East Side theatre remembered for its longtime history

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Built in 1928, the Lincoln Theatre, on East Long Street was once the center of entertainment for Columbus’ black community. It hosted up and coming jazz greats and held dances in its upstairs ballroom. About forty years later it transitioned into a movie theatre. But not long after desegregation the Lincoln lost its vitality, and so did the city’s East Side. Now community leaders are trying to renovate the old theatre in hopes of reinvigorating the area and saving a city treasure.

The Lincoln Theatre, once called the Ogden, was build by Carl Anderson, a black construction company owner from Dayton. The Lincoln, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was once a venue for many jazz greats and was the Mecca for local black entertainment.

Duke Ellington was one of many black musicians to take the stage at the Lincoln. And longtime East Side resident Lucien Wright remembers them all.

“I saw all of them that played in the theatre or in the dance floor upstairs, and they were all excellent shows,” Wright said.

In fact, Wright, who learned how to play the saxophone, violin and piano, used to see all the shows for free thanks to his barber.

“I used to go to the barber shop right near Garfield and Long Street. And there was a very good friend of my father’s, my father was a musician, and I used to go down there. And when they built the Lincoln or the Ogden or whatever it was, the barber, Mr. Holmes, would give me the tickets they gave him because he would put placards in there to advertise the band, whether it be Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway,” Wright said.

During this time, the area surrounding the Lincoln was known as Central Ohio’s “Cradle of Jazz.” And Wright, who will be 92 in April, lived right in the midst of it, and always has. He recalls when East Long Street was a thriving hot spot for business and entertainment.

“There was a lot of excellent businesses and doctors and lawyers that lived up and down Long Street,” Wright said.

Wright would go with his sisters or friends to see the likes of Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington perform. Sometimes the musicians would even play at the dances held upstairs in the ballroom.

52-year-old John Waddy has lived in Columbus all his life. Waddy doesn’t recall first hand Ellington, Basie, or Miles Davis, but his parents who lived in Fly Town, the area now known as Victorian Village, would go see them, just like everyone else.

“Long Street and Mount Vernon Avenue were truly the centers of entertainment. These two streets and the businesses and the homes and the theatres were built by black people. So this was the area that everybody gravitated to even we lived in other parts of the city. But for entertainment and eating, things of that nature, we came over here,” Waddy said.

Waddy said the Lincoln even featured Sammy Davis Junior’s first stage debut.

“When he was three or four years old he did his first on-stage performance at the Lincoln Theatre with his parents who also had a Vaudeville act,” Waddy said.

But these are just stories Waddy’s parents passed down to him. Waddy himself remembers the Lincoln as a movie theatre. But it was not long after it turned into a movie theatre that the area and the Lincoln started to decline. Waddy partially blames desegregation.

“There were two things that killed the Lincoln and killed this area and killed all of this. First the freeway came through and cut us off from everything else, I-71 and I-70. Then desegregation opened the door for blacks to go to other venues. So we had been denied so long to go to white theatres and things of that nature, when the opportunity came we flocked to them and we let our theatre die,” Waddy recalled. Waddy said the Lincoln just could not compete with the theatres downtown. He said they were more grand and modern, and the black community did not have the means to enhance the Lincoln.

John Waddy and Lucien Wright are convinced a new and improved Lincoln will he revive the once thriving East Side. But Wright thinks the jazz of the past is long forgotten.

“I just think now that people don’t appreciate when I talk about, you know, some of the bands. They’ve never heard of Noble Sissle and they never heard of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway,” Wright said.

The city of Columbus and Franklin County are each spending $4 million to renovate the Lincoln.