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New Visions for moviegoers

(Published February 14, 2000)


Staff Writer

Going to the movies in the District often conjures up some less-than-pleasant images for moviegoers.

Few people look forward to waiting in long lines to buy their tickets, only to have to wait in another line on the sidewalk just to get into the theater. Once inside the theaters, patrons wait in yet another line for the chance to plunk down a chunk of change for a quart of soda and a box of stale Milk Duds before they scramble to find the few seats with an unobstructed view of a movie screen that seems barely larger than a projection television.

No wonder the phrase "Letís just wait Ďtil it comes out on video" has become a regular part of our lives.

Andrew Frank wants to change all that.

Frank is renovating the old Embassy theater at 19th Street and Florida Avenue NW into a movie house with its own restaurant and lounge. The new theater will have two screens instead of one, and the larger of the two theaters will have a new luxury balcony. Moviegoers will be able to buy their tickets from any of the servers or bartenders, or they can even order them over the Internet.

In short, Frank wants to create a place where patrons can enjoy movies in a much different way than they are used to.

"Itís not just a film -- itís a whole cultural experience," Frank said.

The refurbished theater, to be called Visions, will feature first-run independent and foreign films along with Middle Eastern and Indian food and a tavern area where patrons can enjoy their drinks either at the bar, on a patio or in the theater itself.

The yellow brick of the Embassy will be torn down and replaced by glass and steel and a large decorative awning. The two theaters will seat about 320 patrons total, with the larger theater having a screen almost as large as the Embassyís used to be.

When it opens in May, it will be the Districtís only independent movie house.

Frank, who also owns Sirius Coffee on Connecticut Avenue in Van Ness, said he started getting the idea to open a movie theater while reading the New York Times. He said he realized that Washingtonians donít have access to the majority of independent and foreign films released in this country. With the demise of the Biograph and Key theaters, the District was left without an independent first-run theater and moviegoers have had to make due with the cityís two chains, Cineplex Odeon and AMC.

Some major figures from the Biograph and the Key helped refine Frankís vision of what he wanted for his project. Frank said former Biograph owner Alan Rubin helped him refine his ideas when he was in the planning stages. Frank also said he has taken on the Keyís former film programmer, Andrew Melcher, to program his films. Frank said he has encouraged Melcher to put his personal imprint on the films he chooses.

"I want my film programmer to have a personality," Frank said, adding that he wants his theater to have an "attitude" of its own.

Not everyone is jazzed about having a new theater experience spring to life, however. At a recent Dupont Circle ANC meeting, neighbors from across Florida Avenue expressed concerns that the new theater and lounge would cause extra traffic and noise in an area where parking is already at a premium. Frank assured them he had already made arrangements with his landlord to provide for parking, and despite the neighborsí concerns, Visions got approvals from both the Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle ANCs.

Frank said heís also excited about the prospect of bringing back some retail foot traffic to that part of Florida Avenue. He wants the bistro open during the day so workers and neighbors in the area can have somewhere new to go for lunch. He insists that what heís building is not just another cinema and drafthouse.

"I want to be able to create experiences for people that improve somebodyís quality of life," he said. "Visions will be dedicated to the love of film as an art form."

The Embassy is a shell right now, with electrical wiring hanging from the ceiling and bare concrete and cinder blocks where the screen used to be. The seats have been removed and concession stands are gone. About the only thing on the building to give newcomers a clue as to what the building used to be is the marquis, which states simply, "Closed."

But as Frank looks around the empty space, his eyes see his vision: a balcony will extend above where heís standing, a bistro and lounge will take up what used to be the lobby, and as he looks at the brick wall that faces Florida Avenue, he sees glass and lots of it.

He also sees customers, lots of them. Itís his vision. Itís his Visions.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator