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Second Lives

By Alan Rubin

The road from my Brooklyn childhood that lead to a Fauquier County adulthood wound through Washington, DC and three overlapping careers. I grew up an only child in an urban apartment house surrounded by similar buildings filled with young kids many of whom are still my friends today. We played a lot of city street games together but I spent my alone time working with my hands -- painting, drawing and building things.

I spent every summer of my youth in the countrysides of upstate New York and Pennsylvania, first with my parents, then as a camper and later as a resort waiter. It was always my favorite time and place. I never forgot the intoxicatingly sweet smells and visual beauty of those rural summers and realize now how much they influenced my choice of a country life today.

After high school I thought I’d like to study architecture and was accepted at the Pratt Institute. At the end of my freshman year I realized I was Frank Lloyd Wrong and transferred to Brooklyn College. I graduated with a degree in geology and a minor in art. After graduation some 50 years ago, I came to Washington for my first adult job at the U. S. Geological Survey at the Natural History Museum. It was exciting to be on my own for the first time but also eye-opening to spend many a lunch hour visiting the National Gallery of Art and other museums strung along Constitution Avenue.

I lived for several years in a beautiful boarding house near DuPont Circle. The rooms were big with fireplaces, elk horns, and gun racks on the walls, vestiges of Teddy Roosevelt’s residence there when he was Secretary of the Navy. Room and board including a daily breakfast and dinner was $20.00 a week. It is now the Moroccan Embassy. The best part was that it was located directly across from the Phillips Gallery. In those days admission was free and security was relaxed. I went there weekly. There was a small room that Renoir’s “Boating Party” shared with a sun–drenched cathedral by Monet. Two “Repentant Peters” by Goya and El Greco shared a room. A downstairs gallery was filled with Rothkos, and a magnificent Oskar Kokoshka painting of “Lyon” hung near the entrance.

After two years at the USGS I was offered a position at the Army Map Service. JFK was president and after the failed Bay of Pigs adventure, he established the Defense Intelligence Agency to counterbalance the CIA, and the Map Service was swept into it. I enrolled in GWU graduate school and attended night classes for five years. One spring day as I exited class I ran into Paul Tauber who was a freshman at Pratt when I attended (he graduated). He was working for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. We rekindled our friendship and when he took a two-year assignment to work in San Francisco in 1965, I visited him, my first trip to California.

Late one evening I noticed a line that wound around the block in front of a movie theatre. Paul said it was for a midnight show, something new to me. We both agreed that we were tired of working for the government and talked about how cool it would be to have an art theatre of our own. He said he was returning to Washington the next year and I said I’d start looking for a site. 

Along the way we picked up three more partner/film buffs, found a vacant car dealership in Georgetown and the Biograph Theatre was born in October, 1967.

None of us had ever run a business before and there was initially a “Let’s put on a show in the barn” feel to it. It was successful right from the start and within a year or so we all quit our jobs and went into show business. The five of us each worked one night a week and every fifth weekend selling tickets and popcorn and learning how a movie theatre worked. We played American and international classics, the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Ingmar Bergman and Fellini. Those were the days before videotapes and DVDs and if you wanted to see “Casablanca” you saw it in a theatre. We opened a twin suburban theatre in Alexandria, Virginia and another art house in Richmond in 1972. At that point we couldn't’t run it like a mom and pop store anymore and we hired managers and delegated authority, a daunting task at the time.

In 1973 one of the partners left and Leonard Poryles and I ran the operation until our lease ran out in 1996. The Biograph was called a calendar house in the parlance of the art theatre world. We’d publish about 25,000 brochures describing our new film schedule every two months. I did the layouts, Jef Hyde, our office manager, did the film notes and we mailed and distributed them all over town. It was my artistic outlet for those many years.

Because videotape availability became universal in the 1980’s and anyone could rent copies of the films we were playing, I started programming differently, scheduling  a lot of smaller first-run art and foreign films that would never play Washington if we didn't show them. It was a lot more work. I screened a few films every weekend (most were excruciatingly bad) looking for the little gem that our audience would hopefully love. After that I had to set up critic screenings and, since we had no advertising budget, find unique ways of promoting each film. It was at once a satisfying and a humbling experience.

I did the programming and advertising and Lenny, an accountant and attorney, tended to our financial needs: Mr. Show and Mr. Biz. My wife, Susan, whom I wed in 1970, worked in the office part time for 20 years. She did the books, paid the bills and softened our edges. We ran the theatres paternalistically. We paid our managers and full-time staff well, gave them health insurance and responsibility and retained their loyalty and services for a long time. About a dozen of us are still in touch.

In 1968 after 31 years of apartment living, I bought the first house I ever lived in -- a townhouse in the Kalorama area of Adams Morgan. I left government service in 1969 and went into the movie business full time, my second career. I bought Susan a horse for her birthday and she boarded it in Great Falls. We found ourselves spending a lot of our weekend time out in the country -- riding, antiquing and hanging out. We thought “Why don’t we just live out here full time and commute into town? If we don’t like it we’ll just move back.”

After a few years of non-urgent looking, we found a 1905 Victorian house outside of Delaplane in Fauquier County built on the old stone foundation of a burned down house built in 1810 for one of John Marshall’s sons. It had 15 acres, a pond, an orchard, barns and a swimming pool for what seemed at the time an astronomical price of $100,000. We sold our townhouse in 1976, moved to the country with two horses, two puppies and a herd of cats who lived in the barn. In 1979 I built a movie theatre with a projection room and a pull-down screen in one of the barns.

In 1990 we went on vacation to France. Our old friend and GWU art professor, Bill Woodward, had just finished teaching a painting course in Brittany and we visited him there. He encouraged me to start painting again. We painted plein air most days and I loved it. I had found my third career. When I got home I converted my home movie theatre into an artist’s studio and started painting on weekends. I knew the Biograph’s 29-year lease was expiring in 1996 and I decided it was time to become a full-time artist. I thought if I didn’t at least try it, I’d always regret it; you can always make more money, but you can’t make more time.

Susan was very supportive. We both believe that happiness is when the things you work at and the things you play at are the same things. The Biograph always had an art space in the lobby. I changed the show myself every two months. I bought a number of the lobby paintings over the years and some of the artists are still friends. I thought why not have the final art show with my own work?

So over the next few years I painted on the weekends and created 20 pieces for the exhibit. The Post critic gave it a kind review and I sold a number of paintings. It was hard parting with them at first; it was like selling a piece of my heart. Now, 12 years later, after painting over 300 works I find I like the idea of people having a little piece of my heart. I think running a cinema influenced my style. I often paint scenes that are like single frames taken from a film with no context.

People tell me a story about what they think the subjects are doing. Although their stories are invariably different from what I had in mind, I always say “You got it.” because it’s really their story and not mine. I enjoy creating art that makes the viewer look at life from many angles and viewpoints from our collective memory. I would like the viewer to notice the moments that are normally fleeting and often funny or ironic, and feel the connection to the unknown moments before and after.
A sign, THE BIOGRAPH, in individually raised letters, identified the theatre. When we closed I removed the letters from the building and re-arranged them into a new sign: BIG ART HOPE; it hangs in my studio. I think this will be my last career.