As some of you know, I am also the guitarist for Wendy Owens and her band Renegade which besides photography, is what I do for a living. This past year has been rough with the band having 57+ dates on the books and me trying to schedule shoots around those dates. Sometimes, the stars align, and it all comes together. This would be one of those times.
I was contacted late 2011 about having the band do a show in a small town in upstate New York called Gowanda. The event, which lasts 3 days is called “Hollywood Happening”. It’s a good old biker festival to raise money for the restoration of the old Hollywood Theater in town. Of course the band was delighted to do the show, but all I heard was “old” and “theater”. So the day came in June to play the gig. We got there a little early so I snuck off to explore the theater and take a few shots. Of course this was a nightmare because all I wanted to do once I got in there was to shoot for a week. To make a long story shorter, through my contacts there I was allowed to return to the theater this July with my good friend Walter Arnold of Walter Arnold Photography and do a complete shoot. This is a record of that shoot. I hope you enjoy and consider purchasing a print or six.
Located in New York’s Cattaraugus County is the small town of Gowanda. As are most of the buildings left on Gowanda’s Main Street, the Hollywood theater is built in a neo-classical style. The site was once home to the local opera house until a fire burnt that structure down in 1924. In steps one on of the richest men of the time, Mr. Richard Wilhem. Richard made his fortune in the glue business and most folks outside of Gowanda had never even heard of him. At the time of his death in 1940, he was worth between 18 and 25 million dollars. Except for a few shares of preferred stock he was the sole owner of Peter Cooper Corp. that made animal and vegetable based glues. His company was said to make more money per year than all of its competitors combined. The reason Mr. Wilhelms glue did not make him famous is because it wasn’t purchased by the public. It was an industrial adhesive used mainly by other manufacturers. As a gift to his community Mr. Wilhem commissioned famous theater architect and designer Leon H. Lempert to build a new multi-use theater where the old opera house once stood and spared no expense in doing so. When the theater was officially opened in 1926 it played host to many vaudeville acts and first run movies. Even after Wilhelm’s death in 1940, his estate kept the theater open and operating until the 1970’s. For the next couple of decades the theater changed hands a couple of times and then finally closed it’s doors in 1992. For the next 7 years the theater sat abandoned until a rescue was attempted by another leading Gowanda businessman, Dan Gernatt, Jr. Mr. Gernatt purchased the theater and donated to a not-for-profit group. The Gowanda Area Redevelopment Corp., GARC was able to secure a loan to repair the roof of the building but that was about the extent of their restoration. In 2003 “The Gowanda’s Historic Hollywood Theater, Ltd” not-for-profit group acquired the deed to the property. Then in 2007 they were awarded a $500,000.00 matching grant through the state and started a 4.2 million dollar restoration. The theater is now listed on the not only the New York, but the National Historic Registry. This has made it eligible for numerous grants from State Historic Preservation, Empire State Development, N.Y. Main Streets, Community Development Block Grant, Gannett Foundation, East Hill Foundation and the New York State Preservation League. Most of the money that must be raised for these matching grants has come from the bikers and the Hollywood Happening event that they have held for the past 14 years. To date the organization has expanded and upgraded the theater’s restrooms, installed a new hydronic heating ssystem, new roof conductors, upgraded electrical, installed a fire safety system and replaced all exit ramps. Since my first visit in June and my return in July they have restored the original lighting, stained glass doors and windows. Restoration is currently at the 60% mark and moving forward. The organization has told me that the HVAC duct work and plaster replacement is next. I am told that when the restoration of theater is completed they will re-open and not only show movies but will host live plays and concerts. I have also been invited back to do a complete restoration shoot so look for that in the future.
The Hollywood Theater is a highly ornate structure featuring 700 orchestra level seats and 290 balcony seats. Featuring Vermont marble floors, ornate plaster designs, leaded glass windows, brass railings, 14-piece orchestra pit, 70′ by 30′ foot stage, dual original oil murals, concave seating design and a highly decorated softly lit ceiling dome in the center of main house.
After a 3 hour drive from home base we arrive in the town of Gowanda. Pulling up we are greeted with a tiny theater front. Looks are quite deceiving though and inside this facade, are some very interesting photos just screaming to be taken. Here is a shot of the theater front and marquee.
Once inside we see can see that the actual theater sits quite a ways from the road and the thin front serves as a hall way housing the lobby and ticket area. Very cool design.
The Vermont marble, tile, and ornamental plaster work here is just spectacular. This theater is definitely the jewel of western New York. Currently the lobby is stacked with billboards showcasing the history of the theater, a set of the old theater seats, and a table loaded with die-cast marquee letters. Even the marquee letters are of the highest quality, all cleaned and freshly painted, ready for the big re-opening.
Here is a shot of the theater seats I captured with my phone.
Upon exiting the lobby, as I walk through the freshly refurbished doors I am greeted with an awesome vintage water fountain. Just a peek at the restore to come.
Here you can see the amazing restore work being done on the theater’s doors.
Just beyond the doors was this beauty.
Not a telephone, an intercom. 1 of 5 in the theater (note the 5 channel buttons). This allowed quick and quiet conversation between backstage, the projection/lighting booth, ticket booth, theater level and the office.
A quick 180 degree turn and there it is, the grand old girl herself. Here is a balcony shot to better see the floor plan.
From the lighted ceiling dome, ornate plaster work, chandeliers, two original oil paintings, to the stage itself, the craftsmanship here is just spectacular. Here is a look around the seating area in detail.
A closer look at the ornate plaster work.
Flanking both sides of the Hollywood theater are two amazingly detailed oil paintings. Both are still in very good condition and roughly 8 feet tall by 4 feet wide.
While the plaster work here is just resplendent, you cannot help but notice the ornate chandeliers and lamps throughout the theater. I was fortunate enough to be able to shoot the theater just a few days after the newly restored lighting had been restored. Restoration was completed by Grand Light out of New Haven, CT.
Without a doubt, the crowned jewel of this beautiful theater is the ornate 22 foot dome in the center of the theater. Featuring 5 levels of plaster work and a striking oil painting of the open sky and clouds.
From the main seating area I made my way backstage. There was a lot of construction equipment and tools stored here that the contractors were using. I tried to snap a few shots of the back stage staples. One such staple was this huge (and still live) lighting control panel.
The curtain winch and rig weights are still in place.
Also found behind the scenes was this cool sign on the wall, signed by one time manager, John W. Schatt.
From backstage I decide to head upstairs to the balcony seating and two very cool areas of the theater. Even the stairs are ornate and the step tops are solid marble.
On the way up I am greeted by these oddfellows. Love the glasses!
Once up the steps I reach the balcony area. All the seats are removed for restoration from this area as well. Here is the stage view from upstairs.
At the back of the balcony area there is the first of those cool rooms I told you about. That room would be the projector room. And what a playground for photographers this room is. First thing you are greeted with upon entering the room is the giant Simplex Carbon Arc Projector.
Carbon Arc projectors require arc rods and a high amount of voltage to operate. It was not uncommon to convert these projectors to the much more economical Xenon lamp and parabolic mirror set up. This projector was converted over to that configuration. Here is a shot of that lamp.
Some of the original markings of the carbon arc projector are still apparent.
The booth is not only home to the big projector but lighting controls, intercoms, old 35mm movie reels and even a film repair desk complete with chemicals, tools and a rewind machine. Check this stuff out.
Note that the intercom in the projector room has a microphone. The projectionist/lighting operator was obviously the person in control.
Probably my most favorite area of the projection booth is the editing/film repair bench. Some awesome tools here, as well as the lenses for that big projector.
Even the window pulls are fancy in this place.
Underneath the projection is one last gem that the theater told us about. Apparently when the theater was used for vaudeville, the actors “green room” was located under was was the lighting control/projection booth. Although this room was essentially a hall and has been used for storage, there are closets that line the hall and the men who would use the green room had posted pin-up girls on the wall to attempt to keep their spirits up.
Just behind me was probably my favorite shot of the day.
The theater still needs a lot of work. I have the fullest confidence that GARC will get the job done. I cannot wait to return and photograph it when it’s re-opened.
This shoot has been one of my favorites so far. It reminded me of going to our local theater when I was a kid. I love movies and they have been a huge part of my life. To see all the shots you can visit the entire gallery at this link: GALLERY LINK