SPECIAL REPORT: The Legacy of The Liberty Theatre

Published: Feb. 13, 2017 at 6:08 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 13, 2017 at 11:33 PM EST
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COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - Inside the red brick building on 8th Avenue in Columbus is more than a stage and seats, it's a critical part of Columbus' history.

The Liberty Theatre once stood as a platform for African American entertainers for decades after it opened in the 1920's.

A lot has happened since then, so we took a look at its colorful and vibrant history and what's on the horizon for this iconic theater.

"This is my world," said Laura Lowe of Columbus. "I love it."

This stage at the Liberty Theatre is like a second home for Lowe, who's performed in a dozen plays since her start with the Liberty in 2000.

"I knew this was a treasure, a local treasure, a big treasure because it has the theater, it has a stage that has a wonderful history," Lowe said.

That history started in 1924 when The Liberty Theatre was built with about 300 seats. It opened a year later, and it was originally a movie house for African Americans.

"I might have been 10 when mom let me come down here," says Robert Anderson.

He remembers it vividly. He and a friend would spend many a Saturday here.

"We'd come to two westerns, then they'd have a cartoon and then they would have the next week chapter kinda thing," Anderson said.

Anderson is Chairman of the Liberty's Board of Directors. He says the Liberty didn't just show motion pictures -- the stage was used primarily for vaudeville acts. And the Liberty played a vital role influencing the culture in Columbus as part of the Chitlin Circuit-- a place for outstanding black entertainers who otherwise wouldn't have a place to perform... Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway just to mention a few.

The Liberty even cultivated local talents like singer Fredye Marshall and the mother of blues... Ma Rainey.

But after 50 years of movies, music and hosting black talent, the Liberty closed in 1974.

"When integration came and we were able to go to the Bradley and all theaters that were predominately white, the Liberty went into disrepair," says Anderson.

It sat empty for years.. but managed to withstand the test of time and several owners to become what it is now-- the Liberty Theatre Cultural Center.  And with a one-million dollar grant and some rehabbing, the theater reopened in November 1996.

It wasn't long after, that Director E.L. Stiles came on the scene or stage.. that is. He has directed numerous productions here.

"I don't know how to put it in numbers or years because if I put numbers or years on it, it would account for the gray hairs... laughter," says Stiles. "It's those years of working with raw talent at the Liberty that makes him appreciate all that it has to offer. "It's community theater and it is the ground root of a building or a stage where many of our people, our children or even adults for that matter would not have a chance to go and explore and exhibit their talent."

But unfortunately, community theater isn't enough to keep the doors of the Liberty open. Something Executive Director Dr. Shae Anderson knows all too well.  "It's a rental venue for weddings, parties, special events so those funds, of course, help keep things going," she says.

Not to mention money needed for upgrades... water damage on the walls, carpet is worn, and a list of other problems. But those close to the Liberty are committed to keeping it open. Stiles says he's "very concerned about the punches it takes, the bruises that it takes but it still stands, still going on."

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