The curtains have risen for the newly renovated Old Greenbelt Theatre. The theatre, owned by the City of Greenbelt and now operated by the nonprofit Friends of the Greenbelt Theatre, held a grand reopening event at the beginning of this summer. The theme was “1938,” going back to the theater’s original opening. The movies were from 1938 and 1939 and so were the prices for tickets, 30 cents for adults and 15 cents for children.
The cinema, located in Greenbelt’s historic Roosevelt Center, had been closed for about a year for the $1.1 million improvement project. Renovations included replacing the electrical wiring and plumbing, gutting and replacing the bathrooms, removing asbestos and lead paint, replacing the concession stand, adding handicap accessibility and restoring the theater’s Art Deco lobby.
Caitlin McGrath is the executive director of the theater and a board member of the nonprofit. She is also a Greenbelt resident and professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Maryland. She describes the result of the project as a single-screen community-based cinema showing a wide variety of independent, art-house, foreign and educational films, as well as the hosting of film series, classes and community events. “Our goal is to best serve our community, and the best way to do that is by showing a wide variety of films that appeal to different groups,” McGrath says.
Completed in 1938, the Old Greenbelt Theatre is an iconic building in Greenbelt, MD, a federally planned New-Deal-era community. Its architecture is known as Streamlined Moderne which celebrated modern, machine-age design of the day. The core of the City of Greenbelt was declared a National Historic District in 1997, with the theatre a prominent reminder of a bygone era of cinema as well as a living institution.
The Theatre, like the supermarket and many other enterprises, initially was run as a cooperative, with members working together to staff the Theater, to make decisions about which films to show, and to determine what concessions to sell. The first screening, which took place on September 21, 1938, was Little Miss Broadway, the musical drama starring Shirley Temple.
When the cinema converted to digital, it could no longer view archival movies (which will never be digitized) due to a projection process damaging to the film. So in a previous fund-raiser, the Greenbelt added a “reel-to-reel” operation using two identical projectors. Now it can play anything and may be the only theater able to make that claim in the whole Washington, D.C. area, besides the big institutional theaters – the American Film Institute and the Library of Congress.
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