The AFI Silver Theatre almost fell beneath a wrecking ball in the 1990s, but thanks to a passionate and committed effort made by movie lovers and county officials, the theater was saved, restored and reopened.
On Sunday, its operators, the American Film Institute, will celebrate the theater’s 75th anniversary with a free, one-time-only showing of “Four Daughters,” the movie on the marquee when the theater first opened in 1938.
“We’re trying to make it special,” said Ray Barry, director of the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center. “It’s been a central part of the county for 75 years.”
Accompanying the movie on Sunday afternoon will be an eight-minute Warner Bros. cartoon, “Cracked Ice,” featuring a pig who sounds like W.C. Fields scheming to get into the cask of booze carried by a Saint Bernard who rescues people.
Also showing will be a 1938 newsreel, with footage of that year’s huge East Coast hurricane, the Japanese incursion into China and the Nazi takeover of Austria.
Tickets to the first-come, first-served screening will be available when the box office opens late Sunday morning, Barry said.
“Four Daughters” is part of a six-day run featuring four other 1938 movies running several times each day from Friday through Wednesday.
For $5 a ticket, movie lovers can sit back and watch the dashing Errol Flynn in “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” as well as a goofy Cary Grant with Katharine Hepburn and a roving leopard in “Bringing Up Baby.”
Other films include Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood looking for a lost woman on a train in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” as well as Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire sharing their first screen kiss in “Carefree” featuring Ralph Bellamy.
AFI is inviting moviegoers to email their memories of the theater through today for an ongoing celebration this year of the 75th anniversary.
Built in 1938, the 1,000 seat theater owned by Warner Bros. served as the anchor for the then-new Silver Spring Shopping Center, one of the first centers to provide off-street parking in a lot.
“At the time Silver Spring barely qualified as a suburb,” said Barry about the almost rural surroundings of the time.
Designed by Romanian-born architect John Eberson, the Art Moderne (a late form of Art Deco style) building was intended to evoke thoughts of an ocean liner, with a tall silver smokestack on the roof above the entrance and other nautical touches.
Inside were murals of tropical birds, wave-like patterns on the walls and wall sconces with “porthole” lights intended to make patrons feel as they had boarded a ship bound for exotic locales.
Using old photos, restorers were also able to reconstruct the lobby to look almost exactly like it did in the 1930s.
“They identified the original carpeting pattern,” said Barry. “It’s pretty authentic.”
The busy regional shopping center thrived during the 1950s, but in 1960, a new center opened in Wheaton and began to draw business away.
The owners closed the building in 1985 and planned to knock it down in the 1990s, when movie-lovers, preservationists and county officials mobilized to save it.
“The key was finding the right operator,” said Jim Mooney, who at the time was working with County Executive Douglas Duncan to revitalize downtown Silver Spring.
At the same time, the American Film Institute, which had been screening films at the Kennedy Center, happened to be thinking about moving to the suburbs. AFI’s Jean Firstenberg, CEO and president of the group at the time, paid a visit.
“As soon as she saw it, she appreciated the potential,” said Mooney.
With AFI at the helm, the theater reopened in 2003, now with three screens, as the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, offering a year-round program of movies, videos, talks and festivals.
“It’s been 75 years — it seemed noteworthy,” said Barry about marking the first showing of “Four Daughters” with a second.