Takoma Theatre: Opening Night

Takoma Theater in 1966.
The Historic Takoma Theatre in 1966.

Takoma Village Cohousing is next door to the historic Takoma Theatre. I’ve been trying to revitalize it since 2003. No luck because the owner refuses to sell. For the last few years it has been unused and is sitting empty. The owner has since died leaving the theater to a trust his children control. They also refuse to sell. They have applied to the Historic Preservation Review Board to redevelop it in residential units. With more than 100 windows it will resemble a motel.

The following description is of the theater on opening night July 2, 1923.

The Takoma Theatre Corporation

In 1920, The Takoma Theatre Corporation was formed with the leadership of W. G. Platt, former mayor of Takoma Park, MD, and in 1922, it commissioned John J. Zink to design a theater on the corner of  4th Street NW and Butternut Streets.

Zinc designed the theater in the early Classical Revival style, which contemporaneous reviews called the “Grecian” or “Greek” style. Though it was his first independent commission, it exhibits many of the elements of his mature style in its perfect acoustics, clear sight lines, concern for safety, and the comfortable appointments “of a downtown playhouse.”

From the beginning the theater was intended for community use and the local schools were invited to hold their graduations there. A lecture series was planned for the following fall and the theater would be “given over to all the activities of a town hall.”

In respect for the religious base of the community, the theatre was only open six days a week. Residents were assured that only the best “photo plays” would be shown immediately following their first-run downtown. This would ensure that the films had the “approval of F Street.” The films changed every two days. Admission was 30 cents ($3.20 adjusted for inflation).

With initially announced costs of $120,000 and $130,000, the theater was built for $150,000. Adjusted for inflation this would be $2,031,586 today —and that would be without state-of-the-art equipment and air handling expected by today’s audiences.

The theater opened on July 2, 1923, at 7:30. The headliner was  The Ne’er Do Well from Paramount Pictures featuring Thomas Meighan, Lila Lee, Gertrude Astor, John Miltern, and “others of like talent.” It was accompanied by “Mermaid Comedy” and “Kinograms.” Admission for the opening night was free for both shows.

The Takoma News of July 6, 1923 proclaimed the theater second to none in the District of Columbia in both appearance and in the manner of presenting the program. A reporter for Moving Picture World attended the opening.

The Auditorium

In the original plan, there were 704 seats and standing room for 300. The size of the auditorium was considered sufficient for 750 seats, but Zink chose to make the side aisles wider than were required. This gave a sense of spaciousness and increased safety; the aisles led to exit doors on either side of the stage. The seats were arranged in three sections with two interior and two exterior aisles. The roof rests on iron columns encased in the exterior brick walls. This eliminated the need for supporting columns which would clutter the space and interfere with viewing.

With no sound enhancement, theaters required expert acoustical engineering. The acoustics in the Takoma have been considered perfect by musicians who performed there.

The stage was deeper than current movie theaters because Vaudeville acts appeared before the film showing because no one thought people would come to see just a film. Though there was no orchestra, a pit was built under the stage to allow for possible future needs. Music was provided by an organ installed in a room to the left of the stage with its controls in the orchestra pit along with a boiler and coal-pit.

The lighting in the auditorium was soft and indirect, in multiple colors. Several switches were placed around the auditorium so in an emergency it could be flooded with light.

The auditorium color scheme was old rose, cream, ivory, and gold. It was illuminated by red, white, and blue lights and candelabras attached to the pillars on the walls. The dome in the center was painted with a “cloud effect” and illuminated with white, blue, and green lights on dimmers. Encircling the dome was an intricate gold and cream grillwork in a Greek-inspired pattern. It covered vents through which air is drawn by two large fans on the roof. Six 18-inch electric fans in the auditorium ensured that the air was kept moving.

In the winter the theater was heated with steam radiators on either side of the auditorium in niches built into the walls. The lobby was also heated, which was not always the case in theater of the period. It was 30-feet square with imitation Caen stone walls, a cornice, a marble base, and a ceramic-tile border. The floor of the lobby was composite wood. The walls had four inset panels in blue and gold. This design continued into the vestibule with the addition of poster frames in black and gold.

The Retiring Rooms

On either side of the lobby were the “retiring rooms.” The men’s room on the right, next to the stairs to the projection room and the manager’s private office, was 16-feet square with smoking stands, a library table, and leather upholstered chairs. The adjacent toilet was spacious and “sanitary to the last letter.” The women’s retiring room was 22 by 16 feet and furnished with a Brussels rug, wicker furniture, a dressing table, and “other equipment.” Each of the rooms contained an “icing plant” which guaranteed  “a continuous flow of iced water.”

Projection Room

The projection room was 23 by 18 feet, large for the day, and furnished with two Power type E projection machines and a General Electric generator.  In 1929, an RCA Photophone was installed and the Takoma became the first suburban theater to show films with sound. The projection room contained a lead vault in which the films were stored because they were highly flammable. Projectionist carved their initials into the door as a mark that they had been there and put their lives in danger for the art of film.

The Exterior and Second Floor

The front section of the building was two-stories high. The façade of this section was tapestry brick of an earthy yellow, sandstone, and marble. The first floor contained the lobby, retiring rooms, and theater offices as described above, and two retail spaces. The lower façade, in front of the retail spaces, was wood with large windows. The second floor also featured large wood-framed windows. It is unclear whether there were offices on the second floor or they installed later. The review of the building in Better Equipment said the second floor space  could be “used for a ballroom or for hall or lodge purposes.” This suggests that it was an undivided room of approximately 65 by 30 feet with its own entrance to the right side of the main entrance.

The Takoma was one of the last theaters to include space for retail shops and offices. These  soon disappeared in the design of suburban theaters.The exterior walls of the auditorium, extending more than 100 feet behind, were of red brick. As recorded on the building permit, the original plans included a stucco surface with low-relief Greek-style columns on the long Butternut Street wall. With approval, this was eliminated before construction. A few years later, an application was filed to install awnings over the front windows.

The exterior walls of the auditorium, extending more than 100 feet behind, were of red brick. As recorded on the building permit, the original plans included a stucco surface with low-relief Greek-style columns on the long Butternut Street wall. With approval, this was eliminated before construction. A few years later, an application was filed to install awnings over the front windows.

The Marquee and Rooftop Sign

A large marquee projected over the sidewalk providing illumination and a panel below it announced programs. The recessed center entryway was designed for a ticket booth. When the theater opened it had not been completed but was to be equipped with an “Automatic Ticket Register.” The plan for what is now a parking lot was an “open air park.”

A very large illuminated ironwork sign on the top of the building that could be seen for miles around, and still an icon, announced “Takoma.”

Based on the opening night review in Better Equipment  provided by local resident Robert Headley, author of Cinema Treasures.