American Theater (Sylvan Theater)
Constructed in 1913, the Sylvan Theater may be the oldest purpose-built movie theater in Washington, DC.
For over 100 years, the American Theater (also known more commonly as the Sylvan Theater) operated as an entertainment hub and community anchor in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of DC. Designed by prominent local architect Nicholas T. Haller, the Neo-Classical Revival style building is located adjacent to the intersection of Rhode Island Avenue and First Street NW.
The American Theater opened in 1914 in response to national and local desires for spaces built intentionally for viewing films. The motion picture business had grown immensely since the first theater in the District opened in a former storefront in 1906. In the years between 1909 and 1914, fifty-eight new movie theaters opened in the nation’s capital.
In 1930, the company rebranded as the Sylvan Theater, named for manager Sylvan V. Dietz, a prominent local deeply connected to the decade’s film scene. Outside of providing a space for films, the theater hosted local community activities (Boy Scouts events, fundraisers, civic rallies, etc.) from its earliest days.
The Sylvan survived the local decline of movie theater popularity in the 1950s, but closed in 1965 due to a succession of untenable mortgages. The property was sold at bankruptcy auctions in 1967 and 1969 before the renovation of the space by the Back Alley Theater (BAT). Begun in a Capitol Hill garage and literal alleyway, the BAT offered theater programs and educational workshops in playwriting for audience members. Established in 1967, the BAT formed in response to the complete lack of a suitable Black theater program or physical location. With the help of a $5,000 grant from the Institute for Policy Studies, the Back Alley Theater Company renovated the run-down Sylvan theater and offered its first production in 1971.
While the Sylvan had been built for the explicit purpose of viewing films, BAT members reimagined the space, breaking down barriers between audience and performers through the construction of a rough-hewn stage close to seated attendees. The energy was entirely unique and described as such:
“The sound of gospel music fills the air, and from that point on, the audience is as active as any sanctified church congregation during a revival meeting. Foot-patting and hand clapping, this black audience shows its appreciation by participating…It has been said that to be successful black theatre must encompass all the ‘pleasure and passion’ of the church.”
The BAT left the Sylvan by 1973, but the influence it had on the surrounding community was enormous. Research indicates that the BAT’s productions may well have been some of the earliest stage shows in DC to showcase cultural expressions of Black pride that accompanied the political empowerment of the African American community in the 1960s and 1970s. The Back Alley Theater was Washington’s first African American theater company that possessed its own commercial theater, and operated it as a center of community pride and cultural regeneration.
After the BAT’s departure, the Sylvan Theater became a rental space once more. A series of businesses have occupied the building and it continues to hold various stores and restaurants inside its walls today.
DC Inventory: April 25, 2019