«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 10 set aside for crying children. After the screening, a local rock band played while patrons danced in the aisles, foreshadowing a programmatic shift when the theater transitioned into a live music venue just a couple years later. The general reaction to this new neighborhood demographic was varied, but one thing was clear: whether these white “gentrifiers” were just re-emerging after years of relative dormancy (both Tauber and White had lived in Adams Morgan since the mid-1960s), or if they were true interlopers responsible for displacing the local low-income ethnic population, there was clearly a local desire for a type of entertainment catered directly to their urban, artistic tastes.
Nevertheless, on February 3, 1977, the Council of Latin Agencies led a demonstration at the Ontario, in which more than 200 members of Adams Morgan‟s Latino community marched along Columbia Road for thirty-five minutes, protesting the loss of the only Spanish language theater in Washington and demanding the return of Spanish films to the daily programming schedule. The protesters also demanded an apology from Tauber for his previous comments in the Washington Post regarding the disappearance of the Spanish community from Adams Morgan, issuing a statement in Spanish that translated to “Who says we don‟t exist?” Claiming that he was misquoted and that the media reportage had been “insensitive,” Tauber apologized to the Latino community and issued his own statement that the Ontario would continue to show Spanish films on Sundays. While the protesters sang and marched along the sidewalk, co-owner Herb White reflected from inside the theater, “It‟s very important for the Latin American community to be able to demonstrate their own unity.” 20 Tauber and White certainly personified a cultural, demographic, and economic shift in Adams Morgan that could be classified as gentrification, Georgetownization, or any other related term. However, it is also necessary to consider the liberal political outlook held by this emerging urban community, and the drastic differences in language, tone, and attitudes they held in comparison to earlier inner city whites of the 1950s and 1960s. Even though Tauber‟s reported statements about the loss of Adams Morgan‟s Latin population were inaccurate, and even though the theater was no longer devoted Mansfield, Stephanie. “Protest at the Ontario.” Washington Post, February 4, 1977.
38th Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies -- Rubin Page 11 exclusively to Spanish films, the new Ontario was not operating in outward opposition to the multicultural neighborhood, but rather, reflecting change as it occurred in real time.
Nevertheless, on February 3, 1977, the Council of Latin Agencies led a demonstration at the Ontario, in which more than 200 members of Adams Morgan‟s Latino community marched along Columbia Road for thirty-five minutes, protesting the loss of the only Spanish language theater in Washington and demanding the return of Spanish films to the daily programming schedule. The protesters also demanded an apology from Tauber for his previous comments in the Washington Post regarding the disappearance of the Spanish community from Adams Morgan, issuing a statement in Spanish that translated to “Who says we don‟t exist?” Claiming that he was misquoted and that the media reportage had been “insensitive,” Tauber apologized to the Latino community and issued his own statement that the Ontario would continue to show Spanish films on Sundays.
While the protesters sang and marched along the sidewalk, co-owner Herb White reflected from inside the theater, “It‟s very important for the Latin American community to be able to demonstrate their own unity.” 21 In 1979, Tauber and White sold the Ontario to promoter Sam L’Hommedieu, coowner of the Cellar Door nightclub and concert promotion company of the same name.
L’Hommedieu intended on using the theater for both live concerts and triple-feature film programs, mostly of the kung fu and horror variety, with Spanish films shown on the weekends. Soon after acquiring the property, L’Hommedieu hired Seth Hurwitz, then a young local disc jockey, to manage the theater and program films as a salaried employee.
L’Hommedieu only owned the theater for a year before selling it to Carlos Rosario, who was then a prominent and respected leader in the Washington D.C. Latino community with a strong interest in continuing the tradition of showing Spanish-language films on the weekends. In 1980, Hurwitz approached Rosario with a proposition: in exchange for scheduling the weekday film program and managing the theater for $50 a week, Rosario would grant Hurwitz exclusive access to the auditorium for live concerts at the rate of $700 for weeknight bookings and $850 for weekend shows. Rosario agreed to the terms Mansfield, Stephanie. “Protest at the Ontario.” Washington Post, February 4, 1977.
38th Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies -- Rubin Page 12 of the deal, and with the special arrangement sealed, Hurwitz began his career as one of D.C.’s most prolific live music promoters.
On weekday afternoons, Hurwitz programmed triple features with a “three films for three dollars” gimmick, and often played more artistically acclaimed films, such as Martin Scorsese‟s Taxi Driver (1976) or David Cronenberg‟s Videodrome (1983), in between typical “grindhouse” flicks. However, Hurwitz‟s interests were firmly in putting on live music shows. The first events Hurwitz promoted at the Ontario combined rock bands with movies, including a sold-out screening of Rock n’ Roll High School (1979), attended by the Ramones with performances by local bands, and a screening of The Punk Rock Movie (1978) sharing the bill with D.C. punks the Slickee Boys. (The iconic “psychobilly” band the Cramps were also billed to play, but cancelled at the last minute.) Soon after those early shows, Hurwitz, along with partner Rich Heinecke, began to book bands exclusively, and from 1980 to 1984, they brought to the Ontario stage such acts as Magazine, Squeeze, the Go Gos, X, the Stray Cats, Joan Jett, Gary Numan, Minor Threat, Public Image Ltd., Iggy Pop, and U2 with opening act Bow Wow Wow. According to Hurwitz, U2‟s guitarist, The Edge, commented upon arriving at the theater in December 1981 that this show was the first time U2 had shared a headlining bill with another band.
Hurwitz continued to book acts that catered to the tastes of an edgier, artier musical audience that was emerging in the D.C. area at the time. During these years, Hurwitz turned the Ontario into the primary venue in the District to see some of the most acclaimed punk, new wave, and rock n’ roll musicians of the era. By mid-decade, he began booking shows at the 9:30 Club on F Street NW, a venue he later purchased and eventually moved into the former WUST Radio Music Hall building near the U Street district, where it still thrives today. After a final show by band Aztec Camera on April 3, 1985, the days of the Ontario as a live concert venue in the heart of Adams Morgan were officially over, and the theater would once more enter a new phase of existence – but this time with a much more uncertain future.
The Ontario Goes Dark (1985-Present) Hurwitz, Seth. Interview by author. Bethesda, MD. March 31, 2011.
38th Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies -- Rubin Page 13 During the 1980s, the Ontario Theater became not just a local gathering spot for the Adams Morgan community, but also a destination for young music fans living in the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia to come see some of their favorite touring bands as they passed through town. On weekends, Spanish-language films were still screened for the neighborhood‟s Latino population; on weekdays, English-language films catered largely to the neighborhood‟s African American and white populations. But as had happened so many times before, the hour of change again fell upon this once-stately, now quirky and eccentric, neighborhood institution.
In 1983, the property was sold to the local Circle Theatres chain, and by 1984, Hurwitz had left the theater to book shows at other venues, including the famed 9:30 Club. In 1985, Circle Theatres completed a cosmetic renovation on the Ontario, its first major overhaul after years of heavy use and deterioration. Re-upholstered seats, new carpeting, a fresh coat of paint, and a new screen and stereo system were installed, and plans were made to divide the spacious balcony level to accommodate three screens, essentially converting the Ontario into a multiplex (due to architectural complexities, this last change never actually occurred). For the first time in nearly 15 years, first run movies were added back to the program schedule, with the balcony cinemas intended to be used to show “art films and movies for a sophisticated market.” At the time of the renovation, Circle Theatres C.E.O. Thomas Perakos reflected, “The neighborhood of Adams Morgan is prime for this type of revitalization.” He continued, “The scores of unique shops, restaurants and rapid rebirth of the community show us that there is a tremendous potential for this theater.” Once again, Perakos evokes “rebirth” and “revitalization” as active buzzwords to justify making new changes to a continuously vibrant urban community.
Notably absent from the new business plan were any intentions to cater to the neighborhood‟s Spanish-speaking community. “This change is a big change for us,” said Columbia Road record store owner Maria “Coco” Bueno, referencing a time that the Ontario had been a meeting place for the Latin community, including both established families and recently arrived immigrants from South and Central American countries.
Bueno added, “We‟re taking a big step backward. What happens to us now? Where do we go?” While Bueno‟s concerns were unambiguous and direct, Circle Theatres 38th Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies -- Rubin Page 14 representative Freeman Fisher reported at the time that he had received “no complaints from the Hispanic community about the demise of the weekend Spanish films,” and that if the company finds there is a market for it, Spanish films could potentially be shown on one of the smaller screens. In the same article, Fisher was quick to qualify, “Right now, with only one screen, we can‟t show [Spanish films]…you can‟t interrupt the screening of a first run movie to show something else on the weekends.” 23 Despite the renovations and new/old use, Circle Theatres was not able to bring the theater back to what it had once been in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1987, after outlasting so many of its contemporaries, the Ontario Theatre finally closed. Circle Theatres claimed that the auditorium was a victim of its size and location – a statement largely based in the company‟s primary focus on building and operating suburban multiplexes, which by then had become the norm in theatrical exhibition. The last show to run at the Ontario was a 9:00 p.m. screening of martial arts film “American Ninja 2,” which was attended by about 60 patrons. Fisher added that due to a lack of public transportation and parking, Adams Morgan was simply “not populated enough” to support so large a theater. Just as he did two years previous when he essentially silenced Adams Morgan‟s Latino community by insisting that no complaints had been registered over changes to the program schedule, Freeman added insult to injury by assuming that the neighborhood‟s population is the reason why the theater failed under his company‟s management. While it is certainly fair to admit that the 1980s were a trying time for inner city neighborhoods in Washington, and that the economic climate was just no longer conducive to operating a large single screen movie theater or concert venue in Adams Morgan, it is remarkable how the character of a community can be so easily altered by outside fictions and fantasies pertaining the urban communal landscape.
While the story of the Ontario Theatre as a gathering place in the community to see films, music, and art events ended in the 1980s, the building has remained a distinctive part of Adams Morgan‟s built environment for nearly 25 years since its premature closure. Retail spaces built into the property have operated off and on for Marberry, Craig. “Cinematic Comeback.” Washington Post, July 8, 1985. Pg. B1.
Horowitz, Sari and Marin Weil. “Ontario‟s Final Fade.” Washington Post, May 11,
1987. Pg. D1.