Last week, my focus was the L and L Bowling Alleys’ Leo Mangum and his 19-city love affair with baseball throughout the 1920s and 30s. This week, we’re going to skip across North Street to the Ohio Theater.
And, since the theater is still there, albeit repurposed, I always have some flashback thoughts from my childhood when on rainy Saturdays in the early 1960s, my pals and I made our way to the theater for a matinee, often a Western, say, Audie Murphy’s “Seven Ways from Sundown” or the latest Disney movie, perhaps, Fred McMurray and some flubber fun in “The Absent-Minded Professor.”
But as much as we enjoyed those early 1960s times watching those flicks in that building that first opened as a vaudeville venue in 1927, we enjoyed talking to the theater manager, Doc Elliott, more. He was one of the few adults who insisted we NOT call him “Mr. Elliott,” when he spoke to us at our level, but, artfully, not below our level. And, of course, we also loved the 50-cent pieces he gave us to go in and pick up the candy wrappers, popcorn boxes and poper cups after the feature ended.
It would be years before I would learn the real story of Doc, who explained away his most noticeable physical feature, those large, gnarled fingers on both hands, by merely saying he once as a young man played a little football. Although we pressed for more details, he just mentioned the team, the Canton Bulldogs, which, of course, meant nothing to us since that wasn’t a team we ever saw on our black-and-white RCAs on Sunday playing our Cleveland Browns.
Following his “playing a little football,” of course, there was a lot of life to live and that meant finding work. The earliest information I could find as to how Lima inherited Wallace “Doc” Elliott was an early 1950s newspaper mention of Elliott’s coming to town as a manager for the Stanley-Warner Theaters, which, here in Lima, operated the State, Sigma and Ohio theaters. Sometime after the State closed in 1955, Elliott began managing the Ohio.
Truth be told, what Doc succinctly summed up by saying he played a little football was in actuality so very much more than that. Elliott came into the NFL in the third year of existence in 1922 and was immediately a very big cog in the Bulldogs’ NFL championships in Canton in ‘22 and ‘23 and a third straight when the franchise was purchased by a man named Sam Deutsch and moved to Cleveland in 1924. The Youngstown native, as real men did in pro football’s infancy, played both ways, as one of the league’s best starting goal-line fullbacks and as a linebacker acknowledged to be one of the league’s most ferocious tacklers.
Now, let that sink in for a moment. Elliott started both ways for the NFL champions as his team’s most effective short-yardage runner and its most dependable tackler in bringing about what would be called today a three-peat some 64 years before former Lakers coach Pat Riley would trademark the term. In that three-year run, the Bulldogs’ record was 28-1-3.
Elliott later played for the Cleveland Panthers and the Philadelphia Quakers in the NFL’s rival American Football League as well as playing for several semipro teams in a career that lasted a remarkable 10 years, given the hard-scrabble fields and meager protective gear. As for the number of teams he played for, well, that wasn’t unusual in the first decade for the league when players routinely jumped from team to team whenever there was a chance to see a few extra dollars in their game checks.
“Pro Football Journal” ranks Elliott the seventh best running back of the pre-World War II era. The solidly built 5-foot-10, 210-pounder scored 17 career touchdowns and was named a first-team All-Pro in both 1923 and 1924. As written in the “Green Bay Press-Gazette” after the 1924 season, “Doc Elliott of Cleveland was a first-rate line plunger and wonder on defense. Elliott was the equal of any when it came to backing up the line.”
As for Elliott’s final days, unlike Leo Mangum across the street at the L and L Alleys, who died here in Lima in 1974, Elliott spent his final days in warmer climes. Perhaps he was still trying to shake off the chill and the ancient deep-tissue pain, the residue of hitting those frozen gridiron surfaces over and over in a decade’s worth of leather-helmeted, face-mask-less football. Elliott spent his final moments in Ft. Myers, Florida, succumbing two years after Mangum.
What are the odds of not one but two men working on opposite sides of Lima’s North Street in the 1950s and ‘60s would have seen the earliest days of two major sports? Well, it happened right here in Lima, Ohio, and, borrowing a title from one of the great humorist James Thurber’s short stories, “You Could Look It Up”!
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.