Rialto Theater Report Part 1 — 3-12-09
COLUMBUS, GA. — It was the passing of my uncle Billy Cutchen that took my family and me to Panama City, Florida. While it was sad to bid farewell to my uncle, it was good to see my family and introduce many of them to my new wife Melanie. After the funeral, we took our time driving home. I wanted to stop in Columbus and show Melanie several of my old haunts. We drove past the house where I grew up, past Hardaway High where I went to school, and then we drove downtown. I wanted to show her the Bradley Theater. She had heard the stories of the “Save the Bradley” project that I had told her over the year and a half that we had been married. She spotted the theater as we turned onto Broadway, its marquee empty and its poster cases bare. We parked and walked into the entrance area and pressed our faces to the locked doors.
“There used to be a second set of doors at the bottom of the first foyer,” I explained, “And where the restrooms are is where the concession used to be.”
I pointed out as much as I could and we then walked back out onto the sidewalk. As we talked I noticed that something was going on three doors down. There was some kind of construction and the front of
the building was being removed.
“That was the Rialto Theater,” I said as we walked towards the building. “I wonder what’s going on?”
I recognized the old wood and glass doors that were the entrance to the theater. One of the glass panes was broken out so I thrust my head in.
“Cool!” I exclaimed. “There’s where the concession was and the stairs that lead up to the balcony. I ran the last reel of film in this theater.”
I poked around the front of the Rialto for a few more minutes but could find no contact information or any clue about what was going on. Just then a sales rep from Raymond Rowe Furniture Company stepped outside the store. I introduced myself and asked if he knew what was going on at the Rialto. He only knew that he had seen workmen there but he had no idea what was happening. I thanked him and walked back to the Rialto. I took my business card and slipped it through the broken window with the hope that someone would call. We then drove for home.
I never got a call from anyone with the Rialto but I did get a call from my friend Robert Starling who now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. Robert told me that his mom worked with a Chris Woodruff in Columbus and that Chris had bought the Bradley Theater. He told me that I ought to call Chris and find out what he’s going to do with the Bradley. I thanked Robert for his call. I still have many friends in Columbus and over the past 25 years I have received newspaper clippings, emails, and phone calls about the Bradley. It seems that people think I need to be kept abreast of the latest goings on with the old theater. I thought about Robert’s call for a few hours and finally decided that it couldn’t hurt to call Chris Woodruff and see what was going on. They say you can reach anyone in the world within 7 phone calls. It only took 1 and I had Chris on the line. I introduced myself and asked what was happening with the Bradley. Chris told me that he wasn’t sure exactly what they were going to do with the building just yet.
“By the way, what’s going on with the Rialto?” I asked.
“Oh, that belongs to my friend Reynolds Bickerstaff. You ought to give him a call.”
Chris gave me Reynolds phone number and told me that if I would like to come to Columbus that he’d be glad to give me a tour of the Bradley. Within minutes I had Reynolds on the phone. I told him that I’d be down in a few days to visit the Bradley. He said that he’d be glad to meet me and show me the Rialto.
The following Wednesday, January 28th, Melanie and I drove to Columbus and to the Bradley. We met Chris Woodruff and he gave us a tour of the Bradley. There’s really not much left of the theater that I saved but it was nice to visit the grand old theater once again. Afterward, we met Reynolds outside the Rialto. After introductions all around, we went into the theater. It didn’t occur to me that there would be no power in the building and it was very dark inside. The only light was a tiny LED light on Reynolds key chain. There are no seats in the auditorium so I started towards the screen.
“Careful!” Reynolds called. “The floor was damaged close to the screen. There had been a bad leak in the roof and over the years it rotted the floor.”
In the faint light, I could see that the screen was still there but vandals had torn holes in it. We then made our way back to the lobby and felt our way up to the balcony. My object was the projection booth. Melanie stayed close to Reynolds tiny light as I charged up the empty balcony and stumbled up the stairway that leads into the booth. It was as dark as pitch as I felt my way about the room. In a moment Reynolds entered the booth with his faint light just as I bumped into the rewind table.
“I rewound the last reel of film on this table,” I bragged.
Reynolds light did little to illuminate the room and we soon left and made our way back outside and onto the sidewalk. I thanked Reynolds for his time.
“John, if you had the Rialto, what would you do with it?”
I was really caught off guard. It wasn’t something that had crossed my mind.
“Well, I guess I’d show movies on it, but that’s just me,” I said trying to come up with an answer on the spur of the moment.
“I’d like to see a multi-purpose venue,” Reynolds explained. “I’d like to see a facility that would be a place for smaller functions, concerts, recitals, movies, and so on.”
“Well, I can tell you from experience, a downtown movie theater won’t work,” I said remembering my experience with the Bradley.
“Things have changed since you were here,” he continued. “There are now apartments and condominiums downtown and Columbus College has campus’ here as well.”
I wasn’t convinced but I told him that I would think about it and we parted.
For several days I gave the Rialto a lot of thought. If there were more people in the downtown area perhaps it could work. I decided to call Reynolds.
“I know we say things in the excitement of the moment and we might see things differently later on, but what did you mean by ‘if I had the Rialto’?” I asked.
“I meant what I said. We could form a partnership. I’m not interested in the day-to-day operation of a theater. You have the experience and I have the building.”
“I’ll tell you upfront, I have no money. My boss has cut my hours and we’re just trying to keep the lights on just now but if you’re willing to let me invest my experience and equipment, then count me in.”
With that, I had become involved with the Rialto Theater. I told Reynolds that I would be down in a few days to take some measurements.
I did take my measurements and by the middle of February, I was ready to start moving in my equipment. I’m a member of a film and equipment forum and I posted the following message:
“The Rialto Theater is even more alive now than in my last post. I loaded up one of my Super Simplex’s today (2/17/09) and hauled it 100 miles to Columbus, GA. I wondered how I would get the thing out of my truck, up to the balcony, and into the booth. Now, Mormon Missionaries are always looking for service projects and I had a doozy! I made the call to see if a couple of guys were free. They’re glad to get out of knocking doors. Instead of two, I got four! They made quick work of the projector head and sound head. Then we all tackled the base. After much grunting and groaning, we finally got everything into the booth. The guys then oohed and awed at the dilapidated old theater and then left me to my work. I began to put the whole contraption together.
No theater is complete without music so I set to work tracing out the old speaker wires. There is no power in the building so I brought a lot of extension cords to plug into an outlet in a flower bed in front of the theater. In the faint glow of my work light on the balcony, I climbed an old ladder behind the screen and found where the speakers once were. Next to that place was a junction box with a length of speaker wire hanging out. The insulation crumbled in my hands. Using on of my extension cords as a rope. I pulled a 10” speaker in a cabinet onto the platform behind the screen. I replace the old speaker wire with a new one and wired the speaker up. Then I went back to the booth to find the other end of the wire. There is an old Simplex cabinet in the booth where the amp once was so I wired up my little PA amp, hooked up a CD player and began to touch the wires in the cabinet. I once had one of those amps but I couldn’t remember which lugs were the outputs. Suddenly the auditorium filled with the “Indiana Jones” theme and I knew I had it right. Now I could work on the projector.
It took only a few minutes to assemble the projector, attach the 6000′ reel arms, and install the take-up belt. I then wired the sound pickup to my PA amp and all I got was a terrible buzz! For two hours I soldered and resoldered when it dawned on me that I had a bad patch cable. I replaced the cable and suddenly had a signal from the solar cell. I then grabbed my print of “Ernest Rides Again” I threaded the machine and stood for a moment with my finger on the motor switch. I remembered that I ran the last reel of film in the Rialto’s booth 35 years ago and I was now about to run the 1st reel in 35 years. This was an important moment and I savored it. I flipped the switch and the auditorium filled with the film’s soundtrack. After a moment I turned it off and knew what I had to do next. My little Orcon 1000 lamp house was still in the truck and it weighs almost 100 LBS. I went to the truck and hefted the lamp house. One of the workers who is rebuilding the theater’s façade raced over and helped me carry the lamp to the booth and we sat it on the floor. I had tools on the base that would have to be moved before the lamp could be placed but I was too tired to go any farther. It was now 4:00 and my bowl of Cheerios had long since worn off and I was getting pretty shaky. I went down the street and got a sandwich.
When I returned the workmen were gone but there was a silver-haired gentleman in front of the theater. It was my uncle Carson Jones. He is now in his 80’s and had once been an operator and had worked the Rialto. We climbed to the booth and he mused at how many years it had been since he had been in that booth. I asked him if he wanted to help me get a picture on the screen and he jumped at the chance. I had to run another extension cord just for the lamp because I knew the one cord wouldn’t handle the load. In a few minutes, I had the cord run and I struck the lamp. Again I turned on the motor and opened the dowser. We had the picture all across the ceiling. I began to turn the big adjustment wheel under the lamp house and the picture slowly crept down the top masking and finally centered on the screen. I let the entire 6000′ reel run even after Uncle Carson had to leave. So there I sat in a balcony and auditorium with no seats, watching the first movie shown in the Rialto in 35 years, all by myself.”
Next Report We work on the rotted floor! by John Gilbert, Columbus, Ga