By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 24, 2005
The Takoma Theatre wasn't always the quiet place it is today.
Built as a movie house, it opened in 1924 and for decades was a favorite destination for filmgoers.
But like so many single-screen cinemas of the 20th century, the Takoma was doomed to eventual irrelevance by the rise of the multiplex.
So when an aspiring playwright named Milton McGinty bought the Takoma 22 years ago and turned it into a stage for live productions, he seemed to have found a way to ensure a place in the community for the historic theater.
But the decades that followed were often difficult. Even as McGinty poured his heart and his money into the 500-seat playhouse, the Takoma struggled to find its niche, and to attract a large, loyal following.
A few years ago, an alliance of arts-minded neighbors banded together in a bid to revitalize the Takoma. They rented it from McGinty and set out to reinvent it as a place not just for theater but also for dance, music and film. The effort showed promise, but it fell short, and earlier this year, its board fell apart in a swirl of acrimony.
Now, the theater on Fourth Street NW, a block south of the Takoma Metro station, sits idle most of the time. An occasional performance, such as one last month by the Capital City Orchestra, opens up the wrought-iron gates that guard the entrance.
But more often than not the gates stay closed day after day, and the future of the theater is uncertain, worrying supporters like Loretta Neumann.
"If there's an icon in our neighborhood, it's the theater," Neumann said. "We want a theater there, and we want to keep using it as a theater."
Elsewhere in the District, the fate of old movie houses has aroused similar anxiety. But in Chevy Chase, for example, efforts to preserve the Avalon as a cultural center have had more success. Hoping to keep that theater from becoming just a big CVS or Rite Aid, local residents created a nonprofit organization to buy the movie house, which they have since fashioned into a showcase for independent films.
For the Takoma to thrive as a theater, or as some sort of broader community arts center, it will take an effort like the one that Chevy Chase pulled together, said Tony Gittens, executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
"None of this is easy," Gittens said. "It will take a community effort to make a theater like that one go."
With 500 seats, the Takoma is larger than the 150-seat H Street Playhouse and smaller than the 1,250-seat Lincoln Theatre. Whether the Takoma's size is an asset or a liability depends on whom you ask. Smaller artistic troupes would have trouble filling the Takoma and are more comfortable in a space like H Street's, while big acts could find Takoma a bit confining. But the theater's boosters believe that it's just right for someone.
A few months ago, word spread that McGinty, 78, wanted to tear down the theater and replace it with a more lucrative development. But the building is a historic site in a historic district, so it cannot simply be razed.
Still, changes could come. With taxes on the property rising faster than his revenue, McGinty is mulling the possibility of converting the property into more traditional commercial space, according to neighbors who have spoken to him.
McGinty, after initially agreeing to be interviewed, later declined, saying The Washington Post has largely ignored the theater over the years by not reviewing many of its productions.
But in explaining why he would not participate, McGinty took a swipe at some of the people now fretting about the theater's future.
"They never come, they never came," he said. "They act like they will be hurt if it's gone, but they never came. . . . If they had come, I wouldn't be $200,000 in the hole."
If nothing else, the rumor that the theater might be leveled, and the real possibility that the building might be redeveloped, has renewed interest in its fate. But whether that will be enough to ensure that the theater remains a theater remains to be seen.
"I have the impression that there is not enough momentum, not enough push from the neighborhood, to maintain it as a theater," said Mau VanDuren, who stepped down earlier this year as president of the Takoma Theatre Arts Project, the organization set up to lure more performers and patrons to the theater.
Founded in 2002, the project raised thousands of dollars for improvements to the Takoma and did bring in more performances. But according to current and former members of the board and others familiar with its workings, the all-volunteer group never got around to hiring a professional manager for the theater and struggled with the upkeep of the aging facility.
"It's gem, but it's a shabby gem," said Susan Weber, the current president and treasurer of the theater arts project.
The roof, for example, leaks, and the heating and cooling system is very old, Weber said.
Enthusiastic as they may have been, volunteers don't have the time or the expertise to attend to the theater's ailments, said Sharon Villines, who helped found the project and who joined the board a couple of years later, in 2004. "It was not going to work any other way," Villines said. "You needed professional management."
With someone dealing with the day-to-day operation of the theater, Villines said, the board could focus on broad objectives, such as creating a calendar of regular programs: a film society every Tuesday, dance troupes every Thursday and children's films every Saturday morning.
"You have to do the productions regularly enough to build your audience," said Villines, who said she quit the board in January. "If it's hit or miss and people never know when a performance is going to take place, then they don't even think about it. They think about planning something else."
But the board never managed to build a broad program befitting a community arts center. Instead, it got bogged down in division over the administration of the theater, especially its finances, according to former members of the board.
One problem, VanDuren said, as did others involved in the project, was that the arts project did not qualify for some of the grants that would have helped pay for upgrading the theater and supporting its programs. "We didn't own the theater, so we were somewhat constrained," VanDuren said.
Another issue, he said, was the Americans With Disabilities Act. To qualify for some grants, the theater needed improved access for disabled people, VanDuren said, but the arts project could never reach an agreement with McGinty on how to move forward.
"I'm not saying who's at fault here. It's just there was a disagreement," said VanDuren, who lives a few miles away in Chevy Chase but developed an interest in the theater after his daughter started volunteering there.
The month-to-month $1,000 rental agreement called for McGinty to be paid a portion of the revenue if it exceeded a certain amount, according to Villines, McGinty and others.
But McGinty started to wonder if he was getting his fair share, Villines recalled. "He said, 'Look, this isn't fair. You're not doing what you said you were doing.' "
Weber, who was the treasurer at the time, defends her work, saying that she was committed to the theater and that McGinty was to blame for some of the obstacles. He did not want to make the theater a going concern, she said. "He's never shown a whole lot of interest in making it financially productive."
As a volunteer, she said, she did what she could, which sometimes meant payments were not prompt: "A lot of stuff didn't happen in the timely way it would have with a paid full-time staff person."
But when Weber and another board member presented McGinty with a letter asking him to surrender control of the theater to the arts project for 30 years so they could secure grants, McGinty said, he asked to see the project's financial records. They refused and in February, he locked them out, he said.
"All I've asked for is an accounting," McGinty said. "I'm not making charges. I'm not saying you did anything wrong. I just want an accounting."
Weber said that the board gave McGinty a range of options and an accounting of the organization's finances. "But nothing we gave him seemed to satisfy him," she said.
A few years ago, D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) secured $50,000 in city funding to help support programs at the theater, which is in his ward. Despite all of the Takoma's past problems and its uncertain future, Fenty is hopeful the community will find a way to turn the theater into a community jewel.
"Maybe some of the fire in the belly was lost," Fenty said, "but I think it's returning."