A Look Into Columbia History

Historical photo of Columbia Theatre

A historical photo of The Columbia Theatre 
Courtesy of Larry Gray

After hosting numerous plays, concerts, movies, recitals, meetings and more, the Columbia Theatre for the Performing Arts has collected a rich history made of stories by people who allowed the theatre to become part of their own history. Opening on September 1, 1928, the theatre went through many stages including functioning as a Vaudeville house, a movie theater, a stage for acting troupes and eventually a performing arts space. Currently, the theatre is owned and operated by Southeastern. 

“Traveling troupes would come around and do entertainment, and compared to today’s standards, it’s real hockey, but it’s song and dance kind of stuff,” said Columbia Theatre director Roy Blackwood about the theatre’s function as a Vaudeville house. 

According to Blackwood, Vaudeville houses were built on railroad lines, which made Hammond a perfect location for such an institution. 

After the stock market crash in 1929, the theatre briefly closed only to be reopened as a movie theater that lasted into the 70s. 

“As a kid we use to come and watch cowboy movies on Saturday mornings,” said long time Hammond resident and owner of Richardson’s fashion store Rodney Richardson. “Every Saturday morning, my uncle and my parents would drop us off and we’d come up here and watch movies. Downtown Hammond was everything.”

Richardson recalls the theatre before integration when it had two separate balconies for blacks and whites. After renovations for the 2002 reopening, the theatre hosted only one large balcony. 

“I remember going there before integration,” said Richardson. “The ticket office was right in the middle and they had a booth right there, but we had to go on the side. Times have changed. Now I have a business across the street.”

Despite its popularity as a movie theater, the building went into great disrepair and closed down in 1972. 

Five years later, in 1977, two brothers decided to join their separate visions to renovate the Columbia Theatre and use it as a performance arts space. 

According to an article in The Daily Star, during the first renovations in 1976, a box of old movie tickets were found. Prices for tickets were 12 cents for adults, nine cents for children and 10 cents for the colored balcony. 

Wiley Sharp, a banker and chairman of the board of directors of Citizens National Bank, acquired the Columbia Theatre building. 

“I’m fixing it up to keep it from becoming a slum,” said Wiley Sharp in The Daily Star during the time of renovations. “I don’t want to see Thomas Street collapse. I don’t think I’ll make any money on it; I’m hoping to break even.”

Wiley Sharp then joined his brother Tom Sharp, a teacher at Holy Ghost Catholic School and a lover of theatre. Tom Sharp got Hammond residents together who loved theatre and formed the Columbia Theatre Players. Tom Sharp hoped to make the Columbia Theatre the location for the community theatre group to perform. 

However, before any performances could be done, Wiley Sharp had to fix up the theatre, which required the roof to be repaired among other things. 

“He got a lot of volunteer labor, especially from the people who were in the community theatre, to go in; I was one of those,” said Columbia Theatre Players’ first vice president Dr. Larry Gray. “There were no lights, the roof had fallen in and all of the tiles that were there had fallen in over the years. There were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands, but certainly hundreds of dead pigeons everywhere. So we went in with huge shovels and shoveled out the dead pigeons, working by lights that were strung. He [Wiley Sharp] did what I suppose would be called minimal renovations that made it possible to open it and have something on stage.”

The Columbia Theatre Players’ first production, “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds,” was financed and directed by Gray and performed in what is now the Vonnie Borden Theatre. The Players’ first show in the Columbia Theatre was “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which was directed by Tom Sharp.

The group then began to have a full season of plays in the Columbia Theatre for about five years until they moved across the street to the Levy Building that is now the Hammond Regional Arts Center. The group eventually changed its name to simply Columbia Players, as they were no longer in the theatre. 

“It did various things, but none of these things were sufficient to pay for the building,” said Gray. “That’s why in 1983 ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ was the last Columbia Theatre Players production in the Columbia Theatre. After that, they moved across the street and then it fell into disuse again.”

According to Blackwood, the theatre was also condemned by the fire marshal because of the bad shape it was in. During the 80s and 90s the building was not used, and was supposed to go under the wrecking ball. The scrap brick from the building was then going to be sold.

To try to prevent this, a group of people including the Downtown Development District Director Marguerite Walter, the director of Fanfare Harriet Vogt and Senator John Hainkel got together to save the building.

“Senator Hainkel said if you could raise half the money, he would get the legislator to fund the other half to renovate the building and make a performing arts center out of it,” said Blackwood. “Because the university raised the money, it’s actually deeded to the university.”

The theatre was completely renovated with the help of Holly and Smith Architects and the then campus architect Michael Rickenbaker. The building was expanded with the purchase of part of Firestone Tire store and the old JCPenny building. This expansion allowed for the grand lobby to be incorporated. The large neon marquee sign was added later in a second fundraising effort. 

“It was beautifully and fantastically a good job. This was not just patch the roof and shovel out the dead pigeons,” said Gray. “This was a complete renovation. I saw it before. I’ve been on stage before, and I’ve been on stage afterwards, and all of it, the green room, the rehearsal space, the dressing rooms, the bathrooms, everything was completely redone and it’s fabulous. It’s really, really nice now. Now the university uses it as a presenting organization.”

The Columbia Theatre reopened in 2002 and now presents a variety of concerts, dance, theatrical performances and more. This current 2016-2017 season celebrates the theatre’s 15th anniversary since renovation. 

Historical photo of Donna Gay

Donna Gay Anderson teases her hair for “A Doll’s House” in the historical Columbia Theatre.
Anderson was involved with the Columbia Theatre Players and recently playwrighted “High and Mighty.”
Courtesy of Larry Gray

 

Historical photo of Columbia

Historical photo ouside Columbia Theatre.
Courtesy of Larry Gray

 

Historical photo of construction on Columbia Theatre

The Columbia Theatre went through renovations twice in its history. The second effort was a complete renovation,
which involved an expansion from buying two neighboring stores.
Courtesy of Public Info

 

Dr. Larry Gray works on Columbia Theatre in historical photo

Dr. Larry Gray hangs lights for “Fiddler on the Roof” during the 1983 production.
Courtesy of Larry Gray