Monday, November 16, 2009

Main Street Stories: Hills Theatre Building

The Hills Theatre Building at 412-416 S. Main Street was built in 1941 by the proprietor of the Avon Theatre, Charles L. Sterns. Ground was broken in May 1941, just a few months before the nation entered World War II. Sterns built his new theatre on a vacant parcel that had been a used car lot owned by Ford dealer Larry Jerome.

The new Hills Theatre drew its name from Rochester's slogan, "The Heart of the Hills." As opening day drew near, owner Sterns announced that the older, smaller Avon Theatre across the street would operate on Friday and Saturday nights only, offering second-run double features and serials. The large and modern Hills, on the other hand, would serve as Rochester's premiere movie palace, operating every night with early and late showings plus a Sunday afternoon matinee. The opening night program featured Fibber McGee and Molly with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy in Look Who's Laughing.

The auditorium of the Hills had a seating capacity of 820, and was lavishly appointed. An article announcing the theatre's grand opening in a January 1942 issue of the Rochester Clarion described it as follows:

The wood trim throughout the theatre is of light birch wood. Fluorescent light tubes of various colors line the walls on either side of the theatre. Indirect lighting will light up the foyer and lobby which have been decorated in rich tones of blue and pink.
The flooring in the lobby is a terrazzo composition and rich, maroon carpeting will cover the flooring in the theatre foyer and down the aisles in the auditorium.
The seats are of maroon plush upholstery. The overdrapes around the proscenium of the theatre stage are of maroon velvet.

The front of the building was faced with Vitrolite, an opaque colored glass tile that was popular in the era and was featured on many Art Deco buildings.

The architects of the Hills Theatre building were partners Lavern R. Bennett and Eugene D. Straight of Dearborn. Bennett & Straight specialized in theatre design and were also the architects of the Main Theatre in Royal Oak, the Bloomfield Theatre in Birmingham, the Allen Park cinemas, and the La Parisien Theatre in Garden City, among others. Carl VandenBerghe was the general contractor.

The theatre building also included retail and office space. The first tenants were the Dale and Nina Martin Insurance Agency and the optical offices of Dr. H. A. Miller.

The Avon Theatre closed in the early 1950s, and the Hills became the only movie house in town. In the early 1970s, multi-screen venues began popping up in the surrounding area. The Hampton Theatre opened with three screens in 1971 in a strip shopping center at Rochester and Hamlin Roads; the Winchester Theatre opened in the Winchester Mall at Avon and Rochester Roads; and the Northcrest Cinema (which notoriously switched from Hollywood fare to X-rated films a few years after its debut in 1973) opened in a shopping strip at Tienken and Rochester. Not long after, the community granted its first cable television franchise, and the pressure on the single-screen Hills Theatre became enormous. Bowing to the economic realities, the Hills went dark in 1984 and the building was remodeled as the Main Street Plaza, housing a group of boutique businesses and professional offices.

Although the marquee and box office are long gone, the box office "coming attraction" showcases still exist on the front of the building, flanking the entrance to the Main Street Plaza. The Hills Theatre building celebrates its 68th birthday this year.

Good news! The Rochester Avon Historical Society has selected the Hills Theatre building as one of its Cat's Meow buildings for 2009, and copies will be available in December. The popular Cat's Meow series includes a number of historic buildings from the greater Rochester community. Cat's Meow collectible figures are available at Holland’s Florist, the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm, Dillman & Upton, Framer’s Workshop and Lytle’s Pharmacy, or by visiting the Rochester Avon Historical Society web site. If you remember the Hills Theatre fondly, or know someone who does, a Cat's Meow figure of the building will make a great holiday gift!

Do you have memories of the Hills Theatre? Post a comment!

This 1961 view of the Hills is from the collection of Marjorie and the late Walter Dernier.


  1. I do remember the hills theater with fondness. It was the only and first show I remember going to at the age of 3 or 4 in 1946 & 1947. When I was older we would line up along main st and down the block fourth st. for Disney movies. The best movies were there. We lived kitty cornor from Charles Sterns when he build his new house on Maywood (The owner of the Hills ) It was nice to walk downtown and go to the show . I think we paid 10 cents.

  2. When I was 15 (1957) I had my first date which took me to the Hills Theatre to see a movie. I do not remember the name of the movie, but I will always remember going to this theatre on my first date. In 1962 I married a military man which took me away from my home town and have not lived there since. During the many years of being a military wife I was unable to come home and visit (maybe 2 times).In 2006 was the last time I visited Rochester and was surprised as to the many changes for the faces of the many businesses and the Hills Theatre in my home town. Alason (Duquette) Schomberg

  3. Win Webber Moffat was a ticket seller at the theater.

  4. I had my first date at the Hills Theatre too. I was in 5th grade. (1948)My Mom would drop me off and there my date would be, waiting for me. He always bought my ticket. His mother made popcorn and he brought it in a big brown bag. He shared it with all of our friends in the row we sat in. He bought me Milk Duds that promptly stuck in my teeth. We didn't kiss, we only held hands, they got very sweaty, I don't know if that was from me or him! Older kids-7th and 8th graders sat in the back row against the wall where there were no seats behind them. THEY KISSED! A friend of mine (she is still a dear friend) didn't like to hold hands so, in the winter, she kept her mittens on! In the summer she clung to her candy throughout the entire movie! The Saturday Matinee was the best movies with serials that continued from week to week: Flash Gordon, Buck somebody. There was always the newsreel and at least one cartoon. I live in the Pacific Northwest now and haven't been back to Rochester for 40 years.

  5. Joanne Fifield (Thompson)November 22, 2009 at 10:51 AM

    I worked at Hills Theatre ushering and selling ticket's. I first started out passing out show bills to homes on Sat. mornings and earned free show passes. Three of my sisters and will as my brother also worked at Hills. Great picture and write up.

  6. Jane Mac Donald RodgersNovember 22, 2009 at 6:22 PM

    I also got my start in "show business" with a show bill route for free passes to the show. At the age of 16 worked there as an usher then the box office. The best part of the job was all the popcorn you could eat (for free) and seeing what boys were at the poolhall across the street or "crusin" past the show. Many wonderful memories and Mr. Sterns was a great boss.

  7. My first job (in 1965) was as an usher at the Hills Theater working for manager Bud Taylor and making 55 cents an hour. I made the big leap to "head usher" a year or so later and then manager when I was all of 19 years old and just out of Rochester High. It was a great place to work. The "candy girls" were a lot of fun to work with and the projectionist, Pat, was a hoot. I miss the place.

  8. Remember the bowling alley under the theater? In the 60's, my brother worked at the Hills Theater for "Bud" Taylor, who was our neighbor.

    1. There was a bowling alley under the 406 Bar, but I don't remember that there was one under the Hills Theater. I was a "candy girl" there from 1957 to 1959. A lot of my friends and classmates also worked there when I did.

      Nancy Pompa Boughner

    2. Were you related to Allen Boughner?

  9. There was no way you could be a kid in Rochester and not appreciate all that this fabulous theatre had to offer, all the way up to its closing in the early 1980. A far cry from the luxury theatres today, instead you got stiffm creaky seats, 90% of which were covered in old bubble gum. But it was OUR theatre, AND WE LOVED IT! From "The Sound of Music" to "Fiddler on the Roof" to "2001: A Space Odyssey" to "A Clockwork: Orange" (that one generated a bit of violence among movie-gowers, I seem to recall) to "Last House on the Left" to, finally, the original "Airplane!" movie with Leslie Nielsen. However, the film that generated the most notoriety of any movie shown at the hills was the one-week showing of "Deep Throat"! My dad actually took a photograph of the marguis advertising the film for posterity's sake, or so he claimed. Rumor had it that he and my Mom went to see the flick and decide for themselves what all the fuss was about. That was the only foray into adult entertainment I remember the Hills venturing into; as you mentioned, the Northcrest Theatre up at Tienken & Rochester came to monopolize this niche market for a surprising number of years.

    John Mohr

  10. My father used to drop my sister, brother and I off at the Hills on Saturday mornings about 11:00. He'd give my older brother a dollar bill. Admission was ten cents each and we'd each get 20 cents to spend (a large popcorn was 15 cents and a candy bar was a nickle). When the movie ended we'd then walk to Knapp's and my brother would use the payphone and spend the remaining dime to call Dad to come and pick us up. The first movie I remember seeing there was Tom Thumb and the last was My Fair Lady during the summer of 1966. The scariest movie I ever saw at the Hills was Psycho and the funniest was It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. All wonderful memories.

  11. What a great article, very thorough for an icon (icons) that has been gone for a long time now.
    I really like the part about the details of workmanship that gave the Theatre its character. When my father purchased the Hills Theatre in the early 1960's, the biggest hurdle was the poor condition of the interior and the money he had to spend to bring those wonderful details back to life to its original state. Later on in life my brothers told me (or should I say, complained to me) of how they had to clean the gum and snacks off of the seats.
    It is truly a nice surprise to read that there might be hope in bringing the theater back to life, here's to positive results of the study!

  12. My father, William Sanders, worked for Bennett & Straight. I remember Eugene Straight & his wife drove around in a big Cadillac & always had their chow dog with them.

  13. I was in attendance at the Hills for the Rochester premiere of the Beatle's "Hard Day's Night" as a younger person.... saw many flicks in there over time.