How Becky Ogden turned an old firehouse into the Columbus Music Hall

Editor's note: With plans in the works to turn the former site of the Columbus Music Hall into a German-style brewery, we take a look back to its musical heyday and its founder, Becky Ogden, known as "Grandma Becky" to the local musicians she relentlessly championed.

Elegantly dressed musicians of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and members of the city's corporate elite sat at white linen tables on the stage of the Ohio Theatre eating an extravagant dinner.

They were there to honor Becky Ogden, who was receiving CSO's prestigious Music Educator Award for her many years of community service. As Ogden approached the microphone, diners expected to endure a typical acceptance speech, one in which the honoree meanders through a litany praising God, country, Mom and apple pie.

But Ogden had other notions, as she later explained: "I don't talk to adults. It scared the shit out of me to talk to all those people." So she didn't blurt out a laundry list of thank yous during that 1999 presentation. She did what came naturally. “To all those people who love me, you already know it,” she said. “The rest of you people, sit up straight and grab a spoon or a fork." End of acceptance speech, beginning of an impromptu rhythm jam of silverware on tables, plates and glasses.

“People were laughing, and having fun, but they were engaged in music," Ogden says. “That is my typical goal when appropriate."

Welcome to Becky's World, where the unconventional reigns, music is everything and no idea is too crazy to tackle—for instance, turning an old firehouse into the Columbus Music Hall, one of the premier small venues in the city. Ogden has spent more than 39 years teaching music to kids, developing cultural festivals, writing educational material and nurturing musicians.

“She has not gone out and sought headlines or tried to draw attention to herself," says Ray Eubanks, artistic director of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra. "She does her good work rather anonymously.”

The good work has exposed thousands of Central Ohio children to the joys of music. "She disarms people with her kind of genuine honesty, but sometimes it can be a little goofy," says Tim Gerber, a project collaborator with Ogden and a music professor at Ohio State University's school of music. “She can get eighth-grade boys to square-dance and sixth-grade girls to lip sync Broadway tunes. She can get people to do things they normally don't do."

Ogden's gift lies in her ability to generate an infectious love of music in those around her. “Everybody loves some music," the 61-year-old Ogden says. Professional musicians adore her quick wit, open-mindedness, spontaneity, generosity, high energy and funky charm. Many call her "Grandma Becky.” Her large house on the East Siide is a tribute to deco art and music. Surprises lay around every corner, including a cockatiel that whistles Mozart and Brazilian tunes. Regularly, she opens her home and the music hall to musicians in need of a place to stay or to play. Early on New Year's morning, she fired up the stove in her big kitchen and cooked breakfast until the sun came up for at least 30 musicians and friends who wandered in. "We all sat around in tuxes, eating bacon and eggs,” recalls Tisha Simeral, a bass player in several Columbus bands. “We don't usually celebrate New Year's because we are working. It was nice she did this."

Ogden is classically trained on saxophone, but she plays stringed instruments, including the dulcimer, and she is tinkering around with the accordion and a 1928 marimba. She's collected washboards with the idea of writing a book.

"She is like a latter-day hippie in the way she likes to wear these funky, but off-beat fashions," says Vaughn Wiester, leader of Vaughn Wiester's Famous Jazz Orchestra, which plays every Monday night at the Columbus Music Hall. “She is like a salty angel, and she radiates this energy. She is a powerful intellect, and she takes no wooden nickels."

But Ogden spends real nickels, mountains of them, in pursuing her drive to promote music. Ogden and her husband, John, a real estate developer who died in 1991, bought an 1896 firehouse at 734 Oak St. and turned it into the Columbus Music Hall, opening the building in 1988. Ogden draws national as well as local acts from all branches of the music family, including jazz, salsa, Celtic, bluegrass and world. Musicians love the acoustics. For them, it's like playing in a Victorian-era parlor.

"It feels like a party at someone's house rather than a party at a club," says Eric Paton, bandleader of Yumbambe, a Latin/salsa band that plays the music hall every Tuesday night. “It's a real warm, cozy atmosphere." On a recent Tuesday, a diverse crowd of dancers oozed energy, fueled by the hot salsa coming from Yumbambe's 12-piece band.

Yet this musical gem of a building remains largely undiscovered. “It is an invisible asset to the city of Columbus," says Charlie Rath, who brings in jazz artists through the Firehouse Jazz Series. Lee Brown, critic for The Other Paper, calls the music hall his favorite venue. “But I think I she runs it almost as a charity," he says.

The hall draws a small cadre of regulars, but Ogden has been known to pay musicians herself when ticket sales are slim. When folk singer Ramblin' Jack Elliott dropped in, Ogden took up a collection for new tires to replace the worn treads on his motor home. Meanwhile, local bands play at the hall for free. Grants from the Ohio Arts Council and the Greater Columbus Arts Council help defray costs, but after she shelled out $1,000 to pay for Irish artists last year, she's cut back. Ogden won't say how much she's invested because she doesn't "want anyone to know how stupid I've been.”

Ogden's daughter-in-law Lynda Burns is working to convert the hall from a "money pit," as Ogden calls it, by renting it for weddings and special events. “She wanted this to be a resource for the community, and it really is,” Burns says.

The building is a beauty. A prominent tower where firemen hung hoses to dry soars above the two-story brick and stone structure, which is dominated by large arched windows. Located one block south of Broad Street and just east of Parsons Avenue, this was Engine House No. 12, the first firehouse to have horse-drawn steam engines. In the early years, it was one of the city's busiest. The last horse on the squad was nicknamed Panhandle Pete for his penchant for snatching tobacco out of a fireman's back pocket. He earned notoriety in the 1930s after he was retired and used at Franklin Park to draw a lawn mower; one day, when he heard a fire bell, the well-trained Pete galloped away, throwing aside both driver and lawn mower in his wake, charging down Broad Street to follow firefighters.

The firehouse closed in the 1950s and became the city's Arts and Crafts Center until the mid 1970s. Ogden and her husband bought the building in 1984. "It was a dead building. No plumbing, no nothing," Ogden remembers. They restored the original pine woodwork, installed brass chandeliers and filled the building with Victorian artifacts. Bands now play in the room fronted by two giant wooden doors that used to house the fire squad's apparatus. A 100-year-old bar from an English pub sits in the corner of the building where the fire chief kept his buggy. The old hayloft on the second floor has become a modernized studio for instruction on playing the stand-up bass. A loft apartment and office space, formerly the firemen's dormitory, also occupies the upper floor. The back, fenced for privacy, is landscaped and features a gazebo for wedding ceremonies. A spacious parking lot sits nearby.

Ogden survived an avalanche of building, zoning, parking and historic preservation codes in developing the hall. It didn't get smoother after it opened. A city inspector cited her for allowing dancing without a license. A court fight ultimately cost her $4,000. She pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor and was fined $90. Dancing since has been restored. "The whole rehab of the building was a nightmare, but I'm happy doing what we are doing now," Ogden says.

And Ogden does a lot. “She is a woman of a million projects," says Lisa Clark, a jazz singer who books and runs the Jazz for Kids program, an idea hatched by Ogden. "She has more good ideas than anybody I know, but she does it all for art's sake. She obviously doesn't pay any attention to the money part. She wants to teach the world about the things that are important to her.”

Clark and four musicians tour Columbus schools to teach kindergartners through third-graders about jazz. "The main idea is for them to come away with the word 'jazz' in their vocabulary," Clark says. Ogden wrote a preconcert study guide the kids use, a concept she and OSU professor Gerber developed for the symphony's SEATS program: Symphony Education and Audience Training in Schools. Ogden and Gerber began that program in 1984. Students receive a 16-page booklet filled with history, facts, instrument descriptions, artists and details about the Ohio Theatre. The book helps kids be active participants. Ogden and Gerber have written 34 booklets, reaching up to 300,000 children in Central Ohio, Gerber says: “It brings music into their ears and helps prepare them for the concert."

Ogden taught elementary school music for 30 years—the first seven at Mifflin Elementary School and the remaining at Colonial Hills Elementary School, where she retired in 1993. Currently, she teaches part time at Worthingway Middle School. "It's choir, but the kids don't know it,” Ogden says with a laugh. She spices up the action by bringing in drums or other instruments as background for less traditional music, “like Jamaican or Caribbean stuff."

She also invites high school jazz bands into the music hall once a month to play and mingle with a professional band. The program is run by Matt Ellis, a Thomas Worthington High School teacher. “This is great for kids because it's a cool place and they have an audience and it's not high school," Ellis says. “It gives them the feel of a real gig." Ogden hopes to resurrect her chil dren's concerts at the music hall, called the Peanut Butter & Jelly series, named after the sandwiches she passed out at the shows.

Ogden recently has co-written and co-produced a vaudeville show that will be marketed to schools. The multimedia program is designed to get the kids to perform skits and sing tunes made famous by Mil ton Berle, James Cagney, Mae West and W.C. Fields. Mark Morton, the principal bassist for the symphony who teaches at the music hall's bass studio, calls Ogden the “matriarch of music education" in Columbus. “She has touched a huge number of kids through a variety of means with a fresh approach to music," he says. “She is interested in all different forms of music.

Take “Jammin' with Junk," for instance. Ogden has gathered mallets, PVC pipes, five-gallon buckets, plastic water jugs and drum frames to create musical instruments. "She takes this stuff all over the city," says Gretchen Wessel, a former student teacher under Ogden. Jammin' with Junk appears at many of the city's festivals. "She's not afraid to use an audience in anything she does,” Wessel says. “She is extremely laid back, which is why people respond."

They respond because she is genuine, the real deal. “My role is to be the link to the world of music, and kids and families," Ogden says. “Music should be fun, with quality and history."

The Columbus Music Hall has helped Ogden create those links and develop a base for the city's musical community. It gives her comfort. “Through the music hall, I've met a lot of musicians that I wouldn't have known," Ogden says. “That's why I can go in places like Dick's Den or the 5:01 club and be treated like the Grandma Queen."

This story originally appeared in the May 2002 issue of Columbus Monthly.

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