suggested that movie theaters “be thoroughly ventilated one hour before opening and one hour after closing and that they occasionally be washed out with soap and water.” To no avail, apparently. Not even mass spraying of perfumes seemed to reduce the miasma. As late as 1923, inspectors found that 13 of 18 theaters had unsafe levels of carbon monoxide.
Projectionists had it none better. Before the development of automated projectors, these poor souls had to hand-crank their machines at rates of 80 to 120 feet of film per second. Moreover, prior to 1950 they had to contend with film made of cellulose nitrate, or gun cotton, which was highly flammable and potentially explosive. Their working conditions were grim. “The booth was not a comfortable place,” Headley’s book notes dryly. “A typical one in 1912 was six to eight feet in length, five to seven feet in width, and about six feet in height. There was room for one operator, one machine, and a rewinder. The heat was terrible; operators often worked in their underwear.”
For a while, things got better, but in the ’70s and ’80s, when owners squeezed as many theaters into as little space as possible, some, Headley notes, were no more comfortable than garages. “I think people tolerate just about anything,” Headley says. “The Baronet West [built in Bethesda in 1975] was one of the worst theaters in the area, with cinderblock walls and so on. Yet I saw Jaws there, and it was packed. I sometimes think I’m the only one who complains.”
As a child, Headley, who is now 60, went to such memorable theaters as the Stanley in Baltimore, a 4,000-seat palace that featured several different types of marble and a series of murals illustrating Maryland history decorating its lobby. “They tore it down,” Headley says bitterly. “Now it’s a parking lot.”
Headley earned his doctorate in Celtic studies at Catholic University, then spent 30 years as a linguist for the feds. At one point, he worked for the Department of Defense at the Pentagon as a specialist on Cambodia. (“You can’t make any money as a Celtic-language specialist,” he explains.) Headley retired in 1995 and accelerated his efforts on his encyclopedic study of movie theaters in Washington, a project that he’d been working on for the past 20 years.
“I’d always liked going to movies,” he says. “My whole generation did. A couple of friends and I met in junior high school and have remained close. In 1963, we started taking everybody to movies on their birthday, and we’ve been doing that ever since.”
His casual interest blossomed into an avocation in 1968, a few years after the Stanley was torn down. “I made a list of all the Baltimore theaters I remembered,” he says. “It was sort of like archaeology, without the dirt. Gradually, I realized that no one else was doing this. I got so fascinated by it that I started talking with some of the old-timers. Then I started writing it all down.”
In 1974, Headley self-published his findings about Baltimore theaters as Exit, which bore a silk-screened cover featuring a red theater exit sign. He printed two runs, about 1,400 books in all; a rare-book dealer recently told Headley that it now retails for $150. “They tell me it’s one of the books most often stolen from the Pratt Library in Baltimore,” he adds. “They had to start keeping it under lock and key.”
The idea for a companion book on Washington theaters came from his neighbor, an independent movie exhibitor. That was in 1975. It took another 24 years for Headley to complete the manuscript and find a publisher to release it. The book, somewhat less snappily titled than its predecessor, retails for $55, but “it should be very well-received,” says Randy Loy, a film writer and theater aficionado in Germantown. “Movie theater aficionados are very technically oriented. It’s not at all odd to see a magazine article give the dimensions of the stage of some theater that was torn down 40 years ago. Then, in the next issue, there’s often a letter taking the author to task for being off in the measurements by a foot.”
“A lot of the book is oral history,” observes filmmaker Krulik. “Which means you have to roll your sleeves up, knock on doors, get it on tape—and do it as soon as possible, because the older people are, the less time they’ll be around. Bob’s an expert at this. Knowing Bob, even though he’s done with the book, he’ll still keep on collecting information.”
Headley’s book chronicles how economic and social history played out through the local movie business. During his years of research, Headley interviewed old movie hands and tracked down tons of documents. His 120-page Appendix 1 alone offers historical entries for every theater that ever opened its doors in Washington. The individual write-ups include trivia ranging from the artist who made the mosaic on the facade of the Janus I and II (Alfonso Pardinas) to a recap of the toilet-flooding incident that marred the 1953 opening of the Hillside Drive-In in Coral Hills, Md. And then there was the time in the ’90s when an usher at the Landover Mall Six chased a patron out of the theater with a drawn revolver. (The theater shut down shortly thereafter.)
Popcorn, candies, and drinks eventually became vital for the survival of theater owners, because they could pocket a much bigger share of the revenues from concessions than from the movies themselves. In 1951, Headley notes, top sellers included familiar favorites such as Coca-Cola and Raisinets, and also such long-forgotten brands as Dr. Swett’s, Tru-Ade, Black Crows, Chicken Dinner, Dr. I.Q., Ping Bar, and Red Sails.
It used to be that censorship was standard in the local movie business. In the ’40s, the movie The Outlaw was banned in Maryland. “The censors,” Headley writes, “objected to Jane Russell appearing in scenes where she was ‘in the foreground displaying her curves when, more properly, she should have been in the background.’ They also objected to the buildup to a kiss that was not shown on the screen. Finally, they complained about a scene where one of the cowboys offers to trade Russell for a horse.”
And here on the fringes of Dixie, segregation largely reigned until the ’50s, and in at least one case until 1960, when picketers forced the Hiser theater in Bethesda to desegregate. In retrospect, segregationist policies are surely embarrassing, yet those days—in stark contrast to ours—did at least provide easily accessible theaters in predominantly black neighborhoods. In 1936, D.C. featured 11 black theaters in Northwest, one in Northeast, and two in Southwest. Today, no movie theater operates in a predominantly black Washington neighborhood.
In recent years, Headley has found much to bemoan. The “beautiful, state-of-the-art” L’Enfant Theater finally closed in the late ’80s after several tortured incarnations. The culprit, he suspects, was its location in a neighborhood without any sense of identity. A similar fate befell another well-designed theater, the Rosslyn Plaza Cinema. As one exhibitor told Headley, “It was a lovely theater, but nobody could get to it. You couldn’t find it.”
After a stretch as an auto paint shop, the Rosslyn theater at least managed to be reborn as the Rosslyn Spectrum Theater in 1997. Older theaters have not been as lucky. Despite years of agitation by preservationists, the Ontario, on Columbia Road NW, and the Tivoli, on 14th Street NW, have not been revived as movie houses. Several old standbys—the Key, the Embassy, the MacArthur, and the Biograph—have been shuttered in the past few years, with the last two converted into cookie-cutter CVS pharmacies. Headley calls their transformations “horrifying.”
“Sometimes I think theaters are not considered as important as other kinds of buildings,” Headley says. “But in the cases where they’ve been saved, they’re usually something impressive, far more than some government buildings are. They’re more attractive, exotic, and also more economically viable. In other cities, theaters have been important anchors to a business district. You get a sense of history you can pass on to your grandkids, and you’re also getting a building that can’t be duplicated. Theater building is a lost art.”
It pleases Headley that a few of the region’s distinguished older theaters have stayed open: the Greenbelt, in the Maryland suburbs, and the Uptown, in Cleveland Park. Ironically, though the Uptown, with its giant screen, is regularly packed and considered the ideal venue for Star Wars and other action flicks, it used to be “nothing special—a classy neighborhood house but nothing more than that,” Headley says. “Things have gotten so low that it’s now become the creme de la creme.”
He’s not a complete curmudgeon, though, nor a dewy-eyed nostalgist. He likes the new megaplexes that offer comfortable seating rather than the cramped, bland surroundings that became standard in the ’70s and ’80s. In Baltimore, he notes, there’s even a super-deluxe theater that features fine wines, gourmet foods, and leather seats for about 12 bucks a ticket, like a latter-day version of the Fox. CP