Our View: Old Town needs its theater

Our View: Old Town needs its theater

(File photo)

In the buildup to the release of “Jurassic World” earlier this month, a wry critic noted that the first three “Jurassic Park” movies could be summed up as, “Dinosaurs eat people,” with some of the good guys escaping. He mused, “[I] wonder what ‘Jurassic World’ will be about.”

Unfortunately, instead of housing “Jurassic World,” “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” or any of this summer’s blockbusters or art house films, Alexandria’s Old Town Theater is stuck in a rerun of its own: it is still shuttered and faces an uncertain future. Once again, unless someone on a white horse rides onto the scene, its future is likely to be as a retail space rather than an entertainment venue.

This would be a shame, as the theater is an Old Town icon. We hope current owner Rob Kaufman exhausts all avenues for keeping the building a theater, and that converting the space to retail is a true last resort. But one thing is clear: the clock is ticking.

If you have lived in Alexandria long enough and have been keeping score, you know that Kaufman is just the latest property owner to try and keep the century-old building open as an event space. No one in recent years has escaped with a profit.

There are numerous reasons why. First and foremost is simply the fact that the way Americans watch movies has changed. Single screen, in-town theaters have been replaced
across the country by multiplexes often with easy parking access. In addition, past Old Town Theater owners showed mainly R-rated movies at the site, rather than family-friendly fare. In an attempt at profitability, patrons were charged higher prices than at competing venues and also were required to purchase a beverage, whether or not they wanted one.

At one time the building was configured so that two movies could be shown at once, with the balcony providing the second, smaller theater. That concept also failed and the building was remodeled to its original footprint with one large theater with a balcony, primarily geared toward live music and events.

Last fall, Kaufman faced the prospect of turning the building into retail space after his latest programming concept failed. But in April, local businessman Jeff Yates appeared to have rescued the site from a retail fate. Yates applied for a special use permit and appeared poised to buy and operate the theater as a venue for speaking events, lectures and films.

Something happened to that arrangement between April and now, as last week Kaufman once again sought and received permission from city council to convert the building into retail space. In providing the lone dissenting vote, City Councilor John Chapman reiterated his desire for the site to remain a theater, possibly by copying the concept that has worked well at the Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse — where patrons can eat dinner and have drinks while watching second-run movies.

The saga of Alexandria’s Old Town Theater appears to be limping to a finale that would leave many disappointed. Stay tuned though, because, as the saying goes, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”