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It’s been a rough spring for Washington, D.C., movie buffs. Just as the cherry blossoms heralded the renewal of life, two prime movie houses were suddenly gone in as many weeks. Like the sudden death of any other healthy, vibrant friend, notice of their demise was a cruel and sudden shock. The Avalon. The full legal name of the first decedent was the Cineplex Odeon Avalon, but to its legions of loyal fans it was just the Avalon, a neighborhood asset rather than an entry on a consolidated balance sheet that needed to be erased before becoming a liability. Nearly 80 years old, the Avalon had become the matriarch of D.C. movie-going, its roots extending deep into the silent era. True, the lumpy old seats were brutally uncomfortable, the broad center aisle wasted the best viewing position, and the single ticket-seller was annoyingly slow; but, as in any funeral eulogy, such flaws are readily overlooked. And, as at any wake, I not only recall fondly the superb picture and sound, but summon a personal remembrance as well. When I saw “Schindler’s List” on opening weekend at the Avalon, heads were bowed, lips moved, and many wept along with the kaddish. It wasn’t just a movie, but a moving spiritual experience — and a deeply communal one that could never have occurred in the bowels of a sterile multiplex. And the dearly departed had a sense of humor. Where else could you find a whimsical Sistine-style painting on the ceiling that riffed on the Almighty bequeathing Adam a reel of film? Bethesda Theatre Cafe. This, too, was a venerable venue, but rather than aging gracefully and nervously awaiting its fate, the Bethesda leapt boldly forward into the future. The usual auditorium seating was replaced with an array of tables and comfy chairs, friendly wait staff served real food, and each show began with a great old cornball animation clip (“Let’s all go to the lobby to get ourselves a treat.” Real fans knew all the words). Everyone had a personal sweet spot; mine was in the swivel chairs in front of the closest riser to the screen, a private space awash in the imposing picture and commanding sound. During its last two decades, the Bethesda, for many years known as the Bethesda Cinema & Drafthouse, was different, but lots of fun. It succeeded where so many other theaters failed, treading the perilous line between attempting to enhance the traditional movie experience without ultimately cheapening and degrading it. Ironically, the Bethesda restored much of the spirit of movie-going that drab conventional theaters had lost and that all but a few of the newcomers never even attempted to capture. In many ways, the death of the Avalon and the Bethesda mark the passing of an era. Those of us who remember the wonderful old theaters of our increasingly distant youth are doomed to mourn their passing. It wasn’t just the movies that were gateways to fantasy; the venues themselves paved the way to our escape. Times change, of course, and we can’t have our single-screen palaces back, or even the original Circle, Biograph, or MacArthur. But we still need to see movies as their makers intended. So leave your videos and go find your own cozy spot in the dark where celluloid fantasies can overcome and transport you. And if there’s a lesson to be learned from the sudden demise of the Avalon and Bethesda, do it soon!

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