by Bob Vrbanac
It seems documentary filmmaker Rob Ring wasn’t the only one who wanted to know more about an enigmatic figure known as “The General” who once worked as a crossing guard in the Bridgeport area.
A screening of the film he made to delve into the backstory of Frank Groff, a.k.a. The Bridgeport General, an eccentric resident of the former village who was a volunteer crossing guard at the intersection of Bridge and Lancaster streets for more than three decades was supposed to only be shown once on Jan. 11 at the Princess Twin Cinemas in Waterloo. But demand to see the slice of local history proved to be so popular there were three sold out screenings of the film called Care for the Child: The Story of the Bridgeport General at both theatres, and the plan now is to hold another screening Feb. 17 for those who might have missed it.
“We had a great response,” said Ring, who started the project two years ago to answer some questions that niggled at him ever since he asked his dad about an artist’s print of The General that hung in his family home. “We had three sold out screenings, we’re close to selling out on a fourth and we’ve added a fifth.”
Princess Twin Cinemas owner John Tutt, who has operated the theatre for more than 25 years, said he’s never seen a response to a local film like that, and Ring said he was thrilled to add more bookings.
Ring thinks it connected with audiences because it was both a local story and a story of a time and place that are no more. The story is about the town and the people of Bridgeport that eventually got swallowed up by nearby Kitchener. But to this day people in the community still say they are from Bridgeport and share a sentimental feeling for the community that bounds the Grand River.
“When I first started this I thought the audience was going to be Bridgeport people and Kitchener people from the 1960 and 1970s, and it proved to be very much the case,” said Ring, who made a career of doing video work for art galleries before looking to create some art himself. “Everyone who lived in or near Bridgeport for the last 50 years knows The General and were looking for some answers like I was too.”
But the film has some universal appeal about the characters that once populated small communities and who were not only tolerated but were embraced by the small places they lived before they were swallowed up by suburbia. In The General’s case the story was how the kids in the Bridgeport community rallied around him when he refused to conform to the dress code and carry the crossing sign issued to him by the City of Kitchener.
He much preferred wearing sweater upon sweater held together by a jacket fastened together by safety pins, and a homemade stop sign he created himself. He started safely shepherding kids across the busy intersection of Lancaster and Bridge himself, before the local city council mandated he fit in with their conventions of what a crossing guard should look like.
Ring said he doesn’t want to give away any spoilers, but said Frank Groff was inspired from a horrible tragedy he saw during his own childhood and it drove him to make sure it wouldn’t happen to any local kids on his watch and he aggressively stopped traffic to let kids cross.
The kids he protected responded in kind and eventually won the fight against city hall to have Groff reinstated after a spontaneous protest by them got the politician’s attention. The kids wouldn’t cross using the new crossing guard, and wouldn’t have anybody but Frank handle their safety until he passed away in 1978.
“The guy was a bit of a mystery and everybody had a story or an anecdote about The General,” said Ring, as the documentary premièred 40 years after his death. “Nobody knew much about him, especially his background.
“He was a bit of an enigma. The movie covers Groff’s childhood, when he became a crossing guard, the protests and his death, and the legacy beyond his death,” said Ring.
As for the biggest mystery around why the kids called him The General, Ring said he can’t say for certain but “The consensus seems to be about the coat that he wore, the helmet he would sometimes wear and that he sort of had this military look,” said Ring. “His personality and demeanour just had people starting to call him The General.”
To view the trailer or purchase tickets for the Feb. 17 screening, visit www.bridgeportgeneral.com← BackNext →