Theater Could Face Final Act
By Eugene L. Meyer
"We're easy to find, pleasant to visit," says the recorded voice. "This is Bob. Thanks for calling. I'm the projectionist here. No other theater in the world can say that."
No theater in the world other than the Old Greenbelt, an art deco-era relic with only one screen that stands out in a multiplex world of stadium seats and sometimes sky-high prices. At the Old Greenbelt Theatre, ticket prices--though not the 30 cents for adults and 15 cents for kids they once were--are still only $6, unless you're 62 or a University of Maryland student, in which case they're $4. Before 6 p.m., all seats are $4.
The 500-seat cinema is pretty much the same as it was when it opened in 1938: a neighborhood theater in the then-new community built eight miles from Washington as a New Deal town for government workers. It's one of fewer than a handful of commercially operated single-screen houses left in Maryland used exclusively for showing movies. No beer in the back, no live comedy nights, no video games.
You might even say it's an endangered species, and unless attendance picks up or some subsidy is found, operator Paul Sanchez says its days are numbered.
"It'd be a shame, but it's happened to plenty other places," said Sanchez. "I often wonder if I could file with the government as a nonprofit, but no, I'm not intentionally losing money. Probably the end of the year will be it for me, unless somebody comes up with a plan. But I guess all good things come to an end."
Sanchez, who owns a multiplex theater in Chestertown--a first-run movie house with five screens--said he expects the Old Greenbelt to show a loss for the first half of 2000. If that happens, he will write to the City of Greenbelt seeking financial help to keep the theater open.
The city has offered help in the past. Last year, it sponsored four film festivals, paying Sanchez $5,000 for each, which helped the Old Greenbelt break even. However, that was then; this is now. Said Mayor Judith Davis: "It's not in our budget for this year. At this time, we have no specific plans."
Sanchez has bought and sold a succession of old theaters, including the Allen (now a $5 dress shop) in Takoma Park and the Flower (converted from two screens to two churches) in Silver Spring. He first operated the Old Greenbelt briefly in the 1970s. The theater closed in 1976 and served as a community arts center from 1980 to 1987. Sanchez reopened it as a movie theater in 1990. It's been a struggle ever since.
He tried 99-cent admission: "I figured people would find it because of the bargain," he said. But they didn't.
He tried running it as an art cinema, showing offbeat and foreign films, but that didn't draw well, either, though he still shows such films on occasion. Most recently, he's been showing first-run movies at second-run prices, with occasional festivals featuring the films of Orson Welles, among others.
Right now, with contributions, "it's a break-even situation," Sanchez said. "It's one of those things--you can go six, seven months, then have three bad months in a row."
"I'm aware he's having some trouble trying to fill the house," Davis said. "I'm certainly hoping if he gets to a situation he feels he can't do it, he'll come before the City Council and have a work session. It is a concern of mine."
Meanwhile, old-theater buffs are savoring the theater's uniqueness while it lasts.
"It's like finding a dinosaur. You thought it was dead, and here's one lurking around the corner," said Robert K. Headley, a movie theater historian who edits the newsletter for the Friends of Old Greenbelt Theatre, a year-old support group that has raised $4,000 this year to help pay the bills.
If the Old Greenbelt Theatre is something of a dinosaur, it's also a dinosaur museum. The lobby walls are covered with large black-and-white images of former local movie houses: the Flower in Silver Spring, opened in 1950, now a place of worship; the Hyattsville, opened in 1939 with 900 seats, demolished in 1966; the Beltsville Drive-in, 1947-90; the Cheverly, 1947-72, now the Publick Playhouse; the Allen in Takoma Park, 1951-70.
In the inner lobby, a 1930s projector from the former Wineland's Highland Theater on Capitol Hill is on display; old movie posters from "Thunder Road" and "The Monster of Piedras Blancas" adorn the walls; and the wallpaper is a montage of classic film stars.
And the popcorn is popped fresh. "Paul's very insistent on that," said projectionist and ticket seller Bob Haupt, "and it's less than everybody else is charging." That would be $2.25 to $3.75, compared to as much as $5 for a large bag at a multiplex.
"I can't do that," Sanchez said. "We get lots of regular customers. I guess they're on fixed income, and it's kind of an incentive. If it's cheaper than the rest of the theaters, maybe the people will appreciate that."
But as if to demonstrate that the Old Greenbelt is also in tune with today, a sign above the ticket booth warns, "No rollerblades, No skateboards, No bicycles." Not that they're a problem. The Old Greenbelt's patrons are largely elderly and, too often, too few.
One recent Tuesday, with the Old Greenbelt showing a first-run film, the new Woody Allen movie "Small Time Crooks," just 35 paying patrons--including 16 seniors--showed up, resulting in a box office gross of $178. Except for a 2-year-old with his grandfather and a young woman with her parents, patrons were all middle-aged or older.
While some pictures--such as "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace"--have attracted a younger crowd, most don't.
"The younger kids, I don't think they think it's cool to come here," said Haupt, 59. "They'd rather hang out in the malls. Of course, we're not in a mall."
Sanchez is aware that the location is a problem. "It's off the beaten track. Even people who live in the newer part of Greenbelt don't know it's there," said Sanchez, 50. "It's still a hobby I can't afford anymore."
Still, Sanchez purchased a $15,000 Dolby sound system and installed a 40-foot wide screen--"The largest we could fit," he said. It's curved "so the picture's in focus. It's kind of a little Uptown when you think about it," he said, comparing the Old Greenbelt to Washington's sole surviving single-screen theater, on upper Connecticut Avenue. "There's really nothing else like it."
"It's terrific until it closes," said Haupt, who also worked for Sanchez at the Greenbelt in the 1970s. "We had midnight shows, and all the kids would come from Maryland University, and when I opened the porthole glass to focus the picture, my eyes began to water because of all the marijuana smoke. They all said, 'Turn it up, turn it up.' "
The theater saw its biggest crowd in recent years in February, when it showed the first movie to play there in 1938, "Little Miss Broadway" with Shirley Temple. The occasion was the dedication of a new vertical name sign, a replica of the original, paid for by the city.
"The night they put up the sign, it was great," said Kevin Denny, 44, president of the Friends and a mail carrier who lives in Bowie. "We had three or four people who'd attended the first movie in 1938. It was a great night, but it was free, so it was packed."
Said Headley, a retired linguist who has written books about old movie houses in Washington and Baltimore, "This is a precarious thing. We just hope it will continue to go. If more people could find out about it, they'd go there. It was a pretty undistinguished theater for years and years. Now, its claim to fame is it's lasted relatively untouched since 1938. It's sort of like stepping back into the past. It's amazing."
Though they may be few, the Old Greenbelt has a loyal cadre of supporters. The 450 contributing Friends of the Old Greenbelt Theatre--mostly from Greenbelt but also from elsewhere in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, the District and even Virginia--get passes.
They also receive e-mail notification of free members-only screenings, held on an irregular basis after the theater has been cleared of customers.
On one recent weeknight, the theater showed "Mega Rat," a self-styled "parable" produced by Drage Vukcevich, of Catonsville. The unscheduled 20-minute short received a respectful if reserved response from the audience.
Next came a 1932 serial, "Hurricane Express," starring a young John Wayne; a 1935 black-and-white cartoon; and 65 minutes of Laurel and Hardy as "The Flying Deuces." Sanchez watched intently from an aisle seat. Thirteen others sat scattered throughout the virtually empty theater.
At 10:25 p.m., the audience shrank by two as Alan Centa, of Takoma Park, and his 2-year-old grandson, Tristan, got up to leave.
"The theater's great. I like the idea of not having six screens to choose from," Centa said outside on the deserted plaza. "People are nice, and they always let Tristan in at night. Multiplexes don't let [2-year-old] kids in at night."
The Old Greenbelt Theatre is located at 129 Centerway Rd., Greenbelt. Free parking. Call 301-474-9744 or visit the theater's Web site at www.pgtheatres.com.