Opinion | How to save the Uptown Theater, a D.C. cultural treasure

The District last year completed a report on the historic value of the Uptown Theater in Cleveland Park, calling the famous local institution “an excellent example of an Art Deco motion-picture palace with high historic integrity and remarkable longevity.”

Just not quite remarkable enough for cinéastes in and around Washington. The Uptown closed in March 2020, when AMC Theatres, the world’s largest movie chain, pulled out after a run of Pixar’s “Onward.” AMC provided no explanation for the move, though trends in the exhibitor industry didn’t leave too much to the imagination: Chains had long since moved to a multiplex model, the better to provide more options for moviegoers and, thus, fill more seats. The Uptown is a single-screen marvel that has captivated generations of Washingtonians.

“It would be wonderful if someone could make that theater viable financially,” said Donetta George, chair of the board of the Avalon Theatre Project, the group that keeps afloat its namesake two-screen movie house just up Connecticut Avenue from the Uptown.

Any change to the beloved Uptown, which was named a historic landmark last year, is bound to displease the faithful. As AMC’s withdrawal signaled, the theater’s model had sustainability problems. Everyone old enough remembers the glory days of the Uptown — the 1968 premiere of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the 1993 premiere of “Jurassic Park,” its “Star Wars” coup of May 1977 (dubbed by The Post as “The Movie That Ate Cleveland Park”) and other high-profile moments. Less salient in all the nostalgia, however, is the quotidian reality of sparse audiences dwarfed by an outsize backdrop. In a 2018 oral history of the Uptown in the Washington City Paper, journalist Chris Klimek recalled going to a 10:30 p.m. screening of “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” then the top movie in the country. “I counted 11 people in the audience, about the same number I remembered counting when I’d bought a ticket for the 40th anniversary re-release of ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind.’”

More than three years into the idleness of the Uptown, what does a successful outcome look like for this cultural treasure? And what’s going on with it, anyway?

“I hate to see any movie theater close,” Ted Pedas told The Post’s Paul Schwartzman after AMC Theatres pulled out. “It’s in your blood. I love that theater.” Pedas and his brother, Jim Pedas, were the building’s owners but passed “much of their interest” to Ted Pedas’s children.

To save the Uptown, the Pedas family spent many of the covid lockdown months considering its transformation at a time when movie theater operators weren’t looking to sign leases. “There was some exploration during the pandemic — what would it take to make it into a multi-screen” complex, said commercial real estate broker Bill Miller, who represents the Pedas family concern.

The answer to that question was: Way too much money. “It just — it wouldn’t pencil out,” said Miller.

Opened by Warner Bros. in 1936, the Uptown’s Depression-era architecture features descending floors, a cavern of open space and design anomalies delightful for hipster movie buffs — though anathema for anyone seeking to retrofit the place for a multiplex or other uses. The mezzanine, for instance, is a hodgepodge of slopes and step-ups that would complicate any attempt to ensure ADA compliance under a new occupant. Monthly rent for the building is around $30,000. In attempting to renovate the more than 18,000-square-foot structure, “you can get to $10 million in a second,” said Mr. Miller.

Facing the infeasibility of a multiplex renovation, the building’s owners last fall listed the property for lease. At least one of the resulting proposals laid out a plan to preserve the Uptown’s character. Emily Lenzner, who grew up in the neighborhood, drafted a blueprint for the Uptown Center for Arts & Film — a movie theater surrounded by a restaurant, entertainment space, a smaller theater space, a catering kitchen and other amenities, as DCist reported.

Ms. Lenzner’s solution is akin to what concerned citizens cooked up for the Avalon, which closed in 2001. They created a nonprofit organization to fund operations via donations and revenue from programming and other sources.

The Uptown’s owners considered Ms. Lenzner’s plan but informed her that it didn’t make the final cut. According to an email sent by Ms. Lenzner to her supporters and reported by PoPville in March, the owners indicated that they’d signed a “letter of intent with an ‘arts/theater group’ that they believe ‘will change the course of the Uptown and the neighborhood.’” Mr. Miller won’t disclose details of what’s to come, but said that one of the uses for the space is in the “projected arts realm” and “something that you can’t do on your big-screen TV at your home.” He’s hoping that a deal will be announced this summer.

It’s unclear what group is poised to serve as the next custodian of the Uptown. What is clear is that in a town that hosts some of the country’s foremost cultural centers and associations — such as the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the Motion Picture Association, as well as deep-pocketed benefactors who might enjoy a legacy tied to something as prestigious as the Uptown — there’s little excuse for failure.

A win for the Uptown at this point is any sort of arts venue that attracts people. Many people, preferably: Cleveland Park, after all, has distinguished itself for vibrancy-killing NIMBY actions that have reduced it to also-ran status among D.C. neighborhoods. It could use some bustle.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; Mili Mitra (public policy solutions and audience development); Keith B. Richburg (foreign affairs); and Molly Roberts (technology and society).

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