The Lincoln needs more crowds. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The Lincoln Theatre is in trouble. The foundation that operates the city-owned theater says it will not be able to keep the doors open without an immediate cash infusion from the city.

The plea — which comes two days before the end of the city fiscal year, seven months after the mayor submitted his budget proposal and two-and-a-half years after it was made clear that there would be no more earmarks in the city budget — should sound familiar.

Crisis is nothing new for the theater, whose early-’90s restoration was bailed out by the District government after politically connected developer Jeffrey Cohen went bankrupt, leaving it half finished. In the last half-decade, as the neighborhood around the theater has been reignited by development and a thriving nightlife scene, the 1,200 seat former movie house has remained underprogrammed, dark more nights than not.

It was been kept open in the past half-decade by a succession of government subsidies. In 2007, the U Street Theatre Foundation, which operates the space, got an emergency $200,000 cash infusion from the city, plus another $1.5 million for capital investments. In 2008, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty announced a plan to preserve the theater by developing the parking lot behind it, but developers didn’t find the deal appealing and the proposal went nowhere. Meanwhile, that year, the theater got a $500,000 earmark. In 2009, it got a $1 million earmark. In 2010, another $500,000. And now, with the city budget squeezed tight enough to close all city libraries on Sundays, there’s no money left.

Supporters of the theater are playing the blame game today. Several board members criticized Mayor Vincent C. Gray and the D.C. Council for not bailing out the foundation one more time. Rick Lee, the Washington Business Journal reports, cries foul, noting the big grants that lawmakers handed to Ford’s Theatre and Arena Stage in recent years.

But there are instructive differences in those grants, which went to fund capital projects (a new visitor center for Ford’s, a spectacular new theater complex for Arena) that enhanced those institutions’ already proven ability to attract audiences and put on successful programs.

The Lincoln in recent years has proven little except being able to use its earmarks to pay its staff and utility bills and host the occasional comedy show or concert or high school graduation or State of the District Address. It has not been able to lure sustainable audiences to one of the city’s hottest nightlife districts, right across from a Metro stop. Its most recently available tax return, for the 2009 fiscal year, shows that $1.3 million of its $2.1 million in revenues came from government grants. Theater and concession revenue of $798,000 weren’t enough to cover its $813,000 payroll, let alone the rest of its overhead.

Virginia Ali, co-owner of Ben’s Chili Bowl next door, was among the many folks who deeply care about the theater making appeals today. Twenty years ago, she made a similar plea when the restoration was in doubt: “The Lincoln is a landmark, and once done, it will bring people to U Street,” she said. “There aren’t many drawing cards left up here. We need the Lincoln.”

Things are much different today, and the city needs to decide whether the theater can continue to run propped up by a half-million dollars or more in city money each year. And the situation is not likely to improve. Six blocks down U Street, the Howard Theatre is under renovation, set to reopen in less than a year when it will be in direct competition with the Lincoln.

Also, remember this: The doors may close in the coming months, but the Lincoln Theatre, as long as it’s owned by the city, isn’t going anywhere fast. Perhaps the U Street Theatre Foundation needs to take a good, hard look at whether it has the answers to the questions about its future.