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Columbia restoration is 'achievable'

BY GENEVIEVE POSTLETHWAIT gpostlethwait@paducahsun.com

T

hanks to generous gifts from the Kentucky Colonels organization, the Carson Myre-Foundation and a $50,000 Kentucky Brownfields grant, the past year brought Paducah's historic Columbia Theatre one crucial step closer to its former glory.

The Colonels and Carson Myre gifts funded the restoration of the Columbia's Lady Liberty fire curtain, which had to be completed before the Kentucky Brownfields grant could be used for the environmental cleanup of asbestos and lead inside the theater.

About this time last year, three restoration artists toiled away in late summer's heat to once again make the Columbia's beautiful centerpiece whole.

The curtain was their focus, painted with a scene of the Statue of Liberty rising from the New York Harbor. It once protected audiences from the threat of backstage fires. Even once the threat of fire was gone as the safety of lighting and electronics improved, Lady Liberty remained.

By the time members of current-day Paducahans found her, however, she was covered in decades of dirt, dust and grime, nearly unrecognizable, tattered and torn.

Made from woven asbestos fabric, she was also dangerous. Before any more progress could be made in the cleanup of the long-shuttered Columbia, the curtain had to be restored and secured.

"Once we've done this and it's safe again, it will also give a focal point for people to come in and see that there's progress being made, which is important," said Geoffrey Steward last September. Steward is CEO of International Fine Art Conservation Studios (IFACS), the Atlanta-based firm hired for the curtain's restoration.

"At the moment it is what it is. It's a derelict space. But hopefully the work we're doing will help people see its potential."

Geoffrey and the IFACS restoration artists -- Mary Aldrich, Tom Jordan and son Greg Steward -- have restored many historic churches, homes and landmarks, as well as their fair share of theaters, including the Virginia Theater of Roger Ebert fame.

But for all they've taken on in their decade-plus of work, the Columbia is something special.

"There aren't many theaters like this left in the country, and I think it's just very wild," Geoffrey said. "It's sort of Rococo-plus, post-war Hollywood. It's extreme, it's extravagant, it's way over the top. But it's fabulous, really. I'm using that word in the strict sense of it, it's fabulous. I certainly haven't seen one like this before, and I've been in many, many theaters. You've got to save it."

Photographs and videos don't quite do the Columbia justice, they all agreed. If you stand between the front row and the stage, the view looking up at the over-sized, gold- and silver-leafed plasterwork reaching heights of nearly 70 feet is breathtaking.

"It's sort of like somebody took the decorative elements from a much bigger theater and put them in here," Greg Steward said. "It's so strange and interesting."

Though the dream is to restore the Columbia to its former "wild" glory, it's striking in its current state. The main theater is still marked with torn curtains, peeling paint and glittering bits of stained glass fallen from the ceiling into the aisles. But one patch of wall offers a glimpse into what was and could be again.

The IFACS team analyzed paint samples from the walls under high magnification to discover the evolutions of color the theater's seen since opening April 18, 1927. They created a mock-up of their findings, a patch of the bronze and gold scheme created in the 1950s post-war remodel, and a patch of the darker, flatter mauve and gold of the 1920s vaudeville era.

The team also uncovered the original stained glass ceiling in the main theater that was painted over sometime in the '70s.

The day after the Columbia opened, a writer for the Paducah Evening Sun described it as "a good half acre of stained glass ... that seems to be red and then green and then purple and yellow before you can decide which," shimmering in the light from the then-state-of-the-art dimmer system that made the theater glow. Much of the glass seems intact, they said, and what's been lost can be replaced.

Following IFACS' recommendation, the Paducah Art House Alliance will move forward with the 1950s scheme, simply because it's the most complete. Returning to the 1920s scheme would have required taking away some of the plasterwork from the '50s and recreating the original. The 1950s scheme just makes more sense, Geoffrey said, and will restore the Columbia to the glory most remember -- a beautiful, golden theater fit for film and stage performances that would have been spectacular for a city many times the size of Paducah.

"This is coming up on being 100 years old, so let's give it another lease of life and keep it going for another 100 years," Geoffrey said.

"The project is achievable. There's nothing really that can't be done here. It just takes some time and some effort and unfortunately a lot of money. But it's worth saving. With a town like this, that still retains much of its originality, its character, the more of these sorts of places you can keep, the more you can keep that original community spirit."

All told, restoring the Columbia is expected to cost roughly $6 million, but it's worth it, and Paducah's worth it, said Darlene Mazzone, co-chairwoman of the Columbia Theatre Resoration project.

After the Lady Liberty curtain rose for the first time in 1927 to cue a prelude performance by "Miss Columbia," City National Bank President James Utterback gave a rousing dedicatory address.

He urged the 2,000 people in the Columbia's first audience to appreciate and support the theater, because "It took courage and vision of a rare quality," the Paducah News Democrat reported.

"Leo Keiler had to have in his heart a keen affection for Paducah and its people to build so magnificent a structure to minister to their pleasure. He did not have to build a theater so richly embellished as this one, so convenient in every way, equipped with so many modern and costly appliances of entertainment. ... But he loved this home city of his enough to build a theater in which every citizen could feel a just pride."

Updates on the Columbia project are available at www.savethecolumbia.org. For more information, including how you can help the Columbia return to its former glory, contact Mazzone at darlene@paducahlife.com.

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