Enterprising folks that we were, one of us figured out how to lower each chandelier, from a set of cranks he found in the wall. I wasn’t there to watch them descend, one at a time, from their positions near the ceiling, but I did marvel, after the night he spent with a bucket full of water, soap and ammonia. By daybreak he’d taken out, washed and replaced every one of a number of stained-glass sheets that made up the body of each chandelier, and voila! They shone like three suspended suns! Why had I thought the chandeliers were made of some kind of metal? All those years of cigarette smoke wafting to the ceiling gave a pretty chilling demo of what happens to the lungs of a serious smoker.
We hadn’t worried too much about grinding the lobby chandeliers down on their then fifty-year-old cranks; how much could they weigh — a couple of hundred pounds? But the main chandelier, suspended like an alien spacecraft over the orchestra, was of another order. It too had a (very large) crank, in, I believe, the catwalk of the dome. How much did the gigantic fixture weigh? A tall basketball player using his body to measure its diameter would certainly have come up short, so in all probability it weighs (yes, it’s still up there) at least a ton, but probably more. No cranking that one down. Not only could somebody really get hurt, but its crash could destroy the orchestra and put us immediately out of business. As it turned out, we’d be out of business in a year anyhow, but at least without broken glass (only broken hearts). So whatever old bulbs were still lit in the main chandelier stayed that way, for our brief time as operators.
Why am I thinking about chandeliers?
Wandering around the ‘net the other day, I found this:
COLUMBUS, OHIO — The Ohio Theatre's chandelier is beautiful, and to keep it that way it has to be kept clean. That cleaning happens about every 18 months, and the Ohio Theatre brings the famous 21-foot high chandelier down to be cleaned. The chandelier weighs two and a half tons, uses 339 light bulbs, and is 11 feet wide.
That last sentence really got my attention. Two and a half tons!!! The Ohio Theatre, which, like almost every saved movie palace, has its own perilous history of near-demolition, has figured out how to safely crank down the big baby. It takes a crew of 7 the better part of a day, hand-cranking it from inside the dome. Two people work the cranks at a time, with plenty of back-up, and, not surprisingly, getting it back up to the ceiling is harder work and takes longer. I notice from the video in the link above that the giant fixture twirls rather merrily as it descends; that movement would have terrified me, if I’d been part of the crew. There is something to be said for doing this exercise at regular intervals, just to keep the crank in good working order.
The Ohio has its own near-tragedy story, and I won’t hold back. This 2,779-seat Thomas Lamb Spanish Baroque hall had a normal movie palace childhood, beginning on opening night March 17, 1928 with Greta Garbo in Divine Woman, a stage show, and six acts of Vaudeville. Live acts, predictably, didn’t last, but, through the middle of the twentieth century, Loew’s saw to it that the Ohio never wanted for prime movie product, along with the occasional live appearance, such as a young Judy Garland, and organ recitals featuring the Robert Morton organ. The Ohio drifted contentedly into movie palace middle age, its audience slowly disappearing to the suburbs. I could tell you this story and then plug in the names of dozens of palaces, done in by a combination of suburban sprawl and television. Loew’s sold out in 1969, to the 55 East State Company, who planned an office tower. Enter The Temporary Committee for Continued Use of the Ohio Theater, wisely shepherded by the American Theater Organ Society, who finagled a demolition delay from the developers and held off Loew’s, intent on stripping the place. At this point, three entities intervened to keep the theater standing:
- On March 28, 1969, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra gave a free concert at the Ohio, demonstrating its fine acoustics. The Temporary Committee however failed by a long shot to raise the thirty thousand dollars it needed to keep the theater open.
- The wife of the symphony’s conductor called a prominent local citizen, one John W. Galbreath, who was able to get a stay of execution, long enough to begin organizing the entity that would eventually become the theater’s owner, Columbus Association of Performing Arts(CAPA).
- But the true savior of the Ohio turns out to have been anonymous, a woman said to be “of modest means,” who apparently gave her life’s savings to pay only half the option to secure the Ohio for a period of time. The tale goes that without her donation, CAPA could not have been formed quickly enough, and the theater would have been demolished.
So what saved the Ohio Theater, whose marvelous chandelier is cranked down every two years without fail, was, to begin with, its organ. Then there was the American Theatre Organ Society, acting behind the temporary committee, who got salvation started. The theater’s own remarkable acoustics and the Columbus Symphony also deserve applause, as do the conductor and his wife. Beyond that, “anonymous” ought to be given a standing ovation. Whoever she was, I hope she lived to go to plenty of concerts, and sits even now looking up at the gleaming chandelier!
1. I found the details of the Ohio’s salvation in a comments column appended to the Ohio Theatre’s Cinema Treasures entry. Keith was quoting The Ohio Theatre by Clive David, published in 1978. A brief search turned up no book by that title, but thanks anyhow to Keith and Cinema Treasures.
2. The current management of the St. George Theatre apparently re-bulbs our main chandelier, and sees to its upkeep on a regular basis. We were mere renters, but they own the building and the right to the risk. I’m only sorry I missed watching the great extraterrestrial object descend the first time, after all those decades.
3.The Ohio has a Robert Morton Organ, same company whose organs grace the five Loew’s “Wonder’ theaters in New York City I wrote about last week.
4. For the story of a chandelier that started in Omaha, disappeared for a while and reappeared recently in Springfield, Missouri at the Gillioz Theatre.