Columbia Theatre

583 Peachtree Street,
Atlanta, GA 30309

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StanMalone
StanMalone on December 30, 2021 at 7:07 pm

Thank you Michael for another one of your exercises in movie history. Not only is Fiddler a favorite of mine, but it represents the opening chapter in the history of my theater employment that lasted from its beginning here until the advent of digital projection, 41 years later.

Fiddler on the Roof was a big booking in the history of this theater as well, the beginning of the end really. When Martin purchased the old Tower Theater, gutted and converted it into the Martin Cinerama, this place was at once the most luxurious as well as the most technically advanced theater in town. It showed three strip Cinerama such as How The West Was Won, single strip Cinerama like It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World, big roadshow musicals like Sound of Music and a better presentation or movie going experience was not to be found in the city. When Martin decided to exit the big city roadshow business in 1968, it sold off its four big Cinerama locations, this one going to Walter Reade.

Reade continued the high profile booking pattern with the likes of Where Eagles Dare and Goodbye Mr. Chips, but the times when suburban audiences were driving downtown at night to see a movie, especially such bland fare as this, were beginning to wane as most of the first run hits were now playing at newer theaters in the suburbs. The only really successful movie to play here during the Reade years was Carnal Knowledge. Then, for Christmas of 1971 Reade secured, with a $150K advance, what seemed like a can’t miss hit, Fiddler on the Roof, which would bring back the glorious days of Mary Poppins, Sound of Music, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Camelot.

Trouble started before the movie even opened when it was decided that The Atlanta, as the theater was then known, would not get one of the limited number of 70MM prints and would have to run a 35mm mag print. The Atlanta had the finest 70MM presentation of any theater in town with its dedicated 70MM carbon arc Cinerama projectors, but a 35mm scope picture looked pretty bad on that huge, curved 95 by 34 foot Cinerama ribbon screen. As required by United Artists that beautiful screen was ripped out and replaced by one half that size, 45 by 19. The smaller picture looked brighter but the deep curve was still there and so the image from the run of the mill 35mm projectors was no sharper. (Oddly enough, at this same time the only other Cinerama house in town, Martin’s single strip Georgia Cinerama had to rip out its big ribbon screen for a smaller solid one for its upcoming musical Bedknobs and Broomsticks.)

When Fiddler opened in mid December, business was pretty good for the holidays but fell off fast. In addition to the problem with its location, the advertising was minimal at best since UA and Reade had declared the movie to be pre sold to the point that modest ads with the showtimes was all that was needed to bring in the crowds. Then problems really started to pile up. The 35mm four track print, which had to be printed on thinner stock to accommodate the magnetic striping containing the stereo sound, began coming apart even before the holidays were over. Of course UA blamed the theater’s union projectionists, but as with all roadshow engagements there were two operators on duty with a lot of double checking and care taken to make sure everything was threaded up correctly especially after the film started breaking with increasing regularity.

As I said, the 35mm projectors were nothing special, unlike the 70’s, but they had been running film, including magnetic prints for years without this problem. Of course Wil-Kin was called in to check but they found nothing that would cause this and their only suggestion was to break the film down from the 6000 foot house reels back to the 2000 foot reels in order to reduce the tension. In all probability, the problem lay with the print. It had arrived not from the film depot in cans mounted on metal shipping reels, but in cardboard boxes on plastic cores, straight from the lab. The imulsion was noticed to be tacky and the print was built up and run that very night so it is possible that it never had a chance to cure properly. Whatever the reason, it was still breaking when the run ended 22 weeks later having grossed only about $110K against its big advance. By that time so much footage had been lost that the running time was eighteen minutes shorter and one entire musical number, “Do You Love Me” had to be cut out. By this time the movie was an obvious failure here and UA would not even consider sending a replacement print.

According to Michael’s listing, Fiddler played 22 weeks here, leaving on May 18, 1972. The next booking, Concert For Bangladesh, did not start for another two weeks but Reade apparently decided that business was so bad that they would lose less money by closing up. The official reason for the shut down was repair to the HVAC system, which did need help. Some work was done but nothing that could not have been managed with the place open. I had never seen a movie theater temporarily close up and in those innocent days had hardly seen one close at all, but as it turned out, I had not seen anything yet. Business that summer was just fair with a wide range of movies that included a midnight show of War And Peace, all six hours of it. By November Reade gave up and shut the place down until their next big “can’t miss” booking, Man of La Mancha. Trouble was, La Mancha did not open until February so this huge, beautiful, showcase theater was closed over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays of 1972.

Personally, Fiddler will always be a notable film for me in that it was what was playing when I started working here. I started on February 14, 1972 which was Washington’s Birthday in those earlier times before the advent of Presidents Day. The point of mentioning that is that, being a holiday, the holiday admission rates were in force for this roadshow engagement. So, my first duty was to be polite while the customers complained to me about the premium being charged over an already overpriced hard ticket as well as the fact that the extra holiday matinee had pushed the start time of their show back 30 minutes to 8:30, thus ensuring an after midnight exit onto to the increasingly mean streets of Atlanta. In the photo section I have posted an ad for that day.

Fiddler on the Roof did not kill this theater despite efforts to write it down as a failure. As proof, in August it opened in the small move over house at the Lenox Square Theater located safely in the northern suburbs, at least in those days. It enjoyed a very successful run there lasting until Christmas. What it did do was sound the alarm that if the theater was to survive a different booking strategy was needed. This was confirmed the next year when La Mancha flopped out after only seven weeks. What was needed could be found directly across the street at the Coronet Theater. That summer (1972) they set their house record, never to be broken with a three month booking of Come Back Charleston Blue.

So, in February of 1972, I was wearing a tux and escorting what few customers were arriving for the one 8pm show to their reserved seats. In the summer of 1973 I was dressed much less formally and working the lines that stretched down Peachtree for all day sellouts of Super Fly TNT and The Chinese Connection. Reade was happy for the business but even happier to see that it had attracted the attention of the Weis Theater Company. They were a Savannah outfit that had a big presence in Atlanta and wanted to cash in on this Blaxploitation gold mine. Reade was thrilled to get the Hell out of town and since I didn’t care to work for Weis I stopped working here then as well. In all, I only worked here 16 months, but it was and remains the favorite of all of the dozens of theaters I have worked in, or even visited through all of the years.

I wish the theater could have been saved as there was certainly a market for a 1500 seat house for the many shows that played the Fox that did not need 4500 seats. However, the remodeling that Martin did stripped every bit of architectural detail and historical value out, and what little evidence of the past remained was lost during its second gutting when it was reopened as the Columbia. In the end all that was left was an aging deteriorating exterior and a hollow concrete shell on the inside. It was finally put out of its misery in 1995. I stopped by one day and watched as the wrecking ball collapsed the final walls leaving only the steel skeleton.

MSC77
MSC77 on December 26, 2021 at 11:20 am

Here’s a new 4-page 50th anniversary FIDDLER ON THE ROOF retrospective featuring a roadshow playdate chronology and historian Q&A. This venue’s run is mentioned in the piece.

Cliff Carson
Cliff Carson on July 14, 2021 at 11:24 am

The hideously cruel oh so fake Presbyterian church demolished what should have been deemed an Atlanta Landmark in order to build a parking lot so they could reap more greedy dollars from surrounding poor people. Shame on them. Shame on the city of Atlanta for allowing it to happen. The one thing the south doesn’t need is another church. They’re on every corner. Simple greed and there’s no other word for them.

pauladdis
pauladdis on May 17, 2021 at 1:29 pm

I worked here in 1982. I worked at the concession stand. I also helped the projectionist hook up the wiring for the new speakers they were putting in. I was 15 or 16 at the time. I got this position because I had also worked at the Garden Hills Cinema, which was also owned by André Pieterse. I remember that the popcorn here was some of the best I’ve ever tasted. It was magnificent theatre in the grandest tradition.

50sSNIPES
50sSNIPES on May 23, 2019 at 5:36 am

The Intermission Snipe Of The Martin Theatre From Late 1962 When It Was A Cinerama Was Found On YouTube, But The Word “Georgia” During The Snipe Was Spelled Incorrectly, Because It Mis-Replaced The “G” And “I”.

JFB
JFB on January 28, 2019 at 2:46 pm

My parents went to revival meetings at the Tower Theater. They said that it had two balconies. They said I went with them but I must have been all of 2 or 3.

I remember seeing Peter Pan here after the cinerama conversion. They had dropped the ceiling under the second balcony and curtains ove r the walls. There was also wall to wall carpet. You could not bring drinks into the auditorium because of the carpet.

In the 1970s I saw King Kong there. The wall to wall carpet was still there and very smooshy.

I saw most of the major attractions there when it was the Columbia. The wall to wall carpeting was gone. This was the last place my father saw a movie. We saw Greystoke here. My parents were surprised at how it had changed.

Ralph Daniel
Ralph Daniel on October 27, 2018 at 2:48 pm

What did the interior look like after Cinerama conversion? Looking at the Erlanger picture, imagine a dropped ceiling under the second balcony. Now cover all the walls with curtains. This drastic change sealed the building’s doom when resue attempts were made prior to demolition.

MSC77
MSC77 on May 9, 2018 at 4:03 pm

New article out on Atlanta’s large format and roadshow history. This and several other Atlanta cinemas get plenty of mentions in the piece.

rivest266
rivest266 on April 14, 2018 at 10:11 am

Reopened as Columbia on June 18th, 1982 and closed in 1987.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on April 3, 2018 at 3:35 pm

Page 35 of the December 26, 1926, issue of The Atlanta Constitution says that an Atlanta architect named Raymond C. Snow designed the Erlanger Theatre. Another of his buildings, an office block at 161 Spring Street NW, was nominated to the NRHP, and the nomination form says that very little is known about Snow, but that established his office in Atlanta in 1923 and he appears to have died before 1930.

Reports of his death may have been exaggerated, though, as I found two later apartment projects by an architect of that name: Redmont Gardens in Birmingham, Alabama, built 1938-1939, and and Gilmour Court Apartments, Richmond, Virginia, for which permits were issued in 1938. This Snow’s office was in Washington, D.C., but it could have been the same architect.

I do wonder if that splendid Baroque interior of the Erlanger seen in the Constitution photo was actually designed by Snow, though. It is so different from the restrained, Georgian exterior of the theater itself and the very similar ground floor of the office block on Spring Street, which the theater’s exterior closely resembles.

Snow’s other surviving buildings also feature rather plain exteriors. It’s possible that the promoters of the theater hired another architect or designer to do the interior, which is quite splendid. If they did, the Constitution didn’t reveal who it was. But the Erlanger’s facade is so much like the building on Spring Street that I have no doubt they, at least, were both Snow’s work.

Cinerama
Cinerama on April 3, 2018 at 12:32 pm

Someone asked why they masked the screen for The Sound of Music. Because of the contract with Cinerama Inc. plus, it was better for the theatre as they didn’t have to pay any fees to them! Also, they would of had to stretch the 2.2 image to fit the 2.76 AR screen.

ArdentGuy
ArdentGuy on January 31, 2018 at 1:41 am

The Columbia must have been heavily advertised. I remember driving long distances to see Aliens and The Untouhables on such a huge, wonderful screen.

jumboloan
jumboloan on November 3, 2017 at 3:30 pm

I saw Aliens 2 here. I got really drunk on 151 so the movie was not scary. It was the only time I saw a movie drunk because after that I wanted to enjoy movies more. This place was really classy and big. Such a loss but at the time downtown was not a place people frequented so there was not enough business to support it.

Ralph Daniel
Ralph Daniel on November 3, 2017 at 3:07 pm

FWIW: When “The Sound of Music” was shown, the screen had to be masked off to a smaller size due to Cinerama contract requirements that no movie except official Cinerama movies could be shown full-screen. I wondered why they did that at the time. TSOM was the last movie I saw with my father, as he died later that year.

Edisaurus
Edisaurus on December 19, 2016 at 8:14 am

Thanks for the correction, Stan! I had moved to Marietta a few months before seeing Song of Norway in 10th grade and clearly didn’t know my way around Atlanta yet, especially from the vantage point of a school bus. I think when I finally did go to the Columbia, I was so impressed by the big screen that I assumed it was the same theater where we’d seen Song of Norway.

There was another theater I was trying to remember. I think it might have been called The Weis and I envision it being on Peachtree Street around 10th but I’m not sure. I saw a Jimi Hendrix documentary there in ‘73 and it was terrific but I never could place where that theater was. (I still wasn’t driving and didn’t know my way around Atlanta then, either!)

RodneyK
RodneyK on May 21, 2015 at 8:13 am

Went to the Columbia Theater to see Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. They had a free sneak screening the night before the movie opened..

StanMalone
StanMalone on March 24, 2015 at 2:08 pm

Thank you for that note Michael. I am sure that 89 week run is a record for here or any other theatre in Atlanta. I do not know how long GWTW played in its initial run at the Loews Grand starting in 1939, but that is the only one that I would think even comes close.

I think that you are correct about the four consecutive years of Julie. Mary Poppins, Sound of Music, Hawaii, and Thoroughly Modern Millie ran from fall of 1964 until late fall of 1967. If Julie had repeated her Broadway role, it would have been five in a row since Camelot followed Millie here and ran until May 1968. It still could have been five if Martin had decided to book Star instead of Camelot since they opened at at the same time.

I have worked in a lot of theatres in my time, but this one is my all time favorite. I started in February 1972 wearing a tux and escorting patrons to their reserved seats for Fiddler on the Roof. I left in September 1973 after the incredible business done by Super Fly TNT and Chinese Connection led the Weis Theatre Company to buy out the lease from Walter Reade.

This was a great place for a new theatre employee to work. Four stories of backstage dressing rooms, two Cinerama projection booths, a huge basement, and an additional projection booth and entire upper balcony hidden above the false ceiling provided endless areas to explore.

Because the downtown theatre business was undergoing such changes during this time there was a wide variety of bookings. In addition to the roadshows Fiddler and Man of La Mancha, there was the 70MM reissue of This Is Cinerama (which occasioned the 35 by 95 foot Cinerama screen to be reinstalled) Junior Bonner, Concert For Bangladesh, Elvis, KC Bomber, Girls Are For Loving, Russ Meyer quadruple features, kiddie shows of The Alamo, and midnight shows of War and Peace.

There was no place like it at the time and never will be again. Now, it is just another parking lot.

Coate
Coate on March 24, 2015 at 10:12 am

It was 50 years ago today that “The Sound of Music” premiered at the Martin Cinerama. With a reserved-seat run of 89 weeks, it’s almost certainly the long-run record holder for this venue. (Anyone know of something that ran longer?)

“The Sound of Music” also was, I believe, the second of four consecutive Julie Andrews movies to play this venue between 1964-67. That period would’ve been bliss or hell depending on whether or not local moviegoers were a fan of Julie!

Also, on a related note, I would like to mention my new 50th anniversary retrospective for “The Sound of Music” can be read here. It includes a film historian Q&A and a list of the film’s roadshow engagements. I hope fans of the movie and/or theater buffs enjoy the article.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on February 18, 2015 at 4:39 pm

The J. Evan Miller collection of Cinerama Theater Plans lists the remodeling of the Tower Theatre for Martin Cinerama as a 1962 project. Plans were by the Atlanta architectural firm of Finch, Alexander, Barnes, Rothschild, & Paschal.

Cliff Carson
Cliff Carson on July 9, 2013 at 9:37 am

It’s really too bad about theaters like this in downtown Atlanta. By the mid to late 70’s the city was getting a reputation of being a dangerous place to visit and people who generally drove to see “event” films stopped going. Big films opened in wider release and in more theaters. The days of the roadshow picture were over.

galateasca
galateasca on July 8, 2013 at 4:20 pm

Is it possible that this is where my high school class came to see “Gandhi” in 1982? We went to a small alternative high school located near North Druid Hills and I am sure we came to the Columbia to see the film. I came back a few nights later with a date to see it again because the theater was so old school and extraordinary.

StanMalone
StanMalone on June 26, 2013 at 6:09 am

Edisaurus: Nice memories, especially the last two paragraphs. The theatre itself was still in pretty good shape into the 80’s, but there was also retail on the Peachtree sidewalk frontage and the old Barnett Sign Shop space in the rear facing Piedmont. Also there was a huge basement area that was impossible to secure from the outside. There were constant homeless living there who would occasionally smoke the theatre up with their camp fires to say nothing of the rat attracting garbage they would leave.

Your first paragraph is also nice and accurate as far as the movie goes, however, you have the wrong theatre. Song of Norway payed at the original Phipps Plaza Theatre in 70MM Christmas 1970. It did so poorly I do not recall it ever getting a sub run in the neighborhood theatres.

I hope you will post some more of your movie theatre experiences here. I think that all of the Cobb County theatres from that era have pages.

Edisaurus
Edisaurus on June 26, 2013 at 5:38 am

The first time I went to the Atlanta Theatre was on a high school field trip from Marietta to see the Edvard Grieg bio-musical THE SONG OF NORWAY in the early ‘70’s. I was so impressed by the giant screen and thought the movie was fantastic!!! Looking at it now on DVD, I can see that it had a pretty cheesy '70’s style to the cinematography but at the time it seemed majestic and it introduced me to the greatness of Grieg’s music and the beauty of Norway. I’ve wanted to go there ever since.

The last time I went was to The Columbia see Aliens. You could see an occasional rat running around in the aisles and that was scarier than the movie! I guess there was plenty of popcorn to keep them well-fed.

I loved this theatre and its big screen and was saddened by its demise. Wish I had seen a film there in Cinerama!