Films roll again at Providence’s Columbus Theatre

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Movies are back on at the Columbus Theatre.

The Columbus Film Club began its movie series earlier this month with a screening of Anna Biller’s “The Love Witch,” a neo-gothic thriller and “Harold and Maude.”

Two films a month may seem trivial for a venue that books dozens of critically acclaimed musicians a year, but a quick recap of the Columbus’ history reveals that the return of a regular film schedule is nothing short of cathartic.

When Misak Berberian purchased the theater in 1962, he enlisted his son Jon — a New York City opera singer — as its booking agent. Jon devised a sophisticated palette of concerts, operas and European films but failed to attract a consistent audience.

“I had to draw from Providence College, Brown, and RISD. It wasn’t easy,” said Berberian, who has since inherited the theater from his father.

Tom Weyman, left, the Columbus Film Club's co-curator, with theater owner Jon Berberian. [The Providence Journal, file / Sandor Bodo]
Tom Weyman, left, the Columbus Film Club’s co-curator, with theater owner Jon Berberian. [The Providence Journal, file / Sandor Bodo]
Soon, however, Berberian booked a “sensational” art film that would change the fate of the theater for decades to come. The erotic “I, a Woman,” a Danish-Swedish film released in 1965, filled the 1,492-seat venue for weeks.

In an attempt to capitalize on the profitability of adult films but maintain a respectable art cinema, Berberian and his father cordoned off the balcony to build a second theater, making the Columbus Rhode Island’s first multiplex.

By the 2000s, Berberian kept the Columbus’ doors open with an eclectic schedule of family-friendly independent cinema, film festivals and one-off events, including beauty pageants and a boxing match.

In 2009, the Columbus had to close to comply with the stricter fire codes required after the Station nightclub fire. It would be three years before a collective of Providence artists coalesced to help Berberian reopen.

Tom Weyman — the Columbus Film Club’s co-curator alongside Justine Johnson — was an early conspirator in the plan to reopen the Columbus Theatre with a grand concert.

When Providence folk-rockers the Low Anthem secretly began renting space at the theater in 2011, they contacted Weyman to help book the revival show. Weyman met the band while managing Brown Bird, which toured Europe in 2011 as the Low Anthem’s opening act.

Suffice it to say that Weyman and company reopened the theater to a tremendous response in 2012. Five busy years later, Weyman and Johnson are finally fleshing out the theater’s film program.

In typical Columbus fashion, the choice of movies is eclectic. Johnson — who used to screen “B-movie masterpieces” at the Black Box — said the selection criteria is loose, although she tries to showcase female directors and “old movies that feel relevant today.”

One such film is Eliza Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd”, screening May 21, about a drifter, played by Andy Griffith, who rises to fame on national television, a story that Johnson said is “basically about Donald Trump” despite its 1957 release date. Other films in the series include Anna Rose Holmer’s “The Fits” on June 4 and Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” June 18.

Attendance at the film club’s first screening exceeded Berberian’s expectations. “Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s I had people telling me, ‘Jon, this neighborhood is going to build up. This is a perfect area for the younger people.’ Well it took a while, but it really has come true that there is an audience here within walking distance,” said Berberian.

— Ben Berke is a freelance writer and recent graduate of Brown University. He can be contacted at ben.berke@gmail.com.