Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Playhouse Square: Winter and Spring 1974

View of the stage from the balcony, circa early 1975. The big red drapes on the sides of the stage hide the damage done from the 1956 Cinerama installation. Photo by William Gesten/Foto Arts Inc.

With Brel running in the State lobby, and Porter in the Palace the days became routine. By the time the Cole Porter show opened in the Palace, I was semi-comfortably ensconced in the Palace projection room at the top of the balcony. “The Booth” as it came to be known was pretty much out of the way at the time, way atop the balcony, no one would go up there unless they really needed to see me. A steep stairway led from the top aisle of the balcony up to the projection room. In the room there was a pair of Super Simplex projectors, stripped of their lamp houses. An ancient RCA amplifier stood near the middle of the room. I put a desk in front of the port were a Brenkert Master Brenograph once stood. I could slide the port open and see the auditorium and stage down below. Next was a small room with a pair of line ballasts for the projectors. Beyond that was a large room, with a workbench, and a window overlooking 17th street. The window had a built in fan that became quite useful once the hot summer weather set in. There was also a pair of Hall & Connolly spotlights, and a F-7 Master Brenograph. Most of the power up there was DC, but there were a few AC circuits. I also stripped a bunch of insulation off steam lines running across the ceiling that fed an office on the 6th floor of the Keith building, which was directly overhead. At night you could hear the cleaning ladies vacuuming the floor up there.  I scrounged up a few decent chairs, and a wicker lounge that came from a loft above the stage. Over the next few weeks, around the time Porter opened I got a cheap stereo from Ken Purdy who was moving to Florida. This became something of a home away from home for the next couple of years.
Brenkert Master Brenograph ad from Motion Picture News, July 14, 1928. "Projects everything but the picture."

I ran the stereo through a pair of the surround sound speakers salvaged from the main floor, it did not sound very good at all, so I went back to the ones that came with the stereo. Since we were dark on Monday and Tuesdays I would stop by, see what was going on, maybe do a little work, then go chill out up in the booth, play records, read books and sometimes even do some schoolwork.

The typical routine became getting there around 3:30, dropping my stuff off at the booth, maybe playing a record or two, then getting ready for Brel. Russell and I would empty the trash behind the bars, fill up ice buckets and man the coat check by 6 for the early arrivals. I didn’t have much to do with the day to day operation of the Cole Porter show in the Palace. The coat check for Brel which had been dumped on us back in April of 73 since no one else wanted it was quickly turning into a gold mine for us.
Ad from the Plain Dealer Action Tab, January 11, 1974.

As the winter set in, I started fooling around the equipment that was up there. I dragged one of the Hall & Connolly spotlights to the spotlight port and hooked it up. It was with great trepidation when I first powered it up, this was some serious electricity flowing through it, 220 VDC, so I was pretty cautious. The first time I tried to arc the carbons I melted a pair of the contact jaws.. Later I put some new ones on and was able to actually get the carbons to arc and throw a spot down onto the stage. There was one special effect that could be used with the spotlights, or the Brenograph, a waterfall. This was a big cylinder that could be slid onto the front of the spotlight. There was a wheel that could be spun to give the effect of a waterfall, crude but effective. Not long after this I started reading the Simplex manuals, figuring out how they worked. There was an old Hall & Connolly lamphouse crated up in the basement of the State, under the stage. One day I got Russell to help me haul it up to the Palace booth and eventually I hooked it up and I was able to successfully project a picture onto the back wall of the stage. There were a bunch of old trailers in a closet at the top of the stairs, some of nitrate stock that had partially desinigrated, eating away at the cans they were in. Some of the others were Dupont safety film; I think the one I used was “Happy New Year, 1952.” I seem to recall a few people who were a bit stunned to see that flickering across the back wall of the Palace stage.

Hall & Connolly ad, Motion Picture News, December 1931. This is pretty much identical to the pair that were in the Palace.
Simplex ad from Motion Picture News, February 1937. The top right one would be similar to the ones in the Palace, but with different lamp housings.

Later I figured out how the Photophone sound system worked. I got a good exciter lamp at Ohio Theatre Supply one day after school and replaced the old one. I fired up that ancient RCA amp and Old Lang Syne played while I ran the Happy New Year trailer! I fed the sound into the remaining surround sound speakers in the balcony. Not long afterwards I hooked the turntable into the system. At first It didn’t sound too good. Jeff Williams suggested I needed to hook it up at 88 ohms since there were 11 8 ohm speakers. I did and the sound in the Palace balcony was outtasite.  Soon the Palace balcony became the place to be after the shows on Friday and Saturday nights. A bunch of us would hang out there for awhile, Russell, Jeff Williams, Billy Barnett, Randy Leitch, and a few others, talking about current events, like the Patty Hearst kidnapping, smoking, listening to Beatles, Pink Floyd, Kinks etc sometimes at deafening levels.
RCA Photophone amplifier, similar to, but not the same as the one in the Palace. From International Projectionist, September 1935.

It was around this time a small tunnel was dug under the State lobby.There were a bundle of cables that ran across the lobby for lighting and sound. There was a thin sheet of plywood and carpet that covered them, but it was still something of a trip hazard. To remedy this a tunnel was dug, connecting the two access tunnels that ran on either side of the lobby. This would have been the time Todd Reeves started working during the day. Todd and Smitty, mostly Todd, toiled at this task for probably several weeks, some of the digging was done with spoons. Once this task was completed, the trip hazard was removed.
Slade / Iggy Pop at the Allen, ad from the Plain Dealer, December 30, 1973.

There were quite a few shows at the Allen during the early part of 1974, such as Slade/Iggy Pop, Wishbone Ash, Suzi Quatro and Mott the Hoople.  A bunch of us went to see Hawkwind, on Friday March 22, and later to the sold out back to back Genesis shows on April 28-29. Most of our attention at the time was on the day to day operations of the Palace and Loew’s State. I was in charge of heating the State lobby for Brel. It was a bit of a hassle at times, the Brel actors didn't want the radiators hissing during the show. This meant a trip to the main steam valve which was under the floor of the State auditorium, the back house right corner. I had to go backstage and go through a tunnel trying not to bang my head on the numerous pipes. This trip was done several times a night, turning it on and off before the show, intermission, and after the show. The main blower system would be turned on a few hours before showtime. It was located in the fan room off the top of the State balcony. It was always a thrill to power the fan up with the big rheostat and get that big motor running. Waiters and busboys were always complaining to me about it being too hot, but I always kept it at about 70 degrees, and closely monitored the thermometers scattered in various locations in the lobby.  It was more important that the patrons not feel cold.

Belkin Productions ad from the Plain Dealer Action Tab, April 26, 1974.

Sometimes I would stay so late at the Palace, or after some of the Allen shows, I would stay all night, usually Friday nights,  I would just get a few hours of sleep and be ready for whatever needed to get done the following mornings.  Helen and Flo would clean up after Brel and Porter. Some nights I would get a ride home from Helen, who was a very nice lady. Sometimes she would bring a neighbor girl of hers to help out. This got my attention, but aside for a few talks nothing ever became of it.

Sometime that January Nick Spontelli had a stoke, I believe he passed away not long afterwards. He was a great guy, and I never would have known how any of the heating system worked without him.

Once it started warming up there was always roof-work to do. Battling the leaks was a constant activity. In the warm months we’d be up there trying to patch the leaks, to mixed success. In the colder months we’d be crawling around above the ceiling with buckets and bus pans trying to catch as much water as possible. Some leaks taunted us. On the roof of Loew’s State there was a big crack that ran from the peak of the roof all the way down, every year we would patch that but could never stop it. It always reopened somehow. We went crazy trying to stop that one.

The Cole Porter show in the Palace closed Sunday, April 28, 1974, but Brel kept packing them in. Above the lobby of Loew's State during Brel, photo by William Gesten/Foto Arts Inc.

1 comment:

Tom Bindernagel said...

I met Frank while restoring the State Theater and he was just a kid. He had grown up fast and was living on his own at the theaters for nothing which was a good thing since none of us had much money. He was 16 years old I believe and knew the guts of the theaters inside out. After laying on my back for hours painting on our scaffolding a break was in order and a walking tour lead by Frank was always an exciting adventure.
One day Frank took us up, up and away to the outside roof of the theaters. As we open the hatch door, the sunlight was blinding and after our theater eyes adjusted we had a beautiful view of Lake Erie, downtown and both sides of the Cuyahoga River.
Frank always had a unique tour up his sleave for us and as we sat and ate our gyros sandwiches from the Parthenon restaurant across Euclid Avenue we talk of our dream of restoring the theaters to their former glory!
Best regards Frank,
Tom Bindernagel