PROVIDENCE – The Rhode Island International Film Festival will present Jon and Betty Jane Berberian with the George M. Cohan Award for their contribution to the arts in Rhode Island during a presentation scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday at the Veterans Memorial Arts & Cultural Center.
Former singers with the New York City Opera, the Berberians are being honored for tenaciously keeping the Columbus Theatre open for almost 50 years, providing a venue for nonprofit arts organizations and establishing what was “the city’s first real art-house cinema,” festival organizers said in a news release. The Berberians own the theater on Broadway in the West End, closed since last year due to fire code violations.
However, before the closure, the theater had a long and rich history, said George T. Marshall, executive director of RIIFF. The Berberians, he said, “have single-handedly kept one of Providence’s most important cultural treasures alive by preserving, maintaining and advocating for the city’s oldest theater, which features a gorgeous classical interior designed by Oreste Di Saia.”
The Berberians purchased the theater in 1962 and began showing independent foreign films there. But when competition from television and suburban multiplexes proved nearly fatal, the owners turned to adult films to make ends meet. This turn of events led Jon Berberian to take on the role of free speech advocate, fighting numerous court battles to keep the theater open.
Since 2000, some of the Columbus’ luster was restored when RIIFF made the theater its home, presenting annual film festivals there and honoring such well-known national artists as actress Patricia Neal and filmmaker Blake Edwards. The Berberians are still fighting to keep the Columbus open and have been engaged with city officials in extensive discussions about correcting the fire code violations, some of which they dispute.