George Fitzpatrick Interview, 18 June 2011

George Fitzpatrick recalls his unique experiences working in Cleveland area theatres, and within Coventry.

Participants: Fitzpatrick, George (interviewee) / Rotman, Mike (interviewer)
Collection: Cleveland Heights
Institutional Repository: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection

Interview Transcript

Michael Rotman [00:00:00] All right, so it's June 18, 2011. My name is Michael Rotman. We are at Coventry Library and I should say introduce yourself, maybe say when and where you were born.

George Fitzpatrick [00:00:09] OK. My name is George Fitzpatrick and I was born on the west side of Cleveland on West 117th Street. Oh, it's just me? Okay. So I ended up coming over to the East Side in 1961 because the house we lived in my mother could no longer afford. The house was sold for twelve thousand dollars. So we moved to East Cleveland. And a couple of years after that, there's a movie theater in East Cleveland similar to Cedar Lee now, you know, and it was called the Continental at around 140th and Euclid Avenue around around where Huron Road Hospital is but on Euclid Avenue. It's now a Wendy's. So I got a job there as a peon assistant. And lo and behold, after a couple of years of attrition, I became the boss of this one theater. And I would throw huge parties at this theater at night, maybe after the movies were over, and I was in my early 20s or mid 20s, and so I'd throw parties, there's 400 or 700 people at a party, and people would show up. So one night I throw this party, and I won't tell you the juicier part, but, yeah, which is not good to talk about, but the police raided around 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, okay? and I guess somebody was making too much noise and there are hardly any neighbors, but somebody complained. So the police raided. We were taken to the... There's about maybe 15 of us left in the theater. So they take our names and all that information and said they'll give me a call. So a few days later, I get a call from two detectives in East Cleveland, the guy named Bill de Ford or de Fordy and somebody else whose name I don't remember anymore. And they said, Hey, George, you are really screwed. A 13-year-old girl said you gave her a drink. There's like, you know, 13 going on a thousand. I mean, there's a million people, you know. And I didn't I didn't know her from a bale of hay. And they said, George, here's what you do. Sign this blank police statement--blank--and we will get you the hell out of this.

Michael Rotman [00:02:17] And you knew them though?

George Fitzpatrick [00:02:19] Yeah, I knew the detectives real well. And I knew their families because I'd let them in the theater and they were nice guys. You know, like I did over here. So I signed this blank statement with my name on it. You know, they had a judge in East Cleveland at the time named Stanton Adams, and he was like a hanging judge. And if you went before this guy, I mean, I would have gone to prison for that, prison, over giving some girl a drink, okay? And lo and behold, they got me out of this, and they said, but the deal was I couldn't work in East Cleveland anymore. I lived in East Cleveland, but I couldn't work there anymore. So there were three art theaters in Cleveland then: the Continental where I worked at, I was called like a house manager, and the Heights Theater, which is the Centrum over here, and the next one was one in Lakewood called the Westwood at Madison and Hilliard. So I come up here and a guy who is the head guy, the boss of the city and all, He's this real gruff guy that everybody hates. I got on with him. And for whatever reason, when he first came to Cleveland from Youngstown, which is a great town, he comes here and pretty much everybody is gay there except me. And then he fires them all. He fires all the gays. Get the hell out of here. It was just wonderful, so I'm left, you know. And so I sort of am this guy's assistant. So I'm working there for about a year and a half, and I have a bookstore on Coventry too at the time, a tiny little bookstore. It was called A Little Shop. Thirty dollars a month rent. A very little shop. So I'm there. Yeah, little books, miniature books. Many thousands of them. So I'm offered a job. This theater company is owned in Arizona, and the guy who is the main boss of all the theaters in the country says we'd like you to be a manager of our theater in Dayton. Well, nothing was going on great in my life here. So I said, what the hell? I don't even know where Dayton is. So I said, Sure, I'll go to Dayton. So I'm there for six months. And the guy who I'd worked for in Cleveland, they caught him stealing them blind. He was stealing them blind, okay? So I become the boss of this theater chain, sort of totally attrition I don't know. You know, I'm an artist. I've never paid much attention. I like movies, but it's not my career. So I moved up as the boss in 1970 and I had to fire this guy who was 70 years old. Okay. And I'm like 27. And I said, sir, you are fired. You know, it was pretty awful. And I knew his family and, you know, it was really sad. He died a couple of years after that of cancer. And so I become the boss. So I ran the theater from 1970 up until 1988, when the guy who owned it decided he didn't want to own theaters anymore, and he just wanted to unload them. And this place had been losing money for years. And they asked me would I like to buy it, and I said, no way in hell do I want to buy, you know? This isn't what I do with my life. You know, but it was a great job. And so I got to know an immense number of people. Lee worked for me for a while.

Unknown speaker [00:05:39] He did great paperwork. He always put extra stamps on too, so that stuff was going to get there.

George Fitzpatrick [00:05:45] So it was a great job. And I got it. I got it down so well that I could work eight hours a week with this job and everybody else liked me so much, they basically did what I asked them to do, you know, and they were nice people, and I tried not to screw people along the way. If you treat people like dirt, you get that in, you know, it's how life goes. So one day, Renee, our cashier, accidentally hits the panic button in the cashier's booth outside, okay? Well, my desk is covered with marijuana. Okay, it's about this big. The whole thing is like a mound of grass. You know I'm there probably not even wearing a shirt. I'm wearing a pair of shorts and a bunch of friends who were all set to light up. Bang, bang, bang on my door. And my office was like the balcony.

Unknown speaker [00:06:37] It was the second floor lobby.

George Fitzpatrick [00:06:38] It was the lobby for the second floor of the movie theater, so it's like 35 feet long and 12 feet wide. Huge space because they never used the balcony. So the first... And I'd just go like this in the desk drawer. And you know, it was truly fortunate we had not lit up one second earlier because, you know, what would have happened? I mean, they would have, we probably had, I mean, it wasn't that much, three or four ounces on the top of the desk.

Michael Rotman [00:07:09] Still probably enough to get you in trouble.

George Fitzpatrick [00:07:09] The first guy that comes in, the guy's a sawed off shotgun. Oh, God, you know, what the hell did this happen? So it was really great. I've known a lot of people here over the years and everything, and there was one night I was standing in front of the place where about fifty Hells Angels go by and that was very impressive, I have to say. You know, one of my good friends was a guy named Harvey Pekar who died this past year, and Harvey, I first made him my manager at this theater, which was then called the Heights Theater. Invited Harvey and I over for a spaghetti dinner one night. So I got there a little bit earlier and John and I are drinking, John Richmond, who's a jazz musician. And Harvey walks in, and I'd never met this guy before, and he says, I don't know how the fuck I'm going to eat this week because I have just spent a hundred and twenty-five dollars for one 78 record that I can't live without, okay? And I'm going to have no food. And he's dithering and dancing, like Harvey always did about everything, and it was so funny, and so a little bit after this, a couple years after that Harvey started out with his comic books, American Splendor. So I probably bought, oh God, over the years, maybe fifteen hundred or two thousand copies from Harvey. And we had midnight shows at the theater. Different movies by, you know, Andy Warhol or Stan Brakhage or Bruce Conner and just a lot of different people. And then Clockwork Orange and blah, blah, blah, all sorts of stuff that started at midnight. So I would just hand them out to people and everything. So I tried to help Harvey out a little bit because of course he made nothing for years. Those are just a little bit of extra money for him. And basically the theater chain didn't bitch. So I was able to do this.

Michael Rotman [00:10:57] You bought him or you just sold them?

George Fitzpatrick [00:10:57] No, no, I gave them away. Oh, I see George one night at, the show's over, he's collecting tickets, stubs on the floor that people have, well, he won them, and he didn't want the damn water bill. He just said I want cash. So I bought it and I had it in the office for a long time. And that was before your time. But one of the guys who worked as the cleaning man there was a guy named Tim Wright. And he was in the band Pere Ubu when they started. And so Tim and his girlfriend. He's like the cleaning... Mary Ann, yeah, who worked at Coventry Books with Ellie and everything, Ellie employed her. So they decide they're going to go to Guatemala. No, they're going to go to Belize. And this guy looks, he' skinny as a rail and he looks like a Mayan Indian, and it's just great. So they go there for six months. Then he comes back and they're going to move to New York City. So, Tim... and God it was really hot. Land's cheap. You can buy land in the jungle for fifteen dollars an acre, okay, at the time, but they wanted to go to New York, and he was saying, right at that time there was an earthquake in Guatemala and the local papers in Belize said Guats get what they deserve. I just thought that was a wonderful [inaudible]. So, you know, I had, you know, I knew we had hundreds of employees over the years and everything, and we had some really nice people that worked there.

Michael Rotman [00:12:31] Were you at the Heights Theater when it was raided by the police?

George Fitzpatrick [00:12:34] Oh, yeah.

Michael Rotman [00:12:36] When they showed the pornographic movie?

George Fitzpatrick [00:12:38] Well, no, I think what you're referring to is a film called The Lovers. And that would have been, I think that would have been around 1959. OK. I started here. The manager was a guy named Nico Jacobellis. And there was a film called The Lover. The director, Louis Malle did it. M-A-L-L-E. And the place didn't want it shown. The guy who was the pastor up at St. Ann's Church just railed against it. People at St. Ann's weren't allowed to come here. And so Nico at the time who, this was the guy before the man who I had to fire. OK, this guy was like Mr. Sophistication. He was the total opposite of the guy from Youngstown, Ben Brawdy, and so Nico went ahead and showed the film and he refused to walk out of the theater. The police picked him up and carried him. And I wasn't there, but that's really what happened. They carried him out of the theater. And he was in jail for five days. He couldn't get out. And it went to the local court. And of course, he gets convicted in the local court. It goes all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States and the theater chain won it. So the guy who owned the theater chain has lots of money and he didn't want to be pushed around and so it went to the Supreme Court and they won the case, and I was hired to work for this company when Nico and his wife were given a two-month trip back to Italy. The theater owner gave them some money. And they were there, and the guy who had taken his place temporarily hired me. So I wasn't there for any of that. But it must have been terrible because he would get calls at like 3:00 a.m. saying, you know, you're a pervert or whatever they would say, you know. And the church that they wanted to get married at, Holy Rosary, they weren't allowed to be married there. The church wouldn't marry them. And, you know, if you will look at that film today, it's such an amazing yawn. I mean, they can shown on it TV, it wouldn't be anything, you know, and it's just totally laughable. So one of the more fun movies we ever showed, the owner of the company was really a pretty crazy guy who I only met twice in 25 year, okay? He lived in Beverly Hills and Paradise Valley, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix. No, they worked for him, a guy named Lou Sher,.

Unknown speaker [00:15:10] Oh, Lou Sher.

George Fitzpatrick [00:15:11] S-H-E-R. In fact, Lou's kid just did the film Hangover II, it's his movie. So he's making a couple of bucks, Larry's making a couple of bucks these days. It was the number one film in the country for at least one week or maybe two. So our manager, we have theaters scattered all over. There's like ten in Ohio, and I'm at the time running five or six of them through northern Ohio. And my counterpart in Columbus runs southern Ohio. So our manager in San Francisco decides that they're making this flick called The Stewardesses. It's the world's first 3D skin flick, okay? So he convinces Lou to spend one hundred and seventeen thousand bucks for the rights to have for this movie. That film made 54 million dollars, OK, this is in 1970 dollars. And for about a year and a half, they were like tweaking the film, changing it. It was so funny. And that's when ticket prices were three dollars, so we had the outrageous price of three bucks. And of the five or six theaters that I was run into at the time, one night we took in twenty-five thousand dollars between them all. I mean, a lot of cash was floating around. And one night when I wasn't there, a priest had a heart attack in the theater and died in the theater watching The Stewardesses in 3D. So it was really a fun, yeah, it's so laughable to see a film like this, and one of one of the girls who was in it was from Youngstown. She was paid like a thousand or eleven hundred dollars. So the guy that you saw in Carroll Drug, whose name, of course, I don't remember at all, he was a photographer. He took a lot of nude photography.

Unknown speaker [00:16:59] Not Don Horvath.

George Fitzpatrick [00:17:02] He was there for a long time.

Unknown speaker [00:17:04] It might've been Don.

George Fitzpatrick [00:17:05] OK, so he does a lot of nude photography so he says, George, can you arrange it that... I don't know how I did it, but somehow we got in touch with this girl. And so she and her boyfriend come up so she could take off into the balcony and he takes photographs. She just strips in front of me, which I thought was interesting, really cute. And there was a big battle if they were going to show the film in Youngstown, because she's from Youngstown, and somehow they paid her more money and it was allowed to be shown there and everything. But then there was a guy who came around the theater named Peter Goldsmith. And Peter died a few years ago. But Peter was a great hanger-oner, and his father was a member of the Communist Party in New York and got blackballed. He couldn't find a job and he ended up working for Bonds for Israel in Cleveland. So he comes to Cleveland and Peter, sort of, you know, I don't want to run him down and say this, but he is the unwashed Communist sympathizer, you know, they're pretty dirty. You know, I mean, you just, you know, he's Peter, you know. And so he starts hanging around and he hangs around for twenty-five years. And he is there and I gave him a few dollars from time to time. He worked in a nursing home for a while. And after his father died, after the last person he was... He lived with his father. After his father died they just threw him out. So another neighbor, Cather Young, was able to get him money to live a Jewish welfare agency wrote. She knew he just he was incapable of doing things like that.

Unknown speaker [00:18:49] Didn't he have a girlfriend that dumped him?

George Fitzpatrick [00:18:52] He had a girlfriend back in the '60s and very, very early '70s, whose first name was Roz, and I don't remember her last name, but her first name was Roz. And he was just sort of a loner. He would play chess by himself. And he was a very good musician. He played, he was, when he was a kid, Pete Seeger had a... He was living in New York City, and Pete Seeger had a camp in Beacon, New York, that he would, I guess, invite kids to come up and stay at the house. And I remember Peter said they had an outhouse in the wintertime. I suspect it was pretty chilly and everything, so Peter hung around the theater for years. And I had a boss who was like Mr. Perfect and Mr. Perfectly Clean and white clothes and long white ponytail and perfect. Not a not a fingernail would be out of order, you know, perfect condition, a vegetarian. And in 1940, this guy was a vegetarian, and which must have been vegetarianism and communism must have been similar at the time. It was so long ago, you know, I mean, who the hell was a vegetarian then? And his name was Count. His middle name was Count, who lived in Phoenix, and Count and I would go out to dinner, and he come twice a year. This is my man who was my boss. So we would go around, we'd visit the theaters in Cleveland and say hi to everybody, and we visit Akron and Youngstown and Toledo together. I drive him around and everything to these places. This is over the course of three days. And, you know, we talked about art in antiques and European travel and good food and wine, and he had literally an unlimited expense account so we would have good stuff, you know. And we were throwing a party one night for our manager in Akron, a guy who'd been married half a dozen times. And he could have had my job but the owner of the company was so nuts, lou Sher, that if you would say something like, you know, if he would utter the comment, the moon is made of green cheese, if you were smart, you'd say, why, yes, of course, it's made, you know, it's made of green, you know, green cheese or blue cheese or whatever. And Lee, my manager in Akron, would say, oh, no, no, it's not it's not made of that. He could never understand why he never got further ahead. But this is always a terrific neighborhood. And, you know, I mean, I live a block away, so I really like the area and everything. And I didn't know how much more yacking you want me to do.

Michael Rotman [00:21:26] You know, we're about twenty minutes now.

George Fitzpatrick [00:21:27] Yeah. That's enough and it's up to you, you know, hell, I don't care. Okay.

Michael Rotman [00:21:32] Sure, so I just want to say thanks for coming out and sharing everything.

Cleveland Heights

Initial interviews in this series were conducted between 2011 and 2013 at the Coventry Village Reunion in support of Historic Heights App Tours, a Cuyahoga Arts & Culture-funded grant project sponsored by FutureHeights, Cleveland Heights Historical Society, and Cleveland Heights Landmark Commission. Additional interviews were collected in 2018 in coordination with the Cleveland Voices podcast.