We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
In the window of the new Restoration Hardware store at Wisconsin Avenue and Prospect Street NW in Georgetown sits a sign headlined “On This Spot,” purportedly honoring the Key Theater, D.C.’s last art-film house. The sign’s wording resembles that of a National Park Service historical marker. Its sense of history, alas, is just a wee bit off the mark.
For starters, the Key wasn’t ever on the corner spot where the “On this Spot” sign sits. It was about 30 feet farther down Wisconsin Avenue. On the corner, a Roy Rogers once dispensed Triggerburgers and fries.
Admittedly, that’s a technicality, but things go rapidly downhill from there. The theater was not, for example, founded “three decades ago” (though if they keep the sign in the window ’til 2003, history will catch up). The sign also says “no grand marquee, no klieg lights here…” While a case can certainly be made that the Key’s marquee was less than “grand,” there were, contrary to the sign’s assertion, klieg lights aplenty at the premiere of John Waters’ Polyester. The director showed up with Divine, the 300-pound transvestite who was his favorite leading lady, and they were interviewed in the lobby by a then-local radio personality named Howard Stern.
Of course, those celebrities aren’t the sort that shore up the beige-and-gray image Restoration Hardware wants to project. Presumably that goes double for Tim Curry, who wore plenty of hardware (albeit not the sort Restoration sells) in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which had a decade-long midnight-show run at the Key.
You can’t blame corporate folks for going with something a little more moderate. The problem is that the retro, image-friendly Hollywood icons cited on the sign were hardly the Key’s bread and butter, as the copywriters would have known if they’d bothered to check with the theater’s management. Instead, however, they just grabbed a few generic images from Tinseltown’s golden age and hoped they’d fit.
The sign, for instance, pays homage to Chaplin, Garbo, and Hepburn, among other stars, as well as the movies Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and The Wizard of Oz. Chaplin turned out to be a lucky guess (his work was included in a brief Silent Clowns festival in the late ’70s), and there’s hardly an art-house theater anywhere that hasn’t played Casablanca and Citizen Kane at some point. But when queried, Key Theater founder David Levy couldn’t recall ever booking anything starring Garbo or Hepburn in the quarter-century that he operated the Key. And he was certain he’d never played The Wizard of Oz.
Maybe the copywriters were thinking of the Biograph.
As it happens, the foreign and independent films for which the Key Theater was celebrated were plenty respectable, if not readily identifiable to folks shopping for artificially distressed bedposts and acid-weathered cabinet hinges. The theater’s revivals of such postwar European masterpieces as Children of Paradise and The Earrings of Madame de… attracted enormous crowds. So did Akira Kurosawa’s classic Ran and both parts of the epic French soap opera, Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring.
And then, of course, there was the yearlong blockbuster that was the Key’s biggest hit ever: A Room With a View. Wouldn’t you think that’s a title a home-furnishings store could conjure with? As time goes by, indeed.Bob Mondello