Washington’s Avalon Theater is celebrating its centennial anniversary. The D.C. landmark in Chevy Chase opened in 1923. A premier spot for cinema, It has survived cultural and technological changes, weathered different owners and a bankruptcy, and is now a community-owned nonprofit.
It’s also the place that’s probably responsible for my birth. My father was born in 1928, and worked at the theater for a couple of years as a teenager in the mid-1940s. This was when American cinema was at its best, offering films like Casablanca, Robin Hood and Citizen Kane. A major star of the day was Gene Tierney, once called by 20th Century Fox founder Darryl Zanuck “the most beautiful woman to ever appear in movies.” He was right.
Dad crushed hard on Tierney, who had a string of fantastic films in the postwar years: Heaven Can Wait, Laura, and my favorite, The Razor’s Edge. It was in 1945 that dad got fired from the Avalon, the result of a prank that’s still a part of family lore. The comedy Between Two Women was playing, and dad and his best friend, whom I’ll call Pat Kane, put their own names in the marquee. So people walking or driving down upper-class Connecticut Avenue saw: Joe Judge & Pat Kane: Between Two Women. They got fired.
It was a little later that dad met my mother. He was having a drink at the Chevy Chase Lounge, a tavern just a few doors down from the Avalon. He looked up and was smitten: here was a woman who looked like Gene Tierney. Like Tierney, my mother Phyllis was “black Irish,” gorgeous people of Irish descent who have jet black hair and blue eyes. Both mom and Tierney also had a slight overbite that only added to their appeal.
“Wow,” my dad said. “You look like Gene Tierney.”
“You look like an asshole,” mom replied.
A year later they were married.
The Avalon was renovated in 1985, when they installed the great mural that looms overhead—a scene in the clouds showing Mercury unspooling a reel of film into the hands of Cupid. The theater also came back after being shuttered in 2001. Owner Lowes had gone bankrupt. A community effort saved the Avalon, and runs it today.
After my father died in 1996, I was going through his files in the basement when I found an old Hollywood glamor shot. It was an autographed black and white glossy of Gene Tierney. I stood there transfixed. Like dad, her beauty mesmerizes me. I also feel she’s a spiritual mother to me. While my official, legal birthplace is Georgetown University Hospital, I always considered the dark, mythical, erotic and Jungian world of the movie theater as my real origin. It was in the Avalon where dad was seduced by Tierney. He saw her, and his future, in my mother’s face.