Three Big Movies at the Uptown Theater

It’s been a while since our last “Three Things…” post, so we queried the Twitterverse for GoDC suggestions on our next one. DrCapsFan, an old school GoDCer (i.e, a follower since week two) threw out a great suggestion to focus on Cleveland Park’s Uptown Theater, seconded by another frequent tweeter, stephaniekays (and big Nats fan). So that seals it … the Uptown Theater it is.

And of course, since it’s a movie theater with great history, we’ll dig up some of the bigger movies that have played at the favorite Cleveland Park movie house.

neon sign Uptown Theater in Cleveland Park (
neon sign Uptown Theater in Cleveland Park (

1. Clark Cable and opening night at the Uptown

Cleveland Park had its own giant movie theater ready to dedicate in the fall of 1936, right in the heart of the Great Depression. The dedication ceremony was to be held on Thursday night, October 29th, 1936 at 8:15 p.m., according to the Washington Post. Below is the article announcing the public unveiling of the uptown gem.

The Uptown Theater, Warner Bros. new picture playhouse, located on Connecticut avenue at Newark street, will be dedicated this Thursday evening, October 29, at 8:15 o’clock, according to an announcement made late yesterday by John J. Payette, Warner Bros. general zone manager. Doors will open at 7:15 to give patrons ample time to inspect the theater throughout.

Two distinguished Washingtonians–District Commissioner Melvin C. Hazen, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, and Thomas E. Clark, president of the Cleveland Park Business Men’s Association–will take part in the program.

The inaugural attraction at the Uptown will be “Cain and Mabel,” Cosmopolitan Production, released by Warner Bros., and starring Marion Davies and Clark Gable. The presentation Thursday evening will be the Washington premiere of this new musical comedy.

The most modern type of projection and sound equipment have been installed in the new house, which will seat 1,500 people in the orchestra, balcony and loges. Appointments throughout are the most modern available. Throughout the year, winter and summer, the Uptown will maintain an even temperature, the latest type of air-conditioning equipment having been provided.

Check out the trailer for “Cain and Mabel” below.

2. ‘Star Wars’ wreaks havoc in Cleveland Park

Star Wars - 1977
Star Wars – 1977

This might be the greatest epic saga in the history of film. Star Wars was playing at the Uptown in Cleveland Park (along with probably 10,000 other theaters).

A great Washington Post details the chaos that ensued when the movie opened to the public in 1977 … and for some reason, it slightly reminds me of a scene out of Dazed and Confused (also great).

Scene I, Take I: A quiet, residential street in Cleveland Park around the corner from the Uptown Theater where “Star Wars” is playing.

Time: A half hour before the 7:30 show.

Action: Moviegoers in cars frantically searching for parking spaces. A group of teen-agers near the end of the block-and-a-half line casually having a picnic on a resident’s front lawn as they wait for the movie to open. The Good Humor truck plying its way up and down the queue of people, tinkling out the allure of frozen goodies.

Close-up: discarded beer cars, burnt-out marijuana joints and McDonald’s hamburger wrappers.

It’s not a new motion picture under production yet, but if there is ever a sequel to that intergalactic spectacular “Star Wars,” some of the residents of Cleveland Park would like to call it “Earthly Fallout.”

“It’s … it’s an invasion,” says Marcy Schuck, a Cleveland Park resident who no longer recognizes her peaceful neighborhood since “Star Wars” started playing. “There are people, people crawling up the streets constantly. We’re constantly being awakened when people line up for the midnight show. My alley was blocked up once and I just wanted to scream and beat up the cars.”

Territorial imperative aside, however, [Ron] Hoffman did come home one time to discover a car blocking his driveway  “I told my wife, ‘Hey, some clown is blocking the driveway.’ The funny thing is that it turned out to be a friend of my wife whose car was blocking the drive, a person who had just graduated from clown school.”

That damn George Lucas … screwing up peaceful Cleveland Park. Any of you GoDCers wait in line to see it back then?

Here’s the trailer for Star Wars … AMAZING!

3. T-Rex and velociraptors terrorize Connecticut Avenue

You guessed it. Jurassic Park played at the Uptown, but not only that … it was the world premiere! The Washington Post wrote about it on Friday, June 11th, 1993 (the screening was Wednesday at the Uptown). All the celebrities were in town to see and be seen.

The Scene: World premiere of Universal’s “Jurassic Park” in Washington. The screening Wednesday was at the Uptown Theater, the after party was in the National Building Museum. Locally, a movie premiere is a major attention-getter since “glamour is as extinct in Washington as dinosaurs,” as one woman put it.

Who Was There: The film’s stars, Laura Dern, Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum and Samuel Jackson; plus 1,100 guests, including Muhammad Ali, Tom and Peggy Pollock, Sid and Lorraine Sheinberg, Lew Wasserman, Sens. Barbara Boxer, Arlen Specter, Harris Wofford, Patrick Leahy and Bob Kerrey; Reps. Tony Beilenson, Henry Waxman, Maxine Waters and Pat Schroeder; plus Mickey Kantor, Ron Silver and Peter and Eileen Norton.

Who Wasn’t: Director Steven Spielberg (still working on “Shindler’s List”) and President Clinton and family; recent petty sniping from reptilian East Coast media pundits about Hollywood influencing the White House was said to have kept them away. L.A. media consultant Josh Baran said, “Rampaging dinosaurs reminded him too much of the press corps.”

Best Line From a Politician: Rep. Henry Waxman (D-California): “This is the first dinosaur Hollywood has sent to Washington since Ronald Reagan.”

Quoted: Of co-starring in this film, Samuel Jackson said, “Steven is basically the star of his own film. Then you have the dinosaurs. Everybody’s anticipating what they look like. People are coming to see them. Then they’re coming to see us. Kind of. We’re kind of filler.”

Of course we wouldn’t leave you without the trailer. Here it is … in crappy quality though.

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  • Star Wars did not play at 10,000 screens. Remember, this strategy didn’t exist back then, where studios release a big film on multiple screens across the country at the exact same time. Star Wars started in very few theaters, which made it even more of an event.

  • I have been part of the Star Wars/Uptown Theater phenomenon from several different perspectives. First, as a college student at UC Berkeley, I came home to my parents house in Chevy Chase on a school break while Star Wars was first playing at the Uptown in Cleveland Park, and stood in one of those long, long lines to see the movie (and annoy the neighbors, I’m sure). That was actually my second time seeing Star Wars, as I had seen it on the opening night at a theater in San Francisco, standing in an even longer line. But I had heard George Lucas in an interview saying that the two best screens for seeing Star Wars were the theater in San Francisco (where I had already seen it) and the Uptown Theater in Washington. So I went for viewing #2 at the Uptown.

    After I graduated from Berkeley, I moved back to DC…and into Cleveland Park. Some years later (not sure how many) Star Wars was reissued in a new, improved print. Opening day at the Uptown was a repeat of the long lines of high school and college kids camping out with lawn chairs, tossing litter, and making noise all night long. People blocked my driveway so often that I resorted to slapping their cars with my own design of parody parking tickets. Gradually, things simmered down.

    I’m still living in Cleveland Park (now with a family that includes two kids in college) but no longer dreading big blockbuster movie openings at the Uptown. These days people buy their tickets online and don’t camp out for hours ahead of time. More people are using the Metro or taking cabs. Sure, it’s still hard to find a parking space on a Friday or Saturday night, but a big movie hit no longer takes over the neighborhood for a whole summer. Now I’m just worried whether a big single screen theater like the Uptown can survive!

  • Braulio

    Interesting … the Star Wars trailer included no John Williams music, and Vader’s/Kenobi’s light sabers were white.

  • Reading over #2 quickly, I had to go back and re-read… the scene described sounded just like my experience going to see the original three at Uptown before the first new one came out (back in 1997?). It was always my preferred theater for action movies but I will always remember going there for the first time shortly after moving to DC and seeing Madonna’s pores on the massive screen (Evita, 1996).

  • Anon20009

    I had a very different experience seeing Star Wars at the Uptown in 1977. I was in high school and in finals week when it opened. One day that week I had an morning exam and no afternoon one so a couple of friends and I went over to the Uptown for a midday showing – there was no line at all and we were able to walk right in. We were lucky – and it was much better than the alternative!

  • I saw Star Wars on the Saturday of it’s opening weekend. My sister’s godfather had gone down to the theater and waited in line (I believe the day before, might have been that morning) and he took us to see it. I was in junior high and my sister was in elementary school. There were so many people there, I don’t think I’d ever seen such a crowd for a movie. Lots and lots of happy and enthusiastic people. We didn’t know much about the film, except that my sister’s godfather read it was great. The opening scene when you see the battle cruiser following the smaller ship…that was absolutely amazing on the big Uptown screen. It was something completely new. We were blown away. The audience was really into the movie, as well, cheering at all the right spots. To this day, that is my favorite movie experience off all time, especially the awe of that battle cruiser growing bigger and bigger from the edge of the screen.

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  • Richard Stark

    Common man! Upton hosted world premiere of “2001: A Space Odyssey”

  • Derek Teslik

    Also, didn’t that WaPo Star Wars piece have a Tony Kornheiser byline?