June 2009 Issue
The curtain rises on the newly renovated Lincoln Theatre in Columbus.
If he had been caught sneaking into the Lincoln Theatre, Columbus jazz legend Gene Walker may have never picked up a saxophone. The allure of the theater, located on Columbus’ east side, was hard to resist during the Golden Age of Jazz. Since the city was a cultural mecca, musicians traveling between New York and Chicago — and some who made their home in LA — made it a point to include the Lincoln as a tour stop. Walker made it his mission to see them.
As kids, we used to go and bang on the side door of the theater,” the 71-year-old recalls with a chuckle. “When a guard came out, we would all run in.
“Some of us he’d catch and some of us he didn’t. He never caught me.”
Luck was with Walker on that night back in 1951 when he glimpsed the gold initials carved into the glistening side of R&B singer Jackie Brenston’s baritone sax on the Lincoln stage. Walker thought the instrument was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. Soon after, he picked up his first sax and launched a career spanning more than 50 years: It’s one that’s included tours with the Beatles and soul music pioneer Sam Cooke, and time spent as a music professor at The Ohio State University.
Yet while Walker has enjoyed continuous success, the theater he credits for jump-starting his passion for music has had a tumultuous history — including nearly 40 years of abandonment and neglect. But the future looks bright: The storied landmark — added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992 — has received a $13.5 million facelift that includes a new stage, lobby and digital broadcasting capabilities.
On May 25, it reopened to the sounds of the Columbus Jazz Youth Orchestra, and boasts a summer concert schedule that includes performances by resident dance company Leap of Faith (June 12 and 13) and doo-wop group The Miracles (July 4).
Soon, visitors to the Lincoln may think they’ve stepped back in time. In addition to the bright lights emanating from the showplace, new businesses are also opening their doors. In fact, says Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, the neighborhood is beginning to mirror its storied past.
“The area where the Lincoln is located was the Harlem of the Midwest,” he explains. “It was the center of culture, commerce, civics and church and community for the city of Columbus.”
Opened in 1928 as the Ogden Theatre and Ballroom, it quickly became an entertainment hot spot for the thriving upscale African-American community who found themselves excluded from other theaters at the time. Patrons found a welcoming atmosphere in the venue that was African-American owned and operated. (New management led to the name being changed to the Lincoln Theatre in 1938.)
The building was home to retail space, a second-floor ballroom and the stunning Egyptian Revival theater, known for its colorful, painted hieroglyphic trim and the stately columns flanking the stage.
But it was the music that left a lasting impression and gave the Lincoln its hard-earned reputation as a hotbed for jazz.
Sammy Davis Jr. made his debut at age 3 on the Ogden stage. Jazz greats — including Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Etta James and Count Basie — also appeared there, and Columbus’ own Nancy Wilson graced its regal confines.
But the blissful nights of jam-packed crowds bopping to the beat were short-lived. Mid-century suburban flight and construction of I-70 and I-71, which cut the neighborhood off from downtown, delivered a fatal blow to the theater. By the early ’70s, nearly two-thirds of the neighborhood’s residents had left and the Lincoln quietly shut its doors.
Decades of sitting empty caused the building to deteriorate. Demolition was slated for 1991.
But fate stepped in at the same time Coleman stepped into office in 2000. He knew about the Lincoln Theatre’s importance to African-American history and music. And he knew that it had once been the cultural hub of the neighborhood — helping to bolster a healthy local economy.
“I put a stake in the ground and I said we are going to bring back this neighborhood, we’re going to bring it back to its former glory and the theater is going to be the foundation for economic development in the entire area,” Coleman recalls.
The Columbus Association for the Performing Arts accepted the challenge. The organization used its expertise for historic renovation to make the theater’s comeback a reality.
Today, the Lincoln has been reborn as a state-of-the-art performing arts center, featuring an artful blend of old and new. The Egyptian Revival detailing has been meticulously copied, right down to a vivid shade of green. And the discovery of a basement treasure trove of original seats has also led to impressive re-creation.
The theater acknowledges the 21st century with the addition of the balcony that was built to increase seating capacity. Updated restrooms, a concession area, elevators to the balcony and electronic message boards have also been installed to appeal to modern audiences. The revamped second floor ballroom willbe used for rehearsals and performances by the 10 resident arts groups — including Ohio State’s Department of Theatre and the Columbus Children’s Theatre — now headquartered at the Lincoln.
But, it’s the third floor that Walker is particularly excited about: The new home base for the Jazz Arts Group’s Jazz Academy offers recording, rehearsal and education space just upstairs from where so many influential musicians performed during the theater’s pinnacle. Walker plans on teaching at the Jazz Academy, practically on the same spot where he received his informal music education so many years ago.
“We’re going to absolutely try to reach out with the jazz academy,” he says enthusiastically. “The kids are going to be able to come in there, whether they have instruments or not. [If they don’t], they will be given instruments to play. This should get back to some of the kind of education I had when I was growing up.”
The Lincoln will also showcase programming that pays homage to its tradition of African-American music: primarily blues, jazz and gospel, as well as dance and theater productions, some helmed by Broadway legend Maurice Hines, who is the artistic director-in-residence.
“It will catapult Columbus and this area as the center of national African-American culture in the country,” says Coleman.
“What was a blight has turned into a national jewel.”