Tuesday, December 06, 2016
Regal Cinemas Bethesda to close December 15, rest of Apex Building to close the 19th
If you grew up here in the 1990s before Federal Realty's Bethesda Row became the center of town, you'll recall that the plaza outside the Regal Cinemas (though it will forever be referred to as "UA" by most of us, as it was United Artists Bethesda for many years prior) was the place to be on weekend nights. It was absolutely packed. Many dined at the long-gone Uno's in the Apex, where even celebrities like Mike Tyson could be found before or after a film.
To have a movie theater in downtown Bethesda was a novelty as the 80s turned into the 90s. The legendary KB Baronet and KB Baronet West theaters had been demolished to make way for the Bethesda Metro Center and associated redevelopment. The latter theater closed in 1988.
For its time, UA was pretty modern, though it was eventually remodeled with improved seating around the turn of the century. A tuxedoed manager ran a tight ship in the 1990s; when he disappeared, the customer experience began to severely decline in the 21st century. The air conditioning regularly would fail during hot summer nights. Theaters were not cleaned as thoroughly between films. Ushers vanished altogether, leaving moviegoers at the mercy of teenage hoodlums. Patrons had to try to settle disputes themselves. Operators in the projection room might turn your movie up to a deafening level it was never meant to be played at, and just leave the room and let it run. Ditto if something was wrong with the picture, such as the whole picture wavering throughout the movie (Man of Steel) or an endless series of lines rising from the bottom of the picture to the top until the end credits (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy).
And that was if your movie wasn't prematurely ended by a false fire alarm.
Suffering veterans of these experiences began to find their wallets filled with the low-tech "tickets for another movie of your choice" handed out by the manager if you complained - and by 2006, there wasn't anybody to complain to after a late movie let out. Just the janitors vacuuming the floor. Nice.
New management seemed to improve customer service and cleanliness (at least at earlier screenings) in recent years. But even those of us with nostalgia for UA will have to admit the theater is now out of date, and simply does not provide the experience found at IMAX, ArcLight and iPic.
What it continued to provide, however, was convenience and a magnet to bring people to the restaurants and shops in downtown Bethesda. One study showed a cineplex brings 20,000 more people to a downtown on weekends than would ordinarily be there. Carr Properties, which is redeveloping the Apex Building into a promising mixed-use development with three high-rise towers, has said it is inviting Regal Cinemas to be an anchor tenant. Keep your fingers crossed, as the cineplex is critical to the downtown economy, and particularly to restaurants who rely on the "dinner-and-a-movie" crowd on weekends.
Here are some final scenes from the Brown Bag: