SAVE THE BRADLEY – Chapter 3
It was a hot summer day as summer days in Columbus always are. I was working at Columbus Photo Service and for some extra money I had taken an odd job at a day care center repairing a kiddie train. It was pulled by an old golf cart made to look like a locomotive. For two weeks I had sanded, painted, repaired the train and got it running. I was within a few minutes of having the job finished when I had an accident. While attempting to move the train onto the driveway, my pants leg caught on a bolt on the drive shaft and pulled my leg into the spinning shaft. My ankle was badly broken. For the next several weeks I lay in bed out of work. Columbus Photo had no accident benefits. No work, no pay.
I had many hours to ponder Hollywood & Vine. If we couldn’t show films at the college where could we show them? There had to be a place. Even the pain of a broken leg didn’t dim my dreams of a classic theater.
It was on July 14th that I was turning the many places John and I had visited over in my mind when I remembered the Bradley Theater sitting empty downtown. I wondered what equipment was left in the building, what shape it was in, and what the owners planned to do with it. I picked up the phone and called Frank Boucher the manager of the Plaza Theater. The Plaza was a Plitt Theater and I knew that they owned the Bradley. Frank gave me the phone number of the Atlanta district office and told me to ask for a John Huff. I got Mr. Huff on the phone and asked him the status of the Bradley.
“It’s for sale,” he answered. “What would you want with an old theater like that?”
“I want a place to show old movies,” I answered.
“Do you know what a place like that would cost to run?” he asked.
Tear down the Bradley! A sudden panic raced through my mind. It was the first air conditioned building in Columbus. My father had managed the Bradley in 1942. It was where my cousin Melvin and I had gone to see “The Three Stooges in
Orbit”. It was the place where thousands of kids had saved up six RC bottle caps that would admit them to a Saturday morning movie. Above all, it had been the most beautiful theater in Columbus.
“Oh no!” I almost shouted. “We can’t let that happen. I’d like to hold my news conference inside the building if that would be all right.”
“Just tell Frank what you need and he’ll help you out,” suggested Mr. Huff, “And call me in two weeks.”
I wasted no time in getting the word out to all of the TV and radio stations and to the newspapers and on Monday the 20th I kicked off the Save the Bradley campaign.
Channels 3 and 38 came with their cameras, several radio stations with their microphones, and the newspapers with their note pads and flashbulbs. With crutches to support me, I announced that there was a possibility that the Bradley would fall victim to the wrecking ball and there was an urgent need to save the Bradley. I ran a 16mm film clip showing happy workers restoring the Springer Theater and said that the same should be done for the Bradley. The obvious question on the minds of the reporters was where would the money come from. I announced the formation of Columbus Restorations Inc. a non-profit corporation with the goal of raising the money to purchase and restore the Bradley.
The conference went well and that night I sat in front of the TV set to watch Dick McMichael of TV3 Eyewitness News. (Oh how I wish there had been VCRs in those days. I did record the story on an old VTR that I had but the tape has long since been erased) The story was well done I thought and at the end of the story Dick added that he had once been an usher at the Bradley. I was glad to know this because he had been my news director when I worked at WRBL and I had always thought the world of him. Now we had a common bond.
As soon as the stories were finished my phone started ringing. Dozens of people called to tell me memories of the Bradley and to wish me good luck but I knew that it would take more than luck to save the Bradley. Then my neighbor brought over the evening paper. Wow! The “A” section front page with four large photos.
EFFORT UNDER WAY TO RENOVATE, OPEN CLOSED MOVIE HOUSE
John Gilbert has a $150,000 dream.
With some help from friends
and fellow movie buffs he can
make it come true in the next ten days.
Even the newspaper reporters knew that I was a dreamer. Everyone knew that I wouldn’t be able to raise that kind of money in ten days but actually, that wasn’t the point. The point was to get the word out that the theater was in danger of being torn down. It was to get the ball rolling towards showing Plitt Theaters that there was enough interest in buying the building so that they would not go ahead with their demolition plans. Time was of the essence.
My phone kept ringing with well-wishers. I told Angie that if I had a dollar from every well-wisher the Bradley would be in no danger. One caller turned out to be Dan Bohannan a former co-worker and dear friend. Dan suggested that I talk with Emily Woodruff who was an enthusiastic patron of the arts and a supporter of the Springer Theater. On July 22nd I met with Miss Emily and found her to be very receptive to the idea. My hopes soared when she promised to make a contribution when we were ready to start a fund drive. I felt now I was really on my way.
The next day I appeared on the “Rozell Show” to talk about the project. From there, I went to Channel 38 and taped an interview that would run Sunday. There was certainly no lack of interest in saving the Bradley.
On the 27th I called Mr. Huff and told him all that had happened in the past two weeks. He seemed to think that was a good start and said that he would hold off on any demolition plans for the time being. He said to keep him abreast of any progress. I said that I would. After I hung up the phone I began to wonder if Huff really had contacted any wrecking companies so I called Reaves Wrecking Company. I spoke to Mr. Reaves, whose company does building demolition, and was informed that they HAD received a bid from Plitt Theaters to raze the Bradley. Reaves said that it would cost Plitt $8000.00 to demolish the building and that would also include Reaves keeping all materials removed from the structure. Mr. Reaves was very understanding. He did not want to tear down the Bradley. He said that he too had many fond memories of the theater and that too many old buildings in Columbus had come down.
On August 3rd, I organized the first of many tours of the Bradley. On the 6th I conducted a tour that included Emily Woodruff, Louis Skelton, Dr. Joseph Mahan and his wife Katie. Again, I was thrilled as Miss Emily offered to help with a contribution. All were in agreement that the theater must be preserved.
On the 17th, Angie and I drove to Atlanta where I had an appointment with Joe Patton of the Fox Theater. Mr Patton gave us a tour from the penthouse to the basement of the Fox. Talk about a dream palace. I was in Heaven. You could have put three Bradley’s inside the Fox. Mr. Patton was very helpful and gave us many ideas on fund raising. While in Atlanta we also incorporated Columbus Restorations as a non profit organization and on the 18th, fund raising began.
By September 22nd we had raised $2065.00, a good start but a far cry from $150,000 that we needed. I organized several more tours of the theater but all I got were hardy handshakes and plenty of “good lucks”. I wondered why they couldn’t see the importance of saving this theater.
It was about this time that I called John Smallshaff and invited him to join in the project. He seemed less than enthusiastic but he said that he would help. Together we organized a fund raising event to show “Casablanca” one more time at the college. We were given permission to use the Turner Center one last time and on October 3d we again ran Casablanca. Martin Theaters immediately withdrew its college endowment.
In December, I started a fund-raising campaign by mail that netted only $200.00. It was beginning to look like there was less interest in the Bradley than I had thought. Even my father wouldn’t help. He was afraid if he did, Martin Theaters would cut off the tiny pension they were giving him. It looked as though I had bitten off more than I could chew. There had to be another way.
On December 3rd I called John Huff with a new proposal. What if we could rent the theater and use it to do our fund-raising. If people could see the building in use I was sure the money would come more quickly. He said that he would rent it to us for one year at $1000.00 a month with three months rent in advance. Without a clue as to how I’d get the money, I agreed. On the 12th I received a letter confirming our conversation and an agreement to sign and return. If I signed the agreement, Mr. Huff would have his attorneys start to work on the contract. I signed the form.
On December 15th I got a call from a Pat Monroe from Columbus Home Co. He said that his company did fire and water damage restoration. He said that he would love to be able write a check for ten thousand dollars to give to the project but he had a better idea. If we are able to obtain the theater, he would donate his services to clean the carpets, seats, and drapes.
Wow! What a load off my mind. I knew that would save a lot of money. Christmas came and went and so did New Years and it was now 1982. I had dreamed of having the Bradley open for Christmas. In my mind’s eye I could see the lobby decorated with tall Christmas trees. Garlands would cascade from the mezzanine into the main lobby.
Snowflakes and ornaments would hang at the end of tiny threads suspended from the ceiling. Such dreams kept my mind off the small tree with its few meager presents in our own living room but the new year held great promise I reminded myself.
I didn’t hear from Mr. huff until January 27th. He said that the contracts were on the way to his office and he would let me know when they got there. The next day he called to let me know that he would be down in two weeks with the contracts and I would need to have the three thousand dollars ready. How was I going to have three thousand dollars in two weeks? I couldn’t even buy Christmas presents. As I sat pondering the situation Beverly Suhr called. She had just started working at WVOC Radio as the Public Relations Director and the station was looking for a community service project to get involved with.
“My stars!” she told the station manager “John Gilbert’s got the biggest project going in this town, trying to save the Bradley. Why don’t we help him?
“Would that mean free air time?” I asked after she told me the news.
“Of course. That’s why it’s called a community service project.”
I could hardly contain my excitement. This could be the break I was looking for.
“How soon can I go on the air?” I asked.
“You’ll be on the Bill Bowick Show on
February 1st.”, Beverly answered.
At 7:30 AM. I arrived at WVOC and went to the control room where Bill was doing his morning show. Bill Bowick had been my manager at WRBL FM. He had hired me in 1974 to be the FM programmer. That was a fancy name for someone who pulled commercial tapes and plugged them into the automation machine. It was good to see him again and he seemed glad to put me on his program.
At noon I was again on the “Rozell Show” and I spent the rest of the afternoon at the Bradley. Frank Boucher let me keep the keys for the day because I wanted to show the theater to several people who could not all come at the same time. Angie came down later that afternoon and brought me a hamburger. After eating, Angie and I were in the box office where I had gotten the lights on. The front of the theater had been boarded up cutting the box office off from the street and leaving the street foyer very dark. Once the light was on I noticed one of the old poster cases, or 1-sheet frames as they are called, standing slightly ajar. I opened the case and found the frame was actually the door to a small access area. In the opening there was a fuse box.
“Hey, look at this. These must be the switches for the marquee”, I said as I flipped a switch.
Through a few cracks at the top of the plywood front I could see an incandescent light filter through. I flipped on more switches and as I did, fluorescent lights came to life overhead. Once all the switches were on I called to Angie to come with me outside. We ran down the foyers, through the lobby, down the basement steps, out into the rear parking lot, up the street and turned the corner. After almost six years of darkness there stood the name BRADLEY, in lipstick red neon. Only half of the empty marquee panels were lit up from the rear and every third bulb of the top chase lights were illuminated but it was beautiful. Angie and I stood under the marquee and took in the moment and dreamed of the day we could spell out the latest attraction on its face. As we stood there I heard a grinding sound and the chase lights went out.
“Uh, oh. I think we’ve blown a fuse,” I speculated. Next, the grinding started up again and every first bulb of the chase lights lit up. Then they went off and every second bulb lit. As the grinding continued the lamps began to flash on and off in order, first slowly, then picking up speed.
“Look, the chase light motor is working!” I shouted. In another moment the lights were chasing each other along the marquee as they had done many years earlier and the motor, having loosened up, ran quietly. As I stood under the flashing marquee, several cars slowed as they passed the theater and I could see the occupants rubber-necking to see what was going on. I wondered if they knew about the “Save the Bradley” campaign and if they thought progress was being made because the marquee was on. I wondered if businessmen could see the sign and see that I was serious about this theater. Firing up the marquee had only fired up my determination to save the Bradley.
The next morning I was again on WVOC with renewed excitement and afterward, I went to the Columbus City Council meeting. I asked for a few minutes on the agenda. When it came my turn I explained the dilemma the Bradley was facing and asked the council if I could hold a fund raising event in front of the theater. I wanted to place a bulldozer on the median with a “Save the Bradley” banner on its blade and have a live radio remote broadcast. We would ask people to come down town and drop contributions in a bucket. Permission was granted.
Early on the morning of February 12th the bulldozer, loaned to us by Reeves Wrecking Company, was unloaded on the median in front of the Bradley. WVOC had erected a tent next to the dozier and in a cold mist we started our live remote. That night I recorded the event in my journal.
” The weather was cold and wet and the remote started off very slowly. Soon people began to drop a few dollars into the pot and as the day wore on many people began to show up with money and checks. That afternoon it began to rain and we moved under the tent. Soon the mayor came by and so did city councilmen and other city officials. By the end of the day we had raised $1679.00 bringing our total to $3405.02.”
We had beaten our goal by four hundred and five dollars and two cents. I was now ready for Mr. Huff.
On February 22nd I put on my best suit and rode my moped to the Bradley. I was to meet Mr. Huff at twelve noon inside the theater. When I arrived at the theater, Mr. Huff and Frank Boucher were already inside. I met them in front of the stage.
“You’ve got a lot of cleaning to do,” said Mr. Huff as he shook my hand.
“We’re going to start on that after my 1:00 news conference,” I returned.
Mr. Huff laid the contracts on the stage apron and went over the terms. I didn’t know the half of what he was talking about. I just knew I wanted the theater and with the stroke of a pen it would be mine. As he explained the contracts, John and Beverly Suhr came in, along with a newspaper reporter and photographer. Mr. Huff finally came to the page I had been looking for. The page that was to be signed. I took his pen and eagerly signed the paper. The Bradley was mine! I tried to be very business-like as I handed him his pen but I could hardly contain my excitement. Mr. Huff folded the contracts and the photographer asked us if we would walk around to the front of the theater so he could take a picture of us in front of the marquee. As we walked out of the auditorium door I slowed to allow John and Beverly to catch up.
“It’s ours!” I squealed holding up my copy of the contracts like a child who has just been given an all day sucker.
Mr. Huff and I posed under the marquee, shaking hands, he holding the three thousand dollar check and me holding the keys. After a hardy “good luck” and another handshake, he and Frank left.
At one o’clock all of the tv stations arrived for the announcement that the theater was now in the possession of Columbus Restorations Inc. I told the reporters that the cleanup would begin immediately after the news conference and that there would be an open house on Saturday the 26th of February.
For the next four days Angie and I and a number of volunteers worked until midnight, trying to get the theater ready for Saturday. Plitt agreed to leave the lights on in their name so that we did not have to come up with a two thousand dollar deposit. A company donated cleaning supplies and Westinghouse donated light bulbs to replace bulbs that had burned out almost six years earlier. I ordered a telephone line and had the water turned on. Years of sediment suddenly rushed out of open faucets and plumbing leaked all over the building. None of the toilets worked. I quickly learned how to fix or replace the Sloan valves and one by one I got the toilets working. The concession area needed a lot of cleaning and repair and the women’s restroom was in terrible shape. By Friday night we had cleaned most of the trash and the theater was still a bit dirty, but presentable.
Saturday dawned cold and wet as we opened the doors to the public. There was no heat because the old boiler was beyond repair. All day long a steady trickle of people came to see the theater. Many people wanted to see the theater where they had dated and one man took me to the exact seat where he had proposed to his wife. Most wanted to reminisce about the “good old days” and wish me luck. We did raise a few dollars from a donation bucket placed in the lobby, but not enough to amount to much.
My friend Tom Chadwick had loaned me a large speaker and a six channel mixer amp and as people toured the theater, I set to work hooking up a sound system. I traced out the old speaker wires form the booth to the stage then set the speaker behind the screen. I returned to the booth where I wired the speaker to the amp and connected a turntable. When I turned on the power I heard a pop from the stage. I was now ready to play the first music to be heard in the theater in half a decade. Hmm, what should it be? It had to be something impressive. I searched through my record collection until I found the sound track to “The King And I”. “That’s it”, I thought. “There’s a great fanfare on the record that will be perfect”. As I placed the needle on the record I could see several people milling about the auditorium. Suddenly, the hall was filled with trumpets and timpani as the curtain slowly opened.
Instinctively heads turned toward the opening curtain unveiling the empty screen. As the curtain came to a stop I had goose bumps up and down my arms. Several people applauded the majestic forty foot wide screen.
After the open house we made ready to show a film that evening. John Suhr was going to bring his 16mm projector and we were going to show Mel Brooks “The Producers” to our friends and volunteers. I had told everyone that I had invited to bring blankets because it was cold in the theater. John sat his projector on the balcony railing and focused the picture on the screen. Since his picture was smaller than the standard theater picture, I moved the curtains in until they masked out all of the unused screen. It looked very nice. Unfortunately, I had picked the wrong movie for my crowd. Many got up and left. Those who had remained said that it was nice to watch a film in such a huge theater. Yes, the theater was huge and there was a huge cleaning task ahead of us.