«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 ...»
38th Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies -- Rubin Page 5 Just four months after opening, a new drama was played out on the sidewalk in front of the Ontario. On March 5, 1952, picketers from the District American Legion arrived at the theater with placards to protest the opening of Death of a Salesman, a film that had been called out by the House Committee on Un-American Activities as being connected to Hollywood Communists, including producer Stanley Kramer and writer Arthur Miller. Signs stating “American Legion Says America First” and “American Legion Opposes This Picture as Un-American” arrived at the theater in the afternoon as the film opened for its Washington premiere; although K-B general manager Frank Boucher invited Legion officials to see the film and judge for themselves, the offer was reportedly refused. 11 Aside from occasional political histrionics, the 1950s and early 1960s were generally graceful years for the Ontario. The theater thrived as a first run movie house catering to a family audience, hosting the Washington openings of classic films like Mary Poppins (1964), the premiere of which was attended by its star, Julie Andrews, as part of a benefit for Mt. Vernon College and Project HOPE, a public health education program.
This would not be the last time the Ontario would be associated with Ms. Andrews, as The Sound of Music premiered there soon after in March 1965. The Rodgers and Hammerstein classic would go on to play exclusively on the Ontario screen for the next two years. However, on the first night of its record-setting run, The Sound of Music opened with lights, red carpet, radio, TV, and newsreel cameras for a Hollywood-style premiere hosted by the Austrian Embassy as a benefit to support the Travelers Aid Society. 12 By the time of the Sound of Music premiere, the Ontario was already established as the venue of choice for film events catered to the neighboring community of ambassadors and their embassy staffers, many of whom chose to live in Adams Morgan for its convenient proximity to work along Embassy Row. Two years previous in 1963, Edstrom, Eve. “Legion Pickets District Theater Showing „Death of a Salesman.” March 6, 1952. Pg. 10.
Donihi, Rosemary. “Julie Will Pop in To Introduce Mary.” Washington Post, October 20, 1964. Pg. B2.
Washington Post Staff Writer. “St. Patrick‟s Day To Be Austrian.” Washington Post, March 14, 1965. Pg. F25.
38th Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies -- Rubin Page 6 the theater hosted the VIP premiere of Lawrence of Arabia, which was attended not only by foreign diplomats from the nearby embassies, but also by members of Congress, Supreme Court Justices, White House aides, and other esteemed civic leaders. Due to the Washington location of the screening, several attendees even had personal connections to the characters portrayed in the film, including one guest, the Marchioness of Winchester, who commented to the Washington Post that she personally knew “Lawrence himself and King Feisal both very well. I‟m looking forward to seeing this film.” The paper covered the screening and several of the formal pre-premiere dinner parties, including in their coverage an exhaustive list of notable attendees, not least of which included star Omar Sharif, director David Lean, president of Columbia Pictures Abe Schneider, president of the MPAA Eric Johnson, as well as all the local political personalities.
In addition to its sheer scale, the Lawrence of Arabia event at the Ontario was unique from other Washington movie premieres for a couple of other reasons. Firstly, it was a strictly social affair that did not benefit any specific charity organizations, as was common for premieres in the nation‟s capital. Secondly, it was the first time at a Washington movie premiere that guest arrivals were announced at a microphone outside the theater, manned by radio commentator Hazel Markel, so that bystanders would know what names went with which people. 13 The Ontario continued to play first run films into the late 1960s, including the Washington engagement of Funny Girl (1968), the premiere of which was sponsored by the B‟nai B‟rith Women as a benefit for Children‟s Home in Israel, Leo N. Levi Hospital, and the Anti-Defamation League. But by 1969, the theater was struggling to keep attendance up. One reason for this decline was attributed to middle-class white anxiety about the Adams Morgan neighborhood, which by the late 1960s had gained a considerable Black and Latino population. The 1968 riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also led to a massive white exodus from D.C.‟s northern neighborhoods. As a result of these demographic shifts, Funny Girl was moved to Washington Post Staff Writer. “„Lawrence Premiere Draws Capital VIPs.‟” Washington Post, February 27, 1963. Pg. D1.
Washington Post Staff Writer. “„Funny Girl‟ Benefit Oct. 24.” Washington Post, September 8, 1968. Pg. G6.
38th Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies -- Rubin Page 7 another K-B cinema on Wisconsin Avenue, while the programming gap at the Ontario was filled with a few first run films and several revivals, during which time the owners decided on their next strategy to boost theater attendance. This critical moment at the end of the turbulent 1960s would lead to the first major cultural shift for the Ontario Theatre and its local audiences; however, it would certainly not be its last.
Afternoon in the Teatro (1969-1977)
On August 20, 1969, the Ontario Theatre reopened as Teatro Ontario, inaugurating a new policy of showing Spanish-language films with no English subtitles.
The first movies shown were a double bill of El Yaqui (1969) with Asi Es Mi Mexico (1963). 15 On a local level, this programmatic change reflected a widespread demographic shift in Northwest D.C.‟s population following the Martin Luther King Jr. riots of 1968, which resulted in many white residents abandoning the District for its surrounding suburbs. Subsequently, the Ontario‟s new Spanish-language policy catered directly to Adams Morgan‟s bustling Latin community, which by 1969 had grown to dominate the neighborhood‟s new cultural landscape. The implications of the change are perhaps even more significant when considered with an historical perspective, as the K-B management claimed at the time that the Ontario was the only movie house between Washington and Philadelphia exclusively showing Spanish-language films.
Movies screened at Teatro Ontario included not only Mexican films, but also films from Spain, Argentina, Chile, and Brazil. According to then-manager James R.
Coller, English-language films with Spanish subtitles were not successful at Teatro Ontario, adding that, “Sex for Latin people doesn‟t go over well” – a comment that references the edgier subject matter depicted in many “New Hollywood” films of the late 1960s. Instead, films geared to a wide, general audience were the most successful, as had been the case during the Ontario‟s early years when the theater catered to white families. Stars such as Cantinflas, an immensely popular Mexican comedian, and El Santo, a Mexican Luchador enmascarado (a masked wrestler who battled against criminals, supernatural beings, and fascist dictators) brought in sell-out audiences for Arnold, Gary. “In Spanish.” Washington Post, August 20, 1969. Pg. B9.
38th Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies -- Rubin Page 8 Sunday matinees, replacing white film stars of the 1960s like Peter O‟Toole and Barbra Streisand. Multigenerational Latino families, sometimes with both grandparents and toddlers in tow, typically went to the movies on Sunday afternoons after spending the morning at church and often socialized while the movie was in progress – a notable change in the Friday and Saturday night-oriented attendance and social patterns of the Ontario‟s former audiences. “We come on Sunday because it is one of the few days we have free from work,” explained Ronald Sehuett, a Bolivian who had only recently arrived in the United States when interviewed at the Ontario in 1971.
Economically, the Sunday afternoon screenings kept Teatro Ontario in business during most of the 1970s, with K-B Theaters part owner Marvin Goldman pointing out that “it is almost uneconomical to operate (the theater) all the nights and all the days of the rest of the week.” As a contrast, Goldman cited that in traditional theaters, 70 to 75 percent of the business is on Friday and Saturday nights. This trend kept Teatro Ontario profitable throughout the first half of the decade, with Goldman further claiming, “No one is getting rich…but it is making a profit for the owners and providing a necessity in the community.” While Goldman‟s sentiment was remarkably optimistic and unprejudiced, times in Adams Morgan would change once again in the second half of the decade, and the Ontario would soon enter its next phase of existence, this time with a program calendar tailored to a new neighborhood demographic – educated, urban white professionals returning to the city.
Our Own Outrageous Ontario (1977-1984)
Despite the initial success of the Teatro Ontario program, audiences began to fizzle. In 1977, the K-B chain finally sold the Ontario after twenty-six years of ownership. In regards to the sale, Goldman denied that the theater was losing money, adding that the company had plans to open a new all-Spanish movie house in Northern Aguilar, Luis. “Spanish Films Flavor Ontario.” Washington Post, December 1, 1983.
Bancroft, Bill. “Afternoon in the Teatro.” Washington Post, November 29, 1971. Pg.
38th Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies -- Rubin Page 9 Virginia or Takoma Park, following the Spanish-speaking community as they moved out to “more affluent neighborhoods.” The Ontario was purchased by Paul S. Tauber and Herb White, proprietors of the then-popular Columbia Station bar and restaurant in Adams Morgan, for $400,000 – less than the original cost of the building. Tauber and White re-opened the theater the first week of January 1977 with a double bill of The Big Bus (1976) and Watermelon Man (1970), and reverted back to the “Ontario Theater” name. While the new owners intended on keeping the Sunday afternoon Spanishlanguage films in the program schedule, Tauber erred in assessing the culture of the neighborhood in a Washington Post article about his purchase of the theater. In that article, Tauber was quoted as saying that “there is no large scale Spanish community left in Adams Morgan.” Furthermore, Tauber cited statistics for the area schools as being composed of 960 Latinos as opposed to 4,400 whites and stated that aside from the weekends, the rest of the week‟s programming at the Ontario would be devoted to “general audience films” (meaning English-language films) – a naïve but loaded cultural bias that the Latin family audiences were something other than “general.” 19 Before jumping right into the Latino community‟s protests over the new owners and program schedule, it is worth mentioning that the Ontario‟s return to Englishlanguage programming was welcomed and celebrated by a new emerging neighborhood demographic – young white artists, journalists, and professionals who were returning to the neighborhood en masse, attracted by its cultural diversity, spacious apartments, and cheap ethnic food. While many neighbors decried the “Georgetownization” of Adams Morgan (in reference to the bourgeois, upscale tastes of the new inhabitants), opening night at the Tauber and White-owned Ontario suggested a more bohemian demographic than that which would have been found in Georgetown, or as it was characterized in the Washington Post, “liberal chic.” The opening night audience of more than 1,000 reportedly spilled out from the seats into the aisles, lounged on the carpeted stairs, drank wine, enjoyed free popcorn, and even passed joints in the enclosed balcony rooms once Mansfield, Stephanie. “Neighborly Party for A Neighborhood Theater.” Washington Post, January 8, 1977. Pg. C1. It is unclear whether this move to the Latino suburbs ever actually occurred.
Mansfield, Stephanie. “„Ontario‟ Opening. Washington Post, January 6, 1977. Pg. D9.