Avalon Theatre

5612 Connecticut Avenue NW,
Washington, DC 20015

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Auditorium

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The Avalon Theatre is Washington’s oldest surviving movie house and for decades has been one of its best. The theatres opened around Christmas 1922 as the Chevy Chase Theatre, designed in the Classical Revival style by the local architectural firm of Frank Upman and Percy C. Adams. The theatre opened with more than 1,200 seats on one floor, and had a Robert Morton pipe organ. In July 1926, local theater operator Harry Crandall partnered with Philadelphia’s Stanley Company to purchase the theatre. In 1929, the theatre became part of Stanley Warner, was renamed Avalon Theatre, and was wired for sound movies. The first ‘talkie’ to be shown was George Bancroft in “The Wolf of Wall Street”.

In 1968, the Pedas Brothers purchased the Avalon Theatre and operated it as part of their Circle Theatre chain. A former ballet school upstairs in the building was turned into a 200 seat second auditorium, the Avalon 2, and opened January 26, 1971. During a 1985 renovation, Diana Westring painted a 20 by 30 foot mural for the central dome of the main downstairs auditorium. This mural features the god Mercury casting a reel of film across the sky to a cherub. From the 1980’s the main downstairs theatre had 665 seats.

The Avalon Theatre’s operation changed in late-1987 as Circle Theatres was sold to Cineplex Odeon. Because in the same year Cineplex Odeon opened in northwestern Washington D.C. a luxury multiplex for mainstream movies, the 6-screen Wisconsin Avenue Cinemas (which closed 2006), the Avalon Theatre switched to showing arthouse films. In 1996, the theatre was sold to a private landlord. Theatre operation changed in 1998 as Cineplex Odeon merged with Loews.

Loews Cineplex closed the theatre in March 2001 during its bankruptcy reorganization. Projection and sound equipment, movie screen and seats were removed by Loews, over the objection of the owner. Local citizens led by retired librarian Bob Zich organized to save the Avalon Theatre for movies, fearing it might instead become a retail store. They petitioned, fundraised, and organized a nonprofit organization, the Avalon Theatre Project, which took over the lease.

GTM Architects donated its architectural services to restore the theatre’s facade and lobby. Some of the facade had been covered over. The historic marquee was discovered hidden under a modernization. Based on historic photographs and documentations, new windows, doors, and ticket booths were installed to resemble their predecessors. The lobby reemerged with beautiful Neo-Classic style as pilasters and moldings were replaced, the terrazzo floor was repaired, and period light fixtures were installed. The main auditorium’s much beloved ceiling mural was restored (and restored again in 2010). The Avalon Theatre reopened April 22, 2003, once again showing movies! In 2006, the nonprofit organization purchased the Avalon Theatre, securing its future.

Since the 2003 reopening, the historic main theatre, Avalon 1, has 428 luxury seats and a very large movie screen that is 41 feet wide and 19 feet tall. The intimate upstairs theatre, Avalon 2, has 165 luxury seats and a screen that is 20 feet wide and 9 feet tall. Both auditoriums have digital surround sound. In Avalon 1, a curtain for the screen was installed, but use has been discontinued since the mechanism broke in 2004.

The Avalon Theatre has been on the DC Inventory of Historic Sites since the mid-1990’s, legally protecting the theatre’s exterior from being altered, though changes can be made to its interior. With photos of the restored lobby and the auditorium and its ceiling mural, the Avalon Theatre is depicted in the 2004 book “Cinema Treasures, A New Look at Classic Movie Theaters”.

In 2013, an elevator to the upstairs auditorium and handicapped accessible restrooms were built.

Contributed by Cinema Treasures, Howard B. Haas

Recent comments (view all 67 comments)

Giles
Giles on December 15, 2011 at 1:54 pm

speaking of ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ Landmark’s website is advertising for it’s DC theaters that the film will be opening down at the Lincoln Theater (!?!) next Wednesday: “whAAAAt?!”

HowardBHaas
HowardBHaas on December 15, 2011 at 1:54 pm

Great surround sound is important! And, yes, I’d hope for 4k rather than 2k for the main auditorium.

Giles
Giles on December 15, 2011 at 3:36 pm

the train wreck scene in ‘Super 8’ sounded amazing on the Avalon’s soundsystem – now if that had been 7.1 lossless digital sound it would have torn a hole in the walls

dickneeds111
dickneeds111 on December 20, 2011 at 12:45 am

I saw HUGO in marvelous 2D and could not see why it was even in 3D. Only 2 scenes in the whole movie that I saw would have needed to be seen in 3D if at all. 3D movies are so overrated. I am glad that my local twin does not have 3d capability. I remember 3D in the 50’s and 70’s when you didn’t have to pay extra. What a ripoff.

HowardBHaas
HowardBHaas on December 30, 2011 at 1:20 pm

Enjoyed the new “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” at the Avalon on Wednesday. The surround system is excellent! Was the Swedish version of the movie shown here?

Giles
Giles on December 30, 2011 at 10:50 pm

as I recall I think the Swedish version only played at E Street, I could be wrong though. Fincher’s version though really has a great 5.1 soundmix and the 5K photography transferred to 35mm looked equally impressive. Interesting to note that the presentation of Aki Kaurismaki’s ‘Le Havre’ (one of favorite films of this year) is digital – which is odd since E Street’s projected 35mm, I’d be very curious to compare the two since the film in ‘film form’ has striking bold ‘technicolor’ look to it.

Giles
Giles on July 29, 2012 at 12:37 am

holy batman! The presentation of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ really demonstrated the loudness levels the speakers could handle here at the Avalon – even though the Dolby Digital 5.1 is not lossless audio when compared to sound from digital projection – the bass was powerful and relentless.

Giles
Giles on April 4, 2013 at 10:16 am

on April 28th, the Avalon Double Anniversary Celebration is occurring with the screening of ‘Side by Side’ followed by a post film Q&A with the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday (and others) to support the theaters transition to digital projection.

Giles
Giles on May 27, 2013 at 12:50 am

saw ‘Renoir’ on screen 1 last night via the new Christie DLP digital projector and it both looked and sounded fantastic. Great brightness, color and the lossless audio complimented and brought out the best of what digital projection can do with a film that is actually shot in 35mm. Technical note: screen one’s projector is upgradable to playback 4K DCP’s and supposedly set up to also feature 7.1 audio (although I wasn’t able to hear ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ which did play on screen 1, but was bumped to screen 2 for this week). Screen 2 projector is also a Christie projector; a Solaria One to be exact.

HowardBHaas
HowardBHaas on June 14, 2013 at 7:44 am

from Avalon email yesterday- On June 24th, the Avalon will begin the project to install elevator access to Avalon 2 as the final project funded by the Avalon Legacy Campaign. In addition, the downstairs and upstairs lobby areas of theater 2 will be renovated, and new, fully accessible bathrooms will replace the existing restrooms.

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