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History of the Laurel Theatre

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By Kevin Leonard 

Like everyone else who grew up in Laurel during the 1960s and 70s, I spent a lot of time at the Laurel Theatre on Main Street. Those were the days when we would sit through two showings and hope the usher didn’t kick us out (which they never did). For me, the theater took on a personal note when the Petrucci family bought the theater and turned it into a dinner theater (Jo Petrucci is my sister-in-law.)

But, as I found out, the history of the building revealed that the theater had been one of the town’s most important landmarks to the citizens of Laurel for decades.

I interviewed some very helpful people, including Robert Headley, who wrote a book titled Motion Picture Exhibition in Washington, D.C. His book was invaluable in researching the original Red Wing Theater as well as the Laurel Theatre. It turns out that Driver is a retired professor from the University of Maryland and still lives in the area. He graciously invited Rich and I to his house and talked for an entire afternoon with us.

An unexpected source was George Prior, a classmate of mine at Laurel High School (Class of 1972). Even though I’d known George very well for a long time, I never knew his father managed the theater for years. I met up with George and Mark O’Dell, another LHS alumnus who worked for George’s father while he was in high school, and listened to their stories.

I talked to Thom Jarrell, who worked for years for the Petrucci family in a variety of jobs. Thom had lots of stories about the building, including the story of the ghost he saw. And, of course, my sister-in-law Jo provided a wealth of information and photos about the building.

As I was finishing my research for the story, the Laurel History Boys were contacted by Blaine Sutton, from SORTO Contracting Company. SORTO had been awarded the contract to demolish the building and Blaine wondered if we would be interested in checking it out one last time. Would we? As we picked our way through the debris littering the interior of the dilapidated theater, it was both fascinating and sad. Through my research I had acquired an appreciation for what the theater had meant to the town during its heyday, but on that last inspection all we saw was a building falling apart at the seams. The saddest sight of all was the old movie screen hanging in tatters. How many movies were projected onto that screen, starting with silent movies in the 1920s?

This article is a follow-up to a two-part 2016 "History Matters" column Kevin wrote for the Laurel Leader. You can read part one of that original column by clicking  the image above, and part two by clicking the image below. BALTIMORE SUN

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The Red Wing Theater was at 717 Washington Boulevard, labeled “Electric Theatre” in this Sanborn Insurance map from 1914. SOURCE: DR. ROBERT HEADLEY

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This program for the Red Wing Theater is from 1924. SOURCE: LAUREL HISTORICAL SOCIETY

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Moving Picture World, one of the first trade papers in the new motion picture business, contained information and brief editorial comments about what movies played where. The June 1924 edition described what was playing at Laurel. SOURCE: MEDIAHISTORYPROJECT.ORG

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In this March 4, 1909 photo looking south on Washington Boulevard, the front of the Red Wing Theater can be seen at the top left. SOURCE: LAUREL HISTORICAL SOCIETY

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After the Red Wing Theater burned down, Laurel residents Mr. & Mrs. B.E. Chapman announced they would build a replacement theater.

Progress was reported but there were no more announcements about the Chapmans’ venture after this.

SOURCE: LAUREL LEADER

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Built in 1947, Sidney Lust’s Beltsville Drive-in was a landmark for Laurel residents, especially teenagers. 

SOURCE: WWW.DRIVEINS.ORG

Sidney Lust already had an empire of theaters in the Washington area before he built the Laurel Theatre. His company controlled film distribution rights from Maryland to Texas.

SOURCE: DR. ROBERT HEADLEY

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When the Petrucci family converted the building into a dinner theater, major renovations, including the facade, were undertaken. This photo is before it reopened as Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre. SOURCE: DR. ROBERT HEADLEY

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Dr. Robert Headley being interviewed. PHOTO BY RICHARD FRIEND

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These 1934 photos show some changes to the theater. The “LAUREL” neon sign has been added and a barbershop is now occupying one of the storefronts. The globe lights hanging from the façade have been removed. 

SOURCE: LAUREL HISTORICAL SOCIETY

This 1931 photo of the Laurel Theater shows the two storefronts on either side of the theater entrance, which had not yet been rented. The windows on the second floor were apartments for rent. The blurry poster in the middle resting on the sidewalk is advertising Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights,” which was released in 1931. SOURCE: PAUL SANCHEZ

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In an attempt to improve business, owner Donald Richie tried screening X-Rated movies.

SOURCE: LAUREL NEWS LEADER

This article from 1975 shows the marquee on the building’s front that was changed a few times over the years. Also visible is the TV repair shop that occupied the storefront to the right of the theater entrance. SOURCE: LAUREL NEWS LEADER

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In 1976, the final movie shown by Ritchie was Shampoo, starring Warren Beatty. After that the marquee read “Closed Forever.”  SOURCE: LAUREL NEWS LEADER

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This 1989 photo shows the remodeled façade. SOURCE: LAUREL HISTORICAL SOCIETY

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The Petrucci family gutted the interior of the theater before remodeling. SOURCE: JO LEONARD

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The Petrucci family renovated the theater, removing the old seats and building tiered platforms for dinner guests. SOURCE: JO LEONARD

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The Petrucci family reopened the theater and offered first-run movies. The grand re-opening offered the blockbuster “Jaws.” SOURCE: JO LEONARD

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A final walk-through before demolition revealed the sad, dilapidated state of the building. It was beyond salvageable. PHOTO BY KEVIN LEONARD

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After the building was condemned, Jo Leonard climbed into the projectionist’s booth through this hatch leading to the roof to take a final look at her family’s dinner theater. PHOTO BY KEVIN LEONARD

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This was the final state of the building before demolition. PHOTO BY KEVIN LEONARD

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The balcony of the theater was exposed when demolition began. PHOTO BY RICHARD FRIEND