Saving the Ohio Theatre

Peter Tonguette

Clark Wilson remembers the date well: Feb. 16, 1969.

On that day, Wilson—then a preteen from East Liverpool, Ohio, who was obsessed with the pipe organ—traveled to Columbus for his first visit to the Ohio Theatre, which began as a Loew’s movie house in the 1920s and was still being used primarily as a cinema. It was a unique occasion: Long-tenured theater organist Roger Garrett was to perform a farewell concert before the building was demolished.

“I can remember, just as a kid, all these people talking in hushed tones in this place,” says Wilson, who later became the Ohio Theatre’s house organist. “There was nostalgia everywhere, and sadness and so on, because this was supposed to be the last big live show that would ever happen.”

Luckily for Wilson and five decades of theatergoers, a small group of passionate citizens intervened.

The year before, the theater had been purchased by 55 East State Co., which also acquired the neighboring RKO Grand Theatre and offices with the intent to tear them down and build a new state office building. After the purchase was announced, some people began to organize against the theater’s demise, says Scott Whitlock, among the founding members of the organization that ultimately came to the rescue, the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts.

In fact, a few days before the farewell concert, 55 East State agreed to delay the demolition to give concerned citizens time to propose alternatives. During the months that followed, a group calling itself Save the Ohio aimed to raise more than $1 million to acquire the Ohio and Grand theaters. In mid-May, Save the Ohio held a public meeting, which was attended by Whitlock and his friend Larry Fisher, both attorneys in their 20s. The news was grim. “At that point, they hadn’t raised $100,000,” Whitlock says. “The biggest pledge they had was $30,000.”

The theater’s fate seemed sealed, but architect Robert Karlsberger—along with eventual CAPA co-founders Whitlock, Fisher and Jean Whallon—had a Hail Mary play: an ad in The Columbus Dispatch, signed by the Columbus chapter of the American Institute of Architects, protesting the demolition. The headline: “This Can Be a Week of Shame for Our City.”

Public response was dramatic, but it wasn’t enough to change the developers’ minds—not until Whallon suggested seeking help from developer John W. Galbreath. After listening to their last-minute pitch, Galbreath issued a $1.25 million mortgage, which supporters supplemented with other funds for a final purchase of $1.75 million.

The deal closed on Sept. 4—seven months after the theater held its farewell concert. By then, Whitlock and his CAPA colleagues had decided that live performances would have to draw crowds to the theater to make it financially viable; the Columbus Symphony and BalletMet came to call it home.

Films also remained part of the Ohio’s lifeblood, though, and the beloved Summer Movie Series began that same year. Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, this summer’s series includes “Casablanca” (June 14–16) and “Vertigo” (July 20–21), among many others.

The grandeur of the Ohio left a lasting impression on Wilson, who now plays the organ to accompany most screenings all these years later. “I’d seen pictures of these movie palaces,” he says, “but nothing in black and white could prepare you for what you were about to see in the Ohio.”


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