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«Adam Rubin Planning in Washington D.C. Prof. Amanda Huron April 13, 2011 Our Own Outrageous Ontario: A History of Adams Morgan’s Ontario Theatre ...»

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Adam Rubin

Planning in Washington D.C.

Prof. Amanda Huron

April 13, 2011

Our Own Outrageous Ontario: A History of Adams Morgan’s Ontario Theatre

For sixty years, the cantilevered stainless steel marquee of the Ontario Theatre has

stood out from amongst the low-rise storefronts along upper Columbia Road NW in

Adams Morgan. Built in 1951, this former movie palace reflects the multitude of

changes and struggles that the neighborhood has experienced during the past half century.

Over its lifetime, the Ontario has welcomed foreign ambassadors and heads of state, Central and South American immigrants, movie stars from Hollywood‟s Golden Age, urban blacks, iconic punk rockers, and local artists, all of whom played a key role in the twentieth century development of Adams Morgan. The Ontario has been celebrated, rebranded, picketed, reused, renovated, and ultimately boarded up, embodying a dramatic story about cultural, demographic, and economic change in the community over time.

Even as the building currently stands today, vacant, distressed and stripped of its prominent “ONTARIO” rooftop signage, the Ontario Theatre remains a multifaceted historic and cultural landmark within Adams Morgan‟s built environment.

In addition to reflecting a story of change at the local level, the Ontario Theatre also represents a broader story of many other urban, single-screen movie houses from the postwar era. Built at a time when television was emerging as the dominant medium for American popular entertainment, the Ontario has from its inception struggled to keep up with the changing world around it. At one point near its final years in operation, the theater even narrowly escaped a renovation that would have divided the balcony into three separate cinemas, as was common for “multiplexes” of the late twentieth century.1 The Ontario‟s struggle to modernize and adjust to a rapidly changing urban environment is magnified in a community like Adams Morgan – especially so during the neighborhood‟s tumultuous period from the mid-1950s to the late 1970s.

Mansfield, Virginia. “Up and Out in Adams-Morgan.” Washington Post, August 8,

1985. Pg DC1.

38th Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies -- Rubin Page 1 The story of the Ontario that follows is largely based on its regular coverage in the Washington Post, with some years better represented than others depending on the role the theater was playing in D.C.‟s greater cultural landscape at any given time. For example, during the years that the Ontario regularly hosted touring rock n‟ roll bands in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the theater often received mention in the newspaper in the form of concert reviews. On the other hand, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the theater hosted an entirely Spanish-language film schedule, and its events were mostly passed over in print. Even with gaps in its coverage, a cohesive history quickly begins to emerge upon examination, bringing the theater to life if only for a few decades. The story of the Ontario culminates with the auditorium‟s premature closure just thirty-six years after its premiere screening. The theater building still stands today, dilapidated but structurally sound, though its future remains increasingly uncertain so long as it stands vacant. With a better understanding of its cultural significance, perhaps the Ontario will once again emerge as a cultural nexus of the neighborhood before the opportunity passes yet again.

Theaters Move to the Suburbs (1945-1951)

The years immediately following World War II brought a massive reorganization to the film distribution business in the United States. In 1948, the landmark Supreme Court case of the United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. (alternatively known as the Paramount Consent Decree) broke the monopoly that the major film studios held on national film exhibition, requiring the studios to divest themselves of their theaters and movie houses. Aside from the greater effects of the decision on film production in Hollywood, the decree triggered a surge in independently owned theater construction projects across the country. Between 1945 and 1952, 31 new independent theaters (with the exception of the MacArthur Theater in Georgetown, which was initially co-owned by Warner Bros.) were built in the Washington, D.C. area. However, the geographic distribution of the new theaters also reflected changes in the postwar urban population.

As people began to move away from D.C.‟s old downtown, theater builders followed

Headley, Robert K. Motion Picture Exhibition in Washington, D.C. Jefferson, NC:

McFarland & Company, 1999. Pg. 290.

38th Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies -- Rubin Page 2 suit, with ten new theaters opening in suburban Virginia, ten more in suburban Maryland, and only three new theaters opening in downtown D.C. The remaining theaters opened in the neighborhoods around the downtown area, including the Ontario Theatre in Adams Morgan. 3 Even with the breakdown of the vertically integrated studio system, the new independent theater owners faced other challenges as they developed new construction projects. In August 1946, the National Housing Authority (NHA) issued regulations that granted homebuilders first access to construction materials and equipment as a push to create new suburban housing for veterans. Just a few months earlier in March 1946, the Civilian Production Administration (CPA), the postwar organization that replaced the War Production Board (WPB), curtailed materials for “non-essential” construction projects for eighteen months. Both of these regulations slowed down new theater construction and structural improvements to existing theaters. Even working under these federal restrictions, local independent theater circuits competed for new development sites outside the downtown area, including the Columbia Road site where the Ontario would soon be built by the K-B Theaters Company. 4 Other challenges would be felt on a cultural level. Many older theaters in the District began the long and difficult process of desegregation during the postwar years.

Increases in theater operating costs due to the Paramount Consent Decree necessitated a rise in admission prices, averaging about 3½ cents per ticket for neighborhood theaters.

Competition from emerging forms of popular entertainment, including bowling alleys, roller rinks, public swimming pools, and most of all, drive-ins, were seen as a threat to traditional indoor movie theaters. In many cases, this threat was real and critical.

Between 1953 and 1961, 11 new theaters opened in the Washington area – all of them drive-ins. But it was the emergence of television that truly put fear in the hearts of theater owners from the suburbs to the inner cities. The popularization of this new form of home entertainment increasingly resulted in dwindling movie audiences and less demand for new theaters to be built. In some cases, local theater owners attempted to bring the technology of television into their auditoriums, as they experimented with at the Ibid. Pg. 168.

Ibid. Pg. 169.

38th Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies -- Rubin Page 3 Atlas Theater on H Street N.E., though this strategy would prove to be prohibitively In fact, just four days before its opening, K-B Theaters‟ co-owners Fred S.


Kogod and Max Burka advertised in the Washington Post that the Ontario would not only be equipped with comfortable push-back chairs and the latest sound and projection devices, but that provisions had been made for an eventual television conversion. 6 While microwave receiving equipment and transmission lines were never installed, the Ontario Theatre would prove to be one of the very last large single-screen movie houses built in urban Washington, D.C.

A New Theater for Adams Morgan (1951-1969)

The Ontario Theatre opened on November 1, 1951 at 1700 Columbia Road NW, though not without some early competition for a prime site near the heart of Adams Morgan. As early as 1945, the Roth Theaters Company, another local exhibitor, had plans drawn up for a theater one block away from the Ontario site, to be named the Mozart or the Embassy upon its completion. The Roth project ultimately fell through, and K-B Theaters was free to build their new state-of-the-art auditorium. However, even after obtaining the site, Kogod and Burka had to wait for a Safeway store lease to expire before they could break ground.

Designed by theater architects John J. Zink and Frederick Moehle and constructed by the Roscoe Engineering Company of Washington, the Ontario was conceived from the start as the new flagship theater of the K-B chain. The theater would sit 1,400 audience members and cost between $450,000 and $600,000 to build. The façade of the theater was designed in the modern style, with a two-story picture window frontage set off at an angle at the southwest corner of Columbia Road and 17th Street, sheltered under a stainless steel fascia roof with recessed high-hat lights. The irregular orientation of the cantilevered marquee characterized the new theater building, and even today, the design stands out from amongst the more typical commercial storefronts along the street. The Ibid. Pgs. 171-180.

Washington Post Staff Writer. “Newest Theater Here, the Ontario, Opens Thursday.” Washington Post, October 28, 1951. Pg. R2.

Headley, Pg. 169.

38th Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies -- Rubin Page 4 façade also featured a pink marble faced box office and marble pilasters flanking four sets of glass doors to the lobby. Retail space for a Robert Winston candy shop was also incorporated into the Columbia Road façade of the building. The theater was decorated with a gold and gray-green color scheme, a motif that was continued in the interior details, including the lobby ceiling, stage drapes, and curtain. 8 The lobby space inside the building was equally as elegant as the exterior, done up in black marble with mirrored panels along the walls. From the ceiling hung a chandelier that had once graced the old Paramount Theater in New York. Inside the auditorium, seats were staggered to ensure the best possible visibility throughout the house, with a spacious 36 inches of room between aisles. The balcony level featured two private rooms, one room set aside for noisy children and their guardians (this type of space was popularly referred to as “the crying room”) and another room for private parties, rentable by the performance. Both private rooms featured soundproofed picture windows looking out onto the auditorium. The screen was reported to be the largest commercial screen in the area. 9 The Ontario was also unique in that it was the first theater built outside of downtown to have an exclusively first-run policy (films newly released from the studios).

The theater opened with the local premieres of Rhubarb (1951), a screwball comedy about a feral cat who becomes owner of a baseball team, and Let’s Make It Legal (1951), a divorce comedy starring Claudette Colbert and Marilyn Monroe. Securing the first-run policy was considered a triumph for the new neighborhood theater. However, at least one local reporter, Richard L. Coe of the Washington Post, griped about the commute up to Adams Morgan, writing, “Remember when the Dupont (Theater) seemed uptown?” Coe‟s complaint about traveling north to review a movie may have been intended as an editorial flourish, but his comment planted an early seed of controversy that would continue to grow along with the Ontario over the next several decades.

Ibid. Pg. 300.

Washington Post Staff Writer. “„Ontario‟ Opening. Washington Post, January 6, 1977.

Pg. D9.

Coe, Richard L. “Ontario Theater Opens About Nov. 1.” Washington Post, October 17,

1951. Pg. 18.

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