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Backstage at the Lincoln Series Leans on Historic Past to Shape Future

 Briana Gunter Backstage at the Lincoln Series Leans on Historic Past to Shape Future
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The Lincoln Theatre is a Columbus landmark filled with a rich history. As the heart of the King Lincoln District, its recent renovation has encouraged programming that is designed to draw Columbus residents back to the once-bustling neighborhood to experience all that it has to offer.

One of the latest programs at the theatre is the Backstage at the Lincoln series. But before we discuss that, let’s take a brief look at the lively history of the King Lincoln Theatre.

A Look Back

The Lincoln Theatre first opened as the Ogden Theatre and Ballroom in 1928 with real estate owners James Albert Jackson and James Williams at the helm. The two African American owners opened the theatre in response to the opening of a nearby theatre whose “No Admission to Negroes” policy prevented blacks in the area from being able to experience the arts. The Ogden Theatre and Ballroom was designed to cater especially to Columbus’ black population. But it was no ordinary theatre.

In its heyday, the Lincoln Theatre established itself not just as a place for entertainment, but as the premiere place for both local and very famous acts to perform. It featured vaudeville, the latest films, and what it would come to be known best for, jazz. According to its website, “from the 1930’s to the early 1960’s, the King Lincoln District was known nationally as a major jazz center,” and that was certainly an understatement. With appearances from such legendary jazz greats as Count Basie, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Etta James, and the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown, the Lincoln Theatre proved itself to be a musical mecca of legendary performances.

What Happened?

As the city began to change in the 60’s and 70’s, the impact of those changes greatly affected the King Lincoln District and of course, the Lincoln Theatre itself. Integration and the new popularity of the automobile encouraged black residents of the district to leave the area and spread throughout the city. Coupled with the construction of a major highway that cut off the King Lincoln District from downtown, over 10,000 residents were displaced from the once-bustling district. As a result, “nearly two-thirds of the neighborhood migrated to the suburbs and the Lincoln Theatre was forced to close her doors.” Throughout the next few decades, the theatre sustained quite a bit of damage and was scheduled to be demolished in 1991.

Moving Forward

In 1992, the Lincoln Theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places and in 2000, Mayor Michael Coleman announced that the King Lincoln District would be revitalized, with focus on the Lincoln Theatre being the “cornerstone of his plans for the neighborhood’s revival.” With the addition of brand new condos to the district, the mayor hopes to bring more residents to the area. Through these revitalizations, Mayor Coleman is hoping to draw attention to the King Lincoln District as a viable place to live, a place where opportunities can begin to thrive again, and to essentially revive the lively pulse that once beat steady throughout the neighborhood.

Getting Back to Greatness

As the heart of the District, the Lincoln Theatre could very well be the key to drawing Columbus residents back to the area. Bringing programming to the Lincoln Theatre to show off and utilize its beautiful entertainment space will be critical to restoring the historic theatre back to its potential. One of the most recent efforts to draw people in is the Backstage at the Lincoln Performance Series.

I spoke with Suzan Bradford, general manager of the Lincoln Theatre and the brain behind the Backstage series. She discussed how she came up with the idea, and what she hopes it will contribute to both the King Lincoln District and the arts scene of Columbus in general.

Briana: What was your vision when you came up with the Backstage at the Lincoln series? Were you trying to draw a particular crowd? Were you trying to get all of Columbus back into this district now that it’s up and coming again?

Suzan: Actually, I touched on all of those things. One is to preserve that history that was here at the Lincoln, knowing that this was the venue that a lot of the musicians came to; be it jazz, be it blues, be it any form. I wanted to bring that back. And also tap into and answer the question of local artists, “How can I come to the Lincoln?” We know that in our larger theater that’s not really possible to do, but I said, well we can bring it on a smaller scale and bring them on stage and have a sort of club scene. That came because we started an internship program, and the internship program is tapping into five universities in our city. And I didn’t want the interns following me around, so I said let me create a working project [for them] to work on, and it’s working. And because it’s under the internship program, then we’re able to be a win-win-win: one for the artist, one for the internship program, one for our preservation, one to support emerging artists and be that incubator for our artists to be here and the students to learn…This is the second of our six series, and it’s working. And it’s allowing us to totally use the capacity of the theater.

Briana: When you select the performers for the series, how do you pick them?

Suzan: These are performers that I have observed and witnessed either from their time here with another project or just being in the community. But I wanted to have some eclectic flavor here so it can attract all audiences. Our first one was Bobby Floyd and his trio, so that is one audience. This is the second one; so we know we haven’t really totally tapped into that 20-40 year old audience. We want them here as well because we know that they have some discretionary funds to come to a $10 event. So we wanted to tap into those because those are important for our audience base here. And then we also are going to bring in some culture. So in 2013, we’ll have Enrique Infante, we’ll have Shaun Booker and Sean Carney with blues, and then we’ll have Sabrina Tutstone in January, February, and March. So it’ll be a six [performance] series that runs from the end of one year to the beginning of the next, so that it’s not overlapping with other events we have here (case in point, the Heritage Series). So with that series and with this series, we have a whole year of jazz happening once a month every year. That’s the big part of it. That’s what we want. We want our community to say ‘It’s walking distance, it’s affordable, it’s supporting our artists, it’s supporting the Lincoln; Lincoln is adhering to its mission.’

Featured in the second performance of the series was band Carpe Diem. Led by singer Matthew Seward, the five-man band brought its own signature brand of R&B to the venue. The group performed covers of well-known R&B artists such as Eric Benet, Musiq Soulchild, and even the legendary Michael Jackson. Though their choice of cover songs would be familiar to most any fan of neo-soul, their groove and unique flavor makes the old new again. Lead singer Seward’s honey smooth vocals treated the songs well, not adding too much more than the originals already had. But I must say the heart of the band’s uniqueness came from keyboardist Ty Stubblefield, whose adlibs breathed a new life into songs we’re already familiar with.

The choice of such a jazzy R&B group for the series fit perfectly with the environment. With the lights set low, you completely forget that you’re on the stage of a theater that seats 566 people. The starlit backdrop and cool purple-y blue lighting instead make you feel like you’re in a small, intimate jazz lounge. The tall tables encourage chatting over drinks, which are available at the cash bar. Because both the performance and the audience are on stage, ticketing is limited. I’m sure that’s for practical purposes, as you couldn’t rightly fit an audience of 50 or 100 people onstage comfortably and have the band up there too. But practical purposes aside, the small audience gives the feeling of being an exclusive insider with access to a cool and hip private live performance.

Spoken word artist Keith “Speak” Williams was also part of the performance, adding a poetic element to it all. Reciting some of his original poetry, he encouraged audience participation on a couple of his pieces, while other times he was backed by the music of Carpe Diem.

The final performance of the Backstage at the Lincoln 2012 season will feature the Vernon Hairston Trio with Mary McClendon on December 12th. Tickets are available for purchase at the CAPA Ticket Center (39 E. State St.), all Ticketmaster outlets, and ticketmaster.com. Tickets are also available by phone at 614-469-0939 or (800)-745-3000, and can also be purchased the night of the show if they’re still available.

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