By Erich Wagner [Photo/Erich Wagner]
After closing the historic Old Town Theater — supposedly temporarily — over the summer, owner Rob Kaufman has put the century-old venue up for sale.
A listing on online real estate website Loopnet advertises the theater for $3.5 million, while Rasmus Auctions is selling off the venue’s equipment, from instruments to sound boards and lighting — even its kitchen equipment — through October 10.
Kaufman could not be reached for comment, but when he bought the property in 2011, he considered turning it into a retail space. Public outcry convinced him to restore the property to its historic glory as an arts venue.
Resident Boyd Walker, who owns property across the street from the theater, remembers the protest vividly having helped spearhead it.
“I was the only one who went and spoke out at the first [board of architectural review] hearing,” Walker said. “Now you can’t talk about the interior or its proposed use, so I just spoke about the fact that it’s historically been a theater since it was built in 1913.
“[My] purpose was to make it so it still looked like a theater, even if it was just retail inside.”
Though Walker’s efforts helped convince Kaufman to restore the theater, the venue struggled to attract a following. Last October, Kaufman shuttered it temporarily, and parted ways with comedy club promoter Tom Kennedy, in search of a different programming direction.
Kaufman reopened the theater, but could not make the new direction work economically either and closed the venue over the summer, again temporarily, he said at the time.
“We’re just doing some reprogramming, and I decided that we’d do it without it being open,” he told the Times in July. “[It’s] just easier to give ourselves the time to do it without trying to keep up with the ongoing activities.”
Walker fears another fight over the future of one of Alexandria’s historic entertainment venues is looming.
“I am disappointed, and I’m disappointed that I don’t hear publicly from people who should be involved in maintaining this as a theater or an arts venue,” he said. “[I] really appreciate what [Kaufman] did in terms of restoring the theater. He found these arches and old floors and really did it well.
“But unless the city gets involved, it may just go to be a retail space.”
A theater or other cultural space is an anchor that attracts visitors, buoying the surrounding restaurants and shops, Walker argued. He wants city leaders to ensure future owners are committed to maintaining the theater’s current use.
“I haven’t heard from any city leaders, specifically council members or the commission for the arts, talking about the fact that the theater is for lease and for sale, and if we don’t act, we’ll have no control over what happens,” he said. “We should be having a conversation about that.
“It really adds to the mixture of Old Town, as opposed to just another retail space. Why would people come here for a J. Crew when they can just go to a mall or to Georgetown or whatever.”