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Loew’s Palace Theater.
Photo via Library of Congress

Remembering D.C.’s historic movie theaters

From the Trans-lux to the Dunbar, take a look at the city’s cinematic past

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Loew’s Palace Theater.
| Photo via Library of Congress

Moviegoing is a magical experience. It’s an adventure involving popcorn, sweaty palmed hand holding, giant sodas, and squeaky seats. It’s been around since before Netflix, or Hulu, or your neighbor’s SHOWTIME Anytime password. It can all be traced back to the year 1905 when shop owners John P. Harris and Harry Davis projected the first nickelodeon in the interior of their Pittsburgh storefront. Storefront nickelodeons, such as this one, paved the way for the immersive cinematic experience we enjoy today.

As people’s tastes evolved, so did the locations which provided escape from daily life. Some newer theaters have leather-bound reclining sofa chairs, 3D, or IMAX technology. Consequently, many of the older theaters are less frequented. The edifices have either been demolished, refurbished, or bought out by completely different forms of business. 111 movie theaters have materialized in D.C. Today, only 16 remain. Curbed DC has compiled a list of 10 Washington, D.C., movie theaters that have transformed into something different or that are sadly no longer with us.

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1. Ambassador Theater

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2464 18th St NW
Washington, DC 20009

The Ambassador Theater has a grueling and treacherous history that reads more like a horror story than the tale of a metropolitan movie house. The building that would later become the Ambassador was in its original iteration The Knickerbocker Theater. The structure was built in 1915 for Harry Crandall, a Washingtonian magnate who at the time owned a chain of D.C. theaters. It was designed by the most renowned theater architect in Washington, D.C., Reginald Geare. The three-story building was constructed of limestone on red brick, manufactured in both the Colonial Revival and Neoclassical styles. The auditorium was furnished with 1,700 seats, while the walls and lobby had a graceful, regal, and modest allure.

A large snowstorm hit in the latter part of January 1922. The roof of the Knickerbocker Theater was, unfortunately, poorly constructed. As the orchestra conjured up music during an intermission of the comedy, “Get Rich Quick Wallingford,” the ceiling collapsed under the weight of an accumulative 2 feet of snow, killing 98 theater-goers, and injuring another 136. Crandall was not charged with any culpability, however Geare’s career and reputation were irreparably damaged.

A year after the accident, in 1923, Crandall hired a new architect. His name was Thomas W. Lamb, and he constructed a new theater within the ruined interior of the Knickerbocker. On September 20, 1923, the Ambassador was born with a redone and revamped aesthetic. It was fancier than its predecessor, flaunting a seamless Neoclassical design with 1,800 seats. Television ultimately diminished sales in the 1950s. With fewer and fewer ripped ticket stubs, the Ambassador’s owners decided to flatten the theater in 1969. In 1978, a bank was constructed on the plot of land.

2. The MacArthur Theater

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4859 MacArthur Blvd NW
Washington, DC 20007

The MacArthur was a beloved neighborhood theater that accumulated a rich and storied history over its long tenure. It was built for the people of the Northwest D.C. neighborhood, known as the Palisades, not too far from the D.C.-Maryland boundary and the Potomac River. In true gift fashion, the theater opened on Christmas Day in 1945. The MacArthur started as a single-screen movie house with 1,000 Bodiform seats, a soundproof balcony for mothers with babies, rose-marbled interiors, and blue-canvased walls painted in ornate and florid whites, depicting Greek classical figures holding up the masks of humor and tragedy.

In the beginning, the MacArthur showed mostly second-runs of films, three weeks after they were shown in the more mainstream movie palaces and multiplexes downtown. They also had serialized stories, arthouse films, and newsreels of the Korean War. Residents of the Palisades could return on a weekly basis, learning more and more about their serials, culture, or the state of their nation each time. 

In 1953, the MacArthur was the only theater in the city to show a full-length feature of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. Lines wrapped around the building for a week, while moviegoers excitedly shuffled and waited for entry. In 1979, the MacArthur Theater hosted the world premiere of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” The MacArthur was not only special historically, but to a community that cherished its presence. Bobby, Ethel, Jackie, and John F. Kennedy were known to enjoy and visit the theater on more than a few occasions. 

The movie house became a triplex, three-screen theater in 1982. It was attempting to adapt to a changing market that shifted with time. Patronage continued to fall, however, and in 1997, after 45 years of service, the MacArthur shut down. The building is now used as a CVS, suffering the fate of many former theaters. All that remains of the MacArthur is the sign which bears its name. It perches nostalgically on the front of the pharmaceutical shop. CVS chose not to tear it down, so that the Palisades residents could always remember.   

Photo via NCinDC

3. Dunbar Theater

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1901-1903 7th St NW
Washington, DC 20001

The Dunbar Theater was designed by African-American architect Isaiah Hatton in 1919. The theater opened on October 18th, 1920, sharing the same floor as a retail space. The floors above contained the headquarters of the Southern Aid Society, the oldest African-American life insurance company in the nation, miscellaneous office space, and residences for African-American tenants.

The theater, which was not too far from the historic Howard Theater, came to be in a time when prejudice and discrimination were intensifying due to institutionalized Jim Crow laws. The 350-seat auditorium was both an oasis and a refuge amidst this growing tension. It provided a segregated community some peace of mind, being that it was a place to relax and kick back and enjoy a good movie. It was a community meeting place and safe haven from the trials and tribulations of the day.

The Dunbar Theater, much like the nearby Howard, also had live entertainment.  The theater was known to host luminary jazz and blues musicians, such as Duke Ellington, who performed there in the 1930s. The live entertainment and movie house was a staple of the African-American community in D.C. for 40 years. It closed in 1960 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. The building remained idle and unused for years until eventually becoming a Wells Fargo bank.  

Photo via Elvert Barnes

4. The Janus 3

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1660 Connecticut Ave NW
Washington, DC 20009

The Janus 1 & 2 opened on July 2, 1965, on the bottom floor of a Dupont Circle area office building. The Janus was one of the first twin theaters in the District, although it would later grow and expand becoming a triplex theater with three screens. It is remembered for its offbeat, unusual aesthetic, which included oddly sloped floors and a giant column in the center of one of the auditoriums. Many felt the theater was particularly ugly, so much so that it was nicknamed “Heinous Janus.”

Despite the purported hideousness of the Janus, the theater was beloved by many for showing alternative and avant-garde films during their 37-year run. They were also known for showing adult movies, a practice that got them briefly shut down by the FBI. The Janus closed in 2002. One of the final films they screened was aptly titled, “Hollywood Ending.” An Italian restaurant, Sette Osteria, now resides in its place.  

Photo via Google Street View

5. The Biograph

Copy Link
2819 M St NW
Washington, DC 20007

The Biograph was a repertory cinema theater showing mostly classic and foreign films. It opened on September 30, 1967, within a converted, old, autobody shop. The inaugural night was attended by five tuxedoed and grinning owners, including Alan Rubin, David Levy, and Leonard Poryles. They were showing two movies that night, Jean-Luc Godard’s, “Masculine-Feminine,” and Jean Renoir’s, “A Day In The Country.” 

The Biograph was known to show week-long festivals of foreign films. They spotlighted nations across the world, including, but not limited to, England, Russia, and Japan. They would have expositions on particular directors, such as Akira Kurosawa, and Francois Truffaut. When customers went to the Biograph, they knew they were getting not only entertainment but an education on movies. These films weren’t mainstream, at least by American standards at that time. This is how the Biograph stayed afloat in a changing market, one heavily influenced by the invention of the VCR

The one-screen movie house welcomed customers who knew what they wanted. Some were curious hippies, film buffs, and intellectuals with niched tastes. Others were happy-go-lucky families watching samurai films, paying a nickel in the lobby’s coin-operated animation machine to watch a flip film of Felix the Cat. The Biograph had many, many, patrons. They all seem to remember the movie palace fondly. The Georgetown staple had a nearly thirty-year run, closing in 1996. The building lives on, as a CVS. 

The site currently houses a CVS.
Photo via Google Street View

6. Playhouse Theater

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727 15th St NW
Washington, DC 20005

This upscale Neoclassical building that would later become the Playhouse Theater started off as a brokerage house. It was built in 1908 and was designed by architect Paul Pelz. In 1948, the building became a fully functioning movie theater with gray- and coral-colored interiors, 400 seats, and a mezzanine floor. In its inception, the lavish movie palace was something of a draw. On opening night, the then-President’s wife, Mrs. Truman, and her daughter, Margaret Truman, sat in attendance. They were watching the film, “The Search,” a post-war drama centered around a 9-year-old survivor of Auschwitz and an American G.I. Truman was the sitting president at the end of WW2, so this film must have resonated on a profound level with his moviegoing family.

In 1959, the Playhouse Theater was bought out by the Trans-Lux theater company. For many years, it was a respectable establishment, showing mostly arthouse and foreign films. In the late 1960s, due to a falling patronage, the Playhouse Theater began showing adult fare. It closed in 1984, becoming a restaurant, then a copy shop, and later an office building. Currently, it is a night club, catering to mature audiences only.

7. The Trans-lux

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738 14th St NW
Washington, DC 20005

The Trans-Lux, designed by Thomas W. Lamb, was an illustrious edifice that seemed transposed from a film noir caper. The elegantly sprawling Art Deco theater opened in 1937, about a block from the White House, between New York Avenue NW and H Street NW. The theater had 600 blue leather seats and was one of the first to have sound absorbent walls, indirect lighting, rear screen projection, spaced out seating arrangements, and, most importantly, was one of the first public buildings in D.C. to have air conditioning. The interior of the theater was covered in murals of sports, painted by the talented New York-based artist Andre Hudiakoff. 

The auditorium was unique in that it showed, primarily, newsreels spanning the globe, shorts, comedies, and travelogues. As such, patrons would come and go when they felt they had their fill of entertainment and information. It took a little over a decade, but in 1948 the Lux began showing feature films. This market flexibility contributed to the ongoing success of the theater.  

The marquee was a tall aluminum tower, which held glowing letters of the cinema’s name, “TRANS LUX,” down the side. The looming grey edifice was considered an architectural treasure, so much so, that Art Deco enthusiasts still lament its demise. It was bought out by Don King’s theater group from 1973 to 1974. It was renamed Town II Theater during those years. It was demolished in 1975 to make way for a parking lot, much to the chagrin of Washingtonian preservationists.

Photo via pat padua

8. RKO Keith’s Theater

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619 15th St NW
Washington, DC 20005

The building, which would one day become RKO Keith’s, was an architectural marvel in its time. The edifice was built in 1912 as a both an office building (Riggs Building) and a dignified vaudevillian theater. It was designed by one of Washington, D.C.’s most influential architects, Jules Henri de Sibour, who also designed the Hamilton Hotel on 14th Street. The theater was a big one, stretching for six stories, with 1,838 seats upholstered in red Spanish leather, walls of crimson silken tapestry, and a swooping wine-colored curtain that was fringed with gold. The lobby was constructed of Siena marble, there was an oaken promenade below the auditorium with two libraries, a Turkish bath, a huge barber shop, 25 dressing rooms, and of course, added housing for the stage animals.

In the latter part of 1912, the vaudevillian section of the building was leased to B.F. Keith. Keith was a big deal on the East Coast, a producer renowned for clean and proper shows that appealed to highbrow audiences. President William Howard Taft was in the audience on opening night and Woodrow Wilson was a regular attendee during his tenure as President for the theater’s Saturday performances. The motion picture soon took over, however, and in 1928 Keith added feature films to the bill. In 1932, the site reinvented itself strictly as a movie house.

The building held a special place in the hearts of many Washingtonians. Within its stately limestone exterior whole worlds materialized for the better part of a century. Unfortunately, in 1978, after 46 years as a movie theater and 66 as just a theater in general, RKO Keith’s closed for good. The interior of the edifice was torn away by developers who had every intention of razing the whole building. Thanks to protests from D.C. preservationists and select government officials, the facade of the building remains to this day. It is a reminder of Washington, D.C.’s exciting and extravagant past.

Photo via Google Street View

9. Loew’s Palace Theater

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1306 F St NE
Washington, DC 20002

Loew’s Palace Theater opened on November 4, 1918. It was the first of its kind. The pioneering establishment was the beginning of the Washingtonian movie palace. The edifice was designed by prolific theater architect Thomas W. Lamb. Lamb went on to create countless wonders such as The Gala Hispanic Theater, the Trans-Lux, and the Ambassador. Loew’s Palace was as its name implies, palatial. It was a huge and magnificent construction. The single-screened theater was accompanied by 2,423 seats, an upper balcony, an orchestral section for intermissions, balconied wall boxes, a grand and stunningly constructed lobby, and a giant-sized curtain. 

1926 was a transformative time for Loew’s Palace Theater. It was the year the company added stage shows to their schedule. This, it believed, would spice up their billings and give theatergoers a more immersive experience. It also became the first D.C. movie theater to install air conditioning. The stage shows only lasted a mere six years, ending in 1932. The air conditioning had more longevity, remaining for decades to come.

In 1964, Loew’s decided to refurbish the entire theater. This was an attempt to restore the liveliness and patronage they had once enjoyed. They applied fresh coats of paint to the interior, ripped up the old carpets and put down some new ones, and removed the orchestra and balcony wall boxes. Four years later, in 1968, a crime ensued at the Palace. Armed assailants in the process of robbing the theater shot and wounded two people. The following year, the theater was put up for sale. It would remain an opulently constructed anachronism for another 10 years. Loew’s closed in 1978. It was toppled in the latter part of 1979. 

Photo via Library of Congress

10. The Naylor Theatre

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2834 Alabama Ave SE
Washington, DC 20020

November 1, 1945, was a monumental time in D.C. history. As the war overseas was coming to an end, The Naylor Theatre was just beginning. The Southeast D.C. movie house screened a double feature on its inaugural night. The movies shown were “Pride of the Marines” and “The Palestine Problem.” Both films starred John Garfield, an actor that very few know today. The Naylor was designed by architect John J. Zink, who went on to design a few other notable movie houses including The Senator, The MacArthur, The Apex Theater, and The Ambassador in Baltimore. 

The Naylor was unique in that it was the largest movie house east of the Anacostia River. The theater boasted 990 seats, a lush community room above the lobby, a nursery furnished with 24 seats, and a personal 33-seated movie viewing area for private parties. The nursery and the private viewing area were situated on opposite sides of the projection booth, closed in by plate-glass fronts.

Being the large theater that it was, an astute journalist prophesied that it would take 25 years for the Southeast community to outgrow the Naylor. The journalist may have been a Nostradamus reincarnate as the Naylor closed approximately 25 years later in 1970. The building is used today as a CVS Pharmacy.

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1. Ambassador Theater

2464 18th St NW, Washington, DC 20009

The Ambassador Theater has a grueling and treacherous history that reads more like a horror story than the tale of a metropolitan movie house. The building that would later become the Ambassador was in its original iteration The Knickerbocker Theater. The structure was built in 1915 for Harry Crandall, a Washingtonian magnate who at the time owned a chain of D.C. theaters. It was designed by the most renowned theater architect in Washington, D.C., Reginald Geare. The three-story building was constructed of limestone on red brick, manufactured in both the Colonial Revival and Neoclassical styles. The auditorium was furnished with 1,700 seats, while the walls and lobby had a graceful, regal, and modest allure.

A large snowstorm hit in the latter part of January 1922. The roof of the Knickerbocker Theater was, unfortunately, poorly constructed. As the orchestra conjured up music during an intermission of the comedy, “Get Rich Quick Wallingford,” the ceiling collapsed under the weight of an accumulative 2 feet of snow, killing 98 theater-goers, and injuring another 136. Crandall was not charged with any culpability, however Geare’s career and reputation were irreparably damaged.

A year after the accident, in 1923, Crandall hired a new architect. His name was Thomas W. Lamb, and he constructed a new theater within the ruined interior of the Knickerbocker. On September 20, 1923, the Ambassador was born with a redone and revamped aesthetic. It was fancier than its predecessor, flaunting a seamless Neoclassical design with 1,800 seats. Television ultimately diminished sales in the 1950s. With fewer and fewer ripped ticket stubs, the Ambassador’s owners decided to flatten the theater in 1969. In 1978, a bank was constructed on the plot of land.

2464 18th St NW
Washington, DC 20009

2. The MacArthur Theater

4859 MacArthur Blvd NW, Washington, DC 20007
Photo via NCinDC

The MacArthur was a beloved neighborhood theater that accumulated a rich and storied history over its long tenure. It was built for the people of the Northwest D.C. neighborhood, known as the Palisades, not too far from the D.C.-Maryland boundary and the Potomac River. In true gift fashion, the theater opened on Christmas Day in 1945. The MacArthur started as a single-screen movie house with 1,000 Bodiform seats, a soundproof balcony for mothers with babies, rose-marbled interiors, and blue-canvased walls painted in ornate and florid whites, depicting Greek classical figures holding up the masks of humor and tragedy.

In the beginning, the MacArthur showed mostly second-runs of films, three weeks after they were shown in the more mainstream movie palaces and multiplexes downtown. They also had serialized stories, arthouse films, and newsreels of the Korean War. Residents of the Palisades could return on a weekly basis, learning more and more about their serials, culture, or the state of their nation each time. 

In 1953, the MacArthur was the only theater in the city to show a full-length feature of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. Lines wrapped around the building for a week, while moviegoers excitedly shuffled and waited for entry. In 1979, the MacArthur Theater hosted the world premiere of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” The MacArthur was not only special historically, but to a community that cherished its presence. Bobby, Ethel, Jackie, and John F. Kennedy were known to enjoy and visit the theater on more than a few occasions. 

The movie house became a triplex, three-screen theater in 1982. It was attempting to adapt to a changing market that shifted with time. Patronage continued to fall, however, and in 1997, after 45 years of service, the MacArthur shut down. The building is now used as a CVS, suffering the fate of many former theaters. All that remains of the MacArthur is the sign which bears its name. It perches nostalgically on the front of the pharmaceutical shop. CVS chose not to tear it down, so that the Palisades residents could always remember.   

4859 MacArthur Blvd NW
Washington, DC 20007

3. Dunbar Theater

1901-1903 7th St NW, Washington, DC 20001
Photo via Elvert Barnes

The Dunbar Theater was designed by African-American architect Isaiah Hatton in 1919. The theater opened on October 18th, 1920, sharing the same floor as a retail space. The floors above contained the headquarters of the Southern Aid Society, the oldest African-American life insurance company in the nation, miscellaneous office space, and residences for African-American tenants.

The theater, which was not too far from the historic Howard Theater, came to be in a time when prejudice and discrimination were intensifying due to institutionalized Jim Crow laws. The 350-seat auditorium was both an oasis and a refuge amidst this growing tension. It provided a segregated community some peace of mind, being that it was a place to relax and kick back and enjoy a good movie. It was a community meeting place and safe haven from the trials and tribulations of the day.

The Dunbar Theater, much like the nearby Howard, also had live entertainment.  The theater was known to host luminary jazz and blues musicians, such as Duke Ellington, who performed there in the 1930s. The live entertainment and movie house was a staple of the African-American community in D.C. for 40 years. It closed in 1960 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. The building remained idle and unused for years until eventually becoming a Wells Fargo bank.  

1901-1903 7th St NW
Washington, DC 20001

4. The Janus 3

1660 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20009
Photo via Google Street View

The Janus 1 & 2 opened on July 2, 1965, on the bottom floor of a Dupont Circle area office building. The Janus was one of the first twin theaters in the District, although it would later grow and expand becoming a triplex theater with three screens. It is remembered for its offbeat, unusual aesthetic, which included oddly sloped floors and a giant column in the center of one of the auditoriums. Many felt the theater was particularly ugly, so much so that it was nicknamed “Heinous Janus.”

Despite the purported hideousness of the Janus, the theater was beloved by many for showing alternative and avant-garde films during their 37-year run. They were also known for showing adult movies, a practice that got them briefly shut down by the FBI. The Janus closed in 2002. One of the final films they screened was aptly titled, “Hollywood Ending.” An Italian restaurant, Sette Osteria, now resides in its place.  

1660 Connecticut Ave NW
Washington, DC 20009

5. The Biograph

2819 M St NW, Washington, DC 20007
The site currently houses a CVS.
Photo via Google Street View

The Biograph was a repertory cinema theater showing mostly classic and foreign films. It opened on September 30, 1967, within a converted, old, autobody shop. The inaugural night was attended by five tuxedoed and grinning owners, including Alan Rubin, David Levy, and Leonard Poryles. They were showing two movies that night, Jean-Luc Godard’s, “Masculine-Feminine,” and Jean Renoir’s, “A Day In The Country.” 

The Biograph was known to show week-long festivals of foreign films. They spotlighted nations across the world, including, but not limited to, England, Russia, and Japan. They would have expositions on particular directors, such as Akira Kurosawa, and Francois Truffaut. When customers went to the Biograph, they knew they were getting not only entertainment but an education on movies. These films weren’t mainstream, at least by American standards at that time. This is how the Biograph stayed afloat in a changing market, one heavily influenced by the invention of the VCR

The one-screen movie house welcomed customers who knew what they wanted. Some were curious hippies, film buffs, and intellectuals with niched tastes. Others were happy-go-lucky families watching samurai films, paying a nickel in the lobby’s coin-operated animation machine to watch a flip film of Felix the Cat. The Biograph had many, many, patrons. They all seem to remember the movie palace fondly. The Georgetown staple had a nearly thirty-year run, closing in 1996. The building lives on, as a CVS. 

2819 M St NW
Washington, DC 20007

6. Playhouse Theater

727 15th St NW, Washington, DC 20005

This upscale Neoclassical building that would later become the Playhouse Theater started off as a brokerage house. It was built in 1908 and was designed by architect Paul Pelz. In 1948, the building became a fully functioning movie theater with gray- and coral-colored interiors, 400 seats, and a mezzanine floor. In its inception, the lavish movie palace was something of a draw. On opening night, the then-President’s wife, Mrs. Truman, and her daughter, Margaret Truman, sat in attendance. They were watching the film, “The Search,” a post-war drama centered around a 9-year-old survivor of Auschwitz and an American G.I. Truman was the sitting president at the end of WW2, so this film must have resonated on a profound level with his moviegoing family.

In 1959, the Playhouse Theater was bought out by the Trans-Lux theater company. For many years, it was a respectable establishment, showing mostly arthouse and foreign films. In the late 1960s, due to a falling patronage, the Playhouse Theater began showing adult fare. It closed in 1984, becoming a restaurant, then a copy shop, and later an office building. Currently, it is a night club, catering to mature audiences only.

727 15th St NW
Washington, DC 20005

7. The Trans-lux

738 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20005
Photo via pat padua

The Trans-Lux, designed by Thomas W. Lamb, was an illustrious edifice that seemed transposed from a film noir caper. The elegantly sprawling Art Deco theater opened in 1937, about a block from the White House, between New York Avenue NW and H Street NW. The theater had 600 blue leather seats and was one of the first to have sound absorbent walls, indirect lighting, rear screen projection, spaced out seating arrangements, and, most importantly, was one of the first public buildings in D.C. to have air conditioning. The interior of the theater was covered in murals of sports, painted by the talented New York-based artist Andre Hudiakoff. 

The auditorium was unique in that it showed, primarily, newsreels spanning the globe, shorts, comedies, and travelogues. As such, patrons would come and go when they felt they had their fill of entertainment and information. It took a little over a decade, but in 1948 the Lux began showing feature films. This market flexibility contributed to the ongoing success of the theater.  

The marquee was a tall aluminum tower, which held glowing letters of the cinema’s name, “TRANS LUX,” down the side. The looming grey edifice was considered an architectural treasure, so much so, that Art Deco enthusiasts still lament its demise. It was bought out by Don King’s theater group from 1973 to 1974. It was renamed Town II Theater during those years. It was demolished in 1975 to make way for a parking lot, much to the chagrin of Washingtonian preservationists.

738 14th St NW
Washington, DC 20005

8. RKO Keith’s Theater

619 15th St NW, Washington, DC 20005
Photo via Google Street View

The building, which would one day become RKO Keith’s, was an architectural marvel in its time. The edifice was built in 1912 as a both an office building (Riggs Building) and a dignified vaudevillian theater. It was designed by one of Washington, D.C.’s most influential architects, Jules Henri de Sibour, who also designed the Hamilton Hotel on 14th Street. The theater was a big one, stretching for six stories, with 1,838 seats upholstered in red Spanish leather, walls of crimson silken tapestry, and a swooping wine-colored curtain that was fringed with gold. The lobby was constructed of Siena marble, there was an oaken promenade below the auditorium with two libraries, a Turkish bath, a huge barber shop, 25 dressing rooms, and of course, added housing for the stage animals.

In the latter part of 1912, the vaudevillian section of the building was leased to B.F. Keith. Keith was a big deal on the East Coast, a producer renowned for clean and proper shows that appealed to highbrow audiences. President William Howard Taft was in the audience on opening night and Woodrow Wilson was a regular attendee during his tenure as President for the theater’s Saturday performances. The motion picture soon took over, however, and in 1928 Keith added feature films to the bill. In 1932, the site reinvented itself strictly as a movie house.

The building held a special place in the hearts of many Washingtonians. Within its stately limestone exterior whole worlds materialized for the better part of a century. Unfortunately, in 1978, after 46 years as a movie theater and 66 as just a theater in general, RKO Keith’s closed for good. The interior of the edifice was torn away by developers who had every intention of razing the whole building. Thanks to protests from D.C. preservationists and select government officials, the facade of the building remains to this day. It is a reminder of Washington, D.C.’s exciting and extravagant past.

619 15th St NW
Washington, DC 20005

9. Loew’s Palace Theater

1306 F St NE, Washington, DC 20002
Photo via Library of Congress

Loew’s Palace Theater opened on November 4, 1918. It was the first of its kind. The pioneering establishment was the beginning of the Washingtonian movie palace. The edifice was designed by prolific theater architect Thomas W. Lamb. Lamb went on to create countless wonders such as The Gala Hispanic Theater, the Trans-Lux, and the Ambassador. Loew’s Palace was as its name implies, palatial. It was a huge and magnificent construction. The single-screened theater was accompanied by 2,423 seats, an upper balcony, an orchestral section for intermissions, balconied wall boxes, a grand and stunningly constructed lobby, and a giant-sized curtain. 

1926 was a transformative time for Loew’s Palace Theater. It was the year the company added stage shows to their schedule. This, it believed, would spice up their billings and give theatergoers a more immersive experience. It also became the first D.C. movie theater to install air conditioning. The stage shows only lasted a mere six years, ending in 1932. The air conditioning had more longevity, remaining for decades to come.

In 1964, Loew’s decided to refurbish the entire theater. This was an attempt to restore the liveliness and patronage they had once enjoyed. They applied fresh coats of paint to the interior, ripped up the old carpets and put down some new ones, and removed the orchestra and balcony wall boxes. Four years later, in 1968, a crime ensued at the Palace. Armed assailants in the process of robbing the theater shot and wounded two people. The following year, the theater was put up for sale. It would remain an opulently constructed anachronism for another 10 years. Loew’s closed in 1978. It was toppled in the latter part of 1979. 

1306 F St NE
Washington, DC 20002

10. The Naylor Theatre

2834 Alabama Ave SE, Washington, DC 20020

November 1, 1945, was a monumental time in D.C. history. As the war overseas was coming to an end, The Naylor Theatre was just beginning. The Southeast D.C. movie house screened a double feature on its inaugural night. The movies shown were “Pride of the Marines” and “The Palestine Problem.” Both films starred John Garfield, an actor that very few know today. The Naylor was designed by architect John J. Zink, who went on to design a few other notable movie houses including The Senator, The MacArthur, The Apex Theater, and The Ambassador in Baltimore. 

The Naylor was unique in that it was the largest movie house east of the Anacostia River. The theater boasted 990 seats, a lush community room above the lobby, a nursery furnished with 24 seats, and a personal 33-seated movie viewing area for private parties. The nursery and the private viewing area were situated on opposite sides of the projection booth, closed in by plate-glass fronts.

Being the large theater that it was, an astute journalist prophesied that it would take 25 years for the Southeast community to outgrow the Naylor. The journalist may have been a Nostradamus reincarnate as the Naylor closed approximately 25 years later in 1970. The building is used today as a CVS Pharmacy.

2834 Alabama Ave SE
Washington, DC 20020