Friday, July 29, 2016

A Recent Visit to the Ohio Theatre

Fun trivia. When people went to see Gone with the Wind in 1939 and 1940, movie theatres were practically selling tickets six months in advance. That meant if you missed the screening, you had to buy new tickets and wait another six months. Yes, David O. Selznick did make a ton of money off that picture... But with today's cinema complexes offering 20 plus screens, IMAX, 3-D and digital projection, it boggles the mind that few today can picture what it was like to visit a movie palace from the by-gone era. 

Inside the lobby of the Ohio Theatre.
Sadly, movie palaces of the past are becoming a dying breed, threatened with demolition. Real estate developers knock 'em down and establish condominiums, apartment complexes and storefronts. Which is why I took advantage of the opportunity to visit the Ohio Theatre and attend a screening of Giant (1956) starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. An epic worthy of viewing for sure but epics rarely spark my interest because of their lengthy running time. And as I get older I find my appreciation for a motion-picture extends to the capacity of the human bladder. Watching an epic at home is rare because I can think of better things to do in those four hours. But while attending a convention in Columbus, Ohio, and learning the theatre was merely ten blocks from the convention center, I decided to spend my evening watching Giant, which I never saw before. It was an enjoyable epic and James Dean was surely one of the best actors of 1956. 

The manager of the Ohio Theatre gave me (and a friend of mine) a brief tour of the facility, explaining how everything remained intact as it was when the building was constructed and opened for business in 1928. There was a 21-foot high chandelier, 2,791 seating capacity and an organ that rose from the stage before the movie started. The only thing that was not original, I was informed, was the carpet. Every ten years new carpet is purchased and replaced. The pattern is cut from the existing carpet and replicated at a factory to ensure the same pattern could be evident on the new carpet.

Legendary vaudevillians performed on stage there including Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Martha Raye, Kate Smith, Ray Bolger, Ginger Rogers and many others.

Here, an organist rose from below the stage to devote the first 20 minutes playing classic melodies before the picture began. Giant was projected on the big screen through 35mm and not digital, providing an experience that I often describe as "the feel of film." Intermission consisted of more organ music with music appropriate for the subject matter of the movie. 

Tickets were $4.00 per person and most of the candy and soda pop sold for $2.00. The volunteer staff was very friendly and it was evident that everyone wore evening dinner attire. When I verified that the money raised from the sale of concessions went to the preservation of the theatre, I handed them a $20 and walked away with a soda and two packages of candy. I told them to keep the difference.

The Ohio Theatre thrived as a movie house until the suburban sprawl of the 1960s drew traffic out of downtown Columbus. Like many other grand theatres of the past, the Ohio was headed for demolition. In 1969, the citizens of central Ohio mounted a "Save the Ohio" campaign, raising over $2 million in less than a year in an unprecedented effort. The newly-formed Columbus Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA) subsequently purchased and renovated the Ohio Theatre, which now puts on an annual summer movie program usually consisting of double features. Any film older than 25 years is considered a classic and screened -- from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) to The Princess Bride (1987).

And to think some people prefer strip malls here?

And you would think there was a way to keep other historic movie palaces from suffering the ill effects of adaptive reuse, through some form of preservation beyond photographic memories. Thankfully, there is.  

The Theatre Historical Society of America (THS) is a national non-profit membership organization founded in 1969, which is devoted primarily in the history of theatre buildings. It exists to encourage and ensure the acquisition, preservation and publication of historic photographs, documents, artifacts and other information and material related to American theatre architecture and history, and to encourage the preservation and use of historic American theatres. THS maintains the American Theatre Architecture Archives and the American Movie Palace Museum.

The American Museum Palace Museum and National Headquarters are located on the 2nd floor of the renovated York Theatre in Elmhurst, Illinois. It showcases artifacts, posters, programs, seats, blueprints and photographs from the great movie palaces built all over the United States in the 1920s. The Museum is open to the public free of charge (donations accepted). Small group tours (up to 15 people) are welcome by prior appointment. HOURS: Tuesday - Friday: 9 am - 4 pm. 3rd Saturdays: 9:30 am - 1:30 pm (Call to confirm 3rd Saturdays).

The centerpiece of the Museum is a finely-detailed, large scale-model of Chicago's 1927 Avalon Theatre, complete with bubbling fountains and flying doves! This authentic replica of the atmospheric "Persian Palace" theatre was built over a period of three years by Frank Cronican, a New York designer of television stage sets, and is accurate down to the WurliTzer organ console. Following his death, it was donated to THSA. A large-screen television now graces its "stage" and visitors to the Museum can view videos from the THSA collection in a real "movie palace" setting, albeit a scale model! One featured video is “The Movie Palaces” which is a 30 minute film produced by the Smithsonian Institution that tells the story of our nation’s greatest movie theatres.
The Marquee Exhibit (Interactive) is a huge photo blowup of the Paradise Theatre from Chicago, and has a magnetic marquee. Letters, symbols and numbers are on hand for you to spell out words and phrases on the marquee. Give it a try and you see your name "in lights"!
The American Theatre Architecture Archives, also in the York Theatre, is dedicated to preserving the architectural, cultural and social history of America's theatres. It contains information on more than 15,000 theatres, primarily in the United States. Every period and style of theatre architecture is represented: 19th century opera houses, nickelodeons, vaudeville houses, small town and neighborhood theatres, open-air theatres, drive-ins, and movie palaces. 

The Archives’ holdings consist of photographs, negatives, slides, postcards, artist’s renderings, scrapbooks, books, periodicals, business records, blueprints and architectural drawings, supplier and trade catalogues, architectural artifacts, theatre furnishings, ushers' uniforms, and numerous other items relating to theatre buildings and their history. Talk about comprehensive!

Scholars looking into the possibility of doing research about a specific theatre might find this place of extreme value. Research can be done on-site or by the THS staff. A preliminary search has a small fee for each theatre or topic requested. Further research is done at an hourly rate. This is not uncommon considering the fact that most libraries offer the same service for an hourly fee. On-site research is by appointment only. Other costs may apply for photo prints, scanning, licenses to use, display, or publishing images (including web posting), etc. If you wish to conduct research, please contact the Archive Director, Kathy McLeister at (630) 782-1800 or e-mail her at

The Ohio Theatre 30 minutes before showtime.
Among the major collections are the Theatre Files, approximately 450 linear feet containing paper-borne materials. This includes advertising, newspaper clippings, magazines, corporate documents, and representative samples of stage bills and playbills. These are organized geographically by state-city-theatre. In addition, there are materials in the Subject Files, including theatre architects, scenery, seating, theatre chains and other allied topics. THS also keeps a Reference Library which contains more than 800 books.
The THS Negative Collection and Slide Collection includes more than 6,000 negatives and 10,000 slides. The negatives are primarily 4”x5” and 35mm, but contain some odd size and oversize negatives. The slides are primarily 35mm, but contain some other sizes.

The Chicago Architectural Photographing Company Collection includes photographic images taken by the firm for architects and builders. The collection includes approximately 1,400 negatives of 250 theatres mainly in the Midwest. The negatives are 8x10 glass plate negatives, 8x10 film negatives, and 4x5 copy negatives. 

The Michael Miller Collection includes 35mm slides, 3.5x5” photographs, 35mm negatives, and a card catalog index of New York City theatres. The slides and photographs cover the United States, but are primarily New York City and the surrounding area.

The Terry Helgesen Collection consists of 26 scrapbooks (some with 600 pages) with over 2,000 photographic images of theatres across the country, mostly 1920s and 1930s era, with his index and notes. Terry Helgesen amassed his collection while traveling on the vaudeville circuit as a pianist.
As a researcher of old-time radio broadcasts, it comes as no surprise that a number of radio programs such as The Lux Radio Theatre originated from theatres and movie houses that could support a large crowd wanting to watch the performances. Some programs like The Cavalcade of America and Duffy's Tavern performed on stage on occasion, offering the general public a rare opportunity to watch their favorite radio celebrities in action. Cannot find information about the theater and the time period those broadcasts originated? This is the place to visit. 

The best part of about this Society is that you can become a member! THS publishes a quarterly journal called Marquee®, and a special Annual publication on a specific theatre or topic, and a quarterly Newsletter with current THS and theatre news. I love this magazine because it features extensive articles about various theaters across the country, the people who kept them running, and superb photos that makes you wish you had Professor Peabody's Wayback Machine.

The Rivoli Theatre in Pendleton, Oregon

Every summer, THS has an annual Conclave/Theatre Tour which brings together THS members from around the world to visit a different city every year to tour theatre buildings. During the Conclave, THS tours theatres from “basement to booth,” enjoys a banquet, a silent auction, and the company of like-minded people.  
York Theatre Building
152 N. York St, 2nd Floor
Elmhurst, IL 60126
Telephone: (630) 782-1800
Richard Sklenar, Executive Director
Information on becoming a member of THS is available at its web site,

The Theatre Historical Society is also available on Facebook!