The American moviegoing public wants to be entertained before the credits roll. Or so say those responsible for the recent costly renovation of the Circle Avalon theater, which now prominently displays an original neo-Art Deco ceiling mural set in a gold-trimmed dome 50 feet above the newly upholstered violet and turquoise seats.
The 20-by-30-foot mural, the work of accomplished trompe l'oeil artist Dana Westring, features a purple-shrouded Mercury casting celluloid from a projection reel across a multihued sunlit sky to a cherub, who, along with a second cherub, floats among pillowy violet clouds.
The painting is meant to echo the fun, fantasy and escapism that are part of the experience of going to the movies, according to Cristoffer Graae and Marlene Weiss of KressCox Associates, the architecture and interior design firm in charge of the Avalon renovation.
"We wanted people to come in, look at the dome and go, 'Wow!' " says Weiss. "It was the most fun project I've ever worked on," she adds, noting that "Washington is pretty conservative . . . you don't often get the chance to really go crazy here like you would in L.A. or New York."
The mural evolved from an idea that rolled from Graae, who viewed the empty dome as an opportunity missed since the 1920s, to Weiss, who coordinated the colors with the new scheme of the theater, to Freeman Fisher, Circle's director of advertising and promotion, who kicked in the idea of placing a reel of film in the figure's hand, culminating in Westring's adroit execution of the colossal undertaking.
Given only a few days to complete the mural, he painted the individual figures on canvas in his studio, then cut them out and applied them like wallpaper to the dome.
Like Michelangelo's celebrated exchanges with Pope Julius II while rendering his masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel centuries before, Westring had to make some creative concessions to his patron. When the mural was completed, the scaffolding disassembled and Westring fast at work on another commission, Washington Circle Theaters Inc. chief executive officer Thomas Perakos delivered a 1:30 a.m. decree that the figures' positions had to be reversed to give the audience the best possible perspective.
"I screamed all the way up Connecticut Avenue," recalls Westring, who painted a second cherub to fill the space left after the Greek god was repositioned. "I have admitted since then that I like it better the way it is now, but I wouldn't have admitted it that night," he says, laughing.
Among the ideas that did not find their way onto the dome were a "Wizard of Oz" theme and a large-scale Marilyn Monroe. "We wanted the mural to relate to the movie industry," explains Weiss, "but nothing the audience would get sick of."
If the dome is symbolic of anything, it is the recognition on the part of theater owners that the public has grown weary of viewing Hollywood's latest offerings in settings that are merely functional.
"We wanted to make going to the movies an experience," says Weiss. "A lot of times they turn on the lights and you can't wait to get out of there."
The dome is meant to be "part of a fun sequence of events," says Graae. "During the '20s, '30s and '40s, theaters were extravagant . . . they were palaces for the public. You could pay a couple of bucks and be in a palace. In a smaller way, this is what we've done with the Avalon."
Westring, whose work adorns the ceilings of real palaces (previous commissions include trompe l'oeil skies in more than one Saudi Arabian royal family residence), agrees with Graae's assessment that theater owners are witnessing a public backlash to the 90-seat, six-foot-screen variety of cinema.
"Money boxes," he says of the dull multiscreen complexes, "and I'd just as soon sleep as watch a movie in one of them."
From an economic standpoint, "there's no way to justify the added expense," says Perakos, "but we thought the mural added a grand touch of class." In addition to the dome and new seats, the rejuvenated 63-year-old theater now boasts an enlarged screen, Tivoli aisle lights and a new high-tech digital sound system that is one of only two in the United States -- all for a mere $250,000.
And how does the artist whose murals until now could only be admired in the private milieu of somebody's bedroom or dining room feel about this grand public display of his work?
"I love it," says Westring. "The twisted pleasure of this is a captive audience . . . It's not very often you can sit 500 people down and make them look at something for five minutes before the lights go down."