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From the balcony

A Kentucky filmmaker turns her lens on a once-segregated Frankfort theater

2003

As restoration pushed forward on a theater that had been dark since 1966, an ambitious volunteer encountered something that would impact the course of her career. On her first walk through this one-time Vaudeville house, Joanna Thornewill Hay — who would later develop a documentary about her work at The Grand Theatre — stumbled upon a virtual time capsule that glimpsed beyond the second-run flicks that used to screen here.

The bones of what was originally a 135-seat venue for cabaret and “operatic, illustrated songs” were beginning to appear to Hay and the restorers. As workmen peeled back the office partitions later added to the building by its commercial tenants, fanciful flourishes from a bygone era revealed themselves. Waiting under sheets of old drywall, for instance, was the house’s original, slightly muted paint job. What they’d later call “The Vaudeville Wall” featured silver dots floating over pale swathes of purple, pink and yellow. The mural seemed to hint at the thrills that could be had here, as well as its city’s “unusual interest” in Vaudeville, as the Frankfort Weekly News put it over a century ago.

That paper advised paying the extra nickel for a reserved seat when attending these floorshows. Doing so would “obviate the necessity of getting into the rush when the doors open.” When they opened for the first time in 1911, a dime was enough to secure general admission at theaters like The Grand. By then, this art form had already gathered a strong head of steam in Kentucky. Although 1880s New York is widely credited with having spawned Vaudeville, popular use of the term in American English can be traced back to 1871, just 50 miles west of The Grand’s Frankfort address. “Sargent’s Great Vaudeville Company” from Louisville may have been the first in the nation to identify itself as a practitioner of the genre.

The Grand was shuttered after the flood of 1937, officially ending its Vaudeville run. In ’41, the shotgun-shaped house reopened as a modernized, significantly expanded movie theater. The auditorium grew to 680 seats. An air-conditioning system (state of the art at the time) was installed and, although it seems primitive by today’s standards with its use of ice and overhead misting pipes, the new feature received top billing. The snow-capped letters on a sign advertising the A.C. were large enough to trump even Gene Autry’s name on the opening night marquee.

Of greater historical importance was a new seating policy that allowed African-Americans to sit in the balcony — or “Peanut Gallery,” as it was derisively called by whites at segregated theaters around the South.

A variety of factors contributed to The Grand again closing in 1966. Shortly thereafter, the proscenium was boarded over, its fixtures were crushed into a filler used to level the graded, auditorium floor, and a drop-ceiling was installed, sealing the balcony and radically cutting down the room’s once soaring height. In the coming decades, the converted property would play host to a furniture showroom, dollar store and auction hall.

Nearly 40 years later, grandeur was making an encore appearance here, as restorers continued to chip away at the crust covering The Grand’s interior (namely, the offices of Morris Realty and Auction Services, the building’s previous tenant). When digging out the cement and returning the up-slope to the auditorium floor, relics like a fan-shaped “Coming Soon” sign were picked out of the filler. The Grand’s current “Coming Soon” board features a replica of that design.

Then, as workers removed the suspended ceiling, a different page in the theater’s history presented itself. Those energy-saving drop panels actually served a second, unintended function as a protective skin for the “Blacks Only” balcony that was installed during The Grand’s expansion.

Joanna Hay recalls the first time she took the stairs to find a seating area frozen in time.

“It was untouched! Absolutely untouched! We were still finding old Milk Dud wrappers everywhere.”

The seats had been auctioned off, but the rest — ancient bathroom fixtures and drinking fountains, antique fire extinguishers and other elements — had been left in place. The discovery marked the start of a new journey: The filmmaker was determined to locate some of the people who once sat in the balcony with the hopes that they would share their memories of the once-segregated theater and the town in which it sits.

1962

On their walks home from school, Sheila Mason Burton and a gaggle of adolescent girls would stroll through Frankfort’s low-income Crawfish Bottom neighborhood at a leisurely pace, “flexing their freedom” during a brief respite from strict teachers and protective parents. They might stop by the Robb Funeral Home to “see who was dead,” then pop over to the Lieutenant Governor’s Mansion where they had an in with the kitchen. (The mother of a friend was a cook there and often had cookies waiting.) Crossing the tracks into south Frankfort, they’d wander past The Grand Theatre, scanning the marquee to see if they needed to start “putting the pressure on” their parents for a weekend outing.

“A Raisin in the Sun,” “West Side Story” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” were some of the big films of the early ’60s; however, these important American sagas were unlikely to appear at The Grand. They might screen at the all-white Capital Theatre, but the segregated Grand — where stories on the civil rights movement were edited out of newsreels — was more inclined to show Westerns and less controversial B-movies like “The Blob” and “The Fly.”

But things would soon start changing. Come September, Mason would be educated alongside white students for the first time in her life — no doubt adding to the anxieties a 13-year-old normally feels with high school looming. (Her elementary school, Mayo-Underwood, had yet to integrate despite the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision handed down unanimously in 1954.)

Elsewhere in the commonwealth, the NAACP Youth Council and Congress of Racial Equality were struggling to desegregate Louisville theaters, department stores and lunch counters by engaging in stand-ins and shopping boycotts like the “Nothing New for Easter” campaign. These tactics would take hold and spread rapidly. Before the end of Mason’s freshman year at Frankfort High, Louisville would enact laws discouraging discrimination in public places. During her senior year, similar policies would reach the capital, a city that would not recognize itself by the time Mason’s high school graduation rolled around.

Had they been looking for them at the time, Mason and her eighth grade crew might have noticed the approaching bulldozers during an after-school stroll through “The Bottom.” Thought by some to be the worst slum in Kentucky — especially by those with ulterior motives and vested interests — the days of this poor, racially mixed community were numbered.

1966

No, Mason wasn’t sad to see The Grand Theatre close. About to attend Kentucky State University, she wasn’t too concerned about saying goodbye to Frankfort High either. In four years, the world had turned itself on its ear, leaving Mason with far more worthy causes to be nostalgic for than the segregated balcony from which she once watched cheesy horror flicks. Not only had her beloved Mayo-Underwood school been razed, but the entire community surrounding it had vanished as well.

Rising in place of Crawfish Bottom was what looked to be its polar opposite: a sterile Capital Plaza, with its Fountain Place shopping complex, convention center, YMCA, federal office building, new hotel and a 28-story office tower. Easily the tallest building in town, some folks viewed the tower as The Bottom’s outsized headstone.

Crawfish Bottom was gone, and with a new levee in place to protect the state’s investment, so too were the crawfish that long ago bubbled out of the sewers during the Kentucky River’s regular flooding. In addition, 369 families were displaced from the gritty neighborhood, which began to earn a dirty rep shortly after the Civil War, when cheap housing was built to accommodate recently freed slaves, recently freed convicts from the nearby penitentiary, and poor whites.

Adding to the area’s motley mix was a boom in the logging industry, which relied heavily on the river for transport, and on The Bottom as a key port of call. In what could be a setting for an HBO series, at any moment, hundreds of grizzly mountain men would descend, blowing their pay on prostitution, bootlegging, gambling, cockfights, horse races and street brawls. As written in Douglas Boyd’s 2011 book, “Crawfish Bottom: Recovering a Lost Kentucky Community,” these various elements culminated in what one police captain called, “a perfect Babel … A barbecue in Hell.”

Also from Boyd’s book, Colonel George Chinn, a former director of the Kentucky Historical Society, is quoted with saying, “If you think Dodge City was rough, you should have known the Craw in its heyday. There was just an unwritten law in Frankfort that if you did this on the other side of the railroad tracks and buried your dead, everything was alright.”

Frankfort’s Broadway line may, literally, be the legendary “tracks” one is not supposed to get on the “wrong side of.” But to Mason (who herself would become president of the Historical Society’s Executive Board in 2011), Crawfish Bottom was where her school, church, library, friends and family once dwelled.

The erasure of Crawfish Bottom took with it a great chunk of The Grand’s customer base. But a bigger influence on the theater’s closing was likely the Kentucky Civil Rights Act, which passed in January of 1966 and introduced enforceable consequences for acts of discrimination in public places. This meant blacks were free to check out The Capital, a first-run theater with much friendlier confines than the sticky-floored Grand.

“If they were to pick one of the two theaters to tear down and put up a parking lot, The Grand Theatre might have been the better choice,” jokes Joanna Hay, decades later.

Regarding the commonwealth’s 1966 law, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in a Western Union telegram to then Gov. Edward Breathitt, “The passage of this bill serves as a great beacon light of hope for all men of good will and hopefully inspires other states to follow suit.” Two years earlier, King gave this legislation a huge shove forward, marching on Frankfort with baseball great Jackie Robinson, folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, and 10,000 Kentuckians.

October 2006

It was day one of production on “Stories from the Balcony,” Joanna Hay’s documentary about the segregated days of The Grand Theatre. Eventually, Hay would cull together relevant newsreels, archival photography and five years worth of interviews. These oral histories featured Frankfort residents, black and white, who remembered going to “the show” in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.

First up was Sheila Mason Burton who, up until that point, had been only a telephone contact. Hay, who had little to no experience in conducting interviews, was anxiously setting up her equipment when her cell phone rang. It was Mason, who sounded uncertain.

Great, thought Hay, she’s going to bail.

“You do know,” Mason told Hay on the phone, “not everything about The Grand Theatre is good. I didn’t know if you knew that or not.”

Believing she was walking into a fluff piece, Mason needed to feel the director out. She wasn’t sure she had anything positive to say and didn’t want to waste the crew’s time. The Grand was low on her totem pole, representing something she’d “rather forget and had forgotten anyway.”

“I wasn’t about to paint this glorious picture of a place that denied me,” Mason says.

The filmmaker offered every assurance, telling her subject that she hoped to hear all the sobering details. Satisfied, Mason agreed to take a tour of The Grand with Hay, where she passed through doors that had previously been locked to her. For years, Mason would buy her ticket at the box office and be ushered up the balcony stairs to her right. On this day, she would take a left through a door previously reserved for whites, “smirking in her mind” when she did, unable to outpace the cynicism that followed her in.

But sometime during Mason’s first visit to the auditorium’s main floor, the imaginary walls compartmentalizing her memories of young adulthood here were slowly being shook. Then, taking the staircase to the balcony, something began to thaw within her. The climb was longer and steeper than she’d recalled, and upon finally reaching the top, Mason could envision elements of the balcony that had since been removed. Memories of visiting with her mother, brother and aunt swelled.

Gee, I had some good times here, she thought.

Mason and Hay talked for three hours. Mason described first dates and chuckled about her mother’s soft spot for sappy Hollywood endings, fighting back tears during “Love Me Tender,” “Old Yeller” and “Back Street,” a 1961 adaptation of a Fannie Hurst romance that somehow found its way to No. 60 on a Quentin Tarantino list called “Coolest Movies of All Time.” It was a fortuitous beginning for “Stories from the Balcony,” not just because of the generous serving of history Mason served, but for the connections she would later share with Hay, unlocking a door to earlier generations of Frankfort African-Americans, many of whom would have been reluctant to offer access to a stranger. More than an interviewee, Mason was quickly becoming a mentor and friend who would come to advise Hay on how to speak to certain contributors.

“Sheila has got the touch,” Hay says of Mason’s interview skills. A historian in her own right, Mason was one of the editors of “Community Memories: A Glimpse of African-American Life in Frankfort, Kentucky,” published in 2003 by the Kentucky Historical Society, which Mason has been involved with for 12 years.

For Mason, involvement with “Stories from the Balcony” marked the beginning of a healing process: “Working with Joanna has been a point of reconciliation with a past that was always in conflict.”

October 2011

Clips from the soon-to-be-finished “Stories from the Balcony” were first shown on The Grand’s screen last fall at an event called “Community, Race & Memory Symposium.” Following the viewing, filmmaker Joanna Hay, Sheila Mason Burton and “Crawfish Bottom” writer Douglas Boyd participated in a panel discussion that focused in part on the documentary’s oral histories and firsthand accounts of race relations.

This is where the “Stories from the Balcony” project gathers its strength — from the 40 or so interviewees who saw the end of Jim Crow and can tell us, in their own words, about everyday life during and after the period.

The crowd that evening was mixed and included several of the film’s contributors, some sitting on The Grand’s main floor for the first time. It was a poignant coming together of neighbors, made remarkable by the almost therapeutic effect of a community watching itself on the big screen. The projected vignettes were amusing, ironic and bittersweet, with memories of Crawfish Bottom diverging broadly from what was written about the place by outsiders years ago.

Jeff Bradshaw, a white resident of The Bottom, recalls hanging out with black friends before matinees. They’d walk over to The Grand as a group on those busy Saturdays, only to split into separate lines once they arrived. “We always wanted to go to the balcony and they wanted to go to the main level, which was a bit of a conflict,” Bradshaw says. “But that’s kind of the way things were.”

Tales of resistance also creep into the film’s narrative, like when Johnny Sykes confesses to having blocked the projection window on occasion, or when Mary Washington, unable to contain her delight, speaks of tossing buckets of popcorn over the balcony railing. Her account drew the biggest laugh of the night.

But it’s Mason — who initially believed she’d have nothing positive to say about The Grand Theatre — who delivers one of the film’s most hopeful lines: “When the lights went out, you were just in another world. And when you emerged into the real world, it was still a good world.”

When the lights did come up in the restored Grand Theatre, Hay, Mason and Boyd were pleased with both the turnout and subsequent discussion of the audience’s shared past. “Sheila and I were both nervous about how it would go,” Hay says. “Some people were like, ‘I don’t want to talk about Crawfish Bottom, because they never get it right!’ Or, ‘Why are they spending so much time talking about The Grand Theatre? We should be talking about other stuff.’ So, we were nervous. Would anybody come?”

Many did, including some they did not anticipate — reluctant subjects who were interviewed four or five years ago. The turnout was powerful for Mason, who expected a large showing from whites, then was pleasantly surprised by the number of blacks who made it out. The mood afterward was short on bitterness, as nostalgic acquaintances, once separated by a mezzanine, pointed and waved in smiling recognition of one another.

It can be unclear what to do with the unflattering symbols of our past. Do we plaster over these places and try to move on, or turn them into monuments that are honest about the good and bad parts of our legacy? A symposium on race is not going to reverse a nation’s wrongs, and it should be noted that hurtful vestiges of Jim Crow remain. Kentucky writer Wendell Berry describes the psychic effect of slavery and past race relations as a “hidden wound,” and this feels about right. Some towns may choose to pick at the scab, whereas those interested in healing it might consider measured doses of time and attention. An occasional “check up,” like the time shared between former citizens of Crawfish Bottom at The Grand Theatre, might also help in hurrying along the healing process.

“Stories from the Balcony” is slated to air on KET following its completion in late 2012 and has received grants from the Kentucky Oral History Commission, Kentucky Foundation for Women, and Kentucky Humanities Council.

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