Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hills Theatre Cat's Meow Now Available

As mentioned in a previous post about the Hills Theatre, the Rochester Avon Historical Society has selected the Hills and the Flummerfelt house as the subjects of their 2009 Cat's Meow figures. These items have arrived and are now available in local stores. The figure of the Hills Theatre is shown here, and carries the opening and closing dates of the business on the marquee.

Cat's Meow figures make great Christmas gifts, and you'll find other popular subjects in the collection as well, including the D&C, the PCYC and the train depot, among others. They 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.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Window Night

This year, on the Monday following Thanksgiving, downtown Rochester merchants will kick off the holiday shopping season with their Lagniappe celebration, an annual event since 1973. When I was growing up in the 1960s, the Rochester Chamber of Commerce encouraged Christmas shopping with a promotion called Window Night. The program started in the week before Thanksgiving, when participating stores displayed prize merchandise in their front windows, along with a poster containing a winning number that was kept covered up until the appointed time. As shoppers visited the stores to conduct their normal business, they would be given numbered tickets. The shopper retained the ticket, hoping it would match the store's number to be revealed on Window Night.

On the actual evening of Window Night, the sidewalks were filled with people waiting for the fire siren to blow at 7:00 p.m., signaling the official unveiling of the winning numbers. Merchants uncovered their numbers, and shoppers moved from store window to store window, pressing their noses to the glass to compare their tickets to the posted numbers. A shopper holding a winning number was rewarded with the prize merchandise displayed by the merchant whose number matched the shopper's ticket. There was plenty of merriment and everybody enjoyed the excitement of searching for winning numbers while browsing the shops and looking at the Christmas lights along Main Street.

Of course, the holiday light display on Main was much more modest than the one we have today. It consisted of garland and colored light bulbs strung across Main from light pole to light pole, with a three red plastic bells in the center hanging right over the middle of the street. Each bell had a light bulb inside and the bulbs were sequenced to blink off and on going from left to center to right and back again, to simulate the motion of a ringing bell. The effect was charming but sometimes made it a challenge to pick out the traffic lights that were hanging near the bells.

The Window Night promotion was replaced by Rochester's own version of the Creole tradition of Lagniappe, "a little something extra," in 1973. The garland and the bells were retired years ago, and now we are a regional sensation with the Big Bright Light Show. Lagniappe will be held on November 30 this year, and the Big Bright Light Show will open on that evening at 7:00 p.m. Click here for details.

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.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Health Care in Rochester - 1960s Style!

The recent debate about health care reform led me to think back to the way such things were handled when I was growing up in Rochester during the 1960s. First of all, Howard McGregor's cattle were grazing where Crittenton Hospital now stands, so before the fall of 1967 Rochester residents had to travel to Pontiac when they needed hospital care. Ambulance transportation was provided by the two funeral homes; in the mid-sixties the town got a regular ambulance company and Rochesterites could then call upon Frank St. Onge to haul their bones to Pontiac in one of his orange station wagons.

Needless to say, hospital visits were a rarity; most problems, even urgent ones, were handled by the family physician. When I was a kid, it seemed as though Doctors Kresge, Geist, Dayton and Siffring were taking care of most of the town, dealing with all of their patients' needs from cradle to grave.

Health insurance – if a family even had it – only covered the major expenses, like hospitalization. Visits to the doctor's office were an out-of-pocket expense, so we didn't go to the doctor for every ache, pain, sniffle or sneeze. Our health insurance for those kinds of ailments was the local pharmacy – Morley's, Hunter's or Cunningham's, depending upon personal preference – and the family medicine cabinet. (By the way, if you have any medicine bottles with these pharmacy labels in your cabinet, it's really time to clean it out.)

At the center of our medicine cabinet were two bottles that contained the cures for ninety percent of our medical problems: aspirin and Pepto-Bismol. Skin wounds got painted with Mercurochrome (it'll only sting for a minute). Other skin ailments, including rashes, scrapes and burns were treated with Mom's all-purpose tube of A+D ointment. Bug bites were covered with good old calomine lotion. Congestion due to colds called for Vicks VapoRub to be slathered on the chest. Sore throat? Pop a Parke-Davis throat lozenge (I wish I still had some of those – they were great). And last, but not least, all orthopedic problems from a strained muscle to a broken limb could be handled with an Ace bandage.

If a fever was suspected, Mom took our temperature with a glass tube mercury thermometer, and we didn't worry about it. Today, if you break one of those things the men in the haz-mat suits have to come in and decontaminate your building. It's amazing that we lived through childhood, isn't it?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Subdivision Stories: Christian Hills

The Christian Hills No.1 subdivision was platted on the north half of Section 20 of Avon Township in the spring of 1955. It was laid out on land owned by the Anchor Realty Corporation, whose president was Alfred G. Wilson. Wilson and his wife, Matilda (the former Mrs. John Dodge) owned Meadow Brook Stock Farm (which eventually became Oakland University) and the Christian Hills property was part of their extensive real estate holdings in the area. Wilson's Anchor Realty sold 265 acres between Crooks and Adams for development by Ranch Homes, Inc., of Birmingham, a company operated by three brothers named Alfred J., Thomas H. and Harry Macksey.

Ranch Homes opened Christian Hills No.1 to the public on April 15, 1955, by making four model homes available for inspection. Prices in the new subdivision ranged from $16,900 to $29,900 for the homes, depending upon the model selected from more than twenty options, plus an additional $2,800 to $5,000 for the lots, depending upon location.

Immediately after the opening of Christian Hills No.1, additional property acquired from Anchor Realty was platted as Christian Hills No.2. In August of 1955, property on the east side of Crooks Road was platted as Christian Hills No.3. Today, there are a total of 394 homes in the the three Christian Hills subdivisions.

The name of the subdivision has its roots in the earliest pioneer history of Avon Township. In 1822, only six years after the first non-native settlement in Oakland County was made by James Graham and his family, a pioneer settler named Smith Weeks purchased eighty acres of land in Section 20 and another 320 acres in Sections 19 and 29 of what would become the Township of Avon. An itinerant minister thought to have been the first Methodist clergyman in Oakland County, Weeks apparently had a very compelling personality and was known as an ardent preacher. Early settlers called his land “Christian Hills,” it is believed, in homage to the Reverend Weeks' dynamic pursuit of his vocation, and the name persisted through the years. A rural school located in the area, at Adams and Butler roads, was also named Christian Hills. Technically speaking, the land on which the Christian Hills subdivision stands today is slightly to the north and east of the property once owned by Smith Weeks, so the developers were exercising a small bit of license in adopting the historic name for their development.

Smith Weeks also served as a pathmaster of Avon Township, probate judge of Oakland County and as the first chaplain of the Masonic Grand Lodge of Michigan. He died in 1829 at the age of 69, but the name Christian Hills remains in use to this day, 180 years after his death.

This graphic is from a newspaper advertisement for Christian Hills that ran in the Rochester Clarion in the spring of 1955. I added color to the company logo to make it more readable.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Stony Creek - A Historic Community

Everyone is invited to the next meeting of the Rochester Avon Historical Society on Thursday, November 5 at 7:00 p.m., when Patrick McKay, director of the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm, will present "Stony Creek - A Historic Community."

Stony Creek village was first settled by Lemuel Taylor and his family in 1823 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Come to hear stories of the founding of the community and the people who helped to establish it, and learn about the ongoing efforts to preserve it. The program is free and open to the public and will be held in the auditorium of the Rochester Hills Public Library, 500 Olde Towne Road.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

This Month in Rochester History

During the month of November, several anniversaries occur in connection to Rochester's South Hill Bridge. Imagine the approach to downtown Rochester from top of South Hill if the bridge did not exist, and you will have a mental picture of the way things were in 1927, before the bridge was built. Vehicular traffic (other than streetcars, which used a wooden trestle to enter the village) had to descend the hill and cross the Clinton River and the Grand Trunk railroad tracks. The road was often impassable in bad weather, and climbing the hill to leave Rochester was often more than the automobiles of the day could handle.

When the state of Michigan announced its plan to built a concrete viaduct to carry traffic from South Hill to the foot of Main Street, there was great rejoicing in Rochester. The opening of the 810-foot span on November 9, 1927, was greeted with grand festivities, including a parade, entertainment, prize drawings, and a dedication ceremony attended by state and local dignitaries. The hoopla was well justified, as the South Hill Bridge was the longest concrete bridge in Michigan at the time of its dedication. Click here to view newsreel footage of the event from the Detroit News archive at Wayne State University (best viewed over a cable or DSL connection; not recommended if you are using dial-up access to the Internet).

The bridge featured a two-lane, 28-foot roadway with a pedestrian walk. During the post-war population boom in Rochester and Avon, the traffic load on the bridge exceeded its capacity and it was expanded by adding two more traffic lanes on the east side of the structure. The new, four-lane bridge opened to traffic in November of 1958.

On November 1, 1983, part of the southbound side of the bridge deck cracked and collapsed after a support strap failed. The bridge was closed completely for a week while emergency repairs were made, and then was under construction for months to replace the aging deck and supports. The repaired span was reopened with a gala celebration reminiscent of the first "Bridge Day" in 1927, including a parade and remarks by Gov. James Blanchard.

The South Hill Bridge is 82 years old this month.

This postcard view, from the collection of Rod and Susan Wilson, shows the bridge as it appeared when it opened in 1927, looking southward from the foot of Main Street.