The Rialto Final Report Part 6
COLUMBUS, GA. — The last time I was inside the theater, the booth was as hot as an oven. I decided to wait until the weather cooled down a bit. Sunday, Oct. 4th was a cool day and I didn’t have to teach my Sunday School class so I decided to drive to the Rialto but that wasn’t the only reason. My good buddy Robert Starling was in town for a reunion. I haven’t seen Robert in probably 20 years and he met me at the theater. It was good to see him and we caught up on the last two decades as we toured the empty theater. I showed him the work I had done and he snapped his camera all through the Theater. All too soon Robert had to leave to fly back to Salt Lake. As we parted he snapped one last photo of me in front of the Rialto with the Bradley Theater in the background.
There is an old exhaust fan in the booth but the blades are bent and it doesn’t work. I decided to check it out. If I could get it working, I could sweep and the fan would pull the dust outside. I stood on a bucket to reach the fan and it looked like something was on the blades. Carefully I bent the blades and saw a chunk of lead that looked like it had been dropped into the vent pipe from the roof. I eased the lead through the blades and removed it. Now I had the bend the blades back into their original position. I turned the fan switch on and all I heard was a small hum. I gave the blade a push with my finger and it began to turn. Slowly at first and then it began to pick up speed. In a minute it was turning as it should and seemed to be working fine. I started sweeping and the fan carried the dust out of the booth. After a good sweeping, I thought I’d try my hand at mopping. I poured some of my bottled water onto the dirty floor and began to scrub it. For a moment it looked good but I began to realize that I was only making mud. I couldn’t use all of my bottled water so I did the best I could. Now my mop was black and I had no way to rinse it. There’s still no water in the building so I just had to let the muddy floor dry and it’ll have to wait for water and a mop bucket.
I was still in a cleaning mood so I decided to tackle the balcony. Sweeping up the plaster was a dusty business so I moved on to the carpet. The carpet cleaned up pretty good so I moved on to the stairs. Soon the right stairway was looking clean. The banister was hanging down. I found its bolts on the stairway and fastened it back to the wall. The stairway actually looked presentable!
I made my way back to the booth to see why the 220-volt plug Reynolds had installed next to the projector wasn’t working. I checked it with two different meters but still nothing. I flipped switches and still nothing. In my frustration, I even pushed one of the old generator buttons on the wall. I jumped as the lights flashed and I heard a roar from the next room that I had not expected to hear. The button had started the old motor-generator that used to run the carbon lamps years ago. I thought they had been disconnected! Instantly, I pressed the stop button. I heard the whine of the motor as it slowly wound to a stop. It must have had really good bearings in the motor because it a long time to come to a complete stop. After I got over my fright, I set to work tracing the wires from the 220 v plug. I opened an electrical box and to my surprise, the wires weren’t connected to anything! They just came to an end inside the box.
By now I was tired. I put a show tune CD on to play and I sat in the balcony and listened to the music. I must have dozed off. I awoke and the music had stopped. It was time to leave anyway. I gathered my tools and loaded my truck. It’s always a little sad to turn off the lights and lock the doors. As I drove home I had a thought. If the generator still works, why not hook it back up and use it to power my carbon arc lamp? Now I have a new project for next time!
Addendum 3-21-2010 by John Gilbert
There’s something about the old theaters in Columbus that keep beckoning to me. Columbus is fortunate. Most towns and cities are lucky to have even one surviving example of the movie places from yesteryear yet Columbus has four; the Bradley, the Liberty, the Rialto, and the Springer. I feel that there are too few who appreciate what the downtown theaters once meant to Columbus. Columbus actually had a theater district much like New York’s Broadway. There was the Bradley and the Rialto on Broadway. Across the street from the Rialto stood the Grand and around the corner was the Georgia Theater. Flashing marquees illuminated the night with names like Gable, Lombard, Bogart, Hepburn, Garland, and so many more, once drew crowds to Columbus’s theater district. Today only two Broadway theaters remain and they now sit dark and empty.
For the last year, I’ve been helping Reynolds Bickerstaff try to and breathe life back into the time-worn Rialto Theater. Again, there are too few who see the need to cast a glance back over their shoulders for a glimpse of the past as they charge headlong into the latest and greatest. Still, I go to the Rialto on my weekends to clean and do a little restoration work.
On March 6th, 2010 I gave a tour of the theater to Jerry Kline and Brenda Edwards of the Liberty Theater. We toured the Rialto and sat and talked for a long while about what could be done to and with the theater. We all agreed that there is nothing wrong with the theater that money wouldn’t fix but where to get the money? As we sat and talked I told Jerry and Brenda that I had been the last protectionist at the Liberty and my last day at the Liberty was January 1st, 1974. That’s when the Liberty closed its doors. Jerry asked me if I’d like to see the Liberty. As quickly as I could lock the Rialto’s doors, we were off to 8th Avenue.
It had been many years since I had pulled up to and parked in front of the Liberty. 36 years, two months and 5 days to be exact. Gone were the many little stores and shops that once lined 8th Avenue. The Liberty now stands alone surrounded by vacant lots. We entered from a new building to the theater’s left. Jerry explained that it is a meeting hall with a full-service kitchen that was built during the theater’s renovation. He showed me around the meeting area which was nice but I was anxious to see the theater. In another moment we started for a door that I felt would lead into the old Liberty. Jerry opened the door and we stepped into the lobby of the theater. I strained to see something familiar but try as I may, it was all new to me. The lobby was much larger than I remember and I soon saw the reason why. It had been expanded to the area under where the balcony used to be.
“You might remember this,” said Jerry as he opened a door with a stairway leading to the sound booth.
“No. The stairs to the balcony and the booth were over here,” I said pointing to the opposite side of the room.
We climbed the stairs to the sound booth where Jerry showed me the state of the art sound system.
“This must have been the projection booth,” Jerry said.
I looked around for a moment.
“No. This was the balcony. The booth would have been about here,” I said pointing to an arbitrary spot in space and I went and stood in the spot.
“Yep, it would have been about here.”
We then went back down stairs and into the auditorium. Gone were the side rows of seats. Now there was a single section of seats with isles against the walls. Up to the stage, we went. There were handicapped lifts of either side of the stage which I felt marred the appearance of the stage area but the ADA standards had to be met. As we toured the back of the theater I spotted something that I was very familiar with, two carbon arc lamp houses and pedestals to hold those lamp houses. I wondered what they were doing there. Jerry felt that they were the original projection lamps for the theater but I knew that the projection equipment had been removed years ago. The lamps were in too good of shape to have been left in a dark and wet building for decades. Had it been the original equipment, it would have been very rusty. We left the equipment and finished our tour. Jerry, Brenda, and I talked for a few moments more and then we parted. I had found new friends.
On my drive back home I felt a little disappointed. There was really nothing left of the Liberty from my era. Nothing remained of the projection booth that had been the realization of my dream to be a theater projectionist. There was nothing remaining to even evoke a memory of those days when celluloid photo plays danced on a silver screen. Notwithstanding, I am glad that I had visited the Liberty. In my mind, I knew that I was in the same building where I had worked as a 20-year-old. I know that those who now work and volunteer are proud of the new Liberty. I am only a ghost from the past who had come for a few moments to haunt the halls and auditorium and bid the Liberty I knew, farewell. And to the Rialto, I say, so long for now.