Monday, November 21, 2011

A Photo History of On With The Show! The Springer Opera House and History of Theatre in Columbus

Edwin Booth is known as one of the greatest tragedians of the 19th century American stage. The Booths were a famous family of actors. Edwin Booth's father, Junius Brutus Booth, had achieved national popularity in the acting community. Edwin’s two brothers, Junius Brutus, Jr. and John Wilkes (President Abraham Lincoln's assassin) were equally well known.

The first time Booth performed in Columbus was December 12, 1859. For six successive nights at Temperance Hall, Booth played leading roles of which the most notable was Hamlet. Following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, Raphael Moses, a Columbus attorney, urged Edwin Booth to separate himself from his notorious brother's (John Wilkes) reputation, and come to Columbus to play his most famous role – that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Booth's 1876 performance at the Springer Opera House is recognized by theatre critics to be one of the best performances of the era.

In 1924, Roy E. Martin built the Liberty Theatre on Eighth Avenue. This 600-seat theatre – the largest movie house in Columbus at that time – was built exclusively for use by Columbus' black community. The Liberty Theatre closed its doors in 1974, but was remodeled and reopened as a community center in 1998. The building is currently listed on the National Historic Register.

In 1869, Columbus residents talked about the need to build a grander, more respectable hall for entertainment than the theatres that already existed. The new hall would be named after Francis Joseph Springer, a business owner who owned the site of what would become the Springer Opera House at 10th Street and 1st Avenue.

At the turn of the 20th century, the demand for larger, more complicated set designs to accommodate touring companies of the vaudeville era required a renovation of the Springer. The building almost doubled in length and the additional space housed a hotel with European amenities, a saloon, billiard hall and offices.

By 1915, fewer live stage shows were being shown and instead, the Springer began showing moving pictures during the week. During the Depression, touring theatre companies and vaudeville almost disappeared. The last live show at the Springer was in 1931. The opera house continued to operate as a movie theatre until 1958 when it closed its doors. It stood abandoned until 1963, when a community organized campaign to rehabilitate the theatre sprung about.

Starting in the summer of 1964, the rehabilitation project began – the building was reroofed, structural and safety standards were met, debris was removed and it was cleaned and painted. The theatre ceiling was re-plastered, new seats were provided, the stage area was prepared and basic lighting was installed. By 1965, the theatre was ready to showcase live performances once again.

The final restoration and renovation of the theatre took place in 1998. An $11 million dollar grant allowed for the completion of the second and third floors of the building, a 1900s era stage to be installed and the development of a classroom and work areas, among other features. Today, the Springer Opera House provides year-round performances on two stages: The Dorothy W. McClure Springer Theatre Academy offers an extensive training program for young actors and the No Shame Theatre program allows the opportunity for individual actors to perform original short pieces.

The first main post theatre at Fort Benning, near Columbus, was formerly a cow barn. It was converted into a ‘moving picture’ theatre in 1909 and demolished in the 1930s. The second theatre was part of the Service Club, which opened in 1921 and was demolished in the 1960s. The third post theatre was built in 1922 for less than $25,000 and was used until the 1940s. It had more than 1,400 seats and a ten-piece orchestra that provided music for the silent films. During World War II, a tent theatre was set up to accommodate the large influx of soldiers. The fourth theatre was built in 1938 and remained in use until 1992. These theatres were used by both officers and enlisted personnel. Black troops at Fort Benning accessed a separate theatre. The first theatre was opened out of the Service Club from 1921 until the 1940s. The 24th Infantry Theatre opened in 1933 and is still in use today as an auditorium for the Officer Candidate School.

Drive-in theatres are considered an icon of the 1950s, along with drive-in restaurants and sock hops. They were at the height of popularity from the mid-1950s through the late 1960s.

In 1947, Curt Drady and Curt Baggett opened the first drive-in theatre in Columbus. It was located in a cow pasture on Old Benning Road. By the mid-50s, Columbus had a number of drive-ins with names like the Rexview, Edgewood, Phenix, Victory, Jet and Jive. Drive-ins were impacted with the adoption of daylight savings time in the 70s. Because it got darker later, owners could only show one movie a night. By 1972, they were in serious trouble and one by one, Columbus drive-ins shut down.

For even more interesting facts about this fascinating history of our community, visit On With The Show! The Springer Opera House and History of Theatre in Columbus exhibition, which is currently on display in the Columbus Museum's History Gallery through February 12, 2012.

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