The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Alan Rubin, co-founder of the Biograph Theater, dies at 85

He was a geologist before discovering art house movie theaters in San Francisco. With friends, he opened one in Georgetown.

Alan Rubin at the Biograph Theater in 1996. (Frank Johnston/The Washington Post)

Alan Rubin, a geologist who became the self-described “big enchilada” of the Biograph Theater, a single-screen art house in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood that eventually succumbed to the VCR era, died Nov. 6 at his home in Delaplane, Va. He was 85.

The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, said his wife, Susan Rubin.

For nearly three decades before it went dark in 1996, the 270-seat Biograph was an oasis for a small but devoted class of film buffs who wanted to see movies by avant-garde French directors, up-and-coming filmmakers such as John Waters, and less-mainstream pictures ignored by bigger theaters.

“There are the big commercial movie chains, they got all of the big action movies,” said District documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner, who hosted a Jewish film festival at the Biograph for several years. “And then there were those thoughtful, family-run art houses where the owners really cared about movies. They loved cinema, but more importantly, they loved filmmakers. That was Alan.”

Years after it closed in 1996, Mr. Rubin referred to the Biograph as a 29-year-long film festival. The theater, on M Street NW in a converted car dealership across from the Four Seasons Hotel, certainly had that vibe. To get in, moviegoers deposited tokens into a turnstile. The walls were lined with movie posters and paintings by local artists.

The milieu, Mr. Rubin told The Washington Post in 1986, was a “let’s-put-a-show-on-in-the-barn kind of thing.” Though it lacked sufficient parking — patrons would sometimes exit the theater to find their car ticketed or towed — the Biograph excelled in other important amenities.

“They had the best popcorn,” Kempner said. “And a very loyal staff.”

Alan Michael Rubin was born in Brooklyn on Dec. 2, 1936. He was an only child. His father managed a shoe store, and his mother was a homemaker. Mr. Rubin loved art, once proclaiming himself the best drawer in third grade. His parents discouraged him from becoming an artist, believing he would starve.

Mr. Rubin studied geology at Brooklyn College and, after graduating in the mid-1950s, moved to Washington, where he worked at the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Museum of Natural History. Later, while studying for his master’s degree in geology at George Washington University, he worked for the Army Map Service and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

“At some point, Alan realized that one of things he was doing was spotting the targets in Vietnam to bomb,” said Susan Rubin, whom he was with for 59 years but didn’t marry until 2011. “He couldn’t continue any longer.”

In 1963, while visiting friends in San Francisco, Mr. Rubin was introduced to something he had never seen in Washington — movie theaters showing art-house-type films late at night. There were lines down the street. Mr. Rubin returned with the idea of opening something similar. With several friends — mostly lawyers — he opened the Biograph in 1967, playing a mix of new and old films.

Affable and quick with a joke — he published a book of illustrated puns titled “Gopher Broke” — Mr. Rubin was president and programmer. “The big enchilada,” he’d say. His first double feature was Jean-Luc Godard’s “Masculine Feminine” (1966) and Jean Renoir’s “A Day in the Country” (1946).

“We had eight weeks of French films, or six weeks of Bogart, and this was all pre-VCR,” Mr. Rubin told NPR in 1996. “And if you wanted to see ‘Casablanca,’ you saw it when I was playing it or you never saw it.”

Business was never easy, especially with the rise of video rental stores offering the same films Mr. Rubin was booking. To help pay the bills, Mr. Rubin showed pornography during the day. The Biograph never had a money-losing year but closed in 1996 after the landlord sold the building to the CVS drugstore chain.

Mr. Rubin had a third act in life — art. He painted every day in a converted barn at his home in Delaplane, in Fauquier County. His paintings were bright homages to old films and magazines — “scenes from a movie without context,” he once said.

“All my stuff is half stolen and half made up,” he told The Post in 1996. “The piece called ‘Farewell’ was taken from a scene in ‘A Farewell to Arms,’ except I changed the background and a few other things. But I just love the long shadows.”

His paintings are now showing at the Booth & Nadler Studio & Gallery in Marshall, Va.

Mr. Rubin is survived by his wife, the former Susan Lloyd.

After his Parkinson’s diagnosis 16 years ago, Mr. Rubin continued to paint, joking that he’d become an “abstract expressionist” if his hands became too shaky. And anyway, he said, “an artist is one of the few occupations where death is a good career move.”

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