Columbia Theatre

583 Peachtree Street,
Atlanta, GA 30309

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Additional Info

Previously operated by: Klaw & Erlanger, Martin Theatres, Walter Reade Theatres, Weis Theatres

Architects: Raymond C. Snow

Firms: Finch, Alexander, Barnes, Rothschild & Paschel

Previous Names: Erlanger Theatre, Tower Theatre, Martin Cinerama Theatre, Atlanta Theatre

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Columbia Theatre

The Erlanger Theatre opened December 27, 1926 as a live 1,790 seat playhouse with “Earl Carroll’s Vanities” featuring a cast of 100. It had a large stage and four floors of backstage dressing rooms. There were 672 seats on the main level, 190 in the first balcony, and 928 in the second balcony. By 1950 it had been renamed Tower Theatre and was operating as a movie theatre.

Sometime around the late-1950’s, the Martin Theatres chain took over and completely rebuilt the inside to the plans of architectural firm Finch, Alexander, Barnes, Rothschild & Paschel. On October 3, 1962 it became the Martin Cinerama Theatre, equipped with the 3-strip system and opening with “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm”. Later two 70mm projectors were installed.

It was taken over by Walter Reade in 1968. It was later taken over by Weis Theatres and was re-named Atlanta Theatre until they closed it in the late-1970’s. In 1982 it was taken over by an independent operator and reopened as the Columbia Theatre on June 18, 1982, closing in 1987.

By then the building was owned by the North Avenue Presbyterian Church located next door, and they demolished the theatre in 1995 to build a parking lot.

Contributed by Ken Roe

Recent comments (view all 68 comments)

rivest266
rivest266 on April 14, 2018 at 12:11 pm

Reopened as Columbia on June 18th, 1982 and closed in 1987.

MSC77
MSC77 on May 9, 2018 at 6:03 pm

New article out on Atlanta’s large format and roadshow history. This and several other Atlanta cinemas get plenty of mentions in the piece.

Ralph Daniel
Ralph Daniel on October 27, 2018 at 4:48 pm

What did the interior look like after Cinerama conversion? Looking at the Erlanger picture, imagine a dropped ceiling under the second balcony. Now cover all the walls with curtains. This drastic change sealed the building’s doom when resue attempts were made prior to demolition.

JFB
JFB on January 28, 2019 at 4:46 pm

My parents went to revival meetings at the Tower Theater. They said that it had two balconies. They said I went with them but I must have been all of 2 or 3.

I remember seeing Peter Pan here after the cinerama conversion. They had dropped the ceiling under the second balcony and curtains ove r the walls. There was also wall to wall carpet. You could not bring drinks into the auditorium because of the carpet.

In the 1970s I saw King Kong there. The wall to wall carpet was still there and very smooshy.

I saw most of the major attractions there when it was the Columbia. The wall to wall carpeting was gone. This was the last place my father saw a movie. We saw Greystoke here. My parents were surprised at how it had changed.

50sSNIPES
50sSNIPES on May 23, 2019 at 7:36 am

The Intermission Snipe Of The Martin Theatre From Late 1962 When It Was A Cinerama Was Found On YouTube, But The Word “Georgia” During The Snipe Was Spelled Incorrectly, Because It Mis-Replaced The “G” And “I”.

pauladdis
pauladdis on May 17, 2021 at 3:29 pm

I worked here in 1982. I worked at the concession stand. I also helped the projectionist hook up the wiring for the new speakers they were putting in. I was 15 or 16 at the time. I got this position because I had also worked at the Garden Hills Cinema, which was also owned by André Pieterse. I remember that the popcorn here was some of the best I’ve ever tasted. It was magnificent theatre in the grandest tradition.

Cliff Carson
Cliff Carson on July 14, 2021 at 1:24 pm

The hideously cruel oh so fake Presbyterian church demolished what should have been deemed an Atlanta Landmark in order to build a parking lot so they could reap more greedy dollars from surrounding poor people. Shame on them. Shame on the city of Atlanta for allowing it to happen. The one thing the south doesn’t need is another church. They’re on every corner. Simple greed and there’s no other word for them.

MSC77
MSC77 on December 26, 2021 at 1:20 pm

Here’s a new 4-page 50th anniversary FIDDLER ON THE ROOF retrospective featuring a roadshow playdate chronology and historian Q&A. This venue’s run is mentioned in the piece.

StanMalone
StanMalone on April 18, 2022 at 6:42 am

Thank you Michael for another one of your exercises in movie history. Not only is Fiddler a favorite of mine, but it represents the opening chapter in the history of my theater employment that lasted from its beginning here until the advent of digital projection, 41 years later.

Fiddler on the Roof was a big booking in the history of this theater as well, the beginning of the end really. When Martin purchased the old Tower Theater, gutted and converted it into the Martin Cinerama, this place was at once the most luxurious as well as the most technically advanced theater in town. It showed three strip Cinerama such as How The West Was Won, single strip Cinerama like It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World, big roadshow musicals like Sound of Music and a better presentation or movie going experience was not to be found in the city. When Martin decided to exit the big city roadshow business in 1968, it sold off its four big Cinerama locations, this one going to Walter Reade.

Reade continued the high profile booking pattern with the likes of Where Eagles Dare and Goodbye Mr. Chips, but the times when suburban audiences were driving downtown at night to see a movie, especially such bland fare as this, were beginning to wane as most of the first run hits were now playing at newer theaters in the suburbs. The only really successful movie to play here during the Reade years was Carnal Knowledge. Then, for Christmas of 1971 Reade secured, with a $150K advance, what seemed like a can’t miss hit, Fiddler on the Roof, which would bring back the glorious days of Mary Poppins, Sound of Music, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Camelot.

Trouble started before the movie even opened when it was decided that The Atlanta, as the theater was then known, would not get one of the limited number of 70MM prints and would have to run a 35mm mag print. The Atlanta had the finest 70MM presentation of any theater in town with its dedicated 70MM carbon arc Cinerama projectors, but a 35mm scope picture looked pretty bad on that huge, curved 95 by 34 foot Cinerama ribbon screen. As required by United Artists that beautiful screen was ripped out and replaced by one half that size, 45 by 19. The smaller picture looked brighter but the deep curve was still there and so the image from the run of the mill 35mm projectors was no sharper. (Oddly enough, at this same time the only other Cinerama house in town, Martin’s single strip Georgia Cinerama had to rip out its big ribbon screen for a smaller solid one for its upcoming musical Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

When Fiddler opened in mid December, business was pretty good for the holidays but fell off fast. In addition to the problem with its location, the advertising was minimal at best since UA and Reade had declared the movie to be pre sold to the point that modest ads with the showtimes was all that was needed to bring in the crowds. Then problems really started to pile up. The 35mm four track print, which had to be printed on thinner stock to accommodate the magnetic striping containing the stereo sound, began coming apart even before the holidays were over. Of course UA blamed the theater’s union projectionists, but as with all roadshow engagements, even 35mm ones, there were two operators on duty with a lot of double checking and care taken to make sure everything was threaded up correctly especially after the film started breaking with increasing regularity.

As I said, the 35mm projectors were nothing special, unlike the 70’s, but they had been running film, including magnetic prints for years without this problem. Of course Wil-Kin was called in to check but they found nothing that would cause this and their only suggestion was to break the film down from the 6000 foot house reels back to the 2000 foot reels in order to reduce the tension, and to rewind the reels slowly by hand. This latter step was already being done since the print had to be checked for broken sprocket holes after each showing anyway. In all probability, the problem lay with the print. It had arrived not from the film depot in cans mounted on metal shipping reels, but in cardboard boxes on plastic cores, straight from the lab. The emulsion was noticed to be tacky and the print was built up and run that very afternoon so it is possible that it never had a chance to cure properly. Whatever the reason, it was still breaking when the run ended 22 having grossed only about $110K against its big advance. By that time so much footage had been lost that the running time was eighteen minutes shorter and one entire musical number, “Do You Love Me” had to be cut out. By this time the movie was an obvious failure here and UA would not even consider sending a replacement print.

According to Michael’s listing, Fiddler played 22 weeks here, leaving on May 18, 1972. The next booking, Concert For Bangladesh, did not start for another two weeks but Reade apparently decided that business was so bad that they would lose less money by closing up. The official reason for the shut down was repair to the HVAC system, which did need help. Some work was done but nothing that could not have been managed with the place open. I had never seen a movie theater temporarily close up and in those innocent days had hardly seen one close at all, but as it turned out, I had not seen anything yet. Business that summer was just fair with a wide range of movies that included a midnight show of War And Peace, all six hours of it. By November Reade gave up and shut the place down until their next big “can’t miss” booking, Man of La Mancha. Trouble was, La Mancha did not open until February so this huge, beautiful, showcase theater was closed over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays of 1972.

Personally, Fiddler will always be a notable film for me in that it was what was playing when I started working here. I started on February 21, 1972 which was Washington’s Birthday in those earlier times before the advent of Presidents Day. The point of mentioning that is that, being a holiday, the holiday admission rates were in force for this roadshow engagement. So, my first duty was to be polite while the customers complained to me about the premium being charged over an already overpriced hard ticket as well as the fact that the extra holiday matinee had pushed the start time of their show back 30 minutes to 8:30, thus ensuring an after midnight exit onto to the increasingly mean streets of Atlanta. In the photo section I have posted an ad for that day.

Fiddler on the Roof did not kill this theater despite efforts to write it down as a failure. As proof, in June, three weeks after closing out its run at The Atlanta it opened in the small move over house at the Lenox Square Theater located safely in the northern suburbs, at least in those days. It enjoyed a very successful summer long run there lasting until Labor Day. What it did do was sound the alarm that if the theater was to survive a different booking strategy was needed. This was confirmed the next year when La Mancha flopped out after only seven weeks. What was needed could be found directly across the street at the Coronet Theater. That summer (1972) they set their house record, never to be broken with a three month booking of Come Back Charleston Blue followed by another massive hit that fall, Super Fly.

So, in February of 1972, I was wearing a tux and escorting what few customers were arriving for the one 8pm show to their reserved seats. In the summer of 1973 I was dressed much less formally and working the lines that stretched down Peachtree for all day sellouts of Super Fly TNT and The Chinese Connection. Reade was happy for the increased business but even happier to see that this had attracted the attention of the Weis Theater Company. They were a Savannah outfit that had a big presence in Atlanta and wanted to cash in on this Blaxploitation gold mine and Reade was thrilled to get the hell out of town. It was at this time that the most tragic event in the life if this location occurred. In October 1973,, Atlanta Police officer C.E. Harris, working off duty at the theater was killed by two men he was trying to evict because they were harassing the girls working the concession stand.

In all, I only worked here 16 months, but it was and remains the favorite of all of the dozens of theaters I have worked in, or even visited through all of the years. It is too bad that the theater could have been saved as there was certainly a market for a 1500 seat house for the many shows that played the Fox that did not need 4500 seats. However, just as with the case of the Ritz theater in Birmingham, the remodeling and conversion to Cinerama stripped every bit of architectural detail and historical value out, and what little evidence of the past that remained was lost during its second gutting when it was reopened as the Columbia. In the end all that was left was an aging deteriorating exterior and a hollow concrete shell on the inside. It was finally put out of its misery in 1995. Having been alerted to its impending demise by a newspaper article written by a reporter who was a former usher, I stopped by one day and watched as the wrecking ball collapsed the final walls leaving only the steel frame.

Cinerama
Cinerama on October 28, 2023 at 4:50 pm

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