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City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
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Access Points 22: Plaza Theatre in Poncey-Highland

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Did you recognize this week's Access Point? It's the Plaza Theatre in Poncey-Highland, shown here in 1983. AJC/Jamie Gumbrecht

If I’d posted a color picture of this week’s Access Point, I don’t think there would have been any question. It’s not The Varsity, nor Chuck E. Cheese, but the more popular choice: The Plaza Theatre on Ponce de Leon Avenue. The first commenter to guess correctly is two-time Access Points winner Lain Shakespeare.

Easy to see why so many of you guessed the photo correctly. The sign and marquee stand out on that stretch of Ponce, and they’ve been there a long time, 70 years, in fact. Theater owners Jonathan and Gayle Rej will celebrate this Friday by partying with Robert Osbourne of Turner Classic Movies and screening of the 1939 hit, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” plus more 1939 films the rest of the month. This will also kick off the fund-raising campaign for the Plaza Theatre Foundation, the new non-profit that runs the theater.

A quick history:

  • The theater, Atlanta’s oldest operating movie theater, opened in 1939 as a neighborhood theater to serve the new suburb of Druid Hills. It was among the first in the southeast to include off-street parking for cars. It opened Dec. 23, 1939, with “The Women, ” the Joan Crawford-Norma Shearer classic.
  • By the 1970s, the Plaza (and Ponce, and Atlanta) was having a rough time. It was a XXX movie house showing fare like “Swinging Sorority” and “Teeny Buns.”
  • After its porn stage, the theater sat empty for a years until it was purchased by George Lefont, who reopened it in 1983. (The photo above is when they were swapping out the signage for the family-friendly Lefont marquee.)

The Rejes live  in East Atlanta and bought the theater in 2006 with a bit less thought than what goes into most real estate purchases. Of course it’ll be a success, they thought. Everyone loves that place!

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Gayle and Jonathan Rej. File photo

“We bought really just to save it. We saw it for sale and didn’t want it to close,” Jonathan Rej says. “I have a full-time job in film and TV production, [Gayle] worked in theaters in college and had the know-how. We talked to the bank about how much they’d give us against our house. And here we are, trying to keep it from going away.”

Since then, Gayle works for the theater full time and Jonathan handles the booking. They’ve got good volunteers and good friends, but as he describes it, “we’re the ones down there cleaning the toilets.”

And in exchange, they get to sing along to “Grease” every few months, and see audiences treat “Purple Rain” like a rock concert, demanding encores. Jonathan’s favorite is the Silver Scream Spook Show, the classic horror films. Their usual audience is one that has seen all these movies 100 times, but just wants to keep coming back.

“Something about seeing a movie in a theater full of people that love it,” he says. “It takes movie viewing to a whole other level.”

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Happy 70th anniversary, Plaza Theatre! AJC/Jamie Gumbrecht

Want to go? The Plaza Theatre celebrates its 70th anniversary with a party featuring Turner Classic Movie host Robert Osbourne and a screening of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” 7 p.m. Jan. 15.$20. 1049 Ponce De Leon Ave., Atlanta. 404-873-1939, www.plazaatlanta.com.

  • The 1939 Film Festival will show movies like “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind” Jan. 16-17, 22-24 and 30. Those are $10 per film, $6.50 for people ages 12 and younger.

For instant updates, follow @insideaccess on Twitter.

5 comments Add your comment

[...] Plaza Theatre on Ponce de Leon turned 70 this year, and it was a big time — all history and [...]

[...] What do they have in common? 1939, the year all of them debuted. (Check out more of its history in this week’s Access Point.) [...]

Cribbster

January 15th, 2010
4:31 pm

Easily the coolest theater in Atlanta. It would be somewhat tragic if the theater ever shut down.

cucumber in the pants man

January 14th, 2010
7:02 pm

Come early, I will be on the corner winking and smiling.

[...] pm January 13, 2010, by Jamie Gumbrecht UPDATE 1/14/10: Want to know the answer? Here it is! Does this look familiar? Share your guess at what it is in the [...]