Leaders Want Lincoln Theatre To Serve As Anchor Of Rebirth


UPDATED: Friday August 10, 2012 6:22 PM

City leaders have worked hard to bring the Lincoln Theatre back to life.

For decades, the theater, which opened on Thanksgiving Day in 1926, has served as an anchor of the near east side.

“Early on, sometime in the late 1920s, early 1930s, Sammy Davis Jr. actually preformed on the stage here as a child, 4 years old, in the Vaudeville show that he toured with his family,” said Todd Bemis of the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts.

The theater was built by the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, an African-American fraternal organization. They built the theater as a facility for their social and business needs.

The theater became the anchor of the King Lincoln Brownsville neighborhood, an area that had a different moniker more than 80 years ago.

“Long Street was called the Million Dollar Mile, because the tale went a dollar buck got passed up and down the street a million times every day, because there was so much activity and business going on,” Bemis said.

Columbus’ many theaters brought big bands to central Ohio constantly, including African American big band leaders, who ran into problems at other downtown theaters.

“Back in the day, whether they were welcome to perform in those theaters, they were not welcome to stay in the hotels and eat in the restaurants down there because of segregation was going on at the time,” Bemis said. “So, they would come out to this neighborhood.”

The area provided hotels, restaurants and grocery stores, all to a population that could not get service downtown.

“The jazz greats would come out and have some wonderful photos that show the ballroom just packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, with people seeing an after-hours show,” Bemis said. ‘So, they would play in the theaters downtown and then come out to this neighborhood and put on another show, way, maybe two ro three in the morning.” 

Construction on highways in the 1960s severed the community’s connection.

The Interstate 70/Interstate 71 split through Downtown Columbus caused damage to the neighborhood and the theater.

“At that time, it closed Long Street, the street that this theater is on. It closed Long Street completely. It wasn’t even a one-way street that we have today,” Bemis said.

The suburban sprawl also brought changes to the theater.

“Folks were moving out of the urban environment out to the suburbs, out to the new flashy malls and the suburban movie theaters,” Bemis said. “That certainly affected this neighborhood, which went from 60,000 residents down to 16,000. Unfortunately, when the folks left, there wasn’t business to support the area and the theater, and it closed in the 1960s.”

The theater sat empty for more than 25 years and fell into great disrepair.

Current Mayor Michael Coleman decided it was time to bring the theater back as a jewel of the city.

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