Providence’s Columbus Theatre Turns 10

As the beloved venue’s current incarnation turns 10, a look at the storied past of this Broadway gem

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“The mission has always been, more or less, to bring new and interesting performers to Providence who might not otherwise come here, provide the best experience for artists, their crew, and their fans and to do the first two things in a way that is sustainable and can keep the theater going,” says Tom Weyman, director of programming at the Columbus Theatre. “Our reputation has grown over the years as more musicians and comedians perform at the theater, and word of mouth has led to more bookings.”

With two stages, large and small, and a screen, the Columbus Theatre on the West End has been that kind of comfortable, unique venue national acts want to play in as well as an available space for local talent. From small shows geared in movement and activism, to national touring comedians, the Columbus has worked to become an entity that stands for something and speaks through the very programming that exhibits itself on their stage, leaving their doors open to anyone curious, moved, or inspired enough to come and experience it. 

While the history of the theater dates back to 1926, the more modern incarnation of the place begins with Jon Berberian. Jesse Baron wrote of Berberian in a 2015 New York Times article that he “had been in charge of the Columbus for nearly 50 years, ever since his father, an Armenian immigrant who made his money in liquor stores, bought the building in 1962, when celebrated movie theaters like the Palace in New York were already losing audiences to TV. Berberian set aside his ambitions of being an opera singer to manage the theater, programming second-run movies, a few operas, and recitals. When multiplexes appeared in Providence, the Columbus switched to porn.” 

In 2011, Jeff Prystowsky, Ben Knox Miller, and Bryan Minto of the band The Low Anthem began renting the space to host concerts and record. This was the moment that the Columbus became the space it was always meant to be. Now, 10 years later, Berberian’s theater, under the programming direction of Weyman, is a haven for artistic scenes both local and national. Entering the Columbus for an event, whether it’s your first time or your tenth, the staff’s genuine affection for the space is evident. Even the historic building feels like part of the show.

With the large room reserved for national acts, the smaller stage upstairs has allowed local acts to play intimate shows. Some grow into the large stage or go on to record in the Columbus’ recording studio, Uptown Sound. 

“Having two stages has been a blessing for us,” says Weyman. “Generally, the larger shows can help subsidize some of the smaller ones. It has also been a real privilege to host artists in our small room and, as their careers grow, have them play in our large room. Mdou Moctar, Waxahatchee, Kishi Bashi, Bombino, Big Thief are examples. Graham Mellor has been running Uptown Sound above the lobby of the theater since June of 2020, and has done projects with The Silks, Noah Harley, The Quahogs, Duke Robillard, and many others.”

Weyman lists Michael Hurley, Low, Charles Bradley, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Aimee Mann, Maria Bamford, Tig Notaro, Jenny Slate, and Widowspeak as just a handful of many highlights.

 “When John C. Reilly played here, he said it was like ‘the inmates running the asylum,’ and Amanda Palmer called us ‘a bunch of freaks with vision,’ which I think were meant as compliments? I also hear from a lot of artists that there are good vibes at the theater.”

With a John Waters Christmas show slated for December, expanded film programming on the horizon, more local partnerships with groups like PVD World Music, and more touring bands from around the world, Weyman hopes to continue to expand the mission and impact of the Columbus.

In a final nod to the man that kept the Columbus alive, Weyman says, “I’d like to give a shout-out to Jon Berberian, the owner of the Columbus, who has been running things more or less by himself since 1962. Every day I’m thankful that he has given us the opportunity to work in his beautiful theater!”

For upcoming shows, visit ColumbusTheatre.com, 270 Broadway.

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