Once the center of a thriving jazz scene, the renovated Lincoln Theatre is set to breathe new life into the Near East Side.
In its heyday, to get into the Lincoln Theatre underage and without money, you could try the side entrance. Pretty as it was, there'd be no luck under the sparkling Long Street marquee. Instead, you'd bang on the side door. Wait for the guard to burst out in a huff. Stand aside, tiptoe past and run like heck.
By age 13, Gene Walker and his neighborhood friends knew the trick to hear the jazz and R&B greats who came to town and played long into the night. The best names in the business would stop en route from Harlem to St. Louis or Philly to Chicago, sometimes with entire revues featuring music and dance and slapstick numbers.
Sometime in the early 1950s, a man named Jackie Brenston toured on the strength of a new hit single. He was known to have the shiniest secondhand saxophone in Coahoma County and took the stage under the Lincoln's bright lights with a giant brass baritone engraved with his initials.
The crowd went wild for "Rocket 88," the song that launched rock 'n' roll. Walker looked only at those golden initials, right there on the bell, gleaming and perfect amid the towering columns and arched proscenium.
"I said to myself, 'I have never seen anything as beautiful as that,' " Walker recalled last month, reflecting on his five-decade music career that included work with the likes of Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke.
"A few weeks later, they brought in a show with Jimmy Forrest, who had left the Duke Ellington band. I found out then what could be played on the horn."
Other local legends grew up on the Near East Side - and were born at the Lincoln.
From its opening as the Ogden Theatre and Ballroom in 1928, that's where hip black musicians played in Columbus and where young black musicians went to see them: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis and James Brown, among countless others.
Over the years, the Lincoln inspired, and later hosted, a number of Columbus legends including Nancy Wilson, Hank Marr and Rusty Bryant.
"In this neighborhood, I don't see how you could miss being a musician," Walker said with a laugh. "There was so much music around you."
Until the early 1960s, it was the heart of the city's black cultural scene, a hub of art, music and commerce along Long Street and Mt. Vernon Avenue. The Lincoln was a theater only on paper. In reality, it broadcast the power of art to build community in a way little else can.
This weekend, nearly three decades after the music stopped billowing from its wooden doors, the renovated Lincoln will open, ready to revive a district in need of a hero.
Million Dollar Mile
Residents of the King-Lincoln District weren't rich, not by a long shot. But the saying went that the neighborhood was so busy in its prime, a dollar would start at one end of the neighborhood and change hands a million times before it reached the other - a Million Dollar Mile.
Bills passed barber stools and grocery aisles, hotels, delis and theaters. A few bucks might start on a soda counter during breakfast and settle down on a bar top before last call.
The luckiest cash circled round and round inside the small, bustling district - Atcheson and Broad streets to the north and south, Jefferson Avenue to the west and North 21st Street to the east.
The neighborhood developed because it had to, as residents kept from the city's Downtown core during the height of segregation thrived under shared experience.
"The Near East was almost self-sustained," said John Williams, who grew up in the neighborhood and saw his sister perform with a local theater troupe on stage at the Lincoln. "We had everything we needed there. There was very little reason we had to go Downtown."
Jazz cats played the Lincoln, the Copa Club on Mt. Vernon and the 502 Club on St. Clair. Residents caught movies at the Cameo, the Empress and the Pythian. Visitors stayed at hotels like the Macon and Sinclair, where you might see Duke or Basie emerge from a car.
"It was the cradle of black culture," said Angela Pace, community affairs director for WBNS-10TV, who as a young girl attended movies at the Lincoln. "You name it, it was happening there. It was almost a city within a city."
Like most businesses around it, the theater was owned and operated by blacks, a building dedicated in 1928 by a black fraternal organization known as the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. It stood as its centerpiece during an epic era and fared how the neighborhood fared.
When the state constructed I-71 and I-70, two interstates through the heart of a major city, neighborhoods on the south, east and west sides were severed from the Downtown core. Both the Lincoln and its neighborhood became casualties of larger purpose.
"It just tore up the east end," Williams lamented. "That basically was it. It cut off everything, and it just moved people out."
Suburban sprawl, white flight and blight did the rest, and nearly two-thirds of King-Lincoln residents fled the district during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1940, 68,000 people lived around the district, according to a City of Columbus report; in 2003, only 15,000 were counted.
By 1970, the Lincoln Theatre had ceased all arts programming. It would sit dormant for nearly three decades, its music silent and its movie projectors cold.
Civic groups would occasionally announce plans to renovate the building but soon run out of money. The building was slated for demolition in 1991, saved by minor upgrades and added to the National Register of Historic Places a year later.
It wasn't until 2000, during a speech by Mayor Michael Coleman, that a coherent vision for revamping the King-Lincoln District emerged.
In the years that followed, the city bought the theater, pledged $4 million for its renovation and tapped the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts to spearhead management. The State of Ohio, Franklin County and private donors chipped in to move things forward, and renovation of the Lincoln really gained traction in 2008.
Still a barometer of the neighborhood's health, new life for the theater has already inspired development in the King Lincoln Arts & Entertainment District, which became a focus of the city several years ago. The neighborhood and its historic theater remain inseparable.
Nearby, the new Gateway Building is home to government offices, a dry cleaner and the Zanzibar coffee shop - the type of mixed-use development a thriving neighborhood needs. A new rehab directly west of the Lincoln has several tenants, and two major housing projects are pending within blocks.
As it always is with redeveloping neighborhoods, progress is slow but steady.
"To go over there and see remnants of what was there, and to see what could be again, holds a special place in my heart," Pace said. "I want my Long Street back. I want my King-Lincoln District back."
Carrying the dream
Two weeks before the first public viewing, the Lincoln was still taking shape. Wires drooped from empty sockets, and a layer of dust covered the maroon wood of the stage planks. Still, the energy was tangible, and those milling around inside spoke with the giddy but guarded tone of people afraid to jinx a miracle.
Even outside the context of revitalization, the theater is impressive, a much-needed venue for a city eager to brand itself as an arts incubator. It seats 566, filling a void between smaller rooms like the Riffe Center's studio theaters and larger Downtown venues like the Palace.
It's cozy and welcoming, with complete restoration of the Egyptian Revival decor inspired by the 1922 discovery of King Tut's tomb. Frontalist paintings adorn columns, and checkered ceiling tiles bear an African motif. The thick velvet curtain is deep red and majestic.
To meet the needs of modern times, a balcony was added, and the stage and orchestra pit were enlarged. Fiber-optic wiring runs throughout the space, allowing full multimedia capability for the 10 arts groups in residence. The Jazz Arts Group's Jazz Academy on the third floor even includes recording labs.
Renovations, which eventually cost $13.5 million, are a blend of new and old - one way CAPA hopes to honor the past and plan for a creative, explosive future. Those who came years ago will remember. A new generation will stand in wonder.
Like the nearby King Arts Complex, the refurbished theater represents the transformative power of art, which the neighborhood witnessed before and needs again.
Starting at Monday's open house, the stage will be set for new generations to create their own legacy - the memorable shows today's young artists remember seeing under the big, bright lights on Long Street.
"For this facility to still be standing speaks a lot about the original builders who built it and had their dream," said Carolyn Williams Francis, John Williams' daughter and the designer behind the interior restoration. "We just carried that dream all the way on."
Maurice Hines, the Lincoln's director-in-residence, has danced on stages across the world. This one, he said, is unique in the shared vision behind it.
"It was all for the common good - to give the young people something they could be proud of," Hines said. "I tell this to everyone: Stand on the stage. When you stand on the stage, you really get a feel of what the theater is. You feel something."