The Other Columbus: Ohio Theatre is world-class even with the lights out
Even the simple act of cleaning feels grand within the walls of this theater
Places like the Ohio Theatre were built with an audacity that you don’t see in many buildings these days. Every nook of it is designed to inspire awe in the way cathedrals are, its walls and ornate ceiling looming over visitors made even smaller crammed into its tiny seats. Everything is bathed in deep scarlet and gold hues, and the entire space is designed to make anything that happens in it seem worthy of reverence.
As it turns out, this is as true for the theater’s upkeep as it is for anything happening on the stage.
Several years back, I performed poetry alongside the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. The second most prestigious thing about that story is that it took place in the nearly century-old Ohio Theatre, and the most impressive part of the theater is the chandelier. The heart of the Ohio Theatre hangs from its ceiling, several stories above even the mezzanine. If you ever wondered how they change its light bulbs, it’s way more exciting than house cleaning has any right to be.
Earlier this week, I was able to observe as a crew lowered the chandelier for a cleaning, which hasn’t happened since 2018. The “how” hasn’t changed in almost 100 years: A crew of people turns an enormous winch hidden somewhere in the ceiling by hand, lowering the glass and steel chandelier slowly, like an invisible pantheon deigning to finally answer prayers. However deliberately you think a 20-foot-plus chandelier needs to be lowered, I promise you it is even slower. The last time they did this it got stuck and they had to start the whole process over again. It takes about 30 minutes to bring it down to the level of mortals. When it comes to rest hovering just above the first few rows of seats in the mezzanine, it looms over you, a room-sized sculpture swelling with steel coils, gilded leaves and strings of crystal.
And golden horses. Did you know the chandelier has a stampede of stallions, each horse adorning a cluster of candelabras? The story goes that architect Thomas W. Lamb kept returning to the design of the chandelier, thinking it needed more pop. After numerous additions, an exasperated designer on the project said something in the vein of, “You’ve already put everything on it. The only thing it hasn’t got is flying horses!” At which point Lamb had horses added to the chandelier.
As interesting a story as that is, it pales next to another, which also happens to be about theater lighting: a ring of 15, very modern recessed can lights surrounding the chandelier. In the late 1980s, a determination was made that the theater needed more light. The main issue was that the lighting had to line up with the existing ceiling designs, and it was impossible to determine where to situate the lights from above. So the theater called in a marksman to lay on his back and shoot 15 holes in the ceiling to mark where each new light needed to go. And because the plaster was so thick, he had to shoot each hole twice.
I don’t care what criticism you may have about life in Columbus; that’s a world-class story.
Something a lot of people in the city don't know is that the Ohio Theatre had to be saved. After closing its doors in 1969, it was slated for demolition. Only through a concerted campaign by concerned community members was it spared the wrecking ball. It’s why the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA) was created. It was the prototype for the #SaveTheCrew campaign that erected a new soccer stadium when it appeared Columbus would lose its soccer team a few years back.
When Columbus wants to save a thing, it can.
It is easy to look at the Ohio Theatre now and think that it will always be here, and that it was always the institution that we know. But even something as grand and awe-inspiring as the Ohio Theatre needed to be saved once. Every brick in this city has a story, but Columbus is not good at keeping stories. We tear things down all the time to make way for the new, and worry about the potential loss of culture and history later. Columbus doesn’t have many places like that anymore. There is much to be said for being able to sit in a place that has seen it all, an institution that can still show you the power of your cultural story.
And if you ever get the chance to watch the chandelier get cleaned, that’s something for which it’s worth changing the guidebooks.