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Memories Of The Columbian

This article first appeared in issue 18, and was written by Greg Marshall.

Distinguished Texas principal recalls the heady feeling with the passage

from carefree youth to a position of great importance in the movie business

When I was reminded that this was the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Columbian Theater, it gave me cause to stop and realize what an important influence the old theater had on my early life in Columbia and when an integral part it has played in the community.

My grandfather, Clyde Marshall, originally built the theater. In some respects, it was his way of giving Columbia a window to modern entertainment and the postwar world. In its early days, the Columbian was a focal point of the town's cultural activities. One time they even had wrestling at the theater. They set up a ring above the seats and had tag team wrestling.

Throughout the years, various members of our family had taken turns running the theater. As a youngster, I often played in the theater. To my young imagination, it was a place of marvelous mystery and exploration. During the day when nobody was there and the house lights were off, the dimly lighted auditorium seemed cavernous and ominous. One could only imagine that the creatures from some long ago horror film still lurked in the shadows. The thought was frightening. I was particularly afraid to venture into the dark recesses of the storage area behind the large screen. All kinds of things were stored there, including a few that I conjured up in my mind. I only went back there when told to go get something.

I was intrigued to discover that when the light was on behind the seemingly white screen, it had millions of holes in it. You could barely see the single light bulb on behind it. Standing on the stage, in front of the screen, the empty theater appeared very large. When the house lights were up, and I was the only one there, I would entertain imaginary audiences by singing and dancing. I remember singing "Fairest Lord Jesus" in the Methodist Church at Christmas, but my voice was changing and cracking so I didn't want anyone to hear me. But on the stage of the Columbian, I had Frank Sinatra's resonance and Gene Kelley's smooth grace.

In front of the theater was the lobby with its concession counter and popcorn machine. At one end were the rest room and the stairs that lead to the balcony and projection room. I used to play in the office when my father was running the theater and I remember the large roll top desk and the magnificent gunmetal safe. It wasn't a very large room. There was enough space for the desk, the safe, a visitor's chair and a chair at the desk, but we always seemed to get several people in and had such good family fun in the small quarters.

One day, in the early 1960s, I was riding my bicycle down Elm Drive near my grandmother's house. It had begun as just another of those seemingly endless carefree days that are a part of the privilege reserved just for children. My Uncle Charles, who was then managing the Columbian, stopped me and told me I would be starting to work at the theater. He had already discussed this with my mother and father, Alleen and Bob. It had been decided that I was ready to take on the responsibility. In retrospect, I suppose the theater that had been my private place of youthful adventure was also to be my avenue to young adulthood.

I was certainly excited about the prospects this new endeavor held for me. Like any young person facing a new experience, I also had some trepidation. Part of it from the memories I had of the old theater. When I began working at the "show," I was the popcorn business.

Films and film stars pass across the big screen and fade from people's memories. Some provide an enjoyable entertainment experience and some don't, but popcorn is the one thing movie audiences can be sure will bring enjoyment to their evening at the show.

Standing behind the tall, modern machine at one end of the long, narrow lobby, I sold bags of popcorn.

A typical evening entailed my being at the theater about a half hour before Aunt Yvonne went to the small, enclosed booth outside to begin selling tickets. At that time, I would swipe the bottom of the metallic machine, clean the clear Plexiglass. Then, I filled the large pullout drawer with unpopped kernels, and began the ritual of popping and bagging the corn. The smell of the corn popping was always indicative that another evening of excitement had been launched. As ticket sales began, I would see many familiar faces enter the theater. Some would pass by and continue in through the curtained doors and enter the main theater to find their favorite seat. Uncle Charles would be sitting on the stool beside the door collecting the tickets his wife had sold. Most folks would stop and by my popcorn and speak with me.

Life's events have continued to take me further away from Columbia, but the old theater is always with me. In my childhood it was my playground and a place of wondrous imaginary adventure. It was the threshold of my journey to adulthood. It will always be in my heart and my memory.

Editor's Note: For many years the childhood adventures Greg Marshall experienced at the Columbian Theater have influenced his career as a teacher. As an elementary school principal in the Clear Lake suburb of Houston, Greg has established a creative arts pilot program that is giving a new generation of children the opportunity to explore their own talents and creativity.



This story was posted on 1997-12-24 12:01:01
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