AFI Silver Theatre celebrates its 75th anniversary

A look at the AFI Silver Theatre today and in 1938. (Courtesy AFI Silver Theatre)
Billy Wilder's "Stalag 17" shows on the marquee of the AFI Silver Theatre in 1953. (Courtesy AFI Silver Theatre)
"High Noon" plays on the silver screen at the Silver Theatre, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary by recreating the opening night. (Courtesy AFI Silver Theatre)
Here's what the AFI Silver Theatre looks like today. (Courtesy AFI Silver Theatre)
Here's what the AFI Silver Theatre looked like in 1938. The new theatre was made to look just like it. (Courtesy AFI Silver Theatre)

WASHINGTON – Sunday marks the 75th anniversary of the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Md.

And what better way to celebrate than to recreate the opening night with the same screenings?

“Sept. 15, 1938 is literally the day it opened,” says AFI Silver Theatre Director Ray Barry.

“Months ago, the Silver Spring Historic Society emailed us saying we have a copy of the original printed program, and that started us thinking, ‘We could recreate this program and it would really be a great way to mark 75 years in this building.'”

Opening Night Recreation: News Parade of 1938, ‘Cracked Ice,’ ‘Four Daughters’ (1938)

Sunday, Sept. 15, 2 p.m.

Cost: Free

The main event is Sunday’s free opening night re-creation, hosted by ABC-7’s Arch Campbell, along with opening remarks by AFI Silver Theatre Director Ray Barry, Montgomery County Council President Nancy Navarro and other local lawmakers.

The opening night recreation will feature a 1938 newsreel called “News Parade of 1938,” donated by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The newsreel will touch on a number of pre-war news events, billed with classic headlines: “Aviation: Howard Hughes’ conquest of time and space! – Nature’s fury in 1938! – Year’s most spectacular fire! – 1938’s strangest human drama! – War! Japan’s conquest of China! – Crisis in Europe! Austria seized! – Czechoslovakia divided – Peaceful interlude! – War clouds! Europe mobilizes! – “Peace” pact signed at Munich! – America rallies for tolerance! – America re-arms against tyranny!”

The newsreel will be followed by the animated short “Cracked Ice” and the feature presentation “Four Daughters,” which paired Claude Rains with writer Julius J. Epstein and director Michael Curtiz four years before they collaborated on “Casablanca” (1942).

‘Carefree’ (1938)

Friday, Sept. 13, 3:15 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 14, 1:15 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 15, 12 p.m.; Monday, Sept. 16, 5 p.m.

Cost: $5

Throughout the weekend, the AFI Silver Theatre will also screen other films from the inaugural year. These include the final Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers picture “Carefree,” directed by the most prolific Astaire- Rogers director, Mark Sandrich, who directed them in “The Gay Divorcee,” “Top Hat,” “Follow the Fleet” and “Shall We Dance.”

‘The Lady Vanishes’ (1938)

Friday, Sept. 13, 5 p.m.; Sat, Sept. 14, 3:10 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 15, 11 a.m., 7 p.m.; Tuesday, Sept. 17, 7 p.m.

Cost: $5

The series also includes Alfred Hitchcock’s mystery/thriller “The Lady Vanishes,” about an elderly woman who goes missing on a train ride through continental Europe. Not only is it Hitchcock’s second to last film before coming to America, it’s arguably his greatest British film.

‘Bringing Up Baby’ (1938)

Saturday, Sept. 14, 5:15 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 15, 9 p.m.

Cost: $5

It’s not often you can watch two of history’s greatest actors together in the same movie. Director Howard Hawks provided that chance with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in the ultimate screwball comedy “Bringing Up Baby.”

‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ (1938)

Saturday, Sept. 14, 11:05 a.m.; Sunday, Sept. 15, 4:45 p.m.; Tuesday, Sept. 17, 4:45 p.m.; Wednesday, Sept. 18, 4:45 p.m.

Cost: $5

Finally, you can get “In like Flynn” with Errol Flynn’s swashbuckler “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”

It’s considered by many the definitive version of Sherwood Forest and a watershed moment in Technicolor, a year before Dorothy opened the door in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939). This is the screening Barry is most looking forward to, saying, “We all have childhood memories, and for some reason, this one just clicked.”

The History

“We could have gone a lot of ways on film titles, but what we tried to do was a representative sampling of films that were iconic at the time, conveyed the period and were good movies, too,” says Barry.

“Those are terrific films and capture what movies were in ’38 and what they meant to America.”

A lot has changed in America since 1938, and the Silver Theatre has seen it all.

“It has a pretty checkered life from high points to low points back to high points again,” says Barry.

When the Silver Theatre first opened on Colesville Road in 1938, it was a Warner Theater in the days of vertical integration in the old studio system. The idea was for the theater to serve as an anchor for a commercial retail shopping center that would be one of the first accessible by automobile.

“The Downtown Silver Spring area was the biggest commercial center outside of Downtown D.C. in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s,” says Barry.

“When we move into the 1960s, the whole Washington metro region was expanding greatly, shopping centers were being built, Wheaton Plaza was being built up the street. And the cumulative effect of that was that the commercial district of Silver Spring really had a lot of difficulty and you began to see stores closing. By the ’80s, the vitality of the shopping area had essentially collapsed.”

In the mid ’80s, the Silver Theatre itself closed, sitting vacant for a number of years. The fight to save it began in 1984 when the Art Deco Society of Washington teamed with community members who wished to preserve the theater’s historical value. Then in 1996, Montgomery County gained possession of the Silver and began conversations about what a public-private partnership might look like with the American Film Institute to jumpstart downtown Silver Spring.

“When I first walked in in 1997, it was completely destroyed. Water everywhere. Mold. Virtually nothing left of it,” says Barry.

“We didn’t want to chop up the historic theater, we wanted to really respect it. We spent a lot of time with forensic architects who were peeling back paint and looking for original color schemes and we found scraps of fabric on the wall that we were able to send up to New York and have them reweave these fabrics to get the original look, original carpeting.”

Famed movie palace architect John Eberson helped restore the historic lobby and 400-seat theater with a classic Art Deco design. It was officially bought by the AFI in 1998, and after five years of preparation, it was ready for the grand re-opening in April 2003, hosted by Clint Eastwood.

“When we reopened in 2003, people would walk in, gasp and start crying,” says Barry.

“When you walk into the place, you see a place that is literally what it looked like in 1938, and yet it can do everything a modern theater can do, or a theater in the 1950s or a theater in 1918.”

Indeed, the AFI Silver Theatre can project everything from 70 mm film to 4K Ditigal Cinema. Instead of one main theater, there are now three, and two-thirds of the current theater is now new construction.

Today, more than 200,000 people visit the theater every year. I’ve been obsessed with it over the past decade, not only as a sweet spot for new released, but as my own personal DeLorean to see movies on the silver screen that I wish I were alive to have seen during their original release: “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Jaws,” “Casablanca,” “The Godfather Part II,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” after which Oscar-winning director Milos Forman gave a fascinating Q&A.

Washingtonians are lucky that the L.A.-based American Film Institute picked Silver Spring, of all places, for its East Coast location. The AFI brand adds a certain clout, whether it’s a foreign film series, documentary collection like AFI Docs or silent film with orchestral accompaniment. That’s because the AFI has become a gatekeeper for what’s considered “great” in movie history, from the annual AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, to the annual AFI Awards, naming ten instant classics from each year, to the 100 Years…100 Movies series, ranking the best American films of all time.

In fact, you’ll notice each film’s AFI ranking listed next to the plot description in the lobby brochures, showing where each film fits into the overall arc of movie history. That’s the long-term vision. That’s the historical relevance. That’s past, present and future all rolled into one, housed in Art Deco walls, scented with popcorn butter and lit by a hypnotic projector light on the most Silver of silver screens.

75 years at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring

WTOP’s Film Critic Jason Fraley reports.

Click here for more on the AFI Silver Theatre’s 75th anniversary celebration.

Follow WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on Twitter @AboveTheJFray, read his blog The Film Spectrum or listen Friday mornings on 103.5 FM.

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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