The Columbia Theatre is a closed theater in downtown Paducah, Kentucky. Efforts are underway to restore the facility as a performing arts venue.
Captain John Betts, an English actor, built the first theater in Paducah on the north side of Broadway between First and Second Streets in 1834. 17 The two-story building was multipurpose: the lower floor hosted the theater while the upper floor featured living quarters for the Betts family and sister-in-law Miss Stanard. Later, St. Clair Hall, on the east side of South Second Street between Broadway and Kentucky Avenue, developed into the city’s premier theater just prior to the Civil War and continued on until the 1,000-seat Morton’s Opera House opened in 1885 on the east side of South Fourth Street near Broadway.
After Morton’s was destroyed by fire, the Kentucky Opera House (later the Orpheum Theater) was built in 1900 on North Fifth Street between Broadway and Jefferson Streets. 17 It had a seating capacity of 1,600 between the main floor, balcony, and gallery.
Moving pictures first appeared in the winter of 1901 at the Young Men’s Christian Association building at the northeast corner of Sixth and Broadway. 17 It was such an event that public schools were dismissed to allow children the opportunity to attend showings. The moving pictures had no plot, the screen showing only fire engines, locomotives, and other fast-moving objects. It wasn’t until 1904 that the first daily picture show was established at No. 516 Broadway.
Developed by Leo F. Keiler on land left to Keiler by his uncle, Joseph L. Friedman, the 2,000-seat Columbia Theatre opened on April 18, 1927. 6 7 8 17 Constructed by Jack Cole, the elaborately designed theater of Palladian, Moorish, and Greek architecture 8 10 featured a facade of blue and white terra cotta tiles that featured 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. 8 It was the largest name sign in the state at 50 feet high. 17
Inside, the theater was furnished in pastel shades of green, pink, tan, and blue, the woodwork finished in an antique grey, and the columns and ornaments outlined in gold leaf. 8 The walls were adorned with six paintings of Kentucky nature scenes painted by Louisville artists while the ceiling contained an art glass installation. The lobby was furnished in grey and pink tile with numerous gold-lighted fixtures and frames. The stage was furnished by the Bolland Scenic Studio of St. Louis, which included a drop curtain or orchid silk and plum-colored drops that framed the stage.
The box office was located at the center of the building in front of the lobby. 8 Upstairs were the lounging room, restrooms, telephone booths, and manager’s office. The upper floor balcony was reserved for African-Americans. 7
The facility was equipped with Vitaphone, 6 a sound-on-disc system used for feature films and short subjects made by Warner Bros. and its sister studio First National that had only been introduced three months prior. 6 17 It also included a three-piece “golden-voiced organ” by the Barton Organ Manufacturing Company. 8 The organ was built on an elevator that could be raised and lowered by remote control.
Four thousand patrons, attending two evening performances, listened via Vitaphone to Giovanni Martinelli, leading tenor of the Metropolitan Opera, and Mischa Elman, an internationally celebrated concert violinist. 8 They were followed by Elinor Glyn’s feature motion picture “It,” which starred Clara Bow and Antonio Moreno, and Jack Adams’ numbers on the “golden-voiced” Barton organ. It concluded with a Vitaphone number by Roy Smeck who played “His Pastimes.”
The Barton organ was washed out during the Ohio River flood of 1937. 9
The Columbia was extensively remodeled with steel and bronze decorative sconces and framing, 13 and reopened to crowds on August 14, 1952. 5
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. 3 13 Deteriorating, owner Jack Keiler began repairs on the Columbia Theatre in October 1985. 11
After a projected $50,000 profit loss, Keiler closed the Columbia Theatre in 1987. 3 13
In March 1992, Growth Inc. received awarded a $1,500 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and $2,500 from an anonymous private donor which was used to hire a local architect to assess the Columbia Theatre’s condition and provide estimates on plans to transform the structure into a performing arts center. 12
On December 30, 2004, the Columbia Theatre was donated to the city by the Keiler family which had owned the site since its inception. 14 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. 15 A conceptual study regarding the reuse of the facility was prepared by the Cleveland architectural firm Westlake Reed Leskosky, 1 6 which was followed by the completion of a Phase 1 Environmental Impact Study. A Phase 2 Environmental Impact Study and a feasibility study regarding the facilities’ potential use was completed by the Westport Palmer Group in 2014. The theater was awarded a $49,000 Kentucky Brownfield Clean Up Grant.
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. 1 It also allowed for a paint study by the International Fine Art Conservation Studios (IFACS) of Atlanta, Georgia, who also recovered a panel from the original stained glass ceiling and uncovered the coloration of the glasswork.
The Paducah Art House Alliance, a governing body for both the Columbia Theatre and the Maiden Alley Cinema, was formed in January 2016. 4 16 The group received a $25,000 contribution from the Community Foundation of West Kentucky in September, followed by a gift of $100,000 from the Carson-Myre Foundation in 2017. The donations allowed the Alliance to commission a full design schematic for the restoration of the theater from Westlake Reed Leskosky. It was estimated that the restoration
In 2020, the Alliance received a grant from the city to stabilize the roof to prevent water intrusion and received $10,000 toward the endeavor from the BRU-Bruckheimer Fund of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. 2 In late April 2021, the Paducah Bank partnered with the Columbia Art House Restoration Project to purchase $36,273 in historic preservation tax credits through the Kentucky Historic Preservation Tax Credit administered by the Kentucky Heritage Council and the State Historic Preservation Office. 3
It is estimated that the restoration of the facade will cost $1.5 million. 2
From Sherman Cahal
From Adam Paris
- Columbia Theatre at Walter Arnold’s Art of Abandonment
- “The History.” Save the Columbia Theatre.
- “Restoration of Historic Paducah Theater Moving Forward.” U.S. News, 8 Sept. 2020.
- “Paducah Bank buys historic tax credits for Columbia Theatre effort.” Paducah Sun, 13 May 2021.
- “Community donations help with Columbia restoration.” Paducah Sun, 28 Sept. 2016, p. 2A.
- “Grand Opening.” Paducah Sun, 14 Aug. 1952, p. 5.
- “New Columbia Will Present Biggest and Best Pictures Available in Film Market.” Paducah Sun-Democrat, 16 Apr. 1927, p. 4.
- “An Appreciation.” Paducah Sun-Democrat, 19 Apr. 1927, p. 7.
- Robertson, Lloyd P. “New Columbia Theater Is Opened Last Night; 4,000 Attend Two Performances.” News-Democrat [Paducah], 19 Apr. 1927, pp. 1-3.
- “PTHS musical benefactor returns to hear organist Gaylord Carter.” Paducah Sun, 1 Oct. 1976, p. 9A.
- “Downtown walking tour of Paducah.” Paducah Sun, 2 Jul. 1986, p. 4 EXTRA.
- Ward, Peter A. “Destruction of old St. Mary’s and other historic buildings should stop.” Paducah Sun, 25 Oct. 1985, p. A4.
- Haynes, Donna Groves. “Growth wins grant for Columbia study.” Paducah Sun, 18 Mar. 1992, p. 5A.
- Panuska, Mallory. “Old downtown theater attracts hope for new life.” Paducah Sun, 22 Jan. 2012, pp. 1A-7A.
- Bradley, C.D. “Downtown’s Columbia could reopen next year.” Paducah Sun, 31 Dec. 2003, pp. 1A-10A.
- Arnold, Walter. “The Columbia Theatre – Paducah, Ky.” The Art of Abandonment, 15 Mar. 2018.
- “New non-profit to govern two local theatres.” Paducah Sun, 13 Jan. 2016, p. A2.
- Neuman, Fred G. “Sports and Amusements.” The Story of Paducah, Young Printing Co., Paducah, KY, 1927, pp. 99-103.