Bethesda Theatre (Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club)
Designed by renowned architect John Eberson, this art deco-style theater was completed in 1938 and is one of the only remaining art deco theaters in the region constructed during Hollywood's Golden Age. Known as the Boro Theatre during some of its years in business, this theater was part of an independent movie house chain owned by Sidney Lust. The theater's establishment was integral to the development of the business center of Bethesda and therefore also part of the suburbanization of the DC metro area. Though the theater has undergone some renovations, name changes, and new business models over its history, it has operated almost continuously since 1938. In 1999, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places and now serves as the home of Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club.
Backstory and Context
Architect John Eberson (1875-1954) was known as the "Dean of American Theatre Architects." Woodmont Development Company was the builder on the project. The Bethesda Theatre was the flagship of a string of independent movie theaters operated by Sidney Lust (1884-1955). Despite the influence of the Great Depression, Washington, D.C. was one of the few American cities that experienced a boom of theater construction during this decade. It opened on May 19, 1938 under the name Boro Theatre, but became the Bethesda Theatre within a year.
Blond brick is the main building material for the structure. The theater is composed of rectangular blocks of varying stories: an auditorium block and an entrance block, which included shops. At the entrance is is a sidewalk-facing ticket booth, trimmed in grooved aluminum. A vertical sign crowns the entrance block, spelling "BETHESDA" in vertical letters. Behind the theater is a large parking lot constructed as part of the original building plan, signifying the geological shift in population to car-dependent suburbs and the decrease in importance of downtown cultural centers in the 1930s. Acoustical paneling or plaster in the walls was covered with fabric, and the ceiling was painted with a celestial design on a blue background, indicative of Eberson's work. The original layout and many interior elements, including murals and finishings, remain. The seating, however, has changed over time.
When the theater opened, the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Tribune published a supplement commending Lust for his vision in building it. This supplement also published congratulations from politicians of other cities where Lust had built theaters, including the mayors of Rockville and Hyattsville, and state and national senators. Film stars Shirley Temple, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, and W. C. Fields also wrote greetings for the publication.
The Bethesda Theatre was one of the first buildings in the area to have air conditioning. It was the site not only for film showings, but also community events and demonstrations. In 1983, the traditional movie house theater became a restaurant as well under the name Bethesda Cinema 'n Drafthouse; in 1990, it became the Bethesda Theatre Cafe.
In 1985, the Montgomery County Master Plan for Historic Preservation included the building, and the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. In 2007, supported by tax breaks and state and county funding, the Bozzuto Group renovated the theater and built apartments above it. It was auctioned off in June 2010 and reopened as the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club.
Lyons, Linda B. Bethesda Theatre, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form. August 19th 1998. Accessed February 16th 2020. https://mht.maryland.gov/secure/medusa/PDF/NR_PDFs/NR-1214.pdf.
Maryland Historical Trust. Bethesda Theatre, National Register Properties in Maryland. 2008. Accessed February 16th 2020. https://mht.maryland.gov/nr/NRDetail.aspx?NRID=1216&COUNTY=Montgomery&FROM=NRCountyList.aspx.
Lee, Stephanie. "Final curtain might be falling on Bethesda Theatre." Washington Post June 17th 2010. Accessed February 16th, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/16/AR2010061605100.html