Columbia Theater

82 W. State Street,
Sharon, PA 16146

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Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on September 21, 2013 at 1:44 pm

The Vocal Group Hall of Fame Foundation has a web site with pages about the history of the Columbia Theatre and about the restoration work (“The Museum” link) that is still underway.

milanp
milanp on December 28, 2010 at 9:55 am

A great old theater that’s sorely missed. Unfortunately, I only had the privilege of going there once—for “Mandingo” in May 1975.

Patsy
Patsy on October 4, 2010 at 10:24 am

Didn’t realize I had posted on this link several years…what is the current status with this theatre now? Would like to see it.

Patsy
Patsy on October 4, 2010 at 10:21 am

I just learned of this theater and its restoration so don’t think it should be listed as “closed” anymore.

Roger Katz
Roger Katz on April 2, 2010 at 8:27 am

Correct address is 82 W State St.

guitar52002
guitar52002 on September 26, 2007 at 2:20 pm

hi im a freshman at penn state and im greatly intrested in this theater and i was wondering if there is any way i can get involved in bringing this theater back i was wondering if there is any way i can get involved in say either restoring the building or building something or any odd jobs i would like to voulnteer i am deeply passionate about this place and would like to see it reopen!

Sharonite
Sharonite on September 14, 2005 at 10:38 pm

Sorry about the quality of the previous post—I didn’t realize that this board didn’t have an edit option.

To add a bit more information, I believe that the Vocal Group Hall of Fame foundation is finally set up for success. Some people have complained about the shift from local induction concerts to the new focus on Wildwood and Las Vegas. While this is obviously not an ideal situation, it is a necessary and brilliant move to bring national attention to our little Valley. Plus, the money will be coming to Sharon whether it was made in Sharon or made elsewhere. The foundation tried holding local induction concerts—the 2002 and 2003 inductions were held at Cafaro (now Eastwood) Field in Niles, Ohio—but both basically flopped and left the foundation saddled with debt. Was it the foundation’s fault? No. Nor was it the community’s—this area is simply too small to support such an event without massive, nationwide promotion and support. I think it is important to note that the recordings of the concerts offered on the foundation’s website (www.vghf.com) have sold well. But I digress. Bottom line: the out-of-town concerts will drum up much-needed attention and concert attendance, so that when events do return to the Sharon area (and I’m sure they will), they won’t be ignored.

The Columbia was not a victim of fire. Rather, it was a victim of the tough economic times that followed. Had the fire occured a decade earlier or later, it never would have sat idle as it has. But we can’t rewrite the past—all we can do is take what we have and look toward the future. So far, I believe the VGHF has done just that. A glance at their foundation plan in the “About Us” section of their website offers glimpses into their ongoing work at the Columbia, including plasterwork, floor, and office restoration. And of course, the positive throwbacks to the Columbia Theatre for the Arts Organization period—the eye-catching front facade, the beautiful park that occupies the former Morgan site, and the comprehensive restoration plan—remain. I remain cautiously optimistic about the future of the theater, and when the public starts to see good things happening, they are sure to respond positively as well. Eventually, I see the foundation constructing a new entrance hall on the park site, a move that will finally create a beautiful and versatile performing arts facility that could become the next Powers Auditorium (which, I might add, was just two days away from the wrecking ball when the family for which it is now named put up enough money to save it).

Sharonite
Sharonite on September 14, 2005 at 10:02 pm

It’s now September of 2005 and some important developments have taken place over the summer. First, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame staged its first successful induction concert series at the Wildwood Convention Center, Wildwood, NJ. The response was positive enough that the foundation met expenses for the first time and is already well into planning next year’s inductions for Las Vegas, where they are predicted to sell out.

Second, the foundation completed its move out of Winner’s building and has resolved its legal battles with him. This freed up the foundation enough that it was able to purchase the three-story Phoenix restaurant building at the corner of State and Water streets. The upper floors of the building will serve as the museum, while the first floor will house a bar and grill. This means that, also for the first time, the museum will have year-round cash flow—presumably much more than the donation box at their former museum ever could provide.

Finally, the Hall of Fame was able to secure a $50,000 state grant that will go toward purchasing new doors and windows for the theater. Naturally, this is only a fraction of the millions that it will take for a full restoration, but it is an important first step in that it shows that the state is behind the project. As the foundation finds itself on firmer and firmer financial ground, the state will probably be more willing to contribute grants because they will be further assured that the project will come to fruition.

Expect good things from the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. Based on the recent turnaround in their coffers, their complete separation from big JW (who I don’t mean to bash—he’s done some great things for this town—but his heart was simply not in the right place in this instance), and the recent support from the state, I foresee the Columbia to be well on its way toward rebirth in the next couple of years.

—James Vasconi, Sharon, PA, local researcher and newshound

zavinski
zavinski on May 2, 2005 at 10:41 pm

Building is closed, sealed from major elements in general after restoration group Columbia Theatre Inc. replaced leaky roofs and stabilized it over 15 or so years before its effort fell apart in as far as the group was concerned in with focusing on a physical theatre. [Further bitter remarks withheld.]

it’s spring: probably 2 feet of water in basement right now as it’s below Shenango River grade and sump pumps haven’t been operational for several years. This will renew the humidity/moisture/mildew issues that had been resolved a decade ago. Also, temporary forced-air gas heater units haven’t been operated to keep it above freezing for at least 2-3 yrs, threatening plaster restoration that had taken place.

That plaster work finished the hard part of restoration for about the first 20 feet downward from the roof, including the dome. (Water damage from a bad roof required dropping the entire plaster ceiling, but we had the sense to keep the framework and document what was dropped.)

Under the direction of architect/then-board member Doug Abbatiello, a professional/volunteer effort in the mid-90s involved making rubber molds from existing plaster (doug did this after learning technique from pros), casting hundreds of new pieces, and installing them along with a professional contractor who installed new lathe and ceiling/dome plaster. Ceiling is unpainted/unfinshed.

The contractor, Chuck Weiss from Middlefield, Ohio, went on to cast several large replacement pieces (mostly arches for the side walls) before the money ran out and the board drifted away from restoration and into programming only (a mission it has since failed to fulfill).

Auditorium currently is scaffolded wall to wall to above the balcony level, where a plywood ballroom-like floor gives puts the dome/ceiling an arm’s length above you.

Any further work just to enable it to meet code and reopen in any form needs all the biggees: HVAC, electrical and plumbing, not to mention the stage floor and seat refurb (seats are stacked on stage and throughout building).

Current owner, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame and Museum, has ambitions as high as its funds are low. In fact, the VGHF had a dispute last fall with its co-founder/funding source/landlord and ended up closing its museum down the street and moving much of its material from a former furniture store to storage in the theatre.

Local Penn State branch campus, interestingly, is right across the river and is about to spend megabux to rehab a 1920s ex-jr.-high-school, plywood-seated auditorium into something other than a 1920s, ex-JHS, plywood-seated auditorium. Ideal resolution for all would be for PSU to apply funding to Columbia instead and create some kind of partnership renovation that would share the auditorium among campus, Vocal Hall and community needs.

Patsy
Patsy on May 2, 2005 at 8:03 pm

John: I see on your profile page that you are in Hermitage PA which is near Sharon PA. What is the current status with the Columbia Theatre?

zavinski
zavinski on February 15, 2005 at 3:28 pm

fyi, the merlink.org pages date back about 5 yrs or so to when the nonprofit Columbia Theatre Inc. owned the building and was working toward restoring it. There may be a few minor factual errors in there, but, yes, that’s the joint, and there are some pix there (which i have copies of and can post here when pix are accepted again).

Since CTI is now out of the theater-restoration business, the merlink.org pages are legacy pages lingering somewhat orphaned in cyberspace. I doubt the current board — barely active — even realizes the pages are there.

fixing a typo in my original post, Columbia Amusement owned theatres including Salamanca, NY.

teecee
teecee on February 15, 2005 at 3:21 pm

Some additional historical information and photos here:
http://www.merlink.org/organize/columbia/past.htm

zavinski
zavinski on December 5, 2004 at 7:00 pm

Let me correct some mis-info and add detail

STATUS: Closed
SCREENS: Single
STYLE: Classic picture palace/vaudeville house
FUNCTION: Potentially a community entertainment center and/or museum
SEATS: Originally 1,732, later reduced to 1,684. Proposed renovation would reduce to 1,400 to 1,500
CHAIN: Originally Columbia Amusement Co.
ARCHITECT: Arland W. Johnson of NYC

— Opened Nov. 29, 1922, by Columbia Amusement Co., which had theaters elsewhere including Warren, Pa., and Erie, Pa., and Salaman. Built at cost of $350,000.

— Jan. 29,1981 — While operating as a single-screen movie house, fire starts in adjacent Morgan Grand building (a former 1890s opera house itself). MG building — containing CT entrance hallway — is destroyed. Firewall between buildings limits CT damage to minor smoke and water. (CT technically is a 3-sided structure build onto back of Morgan Grand)
Building is closed, but decay starts, caused mostly by previously overdue maintenance (i.e. leaking roof, constant need for sump pumps to keep Shenango River groundwater out of basement)

— Concept of a save-the -Columbia effort dates back to 1978, took on a little steam in 1980 and intensified after the fire.

— Group incorporates as Columbia Theatre Inc. in 1982, eventually getting 501©(3) nonprofit status. Briefly leases building from Pittsburgh-based CKM Corp of America (Cinemette) to clean and start renovation. CKM removes most items of value shortly before letting building go up for tax sale, including crystal chandelier, carted off wrapped in the bottom 6 feet of the plush proscenium curtain. (which later was returned and is in pieces in the building)

— On Nov. 29, 1984 (62nd anniversary of opening), Sharon native Tony Butala, founding member and now owner of The Lettermen vocal group, buys building at tax sale for $10,500. (He and the Lettermen later made substantial contributions through benefit concerts and events.)

— Late ‘80s, early '90s — Group tries to get uninterested community to understand potential of a community entertainment center. Devises architectural plans, raises money, begins renovation. Demise of local steel-related heavy industry and high unemployment complicates effort.

Accomplishments include countless volunteer hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars invested for roof replacement and other projects to halt weather-related decay and stabilize building.

Joint volunteer/professional artisan effort made molds and cast hundreds of ornamental-plaster castings and moldings for use throughout the auditorium. Entire auditorium was (and still is) scaffolding and topped with a plywood, dance-floor-like platform at ceiling level, where the entire dome and ceiling was removed then restored with ornamental castings.

— Obstacles to reopening the building still include need to replace stage as well as all HVAC, electrical, plumbing and comfort/aesthetics (seat rehab, curtains, office)

— Mid-90s the group grew to the point that a fulltime exec. dir was hired to run efforts in a way that volunteers couldn’t. Group then turned to producing programming and sponsoring programming (mostly children’s, with some touring shows leading to major losses.) Use of other, inadequate venues further emphasized the need for a restored theater.

— Late 90s, board studied renovation issue to death rather then finally start a capital campaign. As new board members joined, the focus became stronger on programming than the building, leading to factions and friction. Finally, the board voted to dump the building and morph into a performance-sponsoring arts group (an inactive limbo it remains in today)

— Summer of 2002 — The eventual buyer became the sharon-based Vocal Group Hall of Fame — co-founded a few years earlier by Tony Butala and local businessman Jim Winner. (By 2002 Mr. Winner had severed ties with the VGHF other than being its landlord in a former furniture store downtown. He never had any direct connection with the theatre). Ironically, Tony Butala was a party of the building’s purchase a second time and for the same price, $10,500.

— Thanksgiving week 2004 — a long-standing dispute between the cash-starved VGHF and Mr. Winner led to the hall of fame abruptly loading its exhibits and collection into U-Hall trucks and moving them into storage 2 blocks down the street in the unheated CT auditorium, which is 82 W. State Street at Porter Way.

— VGHF has indicated it may reopen in the theatre, but it would take somewhere near $1 million just to get building plant up to code for any type of public occupancy whatsoever. And with the entrance hall building site now a park after the fire nearly 24 yrs ago, the theatre consists only of the auditorium, shallow, open lobby behind it and dressing rooms/stagehouse (both of the latter requiring gutting before use)

Prospects for eventual renovation iffy at best, because the community has never gotten behind it (nor the Vocal Hall). More details and a nifty 360 panoramic image at

<http://www.vghf.com/columbia_theatre.htm>

Ironically, earlier in November 2004 during the same week, two other nearby Mercer County, Pa., theaters were demolished: The terribly decayed and unsavable 1946 Jordan Theatre in Greenville and the ‘60s-vintage, twinned Basil Theater in Hermitage, which had been closed about a decade.

— John Zavinski, Hermitage, Pa., (former 23-year member of Columbia Theatre restoration effort)