By Susan Hale Thomas (File photo)
After months of uncertainty over the future of the century-old Old Town Theater, local businessman Jeff Yates confirmed he will take over the struggling venue.
Yates filed special use permit applications to change the ownership of the business at 815 1/2 King St. with city staff last week. Current owner Rob Kaufman said they have not established a closing date for the deal, but Yates confirmed he plans to keep the theater primarily as a venue for live events.
Yates said he is excited about helping to diversify attractions along the King Street corridor. One idea Yates has is a haven for speaking events and lectures.
“There are numerous retail shops and restaurants, but not a lot with entertainment,” he said. “I’m looking to add substantive entertainment to the area and attract speakers who can speak to environmental, political and other important issues.”
Yates expressed the desire to draw names like Al Gore, Mary Matalin, James Carville, Ralph Nader and Dennis Miller, who could come and share their insights — much like a TED Talk — and then have a question and answer session afterward with the audience. Although some of these names he suggested might be out of his budget, Yates admitted, it is an idea he is considering.
Rumors about the theater’s future have kept residents guessing. Some media reports floated the possibility of a car museum to replace the shuttered long-time movie theater. Attempts as a movie theater and comedy club fell flat. Some adjacent businesses confirmed they had heard the car museum rumor as well.
The idea of an automobile museum would seem natural for Yates, who owns a number of classic and exotic cars, while his family owns Yates Select Auto Sales on Duke Street along with a number of other businesses in the area. But Yates said that idea only would cover a certain segment of the population.
“It was a one dimensional idea,” he said.
But to say Yates’ intent is strictly just a speaking venue would be wrong. Yates wants to be flexible with the slate of events hosted at the theater.
“The Alexandria Film Festival is hot and heavy to do something with me, and that would be nice,” Yates said.
He admitted he was using the media as a sounding board and was hopeful to get community feedback.
Kaufman bought the property in 2011 but struggled to find the right combination of programming to draw Alexandrians in. The building underwent a restoration as an arts venue under his ownership.
In January, Kaufman applied for a special use permit to alter the building from a theater to space more suitable for retail, all the while hoping to find a buyer who would keep the building true to its original purpose.
“I’d like to put a theater-oriented business in the building, and if someone wanted to buy the theater, I would try and preserve it,” he said at the time.
Old Town property owner Boyd Walker, who led the original push to encourage Kaufman to restore the theater, said Yates is a successful businessman.
“He has his fingers in a lot of pies,” Walker said. “The family built Yates Corner, bought Alexandria Automotive Service Garage on Fayette and Oronoco [streets]. There’s a real estate group, a Yates laundromat and now there’s Generous George’s.
“I hope he has a good plan that he’ll be able to implement soon so the theater isn’t vacant for a long time,” Walker said.