The Star Theater, opened in 1906, constituted the first motion picture theater in Washington, DC. Audiences fell in love with similar small neighborhood theaters in the following years; between 1909 and 1914, the number of movie theaters in the District increased from eleven to sixty-nine screens. The 9th Street NW theater district (from Pennsylvania Avenue north to Mount Vernon Square) housed most of these early cinemas, yet subsequent advancements in technology led to better movies, bustling audiences, and bigger theaters on F Street, just west of the first theater district.
Out-of-town architects contributed plans for the larger, more prominent movie theaters, while local architects worked on many neighborhood motion picture houses. One of DC’s earliest theater moguls was native Washingtonian Harry Crandall, whose work ultimately included the Metropolitan, Central, Tivoli, Apollo, Lincoln, Colony, and Savoy Theaters. He was also involved in the construction of the Knickerbocker Theater on 18th Street NW, which became infamous after a roof collapse killed 98 patrons in 1922 (Crandall was cleared of any blame, but haunted by the incident). Crandall became the largest movie theater operator in the city, but was ultimately forced to sell his theaters after the stock market crash of 1929, which led to the Great Depression. Many of Crandall’s theaters were designed by Baltimorean John J. Zink, who drafted the plans and intimately worked on the construction of thirteen of the Capital’s theaters, including the MacArthur, Atlas, and Uptown.
In the early 1940s, the “golden age of Hollywood” struck DC resulting in a high demand for film entertainment. The H Street NE Corridor, “Black Broadway” on U Street NW, and Downtown’s F Street boasted numerous impressive movie houses surrounded by thriving commercial districts. Unfortunately, the loss of population following World War II and the 1968 riots that occurred in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination devastated H Street and resulted in the loss of many movie theaters. Theaters on F Street and U Street also suffered during this time.
In recent years, many of the District’s movie houses continue to serve as theater spaces or have been rehabilitated for new uses. Explore the District’s legacy of motion pictures, movies, and neighborhood entertainment in this collection of historically designated District Theaters.