The buzz in the air on Broadway was palpable; the excitement, electric. No doubt it could have powered all 5,000 light bulbs in the newly revealed Columbia Theatre sign. Patrons crowded the sidewalk, clutching their souvenir brass tickets for the inaugural performance. It was Monday, April 18, 1927, and Paducah’s Columbia had arrived. The façade was impressive: a blend of Moorish and classic Greek architecture displayed in blue and white terra cotta tiles, Byzantine columns, urns, friezes and capitals, and busts of Greek goddesses.
Finally, the moment arrived. The uniformed ushers swung open the doors as amazed patrons made their way past the lobby and into the ornate theater. The grandeur was amazing: smooth velvet, gleaming brass, bright lights that swept up the walls toward the art glass ceiling in true, Hollywood opulence. Paducah was entering the golden age of movies.
The sell-out crowd settled in their seats as the lights dimmed. A curtain displaying the Statue of Liberty rose to reveal Miss Lucille Duke, swathed in Old Glory, portraying Miss Columbia. A number of congratulatory telegrams from movie stars and motion picture moguls were read, owner Leo Keiler spoke, and then . . . a double feature. First up was the 1926 comedy Cool Off followed by It, the new smash hit starring Clara Bow. Also on tap was a “Cool” girls from left were Freda Jones, Barbara Livingston, and Jackie Lofgren. demonstration of the new Vitaphone sound machine. Vitaphone was a turntable phonograph system that was driven by the projector motor, and it allowed for prerecorded sounds to be coupled with a film. In true, silent movie fashion, however, the theater was also equipped with an organ. The pipes were distributed throughout the house, and the gold finished console could be raised and lowered via remote.
The previous information was part of a local newspaper feature the morning after the beautiful new Columbia Theatre opened for business. For the next 60 years or so, the Columbia’s charm would grow with each passing film footage that was displayed on her bedecked and be-draped screen. First run shows were always at the Columbia. As movies moved from silent to talkies, and as post-World War II America moved into a new state of prosperity, the movie business boomed. Promotions became more elaborate, the stars bigger, and the lights more dazzling. And the Columbia provided it all in Technicolor glory.
For many, the theater provided the first experience of air- conditioning, being only the 11th theater in all the U.S. to have such an amenity. Children flocked for miles around to catch the Saturday cowboy serials. The newsreels provided the only moving images of the war front during WWII. Men brought their dates to see classics such as King Kong, Gone With the Wind, and Psycho. The Columbia is even credited for being the originating point of several marriages. The stage was used for traveling vaudeville acts, monthly talent shows, local musical perform- ers, and children’s groups. In short, the Columbia was the place to be.
Even after surviving the worst of times through the depression, the scare of television in the 1950s, and the downturn of movie attendance in the 70s, there was one obstacle that seemed too big for the movie giant: the multiplex. With the growth of retail business and a new 10-screen theater coming to the newly constructed mall area, the Columbia, along with much of downtown, seemed doomed. By 1987, the losses were too much to handle. The Columbia had been retooled into two separate theaters, and, under lease to Associated Theatres, offered dollar movies. The reception of the last ditch effort to keep the downtown theaters open was lukewarm. The projected loss for the year was $50,000. On July 4th weekend, the Columbia, and its sister Arcade theater, closed their doors for good.
Over the years, interest in reviving the Columbia came and went as sentimentality toward the theater ebbed and flowed. Time, however, was cruel to the empty building. Paint peeled, wood decayed, and the grandeur of the Columbia slowly descended into a musty, dusty mess.
In December, 2003, owner Steve Keiler donated the building to the city. Downtown organizers actively recruited potential investors to restore the decaying building, and a renewed and stronger interest in revitalizing the old theater grew.
The strongest glimmer of hope came recently from three Illinois Institute of Art students taking part in an advanced restoration class. They hope to gain hands-on experience in developing a plan to restore the Columbia.
In January, the students, along with their instructor, visited the theater in order to meet with members of the Paducah Renaissance Alliance (PRA) staff and get a feel for the struc- ture’s potential. The group is probing through the Columbia’s past and asking residents about their memories so that the class project might result in a variety of realistic proposals. The students intend for the planned restoration to be close to the original with needed changes such as ADA required access, modern HVAC, plumbing and wiring changes, and other elements that would bring the building to code standards. The students believe the building is structurally sound and that most of the work would be cosmetic.
PRA envisions a theater that works for both movies and live performances and, much like other Paducah venues, is an attraction for patrons across the region. PRA is also talking to various local organizations to see how the Columbia might best suit their needs. At the end of the 11-week course, plans and an estimate will be submitted.
Naturally, the next hurdle is funding. The initial estimate is thought to be around $6 million. While the dollar figure may seem large, the spirit behind rescuing the Columbia is also monumental.
The stage is now being set. Preparations are underway for the day when, like that day in 1927, the buzz returns to Broadway. That day will surely be electric. The crowd will fall silent as the lights dim, and, once again, the magic may return to the Columbia.