Pa. man recounts flying with the rich and famous

January 18, 2005|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - During a career as a corporate pilot, Gordon Madison enjoyed chatting with some of the "regular guys" who were guests on or chartered planes from the company's fleet.

"Ronald Reagan was probably the nicest guy I ever met. Him and Jimmy Stewart," the former owner of the Capitol Theatre said Monday.

At the time they met, Reagan's Hollywood star was in descent, but his political star was rising toward Sacramento, Calif. As Madison recalled, Reagan was getting a ride on the Northrop Corp. plane to a stop on his successful 1966 gubernatorial campaign.


Madison met Stewart when he flew to Arizona to pick up a group. Madison said he and the actor, both Army Air Corps veterans, passed some time in the cockpit "shooting the breeze about the war and everyday life."

On another occasion, Madison found himself passing time with another passenger, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, a controversial figure who died last month.

"He and I were lobbing stones into a 55-gallon drum in Mexico while we were waiting for the rest of the group to show up," Madison said of his royal encounter.

A native of Long Beach, Calif., Madison enlisted in the Army Air Corps cadet program during World War II and served as a pilot and cryptographer in Europe, encoding and decoding Allied communications. When he returned to California in 1946, he attended Northrop Technical Institute and UCLA and was later recalled for duty with the Air Force during the Korean War.

Madison was with Northrop from 1954 to 1987, flying aircraft from the fleet with executives, clients, politicians and other notable passengers. Pat Brown, the governor Reagan ousted, and his son Jerry, who was also governor, were among his passengers, as were former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner and entertainers Tom and Dick Smothers, he said.

During the late 1950s, while taking additional courses at UCLA and still working for Northrop, Madison said he got a part-time job piloting a different kind of machine - an early Zamboni ice resurfacer.

Frank J. Zamboni invented the first practical machine in the late 1940s, according to the company's Web site. The family owned a block ice plant in Paramount, Calif., but sold it and opened Iceland Skate Rink in 1940.

Resurfacing involved shaving the surface, manually scooping up the shaved ice, hosing down the rink and using squeegees to create a smooth surface, a process Madison said he used to watch when he skated at Iceland before enlisting.

Zamboni wanted a faster method so skaters had more ice time, so he invented a machine that performed all the steps at once, according to the Web site.

Madison was still with Northrop when an advertisement for a pipe organ in a Chambersburg theater grabbed the attention of he and his wife, Marlene.

"It turned out she had relatives here and had been here as a girl on a visit," he said.

The couple found out, however, that the Capitol Theatre itself was for sale and they bought it in 1980 as a tax write-off, he said. They hired a manager to run the theater for several years and moved to Chambersburg when they retired.

"It became a bit of a burden and we lost money every year," Madison said. "But we felt the theater needed saving, and we put a lot of time and money into it."

Home to the Appalachian Jubilee for many years, the couple sold the theater to Downtown Chambersburg Inc. in 1996.

"It was truly a labor of love," he said of the theater, built in 1927.

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