Over the last weekend, I visited the historic but closed Columbia Theatre in Paducah, Kentucky with a small group of local historians and talented photographers.
Developed by Leo F. Keiler, the 2,000-seat Columbia Theatre opened on April 18, 1927. The elaborately designed facility featured Palladian, Moorish, and Greek architecture with a facade of blue and white terra cotta tiles that included spiraled Byzantine-style columns, classical urns, busts of Greek goddesses, a name sign illuminated with 5,000 lights, and a marquee lit with 2,000 varicolored globes. Inside, the theater was furnished in fashionable shades of green, pink, tan, and blue, the woodwork finished in an antique grey, and the columns and ornaments outlined in gold leaf. The walls were adorned with Kentucky nature scenes while the ceiling contained an art glass installation.
Four thousand patrons attended two evening performances that were capped with Elinor Glyn’s feature motion picture “It,” which starred Clara Bow and Antonio Moreno.
The Columbia was extensively remodeled with steel and bronze decorative sconces and framing and reopened to crowds on August 14, 1952. A second screen was created by enclosing the balcony, which opened on January 29, 1976.
In 1982, the Kentucky Oaks Mall opened on the outskirts of Paducah, which included the construction of a ten-screen multiplex theater. Facing a projected $50,000 loss, owner Jack Keiler closed the Columbia Theatre in 1987.
The first step towards the restoration of the theater came in 2004 when the facility was donated to the city by the Keiler family which had owned the site since the Columbia’s inception. The city anticipated marketing the property to groups whose uses would be compatible with the long-term revitalization of downtown.
In 2013, the Paducah Renaissance Alliance (today’s Paducah Main Street) began preliminaries toward the restoration of the theater, and a conceptual study regarding the reuse of the facility was prepared by the Cleveland architectural firm Westlake Reed Leskosky. In 2015, thanks in part to funding by the Carson-Myre Foundation, Kentucky Colonels, and private donors, a project manager and three artists repaired, restored and repainted the original fire curtain, and asbestos abatement was completed by Chase Environmental.
Stepping into the Columbia Theatre today is like stepping into a different era. The entryway, adorned with grey and pink tile, at one point featured numerous gold-lighted fixtures and frames. The mezzanine, decked out in pastel colors, still contains floral embellishments on the walls and ceilings.
The pastel color palette continued into the auditorium but unfortunately, the six paintings of native nature scenes had long been painted over, along with the ceiling’s art glass installation—casualties of renovations that took place in the 1950s. Significant portions of the plaster on the walls had also crumbled because of moisture intrusion, exposing the rough tumbled brick walls. Fortunately, the original drop curtain of Lady Liberty remained intact.
The balcony theater was as inspiring as any modern multiplex facility.
The downstairs featured dressing rooms for cast members. They had long been converted into storage rooms and workspaces but vestigates of their past, including dingy mirrors and porcelain sinks, remained.
Left behind were tidbits of the venue’s past, including discarded steel movie reels, time cards, vintage spray cans, and odds-and-ends.
Behind the curtains was an impressive lighting switch board system that was once controlled by well-trained stagehands and a cabinet full of rheostats, or variable resistors that could control currents to dim lights.
Abandoned is partnering with local historians and photographers to offer generalized tours and specific photography sessions of the Columbia Theatre in Paducah, Kentucky in the near future. Follow abandonedonline.net, Abandoned on Facebook, and Abandoned on Instagram to keep tabs on when these events will be offered.