Growing up in Columbus, the Ohio Theater was where all of the high-class concerts and events took place. I still remember staring agape the first time I attended an event there at the riot of colour–the rich golds and reds, with warm woods, carved in ornate scrollwork; the soaring ceiling, the stained glass light fixtures. This was like unto a room from a royal palace from a far distant time and place…and we mere mortals were privileged to perch upon the velvet chairs within its confines.
I saw the Nutcracker performed there, and a few symphony performances. But what I remember most vividly was seeing an old movie from the golden age of Hollywood. I don’t quite remember which one, except that it was in black and white, and there was a performance on the theater’s mighty organ before the movie. That organ told a tale, indeed, of a less distant time and place, but yet remote to me, when the theater hosted silent movies. Indeed, it had opened in 1928 with a silent film starring Greta Garbo. Architect Thomas Lamb was a noted designer of theaters. The style of the theater is described as Spanish Baroque, which accounts for the rich colour scheme, the Moorish influence in the use of geometric patterns, and the riot of carved scrollwork and stained glass of the interior. The exterior, in contrast, is fairly restrained, with its Classical styling.
As a theater in the Loews movie theater chain, the Ohio’s lifespan was typical: Vaudeville shows, double features and newsreels in the 30s and 40s, gradually declining audiences as the old downtown theaters lost ground to more modern suburban cinemas which did not deserve the title of movie palace, and a final curtain in 1969, followed by what was expected to be a date with the wrecking ball.
But the Ohio escaped that fate when a non-profit community group, the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts, raised over $2 million to purchase and save the theater. There was to be no long period of abandonment. The Columbus Symphony, in need of a performance home, immediately took up residence in the theater, and soon all manner of touring acts and Broadway-style touring shows were playing there, along with the classic movies like the one I saw in the 80s. The theater was restored in stages in the 70s (I still remember hearing about the progress in the news) and is said to be substantially unchanged from its original appearance.
A second, smaller theater next door was demolished to build the neighbouring “pavilion”, adding more lobby space, offices, and rehearsal space. This pavilion with its many sets of stairs was completed in 1984. In June of 1985, with the traditional graduation space in Veterans Memorial unavailable due to renovation, Upper Arlington High School held its graduation there, and the graduating class lined up on those stairs for the procession. As one of the valedictorians, I was privileged to speak as part of the ceremony. As far as I know, ours was the only class to ever graduate in the Ohio Theater.
The Ohio Theater’s rescue and restoration paved the way for other classic movie house restorations, including the neighbouring Palace Theater at the base of the LeVeque Tower. This theater, designed by the same architect as the Ohio but in a neoclassical style, was purchased by CAPA after its restoration in the 80s. Most recently, CAPA restored and reopened the 1896 Southern Theater in 1998.
The Ohio Theater has not lost its magic for me over the years. In these days of Netflix and movie theaters where a massive screen and sound system (and not so much the design) are the main features, its baroque sumptuousness tells a tale of its time and place that we are privileged to still be able to view.