After 80 years, Ohio Theatre still hosts movie magic

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 Messenger photos by John Matuszak

Todd Bemis, vice president of operations for CAPA, is ready to welcome guests to the Ohio Theatre for the 39th Summer Movie Series, and the "Mighty Morton" organ is ready to reach the rafters of the 80-year-old landmark. The series of classic films runs from June 6 through July 27.

Eighty years ago, Marcus Loew envisioned the Ohio Theatre in Columbus as "a palace for the common man," a mecca for movie lovers that offered opulent surroundings and an evening of affordable entertainment.

For almost half of that history, the theater’s Summer Movie Series, the longest continually running program of its kind, has continued that pledge – and still for as little as $2 a ticket.

"It’s important that we honor the history of the theater when it opened," commented Todd Bemis, vice president of operations for CAPA, which manages the Ohio.

He and his staff have been busy preparing for the 39th Summer Movie Series, opening June 6 with Sean Connery as James Bond in Thunderball, and concluding July 27 with Shall We Dance?  with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

In between, the Ohio will host everything from a silent Mary Pickford movie (with full organ accompaniment) to films of more recent vintage, including Back to the Future.

In fact, "Back to the Future" could be the motto of the people who use their up-to-date technological know-how to bring to life a bygone era.

Loew’s reaches for the heights

From the beginning, there was nothing small about the plans for the Ohio, built on the site of Columbus’ first city hall.

 
The Ohio Theatre as it looked when it opened in 1928 as a flagship of the Loews’s-MGM chain. The marquee has recently been restored to its original appearance with flashing lights.

Its architect, Thomas Lamb, was one of the best-known designers of theaters in the country, having designed the Ziegfeld Theatre and the original Madison Square Garden in New York City before taking on the Columbus assignment in 1927.

The Ohio was planned by Marcus Loew, a founder of the MGM studio, as the flagship theater of his company.

Lamb designed the Ohio in a Spanish Baroque style, which Bemis noted is characterized by darker tones and richer golds than the lighter, marbled European style of the architect’s other local creation, the nearby Palace.

No expense was spared. Anne Dornan, one of the first women to graduate from the Columbia School of Architecture, was sent to Africa to find decorations for a safari-themed lounge on the lower level.

Dornan spent $1 million to furnish the interior, in contrast to the $800,000 to build the structure.

Other unique features included the Robert-Morton theatre organ, which is still in use.

Live birds were kept in cages, but Bemis doesn’t think they lasted long before the manager became tired of caring for them.

The Ohio opened its doors to the public on March 17, 1928. Unfortunately, Loew did not get to see the grand opening, having died six months before.

In addition to movies, stage shows were a big attraction, representing a who’s who of vaudeville and MGM contract players, from a young MC with a violin named Jack Benny to an up-and-coming star, Judy Garland, who performed in 1938, one year before her starring role in The Wizard of Oz.

A series of house organists, from the first keyboardist, Henry Murtagh, to Bill Dalton, Roger Garrett and Dennis James, kept the Mighty Morton humming into the 1980s, when the instrument underwent a restoration.

Clark Wilson, who as a boy was inspired when he heard Garrett perform in the late 1960s, has become a fixture of the movie series with performances before and after screenings and during intermissions.

Cliffhanger

It all might have ended on the wrong note.

Facing competition from newer, suburban cinemas (including two Loew’s theaters that no longer exist) the Ohio was closed in 1969. It was slated for demolition before a group of residents stopped the wrecking ball and raised money for its restoration under the CAPA banner.

It became home of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, the Broadway Series  and Ballet Met, and has been a model for the rebirth of theaters as performance spaces.

The Ohio was named a National Historic Landmark in 1977.

Of the 300 theatres designed by Lamb, only a few are still in use. Columbus is fortunate to be the only city with two still standing, Bemis pointed out.

Bemis is a Cleveland-area native who had been involved in the reclamation of that city’s Playhouse Square theaters (one named the Ohio also designed by Lamb). He was recruited by Katherine Leveque to lend his talents to the Ohio.

It’s been a 30-year run. And new features keep popping up all the time.

Coming attractions

 
Jason Jay, the Ohio Theatre’s stage manager, controls lights, sound and curtain from his computer console, a far cry from the bulky equipment used during much of  its 80-year-history.

The sound system for the movie series has been upgraded this year, according to stage manager Jason Jay.

Where technicians once scrambled to operate a lighting and sound board that filled an entire wall, Jay runs things seated at nearby consoles, and this year will be able to sit in the audience and adjust the sound levels from the auditorium.

A lot of changes have taken place in the projection booth over the years, reported Eric Womack, a Pickerington resident and theatre teacher at Central High School who has served as the projectionist for five seasons.

Womack, who at 43 is the youngest member of the local projectionists’ union, learned from several of the oldtimers about what he calls "a lost art. They were more than willing to pass that art along."

While multi-plex cinemas run their movies on one large reel, Womack has to keep his eye on the 20-minute reels these classic films come on "or it’s 2,000 feet of film on the floor."

 
Eric Womack checks a print of the James Bond movie Thunderball the old-fashioned way – one frame at a time – before its weekend screening. Womack is a Pickerington resident and teacher and is in his fifth season as projectionist for the Summer Movie Series. He learned his trade working movie theaters in Athens, Ohio.

Not something you want to happen when you’re handling prints from the Library of Congress or a studio’s pristine vault prints.

Womack also spends hours making sure the films are spliced together correctly to provide an uninterrupted experience for the audience.

This year they have added an infra-red sound reader for a clearer soundtrack, and Womack beams as he sings the praises of the Xenon lamp houses that provide brighter, more colorful images for the films.

But the cameras still use the original projection heads from 1941, because they just don’t make them like that anymore, Womack explained.

The same could be said for many of the films that still light up the screen and the audiences that keep coming back to the Ohio.

"Mr. Loew would be proud," Bemis said.

Ticket prices & schedule of films

CAPA Summer Movie Series Ticket Strips, one of Central Ohio’s best entertainment bargains, can be ordered now through July 6 at the Ohio Theatre ticket office (39 E. State St.) or www.ticketmaster.com.

Strips of 10 tickets are $21.50, a savings of $1.35 per ticket off day-of-show prices. Phone orders for strip tickets can be placed by calling 469-0939. For more information or to download an order form, visit www.capa.com. Strip tickets are good for any film in any combination.

Day-of-show tickets to individual films are $3.50 and go on sale one hour prior to show time at the Ohio Theatre kiosk. Senior citizen tickets are available for $3.

All tickets are general admission and seating is on a first come, first served basis.

Two films, Victor/Victoria and When Harry Met Sally…, will offer audio description for visually impaired patrons at no extra charge. Audio description allows visually impaired theatre-goers to hear a scene-by-scene narration of the on-screen action while they listen to movie dialogue.  

Schedule of films

•Thunderball, with Sean Connery as James Bond, Friday, June 6, 7:30 p.m & Sunday, June 8, 2 p.m.& 7:30 p.m., •Sabrina, with Audrey Hepburn, William Holden, and Humphrey Bogart, Wednesday-Friday, June 11-13, 7:30 p.m. nightly.

•Victor/Victoria, with Julie Andrews, James Garner and Robert Preston, Saturday & Sunday, June 14-15, 2 pm & 7:30 p.m.

•Planet of the Apes, with Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Wednesday-Friday, June 18-20, 7:30 p.m.

•Cartoon Capers. Enjoy a dozen classic cartoons from the ’40s and ’50s featuring many of the Warner Brothers superstars including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Pepe LePew, and Yosemite Sam, Saturday, June 21, 10 a.m.

•Back to the Future, with Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Saturday & Sunday, June 21 & 22, 2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.

•His Girl Friday, Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, Wednesday & Thursday, June 25 & 26, 7:30 p.m.

•Duck Soup, starring The Marx Brothers, and It’s a Gift, with W.C. Fields, Friday, June 27, 7:30 p.m.

•Notorious, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Sunday, June 29, 2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.

•The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, written and directed by Preston Sturges and starring Betty Hutton and Eddie Bracken, Wednesday, July 2, 7:30 p.m.

•1776, William Daniels, Howard Da Silva, Ken Howard, Saturday & Sunday, July 5 & 6, 2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.

•The Color Purple, with Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, directed by Steven Spielberg, Wednesday-Friday, July 9-11, 7:30 p.m.

•Oklahoma!, Gordon McRae, Shirley Jones, Gloria Grahame, Saturday & Sunday, July 12 &13, 2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.

•Sparrows, Mary Pickford, Silent film accompanied live on the Ohio Theatre’s historic "Mighty Morton" theatre organ, Wednesday & Thursday, July 16 &17, 7:30 p.m.

•When Harry Met Sally (Rated R), Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Friday, July 18, 7:30 p.m.

•The Muppet Christmas Carol, Michael Caine, Kermit the Frog, The Great Gonzo, Miss Piggy, Saturday, July 19, 10 a.m.

•White Christmas, Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Saturday & Sunday, July 19 & 20, 2 pm & 7:30 p.m.  

•Once Upon a Time in the West, directed by Sergio Leone and starring Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson, Wednesday & Thursday, July 23-24, 7:30 p.m.

•The Third Man, Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Friday, July 25, 7:30 p.m.

•Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Rated R), Friday, July 25, 11 p.m.

•Shall We Dance?,  Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Saturday, July 26, 2 p.m .& 7:30 pm, Sunday, July 27, 2 p.m. only.

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