UDH Hdr-Mirror Lake 1888

THE ALHAMBRA THEATER (1913 or 14-1988)

Back in the early years of the University District, movie attendance was a ritual in the life of most Americans. Almost everybody went to the movies at least once a week and many went more often than that. The theaters they went to were mostly small neighborhood theaters within walking distance of their homes.

The Alhambra at 2159 N. High St., just north of Lane, was one of these theaters. The Alhambra first opened its doors at the dawn of the motion pictury industry. In one incarnation or another, it continued as a theater for the next 75 years, exhibiting nearly 8,000 films, selling untold tons of popcorn, a surprising amount of Toblerone, and winning some landmark battles for freedom of expression.

Alhambra 2022

The Alhambra Theater building, 2022.

Poster for silent film star and Cincinnati, Ohio native Theda Bara's 1917 hit Cleopatra.

It's a little unclear exactly when The Alhambra opened its doors. A theater called the New Alhambra opened at 2159 N High in 1914. However, a new Alhambra implies an old Alhambra. An ad in the Columbus Dispatch in December 1913 seeks a piece of jewelry lost at The Alhambra Theater or near Lane and High. Columbus historian Phil Sheridan in his book Those Magnificent Downtown Theaters (1978) also gives 1913 as the date of the Alhambra’s opening. It also appears in the 1913 Columbus City Directory.

Regardless, the New Alhambra had its grand opening on Monday, July 27, 1914.

alhambra 1st ad

Proprietors A.D. Roges and J.E. Stewart (who also managed the theater) invested $25,000 ($717,000 in 2022 dollars) in the completely fireproof brick, concrete, and steel structure. A fireproof projection booth safeguarded the house from the accidents that occasionally happened with nitrate film. The auditorium measured 35’ x 105’ and could accommodate 500 patrons. Wilton carpets covered the lobby and aisles. Indirect lighting with the source hidden in brass bowls helped movie-goers find their seats. A massive set of fans circulated all the air in the house every 3 minutes insuring a cool and comfortable viewing environment even in the summer. The pride of the house was its Wurlitzer Orchestrion, a piano roll-operated organ that could simulate the sounds of a small orchestra.

Unusual for a theater these days, but not in the early days of cinema, The Alhambra had a flat rather than sloped floor.

The Alhambra was one of over 50 moving picture exhibitors in the city. Most of these exhibitors were theaters in name only; just a rented room and a projector. The Alhambra was different. It was an actual theater, a permanent structure built expressly for the showing of films. The Alhambra was the University District's first real movie theater.

Opening night offered a triple feature Vitagraph’s The Toll, Sells Photo Drama The Wilderness and a Ben Turpin comedy Swedie the Swatter. Motion pictures were still in their infancy. Popular films that first year included The Battle at Elderbush Gulch, a western; Traffic in Souls, a social message picture about the perils of the sex trade; comedy A Noise from the Deep which introduced the pie fight; and the German horror film A Student of Prague. Stars of the day were Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore, Mabel Normand, and Fatty Arbuckle. Silent film icons Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Laurel and Hardy, and Valentino were just making their first pictures. Lillian Gish was still doing bit parts. Films were black and white, silent, and ran 15 to 70 minutes.

20s Stars

When it opened, the Alhambra sat in a different neighborhood than it does today. The corner of Lane and High was a small commercial area in the midst of a large residential neighborhood. A Kroger’s, an A&P, a bakery, and a hardware store were the theater’s neighbors. Ohio State stopped south of Woodruff and a neighborhood of substantial single-family homes, some apartments, churches, an orphanage, and a school stretched north to Lane.

The Alhambra wasn’t grand like the downtown movie palaces. It presented a simple brick façade. There was nothing particularly Moorish about it despite the name. Typical for a theater of the day, it didn’t have a large marquee. (One was added later.) The recessed entrance was accented with black marble and green tile. Back in the day, it would have been festooned with brightly colored banners, posters, and signboards advertising current and upcoming features. Electric lights almost certainly lined the entrance.

Small shops operated on either side of the entrance. The south side was occupied by a candy shop, which probably did most of its business supplying treats to moviegoers. On the north side was a barbershop operated for 33 years, from 1916-49, by T.B. Phillips.

The Alhambra was enough of a University District landmark that it lent its name to Alhambra Courtyard, a group of brick rowhouses built across High Street from the theater in the late 1910s.

30s Stars

Neighborhood theaters like The Alhambra ran a different pair of films every couple nights, showing six to eight different features in the course of a week. The double features usually consisted of a recent release paired with an older or B picture.

Admission was cheap at about 10¢ (in today’s dollars, about $1) and audiences got their money’s worth.

A typical evening at the movies consisted of a newsreel, followed by a short (Little Rascals, Three Stooges, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, etc.) or serial episode (Perils of Pauline, Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, etc.), followed by a cartoon or maybe a sing-a-long song. Then came the coming attractions followed by the second film on the bill. Finally, the evening ended with an intermission followed by the feature presentation. A night at the movies meant a night at the movies.

Alhambra 1923


Alhambra 1929

Alhambra 1939

Alhambra 1944

Print ads for the Alhambra from 1923, 1929, 1939, and 1944.

Kids Stars

Saturday afternoons saw the theater filled with a boisterous mob of neighborhood children, exchanging their hard-earned dimes for a magical afternoon in the dark watching cartoons and heroes like Flash Gordon, Tarzan, Gene Autry, or Roy Rodgers.

The small theaters also offered rewards for patronage. Amateur nights invited patrons to watch their friends and neighbors sing and dance for small prizes. Dish nights afforded the opportunity to collect a set of china by attending the theater weekly. Bank nights and grocery nights were lottery-like schemes in which loyal patrons had the chance to win a bundle of cash or a week’s worth of groceries if their ticket was drawn.

For nearly 4 decades, through 2 world wars, a global influenza pandemic, the Great Depression, six presidencies, and the growth of Ohio State from barely 4,000 students to over 22,000, The Alhambra served the neighborhood. People who had come to the theater as children brought their own children and even grandchildren. Couples who had gone on dates there as teens, married, raised children, and saw their own young people go on dates there. The theater was part of the fabric of neighborhood life. It seemed like it might go on forever. Then came television...