Community News __Featured Slider — 10 July 2014
Historic Old Town Theater endures yet another temporary shutdown

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

As residents walked past the Old Town Theater on King Street this week, they may have noticed that the historic venue’s marquees had once again gone blank.

Owner Rob Kaufman said the latest shuttering — he closed down the century-old theater for a couple months just last fall — is temporary. As in the previous closure, Kaufman said he wants to revamp the lineup and change “some of the management,” but declined to describe the changes in detail.

“We’re just doing some reprogramming, and I decided that we’d do it without it being open,” he said. “[It’s] just easier to give ourselves the time to do it without trying to keep up with the ongoing activities.”

When Kaufman first bought the venue in 2011, he proposed renovating the building for retail use. After public outcry, he agreed to keep the space as a theater and music venue.

But the theater has struggled since its reopening. Kaufman closed the theater from October to December 2013, a period that marked a schism between the venue and operations manager Tom Kennedy*, who previously ran a haven for standup comedy.

Kaufman hopes to have the latest iteration of the Old Town Theater open for business by August 15, with a new batch of shows scheduled for the fall.

*An earlier version of this article erroneously referred to Tom Kennedy as Tim Kennedy.

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(8) Readers Comments

  1. The Birchmere used to have lots of local folk singers. No longer. St. Elmo’s has some occasionally. Folk singers would pull in a different crowd.

  2. I work in OT and have been keeping an eye on this venue, but have never heard of any of the acts on the bill so none of them compelled me to buy a ticket.

    I would love to see them succeed, but they need to book better known national acts and there are a lot of other medium sized venues to compete with. Very few local acts can fill a room of this size. Heck, they would be better off operating as a music bar like the Clarendon Ballroom with cover bands – that would at least draw a walk-in crowd off the street.

  3. The economics of performances make running an old theater difficult. First run movies work best in multiplexes, and require expensive equipment. Distributors also place restrictions on venues that show first run movies that make it hard to do other things in the same venue, like have an evening concert (as I found out when I asked a previous Old Town owner about presenting folk and bluegrass concerts there a decade ago). Small and local acts don’t cost much, but, as another commenter pointed out, people don’t come to see them. Well-known acts can draw people in, but cost a lot more, and usually require heavy deposits up front. The theater restorations that have succeeded in other places usually have four elements:

    1. A community that helps fund the theater, often through a non-profit.

    2. The ability to sell food and alcohol successfully (this is particularly important in a for-profit operation, to make up for donations and grants a non-profit gets).

    3. Space in or next to the theater that can support seated dining, art exhibits, classes and other attractions.

    4. A plan for multi-use programming that includes activities of different kinds all day long: morning programs for kids, lunch-time programs for adults with a short time away from work, afternoon programs for older kids after school, and evening events across a broad range of types: rock concerts, folk music, dance, spoken word, string quartets, comedy, film and more. There is also often an educational element and a lot of community outreach.

    It’s all hard to do without community support, a lot of dedicated people actually working on it (with many perhaps being volunteers) and a sound plan that encompasses as many uses as possible. Only a few theaters manage it: The State Theater and the Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse seem to be successful, the Bethesda Theater (now the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club) and the Lincoln Theater have never really found their feet, through several iterations, and the Takoma Theater still sits empty and deteriorating.

    I wish them luck, but simply running nighttime programming without community outreach and support and a full spectrum of activities probably won’t work.

    • Kent – We’d like to talk to you about the theater’s closure. Please email today. ksuiters@wjla.com

  4. I walked past there yesterday and there was a “For Lease” sign posted. That doesn’t quite fit with the quote from the owner regarding the theater’s status.
    I thought that the theater was going quite well when it was running indie and art films. It seemed to be well attended and there was no other venue like that around. The person who booked the films was on point. Everything that was opening in the Independent Film Center in NY was opening here. Then the owner decided to run first run films – big mistake – (who would want to go watch a big screen, high tech film with a terrible sound system with Hoffman just down the street). Then he decided to make it a two screen theater (big mistake) without permits (way big mistake).
    I don’t know the whether the indie film phase was economically viable but I would really welcome it’s revival. If a skilled operator with a good booking person would be able to cut reasonable deals with film distributors and the landlord on rent, I think we have the population to support it. It would probably rquire a membership subscription program along with regular tickets sales (and some help from Alexandria City and surrounding businesses). I know That I would pay a premium to have it here again…

  5. I was sad when the movie theater went away. Seems what was needed most was new management. It would be great if they showed indie films there–I really enjoyed the old theater. I have not been there since the renovations, but did notice that the building seemed to be for lease when looking at commercial real estate several days ago. Now what?

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