Remembering the Columbia
By Casey Northcutt
Paducah, KY – Steven Keilor shines a small flashlight on rows of dirty red seats as he walks through the old theater. It's ornately framed screen towers in front of us as he rattles off facts and memories of the building during its Golden Years as one of Paducah's lucrative entertainment venues.
"It used to hold about 1600 people, and all this artwork, this had colored lights in it, and it was very decorative. And, it lit up, and I thought it was kinda neat. And, then the ceiling, I don't know if you can see that - that's all stained glass."
Keilor's grandfather, Leo Keilor, built the Columbia in 1927, his second theater in Paducah after the much smaller Arcade was established in 1911. On Monday, April 18, 1927, the Columbia opened to 2,000 customers who purchased tickets to see Clara Bow star in a show called "IT." For the next few years, the Columbia staged lively performances and provided spectacles Paducah residents could rarely see anywhere else.
"Behind the curtains on the right and on the left, you see those big openings? That's where the pipe organs used to be, and down front is where the orchestra pit was, and they had vaudeville shows - horses on the stage "
The theater contained actors, musicals and pipe organs for only a few years. Within the next decade, the Keilors transformed the large and richly painted auditorium into a movie house, ushering in a new chapter of the building's history. Steve remembers running through those aisles as a child in the 60s and 70s, witnessing the building's every major event.
"We had some world premieres - Walking Tall' with Joan Robin Baker. Buford Pusser, the guy that the movie was really about, I sat here with him through the movie and the part where his wife got killed, he got up and left. Paducah had some interesting premieres."
Not only was the Columbia an integral part of Steve's childhood but its Hollywood glamour made an impression on Kentucky youth at large. Pete Zuniga remembers riding to the city with his family as a 6 year-old to see "River Rat."
"As a little kid, it felt like when I first went to New York City and was walking down Times Square. You're overwhelmed because everything's lit up. It seemed like such a big, fancy spectacular thing to go downtown to the Columbia Theatre and the Arcade, too."
Now that both Zuniga and Steve are grown, the Columbia doesn't hold much of a place in their lives or in the lives of anyone else. The Keilors closed the theater in the mid-80s because competitive pressure. They either had to expand or close the doors, so they chose to sell real estate instead of movie tickets. They gave the building to the city. Over the years, developers have toured the building, but none have committed to restoring it. Former Paducah Main Street Director Carol Gault blames this partly on the amount of renovation the theater would need to be converted into another business.
"You know, it's a large project because it's 12,500 square feet. It has to have all new plumbing, all new heating and wiring. It will have to be completely brought back up to code.. It will really depend on what the project is as to what has to be done to the property."
About a year ago, the building caught the attention of Clayton Tune, a Murray State drama student verging on graduation. He toured the building with a friend and business partner. Attracted by the unique architecture and history, the two dreamed of refurbishing the decaying structure and turning it into a performance space, but economic pressures and a lack of investors hindered their plans.
"I've seen a lot of old theatres that are run down, that are abandoned, that are being renovated, and none of them that I've seen are as pretty as the Columbia Theatre is in downtown Paducah. It's still, like, in the back of my head that that building is still there, and I would love more than anything to get it alive, again."
Keilor hopes Tune or someone like him will realize his dream someday soon. He hates seeing the old family business defunct and covered in thick layers of dirt.
"It hurts to see this building in the shape it's in now, and I'd love to see somebody get excited about it, and do something constructive with it."
For the time being, the Columbia's marquee merely states, "Welcome to Downtown Paducah." The closets and offices are crammed full of broken seats and old equipment, and asbestos creeps up the faded walls. But, hopefully, if the right businessman comes along with a vision, a few investors and a dollar for the property, Paducah will once again enjoy its Columbia Theater.