To most of us, the thirties have become its movies--especially the musicals. Part of the myth is that the opulence of a Busby Berkeley dance routine or elegance of Fred Astaire tap dancing down a staircase was the popular anodyne for the fear and grinding frustrations of the depression years. But in truth the theatre owners struggled along with everyone else.
Insulated by the federal payroll, Washington suffered less than other areas. However, during the first half of the thirties, the city gained just one theatre building; the Fairlawn on Good Hope Road SE, which was begun before the crash and finished in 1930.
By 1935 the economy was gradually improving. Warner Brothers, which had recently resumed making a profit, announced plans to build six theatres. These theatres would bring the studio's annual sixty-odd releases to their audience, as each was to be located in a neighborhood business district. The first to open was the Penn at 650 Pennsylvania Avenue SE.
In truth, the opening night scene on December 27, 1935 was only faintly reminiscent of a Grauman's Chinese Theatre premiere. The capacity crowd that braved the evening winds heard soloist Bert Granoff show off the Penn's acoustics with "The Star-Spangled Banner". Beautiful Audrey Sieber, "mistress of ceremonies" at Warners downtown flagship Earle Theatre, introduced representatives of Warner Brothers, the District Commissioners, and the Southeast Businessmens' Association. A string quartet led by Alex Podnos, conductor of the Earle Orchestra, provided musical interludes . The Penn's first feature was "Captain Blood", starring Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland.
Perhaps as a deliberate understatement, Warner Brothers had described the Penn's decor as "modern, without being merely modernistic". Decorated in dubonnet, deep blue, and ivory, the auditorium walls and ceiling featured radically streamlined rays that curved toward the screen. While the audience likely marveled at the fidelity of the "twelve horn"speaker system, the winter evening did not provide the opportunity to display the Penn's most notable innovation--airconditioning.
Eberson's first Washington theatre was the largest he designed in the city, with a "capacious" auditorium that seated 1,500 patrons on the main floor and in the balcony. However, one theatrical hallmark was missing. In 1935 the District apparently did not permit marquees with signage that overhung the sidewalk. The Penn announced its current attractions on flat panel signs above the entrance doors but beneath its concrete clamshell marquee.
For the next two decades, the Warner Brothers' feature of the week opened at the Earle on a bill with singers and bands, then circulated among neighborhood theatres like the Penn. On Sundays the Penn was rented to church congregations and hosted Christian Science lectures. In the early 1950s a Supreme Court decision forced the studios to divest themselves of their theatres, causing the Penn to became an independent theatre.
Although it is just six blocks from the Capitol, the business district around the theater declined precipitously in the 1960s. An FBI clerk was knifed to death while walking home from a rerun of "From Russia With Love" in 1964, when street crime had become commonplace. The Penn spiraled downward with the neighborhood. In 1969, it was picketed by children and parents after becoming one of the first "respectable" theatres to present X-rated films.
By the 1980s, when the Penn subsisted on Kung Fu and horror movies, Eberson's streamlined dubonnet and ivory stylings were not even a memory. Most of the orchestra seats had been ripped out and unattended children frolicked on the uncarpeted concrete floor throughout the show. In late 1982, a developer demolished the auditorium but restored the storefronts and theatre facade, which became the entrance to an office complex and arcade-mall. The deco-themed building won several awards in the 1980s for showing a respectful appreciation of the past. Today it seems overbearing and slightly cartoonish while diminishing the impact of Eberson's elegant, almost classical facade stylings.