Iconic Old Town Theater to shut its doors for good

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The iconic Old Town Theater on King Street will show its last film this weekend and close 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.”