New life for Arlington’s Olympic Theatre and Best Cafe

ARLINGTON — The historic Olympic Theatre and the vacant Best Cafe and Steakhouse next door are getting new life thanks to a local church that plans to reopen the theater and repurpose the restaurant as a not-for-profit coffeehouse.

The iconic single-screen theater closed in July, after 75 years of operation. Former owner Norma Pappas managed the second-run movie house for 37 years before she decided to sell and retire. Her father, Dick Pappas, bought the theater in 1977. It’s changed hands a few times since opening in 1939, including a stint as an X-rated theater in the 1960s followed by several years of church ownership in the 1970s.

Lifeway Foursquare Church acquired the theater shortly after it closed and finalized the purchase of the adjoining Best Cafe and Steakhouse last week. The restaurant shut down about six years ago and the space has been empty since, Pastor Chad Blood said.

The church plans to reopen the theater with the same family-friendly, low-cost style Pappas relied on, but first they want to update the equipment and restore the interior.

Under Pappas, the projector used film that had to be spliced, wound and, sometimes, specially ordered as digital became the most common format for new films. The church intends to upgrade to digital equipment.

As for the theater itself, Lifeway volunteers plan to clean it up but maintain the look and feel of the original interior. The biggest change is the demolition of a wall between the theater and the cafe to link the two spaces, Blood said.

He aims to remodel the cafe using recycled materials, put several meeting rooms in the back and start a not-for-profit coffee shop up front. Any proceeds from the cafe beyond the cost of operations would go to charities. Blood envisions a selection process that lets customers choose between six featured charities, with new causes highlighted every six months or so. Two charities would be local, two national and two international.

No opening date has been set for the cafe or the theater.

“I just encourage people to be patient,” Blood said. “It’s going to be worth the wait. We just don’t want to do this poorly.”

The church is raising money for the remodel and reopening through an online campaign. People can get periodic free coffees or movie tickets for life by donating $500 or more and becoming part of the Olympic Theater and Cafe Founders Club. Donations are being routed through Lifeway Foursquare Church and set aside specifically for the theater and cafe, Blood said. A separate nonprofit for the project, called Lifereach, is in the works. The church submitted an application and is waiting on federal approval.

So far, people have donated more than $80,000 for the project, Blood said.

“It’s all been local,” he said. “We’re hoping with some Kickstarter campaigns and stuff to bring that to a whole new level.”

Carla and Jim Donnelson, longtime Arlington residents and members of the Lifeway congregation, have been helping with construction and cleanup work at the theater and cafe. It’s all volunteer driven, with the goal of reopening the theater as soon as possible.

“I’m excited about the theater because I think the community needs more of these type venues to bring people together,” Carla said. “There’s going to be enough volunteerism to keep the costs low and make it affordable for people.”

Jim and Carla have gone to the theater occasionally for years. Carla remembers her parents complaining about the Olympic’s X-rated years, and their relief when it became a family venue again. Norma did a lot to make the theater a place for everyone in the community, and Carla wants the church to continue that vision.

“I’m hoping that people would like to use it,” Carla said. “We can get it all ready, but it takes a lot of energy to promote it. I just hope the community is as excited as we are.”

She thinks the theater also could be used for specialty or private showings, like a skiing and snowboarding documentary for winter athletes or family music performances during the holidays.

“But it’ll take a whole community to make it happen,” she said.

Kari Bray:, 425-339-3439

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