On September 1, 2018, Southeastern’s Columbia Theatre turned 90. Generation after generation have been able to enter Columbia’s doors to escape into another world—a world of music, movies, theatre, art, and beauty. And with both Southeastern’s Fanfare festival and the annual theatre season once again in full swing, the opportunity for everyone in the region to experience the arts through this jewel in Hammond’s downtown is as timely as ever.

Hammond residents and visitors flocked to the Columbia Theatre for its first event and celebration in 1928. After a silent movie accompanied by a live organ and tenor performance, attendees moved outside for a dance party in the middle of Thomas Street. Over the next two decades, the theatre served as a center of entertainment for the region, providing an escape for people facing the uncertainty and harsh realities of the depression and war years—if only for a couple of hours.

c. 1930_2
Columbia Theatre c. 1930
c. 1937
Columbia Theatre c. 1937

By the 1960s, however, people had begun neglecting downtown areas in favor of local malls, and movie theatre attendance was suffering with the rise of home television. The Columbia was in need of major repairs, and while some were made its revival was not able to fully come to fruition. By the 1980s the theatre lay vacant, its days of venerated grandness only a memory.

c. 1986
Columbia Theatre c. 1986

But as fate would have it, the Columbia Theatre’s story was far from over. In the early 1990s Marguerite Walter, director of the Hammond Downtown Development District, and Harriet Vogt, director of Southeastern’s Fanfare, began working to save the
theatre. Under advice from a representative of the League of Historic American Theaters, who pointed out the need to act quickly with the roof in danger of collapsing at any moment, Walter and Vogt registered the theatre as a nonprofit 501 (c) (3) and secured funding for the most pressing repairs.

In 1994, First Guaranty Bank, who owned the building, agreed to donate it to the Hammond Downtown Development District (DDD) for restoration as a theatre. Plans were made for Southeastern to take ownership and manage the theatre’s operation after the improvements were made. The DDD, City of Hammond, and Southeastern worked together to secure funds to revitalize the theatre. The adjacent former JC Penney building was also purchased and a portion of the old Firestone Tire building was received through a donation, further expanding the Columbia’s footprint in downtown Hammond.

c. 2001_2
Columbia Theatre c. 2001

Upon completion of the restoration, Southeastern received ownership of the Columbia Theatre in the spring of 2001. The Columbia was once again filled with the happy chatter of theatre-goers and the reverberation of quality performances. With Southeastern now having the Columbia Theatre as a resource in the heart of downtown Hammond, the University began using it for some of its popular Fanfare programming as well—directly bringing this festival for all even deeper into the surrounding community.

Fanfare had begun a decade and a half earlier, in October of 1986. It was launched by a group of Southeastern faculty members, among them the current executive director of the Columbia Theatre, Roy Blackwood, to celebrate the arts, humanities, and sciences while heightening cultural awareness and making the arts more accessible for everyone within the region. The festival became so successful that it eventually encompassed the entire month of October.

Early appearances included those of internationally-renowned playwright Edward Albee, poet Maya Angelou, and singer Louise Mandrell, as well as popular performers from within the community. This tradition of pulling in talents in a variety of fields, from both near and far, has continued. Fanfare patrons can experience over 50 events that span theatrical productions, films, lectures, workshops, concerts, dance performances, and art exhibitions.

But as fun and exciting as Fanfare may be, it is certainly not the only reason for people to pay a visit to the Columbia Theatre today. When Fanfare’s month-long celebration of the arts draws to a close at the end of October, the party is still just getting started.

Fanfare serves as the opening act of the theatre’s annual performance season. From newer works and youth-oriented programs to beloved hits such as The Nutcracker, visitors of all ages and tastes can take in a favorite classic as well as experience something completely new to them.

While much has changed in the world since visitors first filled the Columbia’s seats, when the house lights dim this season, it’s still easy to see how patrons must have felt 90 years ago when taking in that very first performance. The beauty of the Columbia Theatre proudly lives on—in not just its renovated physical structure and accoutrements but in the timeless, personally enriching experience that the arts can bestow.

Columbia Theatre today

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