Written by Bob Zich (May 2013)
Avalon Born: March 1923: Chevy Chase Theatre opened with one auditorium, a pipe organ, two shops and a commercial second floor
Sound and New Name: 1929, the theatre was wired for sound and renamed the Avalon
Refurbished: 1937, Art Deco redo inspired by the new Uptown Theatre; the Avalon is air conditioned
Expanded: 1970: In the converted second floor, second theatre added with 200 seats
Renovated: 1985: Bigger screen, new sound, seats in Avalon 1 reduced to 660, and on the Avalon 1 dome, Mercury is shown pitching film from a reel to a cupid
Landmarked: 1995: facade landmark approval through the providential labors of Historic Chevy Chase DC and the action of the DC Historic Preservation Review Board
Avalon Closed: March 2001: Closed, followed by Loews stripping away seats, 1985 screen, projection equipment etc. RIP forever. Or so Loews thought.
The newspapers reports in early 2001 had been ominous, but still were only distant thunder: “Loews in danger of bankruptcy.” But, said I, the Avalon surely was safe. The theater seemed to enjoy constant patronage and at the moment Crouching Tiger had created lines of patrons around the block.
Then the Post announced that the Loews bankruptcy had indeed struck and among other theatres to be closed: The Avalon Theater “Chevy Chase”. For the present writer, it seemed the floor had been pulled from beneath him and his family. Fond CC memories seemed less substantial. Chevy Chase merchant expectations fell. All of us in greater Washington envisioned the loss of another beautiful old DC building - and one still functional.
In brief, an outrage.
These were among the eruptions I directed at my wife Joanne and family. Their response was: “Yes. And what are we going to do about it?” An excellent question, pure American. We then realized we had to try to save the theatre.
I identified the name of the Avalon owner, John Kyle of Bethesda, and called him. Happily, he shared the same goal as ourselves - to keep the Avalon a theatre. I immediately agreed to help him find a way to reopen the old building as a movie house.
But even this early, Loews had stripped the theatre. Loews presumably sought to protect itself against possible post-bankruptcy competition. This hollowing out of the theatre seemed a death stroke, but always hopeful, the Zichs struggled on.
Despairing of the failure to find a new exhibitor for our “outmoded” two screen theatre, Kyle rented the theatre to Doug Jemal, who developed retail blueprints.
The Zichs intensified their effort. We guessed that many of our neighbors felt the same anger at the closing of the theatre that we had felt.
We sought to focus this neighborhood anger and announced on the CC Listserv a meeting in the Zich living room to be held in October 2001. Invited were all neighbors willing to lead in the battle to keep the Avalon alive. In addition to myself, who was voted to be chair (a position I held until September 2004 when brain surgery forced my retirement), there came Vice-Chair Jen Kaplan, more Zich family, Bill Oberdorfer, Pat Fleming, Teresa Grana and others. We rapidly set about creation of the group originally named the Friends of the Avalon.
While establishing ourselves as a DC and US non-profit (thanks, Pat Fleming and Eleanor Holmes Norton!), we took our first substantive action. We planned and publicized an organizational meeting, April 3, 2002, open to all. It was to be held at the CC Community Center, across Connecticut Avenue from the Avalon. At this meeting, we would underscore our determination to revive the Avalon by explaining our purpose and recruiting an army of infuriated neighbors to join us in action.
The Friends fretted about how many neighbors would in fact attend and, of course, we entertained the possibility that large numbers were beyond our reasonable hope. We had heard the joke about throwing the party where no one came.
On that meeting night our worries swiftly vanished. Providentially, the meeting room quickly filled to overflowing, more than 200 attendees, with standing room only for late-comers. I presented our plan in its many layers.
First we would try to find an operator, if necessary by raising funds to buy needed theatre upgrading, and thus help return the building to commercial theatre use. If that failed, assess our position and proceed if feasible to take over operation by the Friends themselves.
In the big old theatre, we would exhibit the best of popular commercial films together with some crossover films. In the small theatre, we would show some of best of the more esoteric films. Because the neighborhood needed it and rightly expected it if they joined our movement, we would offer special shows Saturday and Sunday for youngsters, screen periodic movies with special arrangements for the elderly, invite directors to show and discuss their film, and become a showplace for Embassy sponsored films and film festivals. We would also be providing justification for our non-profit status.
And if we failed? We would have judiciously paid for necessary publicity and organizing costs and would return to donors what was left over.
There was close questioning from the crowd, as befitted our seemingly quixotic goals, but in the end we were delighted when, as we had planned, the Avalon lights across the street came blazing to life to celebrate our call to arms. The crowd cheered.
Completely unscripted, filmmaker Aviva Kempner (Hank Greenberg, etc.) asked to speak. She described the value the theatre had had for her and for many of us, put her hand in her purse, and withdrew a dollar for each year in the near 80 year life of the Avalon. She lay them in my hands and challenged all who cared for the Avalon to do at least as much. The Friends, of course, were surprised and delighted, but not just the Friends. The assembled neighbors that night spontaneously filled the Friend’s treasury with $2200. We knew we were ready to run our race against “fate.”
Starting then and every Saturday for several months, Joanne and I and CC neighbors set up a solicitation table in front of the vacant theater. We would show the theatre in its derelict state to the many who wished to observe the wreckage. We always came out of the empty theatre depressed, but energized for the cause – energy animating both visitors and ourselves. Each Saturday solicitation brought us at least an additional $1000 dollars.
We intensified our search for a commercial operator. We used every tool we knew to reach possible exhibitors including Variety want ads and an RFP.
We attracted eight possible operators, zero takers. It began to seem, that if the theatre was to survive it would have to do so under the care of the Friends of the Avalon.
And so it came to be.
Meanwhile others eagerly gave donations in kind, including a new group name. The Friends were now to be called not the passive-seeming Friends of the Avalon but the super-dynamo Avalon Theatre Project.
Other people and institutions rallied: Doug Jemal who loved old buildings discovered just how lovable this old building was and contributed labor and funds to bring back our Chevy Chase beauty; the American Legacy Foundation, an anti-smoking group, joined arms with us; Donetta George, Cynthia Mancini, and Melissa Cohen, planned and delivered a beautiful new interior, Paul Sanchez and staff promised theatrical operation, and the DC government performed for us a crucial paving of the way.
Councilmember Kathy Paterson held a strategic meeting in the Spring of 2002 with Doug Jemal, top relevant leaders in Mayor William’s city government, and officers of the Avalon Theatre Project. We came together and created a do-able plan (including concessionary rent) all of us working in tandem. Increasingly, help came from every side. In the end, we raised $200,000 from the community and much more in essential assistance and grants.
There were support parties, an online petition with 1400 signatures and many moving stories, sale of Avalon seats, contributory events at Politics and Prose, and schools, and unending experimentation.
Many of us were introduced to laboring ten hours a day seven days a week. Like me. Towards the end of the rebirth efforts, my eyes and mouth flew open as I awoke one Sunday morning. To Joanne I exclaimed with dismay: “My God, Joanne, it’s another day.”
Then, finally, on April 22, 2003 the Theater actually reopened for business with cinema from the DC Film Fest. As a result of our seemingly unending miracles, undergird by good sense, and basking in universal support, our community had won back the theatre.
Task 2, The New Avalon, could now begin. I refer to the enormous task of making it all work. Theatre survival.
But that is another story. What I can say in conclusion here is that in 2013, ten years later, we can look back with great satisfaction at not only concluding Task 1 The Rebirth triumphantly. We should take at least equal satisfaction in the survival, indeed the flourishing, of the Avalon Theatre in its eighth decade, now owned by the Project and mechanically upgraded.
More important, every day of the year the theater exhibits its films, delivers coffee and sandwiches to patrons and juggles the diverse schedules and needs that live movie exhibition entails. Congratulations to the Avalon’s devoted staff and to every contributing friend and neighbor in our Avalon diaspora around the world.
Every step of the successful rebirth and operation of the Avalon has happened through the work and devotion of those who love the theater: most recently, Debbie Yogodzinsky, who chaired the board for much of the last decade, 2004 to 2012, Bill Oberdorfer, Executive Director, almost forever, and Andy Mencher, its learned and able Programming Director. But let’s not forget its admirable new Board Chair, Kim Abraham…..
But I have to stop. The names go on and on.
Better, perhaps, we must remember the essential part played by not just these Project stalwarts, but by just about all of us in Chevy Chase and many beyond. My deepest thanks to each of you.
There is the maxim that says “Be careful what you wish. You may get it.” Rare in this way as so many others, the Avalon Theatre Project, which mid-wifed the rebirth, can boast: we have wished the theatre reborn, and it was reborn. Astonishingly, this rebirth has proved to be even as good -- really, really good -- as it was in our dream.
Bibliography: See the beautiful and informative book created by Jill Bernstein (program book editor) and colleagues, Avalon Theatre: Rediscover the Magic of the Movies (2003).. It provides the full Avalon story up to Spring 2003: who, what, why, where, when, with pictures.