When I visited the Columbus Theater, I did so in a rush 30 minutes before a scheduled lunch date. And what a mistake that was! Now, having researched the building, I’m becoming aware of all that I didn’t see and questions that I didn’t ask. For instance, I neglected to notice the original Wurlitzer organ, and it never occurred to me to visit the projector room or green room. And what’s it like behind stage? Had I known to, I would have asked all about longtime owner Jon Berberian’s early career as an opera singer. Was he a tenor? A baritone? Would he let me record him singing? Probably not, but who knows!
Jon gave up his career in singing to manage the Columbus Theater when his father, the late Misak Berberian, fell in love and purchased the building in 1962. Jon took a break from unclogging toilets and searching for some missing speakers to show me the theater, which I photographed without a tripod and a nearly full memory card (mistake number 2!). Nevertheless, it was a treat to see what I did see of the theater and to talk, if only briefly, to Jon.
Columbus Theater was designed by architect Oreste DiSaia and first opened its doors as a vaudeville and silent film theater in 1926. Bedecked with classical motifs and moldings, its interior features hand-painted portraits of 36 composers, with an intricate mural gracing the domed ceiling. In short, it’s a gem. But like most historic theaters it fell on hard times. Facing difficult competition from giant multiplex movie theaters, eventually the Columbus Theater had to show adult films to help pay the rent. In August of 2009 it was forced to close by city inspectors due to a number of outstanding code violations including everything from the fire and sprinkler system to the width of steps and type of paint used. The building was listed on PPS’s Most Endangered Properties list in 2011.
Soon thereafter, $400,000 was invested in the building, and Jon entered into a partnership with musician Jeff Prystowsky and his band who (with some other friends) agreed to program concerts in the space and pay Jon rent. It worked! The Columbus Theater is once again the hot place in town booking everyone from Bonnie Prince Billy to Iron and Wine. Who would I pay the big bucks to go see perform though? Definitely, Jon Berberian. That would be something special.
FUN FACT: Columbus Theater was named for its 1492 total seats (between the orchestra and mezzanine levels).
RUMOR: Someone told me that the paintings on the ceiling of the Columbus Theater were painted by the same artist who painted the dome of the capital. Anyone know if this is true?
SHARE: I want to hear from YOU! What do you know about the Columbus Theater? Comment below, or share your thoughts and memories with us on twitter @pvdpreservation #mep20.
5/9/2015 UPDATE — Jon Responded! Here’s what he had to say:
To answer your question, George DeFelice was the artist who painted the murals and dome. As a young man from Florence, Italy, he painted the murals and dome in our R.I. Capitol Building. He was a great uncle to two of our good friends we had lunch with last week!
Also, I am a tenor, I sang several leading tenor roles in Attleboro, MA and the Columbus Theatre from 1972 thru 1979 with the Chaminade Opera Group. I also sang at Brown University and was tenor soloist with several churches. My wife, a soprano (who sang as soloist with the RI Philharmonic Orchestra and also taught singing for twenty years at Providence College) and I met doing summer stock and then sang with the New York City Opera Co. We’ll be going to New York this month for a reunion!