Monday, March 21, 2011

What Next for The Flower Theatre?

Not far from the downtown Silver Spring and its immaculately-restored Silver Theatre lies another theater from Silver Spring's suburban boomtown heyday - the Flower. While not as old or elegant as the Art Deco Silver, the theater is nonetheless still interesting.

Located on Flower Avenue in the Long Branch neighborhood of Silver Spring, the Flower showed its last film about fifteen years ago. As the owners having been unable to find a suitable tenant for the past three years, the building continues to be available for lease. That's not unsurprising, as the uses for a former movie theater are somewhat limited. It would likely require quite a bit of investment to get this property rehabbed for most commercial uses.

The Flower Today
I have a lot of nostalgia associated with the Flower, as I spent many a weekend afternoon there in my formative years enjoying classic 80's films such as Ghostbusters, Beetlejuice, and others. Even then the threadbare theater was clearly showing its age. Of course, at that time so was the Silver, and that building ultimately became a showpiece of theater restoration.

A short(ish) history of the Flower Theatre:

K-B first opened the single screen, 1,016 seat Flower Theatre on February 15th, 1950. To put its size in perspective, the AFI Silver's main theater has 400 seats and the District's Uptown Theatre presently has 840 (though it originally held 1,364).  At the time it opened, the theater offered 600 parking spots, which can be seen in this 1957 aerial photo of the neighborhood. The film shown on opening night was The Great Lover, starring Bob Hope.

Interior of the Flower Theatre, 1950. Note the flower design on the wall.
The February 12th, 1950 Washington Post provided a preview of the soon-to-be-opened movie house. A few interesting features of the theater were highlighted in the article. One was the Maryland Room, a private party area where you could watch a picture while serving your own prepared meals and boozing it up with your friends. Another was an amenity that would certainly be embraced by patrons of the Majestic 20 today:
A nursery, which has 21 seats where parents and small fry can make all the caterwauling they please behind a plate glass window, double-panes to prevent distortion. The walls are colored with cartoons and there’s space behind the chairs for the small fry to cavort, thus saving sitter expense at home.
This was an elegant theater for a more civilized age...

The Flower must have been considered to be of at least some import at the time, as its interior was featured on the cover of movie theater trade magazine Boxoffice later that year.

The Flower and the Adjacent Giant Food in the Early 60's (?)
According to legend (i.e. random internet commenter), Sly Stallone was at one point employed at this theater as an usher, during which time he received a beating there that gave him his famous speech impediment. The veracity of this story is dubious at best, yet I choose to believe it because I so want it to be true.

K-B operated the Flower as a single-screen theater until 1979. A year later, a new operator re-opened it after bisecting the single theater into two separate screens. Two additional screens were tacked on in 1983, and if I recall correctly these last two theaters were very tiny. The theater finally ceased operations in 1996 due to flooding. As is the case with many shuttered theaters, including the old Seco/Roth's Silver Spring West downtown, it eventually went into use as a church. The church vacated in 2008 and the property has stood empty ever since.

Here's a photo of the theater from 1983, when it was showing Getting it On and Mr. Mom. It looks to have been taken when there were still just two screens.

Flower Theatre, 1983
This one was taken two years later, when it had four screens.

Flower Theatre, 1985. Apologies for the watermark.
That arrow-shaped "Flower Parking" sign mounted on the roof is terrific - I'd kill to get my hands on it. No doubt it's long been relegated to a scrap pile, though.

(Coincidentally I happened to see Starman, the name of which is visible on the marquee, at this theater. Why I remember this one out of all the movies I saw here, I don't know. This is the second instance of my coming across old photos of cinemas showing films I expressly recall seeing at that particular theater. The first occurrence of this phenomenon was this 1984 photo of the Silver Theatre, taken at the time the it was showing Star Trek III. Maybe I just saw a lot of movies.)

So, now the question is what can be done with the Flower? Abandoned movie theaters are a huge liability. If left empty, a theater will eventually become a hive of homeless murderers and rapists. Yes, this is absolutely the case. I learned this from watching 12 Monkeys.

What viable commercial enterprises could take advantage of this sized space and would be able to commit to the necessary investment required to renovate an entire theater? To the dismay of many, a number of the District's old movie houses (the MacArthur comes to mind) were closed and converted into pedestrian retail establishments such as drug stores. That solution might be economically viable, but it's boring and certainly not a preferred option in this case.

Of course, the surrounding area has some problems, and the shopping plaza's other tenants include a laundromat and dollar store, so it's not exactly high-end retail on that block at present. On the other hand, if they can re-brand an entire "district" around a theater in D.C. (a district within a district?) and make it hip, perhaps something similar can be accomplished in Long Branch.

The adaptive reuse of the Flower is part of the planning department's Long Branch Sector Plan (PDF), which defines the theater as a "historic resource" but is short on details on exactly how the theater might be utilized. Supposedly the Purple Line will someday be built and if/when it does, it will stop just a block of so away, making the whatever the Flower ultimately becomes easily accessible to many from outside of the neighborhood.

The most welcome solution would be to have it turned into sort of annex for the AFI, but that's unlikely to happen. It has been suggested that the county could perhaps assist the Silver Spring Stage in relocating from their current home in the bowels of the Woodmoor Shopping Center to the Flower. Would that be too much space for them, though? Also, would they have the resources to perform the amount of work that needs to be done to the theater to get it up to snuff?

So, any brilliant ideas out there on what could be done with the Flower?

Also, in the event that anyone has photos (older or recent) of the interior, please send them to me. Someone was nice enough to provide some recent pictures of one of Silver Spring's other long-defunct theaters.

Much of the information I found on the Flower originated from the website For a detailed history of the Flower Shopping Center and the historical significance of the theater (or lack thereof) read this (PDF).


hockeypunk said...

make it a music venue! ah, probably not enough popularity to sustain it. but jesus, the fillmore won't be ready anytime soon. and i for one won't pay livenation service charges

Anonymous said...

@hockeypunk: I can see from my living room window that the Fillmore is coming along quite nicely. All (or nearly all) of the structural metal has been erected. A ton of activity going on there today, in fact. They expect it to open in September. I have no problem believing that.

Sligo said...

I like the music venue idea, though I don't know if Silver Spring could support two of them. If IMP still wants one in MoCo, this could be their chance.

Mr Joel said...

I'd open a live music venue there for just a few million in county money.

Anonymous said...

The Purple Line would be a nice convenience for downtown bethesda and downtown silver spring, but it'd be a true game changer for this area.

nognus said...

I'm biased since I live in Long Branch, but I can't wait for the Purple Line revitalization and the cool things it'll bring. On the other hand, this is a relatively inexpensive area to rent in and I suspect that will change and lots of people will be displaced.

Thanks for highlighting the theater there! It was a church at one point but that closed (do churches go "out of business"?)

Terry in Silver Spring said...

When I lived in Texas, I used to shop at a GREAT bookstore in Houston that was in an old movie theater. There were rows of shelves where the seats used to be, a couple of sections up on the old stage area, sections in the balcony, and even in the old behind the scenes rooms. I loved that place. Bit of a rabbit warren, but it was fun tracking from room to room. The checkout area was up in the lobby. The bookstore went out of business a few years ago, after more than 20 years.

Anonymous said...

I saw Star Trek 3 at the Silver in 1984 too - I worked at the Roth's SS East theater for a short time in 1985... we went to the Flower allot when it was the $1.50 theater for a time. I remember hearing rats eating popcorn during movies.

Terry in Silver Spring said...

This newspaper article shows the rows of bookshelves in the former seating area:

Anonymous said...

i think this area could actually support a cheapy movie theater. $3-4 movies would be a hit and a big draw from surrounding areas, though the space might be too far gone/expensive to bring up to even a cheapy level of quality.

WashingtonGardener said...

I love it when it was the cheap, 2nd-run theater for the area - can really see it'd do a service for the area to be that again. There are many flicks I'd not paid $11 for at Majestic but happily see for $3 at the Flower.

Springvale Roader said...

A bowling alley.

If the theater is large and long enough, perhaps Bowl America or another 10 pin bowling company would be interested. Silver Spring sorely needs a good bowling alley, IMHO.

Sligo said...

What about White Oak Lanes?

Anonymous said...

bowling alley's a good idea. duckpin sucks after the age of 8.

Sligo said...

Whatever, duckpin is much more challenging than tenpin plus it's a Maryland tradition.

ForestGlen said...

yeah, I grew up playing Duckpin, it's way more fun than 10 pin.

Anonymous said...

The last movie I saw there was 'Dirty Harry' back in 71 or so and I've always hoped The Flower would escape the wrecking ball.

It really should come back as a theater and a HISPANIC theater at that. Maybe a dual-use live venue for hispanic acts and movies.

I really hope the Purple Line doesn't change this little area too much.

Anonymous said...

Is there a big Central American film industry that will be producing films that will fill up a large movie theater?


Areas change and evolve. The area is certainly different than it was 20 years ago.

Anonymous said...

PS. It's too small for a proper bowling alley and Duckpins are for kids. If you really want bowling, bring back the Fontana.

Sligo said...

Wasn't the Fontana a duckpin lane?

There is plenty of space. With the right amount of investment, you could create two floors of bowling (like the Fontana had).

Anonymous said...

I don't remember which way it went but the Fontana had one floor Duckpin, one floor 10-pin. The alley in Wheaton used to be a dually like that as well.

Anonymous said...

completely random, but the top two gazette articles are:

Prosecutors describe ‘savage' lululemon killing


Man with gun robs Colombo Bank in Bethesda

what the hell is wrong with bethesda? i don't want this purple line thing bringing all their crime to DTSS....

Sligo said...

Of course they have to rob banks in Bethesda - where else is there any money these days?

Anonymous said...

I would love a theater geared towards children, both cinema and live shows. There are a couple places in Bethesda that seem to cater to families quite successfully.

Lawrence Hurley said...

I live just down the road and have thought about this myself. My plan would be for a movie theater offering something different: first run foreign language movies to appeal to the immigrants living in Long Branch. It could show Bollywood movies, Spanish language movies, Asian movies, etc. (not art house movies, but ones people really want to see). It's a huge captive audience & there could probably be some tie in with AFI that could be arranged. If only I had some $$$$

Anonymous said...

If the Purple Line is funded then there will be a decade of redevelopment activity in Long Branch, including expansion and revitalization of the entire commercial/residential corridor. While some fear of mass displacement of the lower-income immigrant community, I'm thinking Montgomery County might work very hard to make any redevelopment conditional on a higher percentage of MPDUs (affordable units)...currently I think they require 12.5% to be affordable. No matter how high the percentage required, there will be countless anti-development people in "the community" who will scream against anything that doesn't preserve the status quo.

Lindemann said...

I miss the Flower Theatre as a second-run establishment. I supported that incarnation well. I support reopening it as another second-run theatre, or making a duckpin bowling alley out of it.

Patrick Thornton said...

A second run or discount movie theater isn't happening. Movie theaters as a whole are probably going away, with only the best and most technologically advanced in dense, urban areas staying. DTSS is a great location for a movie theater, especially given that many people in urban areas don't have space for a home theater.

For $7.99 a month through Netflx, I can stream thousands of movies, TV shows and documentaries to my TV, computer, laptop, tablet and smartphone. I can also rent and stream many more movies, including just released movies, to my TV through my Apple TV. The most expensive any of those movies are is $4.99, with some as low as $0.99. That's the future of cheaper movie viewing, not expensive physical structures.

The only other option as a physical theater would be to go upscale, show artsy movies, serve good food and alcohol. Given the area, that seems doubtful. Old Town has a nice theater like this, for reference.

Anonymous said...

I, too, use everything you describe and don't go to the movies often because of it, but movie theaters have done very well even during this recession because it's a relatively cheap form of entertainment for a family, date night out, etc. People are always going to want to get out of their homes and do stuff, so I don't see theaters going the way of Blockbuster anytime soon.

Patrick Thornton said...

I agree that people still like to go out on dates and that theaters can be good for that. The Majestic in DTSS should be fine for years to come. My point is that I don't think The Flower can be brought back as a second run theater. I don't think they even do that anymore.

Maybe if the Purple Line goes out there and the area gets revitalized, The Flower can be brought back as an AFI type theater.

After Taste said...

I saw a number of movies at the Flower there growing up.
It became a $1.00 second run theater in the end.
At the end of the Silvers Theater's life it was also a KB Theater.
I was an usher for the KB Baronet West in Bethesda long before Bethesda jumped the shark, it was a a great job!
Lived on nachos and popcorn one summer.
Enjoy the show!

RoseAG said...

We took our son to his first movie there "The Fox and the Hound."

I think it's an interesting building but not worth one cent of County money to save.

I can't get excited about a music venue there. As I recall someone tried that already. It's not an area I go to at night and it seems music/shows there would be doomed.

They should just tear it down.

jag said...

"They should just tear it down."

What the hell. Why on earth would they tear it down? Just for the fun of looking at a hole in the street scape? Or maybe for the fun of filling a landfill for no reason? Of course there's existing value in the structure. Whether that value can be tapped into before the Purple Line will remain to be seen, but having the building to look at doesn't hurt anyone.

Anonymous said...

So we moved into this area (well, a few blocks north) a year and a half ago. The Flower will definitely be a Ricky property to handle. I am late to this thread, but as others have noted, a movie theater (certainly a 1000 seat theater makes no economic sense at this point. The idea of an all foreign films theater is only slightly promising, since this place is huge, the content is available elsewhere, and the property likely needs a lot of work at this point. Conversion to a bookstore also doesn't make that much sense, given the unfortunate likely future of bookstores. I could see a large used bookstore here, but the only model/potential owner of this scale around is Second Story Books, and they already have their large Rockville outlet/warehouse. If they did want an east county location and had (or could get) money to renovate, that could be promising. For an undivided retail solution, I am thinking something more like a furniture store, or maybe something like Cost Plus/World Market. Otherwise, they could keep the facade in any modernization and rebuild the rest of the space to suit whatever needs come up.

And, boy, are other needs going to come up. I am virtually certain that they will be building the Purple Line now, because when gas hits $6 a gallon as it might next year, not building it will look like sheer lunacy. As soon as the construction plan is set (details for the Arliss St. Station will be key), I expect the entire world to change down on that corner in a real hurry. Ten years from now, it won't really be recognizable, and the route from here to there is going to involve a lot of shouting, but barring some total disaster I expect real estate and rental prices to be up a *lot*, and then we more or less know the kinds of changes that will come to pass.

Joelle said...

How about a big 'ol Starbucks? j/k. This is my neighborhood. I'd love to see 2nd run movies, but getting it into shape...will take more than 2nd run capital. Bowling could be cool and successful. An arcade could even do well. I'd love to see 2 medium screens second run, a video arcade and a coffee shop in the foyer.

But until the purple line, I'm guessing there'll be no love for the Flower.

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Anonymous said...

I moved to the Piney Branch/Flower Ave section in the mid 70's. Went to Oakview Elem. Lived across the street from Penn Jersey next to Highs and next door to Tropicana Cuban Restaurant in the shanty (almost) apts in the rear bldg. I remember the Pharmacy called Packetts. And Woolworths was the place to go for Santa when he would visit. Growing up here was probably the last bit of whatever was here from the 50's and 60's that I saw. I watched Popeye and Coal Miner's Daughter there at Flower. Those were the last movies I saw there in 1980. It was the place to go or we would go to Roth near Thayer Ave. There was the other West on Georgia and of course K-B Silver. I remember running up the steps to use the restroom that had the floor urinals as tall as me since I was a wee kid (you don't see those anymore). Buying tickets at the window outside and walking in the awesome lobbies of these theatres was magical for a kid. I miss that neighborhood in a way, but again we all evolve and so do the areas but not our memories.

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