An Oral History of the Columbus Theater’s Prolonged Revival
Collected and Arranged by Ben Berke
Photos by Grace Sun
JEFF PRYSTOWSKI: So my name’s Jeff Prystowski and I graduated from Brown in 2006 with my friend Ben Knox-Miller and we started a band together called Low Anthem. We played together from 2006 to 2011.
After graduation we took an apartment on the East Side and started working on our first record. That was at 19 East Street and the record was called What the Crow Brings. It was recorded in our apartment with one microphone and a drum kit we found in the garbage. Or no, we traded a bottle of wine for that drum set. We had a J-50 guitar, we an upright bass, and started at it.
Nobody knew who we were. We made the record and started to book shows at all these different New England venues that we found online or through talking to people. Boston, Northampton, Providence, New York, New Haven. And we would just go and every couple months go back and keep a mailing list and stay in touch with people. We’d submit our music to whatever local festivals and meet other musicians and do the band thing, the thing everyone does. Providence is a great town for a musician whose making What the Crow Brings, to just do it, and not have to be in Boston or New York where there’s such a high rent that you can’t really focus on it. But the record didn’t really take—it didn’t land us a record deal or anything. It was a self-release.
We made that one as a duo for the most part, and then we made Oh My God, Charlie Darwin. At this point, we moved out of East Street and we were in other apartments but the album was actually recorded in Block Island. So, we went to Block Island and we brought a bunch of microphones and wires and cables, and a mobile recording unit, so that, was, you could say a record a made on an island. It’s a different experience than waking up and recording right next to your bed, you know? You had the songs prepared and you pack it up and we had an engineer named Jesse Lauder who helped us and we went out.
At first it was self-released, just like What the Crow Brings. We made it in the winter, released it in the fall, and then it was re-released by Nonesuch in the summer, and that’s when we did a significant amount of touring, nationally and internationally. So we went from playing just that circuit of the Northeast cities to a much wider spectrum of audiences and lands.
For the next record, Smart Flesh, we rented a factory building in Central Falls, Rhode Island, this factory that Buddy Cianci used to make his pasta sauce in. So, we were there for a few months, making music and we transformed it into a live-work space, a temporary one. So we’re still living in these different apartments around Providence, and we don’t really have a home studio, but we’ve been able to make three records, none of them in professional recording studio environments. That’s part of the ethics of the band. That’s part of how we like to work.
The story with the Columbus begins when we’re coming home from a Smart Flesh tour and I’m having a slice of pizza across the street from the Columbus and the marquee on the Columbus says ‘Opening Soon’ and I realize it has said that for so many years that I’ve lived in Providence. So it intrigued me, because when you’re a touring band and you’re in that touring band mind set, as you go from city to city, it’s always the same thing. You’re driving into town looking for the venue and pretty much looking for the pizza shop. Those instincts were just so ground into me that when I was looking at that theater, I was like, “Here’s the pizza shop, there’s the theater, where’s the gig? What’s happening?”
So I just walked over there and was looking around, saw that Jon Berberian, the owner, had posted some newspaper clippings about some memorable moments of the theater and why it was closed. And I was curious to see it and to see if maybe we could rent it short term or at least just take a look inside. And so, I called up a bunch of my friends and asked if any of them knew the owner of the Columbus. One of them said yes he did his name is Barnaby Evans. So Barnaby said “Yeah sure, I know Jon I’ve worked with him in the past. I’ll hook you guys up”.
JON BERBERIAN: This all started way back in 1962, the summer of ’62, when my brother called and said that my parents were interested in buying the Columbus. My father made a visit here and loved the building. He had a liquor store, a package store they called it, and never liked the business. He was in construction in his earlier years and that’s all he loved to do. And when he saw the theater and what it needed he was very excited about getting his hands on it, to be able to restore it and get it operating. The city bought some property from him by eminent domain so we had the money at the time to buy the theater. It wasn’t a lot of money.
Being in New York as an opera singer, auditioning and getting jobs and never knowing when the next job was going to come in, the insecurity of the whole business…I thought, “Well, maybe this will be what I should need”. Something substantial, something I could put my hands on. With my plans to get married, I thought I’d have a future, you know.
I had only been to the theater once, as a youngster, when my grandmother brought me during Easter for King of Kings. In the dark it looked like a small theater to me. When they told me it was 1,492 seats I flipped because the largest theater in New York City that we auditioned in was the Wintergarden Theater and that was 1400 seats and we used to call it the barn.
When we opened in November of ‘62 I knew theater from a performing end but not from a management end. So it was all new to me. This was when reality stuck in. I booked my first concert on stage, the world-renowned tenor Tito Scippa, doing his farewell tour. He was in his middle 70s, 74-75. I got him here but it was very difficult selling tickets. A lot of people thought he had died and that I was just going to play recordings. It was a real fiasco. We had the Providence Journal in the house. We got an excellent review. It was a beautiful evening but that was the end of it. That was a couple thousand dollars we invested in doing it, and that was my limit. There was nothing else I could bring in until a few months later.
Then we had George Shearing, Gerry Vale a couple of times, the Four Seasons. These were the original people who were on my stage. But that didn’t last because shortly after that they started building stadiums. The Dunkin’ Donuts Center. Capacities of 13,000 seats. All these guys wanted to go there, because then instead of $2,000 they could make $50,000.
My projectionist, who had been here since 1927, came around and he said, “Jon, you know, this is new to you. The only way you’re going to be able to run this theater is with films so you can be open 7 days a week”. This was 1963.
I was engaged to my wife and we got married in April of ’63. We were running it Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday…It was only a second run theater because I had no ability to get first run product. All of the major theaters tied up all of the money-making films so the only thing that was left was…nothing [laughs]. I brought in some fine films that got fantastic reviews but not much business. Then I was convinced by the people in Boston, distributors, to try something different from everybody else, something risqué. So this is when the adult films started coming in. After I did that, business was…booming. We’d go from 20 people to 800 people a night.
JB: In 1965 we saw a need for a second theater. My father never went to school, never had any training, no schooling of any kind. He bought buildings and homes and divided them and made more apartments out of them. Made money and sold them and kept buying more property that way. He was very clever in doing that. And I had heard that in the Midwest they were building two theaters out of one building so I said “Oh, we’ll try that. We’ll see if we can divide up this theater.”
We put up the 16 millimeter [projector] on boxes and my father held a paper to see whether the throw would be on the sheet and we got an approximate size that we wanted for the little theater. We had to send in plans and my upstairs neighbor was a young architect who was a student of architecture at RISD. I said, “Bob, I’ve got all these dimensions. We want to build a theater.” So he drew up all the plans and submitted them to the building commission.
We took the last row of the mezzanine seats out and we erected this wall going up and it had a door on either side. It was a shot in the dark. We took a chance that the wall would be soundproof enough to be able to cut off the sound from one theater to the other. It worked out beautifully.
So now that we had this theater I felt very gratified that I could show the finer films. That was my little art theater. And I purposely ran some films that had good reviews but little attendance. I’d run it for an extra week or two so we could see it more times and it was a joy.
So what happened was I was doing fairly well with the little theater but it wasn’t a moneymaker, and the distributors asked for more money from me. They said, “Oh, well, Riffkin wants your films because he’s building a new theater in Warwick”. So they would take the product away from me and it left me with nothing. So I said, “Well, if I don’t have anything to play, I know the adult industry is offering me films”. So we ended up playing the same films upstairs and downstairs and it was a waste.
I couldn’t turn my back on success. That was the only way I could keep the doors open, to run adult films, but back then they were artistic films. They were beautifully made Swedish films, subtitled, you know [laughs]…mostly black and white, but they did big business. It wasn’t until 1967 that the city got involved in trying to stop me from operating because they thought a film was obscene which meant that we had to go to court to fight an obscenity battle. That put me in a position of being a defender of the first amendment [laughs]. I didn’t ask for it but that’s the way it turned out. So I battled the first film, I, a Woman it was called, a Swedish film. I wrote “banned in Denmark” [on the marquee] and everybody came.
So as a result, going to superior court, it just aroused enough interest all over the state and out of the state that I ran it for 6 months. Tremendous business. And the following film I had called Common Baby they did the same thing. They tried to stop me and I went to court and won the case. So it kind of put me on the map. There was nothing I could do after that. I was stuck with that. I was known across the country. This was the hotspot for adult films [laughs]. Everyone wanted to test their films in my theater.
At first, the films were really acceptable. But then in 1971, hardcore came into effect. Deep Throat came out and that broke the ice for everything. From that point on, anything was allowable. The problem is it prevented the nice couples from coming to see a nice, sexy film. It was no longer that. Everything was on the screen.
We were doing our own concerts during the late ‘70s, my wife and I. I used to run the adult films up until the day we had to perform the opera. My wife was winner of the Met auditions downtown. She was the soprano soloist for the philharmonic here on several occasions, singing with the big singers.
We were here and we did our concerts but with very little support from the Journal because, I don’t know, they kind of frown on people who have their own theater and have their own talent. I wanted them to review us. They never did, for 4 years. I said, “Look, the handwriting is on the wall. They don’t want to help us”. So I never sang after that in my own theater. I did concerts everywhere around here but not my own theater.
TOM WEYMAN: Around 2001 there was the station nightclub fire, which was in West Warwick and 100 people died. After that happened, there were all sorts of new regulations in terms of fire safety.
JB: Our big problem came in the year 2009. We had Ernest Borgnine, the actor, on my stage for the Rhode Island Film Festival with several other stars. It was a great event. And then right after that RIFF had a children’s competition. And this woman, who I’ll never forget, was upset because her daughter didn’t win. She made a complaint that one of the doors we had backstage was defective. We had delinquents breaking into it so I had tied it. When they shut us down I fixed it within one day but it didn’t do any good. Once the inspectors got in, all of them came in and they really made mince meat out of me.
JP: So the band comes and meets with Jon and we show him our three records, give him a copy of each, and say, “This is the kind of music we make, this is our history”. And of course, you had the experience of going down to see the main theater today. That was what I experienced in 2011. Just seeing that huge open hall.
It was in good shape. Not nearly in the shape that it is in now because we’ve put countless hours of labor into it over the last 4 years but it was in workable condition. It was enough to stun us, I guess you could say. You’d walk in and say “Wow, this was in Providence all the years that I’ve lived here? And I’ve never seen music here?” We saw a whole world of possibilities that day. And so, Jon liked us, we had a good rapport with him and he met with us where we’re sitting now to rent this upstairs studio. At the time, the room we’re sitting in now was full of garbage. The walls were all empty. It was like a trash room. There was nothing in here.
TW: It took about 3 years, from 2009 to 2012, not just to do the work, but even to find out from the city what needed to be done exactly to get it up to code.
JB: During the course of all this, the fire marshal was let go because his guys were on the take. Then the head building inspector, who delayed my whole progress here, canceled my early applications to go before the board, and held me up for months and months, the authorities caught up with him and fired him. They should’ve put him in jail for the damage he did to me and many others. Put a lot of people out of business.
JP: So it’s 2011 and the theater is still closed. It still says ‘Opening Soon’ on the marquee even while we’re now in here, we’re upstairs and we’re recording. We transformed this space into a music recording studio, which to my knowledge, it had never been that in the history of the building.
So of course, what we do, is we start, you know, we invite our friends over, and we’re like “You’ve gotta look at this space that we’re in. You the know Columbus Theater? It’s unbelievable! So we just started spreading the word and the more time that we spent in here, Jon was encouraged by our energy and wanted to reopen the theater and asked if we would help him manage the theater, book the theater, help him envision what that would look like to reopen it with the Low Anthem studio there, how it could become a business again.
And so that’s where the story of the Columbus Cooperative begins. Its current membership is me, Ben Knox-Miller, Tom Weyman, and Bryan Minto. The idea was, let’s reopen the theater and let’s have a big show. Let’s call it Revival and Low Anthem is just going to call upon all of our favorite bands and curate a night of music. One of those bands was Brown Bird, so they were going to be basically the second line on the festival chart. They’re one of our favorite bands. We toured with them in Europe and Tom was their manager, so we worked together to put that show on.
When we announced that reopening show, it sold out in two weeks. I think a lot of people were excited about the lineup of music but then I think a lot of people were just excited that the Columbus was reopening. They wanted to get back in here and see what the space looked like.
TW: When it started, the first ten or fifteen shows we did were pretty much all bands that that we had some sort of personal relationship with. In managing bands and running a record label and just having done work in the music industry for about 10 years, I’d had a lot of connection with booking agents. I knew a lot of bands, a lot of managers, and so I was able to reach out to a lot of these people. And then also Ben and Jeff with the Low Anthem and Bryan with the touring he did with Diamond Rugs. We all had connections.
JP: It’s been a matter of persistence, and love, and some luck. I didn’t graduate Brown and say, like, “One day, the Columbus Theater!” But life happens, you know, as you’re going, trying to find that goal, which is 180 degrees, you’re like, “I’m gonna get that radio spot” or “I think that my music is important enough to be in that magazine” and you’re going after that but these other things are happening always, you know, 90 degrees to that. And they lead you to a whole other understanding of what that desire was.
JB: It was about knowing that somewhere along the lines something was going to happen. I knew. I just felt that you can’t turn your back on something like this. You can’t just walk away from it. We had put so much into it so that there was no other way than to keep it going. Even when we shut down we figured, “Well, we can’t keep it idle. Something has to happen.”
So we made the investment and it paid off. With the bands it’s been very successful. In addition to that, since they came in they helped me get a liquor license. So we have a bar and that pays…a lot of the bills. I felt that, as we went along, I felt that they were just honorable people, you know? I just trusted them. If they didn’t come in at the time they did, I don’t know what would’ve happened.
TW: I think it’s that we understand the business of it and how it works but the business side almost isn’t the priority. Obviously, we’ve got to sell tickets and make sure people are coming to see the shows. We have considerations to keep the doors open. But you know, even things like, the bar isn’t in the room where the music is. We took a lot of care in the sound system we installed. The room itself sounds really great, it just lends itself to performance. I don’t know exactly how we did it or if it’s something we even did ourselves but there’s just a real appreciation for the bands that come through. It’s really focused. People aren’t talking while bands are playing. There’s a real, intense energy that I think the band is able to pick up on and feed off of.
JP: What venue do you go to where you know that the people running it are musicians? That’s a huge difference. And that music is made there and music is recorded there. That’s another. It’s very rare. And we’re curating shows. That’s a huge other element. When you go to another venue you don’t get a sense that there’s a curating taste.
TW: We’ve all been in bands and have toured around the country or the world…we know what we like from those places and what we didn’t like. I think we all have in our mind a priority of how to make this place very artist friendly and a place that is just the best place to play.
It seems like at first, with us coming in, Jon was impressed with the amount of work and good things we had done. I think what’s really incredible about Jon is that he doesn’t always understand the music that’s happening here, but even though it’s not his thing, he understands that there’s value to it. And that what we’re doing has value financially but also has a value for Providence and that what we’re doing is really helping build the Columbus’ reputation. He’s been really willing to play that long game with us, not just bringing in whatever stuff that might sell out the theater. While that would be good, short term financially, what we’re doing is building something that hopefully will ensure that the Columbus will be around for a long time.
TW: He’s an incredible singer. And I think that’s part of it too. I think he really loves that music is happening here. It’s designed after an old opera house, and him being an old opera singer, I think he likes what’s happening here.
He liked Marissa Nadler. He really thought she was a great singer. He loved Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. Because Jon’s an opera singer, he doesn’t really like amplified music. You know, he feels like you should be able to sing from the stage and project your voice out and he really loved that for the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy show it had a very natural sound. It was just him and an acoustic guitar and one microphone that the guitar and the voice were coming through. It didn’t sound like the singer’s here but the sound’s coming at you from speakers or whatever. He thought that Will Oldham had a really great voice.
He’s somebody that I’ve loved for a long time, since I was in high school, and to have him come here and really love the theater…it meant a lot to me. We gave him a tour of the whole theater. We went up on the roof and he had his own head lamp.
In general, he hadn’t played in Providence in fifteen years or something. That’s one thing that we’ve tried to do a lot: to bring bands to town that either have never played in Rhode Island or haven’t been here in a long time. That’s been really successful for us. That’s something I hope we’re known for.
JB: I noticed that the first time John C. Reilly was here, he sang into the mic and all of a sudden he started getting away from the mic and he felt better about it, keeping away from it, because he could hear the natural acoustics of the space up there, and he kept several inches away. It was good to hear his natural voice. He was quite excited.
[Ben, Bryan, and Jeff] made a disc for him while he was performing here. They use different portions of [the theater] for their recordings…I don’t how they do it. They’re very clever. John C. Reilly said, “That’s the best I’ve ever heard us do”. They did such a marvelous job of recording.
If I should decide to sell, the Cooperative should have the first choice, definitely. I would like to sell to them. They’re the most natural people to take over because they know the theater now, almost as well as I do.