This interview for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society is being recorded
on Thursday, July 26, 2007, as part of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society Oral History
Project. The interview will be recorded in the Esther Melton Building of the
Jewish Federation, 1175 College Avenue. This is Marvin Bonowitz and I’m
interviewing today Jerry Knight who has been a long-time resident of Columbus
and Jerry, would you talk a little bit about yourself. I’m interested in
knowing who your parents were, how your family came to the United States, where
they were born and such.
Knight: Yes, I’ll be happy to. I personally was born in Youngstown, Ohio.
My parents, my father is an immigrant from Hush, Rumania. My mother was born in
New York City. Her maiden name was Garunkle. My father’s, the original name
was Nacht in the old country, changed to the, Americanized name Knight. I had
three siblings, one brother and two sisters: Evelyn who was married to Herbert
Solomon, my sister June who was married to Richard Rieger from Lorain, Ohio, and
then my brother Julius who was married to a local girl, Helen Zeidner. My
parents were Harry Knight and Edith Knight.
Interviewer: What was your mother’s maiden name?
Interviewer: Okay, you told us that. I’m sorry.
Knight: And then my immediate family, I was married to a very, very lovely,
beautiful girl, Anita Gelman from Lorain, Ohio. Her parents were Joseph and
Sarah Gelman. They had one daughter and one son, Dr. Sydney Gelman, and Anita
and I had two beautiful daughters, Joni and Lani. Joni presented us with two
beautiful granddaughters, Sari and Mara. That’s…
Interviewer: Yeah, would you spell those names, the names of your
Knight: Sari is S-A-R-I and Mara M-A-R-A.
Interviewer: And where are they now?
Knight: They’re both in Columbus. They’re both in college. One goes to
Kent State University, will be graduating this summer. The other goes to Ohio
University. Randy’s parents are Florence and Murray Rosen, both from Columbus.
(Ed.: Randy is Joni’s husband.)
Interviewer: What brought your father to Columbus? Why did he select Columbus
Knight: Dad came from Youngstown, Ohio, looking for a better life for his
Interviewer: Uh huh.
Knight: So we were the only ones that, he was the only one that came to
Columbus. Most are still in Youngstown, Ohio. And I don’t have to say, you
know, what’s happened in Youngstown even way back then. But he started here in
Columbus, had several businesses, and he was always looking for a better way.
And eventually, in 1938, ended up in the theater business which started just a
little theater down on Main Street called the Royal Theater. Only had 252 seats
and the admission was a great, whopping ten cents to everybody.
Knight: So you can imagine even if you filled up the 252 seats, if you did
$25, that was a lot, a lot of money.
Interviewer: But that was quite an adventure for somebody who’d never been
in the theater business.
Knight: He was very conscientious…conscientious about everything he
did. He wanted to learn. He learned fast and before, lo and behold, he expanded,
a theater up the street called the New Theater, which was at 409 East Main
Street at that time. Kept wondering why are they doing so much business at the
Royal and I’m not doing that business. So one day he just said to Mr. Lou
Holleb, who was the owner of the New Theater, he said, “Why don’t you
stop worrying? Why don’t you just sell out?” And that’s what he did. So
now we had two theaters. And two theaters led to a third theater which we had
the Russell Theater down on South Parsons Avenue. And then from there, by that
time, I was already in college and I had been working at the theaters ever since
I’d been around 12 years old. My mother had passed away in 1951. My dad moved
to Florida and my brother and sister and brother-in-law, they had a drive-in
theater in Findlay, Ohio. So that left me here in Columbus. We still had the
So I was operating the Russell. And from the Russell I went to
several other theaters that were, I just assumed the leases. I didn’t buy out
anybody, I just assumed leases. And lo and behold at that time is when
television came out and I don’t have to tell you what a whopping disaster that
turned out to be, for us. But I stayed right with it and eventually one of the
theaters that I had acquired was the Drexel Theater on East Main Street in
Bexley. And from there we made a very huge success. In the meantime,
unfortunately, a disaster hit in the Jewish community when Skip Yassenoff’s
father passed away and Skip was a young, bright student at Ohio State and just
in a minute he was left with the business and we had gotten together and I
offered to help him in any way I could and Skip took me up on it. And we began a
long relationship which is friendly to this very day. I have nothing but
admiration for Skip. And also, during that time, Leo Yassenoff who had a chain
of theaters, had called and his son Milton had passed away and he had asked if I
would help out. So I was trying to do both which might have been a little unfair
to Skip at the time but I was kind of burning the log on both ends.
But needless to say, I worked for both Skip and I worked for Leo. Leo was a great, great
philanthropist who, a lot of people didn’t know about his giving. They always
see the big name “The Leo Yassenoff Jewish Community Center” but he
gave constantly to every organization that he could possibly get his hands on.
Interviewer: This is, I’m going to ask Skip Yassenoff to speak about this
transaction and Jerry’s influence on his life.
Yassenoff: Well thank you Marvin. Kind of got farther into it than I thought
you would before I had a chance to take over but that’s fine. Jerry, when you
went to work for Leo after Milton passed away, they had drive-ins and indoor
theaters. They had quite a collection of theaters at that time. I think they
were under the name of Academy Theaters. About how many theaters were you busy
Knight: I would eventually say I believe about eight theaters. I think there
were at that time, there was two or three drive-in theaters and about five
Interviewer: The theater situation at that time was a little bit different
than it is now. There were a lot more theaters. We had first-run theaters that
were downtown, the Broad, the Palace, the Grand, and maybe…
Interviewer: Okay. The Majestic, was that a first-run theater?
Knight: It was a first-run theater on High Street.
Interviewer: Okay, yes. It was next door to the Neil House which is now the
west side of High Street opposite the Capitol building. But the theaters were
part of a lot of people’s lives because there was no television at those times
and first-run theaters were air conditioned. They were large-capacity houses and
most people had a neighbor- hood theater near them and they could go there and
when air conditioning came in, I think that was a big plus for the neighborhood
theater because on hot nights, we didn’t have air conditioned homes and very
few places where you could cool off. So that was the situation with the
neighborhood theaters and somehow the neighborhood theaters have closed up and
we don’t have them so much any more.
Yassenoff: Would you like to comment on that Jerry?
Knight: Well it seems that just about the time the days of the neighborhood
theaters were going out, the multiplex theaters, with the big chains, had come
onto the market. AMC, which was one of the biggest chains in the country at the
time, built a multiplex theater at, near Eastland. There was a Northland that
had a multiplex theater. But even when they built the multiplex theaters, they
were only talking about maybe three screens then, instead of one, or maybe four
screens. Today, to show how things have changed, we have theaters that have as
many as 16 and 18 screens all under one roof. And the small, independent
neighborhood theater here in Columbus, except for the Drexel and the Grandview,
I don’t know of any other. Oh the Indianola is till in existence on Indianola
Avenue. Other than those three, I don’t know of any other neighborhood
theaters that are still in existence today in the year 2007.
Yassenoff: And even then, the Drexel, which was single-screen when you
Yassenoff: now has three screens.
Yassenoff: Now you mentioned the multiplexes coming in and prior to that, as
I recall, at the Drexel you played a lot of first-run movies from the various
film companies, particularly Paramount and United Artists, and there you were
with minimum parking and a single screen against ultimately eight screens-or-so
complexes out at Eastland plus the twin that was in the mall, etcetera,
and they all had huge parking lots. How did you hang on?
Knight: Well there for a while I still was able to play some of the
exclusives and I had an exclusive in one of the biggest hits was “Fiddler
on the Roof,” which I played for 40 weeks. So that was a very, very big run
for us and it was one of the most successful runs in the country for a theater
of our size. Before that, the way I, when I took over the Drexel, I was playing
second-run movies after all the other theaters, and television was in existence.
But we made a go of it. But then one day there was a picture called “A Man
for All Seasons” which none of the major chains bid on. You have to know
the mechanics of how we book and buy pictures. But it’s a bidding process. I
was encouraged to bid on this picture and what had happened, nobody bid against
me and the picture also went on to win the Academy award that year. So here we
were exclusively with an Academy Award winning picture, “A Man for All
Seasons” and we went on and that was the first big hit. And I had an
exclusive and I played that picture for 16 weeks. Other pictures that we played
exclusively were “Romeo and Juliet,” “Taming of the Shrew,”
“Lilies of the Field”. Those are a few that I can remember. You’ll
forgive me for my memory now. It’s not…
Yassenoff: Well Jerry, obviously you were a very shrewd business person…
Knight: Thank you.
Yassenoff: an excellent judge of the potential of some movies that others
couldn’t see as commercial products, but another thing I remember about you is
that just about every night the Drexel was open, you were there.
Knight: Every night.
Yassenoff: So combine hard work with shrewdness and common sense…
Knight: I never left the theater until the last person was picked up and left
for the night. I was there every night.
Yassenoff: The Drexel definitely had the reputation of family operation with
a lot of personal attention to their clientele.
Interviewer: Well Jerry also invited people from, he had the Wexner Heritage
House customers came to see his shows on special showings on Wednesday.
Knight: Wednesday matinees, the Heritage House… were my guests, yes.
Whenever we had a new picture, we brought them over.
Interviewer: And then you had, you invited music departments and drama
departments from various schools to come and see your appropriate movies.
Knight: That is right.
Interviewer: Well your movie business was significant and you were
significant in the, were you named “Showman of the Year” or was that
someone you were…
Knight: I was at a regional tri-state convention, given an award,
“Showman of the Year”, yes.
Interviewer: And how long did you, when did you decide that you’d had
enough of the theater business or you wanted to make some changes in your life?
Knight: Well it was a combination of two things. Number one, I was beginning
to run out of steam and because all of the multiplexes started building and
where I was playing pictures exclusively, now I found that I had to share that
run with two or three other theaters playing the same picture. So with no
parking and not having the modern seats and the atmosphere that the new theaters
had, the competition was very, very tough. So I figured it was time to get out.
My biggest mistake is that I should have hired the gentleman who took over the
theater, who is now Jeff Frank. And he’s doing an excellent, beautiful job at
the theater. He’s maintained the Drexel with its reputation, which is bar none
the finest, and I just went into another business. I had that business for 20
years and then finally we retired.
Interviewer: That business was a little bit different from the theater
business. You bought a franchise, how did you happen to become interested in
Swensen’s Ice Cream?
Knight: My daughter had just graduated from Stephen’s College in Columbia,
Missouri, and moved to St. Louis, working in retail merchandising for a large
retail chain and she said, “Dad, when you come and see me, I want you to
look at this ice cream parlor that’s theoretically right outside my window,
and see how they’re lined up”. So I went and I checked it out and found
out that the company was out of San Francisco. I was impressed with what I saw
and I thought, “Well after so many hours and years of putting in the
theater business, I will just have a little ice cream stand”. Lo and
behold, I had more than an ice cream stand. We had a full-sized restaurant
employing 50 people or more and there too, was a huge success from the day we
opened and I also became the “Retailer of the Year” in the whole
system. There was about 350 restaurants in the Swensen chain at that time. And
we were the “Store of the Year”.
Interviewer: It was not only a food-service establishment, but it was an…
Knight: We made our own ice cream.
Interviewer: you had an ice cream factory.
Knight: But we turned out to be more than the food. Even with all of the
fast-food competition, food was still the number one. We were known for our ice
cream but our food was 60-70% of our sales. But we’re the only place you can
come, and lot of people went to other restaurants and then were able to come to
us for their dessert.
Interviewer: Tell us where you located it.
Knight: We were located in the Eastland Shopping Center, next to the Eastland
Shopping Center, on South Hamilton Road. And, not that I am bragging, but when
we opened up there too, at the beginning for the first two or three years, and I
was there 20 years, I was working 17 hours a day.
Interviewer: You were there all the time and you had a lot of help from your
Knight: My wife, God bless her, was right behind me and whatever we did, we
did together. And I might say that even in the theater business, she was a
tremendous part of the success, we were a success as a team.
Interviewer: Jerry, before we continue in this line, can I take you back to
speak about your brother Julius and your sisters, June and Evelyn, a little bit?
Knight: Yes, sure. I’ll be happy to. Julius, my brother, was my closest
friend but unfortunately he was away in most of my grown-up years. The war came
in 1941 and he was drafted. Before going into the war, he was also getting into
the theater business but then went right into war. He came out in 1946 as a
captain. He was part of the Occupational Army in Germany. We had remained close
all through and when he came out, of course when he came out he was married.
They got married while he was in service. But then my brother passed away at a
very young age. That was 1987. He was 66 years old. But what had happened,
shortly after the war the family built a drive-in theater in Findlay, Ohio,
which the drive-ins were the big thing at that time. So he moved to Findlay with
Helen and then they had the two children, David and Ruth, and they were in
Findlay for a good 15-20 years.
Then when they sold the theater, my brother
moved to Florida so even though we’ve kept in contact, we weren’t together,
you know, then. Evelyn remained in Columbus and then she also helped out in the
theaters. But she met Herbert Solomon, at that time was Curtiss-Wright. Not,
what was the name of the air base, Lockbourne Air Base. She met Herbert Solomon.
I think she was introduced by, she was introduced by Sylvia Schechter at a
Friday night dance, Saturday night dance, so they were married and they had
three beautiful children. Edith was a daughter who now lives in Israel, Robert,
who is an attorney and lives in Las Vegas and Ronnie who is a dentist and lives
in Cincinnati. June married a gentleman from Lorain Ohio, Richard Rieger. He had
his own insurance agency…
Interviewer: Is that R-…
Interviewer: Thank you.
Knight: He had his own insurance agency and they had a very happy life. They
had two sons, Terry and Dennis. Dennis unfortunately passed away as a young man.
He had a,… a viral infection and it lasted less than 24 hours. Terry is
still living in Lorain, Ohio. The children have moved to Florida and
unfortunately, in the past year, both of them have passed away. So I am left now
being the last of the four siblings. My brother passed away in ’87, my sister
Evelyn passed away in ’96 and June passed away in May of 2007.
Interviewer: Your own daughters…
Knight: My own daughters, I have Joni and Lani. And Joni married Randy Rosen
and his parents were Flo and Murray Rosen from here in Columbus. And Randy is a
professional photographer specializing in Jewish, you know, Jewish festivals and
Bar Mitzvahs and what not. And thank God, doing very well. They have been
married over 25 years. They presented us with two beautiful granddaughters, Sari
and Mara. And Sari is, as I said, just graduated from Kent State University and
Mara is going to be a sophomore at Ohio University. Mara I might add is a very
active volunteer at the Heritage House and both wonderful, wonderful
grandchildren. I’m very proud. My baby daughter, Lani, whose name is really
Elana, she lives in Chicago. Not married although she has been going with a very
fine gentleman from Israel who lives in Chicago and she is a stock-broker and
every day both daughters call me. My Anita, unfortunately passed away in the
year 2005. She had a bout of cancer and she was very brave and put up a very
brave fight and I can’t talk enough about how wonderful she was. She was
behind me all the way. She put me on a pedestal rather than me putting her on
the pedestal. But she pushed me and stood behind me and whatever I did was fine.
She encouraged me and I have to say even though I had wonderful, wonderful
parents, my wife was what I attribute most of the success to.
Yassenoff: Jerry, this is Skip again, and I’d like to cover some more
territory regarding your involvement in the theater business which spanned, how
Knight: Say for 35-40 years.
Yassenoff: Besides the Yassenoff people in the theater business in Columbus,
which was Leo and his son Milton and my Dad, Frank, what other Jewish owners
were there of theaters in Columbus?
Knight: Well there was Lou Holleb, who we bought the theater…
Yassenoff: How do you spell Holleb?
Knight: H-O-L-L-E-B. There was Al Sugarman who was Charlie Sugarman’s
father. There was Lee Hofheimer who was a partner with Al Sugarman and I believe
Lee and Al had a drive-in theater out on East Main called the Intown. It’s out
in Whitehall now, well actually where the new Wal-Mart is.
Yassenoff: Yes, I remember the Intown.
Knight: Right next to your dad’s place at the east side.
Yassenoff: Yeah we could see their screen from our place…
Yassenoff: …and vice versa.
Knight: Some of the other, there was Lou Sher who had the Bexley Theater and
I mentioned Charlie Sugarman who had the Cinema East, the Cinema North, but he
started with the World Theater up on North High Street. And Charlie was a very
great showman. Everybody loved Charlie. Those are the only names that I can
recall and of course, with all due respect, your dad Frank who was very, very
successful in starting the drive-in theaters.
Yassenoff: Well thank you. Want to go back to working for Leo Yassenoff.
Milton died in 1967 and so then you went to work for Leo probably shortly
Knight: Shortly afterward.
Yassenoff: And what jobs did you have there at Academy Theaters?
Knight: The general position was booking and buying the pictures and seeing
that all the theaters were filled with the proper screening…
Yassenoff: Now did you, were you pretty independent with your choices or was
Leo looking over your shoulder?
Knight: Leo looked over everybody’s shoulder. But Leo was always thinking
of far ahead. When the multiplexes came into being and one of the first, I
believe, in the Washington, D.C. area, Leo and I went on a plane to see this
theater. Leo wanted to see, what is this, what’s going on here? And then he
designed in his mind and built this theater out on Refugee Road called the Forum
Theater which is really the first multiplex theater in Columbus. Right. And not
only was it a multiplex but it was also what we called “stadium
seating” which most theaters did not have at that time. So you can
attribute this to Leo. Leo always wanted to see what was the newest thing in the
market. And he was going to be the one that’s going to introduce it here and
Yassenoff: Well didn’t Leo have a few sayings that you kind of liked?
Knight: Well my favorite saying was always, “when everybody runs to the
right, you go and run to the left, and you’ll get their first”.
Yassenoff: So how many years do you think you worked for Leo?
Knight: I would say approximately five years maybe.
Yassenoff: So say into ’72-’73?
Knight: That sounds about right…
Yassenoff: And Leo, actually Leo died I think in ’71 and then the
Foundation, which Mel Schottenstein was the primary trustee of, took over.
Yassenoff: Now I heard that they hired Phil Borak to book their, from
Cincinnati, to book their theaters that they had basically remodeled. The
Esquire became the Carousel and the Beechwood became the Camelot and of course
the Forum was operating. And, but after a while they called you back.
Knight: That is correct. But by that time already, the competition was
getting very, very keen and with the new chain multiplexes are coming in, we had
to go and become strictly, strictly second-run which was losing its steam. And
that was beginning, my advice after Leo passed away, my advice to Mel was not to
pump any more money into the theaters although I was up against another
gentleman who was working for the company at the time who had his son in the
business in the con- struction, they wanted to remodel. I said it didn’t look
good. I said if you can convert or sell for real estate, it would be the best
way to go. I wasn’t very popular with the others but with Mel I was. I had a
very good rapport with Mel.
Yassenoff: Then approximately 1972, so in the midst of being either in or out
with the Foundation and the remnants of Leo’s theaters, you started booking my
drive-ins, which I think we had six or seven drive-ins at that time.
Knight: Actually Skip, I did you before I did Leo. Right?
Yassenoff: Before you did the Foundation?
Yassenoff: So I forget how many years we were together but it was several.
And we shared the same office, which was a small office, and we knew what each
other was doing and could learn from each other. I don’t know if you learned
from me but I definitely learned from you.
Knight: I learned a lot. It was more than you’ll ever realize what I’ve
learned from you too, Skip. I admired and I watched you in action and I saw you
had both feet on the ground so it was a wonderful feeling.
Yassenoff: Well I count myself as very lucky that I found you and that myself
as a young man had you as someone that I could try to shape myself into to being
like you. You were definitely one of my idols and I saw that you found a way to
be successful under adverse circumstances and sometimes I had similar adverse
circumstances so I really learned the way from you. And also, more importantly,
I think learned the right way to conduct myself. And that was important to me at
Knight: Thank you very, very much for those kind words.
Interviewer: We’re going to, I’m going to ask Jerry to just acknowledge
that when he had the restaurant, when he was in the restaurant business and
worked at that with his wife, his Swensen’s in Columbus was named one of the
top five of the 350 Swensen’s restaurants in the country. He puts his heart
into whatever he does and he’s highly respected. Jerry, would you speak about
your other interests? I know you’re very active with Tifereth Israel and other
aspects of the Jewish community.
Knight: Yes well I’ve been a member of Tifereth Israel all my life and that’s
close to 80 years. But in my lifetime, I have been on the Board of Tifereth
Israel, the Jewish Family Service, Heritage House, Heritage Tower. I was one of
two Jewish boys in the Catholic Salesian Boys Club. Moe Berliner was the other.
I was on the Board of Theater Owners of Ohio and also the Swensen’s
Advertising Council for the Swensen chain. So those were pretty much my board
activities during that time. I have been the recipient of many awards which I’m
very, very proud of. The biggest award was the Jewish Theological Seminary in
1995 when I was honored by the Seminary.
I was honored in 1976 by the City of
Bexley with the Community Award and it was a thrill to be in the parade on the
Fourth of July and seeing all the people wave. And at the acceptance award, I
told the Mayor at the time that I’m thinking of running for office, there were
so many people that were clapping and so I thought that might be a good…
I was the Showman of the Year for being in the theater business and that award
came in ’69 and there were many other awards of different types that I’ve
gotten in but that was the main. And the Operator of the Year at Swensen’s in
1982. So I’m very, very grateful for, I’ve been blessed with wonderful
parents, wonderful siblings and above all with a wonderful wife, with wonderful
children and I just have had a good life.
Interviewer: Jerry, you’re highly respected by the community and beloved
and I think this is a good time to put this interview to its conclusion and I
want to remind our listeners that you’re having this interview by the Columbus
Jewish Historical Society and want to thank you for contributing to the Oral
History Project and this will conclude the interview which took place at the
Melton Building on Thursday, July 26, 2007. Thank you very much.
Knight: Thank you for having me.
Note: Anita (of blessed memory) passed away January 7, 2005. Jerry and Anita
were happily married for 53 years.
* * *
Transcribed by Honey Abramson
Proofread by Marvin Bonowitz
Edited by Peggy Kaplan
Corrected by Jerry Knight