AFI Silver Theatre

8633 Colesville Road,
Silver Spring, MD 20910

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Operated by the American Film Institute, the AFI Silver Theatre is a film house and education and cultural center. Arthouse films, classics, and film festivals are presented in the historic theatre that opened 1938 and in the two auditoriums that opened in 2003. The AFI Silver is near the Silver Spring stop of Metro’s Red line. Silver Spring is a suburb of Washington, D.C.

The Silver Theatre opened September 15, 1938, with 1,100 seats and “Four Daughters” starring John Garfield and Claude Rains. The Silver was built by a local movie theatre operator W.S. Wilcox, but quickly turned over to Warner Bros. The theatre was designed by fame theatre architect John Eberson, one of his later classics. The historic building has a nautical theme including its mast like vertical sign and imitation portholes. When seen from above, the building mimics the lines of a ship. Eberson designed it to give moviegoers the feeling they are entering a cruise ship. The movie screen was designed to appear as if it were floating in front of the auditorium.

In 1984, objecting to the preservation of the theatre, its owners demolished some of the facade including the vertical neon town and tile mosaics. As demolition crews punched holes in the brick facade in August 1984, frantic Silver Spring residents rushed to the theatre to plead that demolition be halted. A ‘stop work’ order from Montgomery County saved the theatre from demolition at that time. The infamous, deliberate vandalism of the theatre by its owners became a rallying call to those who cherished it. K-B Theatres closed the Silver Theatre in 1985. Boarded up, its fate was uncertain. The Silver Theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.

Richard Striner, a founder and former president of the Art Deco Society of Washington led a 19 year campaign to save the theatre. In 1998, Montgomery County began negotiations with the American Film Institute to reopen the theatre. The AFI were previously based at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center since 1975. Renovations by Washington DC based architectural firm Gensler & Associates began at the Silver Theatre in 2001. The five year construction project cost twenty million dollars and was totally funded by Montgomery County. County executive Douglas M. Duncan led the charge to fund the theatre’s rehabilitation. The AFI Silver is the flagship (pun intended) of a one million public & private rejuvenation of the downtown Silver Spring.

The historic Silver Theatre was ‘rehabilitated’ rather than replicated, because it isn’t an exact replica as it was. The original blueprints were discovered, and reviewed, along with vintage photographs. When built, the theatre had 60 colors in the interior. The reincarnation has 40 colors including the blues, yellows, reds and deep browns typical of 1930’s Art Moderne. Peacocks and shells can be seen on the wall decor. A new larger screen was placed in front of the original smaller screen. The original carpet was replicated.

The rehabilitation project features 32,000 square feet of new construction housing two new stadium theatres, a film-based retail kiosk, office and meeting space, as well as reception and exhibit areas.

The AFI Silver reopened April 4, 2003 with a gala including a screening of the restored classic “The Oxbow Incident” and actor/director Clint Eastwood receiving the AFI Silver Legacy Award. With photographs of its facade and auditoriums, the AFI Silver Theatre is depicted in the 2004 book ‘Cinema Treasures, A New Look at Classic Movie Theaters’.

As of 2007, historic Auditorium 1 has 400 seats in its raked auditorium, an electric organ to accompany silent films, projection equipment that includes 70mm projectors, and a very large movie screen that is 41 feet wide and 18 feet tall. Auditorium 2 has 200 seats, stadium seated, and a very large movie screen that is 37' x 19'. Auditorium 3 has 75 seats, stadium seating, and a 27' x 14' screen. All auditoriums have digital surround sound, are THX certified, and have curtains to open and close before the movie.

Concessions that can be enjoyed in the cafe or auditoriums include beer and wine, in addition to food and other drinks.

Contributed by Ray Barry, Howard B. Haas

Recent comments (view all 311 comments)

Giles on December 16, 2015 at 10:09 am

I’m going to support the AFI, but when comparing the pricing of a ticket at Regal Gallery Place it’s $15 matinee / $17 night time.

JodarMovieFan on December 17, 2015 at 10:07 pm

Wow, Howard. Thanks for the post. Ultra panavision 70 sounds so h u g e. I wonder if the Silver’s 40 ft screen will do it justice. I’m hoping for the, I’m going to set my expectations low, so if its good, then I’ll say it was great. :)

Giles on December 18, 2015 at 7:28 am

the screens drops down vertically to facilitate the wider image (noted when I saw ‘Khartoum’ at the prior 70mm mini-fest) – it sadly doesn’t expand horizontally as the Uptown masking does – now that screen when I saw a reissue of ‘Ben-Hur’ was jaw dropping.

HowardBHaas on December 28, 2015 at 9:00 pm

The Hateful Eight was selling out the afternoon & evening screenings over the weekend. I’ve never seen a movie 2 days in a row & almost never see a new movie 2ce, but I attended Saturday & Sunday evenings. Unlike chain multiplexes, full use of the curtain (before, intermission and close) & proper masking was used. Sunday was even better because the curtain was closed until the start, with no slide show before using the curtain. Projection & surround were excellent. The movie was 5.1 surround. Souvenir programs were handed out. Three cheers to the AFI workers each day for the special presentations! And, as to the movie, it was awesome, including the details seen due to 70mm, the widescreen vistas, and the score.

sguttag on December 29, 2015 at 5:40 am

Not entirely accurate Giles. The AFI/Silver (in all three screens) have both side and vertical masking. Believe it or not, their normal 70mm picture (2.20:1 ratio) does NOT fill the width of the screen but does fill the height. So for the Hateful Eight and all other UP70 presentations, the screen actually DOES get wider as well as less tall to complete the 2.76:1 ratio.

The current Uptown screen tops out at 2.39:1 and hasn’t gone out to the full Cinerama/UP70 ratio for a long, long time. Even if the Uptown were to run Hateful Eight, they’d likely mask it down in height rather than put in a new screen and rig it for the wider format (unfortunately, we’ll never know though I agree the Uptown’s front-end could have made this look pretty special…though lensing may have proven tricky with the deep curve and “modern” lenses).

While I don’t know the reasoning for the pricing on this movie, I guarantee you that more $$$ is being spent on the presentation at the AFI/Silver than Gallery Place. Rumor has it (and I hope they are wrong) that Gallery Place has damaged their print already. The AFI/Silver has full-time professional projectionists. The reports of the presentation quality there isn’t by accident.

JodarMovieFan on December 29, 2015 at 7:25 am

Great posts. I guess I will trek to see H8ful 8 here as opposed to my local BowTie, where it is reported the experience was not good. Still.. $20 for 70mm! At least throw in a free drink. Howard, did you get a movie program?

Steve, why is it 70mm does not fill the width of the (presumably Historic auditorium) screen? Is it the lenses? What do they use? I remember the previous owner of the Senator touting the then lenses used were some German type.. Bauer? I suspect the Bauer lenses are the best.

HowardBHaas on December 29, 2015 at 7:33 am

JodarMovieFan, yes, I have the movie program. Email sent to everybody stated programs as long as supply lasts, so don’t wait for last screenings. Well, it won’t sell out during business days so they may have enough programs. AS to why 70mm scope doesn’t fill the screen, that’s because 2.2 aspect ratio of the classic 70 mm films rather than 2.35 regular scope. Not as wide- so using full height of the AFI screen, projected not as wide. Less wide I think so 6 track could fit on the film.

sguttag on December 29, 2015 at 12:29 pm

70mm has a normal ratio of 2.20. At the AFI, like most older theatres, the front-end sort of dictates how big an image you can work with. Also, don’t confuse width with area. I believe that the 2.20 ratio has the largest area at the Silver. 35mm scope is wider but less tall.

HowardBHaas on December 31, 2015 at 4:46 am

Here’s a link to my full report, on experiencing “The Hateful Eight” at the AFI Silver, (

Giles on January 8, 2016 at 8:52 am

I saw ‘Hateful Eight’ here yesterday midday and I thought the presentation was outstanding – typical for AFI Silver in my opinion ~wow!~

Morricone’s score at times was so powerful and suitably loud.

my only gripe is that Tarantino should have had some entre' act music at the beginning of the second part of the movie – it abruptly jumps back into the movie without much of a breather.

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