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.
"The screen is attached to the roof trusses. Roof trusses are designed to support the roof. If you get something hanging off of it, and then a snow load on top and pressure from both sides, we don't know what would happen. If it falls, it's going to fall on anybody on the lower level," said Jannine Pennell, the city's acting director of code enforcement. "We need to get him to return the building to a safe, code-compliant structure, because it's a wonderful place. We hate to have a vacant place on King Street. But we'd rather have it vacant than unsafe. The public deserves better than that."
There had been other problems, too. A chunk of plaster fell off the marquee last summer at night, Fons said. "Otherwise it could have killed someone." And neighbors have complained about alarms going off and about the mister Fons installed outside to cool off patrons on hot days, among other things.
To reopen, Fons must get a professional engineering study, which is underway, and fix all the code violations. It's going to cost a lot. "I'm at the end of my money," he said.
Fons said he was hoping the wall would escape the city's attention for at least a year or two. That way, he would be making money from the two screens so he would be able to pay for the improvements when the second screen was discovered.
"It was a huge mistake, a roll of the dice, which I lost," Fons said. "Truthfully, only a fool would do what I did."
So why do it?
"The challenge." He said the new wall "is the most unique feature in the world," the only one like it.
The unorthodox move mirrors Fons's unorthodox business plan. Fons, who has been a helicopter pilot, bank loan officer, shopping mall developer and owner of insurance companies, car dealerships and golf ranges, bought the theater for $1.1 million. He said he spent $160,000 on a new projector, sound system and other renovations. When the theater opened in 2004 with "The Philadelphia Story" and "Gone With the Wind," Fons said that he wanted to give back to the community that had made him.
Businessman Boyd Walker was part of a group that was vying to buy the theater but could not produce the financing. Walker and the others also wanted to operate the theater as a nonprofit entity. But they wanted to apply for grants and raise funds to restore the theater -- one of the oldest surviving in the Washington area -- to its original luster. The group wanted to replace the 1970s-era marquee with a more historically authentic awning. And they wanted to offer programming that was unique.
"A nonprofit has to fulfill another purpose for the community, like the purpose public radio fulfills that commercial radio can't," Walker said. His group wanted to show independent and art films, much like the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre in Silver Spring and the fully restored, historic Avalon Theatre in the District.
"Roger's had a hard time because he really hasn't made it clear what the purpose of his nonprofit is," Walker said. "So it's been hard for the idea to take root."
Walker said that with the uncertainty about the theater's future, his group is getting active again. "We are reorganizing now in order to have a meeting of the minds," Walker said. "It's possible that Roger could continue to own the building and offer it to someone else to run as a nonprofit."
Last week, Fons showed off the old theater and the controversial wall. He says he feels warm and comfortable inside the theater, which, as the Richmond, hosted vaudeville acts during World War I.
"Do you see the inside of this place, how beautiful it is? Do you want it to be a CVS?" he asked. "This is my baby. I'm totally distraught about this, and I wonder which way I'm going to go. I would really like the people of Alexandria to step up and say, this belongs to us."