The area's oldest movie theater will close its doors in Old Town Alexandria this fall, ending nearly a century as a landmark and popular destination within the heart of the historic district.
The twin-screen Cineplex Odeon Old Town, which opened in 1914 as the Richmond, has fallen victim to a 16-screen theater that opened nine months ago a few miles north in the Potomac Yard shopping center, according to Marc Pascucci, a marketing executive with the Old Town's managers, Loews Cineplex Entertainment. The upcoming opening of another multiplex in Eisenhower Valley sealed the fate of the already faltering theater on King Street.
The theater will not renew its lease when it expires Oct. 31, Pascucci said.
"Business in these smaller, older theaters tends to drop off when these newer theaters open," he said. "It's kind of a national trend."
A multiplex can absorb the loss of a film that doesn't catch fire, he said, but a smaller theater is stuck with the loss. And despite Old Town's allure, many people prefer the stadium seating and digital sound that is standard in newer movie houses. Retrofitting is too expensive and only "a Band-Aid on the situation," he said.
Of the company's 280 locations, only 10 are small-screen theaters, and most of them are in the District. Their proximity to one another allows the company to keep them open, operating them in effect as one multiplex, Pascucci said.
One of those cinemas, the Avalon, opened in 1922 and is the region's second-oldest operating theater, according to Robert K. Headley Jr., an author and authority on Washington's cinemas.
The Alexandria property is owned by the Pedas family, former owners of Washington's Circle Theaters and now real estate developers and movie producers. Through a spokesman, Ted Pedas said only that he was unaware the tenant was not renewing the lease.
The movies are part of the fabric of downtown Alexandria, both for restaurants that enjoy spillover business and for many residents, who have made a habit of sauntering over to take in a show.
Local real estate agent John Walker, who owns property housing a popular restaurant just across from the theater, bemoaned the news.
"I think it will be negative if nobody picks up the ball and continues it as a movie theater," he said. "It brings people to downtown."
Old Town residents Ken and Karen Bernard walk over at least twice a month, catching nearly every movie the cinema shows.
"This is an essential part of our village," Karen Bernard said, clutching her ticket to "Runaway Bride." The decor and sound are "funky," she said. "It fits with the village idea."
Alexandria's first nickelodeon opened in 1904. By the 1940s, the city boasted seven theaters within walking distance of Old Town, according to Kevin Ruffner, who grew up in Alexandria and wrote a history of Alexandria movie houses.
The Richmond closed in 1972 and became home to the National Puppet Theater. In 1979, local movie buffs including Vola Lawson, film devotee and now city manager, breathed life into the wheezing establishment by running a series of oldies. The Pedas family bought the theater and converted the balcony to a second screen, and the movie house was reborn.
Fairfax County residents Ernie Johns and Kim Robertson drove away from multiplexes and into Alexandria on Tuesday night, expressly for the ambience of the old cinema.
"It's a sweet little theater," Johns said. "It'll be missed."
CAPTION: The Cineplex Odeon Old Town, the area's oldest movie theater, will not renew its lease w hen it expires Oct. 31.