It’s a romance that has spanned four decades.
Ken LaZebnik first fell in love as a wide-eyed 6-year-old when he crept into the Missouri Theatre with his mother to see “some huge movie from the 1960s, maybe ‘Mary Poppins’ or ‘The Sound of Music,’ ” and gazed up at the massive chandelier hanging from the ceiling by a few thin wires.
“I was completely taken aback by the incredibly ornate decorations of the theater,” he said. “All I could think of was how huge the chandelier was and how much it must weigh and what would happen if it ever fell down. From that time on, I always made sure not to sit right under it.”
The love affair continued for LaZebnik as a teenage usher at the theater, occasionally sneaking Junior Mints from unpackaged boxes or sipping Coke from ice scoops to avoid getting caught.
“At that time, (the owners) had us do a cup inventory every night to determine how many drinks were sold,” he said. “Sanitation wasn’t a very high priority, so we’d take a few candies and then reclose the boxes. For years since, I’ve gone to theaters and noted that the Junior Mints boxes always seem only half full.”
Now a screenwriter, artistic director and visiting professor of film at Stephens College, LaZebnik found comfort in his old friend this past summer during the premiere of “A Prairie Home Companion,” a film he co-wrote that was directed by Robert Altman and starred Meryl Streep, Lindsay Lohan and John C. Reilly. The movie’s premiere at the Missouri Theatre was the fourth-largest opening in the country for the film, only behind theaters in New York City and Los Angeles, according to indiewire.com, a Web site that tracks opening weekend revenues for independent and specialty movie releases.
“It was so special to have a great audience in a theater I love so much,” LaZebnik said. “It was touching to somehow feel like I was a part of the renaissance of these two great Columbia places: Stephens College and the Missouri Theatre.”
The Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts is requesting favorite memories from community members like LaZebnik for a second edition of a history book sold at its box office.
The Missouri Theatre opened on Oct. 4, 1928, with a performance by the Missouri Orchestra and a viewing of “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” The Missouri Symphony Society bought the building in 1988. The owners now are working to raise money for renovation of the arts center.
The first edition of the history book sells at the theater for $10, and proceeds go to the theater’s general operating fund.
Missouri Theatre spokeswoman Kanani May said the second edition of the book is not a “money-making endeavor” but a response to community demand for an updated version.
“The Missouri Theatre has gone through this major transition recently, and we think another book would be very worthwhile,” she said. “We’re planning it because the history of the theater is important and the community has a continued interest in it.”
May said community members have sent e-mails and letters and soon will be able to submit memories on the theater’s Web site, motheatre.org.
“From the day I first walked in here six years ago, everyone has just had wonderful stories about the theater,” May said. “The most popular one we hear is ‘We had our first date’ or ‘We had our first kiss here.’”
LaZebnik said the Missouri Theatre is an “essential component” of Columbia’s art community and Stephens College. The school’s production of “Babes in Arms” was held there in the fall.
“I see Columbia as becoming a major arts hub in the Midwest,” he said. “The downtown is the heart of the city, and having a vital downtown center for the arts is crucial for Columbia’s cultural health. (The Missouri Theatre) is a tremendous theater space.”