How a plan to save the Ohio Theatre sparked a sprawling Columbus arts institution

If Larry Fisher hadn’t watched TV on a particular night in the spring of 1969, the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA) may have never existed.

“I saw an announcement that there had been a committee trying to prevent the Ohio Theatre from being torn down,” recalled Fisher, who was just starting his law career at the time, “and that the committee had been unsuccessful and would be meeting at the theater the next day to formerly disband.”

Concerned about the fate of the 1928 movie house, Fisher attended the meeting and was brought up to speed on the details: A local development company had plans to replace the venue with an office tower, and a group of community members had been unsuccessful in raising enough money to intervene.

After the meeting ended, Fisher and three others — Robert Karlsberger , Jean Whallon and Scott Whitlock — stayed behind. Illuminated by the single bulb of the ghost light onstage, a bond was forged.

“We were talking about the fact that we needed to do something,” Fisher said.

A hectic period ensued as the foursome scrambled to set a plan in motion before the tag sale of the fixtures in the theater. Eventually, with the support of the community, they were able to form CAPA and secure enough charitable donations to buy the property.

“It became clearer and clearer that we had to have a specific reuse of the theater, and the reuse couldn't be just limited to having the Columbus Symphony orchestra play there,” Fisher said. “And so we were beginning to focus on the bigger picture of the Ohio Theatre, in essence, as a performing arts center.”

Fifty years later, CAPA has grown into a performing arts institution, managing seven local arts and culture organizations and presenting numerous productions, festivals and other entertainment- and education-based experiences each year. The organization has been celebrating its anniversary with a yearlong roster of events, including a free, walking tour of its historic theaters on Saturday, July 13.

Running all season long is the 50th edition of the CAPA Summer Movie Series at the Ohio Theatre for just $5 per ticket. Beloved TV and radio personality Fritz the Nite Owl will make an appearance this Friday, July 12, for a showing of “Jaws.”

“The fun tidbit is it was the big moneymaker for CAPA,” said President and CEO Chad Whittington. “That's how they kept the theater afloat for the first few years while they were figuring everything out.”

While Whittington wasn’t around for the first Summer Movie Series, he does boast approximately 20 years with CAPA, moving up from cleaning and working the security desk at the Ohio Theatre as a young student at Ohio State University.

“It was a great way to get to know, at the ground level, what the organization does and watch the people come in and see their excitement,” he said. “Especially the first time someone walks into this lobby and looks around and then walks into the auditorium and looks up at the chandelier. That's the piece of this business that I love — the impact we have on people.”

The arts scene has grown alongside CAPA, with many artists choosing to stay and create in the city.

“I think we are thriving as an arts community,” Whittington said. “I think one of the greatest compliments for us as a city is that we've grown to the point where no person can keep up with all the arts that take place. I'm not sure many people would have said that 20 years ago.”

Looking toward the future, Whittington said CAPA will continue to focus on key pillars: arts leadership, collaboration with other groups, education programs and access, and stewardship of buildings.

“We're going to continue to grow in terms of population, and so I think we'll need more physical spaces,” he said. “Not necessarily another Ohio Theatre, but smaller performing arts spaces, maybe a concert hall.”

But CAPA couldn’t create another Ohio Theatre if it tried. And the danger it once faced seems not only decades, but light years away.

“The Ohio Theatre was just beloved by the community and, to my surprise, it still is today,” Fisher said. “I thought that over some number of years people would begin to take it for granted again. I didn't think that the level of appreciation for it within the general community would stay as high as it has. I truly enjoy watching new generations of people come into the theater.”

This article has been updated with the correct the price of the CAPA Summer Movie Series tickets. Alive regrets the error.