Gowanda is an outdoorsy town with a reputation for white water rafting, fishing and kayaking on Cattaraugus Creek in nearby Zoar Valley. It’s tucked away in a rural corner of southern Erie County, almost an hour’s drive south of Buffalo. It’s equal parts natural beauty, country quiet and small town charm. But that may be changing. With the restoration of the historic Hollywood Theater, Gowanda may be on its way to becoming a regional hub for arts and culture as well.
“‘This is where I had my first kiss in the balcony’ — you hear that all the time,” says Mark C. Burr, President of the Gowanda Historic Hollywood Theater, the non-profit corporation that’s overseen the 25-year fight to save the theater. “This was the social center of the community. You’d go to town, go to dinner, and go to a show and that’s what it’s going to become again.”
Built in 1926 to replace the Gowanda Opera House that had been destroyed in a fire, the project was commissioned by Richard Wilhelm, a local captain of industry known as the “Glue King of the World.”
Wilhelm, the wealthy owner of the Peter Cooper Glue Company, “didn’t spare a penny,” according to Burr, in building a vaudeville theater for his adopted hometown – a show place that any big city would have been proud to call its own. Wilhelm hired Leon H. Lempert & Son, a Rochester-based architecture firm, to handle the design work. The Lempert firm was renowned for its theaters and built several in Western New York and Ontario, including Buffalo’s Allendale Theater, the Lockport Palace and the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda.
Like many theaters across the United States, the Hollywood was a victim of changing media consumption habits throughout the 70s and 80s, finally closing in 1992. It sat vacant for four years, when the Historic Hollywood Theater group was formed and restoration work begun. Heat and cooling systems, electrical, a leaking roof, and the ravages of time and neglect all had to be addressed – and millions of dollars raised — before the theater would be ready to turn its bright lights on again.
Deb Harris, Grant and Project Administrator for Gowanda’s Hollywood Theatre
“We’ve done 95 percent of the work,” says Deb Harris, the Grant and Project Administrator for the non-profit Hollywood Theater corporation. “Close to $5 million has been spent so far.”
What was once a vacant building with no future is now a significant economic asset, according to Burr and Harris, and a catalyst for the revitalization of Gowanda’s downtown. Collaborations with regional arts organizations – including a summer theater camp — are already in place and a schedule of plays, musicals, concerts, lectures and movies is being developed.
While some additional work needs to be done on things like upgrades to the fly system (the rigging that enables curtains, sets and lighting to be moved), the addition of theatrical lighting and the restoration of a historic organ, Gowanda’s Hollywood Theater has been restored to its former glory and is shining again as a star of the Southern Tier.
“We have Zoar Valley, fishing and kayaking,” Burr says, “And this multi-use facility that will make Gowanda even more of a destination.”