Georgetown: Then & Again

Georgetown Library

Georgetown: Then & Again

Dumbarton Theater

Six years ago Georgetown architect Robert Bell announced his intention to restore the circa 1950 façade and neon sign of 1351 Wisconsin Ave. N.W., the former Georgetown Theater.  Occupied today by the National Jewel Center, the present street elevation bears no resemblance to the architectural fantasy that greeted customers when the movie theater originally opened nine decades ago as the Dumbarton.

In 1913 Georgetown residents Henry Frain, who lived at 3323 P St. N.W., and William A. Marceron, residing at 2911 Q St. N.W., hired Washington, D.C., architect William C. Nichols to remodel a late 19th-century structure on the east side of Wisconsin Avenue facing O Street.  At the time, Marceron operated a painting, wall papering and interior decorating business. Frain was a painter who possibly was employed by Marceron. Together the partners spent around $2,500 ($54,000 in today’s money) to remodel the structure, resulting in a theater that measured 32’ x 76’ with a seating capacity of about 460.

As the Georgetown Then image shows, the resulting transformation of 1343 Wisconsin Ave. into the “Dumbarton Moving Picture Theater” stood out from everything else in Georgetown, if not in Washington.  Historian James M. Goode said of the theater in Capital Losses:  A Cultural History of Washington's Destroyed Buildings: "...the closest building to art nouveau in Washington – a style never popular in the city – [it] integrated several divergent architectural themes into a carpenter’s fantasy of robust curvilinear shapes.”  While not the first movie theater in Georgetown (the Scenic was the earliest, having opened circa 1907 at 1305 Wisconsin Ave.), the Dumbarton certainly had the most opulent exterior.

Dumbarton TheaterGeorgetown Then.  Dumbarton Theater, 1913. Collection of the Peabody Room.

On the day this photograph was taken, moviegoers, who entered under the monumental Gothic arch with the name DUMBARTON traced in light bulbs, were treated to three silent film shorts. Known as “one-reelers,” these films averaged 10-12 minutes each in length.  Being screened that night was Patheplay’s The Secret Treasure, Vitagraph’s The Treasure of Desert Island (directed by Ralph Ince) and the Sigmund Lubin Film Company’s Self-Convicted. To the left of the entrance can be seen a movie poster announcing the next night’s film as one by the Thomas Edison Company. Unfortunately the title cannot be discerned.

This photo was previously dated as circa 1920, but research of these film titles indicate a more probable year of 1913. The Treasure of Desert Island was released on October 3, 1913, two months after the theater opened. It would make sense that Frain and Marceron would hire a photographer to document their newly opened business.

In 1949 George C. and Peter Heon acquired the theater, known affectionately by then as “The Dump” or “The Dummy,” for $103,000 and renamed it the Georgetown.  An additional $75,000 ($676,000 in today's money) was spent on renovations, resulting in the burial of the “carpenter’s fantasy” under a strata of Formstone. This type of fake stone (along with painted screens) has over the years come to represent the quirkiness and uniqueness of Baltimore. Suffice to say: this exterior cladding is not a material one expects to encounter while walking the streets of Georgetown!

The Georgetown reopened on February 23, 1950, with the 1949 Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn film Adam’s Rib. Forty-six years later it closed on August 28, 1986 with the 1986 Woody Allen film Hannah and Her Sisters.  For those of us around then…who could forget that for the last six years of the theater’s operation there was ONE film screened more than any other, the 1979 X-rated epic Caligula (screenplay by Gore Vidal)?

For three days in July of 1995, the Georgetown was “reborn” when Hollywood came calling and used the theater as a backdrop for the 1997 Charlie Sheen thriller Shadow Conspiracy. The Georgetown Theater’s prominent vertical neon sign was re-illuminated and the 1958 Orson Welles film Touch of Evil was featured on the marquee. Sheen’s role as Bobby Bishop, special assistant to the President of the United States, was forgettable. Welles’s long, single tracking shot sequence that opened Touch of Evil…a classic.  Maybe the Georgetown/Dumbarton Theater can someday be restored to its original 1913 design.

Jerry A. McCoy is the Peabody Room special collections librarian at the Georgetown Neighborhood Library.  If you can share any memorabilia/memories of the Georgetown/Dumbarton Theater, please contact him at 202-727-1213 or by e-mail.

Future historians will thank you.