Brother Chu-piao's taut dragon fingers slice into the neck of spy chien Chung-Ho, thwarting yet another betrayal of the Chinese empire. But can it be? Chu-piao is a spy too, out to bring down the empire himself. The lady Kung Fu Fighter discovers the trickery and leaps into 35-millimeter action -- with a midair split and a double back flip, she kicks the hapless Chu-piao in the face.
"A-men," "Get 'em girl," cried members of the animated audience.
It's summer, beach season for the lucky, but time for the weekly pilgrimage to a neighborhood theater for many D.C. teen-agers suffering through the stifling heat. There were once more than a dozen inner-city theaters providing a cool summer respite for $2 or $3; now only a handful remain in the District. But each commands a following any church would envy.
"We know people who come every week," said David Huang, whose wife Kathy owns the American Theater at 10th and D streets SW, scene of the feature -- that's 1.33 per movie. In the summertime a lot of people pay $4 and stay here for six hours. It's cheaper than a hotel."
"I don't think these people look at the time. They just walk on up the street and say, 'I'm going to the movies,'" said Leon Jones, longtime manager of the historic Lincoln Theater at 1215 U St. NW. "They don't care what's playing." That's why neighborhood theaters are often so large, with room for 700 people or more, he said. "If you clear 'em out after every show like they do downtown you don't need a big theater, but we're likely to have people come and see two, three shows."
Clearing the house "makes for less trouble," Jones admitted. "The kids see the movies once and then some of them want to play around." But, he confided, "I don't think our people are ready for that yet. You'd have to come on time."
The theaters can be a meeting ground for a rich sprinkling of the generations and cultures, who are drawn by prices, air conditioning, or perhaps the experience of near solitude and near companionship among the regulars. Students stop in for an inexpensive date and sit by scholars taking a break from the library. Servicemen escape the rigidity of military life, and to the Huangs' American Theater, which shows only Chinese or Vietnamese language films with subtitles, middle-aged women come to enjoy the cadences of their first tongues.
But mostly there are teen-agers, too young or shy to date, too hot to play sports and too broke to go to the downtown theaters, where ticket prices run at least a dollar a show higher.
"Teen-agers are the moviegoing public," said Ronald Steffensen, the film booker and buyer for the Glenmar Cinestate chain, which owns the Lincoln. "From 13 to 21 -- that's the people who go to the movies and the studios make what they think will appeal to that group. We're at their mercy, really."
Steffensen's observation is confirmed by Ken Clark, a vice president of the Motion Picture Association, who reviewed figures from a 1980 survey commissioned by the MPA on the moviegoing population. Of the 1,325,400,000 movie admissions in 1980, said Clark, the greatest percentage belonged to the 16- to 20-year-old age group, which accounted for 26 percent of all admissions last year. The 12- to 15-year-old group accounted for 16 percent of the moviegoing public and 21- to 24-year-olds accounted for 17 percent.
"There's no question about it. Admissions are heavily weighted toward the younger population," said Clark. Though the MPA began collecting survey data only in 1976, Clark said, "It's shifted very heavily in the last 10 years toward the younger population."
Equally clear, say theater owners, supported by moviegoers themselves, is what the teens want to see: movies that are heavy on violence, soft on romance, comedy and plot.
"Well, why not?" asked Don King, head of Town Theaters, a chain of four D.C. theaters. "Action has always been the mainstay of youth audiences. . . . I like it myself. The heavy drama -- it goes right over my head.
"Action in my book is the horror, the science fiction, the westerns, detective stories. This is what the youth is buying today. They're not buying Disney anymore," said King, who like other theater owners has had several tussles with community groups in Southeast who demanded that he show more "family-oriented" fare.
"The next cycle of films is going to be werewolves -- we've got two of them coming out. Before then it was dungeons and dragons," said Steffensen. "That's what these people want."
Moviegoers supported their conclusions. "Yeah, I like the fighting, the killing," said Joe Brown, a hefty 19-year-old, sitting in the back row of the Lincoln last Saturday. Brown's eyes were glued to every kick and jab of "King of Kung Fu." "They have a lot of action. It's a stylish way to kill somebody." Brown never goes anywhere but the Lincoln, even though he recently moved form the neighborhood to Oxon Hill.
Walt Douglas, an 18-year-old from Brightwood, tries to be slightly more cosmopolitan in his approach -- he makes the rounds of all the theaters that show Kung Fu movies with his friend, Clement Afforo, 20. They begin, and often end up, with their favorite, the Huangs' American Theater.
"See, we come here every Saturday, then on Sunday we go to Rosslyn," explained Walt, counting patiently on his fingers. "Then on Fridays we usually go to the Capri, that's in Silver Spring. Then again, we also go to Rockville [another theater operated by Kathy Huang]. But this is the best." Walt and Clement should know, since Kung Fu movies are their favorite pastime. Not Kung Fu, which they've never studied, but Kung Fu movies.
"It's just like these girls and their discoing. It's just something we have to do," they insisted, almost in unison. They have seen so many movies, in fact, that they say they can tell how good a movie will be just by looking at the poster.
"It's true," Walt insisted.
How do their parents feel about their preoccupation? "They don't know about it," they said. "We just tell them we're going out."
Besides, added Clement, who first got hooked in his native Ghana, it isn't the violence that attracts them to the films, "It's the philosophy of the teachers, the way they instruct the students. They'll tell you Kung Fu is not self-defense, it's for the improvement of the mind."
The neighborhood theaters, with low fees and all-day sitting rights, once were part of practically every community, remembered Jones of the Lincoln, who at 60 has worked in one movie theater or another for the last 40 years.
Jones now supervises a staff of 15 at the Lincoln -- the Lincoln "Twins' since 1978, when the mammoth structure was split into two theaters seating 657 and 843. Jones once rode herd on nine movie houses then owned by Disrict Theaters Inc. There were the Booker T in the 1400 block of U Street NW and the Republic at 1343 U St., both plush theaters of 800 to 1,100 velvet seats, built in Hollywood's golden age of the 1920s and '30s. Both are now closed. Along with the Lincoln and the Howard Theater at 620 T St. NW, which is still open, these were the showcases of U Street, "Black Broadway," where blacks could see first-run films without waiting for the white theaters to finish with them.
The District Theaters chain also owned several second-run houses, all closed now. These included the Tivoli, 14 Park Rd. NW, which closed in 1976; the Atlas, 13th and H streets NE, closed in 1975; the Langston, 25th Street and Benning Road NE; the Senator, Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE; the Sheraton, Georgia and Missouri Avenues NW; and the Kennedy, Third and Kennedy streets NW.
Though its theaters were located in predominantly black neighborhoods, District Theaters was always owned by Whites. Formerly called Lichtman Theaters, said Jones, the movie houses were bought in the 1940s by District Theaters, headed by Morton Gerber, who died in 1975. In 1978, the Glenmar Cinestate chain, headed by Ronald Nadler, bought out District Theaters. The chain's only remaining theater in D.C. is the Lincoln.
Some of the theaters were a bit "rough," Jones said, but for the most part they were well maintained, even luxurious. They provided the necessary ambience for movies which were then not a mere pastime but a social event.
"Back in the '40s they'd come dressed for a movie," Jones said of an era in which most moviegoers were adults, and children were limited to Saturday matinees. "Course I wish I could say the same now but I can't. . . . Nowadays people wear jogging suits and everything to a movie. And the kids, they'd come all the time now if we let them. I guess it's the change in the generations, the times," he said.
Many of the neighborhood theaters closed because "the neighborhoods just couldn't support the business anymore," said Steffensen. The Republic and the Booker T both closed in 1976, along with B. F. Keith's Theater at 15 and F streets NW, owned by Don King. Unlike most, however, both the Republic and Booker T were moneymakers until the end, said Steffensen, when they were taken over by the city's urban renewal agency to make way for Metro's Green Line.
Now the Lincoln fills the neighborhood theater gap for much of Northwest and Northeast. Other neighborhood theaters include: the Ontario at 1700 Columbia Rd. NW, owned by Paul Tauber and Herbert White; the American Theater; the Lincoln Twins; and the Town Theater group, owner of the Penn on Capital Hill, 650 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, the Capitol Hill Cinemas, 507 8th St. SE, and the Town Theater at 13th and New York Ave. NW. The Takoma Theater at Fourth and Butternut streets NW shows Indian-language films regularly and "family-oriented" movies in English a few times each month.