ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- While the news that the Old Town Theater is closing this weekend took many by surprise, the surprising thing might be that this old neighborhood theater lasted as long as it did.
It started out as the Richmond Theater in 1914 -- its original purpose, per the Old Town Theater's website, was "moving pictures, bowling alleys and billiards." Over the years, the theater operated as a venue for movies, vaudeville and labor organizing. It was a dance hall and a place to watch puppeteers. At other times, the theater was simply empty.
In 2003, Roger Fons bought the Old Town Theater -- then a one-screen operation -- for $1.1 million. He told the website Local Kicks that he "loved the building and what it stood for. I didn't want it to become another CVS [or] a condo, so I bought it."
Everything about the theater, even its address, is eclectic: The two-screen movie theater at 815 1/2 King St. in Old Town is unusual for its one-drink minimum and $5 service fee per ticket for online sales. And online and off, its listed showtimes listings haven't always been accurate, plus customer service has been, at times, on the erratic side. The theater doesn't show previews though there is sometimes pre-movie entertainment: it's not rare for the movies to be preceded by a lecture by Fons, who might stand up for a while and talk about whatever happened to be on his mind that night.
The theater's finances were never easy. In 2006, to try to increase profits, Fons installed a second screen. But that second screen was installed without the city's permission -- it was suspended from the ceiling, in a way that could have destabilized the roof -- causing the theater to be shut down for eight months.
When new safety measures were in place and the theater reopened, Fons told the Examiner that being closed was "tough on me. It cost me $470,000 personally." He said that customers were "begging for" independent films, but then didn't come to shows. He started showing first-run movies, and said he was working with chef Klaus Keckeisen to make the theater's food offerings "three times better."
It wasn't enough. Fons told The Alexandria Times that poor ticket sales "played a pivotal role" in his decision to shut the theater. Fons said he wasn't sure why ticket sales were as bad as they were, but thought it might have something to do with the terrible movies being made by Hollywood. He also said he thought Old Town's lack of parking might have hurt the theater and, more strangely, that a free trolley running up and down Old Town's main drag might have contributed to the low turnout.
Movies are still playing this weekend -- the theater's recorded phone message says the movies playing are "Hugo" and "Twilight"; "Tin Tin" and "Mission Impossible IV" are listed online -- but Fons has said he is hoping to have sold the theater's equipment by the following weekend.
What will come of the Old Town Theater after that? The 8,500 square foot space is listed online as being available as retail space, at $42.50 per square foot. And though CVS has taken over other D.C. area movie theaters, presumably Fons' motivating fear, almost a decade ago, that CVS would take over this one won't be realized. A gigantic new CVS just took over an even bigger space a few blocks down King Street, in the 11,036 square foot space that used to be inhabited by Old Town's now-closed Books-A-Million.
RELATED VIDEO: A short video about the Old Town Theater's closing.