Downtown Paducah's Columbia Theatre is in the early stages of rebirth, or that's what members of the Columbia Club hope. The massive theatre first opened to the public in 1927 and has been deteriorating since its last show in 1987. The estimated cost to renovate the space is six million dollars, which the club hopes to raise through grants and local investors. Matt Markgraf takes us on a tour of the building while he lends a hand on a recent clean-up day.
When you drive down Broadway in downtown Paducah, it's hard not to notice the huge marquee jutting out from a massive porcelain white tile building, with the red letters that read Columbia. A mannequin dressed in an antique usher uniform is cheerfully squeezed into the tiny ticket booth. And for the curious types like me who always try to peek inside the windows, today was a real treat. It’s a clean up day and I’ve come to lend a hand.
I’m met by Darlene Mazzone and Landee Bryant Greene of the Columbia Club. Randy Davis and Juliette Grumley of the Columbia Task Force also helped out, along with John Holt and Asia Burnett.
Laid out in tidy piles in the entrance way are the few original black marquee letters, salvaged from previous clean-ups and just enough to create some clever phrases – I spelled out Coming Soon when no one was looking.
Walking into the compact lobby, immediately the eye is drawn upward to the oval shaped cutaway in the ceiling peeking up to another lobby on the second floor. To the right is a gutted space where the concession stands sold popcorn and drinks. Tiny rooms tucked in the walls where restrooms and offices once were, were barely illuminated by the distant glow of work lights.
The real marvel of the space, the thing that takes your breath away is the auditorium. Stepping into this room is like stepping into the 1930s and 50s and 70s. It's a massive auditorium decorated in a patch work of plastered over designs and then left dormant for years. The ornate gold and silver embellishments around the stage is from one era, the eagle ornaments on the wall from another, the ceiling - originally an elaborate stained glass - had been painted over with an offensive grayish green color, which is just too painful to think about.
There are hundreds of seats in surprisingly good shape facing the stage, which currently displays an old fire curtain depicting what looks like boats coming into the New York Harbor, statue of Liberty magnificently standing above a giant hole carved out of the curtain long ago. Restoring this curtain is one of the top priorities for Columbia Club and it's not cheap. Looking into the house from the stage, a black wall covers what used to be a balcony, now a second theatre, part of which was reserved for segregated seating high up and in the back.
A trapezoidal wooden staircase was recently uncovered in front of the stage, built over what used to be an orchestra pit. We clear a pile of the scrap wood torn away from the stairs and moldy burgundy colored curtains with tasseled ends once ready to reveal the opening act, now perform their final number, into the dumpster out front.
We take the stage, through the hole in the curtain that hangs from a breathtakingly tall fly system. A few colorful stage lights adorn the open space, connected to a complex light board off to the side. Here, the back door has been propped open to push out the musty air and decades of detritus. There's a fair amount of asbestos, so I put on my face mask before venturing into the basement.
Walking down the creaky steps into almost total darkness save for a couple dim work lights, you walk into what looks like a machine factory scattered with pipes, gears, paint cans and wires everywhere. Neon tubes hang in the rafters, coffee cans stacked against a wall, calendars from the 1970s and 80s tacked to the doors. The ground is muddy and slick from the recent rain, so we walk carefully past the dressing rooms strewn with odds and ends where actresses applied their makeup before taking the stage, where a vaudeville act rehearsed their lines. In the deepest, darkest part of the basement, another short flight of stairs below Paducah, sit two massive boilers, giant behemoths that fed on the coal shoveled from the next room over. It's been ages since they've feasted, but the smell of burnt carbon is still strong.
We emerge for a brief breath of fresh air before taking a look at the second floor. Back out to the lobby, either staircase leads to a second floor lobby, with brightly colored pastel green walls and a lavish read ceiling adorned with flowers that match the carpet. A room sits off to the side with a sign that says "Managers Office," but he must be out today. Aside from a cylindrical porcelain drinking fountain and a few gold light fixtures shaped like candlesticks, there isn't much on the second floor except for a hallway leading into another theatre. This space is remarkably large, easily more than 200 seats.
Facing a screen that seems to be in good shape the seats go back into the darkness. A barrier in the seats separates what I'm told was the segregated area, complete with a side entrance from the street and separate bathrooms, too dark and worn down to go into. I found this to be a striking and sad antiquity, frozen here in time. Standing in the highest, farthest, darkest corner, it felt good tearing frilly yellow drapes off the wall and tossing them over balcony railing to be taken outside.
Stepping back onto the stage for one final time before it was curtains for clean-up day, I have to admit, something about the Columbia Theatre just makes you feel... maybe it's nostalgia... a glimmer of yesteryear... the thought of crowds flocking under the neon lights to see a famous band or a Hollywood masterpiece.... or maybe it's hope... the possibilities... this abandoned space could actually come to life again, with people who have a vision... a passion... and money...
But perhaps most of all, as I look out to the rows of seats and imagine the audience wild with applause, what I feel is pride in downtown Paducah. Revitalization isn't easy and restoration takes time, but with hard work and helping hands, progress is being made. If the local theater is a symbol for the strength and wellbeing of a community, then Paducah is on the right path. And someday, hopefully soon, we’ll be lining up for opening night.