The Bardwell Theatre
If you ever go to Rowley, New York, the Bardwell Theatre on Main Street and Mapleton Avenue will impress you. It reopened recently as a performing arts center after a time when its future seemed dismal when its former owner, Dalton Grover, announced he was planning to knock the building down and put a parking lot in its place. That he changed his mind suddenly was a surprise to everyone.
Built in the mid 1920’s, the original owner, Cromwell T. Bardwell, was a successful entrepreneur whose family was one of the first settlers in this region. He spent a fortune to make this theatre a magnificent showcase. Its yellow brick exterior had a large imposing marquee, and the 2,000-seat auditorium, designed by the legendary John Eberson, resembled a Spanish courtyard with hundreds of tiny lights placed in the dark blue ceiling to create the illusion of twinkling stars in the night sky. A large four manual Wurlitzer organ with many musical effects enhanced the enjoyment of the spectators before each presentation began. Even the lobby, with its imported crystal chandeliers and Italian marble staircase leading to a loge and balcony, was impressive to behold when first entering the theatre.
Like most large movie palaces, a large entertainment conglomerate bought the Bardwell Theatre after the 1929 depression wiped out the owner’s fortune. The theatre continued to do well through the next couple of decades, but with the advent of television and the enforcement of the anti-monopoly law in the late fifties, the theatre chain sold the Bardwell to Dalton Grover, an entrepreneur in the local vicinity.
What finally doomed the Bardwell was the multiplex cinema built in the new shopping mall in the nineteen-nineties. The large one screen theatre could not compete with the more efficient modern multiplex and it closed less than a year later. This upset some of the more cultured Rowley citizens. They organized a group called Friends of the Bardwell Theatre, with the goal of buying the theatre, getting it a landmark status, and raising money to restore it into a performing arts center.
To convert the theatre would be an easy transition since it had an unusually large stage area, the result of Cromwell’s wife Lavinia, an avid theatre buff, who wanted Broadway road companies to perform occasionally at the theatre, as well as her own amateur acting group.
At first, Grover was not willing to sell the theatre to the group, since he was strictly out for making a large profit.
“I’ll get more money by ripping down this place and using the empty space for a badly needed parking lot,” he told the committee. “The money you are offering me for the Bardwell is peanuts.”
The group tried every legal action to stop him, but he won in the end. Gleeful of his victory, Grover quickly hired a wrecking crew to rip down the place. In the meanwhile, a few weeks before this was to happen, he went to the theatre with the intention of picking out items that he would salvage and sell.
The theatre smelled musty as Grover walked into the lobby. He turned on the lights and the crystal chandeliers blazed above him.
Mm, those lights could bring quite a few bucks, just as the antique furniture scattered all over the building, he thought, walking about.
There was organ music coming from behind the large brass auditorium doors.
“What is going on inside there? I should have hired a guard to watch this place until it’s ripped down,” he mumbled angrily.
Entering the auditorium, Grover stopped in amazement. Everything looked clean and new. The lights in the ceilings representing stars in the night sky were brightly twinkling, something he had not seen, since the bulbs had long burned out before he bought the building ten years earlier. An amber spotlight focused on the left side of the stage where a woman wearing a beaded red dress was playing the Wurlitzer four manual organ console. This should have been impossible since the instrument needed extensive repairs and had not been in working order for more than thirty years.
Suddenly Grover felt someone tap him on the shoulder. He turned and saw a tall, pale young man in an usher’s uniform intently staring at him, his large green eyes almost luminescent.
“Let me take you to your reserved seat, Mr. Grover.”
All the Grover wanted to do at that moment was get out of the building.
“No, I don’t think so, maybe another time,” he replied, heading toward the back exit.
The usher frowned and grabbed the terrified man by the arm. “No, this show is being done for you. Come with me.”
Forcibly, he dragged Grover down the aisle to the tenth row and pushed him down into the first seat before vanishing in the darkness.
Terrified, the theatre owner tried to get up, but some unseen force kept him in his seat.
“Dalton Grover plans to rip down this beautiful theatre,” a deep voice shouted from the speakers. “He is nothing more than a callous and cruel man who only cares about making a profit.”
Furious, Grover gathered enough energy to rise from his seat. “Whoever you are, shut up or I’ll sue you for slander!”
There was a multitude of invisible laughs throughout the auditorium as the main gold curtain opened. A group of people stood on stage with a sign above them spelling out BARDWELL THEATRE in flashing lights. A couple moved to the front where there was a microphone on a stand. Grover had seen a photograph of them in the library. It was Cornelius Q. Bardwell and his wife Lavinia, but how could that be? They were dead for many years! There could be only one plausible explanation…they were ghosts, something he had not believed in until now. Stan sank down in his seat, terrified.
Cornelius spoke. “Yes, Mr. Grover, all of us here are spirits who at one time or another when alive lovingly contributed to the success of this theatre. Now sit up and pay attention.”
For one of the few times in his adult life, Stan did as told. Lavinia continued the speech.
“This magnificent edifice should be saved and continue to bring joy to future generations. Look around you, Mr. Grover, only skilled artisans could create such an ambiance. The Baldwin deserves to become a historical landmark. What a travesty it would be to have it knocked down because of your insensitivity and greed. You, Sir, are a leech, taking from whomever you can, and giving back nothing in return. Unfortunately, no one has ever been able to stop you—until now.”
Grover mustered up his courage and stood up, pointing his finger at the phantoms.
“You are nothing but some stale vapors that cannot actually harm me. Truthfully, you are probably figments of my overactive imagination.”
Suddenly, Lavinia was standing next to him. “We are more than harmless vapors and as real as you. If you want to leave this theatre alive, follow our instructions. Sign the statement that is lying on the seat next to you and turn over the deed of this theatre to the Friends of the Bardwell Theatre.”
“Never!” Grover shouted, forgetting his incredible situation.
The organ began to play Chopin’s funeral march softly. A blue spotlight focused on him as the air became heavy and difficult to breathe. Grover began to choke.
Sign it,” she repeated with a menacing tone.
Gasping for air, Stan took out a pen from his vest pocket and signed. The group on stage cheered wildly and Lavinia took the paper.
“We will see to it Friends of the Bardwell Theatre finds this signed paper tomorrow,” she said. “I suggest you don’t ever return to this theatre, if you know what’s good for you!”
The next thing Grover knew was standing under the darkened marquee of the theatre. He ran all the way home, then gulped down half a bottle of whiskey to steady his nerves.
Of course, Friends of the Bardwell Theatre were thrilled with the signed statement giving them the theatre free of charge.
What still puzzles people of the town is why Grover never allows anyone to bring up even the name of the theatre in his presence.
◊ ◊ ◊
Elliot Richard Dorfman
Elliot Richard Dorfman taught theatre arts, broadcasting, music, and social studies in the New York City School System for three decades and is a former member of the NY Dramatist Guild. He appeared and wrote for radio and television. His plays have been performed professionally and at schools and community centers. Since retiring and moving from the city to Upstate New York, he has written 122 short stories and several poems in 40 publications. In 2008, the readers of Golden Visions Magazine voted Elliot as their favorite author. Mr. Dorfman is a proud “Full Member” of The Fictioneers. Solstice Publishing will release his fifth novel, BEYOND ALL DREAMS, this year. For further information go to http://elrite.webs.com/
6 thoughts on “The Bardwell Theatre”
I took the introduction part of this as non fiction, but then began to question that as the story rolled along. clearly the overall piece is fiction but I’m curious if some of the first part is true. Interesting technique to this too, although I wonder if melding the intro material about the theater with the rest of the tale might have been successful.
So true about old architectural beauties turned into parking lots. That’s more unbelievable than this story!. Too bad this scenario doesn’t happen in real life. Enjoyed it from beginning to end.
A nice bit of faux history invoking the name of real, well known designer of “theme” movie palaces, John Eberson. Omaha, Nebraska, where I grew up, had one, The Paramount, on 20th and Farnum, complete with a star-lit ceiling and domed roof tops, an exotic addition to our corn husker melieu. As in this story, it was saved from destruction when a local merchant, Rose Blumkin, donated it to a local preservationist group. It is now the Blumkin Performing Arts Center. However, as far as I know, ghostly intervention didn’t play a role. Obviously, I enjoyed this story, though it would benefit from tightening here and there. But an interesting piece. AGB
The story is fiction. there is no such theatre.
Enjoyed this story. It was filled with your theater history facts and fantastic imagination. : ) GED
Found the story entertaining and amusing.