We are on the floor of McBride's Variety Department Store on Alabama Avenue SE, surrounded by lingerie and housewares, as Ray Gingell's gaze pans 90 degrees left and right, climbs the wall, and comes at last to rest upon the children's wear department, a glass-enclosed space sandwiched high in a corner.
"That was the cry room," says Gingell. "Behind there they would have a couple of rows of seats where you could go if your baby was making too much noise. That was a feature of all John Zink's theaters."
The last time Gingell set foot in McBride's was in 1953, when it was the 990-seat Naylor Theater, and Gingell was the manager. Construction on the Naylor had commenced rather frantically, Gingell recalls soon after the United States became a party to the Second World War.
By government decree, "unless a building had been started by a certain date, there would be no more nonwar-related construction." So to meet the deadline, says Gingell, Zink, the architect, simply took the plans for the Apex Theater in Spring Valley, and turned them around to fit the new site.
When Gingell was a young man casting a flashlight beam down the wide aisle of the old Loew's Columbia at 11th and F Streets NW, Washingtonians packed into theaters named the Alamo, the Jewell, the Favorite the Hippodrome, the Pix, the Savoy, the Blue Mouse, and the Avenue Grand.
At the Fox, the most palatial of the downtown palaces, 25 cents, according to Gingell, would get you a light overture played by a 50-piece orchestra, a complete stage show, a brief organ concert, a newsreel, a short subject, and then, of course, the feature.
Virtually all of those theaters have since been demolished to make way for parking lots, office buildings and supermarkets (although a few, like the Naylor, have been reborn as department stores or auto body shops). And Gingell, too, has been found expendable.
He was laid off a month ago after 25 years' service with KB Theatres, where he performed almost every imaginable duty, running the MacArthur Theatre in its heyday as a British film showcase and more recently handling KB's newspaper ads.
Except for a wartime stint with the Navy - mostly spent in London - Gingell has been a theater man all his life. He calculates he has toiled in 20 or more Washington theaters over a span of nearly 40 years.
Unemployment has left him free to spend a warm, smog-free weekday afternoon revisiting the theaters and remains of theaters to which he has devoted a lifetime. The tour is obviously bad medicine. Shuttered movie palaces put Gingell in a gloomy frame of mind.
"Right now is the lowest ebb in the history of motion pictures," he remarks "The industry cannot continue to exist with only one 'Star Wars,' a year or one 'Jaws.' Outside of the young dating crowd they have really lost the children and they have lost the over-40. It's going to end up with a very few so-called first-run cinemas and they'll all be playing the same things."
In Washington, there are numbers to bear him out. Thirty years ago, a moviegoer could choose from among 75 operating theaters in the District proper, many with capacities of a thousand seats or more and many changing bills every other day. Today there are 37 functioning theaters, a figure that includes a few that could fit inside their predecessors' men's rooms, and the films often get stuck in one theater, or several simultaneously, for six months or more.
Since he is "looking around for something" in the way of work, Gingell doesn't advertise his age, and his full head of suburn hair will probably ease prospective employers' doubts about his vigor. He reminisces about things, however, that - on cold analysis - only a man who has spent close to 60 years in Washington, and its movies theaters, could know.
Driving through Georgetown, Gingell identifies Dash's Men's Wear on M Street as the former M Street Theater, also called the Lido, where he went for Westerns in his pre-talkie preadolescence.
"My mother wouldnt come here," he says. "It was too seedy. She would only go to the Dumcarton, which was Georgetown's 'A' Theater."
Gingell's childhood ambition was to be a theater organist, he says, "But by the time I was ready to play it was too late. So I started as an usher."
We headed downtown to find the remains of the old Rialto Theater at 9th and G, N.W., where Gingell worked as a floor manager, "one grade above an usher," in the late '30s. It is now a parking lot.
Rounding the corner onto F Street, in search of the Columbia, Gingell notes that Helen Hayes made her stage debut there. The Columbia was supplanted by a Safeway, which is now the 7th Heaven discount clothing store.
Further up F Street is the Fox, later the Capitol. Gone, too, but its pillared archway still overhangs the Brentano's bookstore that has moved into - and totally obscured - the lobby. As a member of the National Theater Organ Society, Gingell was one of those who agitated to have the Fox turned into an opera house in the early '60s, but it was consumed by office space instead. Then & the disgust in Gingell's voice is concealed about as well as Zsa Zsa Gabor's Hungarian accent - then came the Kennedy Center.
On Capitol Hill, we pass the Peoples Church, at 8th and G Streets, SE, which was the Academy Theater in a previous life. "For years it run by E. Lawrence Phillips," says Gingell. "He had been an old circus performer before he went into the theater business. He had one arm. He has lost the other one to a lion. He called it "E. Lawrence Phillips' Theater Beautiful, the Academy."
On 9th Street. NW - "the great white way of the nickelodeons," says Gingell - we pause to admire the tiny Mt. Vernon Theater, a silent movie house that opened in 1911, closed in 1913, served for many years as headquarters of the Arabian Coffee Company, and remains remarkably intact to this day, despite the signs that proclaim, "Man's World - Peep Show - Complete Male Entertainment."
There's the theater of the future," says Gingell.
Our next stop is the site of the most notorious of all Washington theaters, the Knickerbocker on 18th Street NW whose roof collapsed under 29 inches of snow on the night of January 28, 1922, killing 93 of those who had gathered to see "Get Rich Quick, Wallingford." The Knickerbocker's owner, Harry Crandall, and its architect, Reginald Geare, ended their lives, separately, by suicide, although both had been exonerated in a public inquiry.
At Georgia Avenue and Farragut Street NW, the 1,000-seat Colony, looks very dark as it waits to be razed or recycled. "This is one of those houses where they threw the organ out to make room for the air-conditioning," says Gingell, with a sigh that tells you he would happily have made room for that organ in his foyer.
Just around the corner stands the Kennedy, on Kennedy Street, now a church whose parishioners have kept the exterior woodwork in high luster. "A very lovely theater," says Gingell. "This could be restored quite easily." He says it as if believing, for a moment, anyway, that someone might really try.
Here is a partial list of abandoned Washington movie theaters, besides those listed above, which have yet to be demolished. Opening dates are shown in parentheses. Information is taken from Theatre Guide of Washington, D.C., compiled by Andrew Craig Morrison and published by the Theatre Historical Society in 1972.
Atlantic, 21 Atlantic SW (1948),
Atlas, 1329-1331 H St. NE (1929),
Broadway, 1517 7th NW (1921),
Calvert, 2324 Wisconsin Ave NW (1938),
Congress, 2931 Martin Luther King Ave. SE (1939),
Georgia, 3422 Georgia Ave. NW (1912),
Home, 1228-1230 C St. NE (1917),
Liberty, 1419-1423 North Capitol (1915),
Olympia (renamed Booker T), 1431-1433 U NW (1914),
Sheridan, 6225 Georgia Ave. NW (1937),
Tivoli, 14th Street and Park Road NW (1924),
Village, 1307 Rhode Island Ave. NE (1940),
York, 3635-3641 Georgia Ave. NW (1919).