My maternal grandfather was Frank Elbert
Bleakley (1905-2005). From 1928 to 1972, his sign shop was
headquartered in the basement of the Warner Theatre Building on
East State Street. Jeez, talk about operating out of a hole in
the ground! I’ve run across examples of dungeons that exuded
more warmth and charm.
Anyway, for a very brief moment circa 1936-1940,
he or someone close to him captured a few snapshots of his sign
work around the old Donut. The following image is one from that
collection. This is a photo of the Robins Furniture Company which
was located at 33-35 East Park Avenue. The firm opened this store
in June or July of 1937. I’m fairly certain the snapshot
dates from that period. The snapshot (on left) also offers a view
of Paul’s Cut Rate Store which stood at 27 East Park Avenue.
Owned and operated by Paul Narotsky (1899-1987), the
business made its debut on March 5, 1932. Narotsky managed to
hang on until April 13, 1974, when he finally called it quits.
the left side of the photo, one can just make out W. G. Gifford’s
Meat Market at 39 East Park Avenue. William George Gifford
(1885-1950) commenced operations there on November 15, 1931, after
buying out Silas L. Davis (1879-1956). In October 1941,
Gifford relocated to Klinger’s former Isaly Dairy outlet
in the Sigler Building at 301 Robbins Avenue. He eventually moved
the business to West Park Avenue Ext. Frank Ruben (1885-1950)
and James J. Bernard (1900-1988) set up their barber
shop and music store in Gifford’s old East Park Avenue storefront
in April 1942.
Jacob Edgar “Jack” Robins
(1888-1956) founded the Robins Furniture Company about 1922 or
1923 in Youngstown. At the time of his death, he was listed as
president of the Robins Enterprises Company and vice-president
of the Robins Theatre in Warren. The Warner and Robins family
ties in Niles date back to 1915 when Benjamin Warner
and Daniel Robins took over management of the Niles Opera
House. Though old man Warner assumed the role of manager and front
man, one kind of gets the feeling that Daniel Robins was the real
brains behind that venture.
The Robins Enterprises Company bought out the
Warner interests on East State Street in January 1927. Edgar
Wilkoff of Youngstown was named manager of the theater. Peter
Rufo (1905-1995) took over for Wilkoff in October of that
year. It was Rufo who gave my grandfather the green light to move
into the basement in 1928. The Robins family operated the Warner
Theatre until 1948, with their final show taking place on June
1. The very next day, an ad appeared in the paper announcing some
400 theater seats priced to sell quickly. There’s no word
on who snatched those up.
Since the rear of the furniture store abutted
the north wall of the Warner Theatre, the plan was to create a
passageway leading to a new showroom on the main floor of the
movie house. When it was completed, customers could either enter
the premises from East Park Avenue or stroll in via the old theater
entrance on East State Street. It is believed that this layout
remained until the firm finally closed their Niles store in 1962.
The company continued to operate a branch in Warren for a number
of years. Incidentally, you may recall that the former Robins
Furniture location on East Park Avenue was the focal point in
a standoff with the city during the Urban Renewal Project. This
delayed the demolition of the Warner Theatre until 1975.
Returning back to that Warner Theatre image
for a moment, you may be wondering why Grandpa’s surname
is missing an E. True, it would be fair to say that Frank wasn’t
always the most competent speller; in fact, he was forever calling
up my mother and asking her how to scribble out this word or
that. But he had mastered the jumble of letters in his last
name at an early age. This wasn’t a problem. No, the reason
for the typo is both amusing and vintage Frank. For a work this
large, it was imperative to first mark out the letters with
chalk or a stick of charcoal. In retrospect, this was pretty
much standard operating procedure on all the surfaces he lettered.
It helped to ensure both the correct spelling and the spacing.
the looks of that frame on the side of the building, I’d
wager that Frank had just recoated what was already the umpteenth
version of that billboard sized business card. Instead of sketching
in the letters, he probably figured he could just as easily
eyeball things and began daubing away with his paintbrush. Somewhere
in the middle of the word BLEAKLEY, it became apparent that
he was going to run out of room. Rather than start things over,
he simply opted to leave out the second E.
And so, to the legions of loyal viewers who
regularly visit the Niles Historical Society website, my grandfather
is forever known as the founder and proprietor of the Frank
Bleakly Sign Company. It’s a shame my mother has already
passed. She would have howled at the reminiscence
— Terry Green, April 2023