In the age of the megaplex and DVD rentals, Rhode Island’s grand movie palaces and vaudeville halls dating to the 1920s face uncertain futures in their bids to find second acts.
Some, like the old Leroy Theater in Pawtucket, had a date with the wrecking ball and are long gone, replaced by parking lots, fast-food outlets and pharmacies. Others, with the Providence Performing Arts Center as the most notable example, have found new and surprisingly lucrative life as successful performing arts centers.
And yet others, such as the Greenwich Odeum in East Greenwich and the Columbus Theatre on Broadway in Providence, are dark and shuttered, awaiting an infusion of funds to bring the now-run-down, drafty structures up to the exacting, technical standards of modern building and fire codes.
In East Greenwich, a board made up of local citizens is working to raise funds so the Greenwich Odeum can be reopened after a four-year hiatus, while owners of the Columbus Theatre on the West Side of Providence continue to work on repairs required after the city shut it down two years ago for code violations.
Frank Prosnitz, spokesman for the group working on the Odeum, said he is certain the former movie palace with 410 seats, built in 1926 as a vaudeville house, will reopen as a performance center. “We don’t have any questions about being able to do that,” he said.
From 1994 to 2007, when it was last open, the Odeum did exceptionally well, Prosnitz said, forging a reputation as a place where “virtual legends” and jazz greats performed.
“The reason this makes sense to do is because the Odeum was so successful for 13 years, when we had hundreds if not thousands of performances there,” he said. “The theater brought in all sorts of people to East Greenwich, people from New Hampshire to Connecticut.”
Local entertainment was intended for families, while theatergoers “loved the intimacy” of such a small place. If opened again, the Odeum would offer the same fare as it did before – “a wide variety of types of performances would be available to the community,” Prosnitz said, “all geared to the family.”
Beyond the rather esoteric notion that a theater is the soul of a civilization, Prosnitz pointed out the restoration of the Odeum would boost local restaurants and coffee shops.