Jon Berberian made all kinds of excuses to his parents when he decided to
screen The Doll, a slightly racy Swedish film with a bit of exposed
breast, at the Columbus Theatre in 1965. Showing titillating fare, after all,
was the last thing on anyone's mind when Berberian, a Brown University graduate
and tenor with the New York City Opera, had returned to Providence a few
years earlier to rejuvenate the majestic 1492-seat vaudeville-era theater as a
performing arts center.
But more than 700 people showed up when The Doll debuted on a
Wednesday, aided, no doubt, by advertisements that included the provocative tag
line, "Banned in Denmark," and the Columbus filled to capacity two days later.
The strong demand, in contrast to the meager turnout for more mainstream fare
and the difficulty of booking stage performers, represented a clear choice for
Berberian. As he recalls, "Whenever I brought in something that was
sensational, I succeeded. After three times, I stuck with the adult films."
The new booking policy left Berberian, a genteel, family-oriented fellow whose
parents made a new life in America after narrowly escaping the Armenian
genocide, in the somewhat unlikely role of being a provocateur and fighter for
free expression. After I, A Woman played at the Columbus for six weeks
in 1967, for example, city censors attempted to block further screenings,
although the controversy hardly hurt business and Berberian prevailed in the
first of what would become a lengthy series of court battles. The former opera
singer also proved a canny businessman by gravitating toward adult movies in
the years before Deep Throat hurtled porn into the mainstream in 1972,
as well as by creating the first twin theater in Rhode Island, screening works
by such directors as Ingmar Bergman in the eclectic 200-seat upstairs Studio
The adult movie houses that once flecked American cities became a thing of the
past with the advent of videocassette recorders -- and the chance for
individual men, the largest audience for porn, to view such material in their
own homes -- in the 1980s. But although Berberian was receptive to different
uses for the Columbus, such as a Rhode Island beauty pageant held in the
mid-'80s and an annual opera staged by a group from Wheaton College until 1998,
adult films proved to be the most reliable source of revenue. The porn,
however, also created an obstacle for many of the community-oriented
performance groups that considered staging productions at the Columbus.
So it went for years, as small numbers of solitary men would gather in the
darkened Columbus -- built in 1926 and designed by Oreste Di Saia, who also
created the similarly classical Veterans Memorial Auditorium -- to watch
heterosexual action on the big screen. Passing motorists on Broadway could only
wonder what occurred inside the building with the grand marquee and exterior
clock tower, unaware, no doubt, that they would find a double proscenium arch,
a lovely Italianate overhead mural of dancing nymphs, and framed portraits of
opera singers and composers like Caruso and Mozart lining the theater's walls.
Not for nothing is the Columbus listed on the National Register of Historic
Adult movies date to the dawn of motion pictures, according to porn expert
Luke Ford, the author of A History of X: 100 Years of Sex in Film
(Prometheus Books, 1999). "Shortly after someone invented the camera, there was
a woman undressing in front of it," he says. By the late '90s, the Columbus had
made the switch from showing film to video, but it remained one of -- if
not the last -- full-fledged movie theaters in the US to present adult movies
on a big screen, Ford says.
The California-based porn expert cites Berberian's stewardship of the Columbus
as "another example of a human, social element to the porn industry, which is
usually a dehumanizing, solitary, shameful industry . . . I think many
Americans are tempted to just say, 'Ah, porn,' and dismiss something with any
connections to pornography. And stories like this illustrate that likeable
people can get involved in trafficking something that most people don't like at
Meanwhile, after having invested in improvements during more lucrative times,
Berberian was content to subsidize the money-losing theater through his
ownership of rental properties, biding his time and trying to conceive a
IT'S HARDLY a surprise that not everyone was happy with the presence of adult
movies at the Columbus, not least of all former mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci
Jr. In 1998, Cianci had the city move to condemn the theater and acquire it by
eminent domain. Screening skin flicks hadn't been without some social stigma
for Berberian and his wife, Elizabeth, a Juilliard-trained former soloist with
the Rhode Island Philharmonic (she wasn't asked back to the philharmonic after
he began showing the movies, he says), but it did offer a definitive
Constitutional trump card against this kind of hostile takeover. Cianci backed
off after the American Civil Liberties Union came to Berberian's defense.
Certainly, the scorn directed by some at the Columbus or its proprietor seems
misplaced in the larger context. Adult entertainment has come to permeate
American culture as a multi-billion-dollar business, albeit in ways that few
people fully understand. In 2000, the New York Times reported that
people in Utah County, Utah, "a place that often boasts of being the most
conservative area in the nation, were disproportionately large consumers of the
very [adult] videos that prosecutors had labeled obscene and illegal." Those
companies profiting from porn, the Times noted, included some of
America's best-known corporations, such as the General Motors Corporation,
whose DirecTV subsidiary was selling nearly $200 million a year in pay-per-view
sex films from satellite, and the AT&T Corporation, which was offering a
hardcore sex channel called the Hot Network to its broadband cable
By contrast, the Columbus has remained a quintessential small family business,
with Berberian getting help from his twin sons, Karl and John, now 32, and even
occasional assistance from his mother, Agavne, now past 92, like her late
husband, an Armenian immigrant who narrowly escaped the old country.
In recent years, though, Berberian still faced a Catch-22: he wanted to do
something else with the theater, but feared dropping the adult films because of
what he perceived as Cianci's ongoing designs on the theater (former city
solicitor Charles Mansolillo, a confidante of the former mayor, says he was
unaware of any subsequent intention by Cianci to gain control of the theater).
At any rate, Berberian maintained his longstanding booking policy, because,
"Continuing with the adult films acted as a First Amendment protection for
As it happened, the political corruption case that would land Cianci in a
federal prison in New Jersey unfolded at roughly the same time that a variety
of new audiences began discovering the Columbus in recent years.
The newcomers, such as those who turned out for an alternative circus, a
fetish fashion show, and concerts booked by the nonprofit arts space AS220,
weren't the type to be squeamish about the theater's association with adult
movies. Instead, they were wowed by the surprising beauty of the Columbus'
interior, not to mention the retro candy counter and a lobby decked out with
gold paint, mirrors, and marble floors. "I think it's one of our city's
treasures," former AS220 booker Lizzie Araujo told me at the time. "I think
that if more organizations and booking agents in the city thought of it as an
option, it would help to dispel that [seamy stereotype] and that's what
[Berberian] needs. It's just him out there. He needs help bringing things into
that building, and he's a wonderful man."
The Columbus continued to gain newfound respect and appreciation as the
indie-minded Picture Start Film Series and the Rhode Island International Film
Festival (RIIFF) came to the theater in 2000, expanding the range of visitors
to include an outpouring of members of the local demimonde as well as such
unlikely suspects as Lincoln Almond and actress Patricia Neal. The star power
brightened when Julie Andrews was feted during the 2001 RIIFF, prior to a
screening of S.O.B., her husband Blake Edwards's biting 1981 satire of
Hollywood. "Here, Mary Poppins walks into the building," says George Marshall,
executive director of the RIIFF, who now leases a storefront office at the
Columbus and helps Berberian to promote the theater. "We went from triple-X to
triple-G" (although S.O.B. was a delicious choice for the Columbus since
the squeaky-clean Andrews bares her breasts in the movie).
Marshall, who had also clashed with Cianci, over a competing film festival,
says he was initially attracted to the theater because he was "looking for
something with a little more history and flavor. What amazed me was how
well-kept the building was, how clean the building is, and what a generous
person Jon is." He likens entering the Columbus to "walking into a piece of the
past. It gives you a warm feeling. I can't tell you how many people have walked
into the building and immediately felt at ease. We've had more people who've
become advocates for the building since they discovered it, which is why we
were able to throw the 75th anniversary [in November]."
John Lavall, who later made a documentary about the Columbus, Rated X --
One Family's Business, is typical of those who changed their outlook after
having the chance to get to know Berberian. Showing one of his previous films
at the theater during the 2000 RIIFF, Lavall was somewhat nervous about
inviting friends and family to a porno theater. But Berberian was extremely
accommodating when Lavall needed to change the time of the screening. "It just
broke the stereotype of what I thought a porno theater owner should be like,"
Lavall says. "John and his wife are just the nicest people you'd ever want to
meet. I just love them. He's smart and he's dedicated."
Bolstered by the increased interest in the Columbus and put at ease by
Cianci's incarceration, Berberian stopped screening adult movies after the most
recent version of the Rhode Island International Film Festival in August.
Although business was slow at first, growing numbers of moviegoers have been
turning out for his new art-house selections, some of them Rhode Island
premieres, such as The Kid Stays In the Picture, 8 Women, The
Last Kiss, The Man From Elysian Fields, and Real Women Have
Curves. The Columbus has also continued to serve as a site for a gamut of
other events, including a sing-a-long Sound of Music fundraiser for AIDS
Care Ocean State, the recent Rhode Island Human Rights Film Festival, and
weekly musical performances in the upstairs cinema by a Christian
fundamentalist group from North Providence.
It remains to be seen whether the art-house format -- aided by the booker for
the Jane Pickens Theatre in Newport -- is the best fit for the Columbus,
particularly with the Avon and Cable Car showing somewhat similar stuff. Some
local observers believe a more off-the-wall mix of cinema would prove more
successful. Still, the theater's rising profile jibes nicely with the ascent of
Providence's West Side, home to many artists and such nearby hotspots as Nick's
on Broadway, Julian's, and the Decatur Lounge.
Berberian, who looks far younger than his 70 years, with a face accented by
bushy eyebrows and a pencil mustache, is most excited about another plan -- to
bring a Las Vegas-style revue featuring over-50 chorus girls -- that somehow
seems in keeping with the idiosyncratic appeal of the Columbus. (With an
ongoing tax dispute with the city, the revenue could also prove helpful.)
Bob Goss, the Pennsylvania-based promoter of the "Silver Sizzles Revue,"
learned about the theater from a friend and was intrigued after visiting it. "I
think I could do great business up there," says Goss, speaking while wintering
in Florida. "I had a vision of what I was going to see when I walked in, and it
was totally different, it was totally unbelievable. It was like a jewel."
The deal is contingent on Berberian, who is now investigating the process and
consulting with preservationists, making improvements that could reach into six
figures at the Columbus. The proposal calls for Goss to bring busloads of tour
groups from a 100-mile radius for lunch in Providence and then to the theater
for a weekday cabaret. The theater would remain available for films in the
evening, and the revue might be offered to the public on weekends.
Standing in his main projection room, near stacks of now-obsolete
videocassettes with titles like Sex Freaks and Dark Garden, and a
dated Thin Man poster featuring William Powell and Myrna Loy, Berberian
is elated about the prospect of bringing new vitality to the Columbus. "This
would mean I could come into a substantial amount of money to reinvest in the
theater and do the things that I'd like to do," he says.
THE GREAT ITALIAN tenor Tito Schipa was the headliner for the reopening of the
Columbus Theatre on November 1, 1962, exactly 36 years after it first opened to
the public, and expectations were running high for the Berberian clan.
Misak Berberian, Jon's father, had bought the idled movie house with the hope
that his opera singer-son could put it to good use. And Jon Berberian was
astounded to learn that the Columbus had 1492 seats -- an amount similar to
some of the largest theaters in New York City.
The Schipa concert, though, proved a bust, suggesting the difficulty facing
the new enterprise. It was hard to sell tickets, Berberian recalls, because
many people thought the aging singer had already died. After selling only 50
tickets, Berberian gave away about 600, leading Schipa to mistakenly believe
that all those in attendance had paid, and the singer promptly demanded a
Jerry Vale, the Four Seasons, and other performers played to large audiences
at the Columbus, but efforts to book pre-Broadway shows fell apart because of
union difficulties, Berberian says, and the former RKO theater wound up showing
second-run movies. This path, which subsequently led to the screening of adults
films, was an unlikely one for the 1950 valedictorian at Central High School,
who discovered a love of singing as a child and trained for the opera in New
York City after graduating from Brown.
"In junior high, the first time the spotlight hit me, I said, `This is my
life,' " recalls Berberian, who substituted Jon as a stage name for his given
name, Sarkis. But after performing with the New York City Opera for a few years
and meeting his wife, he decided to return to Rhode Island because of uncertain
career opportunities and the personal sacrifices required of opera singers.
Misak Berberian, who lost several immediate relatives during the Armenian
massacre and made a close escape to get to the US, became something of a movie
enthusiast in the new country, buying one of the first Kodak 8mm cameras and
projectors in the 1930s. Running a liquor store in the Armory District, he
screened 16mm films in a nearby lot, his son says, and jumped at the
opportunity to buy what was then known as the Uptown Theatre.
The subsequent foray into adult movies proved profitable, but it also provoked
no small amount of legal action.
"There must have been 10 or 15 cases over the years where they tried to stop
him showing films and they were never successful," says lawyer Milton Stanzler,
who represented Berberian after having helped to establish the Rhode Island
chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Although some judges didn't
follow the pertinent law, the Rhode Island Supreme Court reversed such
decisions, Stanzler says, adding, "It was a running battle down through the
Steve Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU, praises Berberian as
a staunch advocate for free expression. "It takes a lot to take the pressures
that have been placed on him for a few decades," Brown says. Although the
screening of adult movies in theaters has passed from the American scene,
"there was nothing anachronistic about it for most of the decades he was
fighting it. Some of the most important First Amendment battles take place on
More than anything, Berberian deserves accolades for helping to preserve one
of Rhode Island's last great movie houses, a vestige of a time when such
edifices were created with skill and beauty. "If it wasn't for him and his
family, the building could have been torn down years ago," says George
Marshall, of the Rhode Island International Film Festival. "I think Jon
deserves a lot of credit. He's been tenacious about preserving that
More than 40 years after assuming the management of the theatre, Berberian
feels as if he's getting closer to his dream of remaking the Columbus as a
flourishing enterprise. Asked why he persisted with the theater through all
this time, he says, "It seems to be a part of me. I can't envision life without
it. It would be like not being able to think about life without your family."
Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]phx.com.
Issue Date: January 10 - 16, 2003