The 'Wilhelms' will welcome visitors to the Hollywood Theater
The newest addition to the Heritage/Harvest Festival on Sept. 15 and 16 is five additional shows in Gowanda’s Historic Hollywood Theater featuring four character portrayals.
The festival includes the much-anticipated tours of Pine Hill Cemetery, the always-creative Scarecrow Contest, and a host of family friendly activities in Chang-Hu Park.
Tickets for the presentations in the cemetery, as well as the Hollywood shows, are available at local merchants as well as at the Gowanda News office and the Chamber of Commerce office. The Pine Hill Cemetery tours are limited to 14 patrons per show and a special priced package ticket includes the Hollywood tour. The Hollywood Theater tours are not limited and may be purchased separately. Tickets are going fast and already several shows are sold out.
In the last of a four-part series, the lives of the two people responsible for the creation of the Hollywood Theater are examined.
Richard and Alice Wilhelm
The mood in the “Beautiful Valley Between the Hills” early in the morning of October 1924, as the word Gowanda is interpreted in the Seneca language, matched the thick blanket of smoke and pungent air that filled the valley. The vibrant and lively Opera House, the cultural heart of the economically vibrant village, had been consumed in a massive blaze that not only destroyed it, but took almost a third of the downtown and nearby residential area with it. How could the village recover from such a blow? Who could afford to rebuild the cultural center of the village?
Standing perhaps possibly under the location of the marquee of the present Hollywood Theater was a savior who not only had lost his own office building but had lost his center as well. Less than two years later, the man who had built the biggest glue factory in the United States and employed more than 20 percent of all workers in Gowanda, opened his dream.
Richard Wilhelm, the wealthiest man in Gowanda, and one of the richest men in the United States, saw an opportunity to bestow his adopted home town with a new and spectacular entertainment palace and he immediately set to work to create his masterpiece.
Born in Rothenburg, Germany, in 1868, Wilhelm came to the United States when he was 18 years old to work for his brother, Henry, in his business in Pittsburgh as a glue-jobber, or salesman, where he experienced great success. Within 10 years, he had told Henry that he was going to leave his brother’s employ because “I’ve decided that money is made in manufacturing the glue, not in selling the other man’s product.”
In 1895 he married Alice Woodward of East Liverpool, Ohio. Her father was a successful industrialist named William Woodward, who owned the Lotus Pottery Company. In 1897, Wilhelm brought his new bride to Gowanda to their new home, where he had already established himself as a plant manager for the Gaensslen, Fisher and Company Glue Works, leaving in 1904 to form the Eastern Tanners Glue Company on a 100-acre site just upstream from the Gaensslen plant.
In 1914 he purchased and reorganized the Peter Cooper Glue Corporation of New York with his own Eastern Tanners Glue Company and just a year later acquired the assets of the Diamond Glue Company of Chicago and became the largest glue-maker in the world.
He enlarged his own factory in Gowanda, making it the largest such factory in the world as well.
In all, Wilhelm’s glue empire made more glue than all his competitors combined, with factories in Gowanda, Springdale and Philadelphia, Pa., Chicago, Ill., Milwaukee, Wis., and Brantford, Ontario.
The secret of his success was the standardization of quality, which he had seen as the problem in his years of selling for his brother. The byproduct of the leather industry, a widely used material of the pre-plastic age that was used for everything from shoes to horse tack, glue was often made and sold in bulk boiling and of various grades, depending on the whims of the tanner who saw it only as a side business.
Wilhelm recognized the value of selling a product that was of the highest possible quality and could be consistently offered that way.
He shied away from publicity and was rarely photographed for all his wealth and power.
Twice he was elected as village president (mayor) and worked his usual 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. day nearly up to the time of his death. He died on Aug. 5, 1940 in his home on West Main Street after a short illness.
Alice Woodward Wilhelm was also a quiet and shy individual.
Not one to entertain, and reluctant to live a visible public life, Alice instead quietly maintained three homes for the couple, one on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo, another a 60-acre estate on Lake Erie in Hanover Bay, and the third on West Main Street in Gowanda, now the location of the Weyand and Weyand Law Office. The couple eventually sold the Delaware Avenue mansion because they did not feel welcome by the neighbors. Her only social forays were to accompany her husband to the theater, which they attended regularly.
The couple did not have any children of their own but did maintain close relationships with a niece, Vera Hamill of Gowanda and three nephews, Walter and Edwin of Gowanda, and Henry of Pittsburg.
An avid reader and gardener, Alice’s flowerbeds can still be seen where she doted on her beloved roses at what is now called Chang-Hu Park.
After Richard’s death, Alice became the honorary chairman of the Peter Cooper Glue Corporation Board of Directors but the role did not change her social habits. If anything, she became more reclusive, not even venturing out to the beloved Hollywood, the theater that she and her husband built in 1926.
She spent most of her final years upstairs in the front second-story study. Often she could be seen looking out the window on busy West Main Street. No doubt thinking about the role that her husband had played in the success of the village that he had decided to take them to at the turn of the century.
Alice lived privately in Gowanda and summered in Lotus Bay until her death on Sept. 11, 1962.
The Hollywood Theater, completed in 1926, was built at a cost of $550,000, a staggering amount at that time and equal to more than $7,000,000.00 in today’s dollars. Richard hired the highly sought-after firm of Leon Lempert & Son, a theatrical design company that had already built the Smith Opera House in Geneva, the Allendale Theater in Buffalo, and would complete later in 1926, the Riviera Theater in North Tonawanda, to complete his jewel.
Wilhelm spared no expense and the Hollywood was impressively adorned with lavish stained and leaded glass in the doors and transoms, as well as highly detailed and decorated ornamental plaster throughout the house. Leon Lempert Jr., himself a highly regarded scenic artist, painted the two murals on the east and west walls of the theater. Even the seats were the best, with “spring-type” upholstery selected to give the theater patron a “most comfortable place to enjoy the show.”
It has been said that Richard and Alice were the last to be seated before a performance and that the dome lights were always on when they came down the aisle.
The couple will once again “visit” their entertainment palace during the Heritage/Harvest festival.