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Is This the End of the Run?

In 2003, Roger Fons stands in front of the Old Town Theater, which he bought to operate as a nonprofit entity. Now he seeks donations to repair it.
In 2003, Roger Fons stands in front of the Old Town Theater, which he bought to operate as a nonprofit entity. Now he seeks donations to repair it. (By Rafael Crisostomo For The Washington Post)

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By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 23, 2006

Alexandria's Old Town Theater has been dark since Nov. 1, shut down after city inspectors discovered that owner Roger Fons had installed a second movie screen without applying for the appropriate permits. A second inspection team turned up 77 other code violations in the building, originally constructed in 1914.

And with the theater barely breaking even in recent years, Fons, 58, has been sending letters and e-mails asking patrons to donate money to cover the cost of required engineering studies and repairs. Right now, the fate of the movie house is uncertain. The five people Fons employed are looking for work.

"It was all my fault, I admit it," Fons said. "But at this point right now, I'm in limbo. I really don't know what I'm going to do. I don't know to what extent I can keep it open."

The old-fashioned marquee outside no longer announces what movies are showing. Instead it reads, "Your Theater Needs Your Donations Now." In pleas for contributions on the theater's Web site, http://www.oldtowntheater.com, Fons estimates it will take $100,000 to $200,000 to reopen.

The theater has struggled financially since Fons bought it in 2003. He has tried art films, oldies and live entertainment, but none really worked.

Then he hit upon his latest venture: providing a unique movie "experience" by showing top-run films -- usually "chick flicks" -- and serving lunch or dinner with wine or beer to patrons at their seats. Fons expanded the idea to include Wednesday afternoon showings for mothers and babies. He also began renting the theater to corporate clients for meetings and opening for live entertainment on the stage or art showings.

Knowing when he bought the theater that it was a shaky financial venture in this age of multiplexes with acres of free parking, Fons set up the Old Town as a nonprofit organization, which gives it tax-exempt status. He hoped to get at least 1,000 people to join as members to help run the place and raise money. He got 20. Last summer, he decided that the only way to survive financially was to build a second screen in the balcony, so he could show two movies simultaneously.

"Two screens are absolutely necessary," Fons said. "Without it, we would have gone down."

The problem was, he decided to go it alone. No engineering drawings. No permits. No inspections.

He found four-inch leaded soundproof doors. He and his daughter designed a cantilever system, and he and a couple of buddies hung the panels from an 18-inch steel I-beam. He maintains the design of the new wall was safe, but he did not have engineering drawings to support that.

Fons has a degree in civil engineering, and his daughter is an industrial engineer in Lynchburg.

But the city was none too pleased when an inspector showed up on Halloween for a routine look and discovered the new screen. The inspector revoked Fons's 460-seat certificate of occupancy, effectively shutting down the theater. Then the city sent a team of inspectors who combed the building and came up with 16 pages of violations. They said the new wall made the building structurally unsound.


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