Hollywood Theater in Dormont changes hands from one nonprofit to another. Why are some community members concerned?

Joe Morrison, operations manager for the Hollywood Theater, stands outside the theater on Potomac Avenue in Dormont. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Joe Morrison, operations manager for the Hollywood Theater, stands outside the theater on Potomac Avenue in Dormont. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

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.

Joe Morrison is operations manager for the Hollywood Theater in Dormont. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Joe Morrison, operations manager for the Hollywood Theater, said he regrets what the transition in ownership will mean for the part-time staff, volunteers and patrons. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

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.

Greg Anderson runs the record store Vinyl Remains on Glenmore Avenue in Dormont. Anderson, who has partnered with the Hollywood Theater on special events, worries what the theater’s transition will mean for his and other local businesses. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PubicSource)

Greg Anderson runs the record store Vinyl Remains on Glenmore Avenue in Dormont. Anderson, who has partnered with the Hollywood Theater on special events, worries what the theater’s transition will mean for his and other local businesses. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PubicSource)

“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.

Brian Conway is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer. He can be reached at brian.conway@gmail.com. You can follow him on Twitter @BrianConwayyyyy.

  • Peace Bro

    looks like im done attending movies at the hollywood. if i want to see a first run pic i’ll go to cinemark.

    • Mattsburgh

      Yeah me too. Or the Luxury theater in West Mifflin – that place is awesome, full leather power reclining seats. There is so much leg room you can be fully reclined and people can still walk past your feet to get by. And you get reserved seating. They’ll be getting almost all my movie business now, not the Hollywood or these owners that are stuck in the 1980’s and thing they’re the Michael Milkens of the theater business. Then again… Michael Milken went to jail for a very long time. Maybe that’s not such a bad comparison.

  • Mike Connell

    The Galleria is 4 miles away. South HIlls Village is 4.2 miles away. Chartiers Valley Cinemas is 5.4 miles away. Southside Works is 5.2 miles away. If I want to see a blockbuster, why would I go to this little funky theater? I’lI go to the multiplexes for that. I go to The Hollywood to see Raw, It Follows, The Thing, Martin, The Void, etc. I go for the horror flea market.

    • Mattsburgh

      Yes!! The Void was one of my favorite experiences at the Hollywood last year! And It Follows is one of the first movies I remember seeing there, and one of the best horror flicks in years. You nailed it.

  • Dan Palmer

    Good riddance. As a fan of the Hollywood and a Dormont resident I couldn’t be happier to see them go. They’ve handled this entire situation like petulant children who care more about protecting their turf than they do about protecting and growing an important Dormont community asset.

    They’ve done everything they can to poison the well of public opinion on their way out the door, and the new owners have their work cut out for them because of the actions of FOTH.
    Then they have the audacity to ask for money on Facebook to do something else without having anything resembling a plan. Just “give us money and we’ll figure it out,” which was coincidentally about how much thought seemed to go into their efforts to buy the theater.

    Here’s to new things, and so fucking long to FOTH.

    • hmph

      Amen! They have mismanaged the theater & foolishly kept the problem with the lease a secret from donors & patrons. Selling worthless memberships knowing they had no lease is shocking.

      I have attended some fantastic events there, like Tales of Poe & Night of the Living Dead, both featuring cast members. Full houses. Japanese anime & slash horror fests don’t appeal to big crowds.

      Taking the projector, which isn’t even paid for, was asinine financially & showed no character. The equivalent of taking their marbles & going home.

      If they were smart they would’ve told the public a year ago & got $10 from 6,000 people- the number who signed the petition- & purchased the building. Instead, they are the most vindictive bunch I’ve ever seen & don’t even apologize or offer refunds to people who purchased memberships.

      • Mattsburgh

        So if you rented a house, bought a $60,000 projector with a loan, paid $45,000 of the loan, and then had the owner of the house tell you that they’re selling the house and the new owners need you to move out, you’d say “hey thanks dude! You guys are the best – and hey by the way, I’m going to GIVE YOU THIS $60,000 PROJECTOR I BOUGHT BECAUSE YOU’RE JUST SO SWELL.”

        Because that is literally what you just inferred by saying “Taking the projector, which isn’t even paid for, was asinine financially & showed no character”. You really shouldn’t speak about things you are so woefully ill informed about. Really. The asinine financial move would be if they left their expensive projector THAT THEY PAID FOR. Why would anyone do that? It’s ludicrous.

        • hmph

          They could have sold it. It isn’t worth $65K anymore & more is $$ is owed. They need to dissolve this organization that has no money & now has no income. They were evicted! Who gets evicted?

          • Mattsburgh

            But you said they showed a lack of character for taking the projector that they bought. Now that you know that you’re saying they should sell it. Maybe they will buy the point is if taking your possessions and selling them isn’t showing a lack of character then neither is taking your possessions and using them in another venue. Can we agree on that? Ok good.

            Now you’re taking about eviction but you talk about it like they were removed for non payment of rent or something. That is not true. Sometimes landlords sell properties. Sometimes the new owners don’t want to have tenants. When that happens the tenant has to move out. That’s hardly something to be ashamed of.

            They have money, they have plans for income. Their finances are public, I’ve seen them, have you? You should review the past 3 years. They’ve paid off debt and showed a slim profit while doing so. But not THS!! While you’re at it, review THS’s last 3 years too. They’re losing $300,00-$400,000 per year – it’s public information, you can look it up like I did.

          • hmph

            Should have sold to new owner. I donated to the projector fundraising campaign for movies at the Hollywood. In Dormont.
            Shutting down without warning to ticket holders & members was wrong.

            I wish I could review 2016 & 17 finances. They aren’t on IRS website. Do you have a link? 2015 was negative assets. Transparency is good.

            Non-profits don’t make “profits.” It’s called a fund balance. They’re broke: debts exceed assets & no income.

            THC has $1 million in investments alone Got a loan or paid cash for hundreds of thousands of dollars for a theater!

            Go away “Friends” of the Hollywood. The only secret was FOHT was hiding the fact the owners wanted to sell for a year, & the last to know was the community.

            The hate & vitriol shown toward THS is sick. I’m excited to see what they have in mind!

          • Mattsburgh

            I don’t have much else to add. You’ve posted hate and vitriol to people who devoted hundreds of hours of their free time to volunteer for a community asset you yourself admit you enjoyed and frequented. These are people who were there serving the community and people like you and me, 3,4, 5 evenings a week, not getting paid a dime for it and now you hate them b/c they didn’t want to work with a man who had lied to their faces and bought the theater as a personal vendetta. And then on top of it you complain about THEIR hate & vitriol. You said not one single nice thing about them, so obviously I have no chance at all here, no matter how many facts I give you.

            I will leave you with this. That theater was run as a 2nd run theater not once but twice before. Both times it closed within a year. (did you know that?) But the current ownership ran it for over 7 years, successfully. Now a new owner wants to come in and run it as 2nd run. Because .. because 2nd run movie theaters are more successful now than when the Hollywood failed as 2nd run 10 years ago? I don’t think so. Look at the dollar theater in West Mifflin – it closed and now it is an amazing luxury theater running 1st run movies. The time between initial release and DVD or streaming is crazy short compared to 10 years ago. If someone hasn’t seen a movie in 2 months while it was out at the multiplex, I’m supposed to believe they’ll go see it at the Hollywood and pay full price even though they can rent it in their home and stream it for $5 in another 3 or 4 weeks? That’s ridiculous.

            But again… I suspect it is not possible to get through to you on this topic. I’ve said what I wanted. I think it’s a shame you show such disrespect to people who volunteered hundreds of hours of their free time every year to a business you yourself enjoyed visiting. Have a nice evening.

          • hmph

            Have yourself a nice pity party. I’ve never seen a more irrational bunch. I saw Rocky at The Hollywood when it came out. Well aware of its history. I was not aware that owners wanted to sell it for a year.

          • hmph

            Oh and where are FOHT financials for past 2 years? You skipped that part.

          • Mattsburgh

            I didn’t skip it, the financials are out there for 2015 b/c I’ve seen them as recently as a few weeks ago when I went looking for them. I’m not going to bother finding them for you b/c I’ve already seen them and know what they show. They show, very clearly, that the balance sheet improved every year since 2011.

            About skipping. YOU skipped the part about 2nd run movie theater at that location failing not once but TWICE, in less than a year each time – yet FOHT ran the theater successfully for over 7 years. You don’t want to discuss the theater or anything that makes what they did look good, you just want to talk trash. How much of your free time have you devoted to Dormont in the past year? I guarantee you there are people on that board who don’t even live in Dormont that volunteered 100x more time than you. So really… I’m not sure you’re qualified to judge them.

            As for the last two years, allow me to enlighten you, since you clearly are again spewing opinions and making conclusions based on … incorrect fabrications and assumptions. my understanding is that non profits have until something like the 5th or 6th month after their accounting year ends before they have to file their forms. So for example if the Hollywood’s fiscal year ended on August 30th – then for something like 2016 that means their year ended August 30 2017. 2017. 2017. You following me? THEIR 2016 year ended just 6 months ago. Now, do some math, can you add 5 months to that? what do you get? Plus, they can get I think 2 or 3 90-day extensions. Now where are you? That’s right. sometime in the future – for 2016 filing! So you’re acting all haughty about tax forms that probably were filed a few weeks ago or will be in a few weeks – FOR TWO YEARS AGO. 2017 wouldn’t even end for them until August 30th. I don’t know when their fiscal year is, feel free to look it up, my point is this – 2016 was probably only filed a few months ago and 2017 is nowhere near having been filed yet. So don’t ask me for something that probably isn’t available in the public domain yet and act all haughty like you scored a point or something. Instead, do some research and learn about this stuff before you start spewing opinions all over the place.

      • margaret jackson

        Well, if the THS are the wonderful people you believe them to be they will honor all those memberships, so you have nothing to worry about

        • hmph

          Pass the buck. Way to take responsibility!!

          • Mattsburgh

            No passing of bucks by anyone from what I’ve read, Richard already said publicly he’d honor memberships. Of course… I suppose he could be lying. I wonder if his prior actions give us any indication if he’s the type of person who would lie? Hmm…

    • margaret jackson

      I’d like to see how you’d react if after seven years of pouring your heart, soul, and money into something, you were suddenly told that someone had taken it from you with no warning. The friends were told the theater had been sold two days before the press was notified. They had no preparation. Their reaction may have been knee-jerk, but I don’t blame them. The theater was in no danger of closing. The THS did not need to “save” it. THEY are the petulant children. Rick fosbrink did not get his way when he was on the hollywood board so he took a shitload of money that wasn’t even his and purchased a theater for his group whose mission has nothing to do with running a theater. The friends of the Hollywood loved and cared for that theater for seven years. Their only mission was to run that theater. This has nothing to do with turf. They knew the theater closed twice before when it was a second run and rightly fear it will close again. Protecting the theater was the friends only goal. What Rick fosbrink did is disgusting.

      • Dan Palmer

        It was absolutely in danger of closing. Every article I’ve read about this place has said two things 1. The owners were looking to sell. 2. FOTH hadn’t paid rent in over 6 months. What did you expect the buildings former owners to do? Keep letting FOTH use the building for free? They would have been evicted even if THS wasn’t buying the building.

        THS has stated again and again that their goal was to work with FOTH. It’s the FOTH that stomped their feet and left.

        • Mattsburgh

          Dan, we’re going to have a hypothetical. You rent a building and sell original subs and sandwiches that you chose because you know what the local public likes to eat. You are successful and enjoy your work immensely even though it requires many hours of your time without pay.

          I approach you and say I want to buy the building from the owners you rent from and I want to convert your shop to a Subway but I still want you to work there and make the sandwiches. You say no thanks. I then tell you ok Dan, if you aren’t on board with my vision for this building, then I won’t pursue this. I then go buy your building anyways and announce I’m turning it into a Subway. In other words, I lied to your face. Now, I go on tv and say “I want to work with Dan, he’s welcome to keep making sandwiches for me, but now I’m going to tell him what sandwiches to make, instead of his original recipe we’re going to be a generic Subway – but Dan is perfectly able to stay and keep working for free for me, I want to work with Dan”. What would your response be? And please, feel free to swear as much as you’d like.

          Now you know what really happened. Your spin that “THS stated again and again that their goal was to work with FOTH” just got exposed by the truth of what really happened. Sorry to ruin your narrative, fact and reality have a way of doing that.

          • Dan Palmer

            And what if I decide not to pay the rent for 7 months? Even though I claim to be selling tons of sandwiches. The owner decides to sell the building to someone else because they know I don’t have the funds to buy the building. What happens then?

          • Mattsburgh

            You didn’t answer my question and you gave me one that is irrelevant to point. The point wasn’t whether THS could buy building; the point was lying and saying they would back off and then buying it anyway, and THEN acting like you were one who didn’t want play nice.

            psst… Hey, you’re wrong about the rent too, call the owners and ask if they are owed any rent . You can look it up online who owns the building, it is public knowledge. So you see… Another reason your question isn’t relevant .. It’s based on something you think you know but you’re wrong. Again, those gosh darn facts and reality getting in the way of your false narrative. Maybe quit while you’re behind.

  • Eric M

    Ben hit the reason that Hollywood does not need current movies, since it is a bit redundant. Keep to the format that they have already and push for more special programming, since it does not worth traveling to Dormont for watching a regular movie and backstabbing new management does not help themselves either. A good reason to move on and hope for a better solution elsewhere.

  • Ben Opie

    I have immensely enjoyed the Hollywood’s programming, which I believe has only improved in the past few years. I see no reason to travel into Dormont to see the same programming that I can see in my own neighborhood. Therefore, Dormont will receive less of my spending money in general. I also refuse to patronize an establishment whose management has worked in such an underhanded manner.