An exuberant Michael Norris clicks his heels across the stone slab lobby, and eyes a shimmering 30-foot glass wall overlooking the Potomac. Steps away from an exposed-brick concession area, the executive vice president of Loews Cineplex Entertainment stops and inhales a fresh-from-the-wrapper smell. A new-movie-house smell. Here. In the District.
Two years and roughly $15 million goes a long way -- even in this posh, historic Old Georgetown neighborhood. At the Loews Theatres Georgetown -- opening today on K Street NW between Wisconsin Avenue and 31st Street -- it bought state-of-the-art everything: stadium-style seating for 3,000 with high-back rockers that convert into love seats, digital sound by Sony and Dolby, and 14 oversize screens.
"We are thrilled to be opening here," Norris said earlier this week, giving a reporter a tour of the 67,000-square-foot facility. "This is your neighborhood theater."
Of course this "neighborhood theater" takes its place as Georgetown's only movie house and the biggest in the District. In size, it has dethroned even Union Station's nine-screen multiplex, and for plushness it is eclipsed only by the two-year-old theater at Mazza Gallerie, where you can pay $12.50 for leather seats and a full-service bar. (Regular admission at the Loews Georgetown is $9, students $7.50, seniors $6.50.)
It has been a long time coming. Georgetown may be the city's most famous neighborhood, where you can find those cute little Italian shoe places, where the tea-party crowd frolics in multimillion-dollar rowhouses, where prestigious students get prestigious degrees from the prestigious university, where cobblestone streets snag reams of tourists.
It may even be the place where many movies are set, from "The Exorcist" to "No Way Out" and "Enemy of the State," but it seems the neighborhood couldn't keep a movie theater to save its life.
Just this past March, the Foundry, which played arty and second-run movies at a discount, closed. The Key -- where local movie buffs were introduced to treasures like Washington filmmaker Haile Gerima's "Sankofa" and the international classic "Like Water for Chocolate" -- bit the dust in 1997. The Georgetown, Biograph, Cerberus -- gone.
Many theaters in the District closed because they were independently run art houses whose owners had retired or were struggling to compete in a climate in which big movie studios give preference to their own theaters, said Douglas Gomery, a University of Maryland professor and author of the 1992 book "Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States."
In recent years, theater builders have focused on expanding markets in the suburbs, he said. But now with the revitalization going on throughout Washington, "it makes perfect sense. . . . This is basically for in-town people."
Gomery predicts that Loews will thrive in Georgetown by showing movies made by Sony, its parent company, as well as art-house films. It is opening today with mainstream movies like "Die Another Day," "Solaris" and "Frida," as well as the independent "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."
The Loews is just one piece of a luxurious in-town experience that New York-based Millennium Partners is creating at the base of Wisconsin and K. The 600,000-square-foot retail and residential complex includes the $495-a-night Ritz-Carlton Georgetown and 28 huge luxury condos.
The Loews Georgetown site itself has a unique history. It used to be home of the Georgetown Incinerator, an industrial art deco structure built in 1932 that burned neighborhood trash until 1971.
Visitors to the new Loews Georgetown will notice a huge brick cylinder 175 feet tall smack dab in the middle of the theater's lobby. That's the incinerator's original smokestack, restored and kept for effect. "We thought mixing the new style with the industry-mix was kind of cool," said Loews' Norris.
There will be at least 275 parking spaces in a four-level underground structure. With validation, five bucks buys you four hours. Folks can also get there by taking Metrorail to Foggy Bottom or Rosslyn, then transferring to the bus.
Norris isn't deterred by the track record of movie theaters in Georgetown. "They were older," he said. "They couldn't offer the public the amenities we do here."