Tag Archives: Laurel Cinema

Laurel Shopping Center/Cinema Sign Replaced

Technically, I haven’t lived in Laurel for about 15 years. But being just around the Beltway in Northern Virginia, I do enjoy coming back for frequent visits; and for photographs and research for Lost Laurel. Maintaining that close proximity to my old hometown is particularly important to me when things happen—like when buildings are torn down, or when malls are closing their doors.

While I enjoy a west coast vacation as much as the next guy, I was sad to learn that the old Laurel Shopping Center Cinema sign was quickly (and apparently without much advanced notice) dismantled last week while I was in Los Angeles. Had I known, I would’ve hopped onto said Beltway in a heartbeat to get as many photos of the process as possible. Fortunately, there were some like-minded readers who happened to be nearby, who did just that—a big thanks to those who posted them and tipped me off to the impending changes!

There were also a few surprises to be found as the old sign was pulled apart… but more on that in a moment. First, let’s take a look at a few photos I’ve found of the sign from the past decade or so—a decade which saw a rapid deterioration of one of the most prominent signs along the Route 1 corridor.

Photo: Kingkongphoto & http://www.celebrity-photos.com (Flickr)

The above photo brings back vivid memories of dusk at Laurel Shopping Center, despite the unusual selection of films. These are the same neon hues that I recall when The Breakfast Club was highlighting the marquee in 1985. But by March 2010—and after at least one period of closure—the Cinema had reopened with an apparent emphasis on Bollywood films.

Photo: Kingkongphoto & http://www.celebrity-photos.com (Flickr)

Admittedly, I haven’t seen a film in that theater since 1995’s Braveheart, when the sign was already showing its age badly. Over the next few years, the neon lights that comprised the word “CINEMA” gradually blew out and/or broke, and weren’t replaced. Equally visually-crippling, sometime after Laurel Centre officially rebranded itself as “Laurel Mall” in April 1998, the sign lost its oval Laurel Centre logo which co-branded it with Laurel Shopping Center. The result was a blank white, functionless oval that projected off the sign like a tumor.


And when the Cinema finally closed again, the sign sat unused at all, simply gathering rust. I’d actually been wondering if there were going to be any plans to tear it down… before it eventually fell down on its own.

(Photo: Dan Gross, MD Gazette)

(Photo: Dan Gross, MD Gazette)

Fast-forward to just a couple of weeks ago, when a whimsical message appeared on the old marquee:

Photo: Federal Realty

Sure enough, within days—and despite the vicious DC heatwave I managed to avoid while in LA—friends were posting photos on Facebook of the sign coming down. And it was in this first one, by Joe Leizear, that something caught my eye:

Photo: Joe Leizear

Do you see it, too? Red lettering.

The word “LAUREL”in large, red block letters—not something that I had ever seen on the Cinema sign. In fact, it had been hidden beneath the Cinema marquee all along. I realized that the Cinema sign had merely covered the original Laurel Shopping Center sign, which I never had the chance to see before in person. In fact, it was only while recently digging through old directories that I came across a logo representation of it—this one from 1976:



Subsequent photos, such as the one below, showed the additional elements of the original sign, including the end of the arrow—which had been obscured all this time by the clumsy “Laurel Shopping Center” top band and aforementioned oval protrusion which covered/replaced the arrowhead:

(Photo: Federal Realty, via Laurel Patch)

Facebook user Spleenless Jen shared some fantastic images of what was left of the original panels before they were dismantled, shedding even more light on the faded red typography that had been hidden for over three decades:

(Photo: Spleenless Jen)

(Photo: Spleenless Jen)

(Photo: Spleenless Jen)

That brings us to the new sign.

I’ve seen a few photos floating around, including an early artist’s rendering (the signature type of which has been modified in the final product, apparently).

Illustration: Federal Realty

Photo: Lisa Geiger

What to make of this more modernized and functional signage, which includes a digital screen and a colorful, decorative motif? Is it an improvement? Over a rusted, misused sign that was likely beyond repair—yes, absolutely. As a promising retail beacon that will draw shoppers for decades to come? Frankly, I’m not that optimistic.

For starters, nothing about the new sign is unique or differentiates it from countless other shopping centers. It’s not necessarily the sign’s fault, mind you—it takes more than just a sign to successfully brand a franchise. Unless someone is planning to update the entire shopping center and integrate the new motif—or at least the colors, to some degree—they’re stuck with a new sign that simply doesn’t fit the shopping center it’s intended to represent.

Worse, from a functionality standpoint, I would be deeply concerned about the feasibility of maintaining that video screen. Not to be a downer, but how long before a vandal (pedestrian or motorist) decides to shatter or otherwise deface it? Let’s be honest—Laurel has always had its share of ne’er-do-wells; and such fancy new devices—literally within arm’s reach—might as well include a sign with a bright red target that says “please vandalize me”. And historically, the shopping center and mall both have not exactly been great about maintaining features that require, well, maintenance. Remember the unique revolving carousel platform in the mall’s center court that eventually stopped revolving? And the very sign that we’re now discussing? My point exactly. If and when these types of things break repeatedly, shopping center management is likely to simply stop fixing it. And when it’s literally the face of the shopping center, such as this sign will be—the first thing visitors see upon approaching—that’s not good.

Granted, I’ve never bought a giant neon sign for a shopping center before, nor have I designed one (yet). But as a designer, my priority would always be to ensure that whatever sign I implemented was relevant and suited its environment. I wouldn’t include decorative elements that weren’t reflective of the larger shopping center itself. If the surrounding area was prone to or accessible to vandals, I wouldn’t position expensive components like digital screens close to street/sidewalk level. Moreover, I’d want to know all I could about the shopping center and its origins, and design a complete brand that highlighted its best features and spoke to its historical significance—and have the sign be the linchpin of that brand. Consider a book cover design; it needs to properly represent the story within—and it needs to attract readers. A shopping center sign isn’t much different in that regard.

Laurel Shopping Center opened in 1956, and arguably saw its best days in the 1960s. (I wasn’t born yet, so I can’t attest to that). But by most accounts, the shopping center was profitable and ever-expanding—a growth that continued well into the 70s with the addition of Georgetown Alley. There have been some aesthetic modifications over the years, for better or worse: awnings and storefronts have evolved, most notably. But the core design has remained the same. It’s still fundamentally a 1960s open-air shopping center; something that could’ve been embraced in the design of the new sign rather than mocked. “The 60s called and they want this sign back”. Really? I think the 60s called and expressed their hope that somebody would’ve had the foresight to restore the shopping center’s original sign, rather than replace it with a generic model that most likely won’t survive a third of the time that its predecessor did.

Even that fleeting glimpse of the old sign’s red lettering and bold arrow reveals a timeless typography that could’ve been resurrected and repurposed into a more suitable, modern sign; a melding of past and present that suggests a long-standing shopping center that the community is proud of. The new sign just doesn’t accomplish that.

Our friend John Floyd II supplied the following photos today, showing the base portion of the new sign already in place. Because the top piece had not yet been attached, he was able to point out something interesting: once again, part of the original sign is still being used—those two vertical I-beams. That original sign simply won’t die, it seems. He also astutely noted the issue with the decorative motif—even more bluntly than I had.

“That funky orange-and-brown block design on the sign’s plinth looks like the 1960s got traded in favour of the 1970s! Very disco and Brady Bunch-esque!”

Photo: John Floyd II

Photo: John Floyd II

Photo: John Floyd II

Photo: John Floyd II

Coincidentally, the Laurel Centre/Mall notoriously replaced all of its original brown floor tile and wooden accents in 1991—less than 12 years after the mall opened—because management felt that it was “too 1970s”. Ironic that a 1970s pattern would now emerge on the brand new sign for Laurel Shopping Center.

Vintage 1970s drapes. Photo: monkeysox (Flickr)

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Signs of the Times: Disappearing Neon of Route 1

Route 1 has seen a change or two over the past century, hasn’t it?

The black and white photos above are from the Laurel, Maryland Centennial Souvenir Historical Booklet (1970), and show what—for most of us who grew up in Laurel in the last quarter of the 20th century—is a very familiar scene from 1970. However, the current street view is almost as unrecognizable as the sparse 1907 tableau.

There probably isn’t another stretch of road in Laurel that was more densely populated with over-sized neon signage than this particular corridor; and slowly but surely, they’re disappearing from the landscape. A savvy photographer (with the right telephoto lens) might have been able to capture quite a few of them in a single shot from the right vantage point. At one time—within less than half a mile from each other—one could see not only the Tastee-Freez/Big T and Texaco signs shown above—but those of Arby’s, Giant, and the Laurel Cinema marquee.

Photo: Maryland Route 5 (Flickr)

Photo: Maryland Route 5 (Flickr)

photo: apricotX (Flickr)

The Arby’s and Giant signs are still fully functional, and both are fortunately still open for business. While the Laurel Cinema marquee is technically still standing, it’s in poor shape—and with the movie theater officially closed (again), it’s probably only a matter of time before the old sign is finally torn down.

One interesting detail I noticed in the 1970 shot is the wording of “Big Tee Burgers”. At some point after, it had been skillfully modified to read “Big T Family Restaurant”, as it remained until its ultimate demise.

Photo: stgermh (Flickr)

Another reader noted that the road doesn’t appear to have been widened much over the years, either. Apparently, somebody reasoned that if it was big enough for all those neon giants, it’d be big enough for whatever vehicular traffic might pass through.

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Laurel’s Lost Movie Theaters

Growing up in Laurel throughout the 70s and 80s, there was never a shortage of places to catch the latest films.

I lived at Steward Manor for most of this period, and while my parents and I did occasionally venture out to Greenbelt and New Carrollton, it was rare. Because right at home, technically within walking distance, were three theaters: Laurel Twin Cinema, tucked away in the northwest corner of Laurel Shopping Center; Laurel Town Center, at the corner of Rt. 197 and Contee Rd.; and arguably best of all, a drive-in—Wineland’s Laurel Drive-In on Rt. 1, directly across from the Shopping Center and mall.

While the drive-in unfortunately shut down not long after I had the unique chance to watch E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial there (Wineland’s closed in October, 1984), Laurel made up for it the following year with the addition of its biggest theater yet, the brand new Laurel Lakes Cinemas 8—a venue that would eventually expand to 12 theaters (Hoyt’s Laurel Lakes 12).

There were some changes over the years, particularly with Laurel Town Center. The 700-seat twin theaters (where I’m not the least bit ashamed to admit having watched Rocky III half a dozen times when it came out—it was that awesome) were acquired by Paul Sanchez—”a local moviehouse operator (who) made great gains in attracting crowds to his growing empire with a maverick 99-cent admission policy.” (Film Talk by Jeffrey Yorke; The Washington Post; Dec 19, 1986; WK37.) In the late 80s and early 90s, Laurel Town Center became known as the place to watch movies for 99 cents—the only catch being that the movies weren’t brand new releases, but rather, films that had been out for several weeks. But hey—99 cents! I’m also not ashamed to admit that I saw Roadhouse there at least twice during that period, but I digress.

Yes, Laurel had the movie market pretty well covered, back in the day.

But incredibly, not a single one of these movie houses survives as a functioning theater today. Ironically, the newest of them—the massive Hoyt’s Laurel Lakes 12—barely lasted 15 years. The entire Laurel Lakes Centre was bulldozed in favor of the Lowe’s Home Improvement Center that occupies the space today.

I’m trying to contact various property managers to inquire about any possible photos of Laurel’s old theaters in their heyday; likewise, if you have any snapshots you’d be willing to scan and share, kindly let me know; or post them on the Lost Laurel Facebook page.

In the meantime, here’s a quick look at some movie memories, Laurel-style.

photo: apricotX (Flickr)

Despite the dysfunctional selections on the marquee, the 2007 photo above does a great job of capturing the essence of the iconic Laurel Twin Cinema sign. This was taken during a brief reopening, but the theater closed once again shortly thereafter. The marquee, which still stands at the entrance to the Shopping Center, has lost its “CINEMA” neon, and the rusting hulk is likely on borrowed time. When I stopped by and snapped the photo below just before Christmas 2011, it was advertising the new L.A. Fitness center (albeit in a rather dyslexic manner) currently being built in the former Hecht Co. building nearby.

Especially at night, this sign was typically the first and last thing you’d see when passing by Laurel Shopping Center. For some reason, I’ll always picture it with The Breakfast Club on the marquee… probably because that’s where I first saw it, and I’ve loved it ever since.

If you click on the fascinating photo below from 1975 (and look beyond the spectacle of the parachutist landing not far from where Gov. George Wallace was shot just three years earlier) you’ll get a glimpse of the theater itself off in the distance. If I had to guess, I’d bet that Dog Day Afternoon and The Apple Dumpling Gang were playing at the time. Laurel was always pretty good about ensuring film fare for both adults and kids.

photo: Capt. John Floyd


A Laurel Leader front page from 1984

Speaking of iconic signs and iconic movies, here are some rare shots of Wineland’s Laurel Drive-In, where I (and apparently every other kid in Laurel) saw E.T. for the very first time. According to sources, the drive-in had a capacity for a staggering 800 cars, and a 250-seat patio viewing area for walk-in customers. It was also it cost a whopping $650,000 to build, including a 10,000 square-foot concession/projection building. The drive-in originally offered motorized golf carts (the “special shuttle service” described on the opening night advert below) to transport walk-ins to their patio seats. (driveins.org)

photo: drive-ins.com

Opening night ad for Wineland's Laurel Drive-In, June 16, 1966. (photo: driveins.org)

photo: Washington Post, July 1977 (drive-ins.com)

Box office at Wineland's Laurel Drive-In, 1966 (photo: drive-ins.com)

The photo below shows the empty drive-in grounds in October 1984, shortly after it closed down. As some have remembered, there was indeed a small playground directly below the screen—you can see it in this stunning shot.

photo: Ed Bunyan. © 1984 The Laurel Leader (driveins.org)

I actually only went to the drive-in for that one movie; probably because it was a double-feature, and my parents were wary of ever getting stuck in the car for that long again. Strangely enough, however, I have an equally strong memory of the back of the drive-in screen. It was a common vantage point from my Steward Manor neighborhood, as my friend Jeanette’s photo from her apartment in the early 80s clearly reflects.

photo: Jeanette Blume-Straley

Others have fondly recalled watching movies (sans sound) from the vantage points of the Laurel Centre Mall upper-level parking garage, Burger King, and Pappy’s, all of which provided an unimpeded view of whatever happened to be playing that particular night.

Below is an aerial comparison (which I highly recommend exploring for yourself at historicaerials.com) showing the drive-in complex as it appeared in 1980, and in 2006 (which is essentially how it remains today).

It’s safe to say that I might never have the chance to watch another movie in Laurel, even if the plans for this new Laurel Town Centre (or whatever they’re ultimately calling the new shopping center that’s scheduled to replace the old Laurel Mall) do include the state-of-the-art theater that’s promised. Regardless, I’ll always associate memorable films with Laurel. My very first movie date was at Laurel Lakes Cinemas. The last movie I saw in Laurel was there, as well—Twister, in 1996, with my future wife.

It’s kind of fitting, Twister being the last film. Every one of those theaters have been swept right away…

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Air Show: Laurel Shopping Center, 1975

Can you imagine an air show being performed at Laurel Shopping Center? It actually happened in 1975, and by the looks of these fantastic shots by John Floyd II, the show was a big success—both in crowd turnout and the perfect landing by the Firestone Precision Parachute Team.

The Giant Food sign—which is still in use today—does look a bit younger in this  photo, yet surreal beneath the overflying trio of red biplanes.

In the images below, we get a glimpse of The Hecht Co. (the original building and signage), Laurel Cinema, and Equitable Trust bank.

(Photos: John Floyd II)
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