Laurel Theater: From movies to theater, comedy to wrecking ball

Laurel Leader
Laurel Theater: From movies to theater, comedy to wrecking ball

Part 1 of this series ended in 1933 with the sale of the Laurel Theater by its original owner, Sidney Lust, to Lloyd Wineland.

Lloyd Wineland was the head of Wineland Theaters, which eventually controlled 13 theaters, including most of the drive-ins in Prince George's County, according to Robert Headley in his book "Motion Picture Exhibition in Washington, D.C.

After buying the Laurel Theater, the Wineland era lasted for 36 years. In all that time, only two managers were employed. The first was Albert Pohl, who had already been on the Wineland payroll for 10 years as the company's secretary-treasurer. He ran the Laurel Theater at night from 1934 to 1959, while continuing his other duties with Wineland during the day. Pohl told the News Leader in 1976 that "We used to run three shows a week except when the races were in town. There were so many people who worked at the track and had rooms in Laurel. They had nothing to do in the evenings so we ran a different show every night for them."

In an oral history in the collection of the Laurel Historical Society, Pohl recalled that theaters first offered concessions in 1929. He also talked about the role of ushers keeping order in the old days. "They were in charge," he said.

The theater was embroiled in controversy in 1935, when it asked the City Council for permission to show movies on Sundays. The uproar was led by the Federated Council of Church Women and the Ministers of Laurel, who started a petition drive to show "their disapproval of further desecration of the Lord's Day." According to the Washington Post, the delegation told the City Council that Sunday movies "would be a great catastrophe to the town." But in a special city-wide election, Laurel citizens voted 299 to 254 to allow Sunday movies. Sunday shows started at 3 p.m.

The first full-color movie shown at the Laurel Theater was "Three Women," in 1936.

During the Wineland era, the theater was frequently involved in community affairs. During World War II, war bond and stamps were sold in the lobby by the Women's Club of Laurel.

Segregation

Until the mid-1950s, Laurel was a segregated town, like the rest of Maryland. But the Supreme Court's 1954 landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education had broad implications beyond educational issues.

According to Mildred Awkward, 92, who has lived most of her life in the Grove, Laurel's historically black community, blacks were not allowed to attend movies at the Laurel Theater until things loosened up after the Brown decision. Even then, though, there were unwritten rules, she said.

Black patrons had to enter the theater at a side door, where an usher was stationed to take their ticket money. They were not allowed to stand in line on Main Street with white patrons, she said. The side door led directly to the stairs leading to the balcony, where the black patrons were required to sit.

This continued until Civil Rights legislation was passed in 1964 outlawing any "discrimination in public accommodations." Cynthia Whitfield, who grew up in the Grove during the 1960s and witnessed the Jim Crow laws personally, remembers when "they eventually let us come downstairs."

Passing the baton

Pohl retired from managing the theater in 1959, but continued as a corporate officer with Wineland until his full retirement seven years later.

Ray Prior replaced Pohl as manager in 1959. Like Pohl, Prior lived in Old Town Laurel and was a big part of the community. Back in those days, newspaper ads and lobby posters for the theater prominently displayed the manager's name.

Prior's son, George Prior, started working for his father at the theater when he was 14 years old. Mark O'Dell, who also worked there during his high school days, joins Prior with dredging up lots of memories of the old theater. They both laughed about a projectionist who, after starting the movie, would climb out a hatch that led to the roof with binoculars so he could spy on the activity at the notorious Laurel Hotel across the street.

Prior said some of the other employees of the theater included long-time Laurel High science teacher Robert "Doc" Weagly, who moonlighted as an usher in the 1960s. O'Dell, who was an All-County football player at Laurel High, also served as the bouncer when anybody got unruly. Dozens of Laurelites worked for Ray Prior over the years, and a few romances and marriages resulted.

In 1966, two events happened that were significant to the Laurel Theater. The first was Wineland's opening of the Laurel Drive-In on June 15. The first drive-in offering was a double-feature: "Frankie and Johnny" and "The Hallelujah Trail." Ray Prior was very busy, as he managed both theaters. George recalled how his father ran back and forth between the two venues. According to Headley's book: "The Laurel Drive-In was the area's first drive-in that also had seats for walk-in patrons. Walk-in customers were taken to their seats on motorized shuttles."

The second event was the opening of the Laurel Cinema in the Laurel Shopping Center one month after the drive-in opened. Newspaper ads for the new theater took direct aim at the antiquated Laurel Theater ("A New Concept for Motion Picture Viewing" read one ad) and provided a long list of the cinema's modern advantages, such as "baby sitting service," "1,000 living room comfort upholstered chairs," and "luxury beyond compare." This was the beginning of the end of the Laurel Theater as a movie house.

In 1969, Wineland Theaters sold their entire indoor chain of theaters to Richmond-based Neighborhood Theaters, and Prior stayed on as manager. But the decline in business led them to lease the Laurel Theater to Donald Ritchie, of Elkton, in 1971, ending Prior's tenure.

Ritchie's tenure was rocky, to say the least. He told the News Leader in late 1971 that he "hoped to revive the sagging movie business on Main Street with Saturday and Sunday matinees for the kiddies and more family shows." That lasted all of three months. As the News Leader put it, "Ritchie … has found his dream to be a money loser" so he "decided on playing the other end of the film spectrum." He started showing X-rated "sexploitation" films, such as "Ginger and Camille 2000." He ran the X-rated fare one week a month, with the remaining three weeks dedicated to family movies. He told the News Leader that "violence does almost as well as sex at the Laurel Theater, but the money is still in sex."

Ritchie tried to make the theater profitable, undertaking an extensive remodeling, lowering ticket prices and paying a premium for first-run movies. A fire in 1975 required more remodeling and Ritchie continued to pour money into the venture.

But the movie-going public had moved on to newer theaters in town, including the Town Center Twins and Laurel Cinema. Theaters had sprouted all over the Washington/Baltimore area, increasing movie choices by the dozens. Going to the movies was not the event it once was, and patrons were now more interested in comfort and the latest sound systems and technology, all of which was in short supply at the Laurel Theater.

Paul Sanchez started his career in the movie theater business running the projector at the Laurel Theater in the early 1970s. He went on to form P&G Theaters with a partner and they acquired the Laurel Town Center Twins in 1986 as their sixth theater in the D.C. area. Sanchez said Neighborhood Theaters wanted to get rid of the Laurel Theater after the Laurel Cinema opened in the Laurel Shopping Center.

Competing with the theater chains took its toll. In 1976, the final movie shown by Ritchie was "Shampoo," starring Warren Beatty. After that the marquee read "Closed Forever."

But not for long.

Carlo and Angie Petrucci had owned Italian restaurants for years when the theater closed, including Pal Jack's next door to the theater on Main Street. They also owned Tony's in Maryland City and Mike's Pizza House in Beltsville.

According to their daughter, Angela Jo Petrucci Leonard (full disclosure: she is my sister-in-law), Carlo Petrucci, was president of the Main Street Business Association, was not happy with the X-rated films and wanted assurance that it would not happen again. Quietly, Petrucci negotiated an agreement that gave him right of first refusal if the building was ever sold.

Shortly after the "Closed Forever" marquee went up, Petrucci bought the theater and the building experienced a revival for the next 15 years. The restauranter was now in the movie theater business.

The Petrucci family began to gut and remodel the front of the building into a restaurant and banquet facility. At the same time, they reopened the theater and offered first-run movies. The grand re-opening offered the blockbuster "Jaws." The ad in the News Leader reflected Petrucci's assurance: "We pledge to bring to Laurel the finest in movie entertainment, by showing good, clean wholesome films of interest to every member of the family!"

In January 1977, the conversion of the upstairs apartments into a banquet facility and the first-floor storefronts into a buffet restaurant was complete. Although the building now housed the movie theater and Petrucci's Italian Restaurant, the movies came to an end.

A few months later, Petrucci was approached by Chuck Dick, a veteran of the dinner theater circuit, with an idea to stage a play in the theater. After dining in the upstairs banquet room, patrons then saw "I Do, I Do" downstairs in the theater. Petrucci's Dinner Theater was born. The restaurant/movie theater family was now in the live theater business. According to Leonard, the family "just figured we could do this."

Over the next 14 years, the dinner theater produced almost 60 plays and occasionally had entertainers, such as Phyllis Diller, the Amazing Kreskin and a touring production of old-fashioned burlesque. The Petrucci family was beloved by their employees, who still gather occasionally for reunions and host their own Facebook page. Like its theater predecessor, the dinner theater also saw some employee romances and marriages.

Employee Thom Jarrell said working at Petrucci's "was the best job I ever had." Jarrell helped construct the sets, among his many duties. He said they used a warehouse in Savage Mill to construct the sets in pieces for transport to the theater. He remembered the most complex set was for a Sherlock Holmes drama, "Sherlock's Last Case," where the round set rotated on the theater stage.

Jarrell claims the theater was haunted and that he once saw a ghost. He said the building was closed and, looking down from the balcony, he saw a tall, thin man on the stage. By the time he raced downstairs, it was gone. Leonard confirmed that the staff used to talk about the ghost, who they named "Stu."

Although the Petrucci family had revitalized the theater into a prominent Main Street landmark, by 1992, a downturn in the economy caused the dinner theater to close. The building was sold to Barbara Malhotra, from Largo, who already owned a comedy club in Greenbelt. For the next 15 years, the old theater housed a succession of comedy clubs: Art's, The Comedy Connection, The Laurel Cinema Café and The Joke's on Us. But even with the occasional big-name act, such as Dave Chappelle and Richard Jeni, the clubs were consistent money-losers. Finally, in 2007, the doors closed for good.

After sitting vacant for almost seven years, the city of Laurel's Community Development Authority bought the theater in 2014 for $250,000. Blaine Sutton, from the SORTO Contracting Co. hired to tear the down the theater, allowed me to tour the interior before starting. Holes in the roof had become portals for pigeons and droppings were everywhere. Signs of water leakage were prominent, ceilings had collapsed and holes in walls and floors made walking dangerous. The stacked up bar stools and cocktail tables were connected with huge spider webs and covered in a thick layer of dust, grime, mold and, probably, asbestos. The inside looked like it would collapse around me; it was beyond salvaging. The saddest sight was the torn movie screen hanging in shreds. The venerable old building deserved a better end.

Richard Friend contributed to this story. Information was found at the Laurel Historical Society. Contact Kevin Leonard at info@theleonardgroupinc.com or 301-776-9260.

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