The Columbia Theatre first opened on November 29, 1922, as part of the Columbia Amusement Company’s system of company-owned vaudeville facilities. With imported marble staircases to the balcony, ornate plaster medallions and grillwork, the auditorium seated 1,700 and featured a full stage, orchestra pit, seven dressing rooms, projection booth and theatre office. The Columbia was hailed as the “finest theatre between Pittsburgh and Erie”, providing the ultimate in patron comfort and modern theatrical systems. From its earliest beginnings, the Columbia Theatre was meant to be more than a place where vaudeville was presented; it was to be a palace where entertainment for everyone could be experienced in the opulent surroundings. The Columbia was the grandest of the Mercer County theatres. Now it is the only survivor, outliving the Gable, Nulluna, Capital, Colonial, and Strand. Its rich history and architecture is a legacy of an era of America’s great theatres and movie palaces. No modern building can duplicate this heritage.
The Columbia Theatre was purchased by the Vocal Group Hall of Fame Foundation June 14, 2002 with the promise of grant funding to follow if the match was achieved for the much needed renovation. Restoration of the seventeen hundred-seat Columbia Theatre has stalled due to the lack of funding. A new roof was installed and the completion of the plastered dome making for a watertight shell approximately 15 years ago.
The Vocal Group Hall of Fame Foundation coordinated a “Community Work Program” with the Mercer County Correctional Facility and other volunteers, which accomplished the removal of over 100 tons of debris just two years ago. The theater is cleaned and ready for restoration if and when funding becomes available.
The plumbing and electrical work is the next required task at hand. The Columbia Theatre could re-open and operate in some capacity if this work could be completed – A variance and not a full facility occupancy permitmay become the way to start. The City of Sharon has applied for a $100,000 pass through grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Economic Development for blue prints and accentual drawings for the museum and theater to get this process started but the grant has been stalled do to the lack of state funding.
The Pennsylvania Governor says he would like to find committed funding to match the $6.7 million dollars of in-kind service donated by the Inductees in the form of benefit concerts, audio and video rights but has yet to locate a source of funding. The funding that the board of directors, family loans, personal loans, deferred expenses completes the eight million dollar match for the recap/Pennsylvania Capital Funds Budget. The Foundation continues its request from the state. Funding for the restoration has been requested in several grant applications.
A Grant is a request for an initial $1,000,000.00 for immediate repairs. This would provide all utilities, restrooms, secure ventilation, doors, windows, ramps, and staging, which would facilitate operation and enable event fundraising shows to begin. This would also provide the necessary funding to renovate the museum and open the Sharon Pennsylvania attraction.
A $3 Million Dollar Anchor Grant for the icon building in downtown Sharon, Pennsylvania.
This grant will, at least, allow the Foundation to obtain an occupancy permit that will enable the theater to open it’s doors to the public bringing life to the theater, the Hall of Fame and Sharon, Pennsylvania.An eight million dollar matching funds grant is on the State of Pennsylvania books. Sponsors, donors, Corporate, and individual contributors and other in-kind services have met the matching fund requirement. Grant requests to the City of Sharon, Mercer County and State of Pennsylvania have been submitted. Federal Grant applications from the stimulus package of infrastructure grants have been submitted through Senator Bob Casey’s Office and Congresswoman Kathy Dahlkemper’s office as part of the 2010 appropriations budget. Funds are still not available. Donations by the supporting public is needed and encouraged.
Efforts will be made to restore, open and operate the Sharon Pa Vocal Group Hall of Fame Museum / Theater / Clubhouse complex, if funding becomes available to the Foundation, but for now, the Foundation can only preserve the theatre for the future. The Foundation may as a last alternative for survival, entertain a reasonable offer from the city, county, state or private party to purchase the Columbia Theatre. So that we may relocate with Foundation funding.
Crosby said nearly a year ago that the state had promised $250,000 for Columbia renovations, with another quarter-million available if the hall could match the money. Even then, Sharon Mayor Bob Lucas and a spokesman for Gov. Edward Rendell called the announcement premature. “The governor likes to make those announcements,” Lucas said last week, and no announcement has been made. “We kind of pulled back from that because we have this large project going on,” Lucas said.
The large project is a $24 million, five-year effort to revitalize downtown Sharon, centered on Shenango Avenue Associates’ plan to build an $8 million, eight-story,
mixed-use building at Pitt Street and Shenango Avenue.
City officials hope the Shenango Avenue project can be used as a match to secure state and federal funding for other projects, including a riverwalk, renovating the city’s parking garage, a street extension, green spaces and renovation money for the Columbia, Lucas said.
The hall also has been put on the list for $5 million in Regional Capital Assistance Grant money,
which is state money funded by a bond issue for economic development projects. The program has no money, but Rendell wants to increase the program’s cap to generate
new funds, Longietti said, adding that some Republican officials oppose the proposal.
Longietti, who served on the Save the Columbia Theatre Committee that existed before Tony Butala bought the theater for the hall of fame, said he recently toured a theater in Easton, Pa., that has become an economic force in an area that is roughly the same size as the Shenango Valley.
“They’re holding 120 shows a year and have a very active community theater,” Longietti said. “I think what they’re doing could be a model for what they’re (Crosby and Butala) doing in Sharon.”
Even if any of these proposals come to fruition, they do not meet Crosby’s current needs. He has been relying on weekly help from residents of Sharon Community Corrections, a halfway house, to remove debris, paint and put up dry wall at the Columbia and the Phoenix building. What he needs are electricians and plumbers.
“We’re limited to things that can only be done without money,” Crosby said.
He said he had hoped local tradesmen would step in and complete specific tasks, such as a bathroom, but that has not happened.
So, Crosby keeps plugging away.“We think we’re doing the right things, but it’s progressing at a snail’s pace most of the time. We’re proud that we’re doing it despite the obstacles. There’s nothing else to do.”
A licensing agreement with public television stations has heightened the Vocal Group Hall of Fame’s visibility nationally. The hall’s Web site, www.vocalgroup.org, gets more than half a million hits a month, and officials receive e-mails asking when the next induction ceremony will be and the museum will be open.
“These are very, very good, signs,” said hall President Bob Crosby, who has volunteered his services to the hall for six years.Unfortunately, Crosby is not a magician. He can’t turn good signs into bricks and mortar. He has made some progress in renovating the Columbia Theatre and the former Phoenix building where the hall of fame, a piano bar, a banquet facility and offices would be located but concerts and museum exhibits still are a long way off.
The public television deal — in which hall merchandise is used for pledge drives has brought in new dollars, but they get eaten up in the $10,000-a-month expenses associated with the buildings, including mortgages and utilities.“It’s not enough,” Crosby said.
If he could get the buildings open, he could generate revenue, Crosby said. He can’t get the buildings open without revenue. If the vocal hall had a theme song, it’s title would be “Catch-22.” If only the hall’s building activities could mirror the success of the Truth in Music effort.
Headed by Jon “Bowzer” Bauman, the Truth in Music Committee has secured laws aimed at outlawinggroups that pass themselves off as the originals in 18 states, with legislation pending in another 12, including Ohio.“We’re doing really fantastic with Truth in Music,” Crosby said.
The hall hopes to celebrate its 10th anniversary this year with a five-day induction ceremony that would honor the classes of inductees from 2005, 2006 and 2007. Plans are to keep the event local the last ceremony, in 2004, was held in Wildwood, N.J. but no dates and places have been firmed up.
Again, the problem is money. Crosby said he needs $200,000 to $250,000 for inductions. The state appears to be ready to pony up $50,000, Crosby said, but this allocation has been pending for more than a year. The Shenango Valley Foundation is willing to front the money and be repaid by the grant, when it is released, and the Mercer County Convention and Visitors Bureau would grant another $50,000, Crosby said.
State Rep. Mark Longietti, D-7th District, Hermitage said he’s been assured by state officials the hall will get $25,000 soon, with another $25,000 coming from the next budget cycle.
That leaves the hall $100,000 to $150,000 short. Officials could press on and hope to recoup the remaining funds through the induction concerts and other activities, but the hall could stand to owe whatever it cannot raise. Officials still are paying off the 2003 inductions.
If the hall could get the money for inductions paid up front, then it could use gate receipts from tickets sales at the induction concerts for whatever officials please, such as renovating its buildings.
– Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer
By 1933, the Theatre operated a split week policy: part of the week was devoted to first run movies and part to vaudeville shows. This continued into the 1940’s when the theatre was aquired by Warner Brothers and into the 50s as it changed hands once again. By the 1960s however, motion pictures had replaced live programming and the theatre began to feel financial pressure from the suburban multiplex cinemas.
During the mid-1980s several renovation projects were undertaken which stabilized the facility but did not replace the building or theatrical systems. Projects continued through the late 1980s and into the early 1990s as the funding and need presented themselves. Although the facility as it exsists has cosmetic deficiencies, the Columbia Theatre was built of steel and concrete and remains structurally sound, retaining the basic elements
of heronce elegant interior.