The silver screen still glitters in Silver Spring at AFI

Originally built in 1938, the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring is a monument to a bygone era of classical cinema and grandiose movie palaces. (Kreig Meyers)

Surrounded by clean-cut office high-rises in downtown Silver Spring, one building stands as a memory of earlier decades for this bustling city.

Under the gleaming marquee lights, in the center of the façade, stands a small, traditional box office.

Moviegoers approach and buy their tickets for an early evening show. Tonight, its the indie smash hit “Lady Bird.”

Hailey Walters, 21, a student at Catholic University, says she came out of her way to watch the film here because “The other theaters just won’t show these movies because they’re not big Hollywood movies.”

Originally built in 1938, the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring is a monument to a bygone era of classical cinema and grandiose movie palaces. Designed by architect John Eberson, the Silver’s Art Deco styling harkens back to a period of cinematic opulence known for its glamorous stars, orchestral scores and ornate theaters.

But years of neglect and disuse had left the theater in a state of extreme disrepair when the American Film Institute got involved with the building in the late 1990s.

The AFI Institute sought to celebrate the rich heritage of motion pictures and to educate the next generation of filmmakers. The Silver provided the organization with a historic venue with which to do so.

Theater director Ray Barry was heavily involved in the renovation efforts. Years of water damage and cold winters left much of the plaster interior decayed and crumbling. Mold and water had taken the place of moviegoers in many parts of the theater.

“If you’ve been in the theater, essentially nothing you see was there at the starting point,” Barry said.

The restoration project took several years, but workers were able to pull color samples of the original paint.

Knowing the colors of the design served as “guideposts to decoration and renovation,” Barry said. Having this guide allowed the theater’s ornate interior to be resurrected to a close replica of its former glory.

After what Barry described as “starting from scratch” with the building, the Silver reopened in 2003.

The AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center serves to explore the influence of film on society and our views of history, interpersonal relationships and art.

This is critical to the art form, its history and its appreciation, Barry said.

Many of their showings are done in series, connecting films to one another by genre, era, director or actor. According to Barry, the theater screens more than 600 different films throughout the year.

The theater screens movies that are typically hard to see elsewhere such as documentaries, foreign films, independent works and classic films.

Staples like “The Wizard of Oz” and “It’s A Wonderful Life” return to the silver screen, allowing visitors the opportunity to experience these movies with a genuine appreciation for the cinematography and storytelling, which have allowed these films to remain relevant throughout generations.

Having the ability to watch these films on the big screen is unfortunately not common, but definitely a unique opportunity. The Silver recently screened a favorite of his, the noir classic “The Third Man,” which Barry believes is a special experience to see at the Silver, compared to watching these films at home or “on your iPhone.”

Walters remarks that “Coming here always feels more like a special event than just going any movie theater.”

To provide a wider context to the stories on screen, the theater presents informative panels, discussions, film festivals and other events alongside the extraordinary collection of films.

The theater is able to screen films in a variety of formats ranging from 16-millimeter film prints to modern, high-definition digital video. This allows for a further dedication to authenticity in the experience of viewing classic, older films.

Barry shared that at a screening of “In the Heat of the Night,” the film’s director Norman Jewison remarked that he had never heard the car driving on a gravel road sound so perfect as it did in the film’s opening scene.

On top of the regular film showings, the Silver plays host to several film festivals throughout the year including the AFI Docs documentary festival every June, the AFI Latin American Film Festival each Fall and the annual AFI European Union Film Showcase, now in its thirtieth year, which began on December 1 and runs until December 20.

For the European Union Film Showcase’s opening night, the theater hosted David O’Sullivan, the United States ambassador to the European Union, as well as Karin Olofsdotteras, the Swedish ambassador to the United States.

Other notable events this year have included a visit by Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad,” “Cat Video Fest,” a Bollywood series, a classic gore-and-horror series and a visit by Cecelia Marshall, widow of famous civil rights activist and lawyer Thurgood Marshall.

While many may choose to go see the latest Hollywood sequel or big-budget action movie at the multiplex around the corner, a faithful few choose to enjoy “The Shop Around the Corner” at the Silver.

In addition to the 1940 classic, this week a visit to AFI Silver Theater and Cultural Center means the chance to see “Lady Bird,” “Miracle on 34th Street” or “Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri.”


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