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Theaters hold a special place in the hearts of many people–a place where we can be alone yet surrounded by our friends and community, a place where our wildest dreams, deepest thoughts, secret fantasies, darkest fears, and moments of tragedy or triumph, can be witnessed larger and louder than life. It’s no wonder that in the early 1900s, before TV and home theaters were ubiquitous, the local theater was the centerpiece of most communities across America. Everyone from each generation has their own special memories from their local movie theaters; children looking forward to a Friday family night at the movies, a teenager’s first kiss in the back row, seeing Dorothy skip down the Yellow Brick Road in Technicolor, that first time the Star Wars opening credits rolled out into space, or when Neo bent backwards dodging a barrage of bullets in the Matrix.
Such memories were made on April 18, 1927, as the Columbia Theatre in Paducah, Kentucky first opened its doors, and locals settled into their seats to watch Clara Bow and Antonio Moreno silently grace the screen in the romantic comedy, “It”. The Columbia was elegantly built to reflect the importance and significance of the role the theater played. Brick built, with a neoclassical facade of white and blue terracotta tile, Byzantine columns and classical urns, the theater was an exquisite sight to behold with all the trappings of high culture.
The 1200 seat theater would go on to showcase a mix of both live performances and films for decades. During the 1950s, as many other theaters began modernizing and stripping out the interior classical ornamentation and architecture, the Columbia received a renovation that would help define its unique look that we still see today. Known as Skouras Style architecture, the Columbia’s stage was outlined with gigantic sweeping scrolls, and flowing three dimensional flourishes that resemble waves splashing upwards against a seawall. These striking gold and silver gilded adornments frame the original main stage curtain and walls of the theater, completing the unique look that remains today under a patina of peeling paint.
The Columbia had become a mainstay of the Paducah community for decades. But one obstacle that it could not overcome was the introduction of large multiplex theaters. In the 1980s a new mall was built with a 10-screen theater, and the Columbia, along with much of the downtown, began to suffer. Even with a renovation that added a second theater, the Columbia still could not compete with the multiplex and was reduced to showing dollar movies while suffering financial losses. By the summer of 1987, the Columbia Theatre dimmed its lights for good.
I originally had thought the above image was the control board for the backdrops and curtains, but a follower of my work with a keen eye corrected my assumption and emailed me some info on its actual purpose (and helped me title it “Illumination Station”). – She writes: “Your picture is of a lighting switch board system. Nothing like what we have today, but not the earliest like a ‘piano board’. This console looks to pre date the 2 pre-scene preset board and SCR dimmers. It looks like this theater was still using resistance dimmers or auto-transformer dimmers (-those didn’t come out until after WW II.) It wasn’t until the creation of solid-state dimmers or SCR’s that the lighting console was able to move to back of house rather than stay in the wings on stage. The lighting switch board would have be controlled by one or 2 stagehands who took visual cues from the stage. This would have also been before our concepts of modern stage management.”
In 2013 the Paducah Renaissance Alliance (now Paducah Main Street) began laying the groundwork to bring about restoration of the Columbia. Landee Bryant, the executive director of the well-established local theater Maiden Alley Cinema, has been helping to lead the charge in this undertaking. Bryant, who wears many hats around town (director of the River’s Edge International Film Festival, promotions committee chairperson for Paducah Main Street, owner of Bricolage Art Collective, to name a few) understands that “historic preservation was the cornerstone of a thriving downtown. The Columbia Theatre was to be a signature project and the catalyst for showcasing what a gem like this art palace could do for a growing downtown, as far as economic development, architectural preservation, creative place-making and the expansion of an already established entity that is the Maiden Alley Cinema.”
Bryant, along with Darlene Mazzone, the board chair for the Paducah Art House Alliance, has been diligently working to raise awareness of the theater’s plight, and to come up with funding and a plan for breathing new life into the historic building. They have been working with the firm of Westlake Reed Lesosky, renowned for historic theater preservation. While the process of a complete restoration is still a ways off, their efforts to “Save the Columbia” have had many wins over the recent years including: restoration of the original fire curtain; full paint study of the entire building; many successful grassroots fundraisers; donations made by private donors and foundations; complete asbestos abatement; and most recently they were chosen as the signature project for the current Leadership Paducah class through the Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce.