Warren G. Harding was in the White House and the Academy Awards hadn't even been invented yet when the Chevy Chase movie theater opened at 5612 Connecticut Ave. NW in December 1922.
With 1,000 seats and an orchestra-quality organ that often was played by Kurt Hetzel, conductor of the Washington Symphony, the Chevy Chase was one of many commodious neighborhood movie houses that sprouted in the Washington area during the boom years of the early film industry. Every Saturday, Boy Scouts who wore their uniforms were admitted free; before each show, they marched down the aisle carrying the Stars and Stripes while Hetzel pumped out patriotic airs such as "My Country 'Tis of Thee."
When network radio was in its infancy, television was science fiction, video stores were unimaginable and the Internet inconceivable, going to the movies was what Washingtonians did for inexpensive entertainment. In 1922, Washington boasted some 50 motion picture theaters, ranging from the lavish 2,100-seat Rialto on Ninth Street NW to such vest-pocket picture shows as the 229-seat Alamo on Seventh Street NW. During the sultry summers, moviegoers flocked to a few open-air theaters on 14th Street NW, H Street NE, and in Georgetown. Or they enjoyed the artificial breezes supplied by such primitive air-conditioning apparatuses as the "Typhoon" cooling system in the Joy at Ninth and E streets NW, which proclaimed itself "The Coolest Theatre South of the North Pole." In the winter, when ventilation in the smaller theaters was problematic, attendees' olfactory senses were soothed by "perfumed disinfectants," wafted over them with fans.
It still is possible in a few special Washington venues to get a sense of what it was like to go to the movies 70 years ago (minus, fortunately, the perfumed disinfectants). Both the palatial, 75-year-old Warner (originally called the Earle) at 13th and E streets NW and the 77-year-old Lincoln on U Street near 12th NW have undergone extensive restoration and are now home to stage shows rather than movies. And the Chevy Chase -- known as the Avalon since 1929 -- is still operating as a movie theater after three-quarters of a century, a veteran of the silent era thriving in the Dolby age.
Following a $250,000 renovation in 1985, the Avalon now features an elegant mural depicting the god Mercury tossing a reel of film across a multicolored sky, six-track Dolby stereo sound, and much more comfortable seats, reduced in number to about 660. But "aside from these changes, people who go to the Avalon are sitting in a typical neighborhood theater of the '20s," says Robert K. Headley Jr., a retired research linguist for the Department of Defense and the ultimate authority on Washington's movie theaters. Headley, 60, has spent more than 20 years amassing a mountain of information for his newly published, definitive history of the area's motion picture theaters, Motion Picture Exhibition in Washington, D.C.: An Illustrated History of Parlors, Palaces and Multiplexes in the Metropolitan Area, 1894-1997 (McFarland and Co.).
It is a history full of tragedy (including catastrophes and suicides); comedy (such as torn screens, jury-rigged cooling systems and rinky-tink piano accompaniments); and cliffhangers (with the fate of several historic theaters still in limbo).
Yet unlike most of the movies shown in those theaters, it is a history with mostly unhappy endings. "Demolished" is the lamentably frequent word with which Headley often ends the stories of the city's greatest cinema showplaces.
"With each closing, whether a neighborhood house or a big downtown structure, the community loses, individuals lose, and posterity loses," Headley writes. "We have lost a lot."
Motion pictures first were shown in Washington on October 6, 1894, at the Columbia Phonograph Co. building at 919 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, the local outlet for Thomas Edison's popular new phonographs. These early kinetoscope films, also made by Edison, were not projected but viewed instead through peepholes in large wooden boxes. The subject matter -- a blacksmith at work, a Scottish dance, scenes in a barber shop -- was not what made them memorable: The important thing was that they moved. Viewers were astounded and delighted by the effect.
By the following year, advances were taking place in the projection of movies onto a screen. In the summer of 1895, Washingtonian Thomas Armat and his partner, C. Francis Jenkins, privately exhibited their Vitascope projector at Armat's F Street real estate office. It was so successful that Edison himself signed an agreement with Armat to produce the Vitascope projector under Edison's name. The first public performance of the Armat-Edison Vitascope projector occurred in New York on April 23, 1896, at Koster and Bial's Music Hall -- an event sometimes heralded as the real birth of the motion picture theater.
The first exhibition of projected movies in Washington wouldn't take place until New Year's Day 1897 at Willard Hall, a former Presbyterian church at 14th and F streets NW. The event included films of babies quarreling, soldiers fording a river, and Kaiser Wilhelm reviewing his troops. A month later, a Vitascope Hall opened three blocks away at 1116 F St. NW.
Movies caught on slowly in Washington, and there were few exhibitions during the next several years. Three weeks after President William McKinley's assassination in September 1901, films of the last four weeks of his life elicited such little public response that they closed after just a week.
Public indifference to these early movies soon became a problem. After the novelty of movement wore off, people simply lost interest, and in the first years of the 20th century movies all but disappeared from Washington. But once films began to develop dramatic story lines, people again became intrigued. In 1903 Edward S. Porter's "Life of an American Fireman" grabbed the public's attention; it was followed in 1904 by Porter's breakthrough film, "The Great Train Robbery." The phenomenal success of these and other melodramatic movies led to the advent of 5-cent "nickelodeon" theaters. A film boom was underway throughout the country -- and in Washington. The number of movie theaters in the city jumped from three in the fall of 1907 to 21 in the spring of 1908.
Even the president of the United States took notice. William Howard Taft became the initial first filmgoer when he went to the Maryland on Ninth Street NW on July 21, 1909. There, he sat in a special, wide wicker chair provided to accommodate his 300-pound girth, and joined the audience in laughing appreciatively at himself when newsreel footage showed him giving a speech in Petersburg, Va., and vigorously pounding the air as he spoke.
By 1909 there were also six movie houses in Washington that accommodated black audiences. That year another theater, the Maceo, opened on 11th Street NW advertising that "whites as well as blacks are welcome to this theater and sit anywhere." Although the Maceo primarily offered vaudeville shows, it screened movies as well. While its then-radical policy of nonsegregation was not followed elsewhere, by 1914, five other Washington theaters were known to be "for blacks and whites" but were internally segregated, with low walls down the middle to separate the races. During Saturday matinees, youngsters of both races would toss peanuts and other objects back and forth over the partition.
Foreshadowing a controversy that remains to this day, the nickelodeon boom prompted alarm over the potential effects of movies on the nation's youth. On October 5, 1908, The Washington Post decried "the degrading and demoralizing character" of movies, noting a "tendency to present pictures so spiced with action and simulated crime as to attract the biggest crowds."
The story of Washington's early movie boom is largely the tale of two pioneering film entrepreneurs, Harry Crandall and Tom Moore. Their energetic competition led to the building of some of the city's grandest cinemas.
Moore got started in 1906, purchasing a secondhand print of "The Great Train Robbery" for $21 and showing it at various locations around town. By 1914, he had prospered enough to purchase the old Academy of Music on Ninth Street NW and convert it into the Strand, then the city's largest movie theater with more than 1,000 seats. In 1918 he followed it up with the Rialto, at Ninth and G streets, which he billed as "The Acme of Elegance and the Largest Structure in America for the Presentation of Super Film Plays." Ultimately Moore's empire of movie theaters in the city would number some 15 showplaces, including the Garden, Lyric, Florida, Empire, Plaza, Regent, Stanton and Elite.
But Moore misjudged the gradual movement of Washington's entertainment center from the Ninth Street corridor to F Street between 1917 and 1923. Even the ultra-glamorous Rialto was built too far north, and it never did a very good business. Major films had their local debuts there -- "All Quiet on the Western Front," "Show Boat," "Grand Hotel" -- but its successes were few. The theater was ultimately torn down in 1940 -- to be replaced by a parking garage.
In the meantime, Moore's chief rival, Harry Crandall, had correctly gauged the shift toward F Street, where he built some of the city's finest showplaces, including the 1,542-seat Metropolitan. Opened in 1918, its lobby featured Circassian walnut and thick black-and-gold carpeting. A triple-color lighting system illuminated the stage. It was at the Metropolitan that sound movies made their Washington debut in 1927 with "Don Juan," which had a synchronized musical score and sound effects -- but no dialogue -- and starred John Barrymore. (The Metropolitan lasted nearly 40 more years, before falling to the wrecker's ball in 1966.)
Crandall would become the biggest film exhibitor in Washington, building or controlling the Tivoli, Savoy, York, Apollo, Avenue Grand and Colony, among others. But even as he began his climb to the top, Crandall's career was shadowed by tragedy: He owned the Knickerbocker, site of the greatest disaster in local movie history.
The $150,000, 1,700-seat Knickerbocker opened in October 1917 at 18th Street and Columbia Road. The lavish movie palace contained a first-floor refreshment parlor, balcony tearoom, marble floors, crystal chandeliers and a $4,000 organ. Its huge fans were said to provide patrons with breezes akin to those of riding in an open car going 25 mph.
Those fans were not needed, however, on the cold and snowy night of January 28, 1922. Three hundred patrons had braved the city's worst blizzard in more than 20 years to see the movie "Get Rich Quick Wallingford." A little after 9 p.m., as the orchestra played an intermission tune, a crack appeared in the theater's ceiling and suddenly, weighed down by two feet of heavy, wet snow, the Knickerbocker's roof caved in. Ninety-eight people were killed and 133 injured.
A subsequent study by the Engineering News-Record blamed the roof's collapse on the building contractor and the design of the theater's architect, Reginald Geare. An up-and-coming young architect, Geare was Crandall's favorite designer and the man who also drew up the plans for Washington's premiere black theater, the Lincoln, built by Crandall in 1922 and still standing today.
Nevertheless, the report by the engineering publication devastated Geare, who committed suicide in 1927. And although Crandall overcame the Knickerbocker disaster and thrived during the booming movie business of the 1920s, his own fate was tragic as well. Bought out by Warner Bros. in 1928 (a sale that turned Washington into "a Warner Bros. town," Headley says), Crandall was rumored to have lost millions in the stock market crash of 1929. His efforts to return to the movie business in the 1930s failed, and in 1937 he, too, committed suicide. "I'm despondent and miss my theater[s], Oh so much," he wrote in a suicide note.
The theaters for which Crandall pined -- the movie palaces of the 1920s, such as the Earle (now the Warner), the Fox (later the Capitol), and the Ambassador (built on the site of the Knickerbocker) -- were indeed something. Few expenses were spared in the effort to imbue them with an aura of grandeur and luxury. Their openings were major social events at which the city's most prominent citizens -- from the president on down -- might be expected to attend. Even usually dour Calvin Coolidge, accompanied by his amiable wife, Grace, appeared at the September 19, 1927, opening of the Fox at 1328 F St. NW.
Washington's major black theaters were as proud of their elegance as were their white counterparts. By 1936, there were 15 black theaters in the Washington area, many offering live entertainment as well as films, making Washington a greater mecca for black performers than Baltimore, Philadelphia or Atlantic City. Large musical reviews were offered at the Howard; the Lincoln and Republic had vaudeville along with movies, as did smaller theaters such as the Rosalia, Dudley, Gem and Foraker. Countering the discriminatory policies of the downtown movie palaces that restricted black patrons to the balconies, the Howard reserved its balcony for whites.
But the golden age of the picture palace was over almost as soon as it began. The arrival of talkies spelled doom for the orchestras that once accompanied silent films (more than 121 local musicians, including organists, were displaced by sound), and the Great Depression spelled the end of the movie palace era. There would be no more gigantic, gaudy picture emporiums built in the central city; instead, art deco-style neighborhood houses such as the Sheridan and the Uptown, seating about 1,000 patrons each, became the trend in the 1930s and 1940s, persisting until the arrival of twin- and triple-screen suburban theaters in the 1960s.
The major development of the postwar period was the slow and surprisingly quiet end of segregation in city movie theaters. In 1948, the small Dupont at 1332 Connecticut Ave. NW, became the first nonsegregated movie theater opened in the District since the Maceo, nearly 40 years before; it was followed later that year by the Carver, located at 2405 Nichols Ave. SE (now Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue). Ironically, that same year the National Theatre, embroiled in a long-standing dispute with the Dramatists Guild and Actors Equity over its segregation policies, announced that it would end stage productions and convert to a movie theater rather than change its discriminatory ways.
Nonetheless, over the next several years the city's major white movie theaters gradually began to change their policies, as did the National. In 1952, new management took it over and reopened it as an integrated legitimate theater. By October 1953, the Motion Picture Herald reported: "Washington's downtown theaters are admitting `all well-behaved persons.' "
But the golden era of Washington movie-going was over. The growing postwar popularity of television was among the factors that led to a wave of movie theater closings in the early 1950s. The last big opening in the District took place on August 29, 1963, when the debut of the Embassy on Florida Avenue near Connecticut Avenue NW was celebrated with a soiree attended by various foreign diplomats and government officials. The theater closed last year and now stands vacant.
Efforts to save, preserve and restore some of the surviving movie palaces have been only sporadically effective. The Warner and the Lincoln are shining examples of the more than 50 classic movie theaters across the country that have been saved and restored since the movie palace preservation movement began some 30 years ago. Others have not been so lucky. Headley, for one, is scornful of the "Pyrrhic victories" that have left standing only the facades of Keith's, at 619 15th St. NW, and the Senator, at 3950 Minnesota Ave. NE.
The fates of the 88-year-old Howard, at 620 T St. NW; the 60-year-old Atlas, at 1331 H St. NE; and the once-glorious, 75-year-old Tivoli at 14th Street and Park Road NW, remain in doubt. All are abandoned and subject to continuing decay. "They're just sitting there, and each winter they develop more cracks and get worse and worse," Headley says. "The Tivoli is the really sad one. It has been open to the elements and vandalized for 10 years, and soon there won't be anything left to preserve."
Thanks to the backing of neighborhood patrons, however, the Avalon is still going strong, as is the Uptown, at 3426 Connecticut Ave. NW, opened in 1936. "It is one of the few real movie theaters remaining in the Washington area where it is a pleasure to see a movie," Headley says.
These neighborhood movie houses, along with the once-again resplendent downtown dowagers, the Warner and Lincoln, provide reason to be optimistic, Headley writes. "It is reassuring that our children and grandchildren will be able to attend shows at these theaters and experience some of the magic that we knew at the movies."
Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist. His most recent book is Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber.
CAPTION: Few expenses were spared on movie palaces of the 1920s, such as the Fox (later the Capitol), located at 1328 F St. NW, and the Earle (today's Warner).
CAPTION: Movie-Going In Style All Over Town: Clockwise from right: Loew's Palace, located at 1306 F St. NW, opened in 1918 and lasted
until 1978; Harry Crandall's Avenue Grand, at 645 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, opened in 1910 and was showing a Rudolph Valentino film in 1921; another Crandall theater, the Apollo at 624 H St. NE, was the classiest of the movie houses in that neighborhood in the early '20s; the Empress, at 416 Ninth St. NW, current site of the FBI Building, displayed its posters in a slapdash style in the 1930s; in 1950 the Gayety, at 513 Ninth St. NW, closed as a burlesque house but was called back into service when the National Theatre started showing movies rather than integrate; the Home, built in 1915
at 1228 C St. NE, showed this picture, probably in the mid-1920s, and closed in 1952.
CAPTION: Rescue workers place the body of one of the 98 who died on a stretcher after the roof of the Knickerbocker collapsed on January 28, 1922.