Penn Theatre, Washington D.C.

Walking past the Penn Theatre on Pennsylvania  Avenue during a rare return visit to Washington D.C.  I have some vague memories of going there with my parents. According to a family story, as a very young child, I wandered away from my mother during a shopping excursion and found later sitting in the Penn Theatre watching a movie. Why didn’t a doorman or an usher stop me? How did I get past them? These details don’t seem to matter in a family story.

I do remember going to a Halloween show with my father. Don’t recall the long forgotten film but the stage show lingers. Basically a magician/hypnotist did an act that had for a climax a woman from the audience coming up on stage. While he hypnotise her, a clip of  thunder and lightning suddenly flashed on the screen and the Frankenstein monster walked out. We really couldn’t see exactly what was happening on the stage but suddenly the monster stood up holding a woman’s head high. He begun to lumber out into the audience when everything went dark.

Later in the 1960s, I worked there and across the street at the Capitol Hill Theatre (former Avenue Grand), as an usher, doorman, assistant manager and finally manager–all in the space of a few months.

The Penn was one of the first theatres that architect John Eberson designed in a  streamlined art deco style. Built by Warner Brothers it opened December 27, 1935 with Captain Blood starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Haviland. The executive staff of the local Warner Brothers’ offices were there and to show off the acoustics Bert Granoff sang the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

The theatre’s auditorium demolished in 1982 but the art deco façade and for some reason the ticket booth retained as an entrance to offices and condos. This conversion designed by David M. Schwartz/architectural Services has won a few awards for its incorporation and recognition of the past.

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