Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


A pre-selected audience assembled at Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse recently for a special, locally flavored screening.

We were treated to the offbeat rock musical comedy “The Adventures of Buckskin Jack,” written, directed and produced by Arlingtonian Liv Violette and her artsy extended family.

The self-financed film set in pre-Revolutionary Virginia-which Violette is aiming at national distributors-got commercial marquee exposure on Columbia Pike, the crowd got a fun free flick and a party, and the drafthouse got a stream of dinner orders and wait-staff tips.

As an economic model, this was a far cry from the days when the hybrid drafthouse was simply the Arlington Theater, one of a half-dozen cavernous cinemas that became the settings for many highlights of my Arlington youth.

Nowadays I faithfully patronize the trio of still-hanging-in-there multiplexes at Ballston, Courthouse and Shirlington. But somehow their blur of choices and shopping mall surroundings make the visits less memorable than my yesteryear trips to those ornate single-screen emporiums of fantasy.

I decided to conjure up a sort of Arlington theater “revival.” I combined my powers of recall with local history books, a microfilm check of theater listings from the old Northern Virginia Sun and an online search that uncovered a nifty amateur website called cinematreasures.org.

The oldest county cinema I found was the Ashton, which opened in 1927 at 3166 Wilson Blvd (now the heart of yuppie Clarendon). It had been dark since the 1950s when it was demolished in 1974, but I suspect there are Arlingtonians alive who spent some vivid date nights there.

Just down Wilson toward Rosslyn was the Wilson, which opened in 1936 (with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in “Swing Time”) serving nearby Colonial Village apartments. It went under in 1978.

Closer to my North Arlington neighborhood was the Glebe Theater, which opened in 1945 at Lee Highway and Glebe (current site of Duron Paints). In 1965, its name was changed to the Dominion. I have intense memories of seeing Edgar Allen Poe movies there. Its lights went out in 1972.

Arlington’s outdoor cinema, the Airport Drive-In, opened in 1947 on Jefferson Davis Highway and could fit 1,000 cars. It flickered until 1963.

That was about when I became old enough to visit the Buckingham Theater, at Pershing Drive and Glebe. I saw an early ‘60s monstrosity there called “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,” though my mother forbade me from seeing its showing of “Never on Sunday.” It is now a post office.

The Byrd Theater was on Washington Blvd. near South Courthouse Road. It switched from popular fare to skinflicks in the 1970s and was long ago paved over.

A late starter was the Crystal City Theater, which launched in the early 1970s when its namesake was spanking new. It lasted 20 years and is now an auditorium. Just down the road, the Pentagon City Theater launched in 1989, but succumbed in 2003.

Local borders being permeable, we Arlingtonians ventured beyond to the State Theater in Falls Church (now a fine rock venue); the Centre on Quaker Lane; the Tysons on Leesburg Pike; the Annandale (on Little River Turnpike) and the Jefferson (Arlington Blvd. and Annandale Rd.). When we were truly adventurous, we hit the Lee Highway Drive-In (1954-1984) in then-rural Merrifield.

Like seeing “Buckskin Jack” at the drafthouse, going there was half the fun.


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at cclarkjedd@aol.com