The Ontario Theatre has always reflected its neighborhood and now, like the Adams-Morgan community it serves, the movie house has been refurbished and is again showing first-run films.
The renovation of the neighborhood has been going on for about 10 years. The theater, at 1700 Columbia Rd. NW, was redecorated last month with upholstered seats, new carpeting, a fresh coat of paint and a new screen and stereo system.
In a few weeks, the theater will be further modernized when its spacious balcony will be divided to accommodate three screens.
The movie house hasn't shown first-run films in about 15 years.
These changes are the latest in a series of face lifts and turnabouts for the theater whose marquee has long mirrored the social transitions of its neighborhood.
"The neighborhood of Adams-Morgan is prime for this type of revitalization," said Thomas Perakos, chief executive officer of the Circle Theatres, which bought the Ontario in 1983. "The scores of unique shops, restaurants and rapid rebirth of the community show us that there is a tremendous potential for this theater."
Freeman Fisher, a spokesman for Circle Theatres, the area's second largest theater chain, said the company plans to use the three new screens to show "art films and movies for a sophisticated market." He said the theater would go after a "general market," ranging in age from 12 to 38.
When the nearly 1,200-seat Ontario opened in 1951, it showed first-run movies.
But as the neighborhood began to change in the late 1960s so did the marquee. Whites who moved across Rock Creek Park to Connecticut Avenue or the suburbs were replaced by blacks and a large influx of Spanish immigrants.
The adventures of John Wayne gave way to the adventures of El Santo, a very popular Spanish matinee idol, as the neighborhood's Hispanic population grew. During most of the 1970s, the Ontario showed Spanish movies daily to what remains the largest Spanish-speaking community in the Washington area.
But by the late 1970s increasing numbers of young middle-class professionals were busily refurbishing the once-elegant two- and three-story Victorian houses that dominate the neighborhood.
Many of the neighborhood's large apartment buildings, once overcrowded by poorer blacks and Hispanic immigrants, were emptied, renovated and sold as high-priced condominiums to young lawyers, lobbyists and consultants.
At the Ontario, American movies returned, pushing the Spanish movies to the weekends.
With the showing of the first-run movie "Lifeforce" two weeks ago, the Ontario has come full circle. And so has Adams-Morgan.
Community reaction to the theater's newest incarnation has been split.
"This change is a big change for us," said Maria "Coco" Bueno, owner of a record store one block west of the Ontario. "We're taking a big step backward. What happens to us now? Where do we go?"
She recalled that the Ontario had become a Hispanic community meeting place on weekends. Hispanic families treated a visit to the theater like a cultural outing. Many newly arrived immigrants from South and Central America used the theater as a way to meet other Hispanics and it was a touch of home in a strange new land, she said.
Fisher said Circle Theatres had received no complaints from the Hispanic community about the demise of the weekend Spanish films. He added that Spanish films could be shown on one of the smaller screens to be installed if the company finds there is a market for them.
"Right now, with only one screen, we can't show Spanish films ," Fisher said. "You can't interrupt the screening of a first-run movie to show something else during the weekends."
Mattie McLain, owner of a grocery store adjacent to the Ontario, said the first-run movies already have begun to help her business.
"I'd say my evening business has gone up by 40 percent," said McLain, because of hundreds of thirsty moviegoers buying sodas. "I really did well the first couple of nights that "Lifeforce" was shown . I wish they'd get a new movie in there. The crowds are shrinking."
Mary Hitchcock, director of Potter's House, a restaurant one block east of the Ontario, also welcomed the renovated theater. "It's good for the neighborhood because of the crowd it attracts," she said.
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