SPOTLIGHT: Old fasioned uptown still in style

Originally Published 04/09/01

It bills itself as Washington’s premiere movie palace. Having hosted every major star from the silver screen, as well as a handful of presidents, members of Congress and other dignitaries along with the greatest films of all time, the Uptown Theatre earns the designation.

The Uptown Theatre, or the Cineplex Odeon Uptown as it is officially called, is located at 3426 Connecticut Ave. NW, but moviegoers come from as far away as Frederick, Md., and Richmond, Va.

There is only one screen at the Uptown, but it is big – 40 feet tall by 70 feet wide. The screen extends almost from floor to ceiling and it is slightly curved.

“New stadium theaters don’t even come close,” said Ted Pettis, who manages the Uptown Theater and others in D.C. “They are beautiful theaters and all but the screen size is still not comparable.”

By comparison, the screen at the 500-seat Cineplex Odeon Avalon, an average-sized theater located down the street on Connecticut Avenue is only about 19 feet by 40 feet.

There are other attractions to the theater, which is best highlighted on a movie’s opening night at the Cineplex. The line of people waiting for hours in the bad weather snakes all the way down the block on Connecticut Avenue then takes a right and extends up Newark Street on some nights.

In an age of enormous multiplexes with stadium seating – a 24-screen theater recently opened at the Arundel Mills mall outside Baltimore – the Uptown hearkens back to an earlier era of movie going. It is what seeing a movie was like when it was an event, before it became as utilitarian and commonplace as it is today.

Architect John J. Zink designed the theater in art-deco style and it opened in 1936. The theater seats 800 people, including 300 seats in a newly renovated balcony with stadium seating. The cinema also recently added drink holders to each seat during renovation projects in 1996. The seats are velour, high-backed and luxuriously comfortable. The curtains framing the screen are plush, and everything is bathed in burgundy and maroon tones. The terrazzo floor in the lobby evokes memories of the time of legendary film greats like Grace Kelly, Jimmy Stewart, Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly visited the theater.

Bob Jones, a regional director with Cineplex Odeon, the owner of the Uptown and the largest theater corporation in metropolitan D.C., said there is something special about seeing a show at the Uptown that is difficult to explain.

“You feel this kinetic energy with the crowd that you don’t get at a multiplex,” Jones said. “People actually stay and watch the credits. At a multiplex, by the time the credits are done people are in their cars, ready to go home.”

Despite the fact that its brethren went the way of penny candy, the Uptown Theatre remains profitable. Prathana Chhetry, the theater’s manager, suggests perhaps people are attracted knowing that famous visitors are commonplace. She rolls off a list of well-known people who have come in just the last couple of years: Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Al Pacino, Madeleine Albright and Denzel Washington.

Director Jerry Bruckheimer’s new film Pearl Harbor will premiere at the Uptown this summer, Jones said. Other D.C. premieres included Dick Tracy, Jurassic Park and Dances with Wolves.

Jones attributes the theater’s success to the amount of things to do in the surrounding area along Connecticut Avenue. Restaurants, nightclubs and coffee shops in the areas make going to the Uptown more than just seeing a movie, but a destination too. While limited parking might be a hindrance at other locales, the Cleveland Park Metro stop just a block away helps to bring in crowds, Jones said.

The Uptown is either the first- or second-highest grossing theater in the country, Pettis said. A few years ago the theater showed the classic Casablanca more than 50 years after its original opening, and it grossed an impressive $40,000 a week. Before the premiere of the Phantom Menace, the new movie in the Star Wars series, the Uptown decided to show the original trilogy. When Star Wars, the first in the trilogy, reached the end of its run and the Empire Strikes Back set to take the screen, the theater decided to move Star Wars to the theater at 4000 Wisconsin Ave., NW. It went from grossing $150,000 a week at the Uptown to grossing under $20,000 a week at the alternate location.

Sophomore Liz O’Meara-Goldberg said her American studies professor suggested students visit the Uptown to compliment studies on leisure culture. She said she was struck by just how different it was from other movie theaters she visited.

“It has this atmosphere that just screams Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart,” she said.

Junior business major Stephanie Shuffain echoed O’Meara-Goldberg’s sentiments.

“Growing up in the suburbs and really only being exposed to the multiplex theaters, going to the Uptown really makes a pretty great impression on you,” Shuffain said. “The whole atmosphere is really remarkable.”

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