The saga of Takoma Theatre in three acts

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Photo by Julie Wiatt

On July 2, 1923, the corner of Fourth and Butternut was jammed with people eagerly awaiting the official opening of Takoma Theatre, and its inaugural showing of “The Ne’er Do Well.” High above the crowd, the simple neon sign spelled out “TAKOMA.”

Act One: Heyday

Motion picture fever had come to America early in 1906 when nickelodeons introduced the wonders of moving pictures. Within 17 years the District boasted 47 theaters with the most grand and opulent palaces centered along F Street NW.

In Takoma Park, the local Episcopal church began showing Friday night movies in 1920, which later moved to the Presbyterian Church on Tulip Avenue. Wilmer Pratt, the ex-mayor, was determined to bring a real movie house to Takoma Park. Even the horrendous collapse of the snow-laden roof of the 1700-seat Knickerbocker Theater in Kalorama, caused by January 1922 blizzard, failed to deter the Takoma residents from wanting a theater of their own.

Pratt helped found the Takoma Theater Company, which contracted with a young up-and-coming architect named John Jacob Zink to design a neighborhood theater. For the location they chose Fourth Street, inside the District. It cost $60,000 to construct.


This project was Zink’s first solo effort. Over the next 25 years, he
would go on to design 14 theaters in the District alone, plus Flower
Theater on the Maryland side of town, with a total tally of more than
200 theaters in the mid-Atlantic region. Relatively few remain intact
today, including The Takoma, the Uptown and the Atlas in the District
and the Senator in Baltimore.

TakomaTheatre_program131D-3.jpg

Courtesy Takoma Theatre Arts Project

Cover of the four-page weekly program for the week of November 3, 1924. Note the use of “Theatre” rather than “Theater.”

Zink
designed Takoma Theatre as a Classical Revival two-story brown brick
building with a storefront shop on each side of the entrance and office
space above. It was an elegant addition to the commercial strip on
Fourth Street, where the trolley car line intersected with the Takoma
train station. The building’s interior also reflected the grand touches
of the movie palaces downtown, especially the huge oval light well in
the ceiling that shed a soft purple light on the 762 seats below.

domedceiling.jpg

Courtesy Takoma Theatre Arts Project


In
addition to the inspiring venue, Takoma Theatre moviegoers were treated
to several advances over the next several years. The introduction of
“controlled weather” offered a “cool” option during hot, muggy summers
and proved an incentive to customers, while larger screens and
Technicolor made the experience more enjoyable. But the biggest leap
was sound. Movies first talked in 1926, and on February 2, 1929, Takoma
Theatre became one of the earliest neighborhood cinemas in the region
to offer this new innovation. Ticket prices rose a nickel to 30 cents
for adults and 20 cents for children.

Dorothy Barnes, Historic
Takoma’s resident historian, offers a peek at the 1930s experience. She
remembers walking with her girlfriend from Elm Avenue to the Theatre
every Sunday afternoon for the newest first-run show and a newsreel
roundup of the week’s events. Saturdays were reserved for children’s
cartoons. Mid-week shows were double-features of second run films.
Their outing included a stop at Wiley’s ice cream shop located in the
same building.

TakomaTheaterSchedule1928.jpg

Courtesy Takoma Theatre Arts Project


In
the days before television, movie theaters like Takoma offered a
constantly changing lineup of films, as evidenced by this ad for July
1928.

Act Two: Decline

As
people began moving to the outer suburbs after World War II, the movie
distributors shifted first run movies to the shopping center screens.
Gradually, the long established movie palaces downtown began to
decline. By the 1970s all but one of the District theaters were showing
X-rated movies in order to survive.

Takoma Theatre was no
exception, and the owners found themselves momentarily famous when they
chose to run a double feature of Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss
Jones in September 1974 at the same time that the Maryland appeals
court was banning Deep Throat as obscene. Sitting in the District, the
Theatre was safe from Maryland regulations, but not safe from local
residents. Angry anti-pornographists broke in, destroyed the screen and
projector, and unwound the movie reels before throwing the film on the
roof.

Takomatheatre exterior.jpg

Courtesy Historic Takoma

In
1978, KB Distributors was threatening to close the theater permanently.
Local residents, led by Sammie Abbott, rallied to save it, organizing
the first Takoma Park Folk Festival as a fundraiser. Meanwhile, several
others decided to take things into their own hands. Loretta Neumann,
Sara Green and her husband Richard Holzsager, among others, formed the
Neighborhood Films Association and sublet the space on Friday and
Saturdays. For nine months they offered double features of classics and
family favorites, for $2.50 admission. The East Indian community took
over on Sundays with their own movies.

As Green and Neumann
will admit, they entered the movie business with some naivety. “We
didn’t understand that you made all your money on food,” Green recalls,
“and we let KB retain the right to the concessions.” Nor did they get
first runs. “There was intense competition for those rights and it was
too expensive for us,” Green explains. Instead, they envisioned
something along the lines of Circle Theater, with good classic films
(like Robin Hood with Errol Flynn) which only cost $50 to rent for the
weekend.

William Wolowitz, the building owner at the time, was
sympathetic to the group’s vision, but he was not involved in the
theater operations. An itinerant inventor he held several patents,
including ones for transparent coating on credit cards, an ID card
imprinter and a self-correcting cassette for typewriter ribbons. He ran
his typewriter company out of the building and used the second floor of
the theater to manufacture cassette ribbons. When KB’s lease expired,
Neumann worked out a deal with Wolowitz to take over theater
operations, but he died suddenly of a heart attack while shoveling the
sidewalk after a snowstorm. “His heirs weren’t interested,” Neumann
says, and the theater closed.

Meanwhile, Takoma Park was seeking
Historic District status in both Maryland and the District. The theater
was one of five public buildings specified in the nomination. When the
DC Historic District was established in 1980, it offered preservation
protection to the theater as well as to the rest of the neighborhood.


Act Three: Rebirth as Live Theater

This
situation held until 1983, when playwright Martin McGinty (father of TV
anchor Derrick McGinty) decided to buy the building as a venue for his
plays. He paid $325,000 cash and moved in. After expanding the stage to
accommodate live performance, slightly reducing the seating, he began
producing plays. The audiences were sparse and McGinty was discouraged
by the reception.

Some neighborhood productions took the stage
sporadically until 2002, when a group of actors formed Takoma Theatre
Arts Project hoping to open the theater on a regular basis. Loretta
Neumann again was one of those involved, still pursuing her vision of a
community role for the theater. They had some success staging local
productions, dance recitals, and other performances. But their efforts
to raise grant money for renovation stalled when they were unable to
negotiate a long-term lease with McGinty, and the project folded.

Auditorium-photo courtesy of TTAP-1.jpg

Courtesy Takoma Theatre Arts Project


Under
McGinty’s stewardship the building has remained largely intact,
although he describes a host of problems including roof leaks, wall and
ceiling damage, outdated heating and cooling, and generally outdated
conditions. Convinced by his own experience with audiences that the
venue could not succeed as a theater, he began making plans to demolish
the building and replace it with office space or apartments. Doing so,
however, required permission from the Historic Preservation Review
Board.

In May of 2007 the preservation board denied his
request. As McGinty observed at the time, “I finally realized the
preservation office has a great bias against destroying historic
buildings – the older they are, they’re going to be against it no
matter what. It doesn’t matter how it affects the owner.” He did not
like any of the board’s recommendations: (1) sell the building to a
theater group, (2) partner with a community group, or (3) renovate it
as a theater.

The lines thus drawn remain in place to the
current day. Like many other property owners across the country,
McGinty finds his interests at odds with a community desire to protect
a historical legacy, in this case still led by Loretta Neumann, one of
the theater’s staunchest defenders.. Most recently, Neumann organized
the Takoma Theatre Conservancy, a non-profit organization to oppose
demolition and raise money to turn the space into a cultural arts and
education center.

January 2010 marked the most recent round in
McGinty’s efforts to appeal the demolition ban. He faced the
preservationists at a hearing in a downtown government office in front
of the “Mayor’s Agent.” McGinty admitted in his written submission that
he didn’t expect to win, concluding, “If you do not approve my building
plans, then I will ask that the city arrange to purchase my property at
the assessed value [either $1.5 million or $3 million].”

The
Mayor’s Agent has yet to rule on his appeal and the ongoing drama has
no final conclusion. For the time being the “TAKOMA” above the Theatre
roof remains the iconic landmark of the neighborhood.

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About the Author

Diana Kohn
Diana Kohn is president of Historic Takoma, Inc., which is dedicated to preserving and celebrating the heritage of both Takoma Park MD and DC. Diana is co-author of Images of America: Takoma Park, a photo history of the town.

2 Comments on "The saga of Takoma Theatre in three acts"

  1. kenneth w. smith | March 26, 2010 at 8:00 pm |

    the takoma theatre was where all of us would go with our quarters for a ticket and box of candy to watch a double movie with news features and cartons…what a way to spend an afternoon….sometimes we would leave and jump on the street car there and ride downtown..many times to the federal triangle and then on to glen echo to go fishing in the potomac..and yes we would bring home what we caught on the street cars/ buses to takoma where we all lived, myself on tulip and carroll avenues, others on spruce and other nearby streets…of course this was in the late 40’s and 50’s….lots of fun !!!
    ken smith
    class of 58 blair hs….

  2. Terry Chapmpan | August 22, 2010 at 6:34 pm |

    I lived in Takoma Park near NH Ave. off Larch Ave. Went to High Point High; graduated 1958;
    loved the tree lines streets; rode my schwinn through the Sligo creek parkway before fast cars;
    played at the community rec playground at the bottom of steep hill around corner from Larch ave.; nice spot to grow up in; my mother volunteered for years at Adventist hospital and I played basketball in small gym at corner of hospital property (don’t think we were supposed to be there!).

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