The recent update is the latest effort to preserve the grandeur of a storied Downtown theater.
The 92-year-old Palace Theatre unveiled much of a planned $6.5 million renovation in November, part of an ongoing effort to preserve one of Columbus’ oldest theatrical venues. The Palace’s tenure as a Downtown landmark stretches from the time it opened featuring vaudeville acts in 1926, after architect Thomas Lamb designed it using the Palace of Versailles as his major inspiration.
Today, the opulent Palace is refreshed—its marble floors are polished; original, carved plaster is repaired; crystal chandeliers are shining; and replicated original wallcoverings are hung. This season the historic theater is hosting a range of modern acts from comedians to the upcoming “Dancing with the Stars” live performance in January. Perhaps one of the building’s many redeeming factors is that at 34 W. Broad St., it sits next door to the newly renovated, 47-story LeVeque Tower, which includes the new Hotel LeVeque, The Keep restaurant and some of the city’s priciest rentals, the LVQ Apartments.
Next door, lining the brick walls of the Palace’s backstage area, are 2-foot-square graffiti renderings of the touring acts that have performed in-house as they traveled through Columbus. These charming timestamps remind every passerby—stagehand, actor, director, visitor lucky enough to score a backstage tour—of the indelible imprint local theaters have on us. Every city has its sacred artistic spaces where its moments become lore, and the Palace is ours. Torch singer Mel Torme was rumored to have written a song (by some accounts, it was “The Christmas Song”) on a beat-up piano in the basement. Harpo Marx broke with his silent tradition when he filled in for his hospitalized brother, Chico, and addressed the audience from the Palace stage.
But in recent years the venue was “getting tired,” says longtime CAPA vice president of operations Todd Bemis, who watched the historical theater slowly deteriorate over the last couple of decades. Bemis has been the theater’s unofficial guardian for nearly 40 years and sounded the alarm that it was time for a refresh.
A Much-Needed Face-lift
By 2016, Bemis had been noticing every peeling piece of plaster over the years and his concerns triggered the plans for renovation. CAPA, theater’s owner, applied for federal tax credits and embarked on an ongoing, large-scale capital campaign to fund the work.
Because of its status on the National Register of Historic Places, restoring the Palace to the look and feel of its original 1926 splendor was of great importance. Bemis sought the assistance of EverGreene Architectural Studios of New York City, one of the leading national companies focused on historic restoration. The company conducted a detailed study of the Palace, including an analysis of each layer of paint, and created a concept for a restoration that was authentic, yet practical for modern audiences.
Before cosmetic enhancements started, however, two major projects were crucial: the installation of a new, high-efficiency heating system and a new roof. “People don’t care about the heater until it doesn’t work,” says Bemis, “or the roof until it leaks.” A million dollars of work later, the more visible face-lift was able to begin. The theater closed its doors in May to accommodate the six-month renovation.
Workers spent two weeks installing an elaborate, wall-to-wall scaffolding. The structure allowed restoration artisans direct access to the auditorium’s 60-foot ceilings, which they cleaned and repaired while also repainting the intricate plaster work. The walls of the large, arched panels that line the auditorium were originally covered with decorative fabric, which had deteriorated and was removed years ago. Bemis was fortunate enough to find a piece of the original fabric, which he sent to EverGreene to replicate for new fabric wallcoverings.
In addition to the overhaul of the auditorium’s walls and ceiling, Bemis and his crew replaced all of the first-floor seats and repaired the others. They stripped the floor down to its original concrete, painted it and widened the rows of seats by 3 inches (sacrificing 130 seats for more leg room). They also doubled the number of sections designated for those with disabilities. Unreliable aisle lighting has been replaced with LED fixtures. The auditorium’s 11 original crystal chandeliers were cleaned and the bulbs replaced. All draperies in the theater were removed and replaced or cleaned and rehung. (Or, in a few cases, they were not rehung because they interfered with the theater’s acoustics.)
Other details, such as the restoration of 14 sets of emergency exit doors, including new stainless steel hardware, were as important as the grand artistic retouches in the decorative plaster.
To date, the project has been largely paid for by donors including AEP, Huntington, Honda, Wolfe Associates and The Columbus Foundation, as well as CAPA’s own board and staff. Thus far, CAPA has raised $5 million of the campaign’s $6.5 million goal. That $5 million has been spent on a new HVAC system, a new roof and the full auditorium renovation, says CAPA spokesperson Rolanda Copley. The remaining $1.5 million, yet to be funded, will be used for lobby renovations, including replacement of the front doors, enhanced security, and repair and remodeling of the mezzanine-level men’s restrooms and concessions area.
Copley credits Bemis’ longtime stewardship for the recent update. “He is really the lifeblood of the Palace and this multimillion-dollar auditorium renovation,” she says.
The Right Hero at the Right Time
Indeed, stories of historical significance are numerous at the Palace, but the wherewithal to maintain the aging building historically has been scarce. At least a few times, its very existence has been threatened. In the 1970s, the crumbling theater was in such disrepair that the late businessman Frederick LeVeque decided to buy it with plans to demolish the building and replace it with a hotel attached to the neighboring skyscraper that bore his name.
LeVeque’s plan, though, never went into action. In 1975, Katherine LeVeque was 49 years old, living on a 600-acre farm and raising the last of her five children, when Frederick, her husband of 26 years, died in a plane crash. Unbeknownst to her, he had purchased the Palace. Katherine had been uninvolved in the family’s many business affairs beyond attending important dinners. But her youngest son, Colin, remembers the moment that changed. He was a teen at the family breakfast table when his mother, reading the daily paper, came across an article reporting that the family was consulting with a company to tear down the theater and build a parking garage.
“‘This is not going to happen,’” Colin recalls his mother saying. “She really saw something different for that theater.”
Much to the dismay of her financial and business advisors, Katherine proceeded to personally fund an extensive $3 million renovation of the Palace. While she was not what Colin would call an arts enthusiast, she felt very strongly that the theater should be a part of the fabric of Downtown. “Mom believed that a city is as strong as its core, which includes its schools and institutions, and most certainly its arts.” She was known as a hands-on owner, personally booking the shows, and could sometimes even be found polishing the brass on the front doors.
In addition to the major repairs and replacement of elements to make the Palace functional, management at the time added carpeting to the wooden floors in all of the boxes to reduce noise, and the largest movie screen in the city was also installed. Inspired by the passion and goodwill of LeVeque, the International Brotherhood of Painters donated their labor and gave the place a fresh coat. Likewise, the artisan who repaired the leaded glass signs that had been badly damaged did so at a fraction of the cost.
In 1979, Bemis was hired as director of operations for the Palace. The theater reopened in 1980 with a week-long residency by the Osmond family.
A Rich History
In the beginning, the Keith-Albee Vaudeville Co., owned by B.F. Keith and Edward Albee, owned a chain of theaters around the country. The company commissioned architect Lamb to design the new theater and he chose the Palace of Versailles—the opulent home of France’s Louis XIV—as its archetype. Costing as much to furnish as it did to build (around $1.5 million each), the lobby and auditorium depicted a resplendent display of marble flooring, mirrored walls, crystal chandeliers, statuary and exquisitely carved plaster, according to reports at the time. Backstage, a labyrinth of dressing rooms, a laundry, a kitchen, a billiards room and a nursery was anchored by a hotel-like bell station designed to accommodate the revolving door of performers passing through.
After two years of construction, the Palace opened on Nov. 8, 1926. The inaugural acts included Will Mahoney, Four Aces and a Queen, the Harrington Sisters, Emma Haig and Olin Howard with Buddy Shepherd’s Orchestra, along with “The Campus Flirt,” a silent film distributed by Paramount. Admission was 35 cents.
Despite the Great Depression that raged in the world at large, life inside the Palace was grand. When motion pictures nudged vaudeville out of popularity, the theater adapted accordingly, but live performances by popular entertainers continued to draw large crowds. Mae West broke box office records in 1938, delighting audiences as well as the staff, which she reportedly tipped generously. The Three Stooges were also wildly popular at that time—both in film and in person. Throughout the ’30s and ’40s, Columbus crowds regularly swooned to the biggest big bands in the land, led by legends such as Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, and featuring singers such as Ella Fitzgerald.
Across the decades, motion pictures continued to grow in both scale and demand. In 1942, the Palace hosted the first world premiere of a major studio motion picture ever held in Columbus. Warner Brothers’ “The Male Animal,” starring Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland, was co-authored by hometown hero James Thurber and set in an unnamed but familiar “football-crazed Midwestern university.” A few years later, 20th Century Fox followed suit and premiered “Captain Eddie” at the theater. Based on the life of Columbus native Edward Vernon Rickenbacker and starring Fred MacMurray, the screening drew an estimated crowd of 10,000 who stood for hours in the rain just to get a glimpse of the celebrities.
By the 1960s, however, the theater began to show the signs of wear and ruin. The dressing rooms were neglected and became barely functional. Lobby doors were unsafe, some falling off their hinges, and the glass panes rattled loosely in their frames. The roof leaked, and some pipes in the ceiling had frozen, split and then burst underneath the projection booth. There was additional extensive water damage throughout the building. The theater’s lighting board was in complete disrepair. The crystal had been removed and the brass doors painted because they were deemed too difficult to clean. Like the Ohio Theatre, the Palace was outfitted with a massive pipe organ to accompany silent films. Because the Palace presented primarily vaudeville acts and eventually motion pictures with sound, the organ was mostly ignored and was sold in 1968. The organ chambers in the walls were sealed.
Despite the neglect and ruin, the Palace had been built to last. Its foundation was reinforced concrete and steel, and its interior was rich in marble, brass and ceramic tile. It also had a superb acoustic quality that rivaled that of New York’s Carnegie Hall. All that was needed was someone with passion and the means to save it. That’s when Katherine LeVeque intervened.
A Continuing Legacy
During LeVeque’s ownership, the theater faced another significant threat in 1983 when the Palace and the Ohio Theatre were expected to be sacrificed to make way for a proposed $50 million new performing arts space Downtown, according to reports from The Columbus Dispatch. An arts and entertainment task force ultimately convinced the Downtown Columbus Community Improvement Corporation to remove the proposal from its list of priority projects.
After years in which the theater was rented to specific acts, LeVeque negotiated a five-year contract with Opera Columbus to use the Palace as its home venue in 1984. Around the same time, it began a subscription series of traveling Broadway plays and musicals. Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller starred in a successful two-week run of the musical “Sugar Babies” that delighted audiences as well as the staff who were treated to nightly showbiz tales by Rooney. Ohio native Tom Eyen saw his 1981 Broadway hit “Dreamgirls” tour the same theater where he saw his first stage production—1952’s “Gentleman Prefer Blondes”—which had a major influence on his life as an artist. Following a national trend, comedy boomed in the ’80s at the Palace, with appearances by George Carlin, Roseanne Barr, Sam Kinison and comedian Leo Anthony Gallagher Jr., the famed destroyer of watermelons.
In 1989, LeVeque gave the theater to CAPA with a renewable, 99-year lease. (CAPA had been renting the space as a way to manage scheduling conflicts with the Ohio Theatre, an arrangement which also provided the Palace with a more consistent cash flow.) At the time, the property transfer was considered the most generous private gift to an arts organization in Columbus’ history. Bemis went to work for CAPA, continuing on as the theater’s chief overseer.
In 1996, CAPA named the lobby in Katherine LeVeque’s honor, on the theater’s 70th birthday. She died in 2014 at the age of 87. Today, the biggest acts performing at the Palace include touring musical acts and comedians, as well as Broadway shows. These have included Bonnie Raitt, Mary J. Blige, Weird Al, Kelly Clarkson, Jerry Seinfeld and Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Earlier this year, in an unlikely collision of the arts and sports, Columbus audiences cheered on Heisman Trophy winner and OSU legend Eddie George in the musical “Chicago.”
On Nov. 2, comedian Jim Gaffigan reopened the Palace with a series of performances. Coincidentally, Gaffigan had filmed a recent Netflix special at the theater shortly before it was closed for renovation. With a robust schedule over the next several months, the Palace is now poised to continue its reputation as CAPA’s “workhorse theater,” as it is often called, with nearly 100 annual performances that draw approximately 125,000 visitors.