AFI's first year in Silver Spring

May 7, 2004, midnight | By Allison Elvove | 16 years, 8 months ago

History and entertainment lie within the theater's walls

As part of the revitalization project of downtown Silver Spring, the American Film Institute (AFI) Silver Theater opened a year ago. Situated between Panera Bread and Round House Theater, the movie theater appears small and out of place. But once you enter through the main doors, you immediately feel like you are stepping into another world where people of all ages, ethnicities and areas are drawn into its historic walls.

In September 1938, the original Silver Theater opened in the same space. Forty-seven years later, the theater closed. Then in the 1990s, Montgomery County took over the building, and with the political support of County Executive Douglas Duncan, the County financed the Silver's rehabilitation.

The long ride

Since 1997, AFI Deputy Director Ray Barry has been deeply involved in the planning for the new theater and says it's been a long but worthwhile endeavor. He emphasizes that it was not an "absolute renovation," since AFI's goal was to construct a "living space" while at the same time creating a similar look to the 1938 theater.

Through his immense research, Barry found that the building where AFI is located today had an uncertain background. "The history is spotty," he says, which seems to also define the bizarre condition the theater space was found in before the County cleaned it for the public's eye. Even though Montgomery County fixed the heating and water leakage in the once-decrepit building, the theater was in terrible conditions: plaster was gone, mold grew all over, broken seats lined the walls and dead pigeons and excess water were in large quantity. "When we came in," Barry recalls, "it was a total wreck. There was little good to say about it."

However, after the rehabilitation, you would never have guessed what was once in the AFI Theater's place; Theater One, with 400 seats, along with two other 200- and 75-seat stadium-seating theaters, all provide audience members with comfortable viewing of hard-to-see films. From a historic perspective, the latter two theaters were simply "built to work," says Barry. They were built as modern theaters, whereas Theater One was constructed to match the original 1938 theater as closely as possible.

The foyer: buying tickets and exploring history

Warner Theater financed the original theater, and world-renowned theater architect John Eberson designed the Silver for its opening in 1938. When the architects considered the layout of the modern theater, they wanted to expand it in size as well as make sure it was historically accurate.

In the foyer, the original box office was "phenomenally small" and did not fit the Americans with Disabilities Act standards, said Barry, so architects ensured the County that the new AFI Silver and box office would be wheelchair accessible. If you stand in the entrance, you can see the marbled walls, which are an accurate reproduction of the 1938 design, and the rubber floor mats, which share close patterns with the originals.

Pictures taken around the Silver's opening in September of 1938 helped Barry, designers, architects and others to get a good idea of what the theater's interior looked like. In the lobby, there are pictures taken from the outside of the Silver, one taken in the 1930s, another in the 1950s and a third in the 1980s; they show the transformation of the architectural changes made to the theater over time.

Theater One: expanded to new heights

One of the first problems with the place was its lack of restrooms. There were only a few stalls, and there was no doubt about it, more restrooms were needed outside the theater doors. Expansion was needed within the theater as well. "We wanted it to be spacious but reasonable," recalls Barry.

Remnants of the original wall fabric were found, but "fifty years of smoking [in the theater] changes the color of the cloth," Barry says. The fabric murals were recreated, and, out of the original 60 colors used, 40 are replicated. All was done to give the space a historical feel as well as to ensure the theater had an elegant appearance.

The central ceiling piece is the original, and plaster and hand paintings from 1938 still exist in the large theater. The first five front rows of seating lie on original concrete as well. The curtain covering the large movie screen in the room's center "was the least documented," says Barry, but AFI was able to closely recreate the grey-and-cream leaf design.

If you walk up towards the stage and look behind the screen, you can see that the retractable sliding panels are built about ten feet from where the 1938 movie screen was set up. The stage was originally 30 feet wide, but the new retractable element allows for a much larger screen so that more diverse types of films, ranging from 16 mm to 35 mm and even 70 mm, can be made available to the public.

Barry says there are only seven theaters in the U.S. that show 70 mm films to the public, which makes sense when you consider how large the screen must be to fit a 70 mm image. To get a better idea of the size, in its negative form, the 70 mm is three times the size of the typical 35 mm film negative. In comparison, the IMAX picture negative is five times the size of the 70 mm.

The projector room: where the magic happens

From the projection booth, you can see AFI's wide range of audio capabilities, from a silent organ to multi-tracks to DDTS, and visual capabilities, such as high definition and digital. Captioning is also provided for the hearing impaired. Down the hall, there are editing and mini-production facilities in which AFI can produce their own trailers and commercials.

Barry recalls that many visitors and filmmakers are always astounded by the facilities and beauty of the new Silver Theater. "[Clint] Eastwood was very impressed at the historicity of it all," Barry says proudly, adding after a pause, "You don't get your films shown in such nice a place [very often]."

The future of downtown Silver Spring

AFI is committed to downtown Silver Spring's revitalization and continued growth. "There are a lot of hurdles [we've encountered]," Barry says. "We can't do this alone." AFI continues to face erroneous perceptions, two of which are that AFI only shows old movies and that there is a lack of available parking and public transportation.

With the opening of the Majestic Theater, a 20-screen stadium seating theater, in Silver Spring, Barry predicts one to two million customers will be attracted yearly. However, he does not think the Majestic will take away AFI patrons. "We're in a different sector of the market. We try to bring what's not available [to the public]."

Barry compares AFI's objectives with those of the new theater: the latter caters to people wishing to see movies just out of Hollywood while AFI provides the public a wider range of films, past and present. AFI may stop showing more current movies such as Mystic River and The Last Samurai because the Majestic will target the contemporary market. The hope is that the two theaters together will be able to offer a greater variety of films to the Silver Spring community.

Although the AFI Silver may seem like it's thrown together in a random part of town as part of a "storefront," as Barry refers to it, the theater is, in fact, a comforting, homey place to go to when the stresses of school and work bear down on you. Whether you want to watch Pink Panther, Lawrence of Arabia, North by Northwest, Casablanca or West Side Story, AFI has it all with a touch of the golden days of Silver Spring to top it off.

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Allison Elvove. Allison Elvove was a Co-Editor-in-Chief of Silver Chips Online during the 2004-2005 school year. She wrote more than 70 articles while on the staff and supervised 40 student journalists, editing articles on a daily basis. During her time as editor, Silver Chips Online won the … More »

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