The Drexel Theatre, the independent film house anchoring Bexley’s main drag, is the only place in Columbus that features a manual-lettering marquee. Driving along Main Street, your eye is caught by the theatre’s iconic 1930s art-deco neon sign, and fixed by the fat black letters that spell out, across the marquee, the titles of the compelling, acclaimed, and often quite quirky films that are on view or coming soon. If you’re lucky, you can sometimes see a Drexel employee on a ladder underneath the marquee, changing one film title out for another. It’s deliciously retro and ostentatiously charming: among the crowded multiplexes and scuffed-floor big-box theatres in the malls and outlying suburbs of Columbus, here is this little theatre which shows obscure films and advertises its features the old-fashioned way, which has somehow managed to survive.
It is this against-all-odds survival which illustrates just how special the Drexel is. In the early 2010s, facing dwindling sales caused by a stagnant economy and a seeming lack of interest in independent film programming, the Drexel began to inch towards oblivion. But those in the know recognized the uniqueness of the theatre, and feared the impact that such a loss would make. Opportune partnerships with the Bexley Community Foundation and the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA), along with the establishment of the Friends of the Drexel, not only saved the business from financial collapse but raised enough money to give the Drexel a complete renovation, including the construction of a new roof, the expansion of restrooms and concessions stands, and the installation of new upholstery. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, the Drexel’s benefactors pushed for the theatre to be added to the National Register of Historic Places, making it only the fifth building in the old Columbus neighborhood of Bexley to be named to that esteemed list. It’s a rags-to-riches redemption arc which could only be described as cinematic.
As a thank-you to the community for its saving and sustaining efforts, the Drexel pioneered a monthly free event which unites film lovers and packs the theatre’s seats: on the first Tuesday of each month, the Drexel screens a film selected from the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best American films and invites Jonathan Sherman, Associate Professor of Film at Kenyon College and Bexley native, to introduce the film and take questions from the audience after the screening. The first-Tuesday movies are a lively, robust, and inclusive example of community programming; moreover, they’re one of my favorite monthly activities. Since the program started in 2016, I’ve seen Some Like It Hot, Midnight Cowboy, Vertigo, The Apartment, and The Philadelphia Story at the Drexel, learning bits of trivia and considering interpretive lenses supplied by Professor Sherman, and greatly enhancing my film-snob clout. Apart from the impeccable selection of films, one of the most exciting things about the monthly event is that it always packs the theatre: I’ve never been to a first-Tuesday feature where there’s a single seat left unfilled, and more than once I’ve been turned away after all of the tickets have been distributed. (A disappointing fate, but not a devastating one––in both cases, I just decided to spend money on a ticket to see one of the theatre’s contemporaneous features, and in neither did I regret it). All kinds of people show up to the movies––old people, young families, high-schoolers, Capital University students, and even sometimes Professor Sherman’s colleagues from Kenyon College. All kinds of people stick around for the Q&A after the film, and all kinds of people feel comfortable enough to unleash their often unexpected cinematic opinions on the rest of the audience.
It’s truly incredible to witness––as much as the Drexel is an unmistakable and irreplaceable part of our community (it’s just as quintessentially Bexley as Block’s Bagels, Jeffrey Mansion, and the rambling old houses along Parkview Avenue, in my view), the theatre also grows and sustains microcosmic communities within its dark walls once a month, on every first Tuesday. As much as we may feel that the Drexel belongs to us, it’s clear––we also belong to it, in a cozy, communal sort of way just as timeless and unique as that neon sign shining brilliantly over the marquee.