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Sue's Views 0419 - It's OUR Columbia Theater

Welcome to the April issue. This month’s People+Place feature takes us behind the scenes at the Columbia Theatre and shines the spotlight on its executive director, Gian Paul Morelli. Gian often tells the audience, “This is YOUR Columbia Theatre.” It’s true.

When my son Perry was 11, he had a part in “Annie,” the musical produced in the theatre’s three-week summer camp for kids. I knew I’d want to see all four performances, so I volunteered to play clarinet in the orchestra (luckily, there were no auditions).

There in the pit I had plenty of time to look around at the old-made-new interior, with its gleaming brass door hardware, amber mica chandeliers, and fancy wrought iron grillwork and ornamentation. Memories flooded back. For the first time, I realized what a community treasure this theatre is.

As a young girl growing up in Longview, I didn’t know the Columbia was special. I spent many Saturday afternoons there in the late 50s and 60s. You got a lot for your money at the double-feature-with-cartoonsand-newsreel Saturday matinee. With the “four bits” my dad advanced me from the next week’s allowance, I paid for my ticket and three 5-cent candy bars chosen from my favorites, Milk Duds, Junior Mints, Walnettos, Sugar Babies or Big Hunk.

When it was built in 1925, the Italian Renaissance-style Columbia Theatre was huge for a town Longview’s size — holding nearly a quarter of the new city’s population. It was a firstclass luxury theatre, too. But over the years, vaudeville died and it became a movie theatre, its condition gradually declining as television, drive-in movies and finally multi-screen cineplexes pulled away audiences.

The Columbia was scheduled to be torn down, but the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens delayed the planned demolition long enough for Virginia Rubin, a local interior designer and former radio actress, to rally support to save it. (Note: The Plaza in front of the Theatre is named in honor of Virginia Rubin.) Over the years since then, the theatre has been transformed and some great shows staged there.

For me, highlights include singer Don McLean (Bye Bye Miss American Pie, And I Love You So), the Smothers Brothers (YoYo Man), Ed Asner (who called Perry “a genius” for fixing Asner’s cell phone), Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie and Peter Yarrow. I can still feel the energy and excitement of  audiences packing these events, proud to think that big name entertainers were visiting our town.

Sitting in the orchestra pit for “Annie” in Longview some 18 years ago, I felt an odd combination of nostalgia, discovery and gratitude.

Where else could an ordinary person like me have the chance to play in the orchestra for a Broadway musical, while watching her own son perform on stage, and in a historic, world-class theatre?

And there was another thing. When the flighty Miss Hannigan appeared on stage wearing a black rayon crepe, roseflowered, flouncy dress, I immediately recognized it as one I’d donated 15 years prior to the R.A.Long High School theatre department, where my good friend Marty Freeman was in charge of costumes.

What goes around comes around, they say. It must be true. And Gian Paul Morelli is right. It is our theatre. Even my old dress made it into the spotlight.

Sue Piper

Columbia River Reader . . . helping you discover and enjoy the good life in the Columbia River region at home and on the road.

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