Bethesda Theatre To Reopen With Broadway Ties

The landmark Bethesda movie theater on Wisconsin Ave. will open as a playhouse this fall.
The landmark Bethesda movie theater on Wisconsin Ave. will open as a playhouse this fall. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 4, 2007

A little branch of off-Broadway is trying to take root in Bethesda.

In the ever-expanding constellation of new spaces for plays and musicals in and around Washington, a landmark art deco movie palace on Wisconsin Avenue will open this fall as a home for audience-friendly, small-scale plays and musicals.

The first show at the Bethesda Theatre will be the area premiere of "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," a vicissitudes-of-dating-and-marriage musical revue that has been an off-Broadway staple for more than a decade. But an even more venerable showbiz name is associated with this venture: Nederlander, the family-owned company that operates eight theaters on Broadway.

Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment, whose president is Robert Nederlander Jr., has a long-term contract to manage the Bethesda space, owned by the Bethesda Cultural Alliance, a new, nonprofit arts group. Nederlander's idea is to make the Bethesda site the first of a circuit of smaller theaters across the country to which musical revues, comedies and jukebox shows could tour. (Nederlander's company manages spaces in Florida and Northern California that are also potential stops for touring productions.)

"I can't think of a better place to inaugurate our circuit," says Nederlander, whose company is separate from the Nederlander Organization, the entity headed by his uncle, James Nederlander Sr., that owns the Broadway theaters.

"The goal is to run the right kind of theater in the right kind of market," he adds. "And this market is underserved for this kind of production."

Few Washington companies specialize in the lighter sort of commercially driven fare that is being envisioned -- at least at the outset -- for the Bethesda Theatre. The initial season, scheduled to begin Oct. 4 with a 16-to-20-week run of "I Love You, You're Perfect," indicates the theater's thrust. Executive Director Ray Cullom says "I Love You" will be followed by "My Mother's Italian, My Father's Jewish and I'm in Therapy," a comic monologue by Steve Solomon that has been running in New York since December. After that will come a revival of "Smokey Joe's Cafe," the jukebox musical based on the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. It ran on Broadway from 1995 to 2000 and made its Washington debut at the Kennedy Center in 1997.

"I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" and "Smokey Joe's Cafe" will be new productions for the Bethesda space. Solomon will essentially re-create the New York version of "My Mother's Italian" here.

"We're trying to do titles that aren't available to other theaters in the area," says Cullom, who has run theaters in New York and North Carolina.

The conversion of the Bethesda Theatre -- which was a movie house from its inception in 1938 until about eight years ago -- has been spearheaded by a developer, the Bozzuto Group. As part of the plans for its now-completed high-rise apartment complex on the site, Bozzuto was required by Montgomery County to find a cultural use for the vintage movie theater, says Thomas A. Baum, president of Greenbelt-based Bozzuto Development Co. "The county desired to turn it into some sort of public amenity," he says.

One thing that made the site attractive for continued service as a theater was a large, underused county parking garage next door. Ultimately, plans were developed for renovation of the space as a theater of between 580 and 700 seats, depending on the configuration of the stage. The cost of renovation, which is in its final stages, has come to about $10 million, $2 million of which was provided by the county, Baum says.

Bozzuto has given the theater to the Bethesda Cultural Alliance, for which Baum serves as treasurer. Its board of directors also includes community members. The hope, Cullom says, is that the theater will benefit from Bethesda's reputation as an entertainment hub and that the venue will generate revenue that could be used to finance arts initiatives elsewhere in the community.

The new Bethesda Theatre has retained its period ambiance and decor; longtime patrons of the movie house will recognize the nautical features of the interior design -- especially the portholes in the auditorium's back wall that were once used as projection windows. An orchestra pit has been added, as well as a large cafe for salads and sandwiches, and a bar that will remain open for two hours after performances.

The first order of business, however, will be finding an audience -- not the easiest task in a market as theater-saturated as Washington. Virtually around the corner from the Bethesda Theatre is Round House Theatre, a nonprofit, subscription-based company that presents a range of contemporary plays, classics and literary adaptations.

Although Cullom says that the plans for Bethesda Theatre might eventually extend to more adventurous pieces -- establishing the space as a home for accessible operas is one possibility -- the initial impulse is to make the offerings broadly appealing and culturally portable. The birthing room, perhaps, for an "I Love You, You're Perfect" tour.

"This is a laboratory," Cullom says, "to see how a community responds."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company