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Community Is Optimistic About Embattled Bethesda Theatre's Future

After foreclosure, bank reports several interested parties.

The story of the Bethesda Theatre, a much-loved Wisconsin Avenue performance venue, began in 1938 when it opened its doors as an art-deco movie house.

But the next chapter in that story remains unclear.

This summer, the Bethesda Theatre went dark after struggling with more than $4 million in debt and being foreclosed upon by its lender, BB&T. With no bidders at a June auction, BB&T officials are still hoping to find a buyer for the historic landmark with its 700 plush seats and signature marquee.

Despite the foreclosure and the subsequent lack of bidders, the community remains optimistic about the future of the theater. Business and community leaders have rallied to support what they describe as an important cultural resource, forming a group called Save the Bethesda Theatre. It is being spearheaded by the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce.

Now, both Save the Bethesda Theatre and BB&T are reporting that the embattled theatre is piquing the interest of potential buyers.

Jerry Morenoff, a member of Save the Bethesda Theatre and a former leader of the chamber, wrote in an e-mail to Patch that he had been contacted informally by about a dozen people interested in the theatre, most of whom were real estate developers or owners.

"I am not at liberty to reveal anyone's names at this time, and it is difficult for me to assess just how serious any of these individuals/companies are in purchasing the theatre," Morenoff wrote.

A BB&T spokeswoman also reported the bank was working with several people "showing interest."

Whoever purchases the theater would be required to continue its use as an arts and entertainment venue, and that's exactly what Save the Bethesda Theatre hopes to encourage, according to Ginanne Italiano, who heads the chamber.

"The purpose of [Save the Bethesda Theatre] is to make sure moving forward that whoever ends up buying the theater, they understand they've got a community there as a basis for support," Italiano said. "They shouldn't be going it alone."

The challenge will be finding a party who is both willing to absorb the theater's $4.5 million debt and to buy a structure with a restricted use, according to Steve Silverman, the county's economic development director.

The theater was reincarnated in 2007 after a much-touted $12 million renovation by the Bozutto Group. The Bethesda Cultural Alliance, a non-profit that owned and operated the theater before the foreclosure, at the time partnered with Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment, a management company that produced several Off-Broadway shows there.

The theater's financial woes began in 2008 when flooding problems caused it to go dark temporarily as it began a run of "Smokey Joe's Café." The financial hit was compounded by the downturn in the economy. The partnership with Nederlander ended in 2009, and in the months before the foreclosure, the Bethesda Theatre had been struggling to cover its debts and the mortgage.

Italiano said she remained hopeful that the theater would once again be a vibrant entertainment venue in the heart of downtown, envisioning its potential as a live music venue or a community theater hub.

"This has gotten a lot of investment, and the last thing we need is a black hole in the place," Italiano said. "Everybody feels pretty confident that something's going to happen."

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