There's something annoying about the articles and survey results that show up now and then listing the Washington area's "best" film theaters. It's not just that the lists, and the attitudes they reflect, are all pretty much the same: "Hooray for big screens, foreign, low-budget and old films, and fresh popcorn, and boo for anything in the suburbs." What particularly bothers me is the fact that some of the D.C. area's most respected movie houses -- the ones with the most "snob appeal," if you will -- are also some of the least accessible to people using wheelchairs.
This fact was brought home to me on Independence Day, when a friend and I went to the American Film Institute Theater at the Kennedy Center. An usher (who can't be blamed for following what must be standard AFI procedure) refused to let me be with the rest of the audience unless I was willing to give up my wheelchair and sit in a theater seat. This sort of thing has happened at various times and places over the years, and fire laws are usually given as the reason. It should be obvious that I'd be in a great deal of trouble if there were a fire and my wheelchair had to be brought to me. A person in a wheelchair, moving immediately, would be much less disruptive during an emergency than a person transferring from a theater seat to a wheelchair that had been parked some distance away.
My friend and I ended up isolated below the AFI's bleachers, unseen by the audience with whom I'd wanted to share the show, and sitting several feet in front of the front row. With our heads back, we spent almost three hours looking up at grossly distorted images of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. The anger I felt during the show hasn't disappeared.
My situation is better than that of most handicapped moviegoers (or would-be moviegoers). I've been a film critic for almost eight years. Many of the people who run theaters have become my friends. They've provided whatever physical help I needed. But that doesn't help the rest of the disabled people in the area. There are some who avoid movies because they can't be, or refuse to be, carried up and downstairs. I'm willing to put up with a lot when I'm on the job as a reviewer or watching a film with old friends. But, frankly, being schlepped up one or more flights of stairs isn't a wonderful way to start an evening, or a date.
The Uptown, almost everyone's favorite D.C. theater, has that big Cinerama screen, but an inaccessible second floor; for someone in a wheelchair, that means forget about the balcony -- and the restrooms. The K-B Cinema, home to smash hits from "The Graduate" to "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," has an elevator that lets out passengers three steps above the auditorium; the Key, the West End Circle and the K-B Fine Arts are loaded with steps. This is particularly disappointing in the cases of the Key and the West End, each of which expanded from one to four screens within the past several years and should have had wheelchair accessibility in its renovation plans.
I'm tired of hearing and reading praise for many of the city's inaccessible movie houses while the suburban multiplexes, many of which are far more accommodating to handicapped patrons, are laughed off. Film theaters built in recent years are required by law to be wheelchair-accessible; but I'd like to see the owners of such public accommodations, new or old, especially those that are undergoing facelifts or expansions, install ramps (like Roth's Tysons Corner 8), small lifts (theaters in Springfield Mall and Wheaton Plaza) and/or elevators (like the one at Cineplex Odeon's Marlow 6) as a decent, sensible way of doing business. Such installations are as important as keeping the air conditioning in good working order, offering senior-citizen discounts and making sure the seats are comfortable. Could the National Association of Theater Owners and D.C.-area operators set a goal of making all esting film theaters accessible to all filmgoers by, say, 1990? If they don't, maybe the changes should be mandated by state legislatures and the D.C. Council.
Those who say that segregation in D.C. theaters ended several decades ago should think not only of my experience on Independence Day, but of the disabled people who don't even bother to go to the movies.
As for the American Film Institute, a nonprofit organization: if it will start a drive to make the theater wheelchair-accessible, I'll donate the first $100. -- Chuck Rich is a Washington-based broadcaster whose film reviews are heard on AP Network News.