Friday, June 1, 2012

Grandeur and Serendipity

Thursday May 31, 2012

We had some more heavy rain overnight but awoke to party cloudy skies. The Hampton breakfast was probably in a dead heat to tie with the Best Western the night before. Tonight we’re at the Comfort inn in Claremore Oklahoma, the place Will Rogers called home. The high temperature was in the 70’s and I wore jeans for the first time since leaving Chicago. The day held surprises beyond my wildest expectations and without a doubt when Serendipity knocked we let her in. We got off the road a little late as we were between significant towns and cool stuff just kept happening.

We pretty much blasted though Miami (My-am-uh) to settle down for the night so we back tracked a few miles and got going. We were passing near a 1929 Marathon gas station and stopped by. It’s a work in progress, the outside is all repaired and refinished, and the 3 red and yellow pumps really pop. The station includes a prominent canopy the covers the filling area and it features stamped tin ceiling. The exterior is not fully dressed out so it looks a little Spartan. Materials and tools suggest that they are working to finish the interior. It’s on the national register of historic places.

From there we headed downtown and parked. The first stop was visitors center where we found a free guidebook we hadn’t seen before.

Next came what we hoped would be the centerpiece for the morning, the Coleman Theater. We entered the lobby and were greeted by Glen who would give us a tour. The theater was built by George Coleman who made his fortune in local mining. It opened in 1929 and has been in continuous operation though it has seen some tough times and near misses with the wrecking ball. He enjoyed theater and frequently traveled to the big cities to enjoy vaudeville shows. Along the way he decided that he preferred not to travel as much and tried to bring the big acts to Miami. The booking agents would not book their acts into a small town theater. Coleman’s response was to build a theater so grand that they would come. He contracted the premiere theater builder of the day and requested that a grand theater be built. It needed to be ready in a year, it was done in 360 days.

It went from vaudeville to silent movies to a movie house. When the changes in route 66 traffic dropped off and demand for a 1600 seat theater waned it began to fall into disrepair. The roof failed the seats we shot and the carpet was patched with duct tape. Eventually some in town saw it as a liability and were working towards demolition. A determined volunteer group persuaded the city to accept the building as gift from the owner and they went to work. This effort began about 23 years ago and today it is very much a finish product.

I wish that I had a tape recorder running as Glen told the story, he had such passion He told it all based on what he described as miracles. I probably don’t have them all in order but I’ll try to capture how it went.

The carpet was shot and they didn’t really know what to replace it with to get back to the original. They did find a black and white photograph but they lacked color. Latter as demolition continued a few square feet were found under some balcony carpet. Eventually they were able to commission a special run of the pattern. One feature was the Coleman crest of arms. They did alter it to include a pick and axe to recognize the local miners.

The theater was built with a massive crystal chandelier with translucent pannels that diffused multicolor lights. The light was design to be used as part of the theatrical lighting and was controlled with the stage lights. The chandelier was gone One day somebody recognized the frame as they were cleaning out a barn. All of the crystal and panels were missing and the wiring had deteriorated. In an old file cabinet they found the original specifications of the Italian company that built it. They contacted the company only to find out that the panel molds had been scrapped years ago. Some time latter a woman from away stopped by and recognized the design and provided the name of a US company that had supplied the panels. Sure enough they did have the mold and exact replacements could be obtained and new glass was cast. While cleaning up in the theater attic they found the crystals boxed away. A local electrician traveled to another theater with a similar light to study the wiring and he refurbish the Coleman chandelier. His grandfather had originally hung it and his dad maintained it for years. The chandelier is designed to be lowered to the theater floor for maintenance. It was a gala event the first time it was elevated to the top of the theater and publicly re-lit.

The seats were shot. More documents were found and the original US builder located, still in business. They were able to build the seats and even the molds for the ornate end panels were found. They did make the seats 2 inches wider than the originals as theater goers have grown in size. The cost was monumental so the seats were sold to resident. People from all over the region ponied up to make it a success. Some have the typical name plaques, others are are personal like first date, first kiss, Will you marry me and Yes!

The massive Wurlitzer theater organ was gone. Eventually it was found stored away in a barn. It was available for $100,000. and fund raising began. Another offer was made for $400,000. But the seller honored the interest of the Coleman Theater wanting it restored to its original venue. Glen played a few notes and then let it play a prerecorded song, the sound was amazing, I have always wanted to hear one of these. When refurbished the connection between the console and pipes was made electrical. As such the signals can be recorded and any performance can be recreated.  I bought a CD recorded in the theater and look forward to cranking it up at home.

 While on stage Glen snapped a photo of us standing in front of an original stage backdrop.

I have to say that hearing the sound that can come from what is in effect a machine puts the machines I work with in perspective. I have at times wondered what it would be like to create equipment that an artist can make music with or amusements like a Tilta-A Whirl or Scrambler that give joy generations latter. It’s sort of sad to think that your work’s value is tied to a product life cycle.

I think there were a few more details where the restoration of seemingly lost details of the theater became reality like all of the stained glass lighting panels that were found scattered in barns, attics and yard sales. 

We got to tour the dressing rooms used by Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, John Wayne, the 3 Stooges, Blackstone the magician and many many more celebrities. 

On the opposite side of the stage is a massive original switch panel used to control all of the lighting. It’s all original and tack sharp.

Nearby is rope and counterweight system to control all of the curtains and props. A broad array of ropes and counter weights are arranged to make the stage function. The theater was the first building around to have air conditioning, actually called refrigerated air. In the Dust Bowl period if you had a dime you could go to the Coleman to see a movie and cool off.

Glen left us to explore the place taking pictures. When done downstairs we went to the balcony and took shots from there. There isn’t a bad seat in the house. The balcony seating is equal to the main floor. The back wall of the balcony extends farther back.

We were also encouraged to explore the ballroom. This space had not been finished originally. The volunteers have done it all creating an elegant function space on the second floor with it’s own entrance lobby.

After that we worked our way to the lobby taking pictures and finally getting some souvenirs. The theater and story behind it were beyond my wildest dreams. Pretty cool for a little town like Miami, Oklahoma.

We walked the main street some more and Lorna checked out a second hand store, buying more pressed glass. I got a few more interesting pictures.

For lunch we went to Waylans, The Ku Ku. With it’s 1965 neon sign it’s a route 66 institution. Built to look like a Ku Ku clock complete with the bird out to chirp it’s the sole survivor of an 200 restaurant chain. It’s a burger stand with the onion petals being most memorable.

Glen from the Coleman Theatre mentioned that if you look at the marathon station’s side walls you can see the image of the marathon runner. We went back and there it as, almost like a watermark.We also noticed that the bricks have a glazed ceramic like surface.

After lunch we went to the outskirts of town to find sections of the original 9 foot wide roadway.  The builders only got ½ of the requested money so they only built half the road as the legend goes. It’s wide enough for one vehicle and wide shoulders let vehicles get past each other. It was known as the sidewalk Highway and was replaced by a future alignment. In other areas it was expanded.

The town of Afton is where we went to visit the Buffalo Ranch. Originally a roadside attraction it is now a truck stop & convenience store. As part of the reconstruction they did build a new buffalo pen with 6-8 animals grazing.

 While on that corner I got pictures of the Route 66 Motel and Lorna check out a resale store, no pressed glass this time.

In what I guess is down town Afton we found the remains of the Palmer Hotel and the Rest Haven Motel.  In the neighborhood was the Eagle DX Service Station and Packard museum. The restored filling station and car building façade make it all look like a vintage dealership. The 1917 motor home was especially nice. It’s undergoing restoration and ready looks great nice. I really liked blue and white 1955. The galvanized Quonset hut with spray foam insulation is an interesting idea. Phil was informative and nice to talk with. 

Leaving Afton we found the remains of the Gray Rock Station and Avon Motel. Latter we came upon a WalMart and got some packing supplies. It’s getting time to start shipping souvenir purchases home while we have room in the Jeep. By the way, did I mention that the Jeep Liberty we got is a virgin? It was brand new when we got it but over 1000 miles now.

In Vinita we found the McDougal Filling station. Presently it’s a perfectly restored stone building but it is not equipped or signed.

The little Cabin Creek Bridge has been bypassed but remains open to pedestrian traffic. Finished in  1935 it is of the Parker Pony Truss design. 

Up the road in Vinita we found Clantons Café. They have been serving locals and motorists since 1927. We stopped for a slice of pie late in the afternoon knowing dinner would be late. They had a signed poster from Guy Fieri after the did a Diners, Drive-ins and Dives segment. The place was small town perfect in every way. The pies, chocolate cream for me and lemon meringue for Lorna went  down well and at $2.49 a slice seemed like a bargain.

Leaving town we checked out a nice mural of a railway scene, The Route 66 Inn at Vinita, the Hi-Way Café sign and the Western Motel.

Chelsea was the next stop and it was a corker. We started at the 1926 Pryor Creek bridge, 19 feet wide, 123 feet long and it’s a modified Pratt though truss design. It is the last remaining example.

 After getting a picture of us standing on the bridge and getting all of the bridge shots Lorna noticed something in the creek below. Nearly a dozen turtles of various sizes (6-12 inch) were paddling around down there. We watched, snapped some pictures and shot some video. See the video.

Down the road we found the Chelsea Motel closed but perhaps being partly used as a residence. The sign was still standing tall. Here in Oklahoma we’re not seeing the same giant signs trying to be seen miles in advance.

Ruben’s Route 55 Barbecue was an eclectic place covered in murals and elsewhere the white block walls were signed by visitors.  A bronking bull and cowboy were up front. A suit of armor and rhino watch the door to the antique mall. Barbecue is served from a trailer out back.

Chelsea village is a place on hard times with many semi demolished buildings I took pictures of the Chelsea Inn and Café  (closed) sign, some murals and a street paved in red brick.

Lorna checked out a resale store and found a few pieces of pressed glass. Leaving the village we went looking for a 1913  Sears Roebuck catalog house. We found the intersection but could not agree which of the 4 homes was the one of interest.  We heard a train going by and looked up to see it was the Barnum & Bailey circus train, we got a few snapshots as it rolled by.

As we made our break for the open road Lorna noticed something. We went to look and it was a pedestrian tunnel that ran under route 66. Apparently the town had development on each side of the busy highway. We couldn’t resist crossing back and forth and getting the pictures.  The tunnel was lit though daylight alone did well at that hour. The concrete stairwells are pretty obvious and it’s on the corner were the Chelsea Pharmacy is.

Heading up the road to Foyil we saw a freight train standing still on a siding and latter another train rolling along. The moving train was that same circus train and it was going our way. We sped up the highway to get ahead of it, I pulled over where we had a clear view of the track and got the camera propped on the hood and rolling just as the train rolled up in front of us. 30 seconds later it was gone. That was just awesome! See the video!

Next we found the Top Hat Dairy Bar. Sign and building were intact but closed.

Then it was up to Totem Pole Park home of the world’s tallest (concrete) totem pole at 90 feet. The park is loaded with carved and colorfully painted pieces of Indian symbolism.  It was the work of Ed Galloway from 1937 to 1948. After his death in 1962 the park had fallen into disrepair. Local organizations have adopted the park, restored it and continue to maintain these works of art.

Foyil’s hometown hero is Andy Payne. In 1928 he won a footrace from Los Angeles to New York City to help fund the construction of route 66. We found a stone monument on a traffic island  and a statue down the road in the Andy Payne Park.

It was a great story to end the day’s sightseeing with. 

 Before long we rolled into Claremore Oklahoma to find our room for the night.  The motel had coupons for the Barbecue place next door so with 8:00 PM coming fast that was real handy. The meal was good enough but not spectacular. We settled in for the night to sort pictures and blog. Lorna did some laundry and sorted souvenirs that I will pack in the morning.

She came back from doing laundry telling me I have to see the trucks outside. A delivery drew from Michigan was rolling in with a fleet of about 8 white new heavy load dump trucks they are delivering. These things had the usual double rear axle. Ahead of those were 3 more STEERING axles that could be raised when not needed. On the back is a big beefy frame which spans the tailgate that carries another axle up above the tailgate that can be lowered behind the truck to increase carrying capacity. They were built on Kenworth chassis.  I went out to get pictures, bizarre!

Oklahoma has been very interesting. We have not needed to use any interstate highway, so far 66 is intact. The terrain ranges from flat wide open spaces going as far as I can see to wooded hilly region  Fields of cattle are common in some areas. We're seeing grain, corn and hay in the fields. The people are great and for the most part go out of their way to tell the region's story.

Will Rogers was born in Oologah but called Claremore his home, tonight we shall do the same.

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