Oral History Audio Interview with Thomas M. Reardon
about the Sheridan Theater
THOMAS: I was born in Washington D.C. in 1946, I’m 69 years old. My father was born in Washington D.C. in 1899. He was born at home. And, I’m starting to do a little genealogical research and it appeared he was born, and his house, that he was born in is on the same block as the FBI building, off of 9th Street. That area was known as the Swamp Poodle. That was the Irish American area. And, my father told me they had to move away when they decided to build Union Station right in the middle of Swamp Poodle. Um, so, when I was born, we lived on, the address was 3121 16th Street, which is in the Mt. Pleasant area right near, right where Columbia Road comes together with 16th Street and Mt. Pleasant Street. And, the building I came to was torn down and used to, at one time, be the site of Abraham Lincoln Middle School. Everything else that’s there now, I’m not sure. Then we moved, back in those days, in the late 40’s, Brightwood was considered suburban. So, we moved up to Brightwood; my mother was concerned about schools and stuff, so. We moved to Brightwood and we lived at 6110 14th Street NW, which is adjacent to an area called Vinegar Hill. And, that’s a whole ‘nother chapter, Vinegar Hill, so if you guys run out of things to do, call me, we’ll talk about Vinegar Hill…
INTERVIEWER: (laughing) Okay.
THOMAS: It was a pretty black enclave before, during and after the Civil War.
INTERVIEWER: So, where were you living and at what ages when you went to the Sheridan Theater?
THOMAS: Okay, I went to the, we’d been living in the Brightwood area since 1949, I was four, and I lived there, we moved away from, to Brightwood, well, 6110 14th Street, I believe it was probably 1959 or 1960 but most of my time at the Sheridan was elementary school to junior high school, probably ’54/’55 and the early ‘60’s.
INTERVIEWER: What was the neighborhood like back then; what were the demographics…?
THOMAS: Well, there were many named neighborhoods in DC, and I think if you’re familiar with the work of, oh, I was going to drop the name on you, but I can’t think of it right now, uh, here we go… Uh, there’s an interesting book I recommend to you by Kathryn Schneider Smith, very active in the DC Historical Society organization called Washington at Home (the illustrated history of the Washington DC named neighborhoods).Most people when they think of Washington DC, who aren’t from DC or have never been there, they picture the Capitol, the monuments, the museums, Jefferson Memorial, the Tidal Basin, that’s what they think is Washington DC. However, Washington DC is made up of many, many, many different named neighborhoods to include places like Shepherd Park, Tenleytown, Cleveland Park, uh, Foggy Bottom, Benning Heights, Capital Hill, old Anacostia, Deanwood; each of them…you had to be old enough to remember, when a lot of these named neighborhoods pretty much had their own identities. Uh, Brightwood was one such named neighborhood; they set the central focus of Brightwood, from my perspective, was the intersection of Missouri Avenue and Georgia Avenue. I considered that to be the axel of the wheel. Moving north on Georgia, you had Hechinger, you had lots of small stores and small businesses up there. That was also the site of the Brightwood Car Barn, which is now occupied by Wal-Mart. You may have been in DC when all that was going on, several years ago, when there was a movement to try to save the Car Barn, but it wasn’t succesful, so Wal-Mart is there now. Ft. Stevens was the reconstructed area of, Ft. Stevens the battlefield is there. You go up Georgia Avenue, you see, uh, there was an old Safeway store, five-and-dime, dry cleaners, a liquor store; all that was just a little, almost like a small town. At one time, Brightwood had its own newspaper.
INTERVIEWER: What kind of people lived there?
THOMAS: Mainly, white people. Well, but, actually, I’ll go a little bit more into detail, again from my perspective. It was predominantly central Vinegar Hill, another chapter here, central Vinegar Hill, uh, it was a white community, and further broken down, it was a Jewish population there, in fact not far from Vinegar Hill was the Washington Hebrew Academy on 16th and Ft. Stevens Drive. Then we had the Greek community, a lot of them up on Georgia Avenue, the Deoudes family owned the luncheonette, the Spanish family owned the dry cleaners. You had, the Jewish population was not necessarily in Brightwood, but they went to Brightwood, to the Brightwood school, Brightwood Elementary, Paul Junior High, and Coolidge High School, where I graduated from in 1964. So, it was predominantly a white neighborhood, and I would call it middle class. Yeah, that’s pretty good.
INTERVIEWER: What kind of role did the Sheridan play in the neighborhood?
THOMAS: Well, it was the theater. It was like many of the named neighborhoods, like, you know, you had the Uptown Theater up on Connecticut Avenue, it was sort of, it was just a, where everybody went to the movie for entertainment. A lot of people didn’t have cars, we didn’t have a car in my family till I was 16. My father never drove a car; we were all city people. And, that was a place you went on Saturday afternoons, to the matinee; they started at 1:00. A lot of the kids in the elementary, we’d all talk about what was coming up in the movie, we’d all agree to meet there, and it’d be a double feature with a cartoon, and it cost, I think, a quarter to get in.
INTERVIEWER: So, can you take me through a day, take me through a Saturday; either a particular one or or...
THOMAS: Yeah, yeah, a typical one that I recall, again it seemed like I was more active in the elementary – 4th, 5th and 6th grade – you know, the kids knew what was going to be playing on Saturday, and we’d talk about it, and we’d all meet up there, and go to the show. And, this is interesting because I tell a lot of my millenial friends, we walked up there by ourselves, no supervision from parents, we just went. Got in line, again it cost a quarter to get in, we’d get in there, first stop was the concession stand, and then we’d all sit down and watch the show. Now, in junior high school, that was kinda odd, this is when we sorta discovered girls.
INTERVIEWER: (chuckling) It’s a strange time…
THOMAS:: However, the protocol in those days was different than it is today. We would sit behind them and tease them, basically. And, that was the place to be on Saturday, was watch the show. Really, that was about it.
INTERVIEWER: So, what kind of things would you say to the girls?
THOMAS: Oh, I don’t know…we’d kick the chair, we’d harass them about their hairdo, stuff like that and that was that. But, like I said in my e-mail, it was kinda interesting, when I look back on it, it was kind of interesting to watch the show in the audience. You had, like I said in my e-mail, you had what they call the greasers would show up; these were the guys with the duck-tail haircut, this was the Elvis era. And, they would trot in and some of the kids would give their seats up and things along those lines. And, then you’d have the girls who would come in with rollers in their hair, that told you they had a date that night; that was sort of the message. Big beer-can rollers. And..they weren’t beer cans, but they looked like they were, you know, huge, during the…lots of hair spray. And, then you’d have the, uh, one of the things the kids liked to do is take the popcorn boxes and flatten them when they’re empty and and sail them towards the screen. Of course, the manger was there, trying to maintain law and order.
INTERVIEWER: Was it mostly kids and young people?
THOMAS: Yeah, it was, at Saturday matinee, right. You never saw, I never saw an adult there on Saturday, in the Saturday matinee at all.
INTERVIEWER: Is that part of what made it kind of a special experience?
THOMAS: Of course, that was part of it. The whole, living there was, I tell people how fabulous it was growing up in Washington, D.C.; it was just wonderful, I thought, and, uh, it had its ups and downs, bumps and grinds, all that sort of stuff…And, of course, the theater was integ-, segregated, that was, there were no – as you probably are aware – DC pubic schools were integrated by court order, which was a Supreme Court decision in 1954. And, you never saw signs. The only signs you’d ever see about segregation in Washington before that was on construction sites for the outdoor bathrooms. One was marked ‘skilled’ and the other one was marked ‘unskilled.’ And, that was the only sign. And, the other thing you would see, actross the street from the Sheridan was a line of small shops; one of them is the barber shop I’d go to getmy hair cut, and all the barber shops north of Florida Avenue all had signs in them that said, ‘We’re not licensed to cut kinky and abnormally curly hair.’ So that was the sign, white only basically. And, so, I don’t recall ever seeing a black kid in the Sheridan, during the timeframe we’re talking about. Cuz, historically, traditionally, the African American community had their own movie theater. They were down on U, Florida Avenue and U Street. The Republic and the Lincoln. And, they were as ornate as anything that was in the white community, but it was just separated by space.
THOMAS: Now, the Sheridan Theater was part of the Stanley Warner chain and, uh, one of the things I mentioned in my e-mail was, uh…who did I send that to? Alison Dooley…was they had ushers, they had flashlights and stuff. They didn’t show you to your seat, their job was to keep, make sure our feet didn’t go on the back of the seats and stuff like this. Most of them were awfully scrawny to me, I don’t know what that was about. They had these black, double-breasted uniforms with silver trim, and it seemed to me that getting kicked out of the movie for being boisterous was sort of a right of passage for some of these kids. (both chuckling). It was crazy. But, anyway, so again, it was also air conditioned. Back in those days, not everything was air conditioned during the hot, humid summers of DC. So, that was a great place to go and cool off as well as see a movie.
INTERVIEWER: Can you remember, like, if we try to go back there…if you try to maybe close your eyes and imagine being back there; can you remember the feeling? What’s sort of feelings come up?
THOMAS: Safety. Familiarity. Neighborhood. I was back in DC last October for a convention and I got on the, I think we had some spare time, so, I got on the Metro bus at 16th and K and drove, went over to Silver Spring and caught the #70 bus down Georgia Avenue and I got off the bus at Rittenhouse Street, started walking around the neighborhood and I got the same feeling. It’s all changed, it’s different, you know, but I got the same feeling of comfortable familiarity. There’s no place like home.
INTERVIEWER: So, a lot of people have mentioned to us this aspect of walking to the theater, especially as now it seems, that seems unusual?
THOMAS: It is, yes. Well, you walked everywhere.
INTERVIEWER: So, first of all, what do you think has changed? How do you think that that affected the experience of going to the movies when you were a kid?
THOMAS: Well, it was all neighborhood, and that’s where we went. You didn’t get in the car to go to a 35-screen metro-plex cinema. You stayed around people you knew, and things you were familiar with and, uh, we had, the nearest theater to us was the Takoma, and that’s another one to study later, on 4th and Butternut Street N.W. And, that was just like the Sheridan. I know some kids up in that neighborhood…but the neighborhoods almost seemed to me different worlds. We never saw Takoma kids down in the Sheridan area, we never saw, we never went there either.
INTERVIEWER: Was there any rivalry?
THOMAS: No, not really. But, you know, think about this; there was no internet, there was no cell phones, there was no 24-hour news cycle, uh, nobody had a car, in fact a lot of the kids came to the Sheridan by streetcar on Georgia Avenue, from, you know, north, up further up. The only parking was in…have you ever been to the Sheridan Theater?
INTERVIEWER: I have, yes.
THOMAS: Okay, when you face the theater, off to the right, you have some off-street parking, and that was a new concept from the ‘30’s, called Park and Shop. They had one there, and they had one near Ordway Street on Connecticut Avenue. That was a big deal, to have parking right where the store was. But, generally, driving anywhere was something we didn’t think about.
INTERVIEWER: Do you miss those days?
THOMAS: Oh, yeah. (laughs)
THOMAS: There was such good feelings about it. But, it was something, it wasn’t complicated.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think that was because you were a kid, or do you think the times have actually changed?
THOMAS: Well, part of it was you were a kid, yeah, I understand that, but part of it is the changing times. It was interesting when I went back in October sort of walking up and down Georgia Avenue, I went into a tax preparation store that used to be the Ft. Stevens pharmacy, that was on the corner of Georgia and Rittenhouse. It used to have a soda fountain in it and everything like that, and a liquor store next to it. And, the gentleman who was there, I just said, ‘hi, I just wanted to look around.’ I told him what I was doin’, he was from that neighborhood, he was younger than I was. And, we had about an hour conversation about the way it was. And, there’s a lot of folks my age and older who’ll do the // One phenomenon I’ve noticed is, when I used to travel a lot to DC when I was working for the federal government out here in Arizona, I’d get out about once a quarter, I’d occassionally meet somebody from DC. The first thing you had to determine was it DC or the suburbs? A lot of people who were from the suburbs would say they’re from DC and to us that’s not the same thing. If you’re not area code 202, you’re not a Washingtonian. And, the first thing I’ve learned is that, it doesn’t matter what college you went to, it’s important to know what high school you went to, cuz that was sort of the (sighs), I don’t know, that was your identity. I was in a cab once about 10 years ago, with a man, an African American cab driver, who did he say?, I made the comment, saying it was unusual to be in a cab with somebody who’s from this country, you know, he was driving it. He said, yeah, he’d been doing it for, he just worked part time, and he mentioned he went to school, I told him I was a DC native, and he said he was too; he went to Spingarn, which is, I think it’s been closed; it was a black school. And, there was a kid there, and he knew, well, he pulled the cab over and we had a talk for about a half hour about who knew who. It was amazing. (Hannah chuckles). Yeah, it’s really quite something, then I was there for when the neighborhood transitioned. We didn’t, of course, in 1954 when the Supreme Court decision desegregated the DC pubic school system, we had a thing called ‘White Flight’ and that’s when a lot of the white families, fearing integration, moved to the suburbs; that’s when the suburban thing started, I think, pretty much moving out in Wheaton and Silver Spring and places like that. My parents couldn’t afford to flee; we stayed put, and so I was around for when the schools changed and the neighborhood changed, but it was still the neighborhood. Didn’t matter to me.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have any specific stories you remember from going to the Sheridan? Did you ever go on a date there, or...
THOMAS: No, oh, God, no (laughing). Date? That didn’t come till later. (both laughing). Well, we, uh, you gotta remember it was a different world in those days, 60 years ago, but, no, we’d just meet there and we’d laugh at the cartoons, we’d enjoy the movie, we didn’t think too much, and then we just took off.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember the first movie you ever saw?
THOMAS: Yeah, I was thinkin’ about that and what keeps popping in my mind is ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ with Spencer Tracy, it was a Western, I think. And, I also saw the Elvis movie, ‘Love Me Tender’ there in 1956. That was a packed house. It was one of the few times I saw the Sheridan full on a matinee.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have a television at home?
THOMAS: Oh, yeah, we, that’s an interesting question. We got one in 1949. My father was a visionary in that area. He thought it was going to be a big deal, so we bought a TV, and I think it had an 8-inch screen. And, DC was, DC was kind of a, and New York City were kind of laboratories for commercial television. The initial channels were channel 4, 5, 7 and 9. Channel 4 was then called WNBW, channel 5 was WTTG, channel 7 was WMAL, and channel 9 was WTOP.
INTERVIEWER: So, what was the difference between watching television and going to the movies?
THOMAS: I didn’t really particularly care for TV that much because the screen was so small, but the movie to me; I still love movies. I love movies. I love the big screen. I love, you know, eating the popcorn. The great s--, of course in those days, it wasn’t great sound, it wasn’t like today, but it was all film, it wasn’t digital. But, going to the movies there, I thought that was exciting. And, I still love movies. I go to the movies as much as possible now. You know, the real movies, not Netflix.
INTERVIEWER: Why do you think it was exciting?
THOMAS: Well, one thing, we were away from our parents, from supervision. That was cool, that was great.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think that going to the movie was the main time that you got to do that?
THOMAS: Yeah, basically. Or a baseball game. We used to go, when I was, I tell them this, they get frightened when I tell them this, I was 11, 10/11/12 years old I’d get a couple buddies and we’d get on the streetcar and go down to Griffith Stadium to watch the Senators play, without adult supervision. And, in order to get a kid’s ticket, we had to have an adult buy it so we would stand out in front of the stadium and ask an adult to buy our ticket for us. It was 50¢ for a kid. So, that was wonderful, too. It wasn’t like an escape…I’m not talking we had to escape oppression or cruelty, no, you just had a chance to get away and see things, do stuff. It was great. If this would happen today; I went to a Nationals game last year, I was in DC and bought a ticket to go see them play, I don’t know who they were playin’, oh my God, it’s so changed, it really does, it really is.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, I’ll bet.
THOMAS: And, I had a chance to go before, to have a tour of Nationals stadium by an intern who, his big thing was food and beverage, it wasn’t baseball. He was telling me about the different venues they had, the cocktail lounges, the party rooms and all that kind of stuff. I don’t think he talked about baseball all that much.
INTERVIEWER: (laughs) I’m wondering, also, a little about the community atmosphere of it, right? Because now it’s so easy to watch something in private...
THOMAS: Yeah, it is.
INTERVIEWER: And, I wonder if that’s a big part of going to the movies.
THOMAS: Yeah, it is; well, you know, again, seeing things on YouTube and stuff, you need a realm of imagination. You can go on the internet today and see, watch someone be decapitated. But, it was, of course, we had the newspaper, we all, well we had in those days, we had the newpaper, I read the newpaper a lot. We got on Saturday…Sunday mornings we got The Times Herald, we got delivered The Times Herald, uh, The Star and The Post came Sunday edition so you know, everybody read the paper. I think most of my friends did. But, again, it wasn’t any – I’ve never really been asked that question before, ‘how does it compare to now?’ And, sometimes, it’s almost beyond comparison. It really is. We didn’t lock our, until about the early ‘50’s, we didn’t lock our doors. The few people who had cars in the neighorhood, kept the keys in the ignition. And, you know, very few people, I’ve lived in apartment buildings, four apartments, the one next to us had about 30 apartments but I think you only had two or three families had cars, who’d park, you know, along 14th Street. So, uh, but the movie thing, again, that was really, to me, it was exciting; you had the music, you had the color, um, cowboys and Indians, space people, etc. I saw ‘War of the Worlds’ there. You know, the one that came out in the ‘50’s. I was telling my wife last night one of the movies I wanted to see there, when I was about 10, was a movie called ‘Them’ about giant ants, and when the giant ants attacked, they had a peculiar noise they made. I was walking, that particular time I went by myself, and I got out of the movie and it was dark, and I was walking home, and a pickup truck rolled by and I guess his fan belt had slipped and it duplicated that sound (both laughing).
INTERVIEWER: Were you terrified?
THOMAS: Oh, yeah. That was an exciting run home, yeah, I couldn’t believe it.
INTERVIEWER: The first time you saw a movie in the theater, did it blow your mind?
THOMAS: Kinda, because of the big screen, I think. The big screen, and the volume, and all that sorta stuff, you could kinda almost be there. That’s a lot, sometimes, how I felt. You were actually there chasing stagecoaches and stuff like that. And, it also, like I said, it, uh, going to the movies, it helped kids, being a kid from my era, with their vocabulary and how to speak. Everyone spoke pretty good English in those movies, that’s why I still enjoy the old 1930 movies on TV. You know, everybody dressed for dinner and stuff like that. But, I think it helped us with sentence structure and vocabulary.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, maybe that’s true. Well, this is great. Are there any other stories or any other things you wanted to share?
THOMAS: No, I really can’t recall how sad I felt when I heard the Sheridan was closing. I’ve been in it since it closed, I think it’s a Family Dollar store or something like that.
INTERVIEWER: Why were you sad?
THOMAS: Well, because it wasn’t what it was. You kinda want to keep those good memories for a long time. That’s why so many people like old baseball stadiums, they like old cars, which are just a different, different world, back then; the whole street was different. And, I can still remember; sometimes I have trouble remembering where I put my car keys, but I can tell you pretty much what was on the street. We had that little Park and Shop thing was there, they had a Peoples Drug Store there; sometimes we’d go there after the movie, but very seldom because that cost a whole dime for a Coke.
INTERVIEWER: (chuckles) Rip off.
THOMAS: Well, no, they fixed it/they mixed it. They put it into a white paper cup and they put in the Coke syrup, and the carbonation, and then they mix it up. And, the best part about the Peoples Drug Store right next to the Sheridan Theater was it was air conditioned to the point you’d almost freeze to death. (Hannah laughs) Of course, you’ve been through a couple Washington hot/humid summers. And, of course, you had to walk everywhere you went. That was a great place to hang out. And, you had the (?) store and all that sort of stuff. Yeah, it was just like a little village. My wife tells me about when, she grew up in western Pennsylvania and the same with the little villages; each one was self-sufficient. Brightwood was feeling almost self-sufficient in terms of shopping, of meeting your shopping needs. And, you everybody, you knew people. It was just like a small town. And, that was, again, the Sheridan Theater was one of the high points of the neighborhood, where people went to watch a movie, maybe enjoy themselves, and that’s where the kids went on Saturday matinees; for a whole quarter you’d see two movies, eat popcorn, and go through the drama as you grew up.