It's a wonderful life over in Chevy Chase, where the good guys have saved the heart of their community, a big old barn of a movie house that had been shuttered and left for dead.

Led by a mild-mannered former librarian who stepped out of retirement to do what the corporate giants said couldn't be done, a bunch of everyday folks backed by $25 and $50 gifts have saved the Avalon Theater, one of the last grand places to take in a movie.

The Avalon, which opened in 1923 as the Chevy Chase Theatre, is the anchor of the Connecticut Avenue retail strip at the District's northern border, but since March 2001, it has been a hollow, leaking cavern, slowly sucking the breath out of nearby shops.

In May of last year, Loews Cineplex sent its goons in to strip the place clean, ripping out everything from the seats to the concession stand -- desperately trying to ensure that the Avalon never show another movie.

The hapless company that dominates the city's movie business shut down half of Washington's film venues, then announced that the city is "underscreened." Now Loews has opened a bland multiplex in Georgetown, which is fine and dandy, except for the rumors of more Loews closings to come.

But the Avalon, despite years of neglect -- my personal favorite was a Sunday night in February 2001 when "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" shared billing with "No Heat in Theater" -- was an unacceptable loss. Bob Zich, a Chevy Chase resident who spent 36 years at the Library of Congress before retiring in 1999, was outraged. He gathered neighbors in his living room and told them they needed a fanatic to help them Save the Avalon.

"I guess I was the one who turned out to be that fanatic," he says.

While Zich's group collected 1,100 signatures and raised $300,000, theater owner John Kyle sought a new operator -- to no avail. Kyle turned to real estate king Doug Jemal, a hard-nosed dealmaker who has lately displayed real love for the city. He insisted that the old downtown Woodies remain a premier retail spot, finally winning the H&M clothier. In Chevy Chase, he let himself be won over by the romance of the old theater.

Jemal cut his rental rate by more than half and gave Zich's Friends of the Avalon a 10-year lease. Now Jemal is restoring the building to its original style, hiring top-flight artisans, even restoring the decorative urns that long ago crowned the facade.

But it's up to the neighborhood to make a go of this. Zich and his fellow volunteers scoured the nation for theater operators before landing on Paul Sanchez, a Greenbelt film lover who runs several theaters across Maryland. It will be Sanchez's tall task to compete for films against Loews, AMC and Landmark, the arts chain that recently opened a hugely popular multiplex in Bethesda.

The Friends must find a way to break even with a recipe that has failed all too often -- big old theater, no ties to a chain, a menu of Saturday kiddie shows, film festivals and the sort of repertory offerings not seen here since the demise of the Biograph.

" 'You know, Douglas, we've both fallen into a money pit,' " Zich told Jemal. "But we both love old buildings."

Tall and lean, gentle of voice and manner, Zich is as practical as he is romantic. In a perfect world, he would have restored the Avalon lobby to its original size and splendor. He'll settle for the splendor, carving off part of the space for a Ben & Jerry's, to be run by the Latin American Youth Center as a training ground for teenagers.

Foundation money is coming in, and neighbors have donated $200 each to "buy" the 435 new seats, which, by the way, are four inches wider than the decrepit old Loews chairs.

By March, when the Avalon plans to reopen, the ceiling will be gilded once more, the plucky mural of Mercury unspooling a reel of film to Cupid will be restored, and if there's money and time enough, there'll even be a real curtain that opens as the movie begins -- "without those cheesy slide show ads," Zich says.

In our own Bedford Falls, there are plenty of Mr. Potters -- Loews, or CVS, the company that chews up old theaters for lunch and spits them out as drugstores. It's harder to find George Baileys, but Zich is one, and thanks to him, the Avalon's screen will fill with wonder once more.