Southern Theatre History

The Great Southern Fireproof Hotel and Opera House

After fire destroyed five downtown theatres between 1889 and 1893, an assembly of businessmen decided to enhance the city’s south side with a new and improved fashionable hotel. Designed by the prominent local architectural firm of Dauben, Krumm, and Riebel, construction began in 1894 on the Great Southern Fireproof Hotel and Opera House.

The Southern Theatre opened on September 21, 1896, and the hotel opened the following summer. Constructed of "fireproof" tile, brick, iron, steel, and concrete, the theatre -- which originally seated 1,723 on three levels -- was praised for its plush seats, stylish boxes, excellent sight lines, and absence of posts or other obstructions. Its ample stage dimensions proved more than up to the challenge of the 1903 touring production of Ben-Hur, which featured a cast of 350 and a chariot race in which two teams of horses galloped on treadmills for a mile!

A Modern Facility

The Southern Theatre departed from the classical opera house by incorporating features considered very "modern" for its day. Most notable was the design of the audience chamber ceiling. From the proscenium opening, a series of concentric arches radiated into the house, creating an acoustic system that is still nearly perfect today.

The Southern Theatre was one of the first commercial facilities in Columbus to use electricity. The six arches that fanned out over the orchestra were lined with light bulbs—204 lamps in all! Tinted globes shaded the bulbs, giving the effect of warm, diffused light over the entire theatre. Ahead of its time, the building had to produce its own electricity. The complex also produced its own water supply from three wells in the basement.

Grand Acts for a Grand Stage

The Southern's opening entertainment was the Broadway touring production of In Gay New York, followed by An American Beauty starring Lillian Russell. During its early years, the greatest names of the theatrical world played the Southern, including Ethel and Lionel Barrymore, John Philip Sousa, Sarah Bernhardt, Al Jolson, and W.C. Fields. Actress Maude Adams flew from the stage to the balcony in an early production of Peter Pan and dancer Isadora Duncan refused to play Columbus unless she could play the Southern!

Changes for the Southern

By 1901, the Southern was still struggling to cover the building costs, said to have been $1.5 million. Fred and Ralph Lazarus stepped in, purchasing the property at an auction for $235,000. The brothers oversaw many renovations, including the installation of a projection booth and the removal of the first several rows of the arches so the newly installed pipe organ could be heard from behind. By 1931, the Southern was a full-time movie house.

After decades of increasing maintenance issues, the Lazarus family sold the facility to a realtor with plans of turning it into an apartment building and garage. That didn’t come to pass, however, and in 1979, the Southern’s doors were closed.

Rebuilding the Legend

In 1982, the Great Southern Hotel and Theatre were purchased by local developers who decided to renovate the hotel. In 1986, property owners Bill and Barbara Bonner made a gift of the Southern Theatre to CAPA, which undertook a feasibility study in 1990 to determine the nature and scope of renovations required to bring life back to the facility.

Like the campaign that saved the Ohio Theatre nearly 30 years prior, the public drive to support the restoration of the Southern Theatre was wide-ranging and embraced both the public and private sector. The State of Ohio provided leadership funding in the public arena, contributing $3.9 million appropriated in three separate biennial budgets, and the City of Columbus provided more than $670,000 in UDAG funding for the effort. Private support made up 58% of the project's total funding of $10 million, with major support from 73 central Ohio businesses, local and national foundations, and more than 250 individuals.

On September 26, 1998, following an intensive, 14-month CAPA-led restoration, the Southern Theatre was reopened, providing a beautiful, accessible, and lively link to our community's past and its vital future.