Remembering Donald McDowell, the only CAPA usher with a golden ticket

You probably never knew his name, but if you attended a concert, musical or movie at the Ohio Theatre at some point in the last half-century or so, you almost certainly have met Donald McDowell. Maybe he tore (or scanned) your ticket, and he surely pointed you in the direction of your seat.

McDowell—who, from the late 1970s to 2019, was a volunteer usher at the Ohio Theatre and other venues managed by the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts—was never featured on a theater marquee, but to those who encountered him, his star shone brightly. “People got to know him,” says fellow CAPA usher Judy Stein. “They recognized him because he was there so much.”

The marquee lights may seem a little dimmer this season, the first in 50 years without McDowell, who died in December at 89. He was described as the longest-serving among about 645 volunteer CAPA ushers. “He’s been here since the very beginning,” says volunteer coordinator Kristen Paige.

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A native of the South Side, McDowell grew up bitten by the movie bug. “His best memories were hopping on the streetcar and running down to any of the theaters Downtown to watch a movie,” says Melody Reed, the elder of McDowell’s two daughters with his wife, Deborah, who died in 2009.

Following a stint in the Army during the Korean War, McDowell found employment as a film librarian for Columbus City Schools while also running a distribution company that booked classic films in prisons. When CAPA was formed in the aftermath of the near demolition of the Ohio Theatre in 1969, McDowell helped plan early iterations of what became the CAPA Summer Movie Series. About a decade later, he signed up to start ushering. “In a funny way, it was slightly self-serving in that he wanted to be able to go there,” Reed says.

Movies were far from McDowell’s only passion, says his younger daughter, Melissa McDowell. “He had his favorite Broadway shows that came through,” she says. “He even had his favorite symphonies that the symphony orchestra did.”

During the peak of his ushering duties, he volunteered at least one night every week and once every weekend in the Ohio, Southern, Palace and Lincoln theaters.

McDowell, who also served as a house manager at the Little Theatre Off Broadway in Grove City, eventually traded ushering for the less physically demanding duty of scanning tickets at the door. In February 2019, in the midst of the Ohio Theatre’s weekslong run of “Hamilton,” he contracted the flu. When the virus exacerbated his kidney disease, McDowell decided it was time to put away his tux for good—but not before he confirmed the matinees of “Hamilton” were covered.

“When he was in the emergency room ... he wanted to make sure that I got ahold of someone to let them know he wouldn’t be there that day,” Reed says.

CAPA was able to pay back its longtime volunteer last summer—the first in which he attended the movie series as a plain old attendee: The organization awarded him a golden ticket entitling him and his family to free lifetime admission to the series. “He used that golden ticket,” Stein says. “I think he came to just about every movie.”

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