There’s drama at the movie theater, and it’s not on screen.
This week, ownership of the more than 90-year-old Hollywood Theater in Dormont will change hands. The new owner is promising a new marquee and grand screen drape as well as updated programming and “showmanship” to enhance the movie-going experience.
Still, many community members are upset about the transition — especially the theater’s stewards of the past seven years, the Friends of the Hollywood Theater [FHT], and their supporters.
On Sunday, after a weekend-long John Carpenter film festival, FHT took down its posters, packed up the projector and locked the cinema one last time to make way for the new owner — the Theatre Historical Society of America [THSA], a nonprofit that moved its headquarters to Pittsburgh from Chicago two years ago.
The purchase is the first step in THSA’s long-term plans to create a national theater historical center in Downtown Pittsburgh and a chain of small, single-screen movie houses.
While THSA’s move to Pittsburgh is recent, the leaders of the two theater groups have a history of conflict. THSA executive director Richard Fosbrink previously sat on the FHT board; he resigned in January 2017 less than one year into his membership on the board because of disagreements over the theater’s future.
“This is a hostile takeover from a disgruntled ex-board member,” said Susan Mazur, president of the FHT board.
FHT, a nonprofit, prides itself on maintaining the Hollywood as “a community space for diverse and innovative arts programming,” as its mission states.
They’ve shown vintage horror flicks, anime, silent films accompanied by pipe organ, “breakfast and a movie” events and a long-running performance of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, among others. Other nonprofits and groups hosted events at the theater as well.
Fosbrink, however, believes the programming is stale and that THSA’s purchase will ensure the survival of the Hollywood Theater as a working theater.
After learning of the purchase by THSA, FHT sent out calls to action on social media. More than 100 community members turned out at a town hall on the impending sale, and more than 7,000 people signed a petition asking the Hollywood to stay in the neighborhood’s hands and to keep its eclectic programming.
In the end, it was too little, too late. THSA plans to take ownership of the building by the end of this week. According to Brian Kelly of Hollywood Partners, the theater’s current owner, the Hollywood is slated to reopen to the public by the end of February.
The single-screen Hollywood Theater opened in 1926 at 1449 Potomac Ave. in Dormont. Owners came and went and, at times in the 1990s and early 2000s, the theater sat vacant. In 2011, the FHT took over.
Fosbrink was asked to join the FHT board in March 2016 while he was serving as the executive director of THSA.
Fosbrink is a Fayette County native who served as chair of the performing arts department at Central Catholic High School. There, he helped to oversee the $1.8 million restoration of its 1927 theater, The McGonigle Theatre. In 2012, Fosbrink became the executive director of THSA. Two years later, the organization began a search for a new home. In 2016, around the time Fosbrink joined the Hollywood board, THSA moved to Pittsburgh.
THSA moved its archives of historical theater memorabilia and documents to the Heinz History Center, where they lease storage space; there is no public-facing museum as in its previous home above the York Theatre in Elmhurst, Illinois.
At the time, many in the THSA questioned the move to Pittsburgh. Karen Noonan, former THSA board president from 2003 to 2013, said the THSA board approved the move to Pittsburgh, but it “was done without informing the membership...it was a done deal by the time the membership learned of it.”
During his tenure on the FHT board, Fosbrink said there was a lot of discussion about how the Hollywood could grow its revenue. FHT, which rented the Hollywood for $1,500 a month, had for years talked about raising money to purchase the theater from its owners, but as a community-focused arthouse theater, profit was never their primary motivation.
In his effort to offer ideas during his time on the FHT board, Fosbrink solicited the opinion of his colleague, THSA Board President Joe Masher. Masher is the chief operating officer of Bow Tie Cinemas, a for-profit theater chain with locations in five East Coast states and Colorado. Masher suggested screening recently released films at the Dormont theater.
Mazur said that for the latter half of 2016, the FHT board took Masher’s suggestion and screened more big-budget films and new releases, like “Secret Life of Pets” and “The Girl on the Train,” but adds that the theater did about as well with those as they did with their usual programming. Fosbrink said the revamped programming “wasn’t given a fair shake,” and they were scheduled at inappropriate times.
FHT showed new releases at the Hollywood Theater in the past, said theater operations manager Joe Morrison, but only when they fit the mission. He highlights a recent showing of The Disaster Artist as one example; the Hollywood has a history of showing cult classic The Room, which inspired the film.
Ultimately, Mazur and Morrison say there was a fundamental disagreement about the mission. They felt new releases could be seen in other theaters or at home, and that FHT was catering to an audience that wasn’t being served anywhere else in Pittsburgh.
“We have a clearly stated mission. We have years of programming history that we did not want to abandon,” Morrison said.
In an email dated Jan. 30, 2017, Masher compared the revenue other theaters made in the previous weekend to Hollywood’s take.
“Please tell this board that I am BEGGING them to do the right thing, stop playing the (excuse my French) absolute SHIT that is playing there, and make the theater succeed,” Masher wrote in the email, emphasizing that the prudent thing to do at that time of year would be to show Oscar-nominated pictures, like "La La Land" and "Fences."
On Jan. 31, 2017, Fosbrink and two others resigned from the FHT board. Fosbrink said he resigned because he “didn’t see things progressing in a positive direction.”
A couple months later in April, Fosbrink approached the FHT board about the prospect of THSA purchasing the Hollywood and joining forces. Mazur and Morrison said they believed Fosbrink’s overture would effectively spell the end of their organization, rather than be a true merging of the boards, so they declined.
Mazur said Fosbrink gave his word at the time that he wouldn’t try to purchase the theater; however, Fosbrink approached the owners of the Hollywood Theater last fall about purchasing the Dormont landmark.
Fosbrink and Masher argue that the Hollywood was in financial distress and that the theater was in danger of becoming a retail space were it not for THSA’s purchase.
FHT’s lease of the Hollywood Theater expired at the end of January 2017. FHT paid rent through May and received a one-month rent credit for plaster damaged by a leaking roof. But six other months went unpaid, totaling $9,000.
Kelly of Hollywood Partners said he figured the missing rent meant that FHT was unable to pay. He said that while FHT wasn’t in danger of being evicted, and the theater wasn’t being actively marketed, it appeared as if FHT’s long-term plans to buy the theater may be floundering. FHT has been talking about raising the funds to purchase the theater since 2012.
For her part, Mazur said the organization did not want to continue to make rent payments without a signed lease agreement, something they expressed in an email to Kelly. FHT’s most recent, publicly available 990, from 2015, shows a loss of nearly $50,000, though 2017 financial balance sheets provided by FHT show the organization with assets of about $59,000.
Kelly said he and the rest of the ownership group wanted to keep the Hollywood as a theater, despite receiving offers above market value to repurpose it as a commercial space. THSA’s purchase price of the Hollywood has not been revealed.
“If [FHT] would have followed through with what they had said, if we had an offer from them that was backed up with their funds, then we would have taken their offer. But they never followed through,” Kelly said.
The FHT board and its supporters aren’t the only ones upset over the purchase. Some former and current THSA members are unhappy with the decision to purchase a theater, believing it to be outside the organization’s mission to “celebrate, document, and promote the architectural, cultural, and social relevance of America's historic theatres.”
“I don’t believe THSA has any business owning a theater,” said Noonan, the former THSA president of 10 years.
Noonan has been a critical voice since leaving her position in 2013, shortly after Fosbrink’s arrival. At the time, she felt the organization was in good hands; she said she now regrets her decision to leave.
Fosbrink disagrees that the purchase is outside the scope of the THSA’s mission, saying, “I think it absolutely fits into our mission; it’s taking it in a little bit more of a different direction.”
There is also a question of finances within THSA. Joe Nutting, an 86-year-old retired lawyer in Las Vegas, has filed a lawsuit against THSA, asking for financial records as well as a list of the group’s membership. He wants to inform newer members of his and others’ concerns.
Nutting said he's been a THSA member for 35 to 40 years, though he has reduced his membership to the minimum contribution level as a form of protest to the organization’s current direction.
Nutting called THSA’s purchase of the Hollywood “cockamamie,” believing that the organization can’t afford to own and operate a theater. THSA’s most recent 990, from 2016, shows the organization lost more than $400,000 after beginning the year with assets of about $1.1 million. Masher wrote in an email that THSA’s “revenue is up considerably” in 2017 but would not share any documentation.
In an email to THSA membership dated Jan. 16 announcing the purchase of the Hollywood, Masher wrote that the theater will not only let THSA “live our mission,” but also “provide a much needed earned-income strategy to bolster our fundraising efforts.”
“Our cherished mission, which we still strive to live through, basically doesn’t pay the bills anymore,” Masher said, referring to their educational publications and archival collection.
Both Fosbrink and Masher said they are open to keeping some of the existing Hollywood programming that is successful, like "breakfast and a movie" and the regular screenings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. But unlike current management, they’ll run plan to run new blockbuster movies the same as other theaters in town.
“We’re arts people to begin with,” Fosbrink said, “but we also have to do what makes sense to be able to keep the building open and operating.”
While the THSA is optimistic on its vision for the future, FHT is finally coming to the realization that the theater they’ve tended to for the past seven years will no longer be theirs. A Jan. 30 eviction notice placed on the theater’s door sealed the deal.
“For whatever reason, they want this building,” Mazur said. “They don’t want another theater that was actually in need of help. They want this property and they’re not backing down.”
Morrison tears up when describing how his family has had to turn down opportunities to foster children because he will be out of a job and faces an uncertain future. Morrison and Mazur regret the upheaval this has created for the Hollywood’s part-time staff, volunteers and patrons.
“What people are going to lose is an organization...that values their input, that considers them partners in putting up what’s on the screen,” Morrison said.
Peggy Outon, executive director of the Robert Morris University’s Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management, said this type of acquisition is “distinctly atypical.”
“In a classic nonprofit merger situation,” Outon said, “people don’t get kicked out, they get absorbed. One way or another, we play nice with each other to the degree that people are invited to continue to participate and try to minimize loss of reputation, loss of volunteer energy, loss of history.”
(FHT has refused to meet with THSA about the transition because FHT leaders believe the purchase was made in bad faith.)
Around the corner from the Hollywood, Greg Anderson runs the record store Vinyl Remains. A recent transplant from Brooklyn, he said 90 percent of the reason he opened in this location in September was because of its proximity to the theater.
“Their programming is better than most theaters in New York,” he said. Anderson has partnered with the Hollywood on special events, such as two weeks ago when he hosted a listening party and giveaway for the soundtrack of Suspiria, a 1977 Italian horror film, after a 35mm screening at the Hollywood Theater.
“If this goes through, I’m fully prepared to ... close the shop and picket and protest,” he said. “I’m not kidding. I don’t think they know how important this is to the city of Pittsburgh.”
Despite losing their home, FHT might have a Hollywood ending in them yet.
“We fought long and hard to keep this building because we love it,” Mazur said. “Sure, we’re going to have to change our name, but we’re going to try to find new venues and try to rise out of the ashes, and find somewhere else as a home.”
This story was fact-checked by Autumn Barszczowski.