Wednesday, April 17th, 2024

The Commodore Theatre Story


Portsmouth's beloved entertainment landmark is a reel classic

by Wendell Ward

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it struck an already struggling movie industry like an unwelcome plot twist. Movie theaters worldwide were forced to shut their doors as big-budget blockbusters were delayed or released on streaming platforms.

The ripple effects were felt everywhere, from massive chains to single-screen historic theatres like the iconic Commodore Theatre in Olde Towne Portsmouth. Questions lingered about the viability of an industry already grappling with the dominance of streaming. It seemed like the magic of the big screen was fading away.

But in the midst of this sad story of decline came a surprising resurgence. In May 2022, "Top Gun: Maverick" was released to astounding box-office success. With its thrilling flight sequences and emotional storytelling, it was a movie best appreciated on the big screen. At this year's annual insider Oscars luncheon, legendary director Steven Spielberg was caught on a hot mic during a candid moment, declaring, "Seriously, Top Gun: Maverick might have saved the entire theatrical industry!" The film rekindled audiences' love for a true cinematic encounter, reminding them of what the big screen offers and what streaming and home viewing do not.

This is a principle of faith for the Commodore Theatre's owner, Fred Schoenfeld: going to the movies in all their big-screen glory is where the magic lies.

"'Top Gun: Maverick' drew people back to the theaters," Fred says, "serving as a testament to the resilience of the movie industry and its cultural significance. It was a film that reminded us of the unique event a movie theater offers-the larger-than-life images, the communal viewing experience, the sheer spectacle of it all."

For over three decades, Fred has been steering the helm of the one-and-only Commodore Theatre, a grand, Art-Deco movie palace of yesteryear-modernized with all the latest storytelling technology-in the heart of Olde Towne Portsmouth.

"There is a certain elegance, a charm,
a historic grandeur in these old theatres
that the sterile, commercial multiplexes lack."
-Fred Schoenfeld

Fred's earliest foray into the world of movies started at age 12, when, like most kids at the time, going to the movies was a magical gateway to adventure and excitement. Saturday matinees sparked imaginations, fueled playground games, and instilled a lifelong affection for the cinema.

"The magic of movies captivated me early," Fred recalls. "The way stories could unfold on the big screen, the way they could transport you to different times, different worlds-it was all so spellbinding! It filled me with wonder and ultimately shaped the course of my life." For Fred, the allure of the silver screen was irresistible.
Earning a university degree in engineering, Fred developed a unique perspective on how movie theatres work, not just from an operational standpoint but also from a structural and architectural viewpoint.

"In 1970, I decided to open my own movie theatre in a converted supermarket in Churchland," Fred recalls. As the years passed, Fred noticed the rising popularity of multiplexes and the consequent decline of single-screen theatres like the Commodore. The grand movie palaces of the past, with their high ceilings, dramatic chandeliers, and ornate detailing, started to "wither on the vine," as Fred puts it, and their potential disappearance from American culture stirred something in Fred.

"There is a certain elegance, a charm, a historic grandeur in these old theatres that the sterile, commercial multiplexes lack," Fred says. "The desire to keep this form of entertainment alive led me to purchase the Commodore Theatre in 1987. I felt compelled to breathe life back into it, restore its glory, and let it continue its legacy as a purveyor of cinematic magic. The restoration process was a labor of love, taking nearly two years to complete. Hard to believe that was 35 years ago."

Wanting the best of the old and the new, Fred dedicated himself to providing his audiences the best movie experience possible. He obtained THX Lucas Sound System certification, inviting engineers and experts to perfect the sound within the Commodore's auditorium. By the time the theatre was added to the Virginia Landmarks Register in 1996 and to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997, the Commodore had become a technological powerhouse devoted to the latest in state-of-the-art storytelling. In 2012, the Commodore went completely digital.

But Fred is not alone in his endeavor to make a visit to the Commodore Theatre a complete entertainment experience. His partner, Tiffany Brown-an expert in the hospitality industry-manages the Commodore's restaurant. She's recently updated the menu with new additions and a variety of weekly specials, decadent desserts like homemade bread pudding, and an excellent selection of beer and wine. And beyond showing first-run films, the Commodore is also available for daytime and weekend special events. The theatre has hosted military and first-responder gatherings, business meetings, weddings, and even live music events.

"Regarding the doomsayers who say the movies are dying, I've been down this road before," Fred says with a wink. "The movies survived the advent of TV, VCRs, and streaming services, all of which initially seemed like a death knell. But we dealt with these changes, and we are still going strong. The movies are really about a human event-the ritual of sharing an experience with the larger community. People still enjoy it, and going to the movies is relatively inexpensive-especially when compared to the prices of concert tickets."

It's clear that for Fred and the thousands who've walked through the Commodore's doors, the magic of the movies is still very much alive. In his eyes, the theatre is more than a place for watching films; it's a sanctuary of community, nostalgia, and shared experiences. With Fred at the helm, the future of the Commodore Theatre remains bright and full of promise.

"The magic of movies captivated me -
The way stories could unfold on the big screen,
the way they could transport you
to different times, different worlds-
it was all so spellbinding!
It filled me with wonder
and ultimately shaped the course of my life."
-Fred Schoenfeld

Commodore Theatre

421 High Street
Portsmouth, VA 23704