Olentangy Park Casino and Theater

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Casino and Theater
Type Music and Performances
Activity Space
Park Section Center
Opened 1899
Closed 1927 (fire)
Fires 1927
Architect Yost & Packard
Frame Wood
Length 250 ft. (76.2 m)
Width 135 ft. (41.2 m)
Height 56 ft. (17.1 m)
Number of Stories 2

The Olentangy Park Casino and Theater was built in 1899 by the architectural firm Yost & Packard and opened on Sunday, May 28, 1899. It served the park and Columbus theatergoers until the park closed in 1937. Built along the banks of the ravine, it featured band performances, vaudeville, and summer stock theater performances, along with areas to relax and enjoy refreshments. Its open-air design allowed performances to run throughout the summer when downtown theaters had to close during the hottest months. It also hosted local events, including Boxwell graduation commencements. Later, air-conditioning made other theaters a bigger competition, affecting the park theater's attendance until most of the structure burned down in 1927.[1] The rest of the building structure was razed in November 1932,[2][3][4] and the 20-foot tall wooden front entrance towers burned down on November 10, 1939.[5]

Description and Background

The rumors of a casino at the park began in December 1898, and plans were drawn by March 1899. Architects Joseph W. Yost & Frank L. Packard designed the building to have a "combination of towers, and turrets and pinnacles, that will rise from broad piazzas, balconies, terraces and a capacious theater." The original location was to be west of the entrance to the park, overlooking the Olentangy River 56 feet (17.1 meters) below. It was to face north and have its entrance at the northeast corner, just before the bridge that spans the ravine.[6] The Columbus Street Railway company said they decided to move the location to be nearer to the center of the park grounds due to the original location being too crowded.[7] It was later revealed that it was moved to make most of the park outside the city limits that ended around the south part of the ravine.[8] The final location was just past the bridge and just west of the refreshment hall (later known as the Colonnade). The building would now face the south, with the theater toward the north. This location allowed the balconies to look over the river and the park.[7]

The casino covered a ground area of 135 feet by 250 feet (41.2 meters by 76.2 meters)[9] and the theater alone of 80 feet by 150 feet (24.4 meters by 45.7 meters) and stood 56 feet (17.1 meters) above the Olentangy River.[10]. There were 11 arches on each side of the loggia and each arch was studded with lamps.[11] The exterior was painted in olive green, surmounted by a red roof. The cornice is decorated with white, and the whole building is covered in foilage. It was covered with electrical lights inside and out.[12] In the center of each tower at the entrance was an arc light, while the entrance archway had a cluster of lamps.[11]

Packard focused on safety, comfort, and "perfection of arrangement." The original cost was $25,000 ($880,400 in 2022)[13] and would include the largest theater capacity in Columbus. The entrance was "a splendid archway rising from artistic flying buttresses of Mansfield stone and [was] surmounted on either side by a belfry where the electrician's art will manifest in dancing colored lights at night." "Easy steps" lead to the loggia or main piazza. The width was so broad that "50 ladies may stroll abreast, arm in arm, from the eastern to the western end and back and have covered two-thirds of the distance an athlete runs in a hundred yard dash." Each side had a promenade and a balcony above them off the mezzanine floor of the theater. Each balcony and nook had a table and comfortable benches where cooling liquids were served, called by electric bells, from the refreshment rooms at the southwest corner of the building. The promenade on the eastern side of the theater led to the ladies' retiring and toilet rooms.[6] The interior color scheme was of reds and cream.[12] The curtain was a dainty spring scene entitled "Apple Blossom Time." The interior was filled with electric lights - 200 incandescents were in the proscenium arch alone.[11]

Within 60 days, 600,000 feet of lumber was used to create the theater.[9] It was an octagonal plan with a bowling floor dropping 10 feet from the entrance to the stage. The actual seating capacity was 3,000 but was made to be comfortably wider, lowering it to 2,248. It seated 1,200 people on the main floor, 600 in the balcony, 400 in the gallery, and 48 in the boxes.[11][14][5] Each row of chairs was 32 inches from back to back and 20 inches wide. Larger chairs were available halfway back and across the theater. There were five aisles, and no row was larger than 10 chairs across.[6] The opera seats had iron frames with gold bronze decor.[11] Four boxes were on either side, beginning at the stage and running back diagonally to the main walls and decorated with Turkish draperies.[12] The mezzanine and balcony had 850 of the seats. The stage was 40 feet by 60 feet[5] - as large as the one at the Great Southern Theater at the time and had six large, airy dressing rooms underneath. There were nine full sets of scenery. The orchestra pit was the largest in the city at the time.

A unique feature of the theater was how the walls opened to the outdoors. Sliding sides and curtains were operated from the stage to obtain wanted darkness.[6] There were six large exits upstairs and six downstairs to allow for evacuation within 2-3 minutes. [11] The structure of the theater was made of wood instead of the common brick or stone, and the scenery was painted by P.J. Toomey of St. Louis.[15] There were numerous large ventilators in the ceiling to provide circulation and fresh air.[11]

A music stand was located at the northwest corner of the loggia, overlooking the river and the grounds.[6] Two bridges crossed the ravine, one of which entered the broad loggia that encircled the entire building. Flagstaffs were at every angle of the roof with flags of "all nations (except Spain)" - being only a year removed from the Spanish-American War.

Extra dressing rooms and reception rooms were added and a complete electric heating system was installed for the 1908 season to make the theater comfortable any time of the year.[16]

Theater owner George Chennell implemented uniforms for theater staff early in its existence.[17]


Please see the season pages for the performances for that season.

Local Pushback Against the Theater

After a push for liquor to be banned from the original Olentangy Villa, alcohol was prohibited on park grounds.[18][19] There were rumors that the residents of Clinton Township would also work to prevent performances, especially on Sundays.[17] It was believed that competing theaters would try to prevent the Olentangy Theater's opening.[20] High Street Theater manager Albert G. Ovens was said to be one of the competing managers behind the movement, but he said he had an agreement with Eli West.[21]

Arrests were threatened against managers and actors based on an affidavit filed before Magistrate Andrews by E.F. Prettyman. The threatened members included George L. Chennell, Doc Quigley, W.G. Vad[?], W.G. Richards, Vernie Ramsey, Bert Coons, Mamie Abt, Viola Abt, Professor E. Abt, McPhee, Hill, Harry and Eva LeReane, Robert Downing, Bonic Clarke, Joseph Williams, Fred Edwards, Freda Gallick, Eleanor Ronaele, Will H. Fox, Fred L. Neddermeyer, Ed J. Gould, Paul Lehman, Cyril Tapa, John Learnmouth, Frederick Darby, John Wall, W.S. Powell, James Whelpley, Charles Morris, and W.T. McCague.[22] The affidavit charged them with participation in an exhibition at Olentangy Park Theater on the theater's opening Sunday, violating the Sunday theater closing law.[21] Magistrate Andrews instructed Constables Thomas and Bell to not make any arrests on that Sunday or disturb the entertainment and to bring them to court later. Magistrate Helwagen had not received any affidavits as of May 29, but he knew they were in the process of being filed despite reports that Constables Logan and Walker were in attendance with warrants.[22]

The following Sunday, June 4, saw thousands of theatergoers, but the theater was closed all day to avoid arrests. Magistrate Andrews said there would be no arrests on a Sunday. Manager Ovens of the High Street Theater continued to deny calling for the arrests, but he claimed the park planned to close ahead of time without stopping the sale of tickets or notice. Ovens claimed the City's Director of Public Safety and the park's largest shareholder, Joeseph W. Dusenbury, or someone acting on behalf of the park, tried to issue their own arrests to control the situation. Ovens also denied targeting nearby Minerva Park, saying Olentangy Park Theater was practically a downtown theater and should be held to the same laws as other local theaters. Dusenbury told the press that Olentangy Park Theater was the only theater closed on Sunday and believed people would want theaters open on Sundays.[23]


For Sunday, June 11, the park theater gave a public announcement that it would open despite the threats of arrests since Magistrate Andrews prevented arrests on Sunday and no actual arrests had been made.[24] However, during the evening performance, several of the male actors were arrested based on warrants issued by Magistrate Helwagen and affidavits filed by Harry Bell. Constable Logan and others working with him arrested Manager George Chennell, Bert Howard, [?] Handy, Frank Young, Joe Allen, William West, and George Fielding. Each had a $100 ($3,570 in 2022) bond to pay before returning to the performance, and they were all paid by Joseph Dusenbury's brother William.[25]

By June 12, the Columbus Pastors' Union adopted a resolution requesting Columbus Mayor Swartz remove Dusenbury from his post as the Director of Public Safety if he continued allowing the theater to operate on Sundays. One reverend, R.B. Patton, requested the mayor remove Dusenbury's partner, Eli West.[26] Similar resolutions were presented by groups such as the Christian Endeavor union,[27][28] the Mt. Vernon Avenue M. E. Church,[29] and the Third Street Epworth League requesting Dusenbury's removal since they feel he was not enforcing the law equally.[30]

Court Cases

Trials began June 14 and were so crowded with participants and spectators to the point of moving to a larger courtroom. Henry Williams and Del Saviers represented the prosecution, while G.H. Bargar and William Dusenbury (brother of Joseph Dusenbury) represented the defense. The hearing was delayed based on the defense's claim that Harry Bell could not pay the court costs. Ovens, manager of the competing High Street Theater, guaranteed the costs would be covered. There were also arguments over the legitimacy of the arrests based on filing dates. Chennell pleaded not guilty.[31] The cases were dismissed by Judge Earnhart on June 17 due partly to the discrepancy between reports of when the affidavits were filed. The prosecution claimed they were filed on Sunday, June 11, the date of the arrest, but they were all dated June 12, with the clerk explaining they were filed after noon that Monday. Another reason for the case dismissal was a suspicion of Bell's motives for filing the affidavits. Judge Earnhart felt they were not sincere, and there wasn't an equal push to close saloons and other places on Sundays.[32][33] Earnhart later explained to the 'Dispatch' that the affidavit was vague on which day the actors performed and could not arrest them without it being specifically on a Sunday.[34]

A letter to the paper's editor asked why the focus has been on Olentangy Park's theater and not it and all the other "sin" happening on Sundays, including baseball games, open saloons, ladies' parlors, and the Minerva Park theater.[35] The Methodist preachers felt the judge shouldn't have questioned the prosecution's motives and proposed a resolution requesting that saloons and theatrical productions be closed on Sundays.[36]

June 18 Riot and Arrests

Constables arrived on Sunday, June 18, to stop the performance and arrest actors again, and this started a riot. A thousand parkgoers pushed back against the constables as they entered the theater. The actors continued to perform during the chaos. While Attorneys Charles Carter and Will J. Dusenbury worked to get the actors off the promenade, the crowd took Constable Abe Lincoln and sent him down 30 feet into the ravine on a toboggan. Lincoln tried to get to a phone for backup, but he was stopped by the crowd. The crowd pushed the police back several feet in coordinated rushes. A peanut stand was overturned, and the general manager of the Goober Pea Emporium came out and joined in the fight.

Since the back entrance was blocked, the constables tried the front of the theater only to escalate the violence. Constables attempted several more times to access the stage and were mostly unsuccessful. Constables Logan and Walker were tossed over the bridge and they landed on the picnic tables in the Grove. The police tried to strike a deal with Eli West, but West said the actors would not change their minds. The crowd almost threw Logan and Walker from the bridge into the ravine 50 feet below.

The constables were instructed by High Street Manager Ovens, who signed the affidavits before the arrests, not to use their guns. Constable Thomas said he only pulled out his revolver to see if the crowd would back away. However, Attorney Carter said he was almost injured when Constable Thomas pulled his gun, shouting at the crowd to stand back. Carter tried to calm him down, ending with a quick fight, and Manager Chennell helped disarm Thomas.

Those inside the theater were unaware of the riot until someone started crawling in through a window, prompting ushers to arm themselves with clubs. Manager Chennell explained the situation to the audience, and the show continued until the end.[37][38]

Thirteen actors and actresses were held on $100 bonds, paid for by attorney Will J. Dusenbury and Manager Chennell. Constable Lincoln said he would file damages against the management of the casino. Warrants were also issued against Chennell, Carter, West, Murphy, Fred C. Krum, Samuel B. Humble, George W. West, John Doe, Joseph Rothschilds, Brooks R. Terry, and others for interfering with the officers.[39][40] All that appeared pleaded not guilty and paid a $100 bond.[41][42] Chief Clerk of the Courts Abe Goldsmith said no arrests would happen the following Sunday in order to avoid more violence.[43] Judge Earnhart said the police force would be ready if another riot began.[44]

Outside City Limits

Director Dusenbury said he had no jurisdiction to enforce laws at the theater because it was outside the city limits, and arrests would need to be made upon state warrants. Theaters were required to close within city limits, but no laws required the same from saloons.[45] Mayor Swartz also said Judge Earnhart had no jurisdiction and could not have a police force enforce city laws at the park.[46]

Court Fight Continues

The fight continued over the legality of the arrests, the cause of the riot, and the potential for other riots, and ended with the dismissal of all the cases.[47] The cases were appealed and heard by Judge Williams,[48] while Judge Earnhart continued to dismiss cases regarding the performances on June 11 and 18.[49] While the cases were waiting to be heard, the pressure from local brewers fearing Sunday closings helped prompt an agreement between Manager Ovens and Manager West, agreeing to not interfere with Sunday shows.[50] The case against Manager Chennell for resisting an officer during the riot was dismissed due to missing information in the affidavit.[51]

Director Dusenbury Removed from Office

After the discovery that the police budget was overbilled to pay for extra officers to work at the park, spending his time in special interest instead of official duties and refusing requests, the Columbus City Council voted to impeach Dusenbury.[52] Director of Law Ira H. Crum replaced him as Director of Public Safety while also serving as mayor while Mayor Swartz was away. However, Dusenbury continued working and said he didn't believe the City Council had the authority to remove him from his post the way they did and said that he was not guilty of the alleged reasons for his dismissal.[53][54] Section 9 of the charter law allowed the City Council by a three-fourths vote to remove him from office for "[neglecting] the duties of such office by absenting himself from his office in the city building, in devoting a large portion of his time to his banking business in which he is interested, and in acting as one of the owners and active managers of Olentangy Park, near this city." There were 15 ayes to three nays.[55]Many believed Dusenbury should have been investigated and faced a hearing prior to a vote for impeachment.[56][53][57] Dusenbury was ultimately found guilty of being absent from his office, hiring extra assistants to do his job while absent, and poor record keeping, most likely due to his other interests taking up his time. He was still employed as the cashier at his bank and the manager of Olentangy Park while trying to serve as the Director of Public Safety.[58]

City Spending Changed

The city held a full 14-day investigation involving 125 witnesses into the misuse of police funds and found that some of the money was used for a "special police force" during the Elk's Fair, but those listed as members never served. Some were scheduled to act as officers but were paid even when they were unable to.[58][59][60][61] The mayor's committee also found that the telephone line to the park, extending from the High Street line to the theater box office, was requested by fire superintendent Lauer on behalf of Dusenbury. It was erected using city funds, but it was supposed to have been paid for by the park management. The line was not paid for since no bill was presented to the park. Water mains were built for the park under similar conditions.[62] The investigations led Columbus leaders to change how city employees were paid.[63]

Continued Push Back Against Sunday Performances

The Columbus Citizens' League was formed at the Wesley Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church and asked Mayor Swartz to have the city police stop any Sunday performances at Olentangy and Minerva parks no later than August 6.[64] Henry T. Chittenden and his attorney E.B. Kinkead filed affidavits against Dusenbury and West for operating a theater on a Sunday--June 23. Chittenden was the owner of the land the park operated upon. He felt the park's Sunday performances led to a drop in attendance and depreciated the property.[65] The case against Dusenbury was dropped due to the theater being outside of the city.[66] Later, all cases regarding Sunday performances were eventually dropped. The new Director of Public Safety, Evans, said Sunday performances would not continue in 1900.[67] Although dropped, the court costs from the cases continued to go unpaid, and at least $150 was still due in February 1900.[68]

Related Lawsuits

Underpaying Furniture Company

In September 1900, the American School Furniture Company sued Eli M. West, Joseph W. Dusenbury, and the Olentangy Park Company for $928.88 ($32,750 in 2022). The furniture company was a trust of the park company, comprised of West and Dusenbury. On April 5, 1899, the Grand Rapids School Furniture Company contracted to sell the park company 1,800 chairs of certain styles, and on May 16, it contracted them to furnish 1,613 more chairs of certain styles. The contract price was $2,679.25 ($94,466) and was to be paid 60 days after the delivery, plus another $92.82 ($3,272) for freight and $241.55 ($8,516) for setting up the chairs. Olentangy Park Company paid only $1,500 ($52,887).[69] Dusenbury and West filed a demurrer to the petition a month later, claiming the facts weren't sufficient for action.[70]


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  4. Classified Ad. The Columbus Dispatch. 8 November 1932. Pg. 21.
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  8. "Without Kids Gloves." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 27 July 1899. Pg. 6.
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  10. "Olentangy Park: Opening Week." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 1 June 1899. Pg. 11.
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  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 "Summer Theatricals." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 13 May 1899. Pg. 14.
  13. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 16 April 1899. Pg. 37. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/107104081/a-new-casino-at-olentangy-park/
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  21. 21.0 21.1 "Constables Were There But Did Not Serve Warrants at Olentangy Casino." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 29 May 1899. Pg. 6.
  22. 22.0 22.1 "Actors and Actresses." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 29 May 1899. Pg. 3.
  23. "Closed Up Tight." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 5 June 1899. Pg. 6.
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  25. "Actors Arrested." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 12 June 1899. Pg. 7.
  26. "Want Him Removed." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 12 June 1899. Pg. 7.
  27. "More Severe Criticism." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 14 June 1899. Pg. 10.
  28. "Christian Endeavorers." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 16 June 1899. Pg. 9.
  29. "After Dusenbery." Chillicothe Gazette (Chillicothe, Ohio). 13 June 1899. Pg. 3. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/107105523/after-dusenbery/
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  31. "The Olentangy Theater: Cases Begin Hearing in Helwagen's Court." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 14 June 1899. Pg. 7.
  32. "A Very Black Eye Given to Prosecution of Olentangy Casino." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 16 June 1899. Pg. 7.
  33. "The Olentangy Cases." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 17 June 1899. Pg. 5.
  34. "Ernhart's Reasons." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 21 June 1899. Pg. 6.
  35. "Some Questions." Columbus Evening Dispatch. Letter to the Editor. 19 June 1899. Pg. 4.
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  37. "Torrid Was Olentangy Heat." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 19 June 1899. Pg. 5.
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  39. "Voluntary Appearance." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 19 June 1899. Pg. 5.
  40. "Resisting an Officer." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 20 June 1899. Pg. 6.
  41. "Gave Themselves Up." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 20 June 1899. Pg. 8.
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  44. "Whole Police Force Will Be At Olentangy Next Sunday." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 22 June 1899. Pg. 8.
  45. "Outside City Limits." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 20 June 1899. Pg. 8.
  46. "The Judge's Authority." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 23 June 1899. Pg. 12.
  47. "Serious Charge." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 23 June 1899. Pg. 10.
  48. "Without Argument." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 24 June 1899. Pg. 7.
  49. "Thrown Out of Court." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 24 June 1899. Pg. 6.
  50. "Calling Together of Laity and Officiary of City Churches." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 26 June 1899. Pg. 8.
  51. "Chennell is Discharged." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 15 July 1899. Pg. 5.
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  54. "He Made His Defense." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 18 July 1899. Pg. 5.
  55. "Cause Of It All." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 18 July 1899. Pg. 5.
  56. "Argued Pro and Con." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 18 July 1899. Pg. 8.
  57. "In Quo Warranto." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 20 July 1899. Pg. 6.
  58. 58.0 58.1 "Simply 'Referred' Was That Long-Looked-For Report." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 8 August 1899. Pg. 5.
  59. "Star Witnesses Investigated By Investigating Committees." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 20 July 1899. Pg. 6.
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  61. Strimple, J.W. "To Re-Elect Him." The Kentucky Post and Times-Star (Covington, Kentucky). 7 Oct 1899. Pg. 3. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/107107764/to-re-elect-him/
  62. "That Telephone Box." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 25 July 1899. Pg. 6.
  63. "A Radical Change In The System of Paying City Employes." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 25 July 1899. Pg. 6.
  64. "Citizens' League Effects the Permanent Organization." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 29 July 1899. Pg. 6.
  65. "West and Dusenbury Warrants Sworn Out for Them To-day." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 4 August 1899. Pg. 7.
  66. "Dusenbury Dismissed." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 6 September 1899. Pg. 8.
  67. "Gambling May Be Abated." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 29 December 1899. Pg. 5.
  68. "To Collect Back Costs." Columbus Evening Dispatch. 14 February 1900. Pg. 7.
  69. "Furniture Company Brings Suit Against Dusenbury, West and Olentangy Park Co." "The Columbus Sunday Dispatch." 9 September 1900. Pg. 6.
  70. "Olentangy Theater Decision." "Saturday Columbus Dispatch." 6 October 1900. Pg. 6.