Hear and now: Former Orlando REP director conquers hearing loss
West Orange resident Gene Columbus noticed problems with his hearing while working for Disney in the 1980s, but that didn’t stop him from living a lifelong career in show business.
| 2:48 p.m. July 31, 2019
The start of Gene Columbus’ lifelong career in musical theater and entertainment can be traced back to a simple teenage crush he had on his sister’s best friend.
“I started my career thanks to my sister who was taking dance lessons, and her best friend was the most beautiful girl in the whole world,” Columbus said. “I was 14. She was 16, and she needed a dance partner. She was absolutely mortified to have to dance with her best friend’s little brother, but I was perfectly fine with the situation.”
Although he never went out with the girl, that crush led Columbus to taking ballet classes, which got him into doing musical theater. He would then go on to work a 38-year career in entertainment and show business with the Walt Disney Company and later worked an 11-year career as executive director of The Orlando Repertory Theatre. But his lifelong success in entertainment didn’t come without its challenges. Columbus has suffered from hearing loss since the 1980s.
“At one point, it became apparent that my ability to hear was making it more and more difficult for me to navigate,” Columbus said. “In the early years when I was with Disney, I was a stage manager, and as a stage manager, I wore headsets. Back in the 1970s, technology was not very good. There were no limiters (on the headsets) or any squelching down of the really loud, loud noises. … I’m a living example of the kind of damage that would be the consequences of that (type of noise).”
Over the years, the 78-year-old West Orange resident tried various hearing aids, but it still was difficult for him to hear anything. Oftentimes, he would have to rely on the help of others to explain things to him at a loud volume. Although he struggled to hear throughout much of his life, that all changed in January after he received cochlear implants that helped improve his hearing.
Columbus was born in Pennsylvania but was raised in Denver, Colorado. He also lived in Los Angeles for a number of years, and although he started his career in entertainment as a ballet dancer, he earned extra money doing film work in L.A.
In 1970, Columbus began a career with the Walt Disney Company that would span decades. He got his start with Walt Disney Productions working with a national/international touring arena show called “Disney On Parade.”
“I spent about seven years touring the United States, Canada, Mexico, South America, Central America, London, South Africa, Australia (and) New Zealand,” Columbus said. “It was like going to grad school (for entertainment). It was quite an extensive learning experience, not only for the company, but for me.”
After touring the globe, Columbus went to Walt Disney World in 1977 to work as an entertainment manager. Much of the work he did involved productions and managing “all aspects of entertainment,” he said. A few years after going to Disney, he noticed something wrong with his hearing.
“When I finally went to a doctor, the doctor asked me if I was in the military because the ear damage was similar to that of somebody that was firing off a Howitzer,” Columbus said. “(I had) severe damage. My eardrums were scarred in my right ear more so than my left at that point.”
Columbus added that his hearing loss developed over time. After finding out the extent of the damage to his hearing, Columbus’ career with Disney moved on to staffing, interviewing and evaluating employees.
“Now I look back on those young people that I interviewed and we hired for Walt Disney World, and they’re the ones running the place now,” he said.
The Joy of Hearing
Despite the damage to his hearing, Columbus never let it get in the way of working in entertainment. He retired from Disney in 2008 and went on to serve as the executive director of The Orlando Repertory Theatre until his recent retirement in July. Although he got his cochlear implants in January, it wasn’t until recently that he was able to enjoy the fullest extent of a theatrical production.
“For a very long time, I could not hear, and going to the theater became extremely difficult,” Columbus said of his life before the implants.“I came to see a show here (at The Orlando REP) last night … and how joyful it was to sit in the audience and be able to hear the dialogue (and) to hear and understand the lyrics. My goodness, I have been missing out now for a very long time. It’s almost like going back to the theater again for the first time.”
In addition to the work he’s done with Disney and The Orlando REP, Columbus has also done a lot of volunteer work related to the arts, and once received the Volunteer of the Year award from United Arts of Central Florida. Much of his volunteer work revolved around the production fundraiser for Edgewood Children’s Ranch, which he’s been involved with for the past 36 years. He’s also worked on productions for the UCP Gala for the past 21 years. He was a professor at UCF as well and plans to teach there again in the fall.
Throughout all those years of show business and volunteering in the arts, Columbus always has had to overcome his hearing loss. In spite of that, he’s conquered it all with a smile.
“I’m a joyful person and I always try to look at the brighter side of life,” he said. “Having severe hearing loss should not be a deterrent for people to continue to bring value (to their lives).”