In my last post, about marvelous movie palaces, I closed with a reverie of my first date in the old Etna (PA ) Theater. The movies and romance have always had a symbiotic relationship, but that little romance did not turn out well, so let’s move on to the Circle Theater in Washington, DC. It’s the late 1970s, I’m a full-scale adult, married with child, job at the National Endowment for the Arts as a magazine editor.
The Circle Theater, a six-block hike away at 2105 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, is a constant temptation. The owners play double bills of foreign films and American classics and change the program every two or three days. You can get a ticket book with 10 tickets for $10, and there’s always something worth seeing at the Circle.
Every month or so the Circle would pull me away from my desk for a spur-of-the-moment matinee. I took a deep Tom Sawyer-style pleasure in playing hooky (though as a conscientious USG mule I did take annual leave for these afternoon hours) and experienced a delightful sense of decadence every time I walked from the sunlit sidewalk into the dark, dark interior of the Circle. It took a while for your eyes to become accustomed to the blackness, and some impromptu comedy skits resulted.
One afternoon I was sitting on the end of an aisle near the back as I always did when a new patron entered and groped his way down the aisle to an end seat a couple rows ahead of me, whereupon he sat down only to discover there was another lone film buff already sitting in that spot. This happened two more times that afternoon before the sat-upon fellow moved to a less attractive perch.
The audience at the Circle, the streetpeople regulars included, knew something about movies and I liked that. There was the afternoon the Bogart movie To Have and Have Not was playing. As the opening titles began to roll, the screen first showed “Starring Humphrey Bogart,” and the audience applauded. ”From a novel by Ernest Hemingway” (more applause). Then a screen “With Walter Brennan and Hoagy Carmichael” and a string of character actors (still more applause). “Introducing Lauren Bacall” (applause swelling higher). “Written by Jules Fuhrman and William Faulkner” (big, big applause). And finally, “Directed by Howard Hawks” (thunderous applause).
The Circle closed in the early 1980s, replaced by a parking garage, a victim of rising DC real estate values. I presume the Etna, the Hickory Drive-In, and my Philly neighborhood theater, the pleasure palaces profiled in part 1, are long gone as well.
These days I have a delightful regular theater – the American Film Institute’s Silver Theater in Silver Spring, MD, a moviehouse whose programmers come up with wonderful movies, old and new; great retrospectives and festivals (e.g., the annual Silverdocs); and the option of microbrewed drafts of beer at your seat as you watch. There’s an old-style big screen and two nicely designed small theaters, with both flat and stadium seating.
I also like the audiences here – quiet and respectful, film-lovers like me, no talkers during the movie. When the film ends, most stay to read all the credits. The Silver is indeed a clean, well-darkened place, but as Giuseppe Tornatore, the writer-director of Cinema Paradiso, knew so well, nothing can match your memories of first love.