Today, visitors gasp when they enter the renovated Columbia Theatre for the Performing Arts in downtown Hammond.
The vintage theater, once regarded as the “jewel in the crown” of Hammond’s downtown, was rescued from decades of neglect and restored to its former grandeur and elegance by the efforts of Southeastern, the City of Hammond and the Hammond Downtown Development District. It reopened its doors in January 2002.
Surely, gasps were also the reaction of Columbia patrons when the Louisiana Amusement Company, Inc., of Baton Rouge unveiled the Columbia Theatre on September 1, 1928. Located on the corner of East Thomas and South Cherry Streets, the imposing edifice and its brick façade embellished with fanciful stone carvings, was touted as “the most elaborate movie palace between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.” For years, Hammond hailed the building as the city’s tallest structure.
The grand building originally contained 1,200 seats, a $12,000 Robert Morton Wonder Organ and an “Arctic-Air Refrigerated Cooling System.” Its stage could accommodate road shows, vaudeville acts, and motion pictures. Elaborate carpeting, draperies, and uniformed ushers added to the elegance. Press accounts referred to the new facility as a “Palace of Entertainment -- a Metropolitan Play House in the Most Prosperous Little City in the South.”
The Columbia’s 1928 debut was a major Hammond event. The opening attraction was a new silent film, The Cardboard Lover, starring silent era sweetheart Marion Davies. Tenor Ted Norman performed and patrons enjoyed the first notes of the pipe organ. Following the performance, East Thomas Street was closed and the crowd spilled out of the new theater for a celebratory street dance.
“The owners of the Columbia also owned a Columbia Theatre in Baton Rouge that later became the Paramount,” said retired Southeastern history professor C. Howard Nichols, who has extensively researched and written about Hammond history. “Just before the Hammond theater opened, the owners introduced talking pictures in Baton Rouge and by mid-spring, 1929 the talkies came to Hammond.”
Thirteen months after the Columbia opened, the stock market crashed on Wall Street heralding the onset of the great Depression. As hard times hit Hammond in the early 1930s, the Columbia struggled along with its patrons, offering to accept IOUs as admission.
On Sunday, December 7, 1941, the Columbia’s movie suddenly flickered to a halt. The theater’s manager gravely stepped forward to announce the shocking news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and bid everyone to go home. For the next five years, the Columbia’s big screen brought the war’s action to Hammond through the newsreels that accompanied each movie feature. When a 2,000-pound bomb was displayed outside the Columbia to publicize war bond sales, townspeople flocked to have their picture taken with the huge armament.
After the war, college students and townsfolk alike enjoyed film fare at the Columbia, but, with the advent of television, attendance at the movies declined in Hammond and elsewhere. The Columbia, like many theaters across the country, fell victim to a downtown business decline spawned by consumers’ new-found love affair with television, and by the growth and popularity of shopping malls and multi-screen cinemas. In 1972, the Columbia closed its doors.
Five years later Hammond banker Wiley Sharp decided to renovate the Columbia, refurbishing it to once again offer films and to provide a home for the Columbia Theatre Players, a local community theater group. The Columbia’s new lease on life faded in the early 1980s and the property changed hands several times in search of a new use for the huge structure.
Time and neglect plagued the Columbia. First Guaranty Bank of Hammond took possession of the theater and eagerly wished to dispose of the property, but nevertheless resisted a standing offer of $40,000 to demolish and salvage its bricks.
Marguerite Walter, director of Hammond’s Downtown Development District, and Harriet Vogt, director of Fanfare, joined forces to save the Columbia. Walter envisioned the economic impact that the Columbia could generate for Hammond’s blossoming downtown. In her zeal to transform the theater from sad eyesore to shining showpiece, she found the ideal ally in Vogt, a passionate advocate of the arts. “The timing was fortuitous,” Vogt recalled, “because I was feeling the need for a larger performing space for some of our Fanfare presentations.”
With Southeastern’s permission, Fanfare joined the League of Historic American Theaters in 1992 and took advantage of the League’s offer of a free architectural consultation. After a two-day site survey, the consultant, Killis Almond, of San Antonio, Texas, recommended that the Columbia be preserved. And, eyeing the termite-infested roof, he added, “Now!”
Foreseeing the theater as a non-profit entity managed by a foundation with a board of directors, “Marguerite and I set to work to try to find a way to finance the project,” Vogt said. Walter and Vogt worked with local attorney Rodney Cashe to register the Columbia as a non-profit 501(c)(3). They pursued various grant opportunities and sought funding from U.S. Rep. Robert Livingston and state Sen. John Hainkel. Walter wrote several successful requests for state capital outlay funding, the first which was to fund the crucial roof repair. The City of Hammond leased the building and provided insurance coverage.
In 1994, First Guaranty Bank donated the structure to the Downtown Development District. Holly and Smith Architects of Hammond were enlisted to prepare a restoration study and design renovation plans. Hainkel proposed that ownership and operation of the theater be transferred to Southeastern upon completion of the restoration. Sally Clausen, then president of Southeastern, “took a risk to go for it. It was a leap of faith and took a lot of vision,” said John Miller, then Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
Working together, the DDD, the City of Hammond and Southeastern secured $4.9 million in state capital outlay and federal grant funds to restore the Columbia and purchase two adjacent buildings to house dressing rooms, rehearsal and conference space and offices.
In January 2002 a resurgent Columbia Theatre once again opened its doors to the region. Shining brighter than ever, the Columbia’s past transports audiences into a future that the historic building has long deserved.