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Office:

THE VETS

83 Park Street, Suite 5

Providence, RI 02903
tel: 401/861-4445
401/490-6735 (f)
info@film-festival.org

 

Mailing Address:

PO Box 162

Newport, RI 02840 USA

Street Address:

36 Rhode Island Avenue,

Newport, RI 02840


 

 

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2014 Graphic Design by

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The Columbus Theatre Arts Center Charts its Future by Drawing from the Past...

 

Some History & background:

 

Located at 270 Broadway, the Columbus Theatre is a jewel in the center of the city of Providence. Originally built by Domenic Annotti in 1926 and designed by Oreste Di Saia (best known for designing the popular Metropolitan Theatre in New York and the Rhode Island’s Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium), the Columbus has since seen many changes in its lengthy history.

The Columbus Theatre was aptly named for its 1,492 seats that the theatre originally had when it opened on November 1, 1926. Domenic Annotti, who built the theatre, operated the Columbus with RKO specialized in films from that studio. (During this period, it was renamed the Uptown Theatre ). Unfortunately, after breaking off the business relationship with RKO, problems arose in acquiring first run films. Soon the crowds began to thin. In the 1950’s, as television gave theatres across the country major competition, many theaters suffered irreparably and by 1962, the Columbus Theatre closed.

In the summer of that year, the Berberian family seized the opportunity to bring opera and music to the Providence area, and bought the now available theatre. While the building needed major repairs, the Berberians were able to reopen it on its 36th anniversary date November 1, 1962. Given Jon (Sarkis) Berberian’s background with New York City Opera (Jon was a tenor and his wife, Betty Jane a soprano), it was fitting that the first presentation was the final concert for world-renowned tenor, Tito Schipa. Not long afterwards, films returned to the facility in February of 1963 following the suggestion of Ed Volante, the head projectionist for the theatre since 1927.

In between film showings, the Columbus Theatre soon became a hot spot where celebrity entertainers would come to perform. These included such luminaries like Jerry Vale, Al Martino, Lou Monti, George Shearing, The Four Seasons, Claudio Villa, and Roy Acuff.

Changes to the building and its venue possibilities were to come following a surprise hit with a little European film called “The Doll.”

The Berberians decided to build a theatre out of the balcony in order to successfully show two films at the same time. This made it possible for them to show a successful film downstairs while being able to show a different art or foreign film upstairs. The Columbus became the first theatre in Rhode Island to convert to the multiplex concept, long before it became the norm.

During this time the Berberians were also involved with bringing in the best live entertainment in the area. The Columbus Theater then showcased everything from professional singers and pianists, to actors and other performers. A little known fact was that the Columbus also ran an opera series with Wheaton College for 30 years, closing the theatre during the opera runs.

But the film business was changing. The studio system had broken down and film distribution was mired in the changes affecting Hollywood. A string of big-budget films died at the box office and an American public seeped in the turmoil of Vietnam, looked elsewhere for entertainment.

Given the temper of the times, the Columbus soon saw harsh competition from other venues as suburban multiplexes with smaller seating capacity began to take hold. For a time, the theatre continued to draw crowds for their feature arthouse and foreign films. Yet, as film product became more and more difficult to obtain, the family decided it had to do something in order to keep the building.

The Berberians made a choice to specialize in the only product available at the time: adult films. In the early 1970s, adult fare included many mainstream Hollywood films such as Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris,” and Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy” All were released with X ratings. Other theatres that entered the adult market at that time as a means for survival included the Stadium Theatre in Woonsocket (now newly restored) and the Rustic Drive-In, which remains the lone surviving drive-in in the region.

While the theatre’s survival was assured for the short term, the switch in product had an unintended price tag which only time would reveal: a stigma first attached to the film product then ultimately to the theatre itself.

Things changed for the Columbus in the summer of 2000, when independent film rediscovered the theatre.

Ralph Goudeau, Sara Archambault and Laura Mullen began running an out of competition film festival called “Picture Start” on Wednesday evenings in August. These exhibitions drew a full house for each performance and provided a platform for alternative and cutting edge work.

At the same time, the Rhode Island International Film Festival was looking for a space with a history and character that would accommodate a screen legend who would be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award: Patricia Neal. It was a perfect match.

 

RIIFF is the only festival in New England that is a qualifying festival for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (Out of 7,000 festivals worldwide, only 75 festivals are Academy qualifiers.)

 

In 2001, not just a screen legend, but an icon, Julie Andrews was on the Columbus stage to receive the same award for her husband, Blake Edwards. In 2002, lines reached around the block for those attending the film festival. This trend continued until 2009 with the appearance of Ernest Borgnine, Anne Meara, Jerry Stiller and Doris Roberts at RIIFF. In all, the Festival became a "Who's Who" within the industry gracing the stage of the Columbus Thearte.

The Columbus was the "official home" of the Rhode Island International Film Festival from 2000 until 2009 when it became mired in issues surrounding fire code. Three years and $400,000 later, the Columbus is set to reopen for its next act!

Now it is looking toward that next act. How that plays out has yet to be written. But given its past, the Columbus Theatre will no doubt play a critical role for the arts and its community in the upcoming years.

 

See more about the Columbus from their Facebook Page

 

See interior shots of the Columbus Theatre by Trig Photography