By STEPHEN COCCA
Special to the OBSERVER
GOWANDA - Christmas came early this year for Gowanda's Historic Hollywood Theater, and with the arrival of a key component of restoration, 2012 is taking shape as the best one yet.
OBSERVER Photo by Samantha McDonnell
The annual Hollywood Happening, a fundraiser for the theater’s restoration project, will be held June 1 through 3.
Deb Harris, Hollywood Theater office manager, described two events that she has called "Christmas miracles."
The first came in the late fall of 2011 when 300 historically correct auditorium seats, necessary to restore the seating capacity of the balcony, came into the theater's possession.
"In an amazing set of 'too good to believe' coincidences, the Sisters of St. Francis of Allegany, N.Y., in the process of selling their motherhouse on old Route 17 near St. Bonaventure University, were looking to dispose of the 300 seats in their auditorium," Harris said.
A construction worker, who had done some work at Gowanda's theater during the summer, was working on the project in Allegany to prepare the old motherhouse for conversion to apartments. He told the sisters about the Gowanda Hollywood Theater and suggested that they might be able to sell the seats to the Hollywood board, as he had heard that seats were needed to replace those lost in a long-ago remodeling project and others too damaged to repair and restore.
"Out of the blue I received a call from the Mother Superior and she described the seats they had in their auditorium," Harris said in an interview conducted in the restored theater office at the top of the balcony steps in the theater.
"We checked them out and contacted the Historic Preservation Trust (the major grant source of the Hollywood restoration project) and they gave us approval to purchase them," Harris added.
Although the seats are not exactly the same as those originally installed in the theater, they were acceptable because of the style.
"We had a very difficult situation with the seats because we were missing so many and even a few of those we still had were not in good enough shape to save," Harris said. "We removed the good ones from the theater many years ago so that restoration of the interior could begin and they have been in storage at Gernatt Gravel ever since. The balcony was empty of seats, so we had been looking for replacements."
"We never imagined that we would find the missing seats, let alone the number we needed, in such an unlikely place," added Mark Burr, president of the Hollywood board. "Who would believe that 300-plus, historically correct seats would be sitting less than 50 miles away?"
The second vital restoration piece arrived in a semi-tractor trailer just before Christmas. A vintage Wurlitzer organ had been found, and the theater has been successful in obtaining another integral part of the interior restoration.
Burr, his wife Karen, board members Sal Dicembre, Phil Palen, Dr. Dana Anderson and three other volunteers traveled to Albany in December in a convoy of three vehicles and packed up the thousands of parts to a vintage Wurlitzer "10 rank" organ to replace the original Hollywood Wurlitzer.
"The original 1925 'six-rank' Wurlitzer that was played from its installation in 1926 in the theatre was sold to Norma and Harry Marcinack of the Western New York Theatre Organ Association in the 1980's by the former owner of the theater," Harris recalled.
"The couple dedicated hundreds of hours restoring the organ to pristine condition, but when Mr. Marcinack passed away in 2001, Mrs. Marcinack began to look for a new home for the beautiful instrument," she added.
"I made contact with her after I came on the board, but it was too late, she had already sold it. Our current group was not up and running when they sold it, so we did not know it was available, or had been sold."
The organ had found a home, but not in Western New York, or even in the United States.
"An Englishman named Byron Jones, nicknamed the 'Welsh Wizard,' had purchased the organ and has added to his fame as one of the foremost authorities on Wurlitzer organs by producing albums," Harris said. "One release features the instrument as the '1925 Gowanda Hollywood Wurlitzer 2/6 with a big sound."
The album cover shows Jones, dressed in a "Union Jack" coat, sitting at the organ keyboard.
In the album liner notes, Jones writes: "We spent a good week in September of 2003 dismantling and wrapping all the various parts, moving them from the basement and packing a 20 foot container."
He concludes the notes with the words, "Since it has been installed (in his house in Bristol, United Kingdom) we have had many organist from afar to play it, and all who do, say it is one of the finest 2/6 Wurlitzers they have ever played."
Jones, who was contacted by the Hollywood board, was not interested in selling the instrument, so the search went on.
The replacement was finally found and has arrived in Gowanda.
"Another miracle," Harris added. "This time it was Albany, not Allegany, but at least it was New York state!"
Harris had been talking to people in what she called the "organ community" since learning about the location of the original organ, and that network of people put her in contact with the New York State Museum in Albany. The museum had a 1923 "10 rank" Wurlitzer from a Schenectady theater that was in a similar state of deterioration, just like the Hollywood.
The theater's assets were being sold, and the New York State Museum stepped in to rescue what it could. Included were the thousands of parts of its organ.
"The museum wanted to sell the organ and put it out to bid. We jumped right in, at just the right moment, and we won," she said excitedly. "Trouble was, we had to find a way to get it."
Late one Sunday evening in December, a semi-tractor trailer left from Gernatt Gravel. After the 6 and 1/2 hour drive to Albany, the "rescuers" from Gowanda reached their destination. Loading began, into specially prepared pallets and crates, and within 12 hours, the truck was on its way back to Gowanda.
The Wurlitzer had come home!
"We continue to make excellent progress in the restoration of our beautiful theater," Burr said, "and we hope that the community that has supported our efforts so faithfully over the last eight years will see the results this year. We know that everyone will be proud of our community gem when we are able to open our doors."
Since January, electrical, plumbing and restoration specialists have been working daily in the theater, according to Burr.
"A new Fire Safety System is almost 90 percent complete, plumbing is 90 percent complete and the electricians have made substantial progress," he reported at the recent board of directors meeting in April. "The public will be able to see a project that is rapidly approaching the stage where the visible restoration of the walls and trim and installation of the seats and organ are within sight."
The community can catch a glimpse of the theater at Gowanda's popular annual festival and fundraiser.
"Our annual Hollywood Happening on the first weekend of June promises to be one of our biggest yet with more entertainment in more locations," Burr said.
Additional information is available at the Hollywood Theater web site, www.gowandahollywoodtheater.com.