The Avalon Theatre is Washington's oldest surviving movie house and for decades has been one of its best. The theatres opened around Christmas 1922 as the Chevy Chase Theatre, designed in the Classical Revival style by the local architectural firm of Frank Upman and Percy C. Adams. The theatre opened with more than 1,200 seats on one floor, and had a Robert Morton pipe organ. In July 1926, local theater operator Harry Crandall partnered with Philadelphia's Stanley Company to purchase the theatre. In 1929, the theatre became part of Stanley Warner, was renamed Avalon Theatre, and was wired for sound movies. The first 'talkie' to be shown was George Bancroft in "The Wolf of Wall Street".
In 1968, the Pedas Brothers purchased the Avalon Theatre and operated it as part of their Circle Theatre chain. A former ballet school upstairs in the building was turned into a 200 seat second auditorium, the Avalon 2, and opened January 26, 1971. During a 1985 renovation, Diana Westring painted a 20 by 30 foot mural for the central dome of the main downstairs auditorium. This mural features the god Mercury casting a reel of film across the sky to a cherub. From the 1980's the main downstairs theatre had 665 seats.
The Avalon Theatre's operation changed in late-1987 as Circle Theatres was sold to Cineplex Odeon. Because in the same year Cineplex Odeon opened in northwestern Washington D.C. a luxury multiplex for mainstream movies, the 6-screen Wisconsin Avenue Cinemas (which closed 2006), the Avalon Theatre switched to showing arthouse films. In 1996, the theatre was sold to a private landlord. Theatre operation changed in 1998 as Cineplex Odeon merged with Loews.
Loews Cineplex closed the theatre in March 2001 during its bankruptcy reorganization. Projection and sound equipment, movie screen and seats were removed by Loews, over the objection of the owner. Local citizens led by retired librarian Bob Zich organized to save the Avalon Theatre for movies, fearing it might instead become a retail store. They petitioned, fundraised, and organized a nonprofit organization, the Avalon Theatre Project, which took over the lease.
GTM Architects donated its architectural services to restore the theatre's facade and lobby. Some of the facade had been covered over. The historic marquee was discovered hidden under a modernization. Based on historic photographs and documentations, new windows, doors, and ticket booths were installed to resemble their predecessors. The lobby reemerged with beautiful Neo-Classic style as pilasters and moldings were replaced, the terrazzo floor was repaired, and period light fixtures were installed. The main auditorium's much beloved ceiling mural was restored. The Avalon Theatre reopened April 22, 2003, once again showing movies! In 2006, the nonprofit organization purchased the Avalon Theatre, securing its future.
Since the 2003 reopening, the historic main theatre, Avalon 1, has 428 luxury seats and a very large movie screen that is 41 feet wide and 19 feet tall. The intimate upstairs theatre, Avalon 2, has 165 luxury seats and a screen that is 20 feet wide and 9 feet tall. Both auditoriums have digital surround sound. In Avalon 1, a curtain for the screen was installed, but use has been discontinued
since the mechanism broke in 2004.
The Avalon Theatre has been on the DC Inventory of Historic Sites since the mid-1990's, legally protecting the theatre's exterior from being altered, though changes can be made to its interior. With photos of the restored lobby and the auditorium and its ceiling mural, the Avalon Theatre is depicted in the 2004 book "Cinema Treasures, A New Look at Classic Movie Theaters".