Hundreds of chilled but eager moviegoers wait beneath umbrellas on a rainy afternoon for a screening of "Chicago." The line to enter the Cineplex Odeon Cinema snakes down Wisconsin Avenue NW, past Rodman's drugstore, and those still arriving

to buy tickets for the 3:55 show are greeted with box office buzzkill: The $6 matinee is sold out.

The theater's manager, Henry Passman, emerges from the lobby and steps onto the teeming sidewalk. He hasn't seen a crowd this big in a while.

"Nice to see you all today," he booms in a voice that reaches the far fringes of the line. "Where've you been for the last eight months?"

Recent screenings at the single-screen theater included "Far From Heaven," "Punch-Drunk Love" and "Moonlight Mile," films that were praised by many critics but rarely sold out.

"We're on the bubble here, people," admonishes Passman, 51, who's been at the theater for four years. "You don't want to lose another D.C. theater, do you?"

His scolding tone is intended to evoke memories of the District's shuttered movie houses: the Avalon, the MacArthur, the Key, the Biograph. His listeners, most of whom are old enough to remember these cinematic treasures, look chastened and murmur their assent.

Passman turns his attention to several groups of people who arrived too late to snag tickets for the matinee. They are debating what to do: Buy an $8.25 ticket for a later show and queue up in the rain or scrap their plans for the movie altogether?

Passman reminds them that "Chicago" will be playing twice more this night, and then lists showtimes for the rest of the week.

His persistence proves persuasive. Three matronly women waiting in the ticket line make up their minds. One steps up to the box office window: "Three for the 6:50 show."

-- Ann Marchand