Thursday, November 29, 2012

More Theatre Stories From Playhouse Square

Ohio Theatre photo by William Gesten/Photo Arts Inc 1975 (The seats strewn about in this photo were the ones removed from the Palace in the fall of 1973)

The day after Christmas 1972 we started doing a lot of work in the Ohio and State. Officially we didn’t take possession until January 1, 1973, but we were there early. Ray and Ceil went on a trip to Seattle that week, while Dennis, Smitty and I spent most of our time in the Ohio. Smitty fired up the heat to at least keep it a bit warm in there. I recall how the steam coils on the back wall of the stage would hammer when the steam hit the condensation in the pipes. It was quite ethereal in there at times. Regardless it was usually pretty cold in there; we were always sucking down either coffee or hot chocolate to try and stay warm. The two warmest places were up at Smitty’s and in the box office, those were the two places to hang out and try to warm up. We piled broken plaster and anything that didn’t seem worthwhile along the house right wall by the exit doors. Kay’s Light Hauling made a number of trips clearing out the debris. We dismantled the picture screen; it had a giant hole cut on the house right side, and was quite unsightly. The frame was cast aluminum; we stacked the pieces on the stage for possible future use. At one point instead of using a ladder I climbed up onto the frame with a wrench, and got my foot stuck for a couple minutes. I still remember ripping up the rotted carpet in the Ohio balcony, under that big leak on the house left side. At first there was no water in either of the two Loew theatres, so we hauled barrels of hot water down the street from the Allen. All this activity sure drew a lot of attention, people were always peering in the windows to see what was going on in the long dormant theatres. At one point Smitty scrounged up some sheets of colored paper from up in the Loew Building and covered the front windows of LaMar's Restaurant, which was in between the State and Ohio.

One night, it must have been in late January/early February 1973 I was sitting in the Ohio box office eating my Royal Castle Giant Hamburger when a couple of policemen wandered in. I told them about how we were working to restore the theatres. They asked if they could look around and I said “sure.” A few minutes later they returned and said “you guys should do something about that leak in there,” and I’m like “what leak?”  They left and I went to investigate. In the fire hose cabinet on the back corner of the house left side of the auditorium the pipe had frozen and split. Water was shooting across the back of the auditorium. It was about the time we had moved the offices out of the Allen into room 810 Keith Building. Smitty and Ray weren’t there, only Ceil was around that night. I went and got her, needless to say neither of us knew where to shut the water off. After several trips back and forth between the Ohio and the Keith Building the fire department was called. Of course they sent a bunch of trucks which created a bit of commotion. Ceil had to sign a release before the fire department would shut off the feed to the fire hoses. However more damage was caused and the main floor buckled after that.

The other main project at that stage was converting Robert McLaughlin’s one time office into suitable living space for Smitty. We paneled over the deteriorating plaster wall along the stairs that led off the top of the grand stairs in the lobby. There was an old storage room at the top with a giant safe that was labeled “Mayfair Casino” which clearly had been there since at least the early 1930’s. There was also an old soda vending machine. Both of these would sit there for years. Down the hall were two rooms, one had some water damage to the ceiling. We scavenged some ceiling tiles from the Cleveland Recording space on the third floor of the Loew Building and built a little breakfast nook in part of the room. What was the main part of the office suite was converted into Smitty’s living room; there was a nice faux fireplace in there along with some walnut paneled walls. We managed to fit a small sink/stove/refrigerator unit into a closet in there. There was some problems with the plumbing, when we turned the water on it looked fine from where I was, but water was shooting out of an old commode in the Ohio dressing rooms. To solve this problem, Smitty ran copper pipe through a small crawlspace from the State mezzanine men’s room over to the Ohio. Smitty scrounged up a small water heater from up in the Loew Building and he was good to go. What was once the mezzanine men’s smoking room was turned into a bedroom. This entire area sat above the grand stairs in the State lobby, and for the next couple months Smitty complained about the cold. You could heat those rooms but along the floor there was a wicked draft. There was party in the Palace on Saturday February 17th; I recall we were all up at Smitty’s the next afternoon eating leftover shrimp.

Sometime early in January 1973 a man named Nick Sponitelli appeared on the scene. Nick was 73 and had worked for Loew’s since 1924 as a stationary engineer. He was an invaluable help in those buildings, since he knew them like the back of his hand. He knew every steam pipe, every water line, how the heating system worked. He set up shop in his old space in the machine room in the basement of the State, which was more or less under the alley between the State and Ohio. Nick had tons of great stories, one involved bootleggers in the Allen projection room. According to him there was a still set up in the room behind the Allen projection room, and one night they were bringing a case of bootlegged liquor down Doge Court when the Feds stopped him. The man dropped the case of liquor and fled. Nick being quick witted popped out one of the basement doors and dragged the booze into the Ohio. When the Feds had caught their prey they returned to the scene and were dismayed that their evidence was gone. The bootlegger was released. He also had stories about how the State would start to fill up before noon when the talking pictures started.  He was a short guy and he could squeeze into some places the rest of us had trouble getting into. I can remember another time when we were doing roof work during the summer of ’73, seeing Nick carrying two five gallon buckets of roof tar, one on each shoulder up to the top of the State balcony.  Nick taught me how to bleed radiators, how each part of the State’s heating system worked. He cleaned out the fan room at the top of the State balcony, and showed me how to operate the big blower fan that circulated heat throughout the building. The blower fan itself was a monument to an earlier age; it was about 10 feet in diameter and ran off a belt and a big General Electric DC motor. You didn't push an on/off button like the one in the Allen.. It had a big rheostat that you slowly edged on until full speed was reached.  It was always a big thrill to turn that on. Unfortunately Nick was only with us about a year, in January 1974 he suffered a stroke and I believe he passed away not long afterwards.  He was such a font of knowledge, I regret not writing down the things he told me.

The first major thing we did in the State, probably sometime in February, or early March was the removal of the Cinerama screen. The screen frame was two foot wide scaffolding that went from the floor up to the top of the proscenium arch, curving across the front of the stage. The screen itself was a series of ribbons running top to bottom, slightly angled as they went round to prevent the picture from bouncing to the opposite side. I was the one lucky enough to be the one who unbolted the valance at the top. It was a fairly simple process, unbolting brackets one at a time until a section tore loose and crashed to the floor below making a tremendous noise that would echo in the empty auditorium. There were a series of planks that ran around the top of the frame, at one point I accidentally kicked one loose and it crashed to the floor. So I guess it wasn't all fun and games. It was slow and tedious work dismantling the rest of the Cinerama frame. I wasn't there the night when Smitty thought it would be easier to tie ropes to the top of the scaffold sections and pull them over. Smitty rounded up a bunch of the semi-regulars, not totally sure who, Poe, Kevin, Chuck and a few others would be a good guess. This resulted in popping a few good sized holes in the proscenium where the frame was bolted.  However it certainly was much easier to dismantle when you weren't twenty feet in the air, worrying about falling. Part of the framework would be later used to support the Brel set.

There were a few shows at the Allen around this time as well, Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn on Friday February 9. There were two shows at 7 and 10, produced by Music Unlimited. There was also a Roy Buchanan show at the Allen on Friday, February 23, it was produced by a guy named James Wholey. I remember having to get on the truck and show them how to get to the stage door, if memory serves me it was sold out. Another show at the Allen in early ’73 was the “Authorized Concert Version” of Jesus Christ Superstar, which ran the week of Monday April 2 through Sunday April 8. That did considerable business, but it also interfered with the ongoing preparations of Brel which was a few weeks away in the State. I recall when people asked questions about the show, we had to say “authorized concert version’ and no more than that.

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