The elevator of The Dils Building delivers guests a right turn and a few steps from the door to Art Craft Studio. As the door opens, a bell jingles. Green carpets blanket the floors and hanging from the walls in uneven lines, 8×10 black and white photos tell the story of the Mid-Ohio Valley. A radio is playing softy behind the desk; the announcer crackles in and out along with the fluorescent light overhead. A thick maroon curtain separates the gallery from the dark room. As the curtain pulls back, an elderly man in a weathered Cardinals ball cap peeks his head out and cleans his glasses, “What can I help you with?”
Paul Borrelli is a curator of all things Mid-Ohio Valley history and a gatekeeper to the past. He knows the story behind each photo – and he should – either him or his father captured it. Raised in the Mid-Ohio Valley, Paul grew up with the history. His father owned the studio before him, and he assisted him throughout his childhood.
My pop would give us a quarter on Saturdays. We could see the newest cowboy movie for 10 cents, get popcorn for 5 and then buy the newest comic book for 10. It was a different time.
During Paul’s childhood, the Mid-Ohio Valley was a different place. The Coliseum (now Warner Kia) hosted big bands and acts like Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. On New Year’s Eve, the larger hotels would welcome acts like band leader Guy Lombardo and other notables for their parties.
“I remember sitting up on the hill and watching the busses pull in as a little kid. They were full of big names,” Paul said.
After growing up in the Mid-Ohio Valley, Paul joined the army in 1951 where he served as a photographer. The army also sent him to photography school in New Jersey. After graduation, he served where the army needed him most. One mission involved taking aerial photos.
“I was with a buddy, and we were up in a plane. Our cameras the army gave us froze up. I had this camera that pop sold in his store for $1. Mine still worked. It didn’t matter how expensive the camera was. It just goes to prove that any old fool can take a photo, it takes a photographer to make something of it,” he said.
Although the Army taught Paul a great deal about photography, his own ingenuity helped him out of several tight spots. On one occasion, Paul was called upon to take the photo of a General’s wife with instructions to
make her look younger.
“She had wrinkles on wrinkles, and the Army didn’t have any filters to make her look younger. I asked for leave to have Pop try to develop the photos, but they denied me. I ended up using cellophane and she looked like she could have been in college,” he laughed.
After the military, Paul returned to the Mid-Ohio Valley where he settled down, met the love of his life and continued photographing all around the Mid-Ohio Valley. Along with his father, Paul has photographed and documented almost all of the notable events and notable figures in the Mid-Ohio Valley. As such, his collection encompasses more than 12,000 photos and he displays 750 of them in the studio.
He has a memory attached to nearly every photo. Along with memories, come stories. His stories are timeless and tell the history of the Mid-Ohio Valley in a manner that is often forgotten. Paul has not forgotten, and he’s determined to keep those stories alive.
“It’s the history of the city, and the only way to know what was here and what it is today. Once it’s all gone, your history is gone with it,” he said.
For instance, he has stories about Amelia Earheart visiting Parkersburg. His father was sent out to take the photos on this historic visit. Amelia spoke at the airfield and complimented the city on its innovations in the aviation industry. The airfield, at the time, was located on what is now the ground of The Grand Central Mall.
Amelia wasn’t the only nationally known face to visit the town in the past. Paul’s father also photographed a group billed as “The Singer Midgets” who performed at The Smoot Theatre in 1931. The group was a hit across the United States and later went on to perform as The Munchkins in “The Wizard of Oz.”
With a darkroom on site, Paul has likely developed more of the Mid-Ohio Valley’s history than any other in the area. People from all around bring him negatives to develop, and he gladly obliges. On several occasions, people have brought him boxes upon boxes of negatives hoping that he can do something with them.
“I’m the last of the breed – nobody will know how to print a negative pretty soon,” he said.
Being the last of the few who know his art is why Paul stays in the business, but it also keeps him ‘off the streets and from losing his mind.’ After unexpectedly losing his wife, Paul used the studio to help him move forward. Along with the help of his children and grandchildren, who he is fiercely proud of, Paul continues to create and curate history daily.