On April 19, 1936, the Avalon Theatre opened in Pass Christian with a repeat showing of “Mutiny on the Bounty.” Earlier that same year, the town’s other theater was destroyed by fire while playing this same movie. So it seemed appropriate to have history repeat itself (except for the part where the theater burned down.)
Though I never experienced the Avalon as a theater, I’m sure that it was splendid. Unfortunately, the advent of television led to its closure, as happened in many small towns. After sitting dormant for years, the Avalon Theater building was converted to offices in the 1960’s.By 1981, when my two partners and I started Triton and headquartered our fledgling new company in this old 1930’s theater, time had not been kind to the building – nor had the termites. Nonetheless, it was cheap office space with a great view and the only balcony on the Pass Christian Mardi Gras parade route (which later made us very popular once a year). So that was where we located.
I recall a few months before we left our jobs to start Triton full time, a friend of ours quit his job to start a business. Soon after, he invited us to his “open house,” where we arrived to find a really cool modern office suite with first class furniture. AND he was serving wine and cheese. Now this came at a time when our taste in wines ranged from Annie Green Springs or Boone’s Farm to Mad Dog 20/20. So needless to say, we were suitably impressed and very envious.
At our new offices, however, from the beginning, roof leaks plagued that old, flat-roofed building. We went to great lengths to avoid scheduling meetings in our offices, especially during rainy season. I remember one occasion during a veritable monsoon when a customer insisted on meeting with one of our engineers whose office was upstairs. As we made our way down the second floor hallway, dodging the various buckets filling with rainwater, I tried, mostly in vain, to put a happy face on things, joking that we had the best buckets money could buy—which of course was not true.
The owner’s attempts to fix the roof on a tight budget met with predictable results. After struggling for several years, he elected to have the roof replaced by a “real” construction company, at least that’s what we believed at the time. Unfortunately, work was scheduled to begin at the same time our landlord had to leave on a business trip. I don’t remember the nature of the trip, but I do recall him relating very specific instructions to the contractor: “Build the new roof without demolishing the old one first.”
I don’t know much about roofs other than it is good when the water remains on the top side. So I have no clue why the very first thing the contractor did was…before the wheels were even up on our landlord’s flight… to tear an enormous hole in the old roof. Of course, that very afternoon a storm front was scheduled to arrive, so we implored the contractor to cover the hole with plastic, which he did.
Unfortunately, we discovered the next morning that the wind had blown the plastic tarp aside and a great deal of water had leaked into the building. I recall vividly and in some detail, the conversation my business partner had with the contractor that day. He questioned the man’s sanity, parenting, lineage, etc. but stopped short of physically beating him to a pulp, which is what we all wanted to do. It seemed that not only had he cut a big hole in the roof but he cut it at the very spot where the roof slant concentrated most of the water. With more rain predicted that evening, he promised to put an even larger tarp over the problem area.
During the night, even harder winds blew the even larger tarp aside turning the building into a swamp. On both the first and second floors saturated ceiling tiles fell onto computers, files, desks, and our electronics lab. It was difficult not to throw the keys on the desk and call it quits. But we didn’t. In fact, adversity always seemed to strengthen our resolve.
During those lean years, we learned the value of stretching every dollar as far as it would go and then some. We ate peanut butter and wore shoes with holes in them. We drove old cars and prayed they would get us to our next business meeting. But the lessons we learned ultimately translated into a corporate culture where our bare bones design and production philosophy kept our price points competitive.
Later, when we finally did have nice offices, we enjoyed them all the more. And our friend with the fancy offices? Unable to handle the high overhead costs, he was out of business in a few months.
Disclaimer: Frank Wilem is an author, speaker, and all around funny and entertaining guy. On this blog, his stories are based on his real life experiences, often with a satirical twist.
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