Shirlington has long been a bustling shopping center in Arlington, and is home to the AMC Shirlington Cinema 7, one of four movie theaters in Arlington County.
The existing cinema at 2772 South Randolph Street is the second major theater to serve Shirlington’s movie-loving population, which began with the Shirlington Theatre nearby at 2800 South Randolph Street.
The Shirlington Theatre opened on January 31, 1946, and at the time was the County’s largest theater (and also was touted as possessing “the South’s largest screen”). The 980-seat cinema debuted with the film “Love Letters” and featured a pre-show performance by local composer Leon Brusiloff’s string ensemble.
The theater was operated by the Alexandria Amusement Company and was part of a larger complex known as the “Shirlington Theatre Building,” which was home to other businesses including the Shirlington Radio Shop and various medical offices. In 1948, a notable addition to the Theatre Building was the Fairlington Library, which later became the Shirlington Library.
The Theatre Building was in turn part of the larger Shirlington Business Center, which until the 1960s was essentially segregated: Black patrons were allowed to shop, but were denied access to services such as eating at lunch counters or using leisure facilities like theaters. In June 1960, activists held a series of sit-ins at lunch counters around the County, including Lansburgh’s Colonial Room and Woolworth’s lunch counter in Shirlington. On June 22, Lansburgh's became the first Arlington lunch counter to desegregate, followed that same day by a number of other local restaurants. Arlington's theaters would not be desegregated until 1963, following protests led by civil rights leader Dorothy Hamm.
The Shirlington Theatre closed in 1957 and the building was demolished the following year to make way for the construction of a 150,000-square-foot Lansburgh’s department store, which operated in Arlington until the company went defunct in 1973.
A July 8, 1947, article in the Arlington Daily shows local firefighters using the Shirlington Theatre as a training location.
Seven acres of land in the adjacent County Property Yard mentioned here were sold to the corporation for parking purposes after the theater was demolished. Image courtesy of Virginia Chronicle.
Shirlington Cinema 7 opened on December 18, 1987, once again bringing film to the South Arlington area. The 6-screen theater was operated by Circle Theatres, a popular local cinema chain that had been founded in 1957 by two law students at George Washington University.
The same year the Shirlington Cinema opened, Circle Cinemas was bought out by Cineplex Odeon, which later managed the Shirlington location. Subsequent mergers led to the theater being referred to as the “Shirlington Loews Cinema” and in 2006 it formally became an AMC theater.
Shirlington Cinema 7 at 2772 South Randolph Street in 1996.
AMC Shirlington Cinema 7 in 2021.
In 2015, the theater underwent a major renovation that included an expansion of its concessions and a reduction of its seating capacity in favor of the reclining chairs now popular in today’s cinemas. The theater is pictured here in 1996, with films including “Sense and Sensibility” and “Fargo” displayed on the marquee.
Do you have a question about this story, or a personal experience to share?
Use this form to send a message to the Center for Local History.