In the ongoing rewrite of downtown Washington’s recent history, the Town Theater just got an upgrade.
An April 22 Washington Post piece on the National Museum of Women in the Arts, written by Ann Hornaday, described the building’s former tenant as a “kung fu movie house.” That’s not exactly true, but it’s closer to fact than the usual putdown, which is that the theater (always unnamed) was a porno dive.
In fact, during its final years the Town was an “urban house,” which means it showed films of interest to African-American audiences. Those included some kung fu, a lot of horror, and a pinch of by-then-shopworn blaxploitation. But the theater also featured lots of mainstream Hollywood stuff. The Town was by no means one of those grotty “grindhouses” that exist so vividly in Quentin Tarantino‘s imagination (and maybe nowhere else).
The Town closed in January 1984, the last downtown cinema to be swept away by the gentrification plotted by the city’s Redevelopment Land Agency and the federal Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation. The 1984 date alone is significant, since it’s often claimed that the last downtown movie house closed in the 1960s. (If the fabulist is on a roll, he or she will note that the cinemas were displaced by “the riots,” which actually didn’t touch downtown D.C.)
The last movie I saw at the Town was Doctor Detroit, a largely forgotten 1983 Dan Aykroyd comedy. In its final six months, the theater also ran such standard suburban-multiplex fare as Superman III, Sudden Impact, and Escape from New York. And while the bookings did include “grindhouse” titles like Death Mask of the Ninja and Bloodsucking Freaks, even most of the horror offering were widely distributed stuff, such as the Stephen King adaptations Cujo and Christine. The Town may have shown trash, but it was middle-of-the-road trash. (Where did I find the Town’s 1983-84 schedule? Back issues of the Washington Post, of course.)
Most commentators who dismiss or condemn downtown Washington, circa 1960-1990, don’t mean anything by it. But there is an agenda here, even for people who haven’t realized they’re following it: Downtown’s redevelopment was something of a botch, so describing the area’s previous incarnation as a wasteland of porn houses and other gamy spots retroactively justifies what was done.
It’s just not that simple. The National Museum of Women in the Arts is a beautifully renovated and adapted building. But the Town Theater was kind of cool, too.