Arecent visit to the Warner Theatre after a 60-year gap brought back memories of a different downtown Washington.
Back in the '40s, a dollar would get you into the Earle, now the Warner. That paid for a full-length movie, a vaudeville show, cartoons and a newsreel. Orphans got in free on Thursdays. The vaudeville show, under the direction of Sam Jack Kaufman, usually featured singers, comedians, dancers and the occasional magician or acrobat. Without a doubt, the most memorable performer I saw at the Earle was the King of Swing, Benny Goodman, and his orchestra.
Before he became famous, Red Skelton played the Earle. Often, he would greet patrons at the theater entrance. One afternoon as I was handing the usher my ticket, I spotted Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney ahead of me.
The Earle wasn't alone downtown; other popular nearby movie houses -- all segregated -- included the Fox Theater (later called the Capital), Loew's Palace and the Metropolitan, all on F Street; and Keith's on 15th Street NW, now the location of the popular Old Ebbitt Grill.
The headquarters for stage plays was the National on E Street. My older brother ushered at the National when he was in high school. One of his most important duties was distributing paper fans and cups of water during the summer months -- no air conditioning in those days.
Before or after hitting the movies, we would walk up and down F Street, which was crowded with shoppers and visitors. The strip mall had yet to come on the scene, so F Street was a shopping hub for the metro area. The popular stores of the era -- the National Shirt Shop, Eisemans Men's Wear, Hahn's Shoes, Babbitt's Cut Rate Vitamins and Garfinckel's -- all have vanished.
For many years, a familiar F Street sight was a legless gentleman who had a small monkey solicit donations by extending a cup to passersby. When the man passed away, people found out that he had been a lawyer once.
When it was time for a snack, we'd go to Mayflower Donuts across from the Capitol or the Little Tavern ("Buy 'em by the bagful") or White Towers. Both the Little Taverns and the White Tower offered 25-cent burgers.
Bassin's at the corner of 14th Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue featured a huge selection of full-course dinners and sandwiches. My favorite meal was a hot corned beef on rye. Every drugstore had a soda fountain that sold 10-cent cups of coffee, 25-cent sandwiches and milkshakes.
Other popular, not-to-be-forgotten entertainment centers were the Gayety Burlesque house on Ninth Street, which featured comedians and striptease dancers, and two large nightclubs -- the Lotus and Casino Royal -- near 14th Street and New York Avenue. They offered dining, dancing and entertainment at a price many government workers could afford.
After a long absence from downtown (unless you count Union Station), two movie houses are arriving -- the E Street Cinema, with seven screens, at 11th and E streets NW, and Regal Gallery Place, with 15 screens, at 701 Seventh St. NW. They are a far cry from the single-screen theaters of my youth.
It is difficult to predict what movie houses will offer 50 years from today, but I hope they will continue to operate downtown, and I predict the popcorn will still be around.
-- Larry Rosen