The Rise and Fall of Entertainment Venues on Rochester’s Main Street

In its more than two centuries of existence, Rochester’s Main Street has hosted its fair share of public entertainment venues. As the village grew from a pioneer outpost to a thriving town, Main Street’s business owners stepped up to provide social outlets for the community.

Two-story brick buildings side by side on a main street
Rochester Opera House block as it looked about 1910.

Curtain Up

Old newspaper ad
A minstrel show and brass band concert was advertised at Newberry Hall in 1876.

The first public gathering place capable of seating a crowd—aside from the church buildings— appears to have been Newberry Hall, a large room on the second floor of James Newberry’s store. Newberry’s building stood on the east side of North Main Street at the Michigan Central railroad crossing (approximately, where Sargent Appliance stands today). Although no images of Newberry Hall are known to have survived, the Rochester Era described it when it opened in June 1874. Calling the venue “something that we have long felt the need of,” the newspaper reported that the hall was 30 feet wide and 75 feet long, with a 12-foot ceiling and a stage that was 15 feet deep and raised 2 feet. It was said to seat 300 people and even featured a small ticket booth at the entrance.

With greater seating capacity than any of the village’s churches or schoolrooms, Newberry Hall served as Rochester’s go-to meeting place for a decade. It hosted everything from plays and concerts to dances, lectures, political rallies, and debates.

Beginning in 1885, Newberry Hall fell out of favor as the townspeople moved on to a popular new hangout. Rochester merchant Louis Palmer broke ground for the construction of a roller-skating rink on part of his block on the west side of Main Street in November 1884. Roller skating was a national craze at the time, and Palmer’s Palace Rink was a welcome addition to the village when it opened in February 1885. At the rink’s inaugural event, Rochester’s 18-piece cornet band provided live music, and a crowd of over 400 people participated as skaters and spectators.

old newspaper ad
An 1889 newspaper ad for entertainment at Palmer’s Rink

As interest in roller skating began to wane, Palmer transformed his roller rink into a dance hall and general entertainment venue. Fewer public gatherings were held in Palmer’s building after the Rochester Opera House opened in late 1890, so he gradually partitioned his space into retail stores. Today, the stores at 409, 411, and 413 Main Street comprise the former Palmer’s Palace Rink location.

Meanwhile, the curtain lifted at the Rochester Opera House on November 7, 1890, with Finney’s Orchestra of Detroit providing the entertainment. The Opera House occupied the second floor of Charles A. Burr’s business block on the southeast corner of Fourth and Main streets (the location of today’s Lytle Pharmacy). Like Newberry Hall and Palmer’s Rink before it, the Rochester Opera House offered everything from plays, concerts, and recitals to lectures, vaudeville shows, and even boxing matches. Larger than the venues that had preceded it, the Opera House was described in a newspaper account as having seats to accommodate an audience of five hundred.

Motion pictures came to Main Street in 1909 courtesy of hotel proprietor James Wilson Smith, who operated the Hotel St. James on the southwest corner of Main and Fifth streets (the location of today’s Bean and Leaf Cafe). Smith also owned the brick business block opposite his hotel (we know it today as the Crissman building), and it was there that he opened his St. James Casino, billed as the first “electric theatre” in Rochester, in the spring of 1909. The auditorium on the second floor of Smith’s building featured silent movies courtesy of an early projection machine known as the “Famous Camograph,” and 430 people paid a nickel’s admission to attend screenings on the theatre’s first night.

Two-story brick building on a main street
The second floor of the Smith block (now known as the Crissman building) was the home of Rochester’s first movie theatre from 1909 to 1913 (Courtesy of Rochester Hills Public Library).

Smith’s motion picture theatre was a hit, and within a few months, he had changed its name to the Idle Hour Theatre. The attraction outgrew its location on the second floor of Smith’s business block, so in 1913 the hotelman announced that he would build a new home for the theatre on the lot immediately south of his hotel. The New Idle Hour Theatre, under the management of Oscar Price, opened its doors at 435 Main (where Whoo UR is today) in February 1914. The premiere of the modern, 400-seat house offered a live performance by the Rochester Comedy Company, entitled True Irish Hearts.

two-story brick building on a main street
The former Idle Hour and Avon Theatre building as it appears today.

The following year, Edward J. Cole took over the Idle Hour, and eventually, the operation of the theatre passed to Charles L. Sterns. The new proprietor remodeled the building, added an Art Deco front and an electric marquee, and renamed the venue the Avon Theatre in 1936. The Avon was Rochester’s only movie theatre until January 1942 when Sterns opened the Hills Theatre across the street at 412-416 Main (site of today’s Main Street Plaza). The larger Hills became the town’s first-run house, and the Avon presented second-run titles and serials.

The Avon Theatre closed in the early 1950s, and the building was sold in 1955 to the owners of Oberg Electric and Appliance. While the Obergs were in the process of remodeling the building in May 1955, the facade of the building peeled off and crashed to the sidewalk when a steel beam across the front of the building collapsed. Nobody was hurt in the mishap, but it brought an abrupt end to the Art Deco face of the building.

Several two-story buildings side by side on a main street with few cars of the time parked out front.
The Avon Theatre (formerly Idle Hour) at 435 S. Main, adjacent to the Hotel St. James (Courtesy of Ray Russell Postcard Collection, Rochester Hills Public Library).

In the meantime, the Hills Theatre continued to serve Rochester’s entertainment needs. Drawing its name from Rochester’s slogan “Heart of the Hills,” the new theatre was the largest venue Main Street had ever seen, with a seating capacity of 820. The theatre fell on hard times and closed briefly in the early 1960s, but was purchased by John Taylor, who remodeled and updated the venue and quickly reopened it.

Several two-story buildings side by side on a main street with few cars of the time parked out front.
Hills Theatre ca. 1942 (Courtesy of Ray Russell Postcard Collection, Rochester Hills Public Library)

Curtain Down

Sadly, the Hills closed for good in early 1984, a victim of the combined onslaught of newly arrived cable television franchises and the proliferation of newer movie houses—most notably the Hampton, Winchester, and Northcrest theatres in Rochester Hills and the Showcase Cinemas in nearby towns. When the Hills marquee went dark for the final time, the curtain came down on theatre-based entertainment venues on Rochester’s Main Street after a 110-year run.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

Comments

  1. Although not on Main Street, Avon Players is still going strong and celebrating their 75th Anniversary of live theater this season!

  2. Ray Henry Jr says

    Great article. Thanks for all your research. The Opera House has a special place in the hearts of our family. My grandparents, Wm. F. Palmer and May Smith, met there at a silent picture and were married in 1910. My parents met in the same venue but this time it was at a dance, circa 1933.

    Ray Henry (great grandson of Louis E. Palmer, proprietor of the Palmer Palace Rink.)

  3. Always great information. I distinctly remember that Lytle Pharmacy took a financial bath when the Hills Theatre tried to compete with the deluge of the surrounding new movie locations, The Hills offered $1 tickets for second-run movies in the 1980s. This effort was well-attended and took all the City’s parking spots on Main and the surrounding side streets. Our candy sales rocketed before 6:30 and then dropped to zero by 7 – the theatre’s time for its first feature. Prescription sale, our “Bread and Butter,” also went to zero, so, with six employees twiddling their thumbs from 7 to 9, I had to cut my hours, which changed the whole dynamic of my store’s activities. I cut back on personal, lost a pharmacist, and the whole 1980’s recession crashed down on me. It took another 20 years before we recovered – only to be struck again by the 2008 recession. Ain’t nothing in retail that’s as easy as it looks.

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