Route 66 News

Who is the TeePee Drive-In’s new operator?

Volunteers have been busy in recent days clearing brush and cutting grass at the long-dormant TeePee Drive-In.

Records show that the Florida businessman trying to revive the long-closed TeePee Drive-In on Route 66 in Sapulpa, Okla., has conducted business under at least two different names while operating a string of movie theaters in recent years that failed or where he left after a short time.

Russ Glen, CEO of Florida-based Starz Theaters, acknowledged during a phone interview Saturday that he is also known by his birth name of Russell Glen Brannan, CEO of Chalet Theaters in Florida.

In early May, Glen lease-purchased the TeePee, which closed in 1999, from owners Marsha and James Baccus of Owasso, Okla. At the time, Glen announced he would bring a 3-D digital projector, a 40-foot-tall teepee-shaped neon sign, and eventually a second screen to the property at 13166 Ozark Trail, an older alignment of Route 66. He touted Starz as a company that had revived several historic theaters in the past.

During two phone interviews, Glen became defensive during questions about his background. He refused to name the other theaters he had operated or say exactly how many.

“I don’t like the media and never have. I’m sorry if you feel like this is confrontational,” he said.

No records could be found from the Florida Secretary of State’s website about either the Chalet or Starz theater companies, but e-mail, Internet and phone records linked Glen to Brannan and Chalet.

Glen admitted Chalet Theaters has experienced failures in recent years but said it has had good times as well as bad. He offered little evidence of the chain’s long-term successes.

Since May, the TeePee’s long-neglected grounds have seen a flurry of activity – volunteers clearing brush, removing debris from the projection booth and concession stand, and mowing the grass. Electrical work and repainting the screen are planned for the coming weeks.

Glen was scheduled to show up twice at the TeePee in recent weeks but begged off, citing family obligations.

He set up a Facebook page and Web site for the theater. He also set up the TeePee Drive-In Theater Association, with three local trustees that can accept donations of money and equipment for the theater’s restoration; it may be weeks or months before the group is actually granted nonprofit status.

“It is being done by the book,” Glen said during a phone interview. “I’m not even on the bank account there in Oklahoma. We can’t make any money until the theater actually opens.”

Today, Tim Ferguson, one of the TeePee’s volunteers, said the association is suspending the acceptance of donations, and money from the bank account has been removed because of “issues with the legitimacy of the nonprofit.”

In an email, Glen said: “There is no problems with the non profit. All was done correctly.”

“I’m trying to do the right thing. I want to get this drive-in open,” Glen said several weeks ago. “I want it to succeed, and I think it can. This can make a lot of people in Sapulpa happy.”

With the help of volunteers, it’s hoped to have the TeePee showing movies again by fall.

Glen wouldn’t name any of the long-term successes in his Chalet chain. But several instances were found where the business failed or he walked away from it after a short period:

— Frank McCarthy, who co-owns the Lawford Theater in Havana, Ill., with his son Greg, said in a phone interview that a Robert Brennan subleased his theater about five years ago from a Chicago firm and operated it for about six months.
McCarthy said Brennan “went by several names.”

“Whenever he called, he said ‘This is Robert,’” McCarthy said.

After Brennan left town, McCarthy said he received bills to the theater addressed to Robert Brennan, Russell Brandt and Russell Brannan. Three stories in the Pekin Daily Times also listed the theater’s operator as Robert Brennan.

Glen/Brannan acknowledged he subleased and managed the Lawford for a time, but in an e-mail, he denied ever using any names other than Russ Glen or Russell Brannan.

He said when the primary lease expired, Frank McCarthy bought out his share.

“I got into a situation where Frank wanted more money, and it wasn’t worth it,” Glen/Brannan said.

McCarthy said Brennan had trouble renting films from studios due to credit problems and occasionally had to rent them through McCarthy’s name.

“When he left the theater, he left a lot of bills,” McCarthy said. “I’d be kinda careful.”

Glen/Brannan said in an email he might have experienced financial difficulties at the time, possibly due to medical bills for his family.

— Sherri Walthall, who operates the Sky View Drive-In in Tompkinsville, Ky., with her brother, theater owner Robert Whiles, said Russell Glen leased their theater for “just a few months” in late 2009 and early 2010.

“I wouldn’t trust him,” she said of Glen during a telephone interview. “He left bills the owner had to pick up.”

When asked to elaborate, Walthall said Glen failed to make the final $500 lease payment and left town with an unpaid $1,000 phone bill.

Glen says he maintains a friendly relationship with Whiles and Walthall.

“I’ve talked to Rob several times since then, and he’s said he would love to have me back there if I wanted,” Glen said. “That theater was closed for 10 years, and I got it back open.”

Glen also e-mailed the text of what he said were genial Facebook conversations between him and Walthall.

— Brannan once operated the Pioneer Theater in Falfurrias, Texas. Gilbert Vela is its owner.

“He left owing people a lot of money, including myself,” Vela said in a phone interview. “I’d be careful with him.”

Brannan denied he left town with unpaid debts.

“If you can go back and get receipts of people who say this, this might make a big difference,” Brannan said. “I’m pretty sure everybody got paid.”

He said the Pioneer had been closed for years, and he spent $13,000 bringing the theater’s electrical wiring up to code.

Brannan said the theater’s attendance dropped after about six months because bootleg DVDs of first-run movies were making their way into the area from across the Mexican border.

— Brannan became embroiled in a nasty dispute starting in late 2011 after leasing the Clewiston Theater in Clewiston, Fla., from its owner, Dennis Mann. A long story in The Clewiston News contains allegations about Brannan not paying employees and his lack of credit to rent films – both which Brannan denied.

Brannan said “someone with a key” stole or sabotaged theater equipment several times, and the building suffered from code issues. The ugliness over the Clewiston culminated with a suspicious fire in April that forced its closure.

Brannan said he and the owner hammered out a settlement during mediation last Monday in which Brannan no longer operates the theater. He said he’s under a gag order not to discuss it.

— Brannan operated the Maverick 4 cineplex in Mankato, Minn., for a little less than a year before someone bought out his share for $5,000, he said. The Maverick 4 closed not long after that, he said.

“It wasn’t making a ton of money,” Brannan said. He acknowledged difficulties in managing it over a long distance from his home.

Overall, “I’ve had my share of good theaters, and I’ve had my share of bad theaters,” Brannan said. “I’m not going to run from that.”

Finding successful theaters in Chalet’s portfolio has proven difficult, however. Brannan has refused to identify the theaters he operates, despite requests to do so. He said he has two unnamed partners, one of whom is “well-known” but shies away from publicity.

“My corporation is private, and I keep my finances private,” he said. “I don’t divulge to anybody. I have people I’m held accountable to … some of those people are well-to-do people.”

When pressed, Brannan said he operates more than five but fewer than 10 theaters.

As for his use of the names Russ Glen and Russell Brannan: He insisted the former is a legally binding name that has been notarized. He said he signs papers as Russell Glen or Russ Glen.

“That’s how I’ve done it, and that’s how I will continue to do it,” he said.

He did not explain why he uses two names.

At one point Saturday, Brannan said he would walk away from the TeePee project and take down its websites if a story about him was published.

“I’m not going to take that chance,” he said. “I’m not going to put my heart and soul into this and get these people fired up, just to have it ruined in the muck.”

Brannan said he would show up at the TeePee on Wednesday – his first visit to Sapulpa – and help other workers with the renovations, but on Sunday, he was reconsidering.

“I do not want to create a media 3 ring circus,” read one e-mail. Another read: “I will give you to sunday evening to decide if your national inquire (sic) type attitude is for helping the theater, or helping yourself sell media be it fact or fiction.”

If Brannan does walk away, all may not be lost for the TeePee. At least two of the theaters Brannan ran – the Skyview and Lawford — had been closed for years and are operating to this day.

At the least, Brannan was a catalyst. And the volunteers who have labored on the TeePee so far may inspire the rest of the community to continue their efforts.

UPDATE 6/19/2012: KJRH-TV in Tulsa reports that the reopening plans have hit a snag:

The developer out of Florida tells 2News the project is “out of his hands.” And he doesn’t know if it’ll get back on track. […]

He tells 2News he had a lease agreement with the property owners, but says he wasn’t able to get a title finalized.

UPDATE 6/20/2012: An update by KTUL-TV in Tulsa:

Angela Cooper is one of many residents concerned about Glen, who sometimes goes by Russell Glen Brannan.

“Myself and some others have asked just general information. We’re concerned, and he gets really defensive, and he eventually deletes you off his page,” she said. She said Glen deletes people, including herself, from TeePee’s Facebook page when they ask questions about legalities.

The TeePee page admitted Glen walked away from opening two theaters Wednesday. However, the page otherwise maintains Glen does not have any legal problems.

UPDATE 6/21/2012: Fox23 in Tulsa talked to Keith Holder, one of the volunteers at the project:

Holder has spent countless hours working at the site and leading a small army of volunteers. He was also one of two local volunteers who set up a bank account for the drive-in on Glen/Brannan’s request. The other volunteer even put $2,000 in the account. Glen/Brannan claimed he put $10,000 in the account.

“There is no record at the bank whatsoever of anything of any nature like that,” Holder said. “He did not put one red cent in there.”

Fortunately, Glen/Brannan was not a signer on the account, so the other volunteer was able to get most of his money back before closing out the account.

UPDATE 6/22/2012: This new story from Fox23 in Tulsa treads over familiar ground, but is still worth viewing:

UPDATE 6/24/2012: Here’s another theater overlooked in this story’s intial research. Brannan backed out of a lease with Rob and Terri Hicks, owners of the Tropic Theater in Leesburg, Fla., just before the showing of a movie. Brannan cited fire and safety-code violations his action.

From the Daily Commercial in Leesburg:

Bill Wiley, community development director for Leesburg, said there were potential violations and safety items that needed to be addressed, which were discovered during the courtesy fire inspection. The Hicks pulled the permits for the work to be done.

The city said recommendations were made to fix: Exposed wiring, open holes in electrical boxes that needed to filled, adding a fire wall in the theater, along with replacing a 33-inch emergency exit door with a 44-inch wide one, as required by federal law.

“There was a fire wall that had to go back in that had been taken down,” Wiley said […]

Terri Hicks said Brannan violated a lease agreement, which listed him as being the responsible party to bring the movie theater up to code, along with paying rent. […]

Brannan said he hasn’t paid the owners because of concerns about the building.

UPDATE 6/26/2011: For some strange reason, this story hasn’t been allowing comments in recent days. I’ve fixed that problem. Please keep in mind that comments will be moderated, as usual.

UPDATE 6/29/2011: Glen / Brannan deleted his Facebook page on Friday evening. He’d mentioned the liens against the TeePee were preventing him from managing the property, and repeatedly said he might walk away from the project.

On the TeePee Drive-In’s website, he said: