If you’re a CAPA Summer Movie Series regular like me, you’ve heard organist Clark Wilson invite you to “settle back in your seat in the perfumed twilight of this magnificent old Electric Pleasure Dome.” Pretend you’re doing just that as I raise the curtain on today’s feature presentation — a tour of the Ohio Theatre!
Since its opening in 1928, this Downtown Columbus landmark has wowed visitors with its opulent Spanish-Baroque look. Built in the heyday of silent movies, the Ohio Theatre was one of Marcus Loew’s 120 theatres showing movies from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Live touring stage shows also performed on the Ohio’s stage.
The Ohio is the creation of architect Thomas W. Lamb. Of the 200 movie theatres that Lamb designed, 41 are still open, and 15 still show movies. While Lamb focused on the structural details of the $865,000 construction project, interior designer Anne Dornan selected a complementary red, teal and maroon color scheme for furnishings. Treating average people to surroundings as luxurious as a European palace led her to rack up an additional $1 million tab.
Several of the Ohio’s features are original, including the ticket booth just outside the front door and the outer lobby’s walls, frames for movie posters, and tile floors, which were kept warm during the winter by an oil-fired burner that’s still there.
The molded plaster ceiling in the outer lobby was designed to look like wood. Three sections of one of the scallop shells in the southeast corner of the ceiling were intentionally not painted, so the theatre would never be finished. Can you spot what’s unpainted?
In the inner lobby, more original features include a molded plaster ceiling adorned with Dutch metal leaf, gilt paint heraldic symbols, light fixtures, gold-painted cast iron railings, and leaded glass exit signs.
Inside the theatre, the plaster ceiling is adorned with silver and gold painted stars and can be lit with several different colors of lights. An 11’ by 21’ chandelier weighing two and a half tons is bedecked with 350 individual lights; figures of horses were added to make it even fancier. When the chandelier is lowered every few years for cleaning, a quarter with the year’s date is put on the top to indicate when it was cleaned last.
A stage with maple flooring has added neoprene to give dancers and other performers extra bounce. Beside it sits the magnificent Morton Theatre Organ. Installed in 1928 at a cost of $21,000, it was one of four organs built to its design; it is one of 20 theatre organs still in use today. The organ is equipped with 16 sound effects that were designed to accompany silent movies, such as bells, drums, cymbals, castanets, an airplane propeller and the clip-clop of a horse’s hooves. Rolling BB’s in a tray recreate the sound of the surf. Painted faux-marble panels and gold drapes hide the organ’s 2,500 pipes, which range from the size of a little finger to about 16 feet tall.
while the Arabic or Moorish-style outer lobby of the upper balcony was originally installed with a telephone system that allowed ushers to call downstairs for help, if necessary.
Look past the elegant tapestries and gilded finishes of the ladies’ lounge and you’ll see a mysterious closed door. Behind it was a well-ventilated smoking lounge where ladies could privately indulge in the habit that was still controversial in the 1920s.
The men’s lounge was modeled after a British men’s club, with more molded plaster ceilings designed to look like wood.
The theatre’s original conductor’s stand is fitted with a meter that was used to measure the amount of feet of film going through the reel, to ensure that the orchestra’s accompaniment to the silent movie was perfectly timed.
Downstairs, the lower lounge was originally called the Four Corners of the Earth room. Dornan traveled the world to find appropriate decorations for its man-focused Africa Corner. The carpet design reflects the Chinese-inspired corner that was designed for ladies.
When the Ohio was threatened by demolition in the 1960s, central Ohioans raised over $2 million in less than a year to save the historic theatre. Soon after, the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts purchased and renovated the Ohio. The theatre was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Six years later, it became a National Historic Landmark and the official theatre of the state of Ohio.
Today, the Ohio is home to the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, BalletMet, and The Broadway Series, as well as more than 100 entertainment events each year. Through August 10, visit the Ohio for the 44th season of the CAPA Summer Movie Series, the longest-running classic film series in America. In his 23rd season as featured organist, Clark Wilson begins playing the Morton Theatre Organ 30 minutes prior to each screening, and continues during a 15-minute intermission. He will also accompany this year’s silent film, Girl Shy, on July 17 and 18.
A free, guided tour of the Ohio Theatre — complete with a light show and a demonstration of the Morton Theatre Organ by Clark Wilson — will be held on Saturday, August 2 at 4:00 p.m. Reservations are required. To check availability, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the number of people in your party.