The Basement Bijou happens to be built around the rescued Wurlitzer organ that used to grace the Michigan. Fred, now in his nineties, was a young man in 1955, when he purchased the organ for three thousand dollars.He and several friends got it out in multiple truckloads. It has come to rest in the basement of his home, where, in addition to organ recitals, Fred shows the occasional silent flick and a yearly staging of Phantom of the Opera. Referring, perhaps, to his age, he quips, “I’m the Phantom of the Opera now!” The Basement Bijou really does look like a miniature palace built to showcase the the 3000-pipe Wurlitzer, one of the largest ever built. Former patrons of Racine’s no-longer-extant Venetian Theatre will recognize many of the decorative artifacts Fred has assembled there, but the Bijou's interior is a curious blend of many palaces. Because so many were being torn down in the late fifties, the assortment is eclectic: a mustard-yellow curtain from the Crown Theatre in Racine; the motor mechanism that opens and closes it from the Palace Theatre in Dallas; stage lights from Kenosha's Lake Theater; crystal chandeliers from the Piccadilly Theatre in Chicago and more than 100 theater seats from the Uptown Theatre in Racine keep each other company in the basement. "I got ahold of building records, and they would tell me when they were tearing a theater down..." Fred recalls.
“Mystery” bus tours have been stopping at Fred’s for many years, to tour the theater and listen to Fred, a member of the Dairyland Theatre Organ Society, play. That is, until a retired fireman from out of town who happened to be part of a tour, observed that Fred’s makeshift theater wasn’t exactly up to snuff, fire safety-wise and turned the poor guy in to the local fire department.
If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I once ran a real movie palace, the 2,672-seat St. George Theatre in Staten Island, New York. So when I read about the fire inspection that closed Fred down this March, I couldn’t help but think I’d been there, suffering the slights of overzealous fire inspectors.
We had at least 13 fire exits at the St. George — I still own a stained glass exit sign bearing that number. Each fire door had to have a working “breakaway bar,” for fast exit. Every fire hose had to be ready to go. Pressure was supposed to be maintained in the standpipe system at all times. And then there was Dean’s favorite absurd rule. It had made sense forty years prior, when film (once actually Celluloid) had been highly combustible. The fire extinguisher in the projection booth was supposed to be 24 inches off the floor and strapped to the wall, in order to be closer to the projectors. One Friday afternoon, ours was observed to be six inches too low, and the omnipresent fire inspector wrote us up. But, unlike Fred, we were actual theater managers.Apparently you don’t have to be in business to be treated like somebody who is.
“I’ve been holding tours for about 50 years, and I’ve never had a problem,” Hermes states. He disputes the fire inspector’s claims, stating that he has purchased extra fire extinguishers, invested in new emergency lighting and has people sit in the back row of the theater, both because the organ sounds better and on account of the fact that the audience is closer to the exits. He once had a fire drill with about 40 or 50 people, and, according to him, everyone was able to exit the basement within 5 minutes. The Basement Bijou is probably safer than most theaters, including the St. George, in our time.
While investigating movie palaces in Racine, I read up on the sad tale of the Venetian, an Italian Renaissance United Artists palace opened in 1928, torn down in 1977, the year we lost management of the St. George. Fred was in the forefront of the effort to save the Venetian, as this excerpted letter, quoted in the Comments section of the Venetian’s Cinema Treasures entry, attests:
Letter to the Journal Times, Sunday, Aug. 25, 1974 – 11 A Racine. Wis.
Urges Rebirth of Venetian
To the Editor:
Suggestions for helping the Racine Symphony from Mrs. Leo Draves in her letter a few weeks ago were excellent.
One...requirement for good attendance and performance is the necessity of a...home, one which is permanent, and can be shared with the many other fine musical and stage groups of our community. Excellent acoustics are an absolute must, as are good sight lines. All this awaits us in the elegant auditorium of the Venetian Theatre now waiting for rebirth as a performing arts center....
Let us use this beautiful theatre as a civic auditorium for all to enjoy. If we ever lose it, it will be gone forever.
—FREDERICK P. HERMES
1710 Heather Lane
Here’s to Fred! And to the Basement Bijou — in Caledonia, Wis., actually, should you choose to visit — and here's to the organ he rescued. If he hadn’t gone to the trouble, it probably would have been cannibalized for parts like the Wurlitzer that was gone by the time we got to the St. George Theatre. Only its stage elevator survived. The instrument itself, or parts of it, ended up in a Texas pizza parlor.