Friday, March 5th, 2021

Shopper Client Stories


Historic movie theatre from cinema's golden age celebrates the 30th anniversary of its restoration

by Cristi Sanchez

Owner Fred Schoenfeld

Owner Fred Schoenfeld

This December, an iconic piece of Portsmouth history celebrates a milestone. The 74-year old Commodore Theatre will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of re-opening its doors in 1989 under the loving ownership and management of Fred Schoenfeld and his partner, Tiffany Brown.

As part of the celebration, Fred and Tiffany have even created a reproduction of the Commodore's original opening night program from November 11, 1945. Fred insisted that no detail be ignored on these special commemorative programs. "We replicated the programs using the exact same paper, cover material, and layout as the original," he smiles with pride. "It just seemed fitting that on the Commodore's anniversary, we pay homage to its great history."

That same care and attention to detail given to the program are the same that Fred bestowed upon the theatre during its restoration. "There's a lot of history in the Commodore that predates my involvement with it," Fred explains. "What I try to do is bring all that history to life and preserve it for future generations who haven't experienced this kind of theatre."

No stranger to the movie theatre industry, Fred, an engineer who specializes in theatre projection and sound, had owned and run multiple movie theatres for 17 years before purchasing and restoring the Commodore in 1987. After sitting closed and vacant for 12 years, there were no major structural issues with the grand old theatre, much to Fred's pleasant surprise.

"Aside from a few roof leaks, it was still pretty much like it was when it closed in 1975," Fred says, smiling. "We spent two and a half years restoring the theatre, and a quarter of a million dollars on artists to recreate artwork, murals, and other architectural details. The murals alone took 18 months," he adds. Originally not a history buff, Fred's research into the Commodore's history for the building's restoration kindled in him a love and respect for the historical value of not only the Commodore but for all theatres of its kind.

State-of-the-art technology and luxurious dinning make a movie at the <BR>Commodore a one-of-a-kind experience

State-of-the-art technology and luxurious dinning make a movie at the
Commodore a one-of-a-kind experience

Fred's vision was to restore the Commodore back to the elegance of its heyday in the 1940s while bringing it up to date as far as modern technology was concerned, a perfect marriage between old and new. He knew, though, that for the Commodore to be successful again, he would have to create a new history for it – something out of the ordinary that would set the single screen theatre apart from its multiplex competitors.

Drawing on his past success with a drive-in theatre he'd once owned in York County, Fred remembered that he did very well with the sale of non-traditional movie fare such as hot dogs, corn dogs, cheeseburgers, and fries. "We had a substantial menu and did very well," he recalls. "I knew we had to do something similar at the Commodore, but much more upscale. I didn't want to serve just finger food. We decided to make quality food and use silverware with restaurant-style plates. The whole concept was to make it a very elegant movie-and-dining experience in a historic facility."

Clearly, Fred was onto something. Still thriving, the Commodore is not an ordinary movie theatre. With its impeccably restored historical details, stunning murals, and elegant table settings, stepping into the Commodore is like stepping back into a bygone era. Art deco in design and décor, the Commodore is a pristine example of what theatres were like in the heyday of single-screen movie theatres. Soft green walls and comfortable club chairs at dining tables with small, dim, art deco lamps, provide a unique entertainment experience for customers combining history, movies, THX technology, and fine dining in an atmosphere that Tiffany likes to call "Casual Elegance.'

"What I try to do
 is bring all that history to life
and preserve it for future generations
who haven't experienced
this kind of theatre."

- Fred Schoenfeld

"Foodservice is an essential part of what we do," Fred reveals. "It's what sets us apart from other theatres. We offer a more in-depth dining experience than just popcorn, nachos, candy, and soft drinks."

Indeed, the Commodore menu is quite unique, offering full dinner options as well as appetizers, desserts, and a full beer and wine list. Menu items often are rotated based on seasons, with heartier dishes for the colder weather such as kale salad and Chicken Parmesan. Desserts are often based on what movie is playing. "When we were showing "Downton Abbey,' I added a cranberry and mandarin orange scone with mandarin orange butter. " Tiffany says, excitedly. "It was wonderful!"

Tiffany Brown and Fred Schoenfeld in front of the historic Commodore Theatre<BR> in Olde Towne Portsmouth

Tiffany Brown and Fred Schoenfeld in front of the historic Commodore Theatre
in Olde Towne Portsmouth

Many of the gourmet desserts on the menu are conceived and prepared by Tiffany herself, who not only tries to keep food items interesting and updated, but strives to offer healthier and low-carb options. "Tiffany spends a lot of time researching recipes and ideas and then modifies them," Fred says. "Then, basically, I just wing it!" Tiffany interjects laughing.

Recently Tiffany added her own gluten-free appetizer creation, Commodore Date Bites. "One of my dear friends became vegan and gluten-free, and I wanted to create something for her and others who have dietary restrictions. So I came up with these based on a vegan cheesecake crust. I had the idea to make a little ball out of the tasty crust, and it's so good I added it to the menu. I expanded flavors to include dates, apricots, chocolate, and nuts, and I change flavors out every three weeks."

With its extensive menu and the attention to details old and new, the Commodore has weathered the advent of DVDs and streaming media to remain successful. "Different technologies and trends don't change the desire for people to have a shared experience," Fred explains. "Look at history: In the "50s people thought movie theatres were done because of television, but they kept going. Then in the "70s came VHS tapes and video rental stores, then DVD's, then Netflix and Prime, but we're still here. The key is that the human spirit likes to connect with others through shared experiences. People can come to the Commodore with friends and family and enjoy upscale but inexpensive food in state-of-the-art, one-of-a-kind historic facility to have a memorable shared experience. That's what the Commodore is - it's not just a movie theatre, it's an experience."

Commodore Theatre

421 High Street
Portsmouth, VA 23704