Historic Detroit

Hollywood Theatre

Where weeds now rise through the pavement of an old parking lot on the city’s southwest side, a velvet curtain once rose to reveal a silver screen. This was where Detroiters once flocked to a grand movie palace with a name that just screamed entertainment: the Hollywood Theatre.

There was a time when Detroit had hundreds of theaters, many of them small but still fine places to see a show. But some were movie palaces—regal, ornate and each competing to out-overdo the next. Their lush interiors, exotic names and grand scale reflected the booming metropolis that was Detroit in the Roaring Twenties. Their giant marquees lit up the night sky, luring moviegoers like moths to the entertainment flame. The names of some of these theaters are well known among Detroiters even today: the Fox, the Michigan, the Fisher, the United Artists. And when it came to size and beauty, the Hollywood could hold its own with the best of them.

For some, it was just a place to see a movie. For others, it was a beautiful temple of entertainment that whisked them away to another world, away from the ravages of the Depression or the sorrows of war. And then there were those who were just looking to beat the heat. “In those days, you picked the theater with the air-conditioning,” said John Akers, a southwest Detroit native who went to the Hollywood as a boy. “You didn’t care what the movie was.”

But in a time when cars weren’t as plentiful and many in the city relied on their feet or streetcars to get around town, many Detroiters went to the theater closest to their homes. For those in southwest Detroit, that usually entailed a trip to the Lincoln, Rio, Rex or Grande. They were smaller theaters, maybe 800 to 1,500 seats — far smaller and far plainer than the huge movie houses downtown. The Hollywood set out to change that. It was one of a handful of movie palaces—along with the Grand Riviera, the Eastown and the Fisher — that brought that downtown grandeur into the city’s neighborhoods.

Planning a palatial playhouse

At the height of the Roaring Twenties, everybody, it seemed, wanted to get into the theater business. This was the boom period for Detroit movie houses, and between 1925 and 1928, the city added more than twenty-three thousand seats in a half dozen large theaters. Among these movie moguls were brothers Ben and Lou Cohen, who operated a slew of theaters in Detroit, including the Capitol, Paradise, Mayfair, Rio, Roxy and Norwood. The brothers were born in Ontario, Canada, but grew up in Detroit. Ben Cohen was the first to get involved in the movie biz, leaving school in 1909 to open his first movie house. His brother soon teamed up with him, and they formed Detroit Theatrical Enterprises, Inc. In 1917, the brothers took over their first theater together, the Colonial, which they operated until 1931.

With business booming in the golden age of the silver screen, the brothers decided to go all out and build a movie palace that would serve as the flagship of their theater empire. The brothers bet that if they set out to thrill the people of Southwest Detroit and the city’s western suburbs, people would come. They bet big. It would turn out they bet wrong.

The single-screen Hollywood Theatre cost $2 million to build (about $26 million today when adjusted for inflation). It would be a monument to entertainment and a theater “that will compare very favorably with, if not outshine, any other community theater in America,” the Detroit News reported. Ground was broken in October 1926 at Fort and Ferdinand streets, about three miles west of downtown.

The Hollywood was designed by Charles N. Agree, the Detroit architect behind the Grande and Vanity Ballrooms, as well as the city’s Whittier Hotel and Belcrest Apartments. The theater’s ornate interiors were handled by the associate architects on the project, Graven & Mayger of Chicago, the firm that designed the original, jaw-dropping Mayan-themed theater in the Fisher Building in Detroit, as well as many theaters in its native Windy City. The Hollywood stretched for 140 feet along West Fort Street and was four stories tall. Two towers in front jutted 150 feet into the sky and made the “theater visible for many miles in either direction,” the News noted. The building’s exterior was done in what was billed as a Spanish Renaissance style—“bearing the proud stamp of old Spain,” the Detroit Free Press said—and was clad in tan terra cotta and capped with a red tile roof. Its marquee dazzled with a veritable rainbow of colored neon lights. The complex also featured offices and ground-floor shops along Fort Street.

Once Detroiters bought their tickets, they’d step into a soaring, sixty-foot-high lobby. An enormous wrought-iron chandelier dangled above, and curving marble staircases flanked either side of the entrance to the auditorium. These palatial interiors were topped off with marble walls and gilded plasterwork. In keeping with the European atmosphere, guests were greeted by ticket sellers draped in Spanish shawls and doormen and ushers in uniforms laced with black and red. After they found their seats, patrons would find “experts have so arranged the auditorium from orchestra to uppermost balcony seat, that every patron will have perfect vision for both stage and screen attractions.” Yet despite its grandeur, the lobby was rather small and made for a tight squeeze when the theater was at capacity.

The auditorium, however, was another story. The 3,436-seat Hollywood was the city’s second-largest movie theater when it debuted; only the 4,038-seat Michigan Theatre, which opened downtown a year earlier, was bigger. The Hollywood was built to compete with the big boys. And it was as opulent as it was gargantuan. Velvet curtains, mirrored niches and ceilings were covered with large medallions drizzled with gold and shimmering silver. The room was capped by a dome ceiling soaring about one hundred feet above the crowd. The walls were largely cut stone. It was simply “one of the most beautiful, most comfortable theaters in the universe,” a news report at the time said. At the very least, Akers said, “It was the nicest place in all of Southwest Detroit.”

Hooray for the Hollywood

The Hollywood opened on Sept. 24, 1927. “The gala air of a premiere was conveyed by baskets of flowers that lined the lobby, each bearing the cards of well-wishers of the Cohens’ latest venture. A bulletin board displayed telegrams bearing congratulations from film stars, producers and theater owners,” the Detroit Free Press reported. The first picture to light up the Hollywood’s silver screen was Alias the Deacon, starring Jean Hersholt as a priestly card shark “who saves two young lovers by holding a hymn book in one hand and dealing winnings cards with the other,” the Free Press wrote. Headlining opening night was the Hollywood-Sunnybrook orchestra, led by Sammy Dibert.

In its early days, the theater offered “high-class vaudeville” acts in addition to films. “The programs will consist of a variety of unique offerings on the stage and the presentation of the highest class motion pictures available,” a news report said at the time. “Only the best will be shown at the Hollywood.”

Usually, the blockbuster movies showed at the downtown movie palaces first and would trickle down to the Hollywood and then to the smaller theaters. There was a pecking order, and the Hollywood never really made the cut. While it may not have hosted many Detroit premieres, the list of movies that showed at the Hollywood is too long to list but included: Torrid Zone starring James Cagney, Disney’s Pinocchio and Cinderella, Gene Autry in Shooting High, Melvin Douglas and Joan Blondell in Good Girls Go to Paris, Jimmy Stewart in Winchester ’73, Humphrey Bogart’s suspense flick In a Lonely Place and Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra. In the 1940s, newsreels with updates from the war would be shown as well. During the early years, “even the most mediocre movie attracted a crowd,” the News wrote. “The movie boom was in full bloom. Detroit led the way.”

In 1928, a seat on the main floor would cost you 60 cents (about $8.00 today). The cheap seats in the balcony were 40 cents ($5.40 today). Bringing a child would set you back 15 cents — about $2, though by 1939, they could get in for a dime.

Among the stars who brought their live shows to the Hollywood’s supersize stage were Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Morton Downey, Sophie Tucker, Eva Tanguay and Rae Samuels. Such performances brought some genuine Hollywood to the Hollywood Theatre. In September 1928, Paul Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys played a three-night set with a slew of vaudeville acts. The group included a then-unknown kid named Bing Crosby.

Fred Herr, now 87 years old and living in Plymouth, Mich., grew up in southwest Detroit and worked as an usher at the Hollywood when he was 16 years old. For 25 or 30 cents an hour, moviegoers would tell Herr where they wanted to sit, and he’d track down open seats. Maybe on his rounds, he might eye Millie, the cute candy girl he was sweet on. When not showing couples to their seats with his trusty flashlight, he kept his eyes on the balcony, where lusty teens took to the theater’s dark confines. “There was no hard and fast rule about it, and unless someone complained, we’d just let ’em neck,” he said.

Herr had grown up in southwest Detroit and had gone to the theater as a boy. When he was 10 or 12, Herr visited the Hollywood for a night he’d never forget. Sandwiched between a double feature was a performance by magician Howard Thurston, and Herr was one of the lucky, awestruck kids called up on stage to be the entertainer’s assistant. “He had me hold onto this wooden birdcage; he flipped his hands, and it disappeared!” Herr recalled, still impressed by the feat some 75 years later. “It was unbelievable!”

But not all of his memories are fond ones. Herr was working in the balcony one Sunday when a fellow usher ran up to him with terrible news. The day was December 7, 1941. “He said Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, and I said, ‘Who the hell is Japan?’ We weren’t too up on our foreign affairs at the time. And I didn’t have knowledge about what Pearl Harbor was. I was 16. I just thought if it was such a big deal, why didn’t they make an announcement in the theater?”

On Fridays, Akers and his mother would walk to the Hollywood from their home on Crawford, near Regular Street. On Saturdays, the theater would host talent shows with the films. “I sang ‘Red Sails in the Sunset’ in a nearly soprano voice,” chuckled the eighty-eight-year-old North Granada, California resident. “It was terrifying, and I learned about audience tolerance that day. That was the end of my show business career.”

Innovations in entertainment

The Hollywood was said to have “many features never before introduced in theater construction.”

Its location far from the heart of the Motor City allowed the Hollywood to offer something that its downtown competitors could not: free parking. And given the theater’s whereabouts, it needed it. There was room for seven hundred cars at first, and later, eight hundred more. Visitors parked in the rear of the theater and checked their cars with a valet. It is a luxury moviegoers today often take for granted, but the high cost of land downtown simply did not allow for the other theaters to offer such an extravagance. The Hollywood was the first neighborhood theater to offer it.

Among its other special features was a “crying room” at the back of the auditorium, “where mothers could take fretful small fry and still see and hear the movie,” the Free Press marveled. The room had a window and soundproof walls and was elevated enough to allow them to enjoy the flick without driving the other patrons nuts. The sound — whether from the movie or from the organ — was piped into the room through a speaker. There was even complimentary baby formula for the tykes not old enough to munch on popcorn. This room was a “refuge” for the mothers, the News said, and had “nurses constantly in attendance.”

The Hollywood featured a huge, Barton theater organ, the third largest the company ever made. And it was not a cheap piece of equipment, costing $75,000 alone, nearly $1 million today. Bobby Clarke, regarded by some to be the dean of Detroit theater organists, tickled the keys of the Hollywood’s “golden-voiced organ” on opening day. When he wasn’t dazzling crowds at the Hollywood, Clarke pumped up the fans at Olympia Stadium during Red Wings games.

Roger Mumbrue, a wizard of the Wurlitzer organ himself, practiced on the Hollywood’s organ as a twenty something in the late 1950s. While he played at theaters all over Detroit, the Hollywood was one of his favorite places to play. “The acoustics were just excellent,” he said. “The old-timers always liked the Hollywood’s organ and said it was the second best in Detroit, behind the Capitol.” Today, the Capitol Theatre is known as the Detroit Opera House.

Location, location, location

Unfortunately, the Cohen brothers’ bet on southwest Detroit did not pay off. Perhaps they were counting on the city to sprawl west, not the northward track it took along Woodward. Perhaps they thought people would make the drive from southern and western suburbs like Wyandotte and Dearborn. Whatever the reason, the Hollywood just never found much of an audience. Its inability to pack the house left it out of the wide-screen craze of the 1950s that kept many larger theaters afloat. “Detroit was a good movie town then. You have to remember there were two and a half million people in Detroit in the ’50s,” said Shan Sayles, who worked in publicity during the 1950s for the United Detroit Theaters chain. “So it wasn’t that people weren’t going to movies. The Hollywood just never did any business. I don’t think it even made a quarter.”

In the fall of 1940, the theater underwent a pricey renovation inside and out that was geared toward drumming up more business. That didn’t work either. Toward the end, the Hollywood would televise boxing matches on the big screen, one of many gimmicks the theater tried to get people through the doors. The Hollywood also hosted Good Friday services and even graduation ceremonies, including for nearby Southwestern High School. But such special events weren’t even close to being enough to keep a theater of the Hollywood’s size open.

“By the late ’50s, it was clear that they were on their way out,” Mumbrue said. “No one lived down there. It was mostly abandoned freight yards and derelict buildings, so there was just no hope. … It wasn’t in a decent area where you could ever attract a crowd. No one was going to go way out Fort Street.”

The Hollywood’s screen went dark on May 25, 1958. The building’s storefronts were soon empty, too. Box Office Magazine reported that Elliot Cohen — no doubt related to the theater’s creators — reopened the Hollywood in April 1959, but it closed again three months later. The Hollywood was put up for sale but found no takers. Nobody, it seemed, was willing to follow the Cohen family in its attempt to lure downtown moviegoers to southwest Detroit. The theater would sit silent for five years before the bank that owned it decided to call it a wrap.

The End

When he learned that the Hollywood was doomed and its assets were being auctioned off in 1962, Henry Przybylski, an engineer and organ buff, set out to realize his dream of owning one of the movie house marvels. He edged out the other bidders and won the Hollywood’s Barton organ for $3,150 (the equivalent of about $24,000 today).

He and several friends would spend the next five months and two days taking it apart piece by piece. And there were thousands of pieces. His son Michael Przybylski recalls how his father worked almost nonstop through the dead of winter. He had no choice: He was racing the wrecking ball—and more importantly, the people plundering the Hollywood for salvage. “He was always one half step ahead of the scrappers,” said Michael Przybylski, of Dearborn Heights, Mich. “One of the scrappers was licking his chops, eyeing the organ console that was full of copper.”

Demolition took place in 1963. And it would be slow. Because the Hollywood was built in a neighborhood, the wreckers couldn’t just whale on it with a wrecking ball without damaging nearby houses. At least one demolition company underbid on the contract to destroy the theater and ended up destroying itself in the process, going out of business trying to fell the giant venue. Bit by bit, however, the Hollywood faded away, its ornate plaster and spectacular Spanish charm reduced to twisted steel and dusty heaps of broken bricks and crumbled plaster.

Meanwhile, Henry Przybylski had finally managed to rescue the Barton organ, but he had nowhere to put it. He had planned to tack a 20- by 30-foot addition onto the back of his home in Dearborn Heights, but it didn’t happen. The houses were so close together, there was no way he could play an organ that once boomed through a 3,400-seat movie theater without blowing out the neighbors. So the organ sat in pieces for 40 years, divvied up between his garage, attic and basement. When organist Steven Ball bought the organ from Michael Przybylski for an undisclosed sum in 2002, the instrument had spent more time in the family’s home than it had in the theater.

Ball said that “several venues have been investigated and rejected as potential homes for the instrument. It is still in climate-controlled storage in completely original, unrestored condition. … The conditions are that it must be set up in the original configuration with no additions or alterations, and use (Organ Historical Society) guidelines for restoration work.”

Today, the Barton organ is the only survivor from the grand Hollywood—other than the memories of those lucky enough to have seen it.

“For me, it was the most beautiful theater in Detroit,” said Bob Moriset, who used to cram his pockets full of penny candy before heading into the neighborhood theaters as a boy. Now eighty-four years old and living in Howell, Mich., Moriset fondly remembers those days when “you’d dress up a little bit when you went to the Hollywood. It was a step up—hell, yards up—from the other theaters in the neighborhood. It was magical. Absolutely magical.”