Documentary filmmaker Joanna Thornewill Hay didn’t grow up in Frankfort and never saw a movie at the Grand Theatre on St. Clair Street.
Had she purchased a ticket, she would have sat downstairs with the white people while blacks were relegated to the balcony. Such were the times in Frankfort.
But when she walked into the Grand eight years before its renovation, it was a trip to the balcony that inspired her to tell the stories of blacks relegated to watch movies from the upper decks, beyond sight of whites.
Since 2006 – backed initially by an oral history grant from the Kentucky Historical Society – Hay has been recording the stories of Frankfort’s African Americans who sat upstairs at the Grand as part of Frankfort’s segregation.
Once the stories began to unfold, Hay knew they were not only critical to chronicling Frankfort’s history, but also something the community needed to hear.
Thus began her work on a documentary she calls, “Voices from the Balcony.”
Frankfort native Sheila Mason Burton, who co-authored “Community Memories” in 2003, started Hay’s journey. Burton is first vice president of the Kentucky Historical Society.
Burton had seen many movies from the Grand’s balcony and was Hay’s first interview. She’d witnessed segregation that Hay had only heard and read about.
Burton would become Hay’s guide, providing her contacts to those who’d been part of what many considered an ugly time in Frankfort’s history. That led Hay not only through Frankfort, but also to Ohio and North Carolina.
“My first time back in the theater since its close in the late sixties was in the fall of 2006,” Burton said. “I was ambivalent about meeting Joanna there. I really wasn’t sure, other than some ugly feelings, what I could possibly tell her. After all that was 40 years ago.
“But then I started up those stairs and the memories came rolling in.”
Burton’s history includes a great-grandmother who’d witnessed emancipation and was the daughter of a slave master. In her elder years, she lived with Burton’s family in South Frankfort.
“She was the nanny for Rebecca Booe,” Burton said of her great-grandmother’s care for the founder of Rebecca Ruth.
Burton’s life is a microcosm of an African American growing up during segregation, joining the march in Frankfort with Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr., and what she calls her “radical period” when she wore an Afro hairstyle, marched in sit-ins and demanded people call her race black.
“After college, I went to the work in the Department of Revenue at a time when one of my mother’s friends worked there and she called herself a negro,” Burton said.
“She did not like me telling everyone to refer to me as black.”
In addition, Burton sported a sticker on her car that read “Free Angela Davis,” considered one of the icons of radical racism during the early 1970s.
As a Frankfort High School student, Burton had her mother’s permission and a note that allowed her to go to the Freedom March led by King in 1964 that culminated on the steps of the Capitol.
However, one of her friends didn’t have the required note. A student at Second Street, Theresa Graham went to the March. Her punishment from the administration would be suspension from school.
“But somehow Theresa caught the attention of Dr. King, and he returned to school with her,” Burton recalls.
The pair was greeted with shock and dismay by the school secretary who was asked to summon Principal Leo Ball.
Ball was a tough, no nonsense force in the elementary school. Every student and the faculty member knew that.
Ball refused to shake hands with King. He then told the pair that rules were in play for a reason and that Theresa would be suspended.
King asked for a private meeting with just the two in Ball’s office.
Burton said Graham never knew what transpired in that meeting, but when they emerged, Ball told Graham to return to class that she would not be suspended.
“Looking back, it is incredible to me that this man who became larger than life to the black community would have taken the time to help a little girl,” Burton said, adding, “I can only imagine what Dr. King said to Mr. Ball.”
The oldest Frankfort resident interviewed thus far is Hugh Hudson Sr., who says he can recall the vaudeville acts in the theater’s earliest days.
In North Carolina, Hay met with Vincent Parsons, whose father ran the Grand in the 1940s.
Hay went to Dayton, Ohio, to interview Romania Marshall, who was raising her children in Frankfort at the time of racial unrest.
In a discussion about Marshall’s experiences attending the Grand Theatre, a story emerged that shocked Hay and was one even Burton hadn’t heard.
Marshall tells of the day she and her children attended the Freedom March.
“I got to shake hands with Dr. King and so did my children,” she recalls on the video. But her next statement finds the pair asking her on camera to repeat her words.
“Dr. King took my daughter’s hand, told me to hold the hands of my children and we began the march with him,” Marshall said.
Her daughter, Donna Marshall, graduated from Frankfort High School in 1967 with honors. She went on to undergraduate school, law school and passed the bar when she was struck with cancer and died.
“Donna had such potential,” Burton said. “Her passing was a loss to all of us who knew her.”
Said Hay, “It was stories like Marshall’s and Graham’s that I knew Frankfort had to hear. Unknown history was unfolding, and if we didn’t capture it, it could be lost forever.”
That desire has now become the primary reason for “Voices from the Balcony.”
“It is not only to capture the stories of those who remember the Grand’s history, but how the history of Frankfort residents intersect to tell a much deeper story of a community,” Hay said.
Burton added, “If we don’t get the stories now, they may be lost forever. It is not in any way an attempt to be revisionists, but to tell every story.”
As a white child growing up in the midst of the racial divide in the capital city, Frankfort developer Bill Crumbaugh found himself interacting with many young black males his age. Baseball, particularly, was the link with the young men playing on the same teams at Frankfort’s early ballparks.
In his video interview, Crumbaugh explains his view at the Grand was not from the first floor, but in the balcony with his much beloved family caretaker, Sadie Garrett.
“My mother was sick for many years with heart disease. Dad would pick Sadie up on Dixie Avenue about three times a week and bring her to our house where she would care for my mother and cook for our family,” Crumbaugh said this week, recalling that Garrett was more family than hired help.
“But on many occasions she would take my older brother Tommy and me and we would get on the old yellow-and-green buses and go to town,” Crumbaugh said, laughing about Frankfort’s early transportation.
“Sadie would purchase tickets, and because she was black, we then would take the outside entrance to the second floor.
“We didn’t care where we sat. I don’t even think it crossed our minds. We were just excited to see a movie.”
Crumbaugh said he stopped to see Jim Morris at his business in the old theater about 20 years ago and asked if the balcony was still there.
“I was surprised when Jim said it was – just as it had been in its early days,” Crumbaugh said nostalgically.
“We went to the outside entrance and climbed those steep stairs and there it was just as I had remembered it.”
Crumbaugh says that he feels the integrity of the upstairs of the renovated Grand has been retained much as he remembers it with the long hallway, restrooms and two entrances leading to the balcony.
Former resident Benny Mapp, who now lives in Louisville, drove to Frankfort to be interviewed at the Grand. His perspective also added a new dimension to the story as far as Burton is concerned.
“While Benny recalls that is where black people sat, more importantly he remembers he took his first date there,” Burton said.
“He even pointed out exactly where they sat and recalls with humor his excitement of having the date.”
Burton said once she moved beyond the segregation issues, she too has poignant memories attending the movie theater with her mother and young brother, Andrew.
“My mother cried at the end of ‘Love Me Tender,’” Burton recalls. “I can still see her now, and it makes me smile knowing that movies could make her emotional.”
But one person stands out in the memory of Burton and almost every African American the duo has interviewed.
Roberta Wilson ran the upstairs, and there is no doubt about it.
“She took the tickets, she sold the popcorn and soft drinks and she kept order in the balcony,” Burton said.
Knowledge of Wilson was the initial reason the pair went to Ohio is to see Marshall because “Romania lived directly across the street from Roberta on Murray Street.”
Armed with hindsight and historical perspective, Burton says Wilson may have saved the children from having a negative stigma attached to their presence and kept the balcony open to them.
“As I look on it now, she ensured our behavior was appropriate, that we didn’t lob things onto the seats below or other things that would draw criticism from the white folks. I think perhaps it was more than just a job for the demanding Wilson, perhaps she knew if she didn’t do her job we might not have been allowed in the theater at all.”
Van Warren is videoed as he takes his walk to the balcony for his interview.
“I don’t remember the steps being this steep,” he says as he climbs.
When he reaches the top and catches his breath he immediately recalls Wilson.
“Roberta Wilson ran this area.”
But he begins laughing when he walks down the long hallway and approaches the outside door, which was a fire escape.
“We would wait for Miss Wilson to go into the balcony and then let our friends in this door who did not have money that day for a ticket. Then we would kind of blend in and go to the balcony after she was back in the hall.”
With enthusiasm he waves his arm and exclaims, “Royalty sat in this balcony.”
The Grand had long been the movie house of Frankfort’s rural people, who often came to town on Saturday to see B movies such as westerns starring Lash Larue, Gene Autry, comedies by the Three Stooges and outrageous science fiction with the likes of Buck Rogers.
As things were then, its prices were cheap in comparison to other forms of entertainment. About 35 cents purchased a ticket, popcorn and a drink. Newsreels, cartoons, previews, serials, the feature of the day and sometimes a double feature awaited moviegoers.
There are those like Barbara Berry Tandy, who add another dimension to being a white child in the days of the segregated Grand Theatre.
“My mother absolutely forbid us from going to the Grand,” Tandy said. “It wasn’t the black children. She felt it was a place where many of the unseemly of Frankfort’s population gathered.”
As for that unsavory element, Frankfort was not without its cast of known “characters.”
Judy Harrod Clark remembers sitting on the plush carpet with her sister, Betty, in the downstairs women’s restroom.
“There was a huge mirror that filled a wall,” she recalls in her video appearance.
“I remember watching a rather wild looking woman standing in front of the mirror and smearing red lipstick all over her mouth,” she remembers of the legendary Frankfort figure Indian Martha.
“She turned abruptly and looked at us and shouted, ‘What’s the matter? Haven’t you ever seen anybody put on lipstick?’”
With her starring at them, the two sisters nearly fell over themselves exiting the restroom.
Hay so far has done 32 interviews and her plans include at least a dozen more. In addition to the oral history grant from the Kentucky Historical Society, she has received two others from the Kentucky Foundation for Women because of the organization’s interest in social issues and another from the state historical society.
“These interviews will all be available to the community as part of Frankfort’s oral history at the Thomas D. Clark Kentucky History Center,” Hay said.
A book may be in the offing as well, says the 1999 grad of Kentucky State University who came to Frankfort when she married Taylor Hay Jr., and they came to take care of his aging parents on Scotland Farm.
But Hay, who now lives and works from home in Bald Knob, has an ultimate goal – a completed video documentary that can be shown not only to the people of Frankfort, but also to the state through the auspices of Kentucky Educational Television.
“There has been some interest and in time we hope it will become a reality.”
But editing and all its intricacies take time and money and both are critical to completing the video. The book will follow and Hay hopes financial resources will allow her to complete both by 2012.
“We are definitely looking for resources,” says Hay who is also a Community Scholar trained by KHS.
“Certainly feelings still persist about the racial divide of the Grand, and there are those who wanted no part of this project. But my feelings are, ‘Why reject who we are? Why not confront our history, no matter what it was?’ And perhaps through these conversations, people may be able to reconcile many of the feelings they still have,” Burton said.
Burton said she feels that ultimately Hay’s work will reflect an amazing coming together of community at the Grand. She says it definitely had its day when everybody was there to see and be seen.
“Everybody who was an anybody or a nobody came to the Grand,” said former Usher at the Grand Eugene Parrish.