Oral History Audio Interview with Sarah Gannon
about the Macarthur Theater
SARAH: I was actually born in Fredericksburg but I grew up in Washington, in the Palisades; we moved here when I was about seven, and I lived there until I…even after I got married, really. I lived there until I was in my late 20’s.
INTERVIEWER: And, around what dates was that?
SARAH: From, say, 1977 to, um, to the ‘90’s.
INTERVIEWER: And, what was it like back then? What was the neighborhood like?
SARAH: The real estate agencies who refer to it privately amongst themselves as the ‘dog patch,’ because it was very blue collar. And, there were sort of enclaves; there was, if you went up University Terrace, there were people, you know doctors and people who had money up there. And, then, there were some older, more gentile pockets, particularly on our street, which was a cul-de-sac. But, the area around Key School, and on MacArthur Blvd., was pretty working class. There was a, we had a minister there – I went to St. Davids Church – and, there was a minister who was there for a little while who actually (laughing) told his parishioners that they needed to reach out across MacArthur Boulevard. He was actually, he was from St. John’s downtown, so you can sort of see where his perspective was. It was a funny mix, I mean, there were kind of more gentile houses, but it was a fairly economically diverse neighborhood. People had started moving in, but they- it’s not going to …….
INTERVIEWER: And, what did your parents do that brought them to that neighborhood?
SARAH: My father was a lawyer and we started out in Chevy Chase/DC and my mother actually just sort of fell in love with our house. I had a friend whose parents got divorced and they were selling and my mother just really loved the house. So, that’s the only reason we came.
INTERVIEWER: And, do you remember the MacArthur Theater and the role that it played in the neighborhood?
SARAH: Oh, vividly. Yes. Keep in mind, most of us didn’t have air conditioning back then. And, so, in the summer, kids would all walk down to the MacArthur and spend the afternoon because it was cool. The MacArthur and the library; those were sort of the two places that the kids hung out. And, my friend, my best friend, actually in Chevy Chase, but within walking distance, of my old house, so she used to take the bus over to Palisades and then we’d just walk down to the MacArthur. And, they used to show, and this was, of course, before they divided into a multi-plex kind of thing… But, back in the day, it was just one really big screen and they used to show revivals. So, we saw the Wizard of Oz there, we saw Wuthering Heights there, we saw the Marx Brothers there, we saw, you know, all of these old movies. So, we grew up loving them because that’s what we were seeing.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember the first time you went to the theater?
SARAH: Honestly, I was probably too little. The first time I remember going to the theater was for a birthday party in 1st Grade where they showed Grease. I really remember that. Totally inappropriate. And, the girl’s mother called all of our mothers the next day to apologize. I do remember that; that was the first time I remember.
INTERVIEWER: And, do you remember what it was like inside? And, I ask that not just as a description but also maybe any sort of feelings that came along with being in there?
SARAH: Well, it’s funny because, you know, you’d line up for your tickets outside and they’d have the posters and that was always very exciting because you go to see the posters. And, then you’d go in, and the theater itself, I mean, I guess like all of those old theaters with just the one screen, it was, it was a much more, um – this sounds weird and I don’t know why it is, but in terms of feelings – it felt more communal. Like, you go to these multi-plexes, and you go in, and some people are going to this movie, and some people are going to that movie and some people are going to another. Everybody who went in would go to the same movie. And so, it was more of a shared experience in a funny way? (up tone at end). Like I said, it was a lot of kids. It was, uh, it seemed very big, which is partly a function of just how little I was… If also, it just, it seemed more important, somehow. Um, you know, the screen was big; big screen, and, um, my mother used to talk about the housewives matinees, because in the afternoon before you had to go pick up your kids, you would go to the movies. And, they called it, my mother called ‘em this; she and her friend called it this. But, the deal with the housewives matinees was, you went and you – we went to school right down the street so then she’d just come over and pick us up, at 1:00 or whatever, and it was half-price or something. And, the housewives were all there individually so this was (laughing), so this was, the deal was you weren’t allowed to sit next to anybody… it’s by yourself (laughing).
SARAH: So, everybody was going to get out, you know, to escape from their children. So, you would go and this was when you got to be all by yourself; and, you got to be quiet and you got to watch something.
INTERVIEWER: It’s your five minutes of peace.
SARAH: It was your peace. It was your hour and a half of peace before you had to go pick up your children and pick up the chaos again. So, you weren’t allowed to sit next to anybody so everybody was evenly spaced out. The fact that it was a big theater with a big screen was very helpful.
INTERVIEWER: What was your favorite snack when you went there?
SARAH: I don’t remember getting snacks; we used to bring in candy.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, really? You would bring your own?
SARAH: Well, the Safeway, Safeway was right next door so we would stop there, we would walk, so we would stop at the Safeway and we would get whatever we wanted and then we would go.
INTERVIEWER: I really liked what you were saying earlier about the communal aspect, and it feels very true not just to that theater but to the experience of going to the movies in general. And, it seems like that way from the start to the finish, like you say you would walk there with your friends, you know, and it would be sort of a day of it? And, that feels very different than how these are experienced now and I wonder what your thoughts are about that.
SARAH: I almost never go to the movies anymore. I used to go to the movies all the time, it was a huge part of my growing up. And, I did theater in college and I guess went to movies in college, too, but I almost never go anymore and partly because they’re expensive and partly it’s because they’re bad. (Hannah laughs). Well, they are. So you go, and you pay all this money to look at this tiny, little screen… I don’t know. The experience sort of does nothing for me anymore. But, it was very different then and it’s like, too, I don’t know how much of it was the movies were so good, because like I said, I mostly went to the revivals. And, I mean, who’s not going to enjoy seeing The Wizard of Oz on a big screen? And, that’s a very different experience from these horrible animated things you take your kids to now. I mean, it was very different. Another theater that maybe you’re working on, too, down, and it was torn down, it was the Outer Circle? The Inner Circle? The Circle Theater, down Pennsylvania Avenue?
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, I’ve heard of it.
SARAH: Off Washington Circle. And, they played old movie double features, and so, you could take one bus and it would take you down there and so they’d do a Thin Man, you know, ‘An Afternoon with The Thin Man’ or Marx Brothers marathon, you know, whatever (laughing); they did double features. And, that was cool, too. And, part of it was just the movies were better.
INTERVIEWER: And, cheaper, and more of an event.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have any specific memories of times you went there… Lots of people that we talked to, some people have had their, one person we talked to had had their first date at the MacArthur and remembers the inside of their car getting egged. And, I wonder if you have any stories that stand out of your memories from going there.
SARAH: For some reason, and I don’t know why this is so, I do remember seeing The Wrath of Khan there. I must have been, I don’t know, maybe two or something. My friend and I were big Star Trek fans and the first movie was so awful, but we went to this one and, um, we just loved it. I mean, we just loved it. Big screen, you know, there’s Ricardo Montalbaun, I mean, it was fabulous, we had the best time. I don’t really remember anything specific, though, because we went a lot. And, it was always fun to walk home and talk about it, and we were never allowed to eat candy. (laughing) So, we went to the grocery store and bought candy; that’s also a big deal. Our mothers didn’t necessarily know we were doing it.
INTERVIEWER: I think, my one last question would be, one of the things that has been really interesting is learning about how this was like a full-day activity or a lot of people? You know, it was like, today we’re going to the movies, we’re meeting friends, and a lot of people talked about how it wasn’t just going to the movies but it was the whole experience like walking down there, going to have lunch afterwards and chat about it that made it a lot of what it was and I wonder if you can just take me through a little bit of how a day would go if you were heading out to the movies when you were a kid.
SARAH: Well, it wasn’t so much like a special occasion, like I said, because we did it a lot. Whenever there was a new movie there, basically, I mean when they changed movies we would go see it. It was more that that’s just how I remember summer. It’s inextricable from my other summer memories because, you know, we were hangin’ out, and our mothers certainly didn’t want us under-foot, and it was so hot. And, so, um, that was just, it was just what we did in the afternoons, we went down to the movies. And, it really, um, it was just, it’s how I remember my childhood summers, sitting inside the MacArthur Theater, in the dark, watching these wonderful old movies.