SOME 20 YEARS AFTER the last movie theater closed in downtown Roanoke Virginia, a combination cinema and restaurant is expected to open in a central-city parking garage.
One by one, over 20 years, downtown Roanoke's five movie screens have flickered out as central-city cinemas went dark throughout the nation.
Now, after another two decades, the silver screen may be relighted. But the proposed operation, the Market Square Cinema Cafe, would be a hybrid: restaurant and movie theater.
It is expected to open in about 90 days, provided Roanoke City Council approves lease of a public building to house the venture. That approval is expected in another four weeks.
What has changed since ornate movie houses were a central-city fixture across America, observers say, are downtowns themselves, particularly downtown Roanoke. From their former focus on retail shopping, city cores have evolved into financial and office centers by day and, increasingly, are entertainment meccas by night.
There is "a lot of interest in urban entertainment projects," said Peggy Meehan of the Urban Land Institute. These projects are, she said, bringing people back downtown.
The institute, a private, Washington, D.C., real estate research organization, recently sponsored a several-day seminar on downtowns as entertainment centers. It attracted 560 developers from throughout the country.
"There's a sense of money to be made if you redevelop downtown," Meehan noted. Los Angeles and New York are at their peak at night, she said, and now this trend is spreading to smaller cities.
The concept of downtown revitalization, she said, involves giving people what they want to do at night so they will return to the cities. And what they want, she said, are places to eat and attractions to visit for entertainment.
Movies are a part of that. "Three-D theaters [that require wearing of a new type of glasses] are the rage in the bigger cities," she reported, and people are filling up old theaters - such as The Grandin in Roanoke. In some cities, especially in California, long-abandoned movie houses have been restored to their former glory
Meehan, however, had not heard of a cinema cafe, a place to eat while you are watching a film. That is what three men propose to develop across from Roanoke's historic City Market.
The three young men - so young that they refuse to give their ages - who are the founders of Roanoke's proposed Market Square Cinema Cafe originally had planned their venture for Florida.
Their idea of operating a cinema cafe arose in Orlando in 1975, said Randy Moneymaker, Tim Webber and Marcel Shoemaker. Now, they said, restaurant theaters are popular in Washington, Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, San Diego and the like.
The enterprises are not limited to big cities far away. There are three in Virginia Beach, they said, and one in Richmond.
They conceded that most of these theaters are in or near shopping malls. That doesn't suggest the central city won't work for their venture because, Moneymaker said, downtown Roanoke is where the night action is these days. "It's a cycle; everything is a cycle in life," he said of the revival of downtown.
It's a cycle for them as well. When they were children, the three said, their parents took them to movies in downtown Roanoke - experiences, they said, they barely remember. The three grew up in the Vista Heights neighborhood of Roanoke and attended Mountain View School together.
The three boyhood friends, in fact, were in the process of planning their Florida cinema cafe when Roanoke Mayor David Bowers mentioned the need for a downtown movie theater in his State of the City address just over a year ago.
Bowers said recently that the cinema cafe will help "make downtown Roanoke the entertainment center for our community."
It will, he said, supplement the live stage of Mill Mountain Theatre, the many restaurants, museums and musical evenings at the night spots.
These attractions, he said, have helped to create a traffic jam many evenings at the prime intersection of Jefferson Street and Campbell Avenue.
"There aren't too many mid-sized cities in the South that have that problem," Bowers said, his inflection indicating that he didn't really see any problem at all with evening traffic gridlock downtown.
Friends and family members sent clippings of Bowers' earlier comments to Moneymaker, who at the time was selling special merchandise to theme parks for Paramount Pictures. One who sent clippings was Webber, who works for his father at Imperial Floor & Tile Co. in Roanoke. Shoemaker is employed by the American Red Cross.
They have worked for a year on their plan, which would operate the restaurant-theater on the street level of the 3-year-old municipal parking garage on Church Avenue Southeast, at the foot of Market Street between the Norfolk Southern Building and the downtown fire station.
The parking garage was built so the first floor could be leased for a business, said R. Matthew Kennell, executive director of Downtown Roanoke Inc. Parking on the first floor always has been considered temporary until a suitable tenant could be found.
That means the 5,000-square-foot area proposed for the theater is free of supporting columns and has a clear view and high ceilings. "It just worked out for a lot of reasons," Kennell said of the space.
The cinema's operators declined to discuss their capitalization or any financial figures, but their projections call for 72,000 patrons a year, enough to turn a profit, they said.
Phil Sparks, the city's acting director of economic development, said Moneymaker and his partners were able to qualify for bank financing. Their ability to satisfy the lending institution also satisfied the city of the financial soundness of their proposal, Sparks said.
Moneymaker was a partner with Roanoke restaurant operator Roland "Spanky" Macher in another downtown movie theater, proposed for the former Woolworth store on Campbell Avenue. Moneymaker said they were unable to buy the property; Macher did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.
The lobby of the Market Square Cinema Cafe will be 113 feet long, dominated by a counter where people who just want a quick bite to eat.
But the Market Square Cinema Cafe, they said, will be a theater first and a restaurant second.
Moneymaker, Webber and Shoemaker said the theater will have two screens, one with 120 seats and the other with 140 seats, both showing second-run movies at night, much like the offerings at The Grandin.
They project a series of platforms, instead of sloping ramps, so all patrons can see the screens, which will be as close to the roof as possible. The highest platform will be the smoking section. Movie-goers will look up toward the screens rather than straight ahead; they will sit in lounge-type chairs with casters, so they can be adjusted for better views of the screens.
Paths for the wait staff will be built around the theaters so patrons can give orders during the show for wine, beer, hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, nachos and the like. Patrons will be able to eat and watch at the same time, because the lighting will be a little brighter than in a normal theater.
The idea, they said, is to provide a movie and a meal for less than $20 per couple.
Target date for opening is Nov. 1, but that depends on how quickly City Council and lawyers move on the lease.
"Randy has been very persistent and done his homework," said Kennell of Downtown Roanoke Inc. "They've done everything they said they'd do, to this point. At this point, it's up to the city."
Sparks said the project is about four weeks from formal presentation to Roanoke City Council, which has discussed the lease in executive sessions. The lawyers still are working on the agreements, he said, and a report must be written and circulated by the administration. He declined to discuss the details of the lease until it goes to council.
One sticking point is the city's action in January in closing the parking garage to evening and weekend parking. Sparks said it was believed then that the market garage on Campbell Avenue next to Center in the Square provided sufficient night and weekend space.
Moneymaker said he could not say how important the parking garage is to the success of the theater.
Kennell thinks the theater probably will succeed, because downtown is developing an evening business for "entertainment in general and people-oriented activities. People are coming back downtown for entertainment."
Statistics are hard to come by, however. Jim Kozak, spokesman for the National Association of Theatre Owners, said he knows of no studies showing trends away from downtown or back again. Indeed, he said, he's not sure it's a national trend, at least not in the biggest cities.
The last theater in downtown Roanoke was the Jefferson, which closed in 1977. The building was razed the following year, and the Alcoholic Beverage Control board store stands on its site.
The Rialto was the first downtown movie house to shut - in 1955. That was followed by the Park in 1956 and the Roanoke in 1961.
The 2,000-seat American Theater, largest and grandest of the downtown movie houses, was closed Sept. 30, 1971. It was torn down in January 1973 to make way for what is now the First Union Building.
Downtowns in general were declining in that period, Kennell said. "People were enamored by malls and turned their backs on downtowns." Eating places downtown were sparse.
Malls were new then, he said, and "people always like something new." Meanwhile, downtowns had "a bad perception." In many localities, including Roanoke, people thought safety was a problem.
Downtowns have changed their image over time, Kennell said, and now it's some of the older malls that are suffering from similar stigma.
Times have changed, he said, and "downtown is coming back very strong."
People have tired of the malls because they all look the same. People like the historic atmosphere, the ambience, of downtown. And they like the fact that 60 restaurants have sprung up within walking distance of each other, Kennell said, half of them at the City Market.
He pointed out that the success of Mill Mountain Theatre proves that people will head downtown for entertainment.
Does that mean downtown patronage could support more than one movie house?
"I don't know. If this one is successful, it might be. We've focused on one, but it might be."
But a problem unique to Roanoke, Kennell said, is that all the old downtown movie theaters have been razed. In other communities, he said, old theaters have been reopened and, usually, converted into multiple-screen cinemas - like the Grandin.
Julie Hunsucker, owner of the Grandin, doesn't see the new cinema as a threat because "there's really not room for them." She said the Cinema Cafe will compete for the same films as the Grandin, Towers and Terrace, all of whom already have a relationship with distributors. Booking, she said, is not easy.
Hunsucker rejected an opportunity to open a downtown theater because she believes the area still suffers from "the malling of America" which forced closing of Roanoke's earlier theaters. Roanoke, she said, is already "overscreened. I don't think there's room for another theater."
Hunsucker, who said she survives because of patronage for art films, said eating and especially beer-drinking are the opposite of what people want at a theater. "I hope all the people who want to eat and talk will go to that theater," she said.
The independent theater is generally a thing of the past, she said, because people will stay at the malls. The old theaters had character, she said, and people went there because in those days "downtown was alive" beyond the City Market.
The many restaurants and lounges with music entertainment are drawing people, Kennell said, and a health club on Church Avenue has found a good response to a trial of evening hours. Between Macado's and the health club, he said, Church Avenue Southwest is crowded at night.
The Market Square Cinema Cafe will pull more people toward the south end of Market Street and contribute to the activity on Church Avenue, Kennell said. "I just think it's right on target."
Newspaper clipping submitted by Will Moneymaker