Bethesda Historical Society

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Hiser Theater at 7414 Wisconsin Avenue

Photo credit: Randy Routt from the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection

The first motion picture theater in downtown Bethesda, the Hiser also housed a bowling alley.  It is remembered as the site of a 1960 demonstration demanding that it be desegregated.

The Hiser Theater, originally unnamed, opened in November 1928 at 7414 Wisconsin Avenue, now the site of the Hyatt Regency Hotel.  Faced with Stoneyhurst schist like many of the pre-war structures in downtown Bethesda, the building was the only one with outdoor lighting on Wisconsin Avenue.  Shortly after the theater opened “talkies” were introduced.

There was a bowling alley in the theater’s basement.  At first, Henry Hiser (the 1930 national duckpin champion) leased the bowling alley from the theater and shopping center owner.  Eventually, Hiser became the owner of the theater and named it the State Theater.  He installed a Western Electric sound system but left the wooden seats untouched.  After a major renovation in 1939 -1940 the theater was renamed the Hiser. 

Designed by Bethesda architect V.T. H. Bien, it featured an art-deco style, a single screen, a full stage with recessed lights and organ, and vending machines — but no lobby or concession stand.  The theater sometimes had to close due to summer heat. And because of Blue Laws it was closed on Sunday.

Over the years, the 500 seat theater was used for other purposes.  For example, in the fall of 1934, services for the Lutheran Mission of Bethesda began to hold services in it.

John Hiser, son of Henry and owner of the theater by 1960, was adamantly opposed to desegregation and would not admit African-Americans to his theater.  During the 1950s the theater was boycotted by the Woman’s Club of Chevy Chase for its racist policies.

In July 1960 two African-Americans were denied entry to the Hiser Theater; they snuck in and were arrested.  On July 27, 1960, a protest organized by the Non-Violent Action Group (the same group that was more famously campaigning for the integration of Glen Echo Park that same summer) was staged outside of the theater, demanding its desegregation.  Rather than integrate, John Hiser sold the theater in September 1960, and it was renamed the Baronet the next month.

The theater closed its doors for the last time on August 23, 1977, and was razed in January 1978 as part of the construction of the Metro system.

by Karen Philipps

[Add material on John Hiser’s subsequent political career?  He was part of a conservative slate that took over the MoCo government in November of 1962 and remained in power until 1966.  Among other things, he and his colleagues repealed the county’s public accommodations law and downzoned vast swaths of prime land, paving the way for the current development pattern on Rockville Pike, among other things.]

Links to Photos

[We should insert the photos themselves; there are 3, including one of the civil rights demonstration that is the most famous moment in the theater’s history]