Tony Butala said he’s is willing to do whatever it takes to reopen the Columbia Theatre.
At a meeting with a small, invited group Thursday, Butala – of the vocal group The Lettermen – asked for guidance on how to do that.
For years, the Columbia, in Sharon, has been tied to the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. No more, Butala said.
Butala, who lives in Sharon, is pursuing avenues to open the hall elsewhere, and that leaves the Columbia to stand on its own.
“Here’s the Vocal Group Hall of Fame,” Butala said, putting a hand on a table in front of him. Then, sweeping his hand away, he said, “Put it aside. I want to put the Columbia Theatre together because of what I think it can do for this town.”
The Columbia was once a showplace, hosting performers as wide ranging as Harry Houdini, Burns and Allen and the Three Stooges. The former movie house with Tiffany glass and brass fixtures is big enough to stage a Broadway show.
But, the 1,750-seat theater has been closed since 1981, when fire destroyed the Morgan Building, which was attached to the front. Although the flames never reached the Columbia itself, the theater entrance was through the Morgan Building, and the Columbia sustained smoke and devastating water damage.
The owners at the time abandoned the building. Butala bought it in 1981 and essentially donated it to Columbia Theater Inc., which started restoration efforts, but never completed the job.
Butala bought the theater again about 10 years ago and put the hall of fame office in the Columbia after the hall moved out of the former Willson’s building.
Bob Crosby, who had been the hall’s volunteer president for 12 years and became a downtown Sharon mainstay, is again living in Los Angeles.
“He’s probably not coming back to Sharon,” Butala said. “I want to salvage the Columbia Theatre with or without the hall of fame.”
People at Thursday’s meeting supported the idea.
Sue Snyder suggested a patron drive to raise money. Former Sharon Mayor Bob Lucas and the Rev. Richard Roberts, pastor of First United Methodist Church, Sharon, said they would favor a fundraising campaign with a patronage drive, but want any campaign to be tied to certain needs.
“You have to be very specific about the steps you want to do to get the place open,” said Rev. Roberts, who served on the board of the Barrow-Civic Theatre in Franklin as it came back from a collapsed roof to become a working theater.
Lucas said there is a degree of apathy about the Columbia from many area people, and acknowledged others will be gun shy after previous efforts fell short.
“There is a troubled and clouded history with the Columbia Theatre and the hall of fame,” Lucas said. “I like what Tony said: Let’s wipe the slate clean.”
The group agreed to meet next month with the intent of forming a board, and the goal of eventually opening discussions to the community.
“Let’s crawl and then walk and then run,” Lucas said.
Butala, who performed in the Columbia as a child, pledged whatever help he can give, including calling in favors from touring musical acts to perform in town to raise money for the Columbia, but vowed not to steer efforts.
“I’m yours, guys,” Butala said. “I’m here.”