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History of Gowanda's Historic Hollywood Theater

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The Gowanda Opera House, built by Gowanda businessman and entrepreneur Jared Sidney Torrance, opened on West Main Street in 1884.  It was a wooden, barn-like structure which served as the village’s chief place of entertainment and other public assemblies.    The Opera House featured live music and theatrical performances, and later on, silent motion pictures.  It also was used as a roller skating rink.  Gowanda native and world-famous minstrel show leader Hi Henry brought his traveling troupe of troubadours home for many sold-out performances.

On October 27, 1924, fire, probably electrical in origin, broke out in the Opera House and spread to adjacent buildings, destroying much of the business district on the north side of Main Street down to Center Street, including two residences on that side street.  The Opera House lay in ruins, with an uninsured loss estimated at $80,000, and prospects looked dim for having the building replaced.

In stepped Richard Wilhelm, a German immigrant who had achieved the American Dream by cornering the market on the manufacture and distribution of adhesive products.  His Eastern Tanners Glue Company located a factory on Palmer Street and through acquisitions, had created a huge manufacturing, sales and marketing network.  Known as “The Glue King,” Wilhelm had his headquarters in Gowanda, with branch offices in many U. S. cities and in Canada.

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To provide the citizens of Gowanda with a venue for top-flight entertainment, he employed the firm of Leon H. Lempert & Son as architects to design a state-of-the-art theater made of masonry and steel.  The Lemperts were famous for designing many opera houses and theaters in the Northeast, including the Allendale Theatre in Buffalo and the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda.  Mr. Wilhelm spared no expense in making the new theater a first-class structure, with stained and leaded glass in doors, highly decorated ornamental plaster, and a large domed ceiling in the house.  The new theater was boasted as being fireproof.

A mere 18 months after the devastating fire, the Hollywood opened on April 19, 1926, with the showing of the motion picture, “Steel Preferred.”  The audience filled the half-million dollar building to capacity, awed by its majestic features which included an 18-by-60-foot lobby with tile floor, white Vermont marble wainscoting and delicately painted plaster details of pastel colors.  It had a two-window ticket booth with automatic ticket dispensers and a change-making machine.  Three pairs of doors with stained and leaded glass panels featuring masks of comedy and tragedy opened into the vast auditorium.

The main seating area of approximately 700 seats was topped by a balcony seating around 300.  Majestic staircases on either side led up to the balcony.  The house towered nearly three stories tall, with finely decorated plaster walls, two large painted murals, organ lofts which housed the pipes for a grand Wurlitzer organ, and the magnificent dome which was indirectly lit.  The stage and alcoves below the organ lofts were draped in red velvet with gold tassels.

 

In the balcony, the motion picture booth had two identical projectors complete with rewinding machines and fireproof film cabinets.  Galvanized stove pipes vented the heat generated by the projectors out through the ceiling.  A turntable for 78 RPM phonograph records provided musical entertainment as well as a disc player for sound movies.

Going to the Hollywood Theater created lifelong memories for generations of families from Gowanda and vicinity.  It seemed like it would always be a part of our community’s fabric.  But by the 1980s, with the advent of home video and competition from mall movie complexes, attendance at the Hollywood declined.  Environmental issues with Peter Cooper’s glue factory led to the sale and eventual closing of that plant, and the theater declined along with it.

 

A series of owners tried to keep the theater going, but by 1992, economics led to its closing.  The building fell into disrepair, and roof leaks damaged the plaster walls and ceilings.  Fears arose that the theater would fall into a state of irreversible disrepair and suffer the same fate that doomed many proud movie houses across the region and the nation.

A huge coal-fired boiler in the basement provided steam radiator heat, while four ventilating units changed the air completely every five minutes, taking in clean air from the outside.  Exit doors on either side of the house had louvers for ventilation with wood exterior panels to cover the louvers in cold weather.

 

Richard Wilhelm died in 1940 but his Peter Cooper Corporations continued to staff the theater, keeping alive the tradition of live theater, musical entertainment and motion pictures.  Assistant Manager Hoyt Eastwood signed deals with major motion picture companies to expand the movie offerings.  The theater was open six nights a week.

In 1999, Collins businessman, Dan Gernatt, Jr., purchased the Hollywood and donated it to the nonprofit Gowanda Area Redevelopment Corporation (GARC).  A volunteer group called the Friends of the Hollywood Theater secured a grant from New York State to repair the roof and exterior masonry.  That year, the first of 20 annual Hollywood Happenings, originally called the Harley Happening at the Hollywood, debuted in June, with live music on an outdoor stage, food and merchandise vendors, featured entertainers, and hundreds of motorcycles lining West Main Street.  

 

Largely the brainchild of the late Cynthia Constantine and Bryan Bradley of the Hollywood and the late Randy Rosen of Gowanda Harley-Davidson, the Happening quickly expanded into a three-day festival that annually was the most exciting weekend in town.  With sponsorship from various local merchants, civic organizations and clubs,  nearly a million dollars was raised locally over two decades to provide matching funds for grants from New York State, as well as foundation grants and donations from private citizens and businesses to fund the theater’s restoration.

Today, the Hollywood’s rebirth is nearly complete, with only work in the stage area to be done, along with replacement of the mighty Wurlitzer organ that once filled the hall with wonderful music.  The theater has provided the community with many hours of quality musical entertainment, live theater productions, operatic performances, and much more.  An annual theater camp for school students, funded in part through a re-grant program from the NYS Council on the Arts, gives young people a chance to develop their musical and acting skills, always in front of a packed house.

 

A digital projection system along with a 40,000 watt Bose sound system provides the latest in motion picture and musical entertainment.  The Hollywood Theater has hosted several concerts featuring tributes to popular bands such as Chicago, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Styx, Foreigner, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the Eagles, as well as a tribute to Country & Western performers, a 90th birthday celebration for Willie Nelson, and a show to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Woodstock.

 

Several silent films from the 1920s have been presented, featuring live musical accompaniment by renowned theater organist Dennis James.  Also playing at the theater are recent Hollywood movie releases with admission prices below what out-of-town theaters charge.  The Hollywood board of directors thanks the Gowanda area for its patronage and support, and hopes for continued engagement by the community to ensure the long-term viability of this important entertainment venue.

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