Commodore Theatre's Fred Schoenfeld sets visionary sights on Cradock's Afton Theatre
by Wendell Ward
Photo courtesy Tom Jensen
Commodore owner Fred Schoenfeld believes in magic - the magic of the movies. "The motion pictures are a homegrown, all-American industry, invented by Thomas Edison," Fred says. "Before there were multiplexes, there were these glorious, single-screen movie houses, providing a prime source of entertainment for our parents and grandparents. Since I first began in this business, I've been interested in preserving their historical legacy."
Fred is the man behind the curtain at Portsmouth's famed Commodore Theatre, which he owns and operates with his wife and business partner, Jean Haskell, and which celebrated the 25th anniversary of Fred's acclaimed renovation and restoration this past December. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register, Commodore Theatre shows newly-released movies utilizing the most technologically-advanced digital projection on a state-of-the-art screen that measures two stories high and four stories wide.
Audiences relax, comfortable and entranced, in a gorgeously plush, art-deco style auditorium, with nearly 200 seats in the main dining area and another 300 plus in the balcony. The sound system is an auditory wonder, designed in concert with (and certified by) George Lucas's THX group at Lucasfilm in California. Featured in Bon Appetit Magazine as one of America's Seven Best Movie Theatres for Food Lovers, Commodore's first-run cinema and full-service eatery (the first of its kind in the United States) is dinner and a movie at its best.
Rooms surrounding the lobby in the Commodore have been restored to their original charm. Photo courtesy Tom Jenson.
When Fred first reopened Commodore in 1989, helping to ignite the revitalization of Old Towne Portsmouth, he dedicated the historical-showcase cinema, refurbished to its World War II era heyday, to the memory of Norman Powell and Kenneth Andrews, the men who mentored and taught him everything he knows about this particular aspect of show business.
Now Fred wants to return the favor.
"These men gave me a path, a path to something I love to do, a path with purpose," Fred says. "My heart aches for many of the kids I see today from disadvantaged neighborhoods, poor and without hope, who don't see a way they can fit productively, and with pride, into society at large, and whose understanding and perception of the world leaves them little choice but crime, gangs, and drugs. I want to change that, because, as a community, we are ultimately all responsible. We can't just keep turning a blind eye anymore."
So last year, Fred announced the founding of his new nonprofit Portsmouth Restoration and Education Corporation, whose mission is restoring historic buildings and passing on historic preservation knowledge and skills to new generations of preservationists. Fred feels deeply that the course of his life might not have been a happy one had he not been blessed with the inspiration and guidance of his mentors.
"I want to do my part for these kids," he says.
"I took over two years to analyze
every nuance of Afton Theatre to determine
which elements could be saved. The mentality these
days is simply to bulldoze everything and start over,
but I'm interested in the historical significance
of these buildings, these neighborhoods,
and I want to see them restored."
- Fred Shoenfeld
Portsmouth Restoration and Education Corporation's first project will be restoration of Afton Theatre. The Afton was built in 1937 in the heart of historic Cradock, which was the first planned community in the United States. Cradock was founded in 1918 as a residential neighborhood for shipyard workers, which the federal government brought in from all over the country. Providing entertainment for these workers and their families throughout Hollywood's golden age and for decades after, Afton Theatre closed in 1974 and, sadly, hasn't shown a movie since.
"Our organization's first goal is to start a preservationist apprenticeship program in Cradock," Fred says. "We want to bring in some of these underprivileged young people and teach them about preservation hands-on, by rebuilding and restoring Afton with them as apprentices. We then hope to turn it into an educational community center for the families of this troubled neighborhood, as a spark for a greater movement to help these kids through mentorship."
Portsmouth's Commodore Theatre, which has mesmerized audiences for 25 years, has inspired a similar makeover in Cradock. Photo courtesy Richard Long.
As a master of historical restoration and preservation, and with a passionate desire to give back to his community, Fred purchased Cradock's dilapidated Afton Theatre through his non-profit corporation. His aspiration is to gather skilled tradesmen like carpenters, electricians, and plumbers who can show interested yet disadvantaged young men and women from the community, the apprentices, how to use particular skills in the service of restoring Afton to its original splendor. After its restoration and renovation, the theatre will become not only a cinema that plays movies, but a community center - where craftsmen and artisans, artists and professionals - can teach these youth about their particular fields of expertise, and hopefully become the mentors these kids lack.
"We want to connect with these kids through conversation," Fred says, "and when one of these young folks shows an interest in an Afton speaker's area of expertise, the lecturer can reach out and push the young person in the right direction, in pursuit of more information and training, and show them that there is a way out of the darkness, and that their futures can be bright."
More than just a movie theatre and community center, Fred sees Afton becoming a full-fledged teaching facility, with ties to the colleges and universities throughout Hampton Roads, and as a cornerstone for the revitalization of the Cradock area of Portsmouth.
"I want to teach a new generation of craftsmen how to restore historical property," Fred says. "I took over two years to analyze every nuance of Afton Theatre to determine which elements could be saved. The mentality these days is simply to bulldoze everything and start over, but I'm interested in the historical significance of these buildings, these neighborhoods, and I want to see them restored."
Fred says the apprenticeship program is in the works, with more information upcoming.
"What I'm interested in doing now is finding out if there are any members of the community who might be attracted to this project," Fred says, "and my phone is always on. I want to create an advisory board of interested persons who want to contribute to this concept, a core group of people who share the vision.
"Then the next stage is to find people interested in mentoring, in education, in teaching hands-on skills, one-on-one, to propel these disadvantaged kids into fields for which they show an interest and an aptitude. People our age know what it is to have had a mentor in their lives. A lot of these kids today, they have no guidance, no inspiration. And that is a tragedy for all of us."
421 High Street
Portsmouth, VA 23704