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West End Cinema Leaves 'Em Laughing

Bring out your dead. (Jason Dick/CQ Roll Call)

Every moviegoer knows the ending is important. Josh Levin ended the five-year run of his West End Cinema on March 29 with one last screening of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," choosing to go out with a laugh.  

"I'm just dumb enough and romantic enough to be glad I did this," Levin said of his venture in cultural programming in the nation's capital.  

In keeping with the spirit of the 1975 classic, one might imagine a conversation between Levin and the Bridgekeeper: Bridgekeeper: "What is your name?"  

Levin: "Josh Levin."  

Bridgekeeper: "What is your quest?"  

Levin: "To run an independent, art-house movie theater in Washington, D.C."  

Bridgekeeper: "What is your favorite color?"  

Levin: "Blue."  

Levin's quest started when he opened the West End in October 2010. Facing a number of challenges to his business model, from being "cleared" or prevented from running the same movies at the same time as area theater chains, to the coming onslaught of theater openings in the next few years, Levin decided to call it quits.  

On the final weekend of regular programming , he went with the formula that gave him his theater's slogan: "All Stories Told Here." There was a contemporary horror film ("It Follows"), an Oscar winner ("Whiplash"), a foreign prestige movie ("Timbuktu"), a cult classic ("Grey Gardens") and a couple of his other favorites ("Holy Grail" and "Jaws").  

Crowds filed in over the weekend for the farewell party. At a March 28 screening of "Grey Gardens," some of the people brought their popcorn and sparkling wine in and spread out on the floor to watch the story of the Beales and their ramshackle home in East Hampton, N.Y., slumber-party style. It was an arrangement one could imagine Little Edie and Big Edie approving of.  

For a guy who was shutting down a labor of love, Levin was even-keeled. "I'm disappointed and I'm sad, but I'm not remotely bitter," he said.  

The theater, which took the place of the shuttered Inner Circle Theater, wasn't Levin's first entrepreneurial foray. He previously helped run the Capitol Hill taverns Red River Grill and Politiki (now Union Pub and Stanton and Greene, respectively), as well as a bookstore in the U Street corridor, Dark Horse Books. "We were about two new U Streets early," he said.  

Meanwhile, as the 7:40 p.m. start time of the last picture show for the West End approached, one last crowd gathered. It was a diverse one.  

Twenty- and thirty-something hipsters, parents with their teenage kids in tow. Probably some grandparents, too. Like any good screening of "Holy Grail," the beer and wine was flowing, and spilling on the floor. The opening credits — with their extolling of Sweden's tourist sites and the film's moose and llama wrangling — rolled, and an hour and a half of absurdity followed, replete with animation, an intermission and lines that, much more than most films, will endure. Then it was over.  

And if anyone was sad as they filed out of Theater 1, Levin had one last nice touch remaining. He handed out free ice cream bars for the journey home. And while there was not much rejoicing, it was better than eating Robin's minstrels.  

Related: The Last Days of the West End Cinema West End Cinema Preps Its Own Last Picture Show The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.

Topics: movies busi