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Commentary: Garden Theatre grows in Columbus once again

Amber Evans / Lantern reporter

You can take the theater from the building, but you can’t keep the building from the theater. At least, that appears to be true with the Garden Theatre.

As a Columbus native, I have driven past the theater’s large “Garden” sign looking over the Short North District more times than I care to count.

Honestly, with all due respect, I never cared to match the sign to its building. I always thought it was a misplaced neon sign belonging to the erotic store, The Garden, across the street.

Last week, I was working on a story about a musical opening this week at the Garden Theatre. The directions I looked up via MapQuest took me to this obscure, dingy facade that I almost passed by.

There I saw an old-school box office just outside the theater’s doors. I paused before entering. I remember asking myself, “How old is this building?”

My question was answered as soon as I stepped inside: super old.

As I was waiting to interview my sources for the preview, this very petite, smiling man greeted me in the lobby. He introduced himself as Peter Yockel, the president of the board of Short North Stage.

The Short North Stage is a new performing arts theater group.

Yockel said he was preparing to give a tour that morning. He offered to show me around before the tour group arrived.

The lobby had the likeness of any traditional theatrical lobby. A fancy chandelier fixed to the middle of the ceiling with two sets of carpeted stairs on either side of you and a set of double doors in front leading to the theatrical auditorium.

As Yockel led me through those double doors, I noticed white, plastic-looking plaques on what seemed like every wall. Each plaque told a significant year or decade detailing the building’s history.

Yockel shared with me the the building was once an opera house in the late 1870s. At some point between then and the early 1900s the building burned down.

Construction for the Garden Theatre began in 1917. Soon after, it opened as a vaudeville and silent movie theater.

I followed Yockel to a curtained door frame. As he pulled back the fabric, a chilling draft crept its way up my arm and around my neck.

I felt like I was looking into the tomb of a once striking actress long forgotten. The ceiling exposed its wooden rafters and the walls revealed its flakes of paint.

I was instantly reminded of “The Phantom of the Opera.”

Yockel told me the building became a Columbus staple in the 1950s. In the ‘70s the theater was bought and converted into an X-rated entertainment venue, he said.

My original thought about the sign was not so farfetched.

Nearing the end of the ‘90s, the Columbus Worship Center bought the building and turned it into the Garden Church. As of October, Short North Stage is the new owner.

The company is in the process of converting the building back to a theater. It’s about darn time.

I could say the structure of the building is suited for no other purpose than a theatrical one, but it has nothing to do with the structure at all. It can be torn down and rebuilt.

The Garden Theatre is destined to be a theater because of its presence, be it the philosophical sense of the word or the spiritual sense.

The place secretes that old, raw smell of the improvisational and rehearsed theatrical work meant to be showcased in the Garden Theatre.

In the words of Yockel, the building “wants to be a theater.” So let the curtains rise.

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