Iconic Old Town Theater to shut its doors for good

The marquee is coming down and the curtains at Old Town Theater are drawing to a permanent close after this weekend, ending Roger Fons’s nine-year stint as the film house’s owner.

Fons said a year of poor ticket sales played a pivotal role in his decision to sell the King Street property to Robert J. Kaufman, president of PMA Properties, in October. Sales had dropped by about 50 percent from 2010, he said.

Though Fons can’t say for sure what precipitated the theater’s final financial downfall, he believes the turbulent economy and a lackluster string of Hollywood films combined to seal the theater’s fate.

“I thought the movies were all pretty bad,” he said. “There wasn’t very many good movies last year. You’ve got to have a product that’s worth something.”

But, “it’s probably a number of things,” Fons added, indicating the addition of the King Street Trolley and last year’s temporary parking fee hike likely played a roll in deterring sales.

The trolley, a popular and free way for tourists and commuters to travel up and down Alexandria’s main drag, tends to ferry passengers from the King Street Metro station to the waterfront and skip everything in between, he said, including the 800 block cinema.

And after nine years of running the theater, Fons is “burnt out.” He never intended to open a movie theater, but unable to rent the space, he resumed the nearly century old building’s original purpose.

In retrospect, he admits it was a mistake. Financial difficulties, constant maintenance and rampant employee theft plagued his tenure as owner.

“I’m disillusioned quite a bit,” he said. “It’s like being Atlas and somebody removed the world. I’m whipped.”

Kaufman likely will rent out the theater as retail space, Fons said. Kaufman did not return calls, but the 8,500 square foot film house is listed for a five-year lease on PMA’s website. The property holding company is asking for a rent of $42.50 per square foot.

Barbara Ross, the city’s deputy director of planning and zoning, confirmed staff was working with Kaufman to determine the property’s future. There are no definite plans yet, though the parcel is zoned for retail use.

“The loss of the theater on a main street is a common occurrence in towns across the country, but it is still a very sad thing,” Ross said.

Kaufman submitted an application to restore the building’s original façade — essentially removing the box office and the overhang — before the board of architectural review. Al Cox, the city’s chief preservationist, doesn’t see any reason the board won’t approve the changes at its mid-January meeting.

In the interim, Fons plans to auction off as much of his goods as possible the weekend of January 14. Theater seats, television sets, even film projection equipment will be available to the highest bidder.

Nine years after buying the theater, Fons is washing his hands of the endeavor.

“It’s just a business, that’s all,” he said. “Everybody said, ‘But you get to watch the movies for free.’ But hell, you don’t have the time for it.”

 

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(31) Readers Comments

  1. The Old Town Theater has been a theater since 1913, starting as a vaudeville theater. I was involved in a group that wished to purchase it and run it as a non-profit. Where is the city on this? Will the Mayor and City Counil let the theater be redeveloped into a chain store? We are spending 250 million on a Metro Station in Potomac Yards, couldn’t the city afford to purchase the theater so that it can remain a performance venue on the East End of the City, and lease it to a non-profit, with the agreement that they would raise the money to restore it and run the programming. It does not have to be movies, but it should remain a performance space. The City Planning Staff and members of Conil have been aware of this pending change and it is scheduled to go to the BAR. Let’s start a petition to keep the Old Town Theater alive, and show the new owner Rob Kauffman, that there is real support for keeping the theater going. Email me at boydwalker2012@gmail.com if you would like to help.

    • I couldn’t agree more! I can reassure you that everyone involved in the new ownership of the theater has been doing their best to find a group that is interested in renting the space for entertainment purposes. I know that Arlington DH has been approached along with the a group which owns a comedy-type venue in DC. Rest assured that everything is being done to keep the arts a part of our beautiful city. Please feel free to email me and I will be more then happy to take your suggestions to the new owners myself. Thank you for your feedback!

      • J. Kaufman,

        I’m glad to hear that the new owners/managers are interested in keeping it entertainment space. I would LOVE to help however I can. I have experience working in community and non-profit groups in Alexandria and would love to help. I will email you with ideas and suggestions for forming a working group, etc.

  2. I went once. This place was incredibly dirty and disgusting, a terrible place to go for an evening out. I never went back.

  3. I also went a few times. It was a horrible place and when they had tables and bar stools on King Street it was just a sea of cigarette smoke even if there wasn’t a movie going on. They also took two parking places for a loading zone which were never used and need to become parking for patrons of the decent businesses in the 800 block of King Street. If the theater could be revived as a family place I would be delighted, but otherwise let Kaufman and his ego hold it hostage and treat it like he did Notting Hill Gardens. I’ve never seen a patron in the snotty shoe store that replaced it and I don’t wonder why.

    • That place is a dump and does not bring more patrons and business to Old Town. A fresh start and a successful retail store would be a big bonus for the other small businesses on King Street as it would attract more people shopping and give them more of a reason to venture into Old Town when they are in the shopping mood as opposed to driving to Potomac Yards, Pentagon City, or Tysons Corner. Get on board with the times, we live in a consumer-driven ecomony. An old, decrepit, poorly run, filthy theater is only preventing the progress of business in Old Town. Households in the 22314 zip code have one of the highest per capita incomes in the state and clearly a very small percentage of that money was being spent at the theater. Rob Kaufman has over 20 years proving his success at renovating buildings in Old Town and in providing businesses with clean, attractive space to establish a foothold in Old Town and help it retain its glory as an optimal place to live, work, and run a business.

    • Tawny
      ” If the theater could be revived as a family place I would be delighted, but otherwise let Kaufman and his ego hold it hostage and treat it like he did Notting Hill Garden” Just out of interest, how was NHG’s held hostage? As for his ego…do you know him? I am pretty sure if you did then you wouldn’t be saying that. Interesting that your remark could not be made using a real name:)

    • hahahah! Oh, Tawny, your comment lost all credibility when you made an INACCURATE statement about Notting Hill Gardens!

      First of all, Geoff Stone chose to focus on the landscape design portion of his company instead of the retail side.

      Second, Mr Stone is a relative/close family friend to the Kaufman family. It is humorous to me that according to you Mr Kaufman held Mr. Stone hostage-you may want to fill Mr. Stone in on what occurred.

      Hey, why don’t you stop by the Kaufman’s one night and let Geoff know that he was “held hostage” at family dinner!?

    • Tawny
      I’m sorry that you hold so many negative opinions about things you seem not to k ow anything about.
      Notting Hill closed after over 5+ yrs due to many things. One however was NOT due to being held hostage.
      Mr. Kaufman is the least egotistical man I know. His ego must be huge based on what?! That he regularly gives a homeless man a place to live, or is kind and generous to everyone he knows, or maybe because he has helped to beautify YOUR beloved city?! Because if you truly cared about your city then maybe you would stop and think about the time, money, and heart mr. Kaufman has put into the town you pretend to care about. But you’re right, Tawny, when he sits down with his tenants who are having financial problems and offers to help them with their books so that they can actually stay in business…that’s one huge ego. Or when he is up at 4:30am to help plant flowers along King street and is moving bags of mulch himself…wow! That screams ego!
      And as for your remark about the “snooty” shoe store- have you ever met the owner? She is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. You obviously didn’t do your homework before making such callous and quite frankly, pathetic and inaccurate, statements.

  4. He blames lackluster movies?!?! I blame poor service, terrible sound and video quality, and a manager that uses the time normally reserved for trailers as a bully pulpit for his own wild ravings on whatever subject strikes his fancy. Movies that don’t start on time, trash strewn throughout the theater and a splitting headache from watching a movie that is never quite in focus.

  5. I’m really not surprised. Being an Old Town resident for 12 years I had high hopes of being able to walk to a nice venue but unfortunately this theater was very poorly managed. I stopped going. Just some of the problems I encountered were:
    -1 Ran out of popcorn at the start of the movie; never had this happen anywhere else!
    -2 Too hot in the theater – often in the summertime
    -3 Movie burned through itself and we had to wait 45 minutes during the middle of the movie for repairs cause the owner was down the street at another bar – a common occurence! Could not get a quick refund so everyone stayed and complained
    -4 Poorly trained staff.. You had to tell them what/where the Chardonnay was (you had to buy a drink as part of your attendence) cause they did not know! Slow and idiots giving the service. what was the employee theft he blames? sounds like he did not lock up his booze and candy. duh!
    -5 Movies ALWAYS started 15 min late cause the owner would get on his soap box and blab on before the start of each show talking about how great he was at getting first run movies. Annoying esp when you are trying to make a dinner reservation afterwards.
    -6 Owner would have been better off with the 2nd run movie model, less expensive and people would come.
    -7 The trolley and parking is an excuse. People rarely randomly walk down the street and decide, hey let’s pop into a movie. If it’s a good place to go where you have a good time, you’ll go back!
    -8 Seats not very comfortable
    -9 I could go on, but people are picky about their movie experiences. if you can’t compete w/Hoffman AMC then you have to offer something better and different besides the ability to enjoy alcohol.
    Hopefully, someone who knows how to run a restaurant/theater can get it going, should not need city funding!

  6. I sat bewildered as I read this story…bad movies? (you chose them), employee theft? (you hired them), trolley and parking? (all the other businesses on King St. manage) This is a guy who cannot run a business. I was relieved to see all the comments made above. It convinces me that not every one is taking crazy pills.

    This venue could be a real asset to Old Town if run properly. If the owner invested in decent projection and audio equipment, picked better movies and hired people that cared it could be like a smaller version of the Uptown in Cleveland Park…then I would go. I hate the thought of this being another overpriced boutique or chain store.

  7. The Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse seems to make it work. There is a niche for smaller cinemas that cater to ADULTS. I don’t mean “adult movies”, but places where you can watch a movie, doesn’t have to be second run, without screaming kids or chatting, texting, unruly teens.

    Blaming the trolley is the lamest excuse I’ve ever heard.

  8. Roger Fons always has an excuse, no matter what the problem — and according to him, those problems were NEVER caused by HIM!
    *Bad movies* — you chose ‘em, and for the most part they all did fine at other theaters. The problem here is that he should have gone the art-house route, rather than the same blockbusters being shown at Potomac Yards or Hoffman AMC.
    *Zoning enforcement made him take down the second (upstairs) theater* — that’s because Fons himself, NOT a professional builder, built an unsafe floor and wall, and he himself installed new electricals systems that were EXTREMELY dangerous.
    *Trolley routes and tight parking* — huh? the Old Town has exactly the same foot, bus and car traffic that every other business in the area has, and THEY’RE all doing fine…. or at least they’re not making excuses!
    *Fons and his pre-show rants* — yeah, one time was MORE than enough of this for me, and I’d been going to the Old Town Theater since about 1985.
    *Dirty theater/employee theft* — more Fons foolishness. Clean the da** floor, clean the bathrooms, act like a leader and MANAGE the place. (I’ll bet that “employee theft” is mostly his own bad bookkeeping!) Don’t just stroke your giant ego with “I’m Roger Fons!”….all the rest of us out here in the REAL world don’t give a da**.

  9. I understand that first run movies are expensive to run- but this is just a sad case of mismanagement. Like others, when I first came to Alexandria I wanted to support this theater, but once was enough for me. Had the owner made cleanliness and customer experience a priority, I could even have overlooked the mandatory drink purchase, as I’m sure that’s probably where they made most of their money. Make more of a priority of cleanliness, decent projectors/sound, and people who know how to run them, and I would have gone to see even “lackluster” movies there. This place really could have had a niche, but I’m willing to bet the real reason attendance dropped off was because locals went once and never again. I’m genuinely sad to see the theater go, but made sadder knowing it didn’t have to be that way.

  10. Pingback: Alexandria’s Old Town Theater closing this weekend | Lala24 Hot News from all popular web sites

  11. Went to the last “moving picture show” there…sad to think won’t EVER be an option again….have been there probably 10 times in my almost 20 years first in DC (yes, sometimes we came just to see a movie in this theater) and past decade in VA so at least half under current owner. Had everything from nights out with friends when we were 20′s singles to date nights (now married). It was nice to have a good beer or a glass of wine or two while watching a movie. Couple of the best nights were for Blues Brothers and Animal House showings, though 1st run movies were fun too. The Belushi movie nights were even better with a couple beers and brat on pretzel roll just like John would want! Yes, the movies may have started late (10 mins tonight as usual w/no previews so what’s the difference by the time the feature started), sometimes the theme movie nights kept you there pretty late on a “school” night, you had to spend extra $ on the concession stand (like you wouldn’t spend same at a multi-plex by choice and if you didn’t want to a time or two go to multiplex those times), it wasn’t as clean as some places (clean enough), and it was weird and cranky (well, it wasn’t Disney but rarely were their movies either). The bathrooms weren’t so bad (no worse than Arlington Cinema Draft House or 9:30 Club, etc.). Not such a huge fan or area chain-plexs either. Maybe it won’t be a 7-11 or drug store (former MacArthur in DC), but I’d rather be in a smaller screen cinema, brew&view or multipurpose theater at 9 at night than a store. Btw, had a Dominion Oak Barrel Stout as last beer and it is brewed in Dover, DE now. Good for DE bad for VA! More progress!! Unfortunately, Mission Complete……guess I’ll catch you at Chili’s's for some wings and a Bud after next movie (oh wait probably have time for just one wish somebody would )have hot food and good beer at the movies).

  12. These comments are very consistent. Locals wanted it to work, went to support it at the start, but then couldn’t take the poor customer service and product. As an Old Town resident I agree, and disappointed it didn’t work-out.

    Roger is a quirky (and nice) guy, and he really wanted to create something for his neighbors to enjoy. I feel bad that it didn’t go well. Like others, we went regularly when it reopened from 2004-06 and accepted the buildings flaws. However, it got to be too much and we stopped going all together.

    I hope the next business is a good one for King Street & Old Town, and I hope they figure-out some way to incorporate or recreate the “Old Town” marquee. I’m sure the structure is in bad shape, but hope the next building can recreate the visual “Old Town” marquee. If the BAR wants people to keep chain-link fences, let’s keep the signage.

  13. So one of the above writers has lived in Old Town 12 years and another lived in DC (hardly Alexandria)10 years and now a decade in Virginia. These come down heres are hardly native sons so please wait until you have lived a life time in Alexandria befor you start pontificating. As for Rob Kaufman my language for him can not be printed on this page. He is a businessman and that is no sin but he does not have any supporters he has not bought either openly or by accident. He is not the image he is so cleverly cultivating. Good businessman yes, good person by smoke and mirrors.

    • “a lifetime in Alexandria” hmm, I guess you’re magically writing from the grave! Are people supposed to live their entire lives in one spot for over decades before they write a comment. Have never written a comment following any article in my life, and I see why a lot of people don’t because of the evil trolls attacking anyone who must not know or think anything let alone dare to comment.

    • Hey Native…I am actually a Native too and am 44 years old but have now lived in Old Town for over 12 years. I grew up in the Rosemont Alexandria area (close by in case you are not aware) since the age of 2 years and would walk into Old Town as a teenager before it became a nicer place. There were transvestites on the corners selling themselves so yes we’ve come along way cause if they are there now they are not as obviously so I’m not a come down here (who talks like that anyway?)..I never read a rule that unless you were old and decrepit you can’t comment on a blog! You are probably only a consumer of geritol so who cares what you think…lol.

    • Regardless of how long I’ve lived in Alexandria, I am still a resident, and my money’s as good as anyone else’s. I still gave the Old Town Theater a try. I still found it lacking in enough major areas that I didn’t want to go back. And I’m still genuinely sad about it.

    • NATIVE ALEXANDRIA:

      REALLY? That he bought?! Wow! You, my friend, have gone further then freedom of speech and straight into libel. (LOOK IT UP) Which, you should know, is considered a crime. And just because you have remained anonymous via the comments section on the Alexandria Times, does NOT mean that your name can not be found. And every other piece of information necessary to be presented with a lawsuit. Just so you know.

      I hope Rob Kaufman reads this and presses changed against you via a lawyer, which he paid to be one of his supporters! Your new year isn’t looking so bright anymore is it, Native Alexandrian!

  14. AvJANUARY 11, 2012 AT 3:36 AM
    Dear Evil Troll- i mean, Native Alexandrian,
    (Sorry Fruedian slip and major points to the previous commentor.)
    I am having trouble knowing what would be the most helpful to you after reading your “rant.”. Here are some suggestions that i hope you shall find of interest. 1) go to the store and pick up a book. No, not the ones you usually read given you lack of pedegree…ie: stay away from Danielle Steele..and maybe you can learn some new words. 2. Now listen VERY carefully… Go to your nearest library and get on a computer and google the word “good person” and see what it says. My guess, it does NOT include a description of someone who visiously attacks someone they do NOT know online. Nor does it say anything about slander…or does it? Because the law actually does. 3. I also suggest a course in Argument and Reason due to your sad attempt at an argument. Unfortunately for all of us who had the “opportunity” to read your comment, and laugh with friends over the dinner table about it, we all agreed it lacks everything an educated argument should include.
    I won’t go on and on to try and explain your inability to make a point. Quite honestly, I do not know how to put it in such layman terms. Briefly, you have no facts to back any of your opinions up; just slanderous and uneducated rants. In fact, without sounding harsh, I would venture guess that you probably have…what? A highschool education at best?!

    So, tonight, while you lay on your whethered couch eating stale popcorn, buying meaningless junk off of QVC, and talking to your 5 cats- how about you get off your sofa, take a shower, and maybe, oh, I don’t know, do something for your native city instead of typing your anonymous and meaningless rants that no one cares to read.

    Reply

  15. Best of luck to Rob Kaufman and this endeavor. History has proven this property to be difficult. But I have faith in Rob’s ability to make this property thrive!!!! (These statements were neither paid for or endorsed by Rob Kaufman or any of his affiliates.)

  16. PS-
    Things can only improve from where they were. Did anyone else every encounter the previous owner intoxicated in the theater? Or see him smoking inside the building? (against Va. State law)
    Looking forward to a brighter future for that venue, and yes agree something arts related would be magnificent!!! BEST OF LUCK ROB!!!

  17. When I moved to Old Town 18 months ago, I was thrilled at the idea of being able to walk to a movie house on King Street. But I ended up only going there once, after a bad experience — the customer service was poor, the place was dirty, the movie ticket (requiring a drink purchase) proved pretty pricey, and the sound system was TERRIBLE! I called to complain the next day, but the person answering my call could barely conceal his lack of interest in my concerns. I’m sorry in principle about losing a local, independent movie house, but this place was a stinker.

  18. Pingback: Future of Old Town Theater space up in the air | AlexTimes

  19. The Old Town Movie Theater is on the Docket at the Board of Architectural Review tonight at 7:30. This may be the only public hearing on the theater, as no hearing would be needed for retail or other changes to the interior. Rob Kaufman paid 2 miilion for the building on Dec. 28th. Here is the docket item, and staff report: http://dockets.alexandriava.gov/icons/pz/bar/ohad/cy12/011812/di05.pd…f

    There are two choices according to the staff report, and that is to restore it to its original appearance or to its original movie theater appearance, so what I would suggest is that if people speak, and you can sign up there, that the building be restored for use as a theater, instead of retail. There are current and historic photos in the staff report.

    You can email Jennifer Kaufman at jenniferekaufman1@gmail.com to let PMA properties know that you would like it kept as a theater

  20. I just sent this letter to the Mayor and Members of City Council. To send your own letter go to: http://www3.alexandriava.gov/contactus/mailto.php

    The Old Town Movie Theater at 815 an 1/2 King St. is going before the BAR this evening. Th BAR has a choice whether to urge the new owner to turn the facade into a retail front or into the original movie marquis. The Theater has been in existence since 1914, and has been a home to Vaudeville, Silent Films, and the National Puppet Theater.
    Has the city or city Counil considered purchasing the building to protect it as a theater. Currently the interior is not protected and if it is turned to a retail use would probably be gutted. The prchaser Rob Kaufman paid 2 million on Dec. 28th for the Theater, one of the oldest in the area, and probaly one of the oldest in the United States. Has the city done anything to talk to the new owner about maintaining it as a performance venue.
    I think that it is very important to keep a mix of uses on King St., maintian the hisotiric character of the Street, which was recently given an award byt the American Association of Planners. The theater was badly managed by the previous owner, but I believe without some intervention by the city, it will be turned irreversibly into just another retail space.

    Boyd Walker
    Greater Alexandia Preservation Alliance

  21. Great article.

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