Brookside’s Big Fire: The Brookside Theatre Building

(originally published 1/24/19)

Having a theatre in Brookside had been a big part of the dream of Harry Jacobs, the developer who, in 1937, built it on most of the east side of what is today Brookside Plaza, one block east of Brookside Boulevard. Jacobs called it the Brookside Theatre Building, because in addition to the theatre, it housed a half dozen or so retail shops at the street level, and professional offices on the second floor. When finished, the Brookside Theatre Building was imposing, an architectural anomaly that stood in stark contrast to the Nichols Company’s more traditionally designed buildings. Most of the theatre building’s façade was Colonial, a cupola with a flagpole its only ornamentation. But the neon art deco theatre marquee at the south end and the massive electric sign on the roof that could be seen for blocks made it the flashiest building Brookside would ever see.

For almost forty years, the Brookside Theatre was an important draw for Brookside. Not only was it a popular choice for date nights and family outings, the theatre was also the backdrop to many promotions by the Brookside Merchants’ Association. But as a business venture, the theatre started to struggle in the 1970s. Movie goers were flocking to suburban multiplexes with large screens and sound systems. Ironically, one of the first of those in the country was built in 1962 in the new Ward Parkway shopping center just a few miles south of Brookside. The Brookside Theatre showed its last movie in 1976, and for almost two years, it served as a venue for live music, much to the consternation of many Brookside regulars.

The fire broke out just before dawn, and the first call came in at 8:30, Sunday morning, January 29. It could hardly have happened on a worse day. There were four major fires in the city that weekend, including the horrific Coates House fire downtown. The fire department’s capacity was stretched to its limits. The situation was made worse by the 5-degree temperatures, causing water to freeze not only on the streets and buildings, but on the firemen themselves, and rendering one truck inoperable. The firefighters fought the blaze from the street, from ladder trucks, and from the roofs of nearby buildings. There would be two more calls for additional units before the fire was conquered about midday, crowding Brookside with 75 firefighters and more than a dozen vehicles.

Later, it would be determined that the fire started in Nick’s Bar-B-Q on the Theatre Building’s ground floor. The damage was tremendous, and the only bright point was that no one had been seriously injured. Property loss was nearly complete. Ironically, of all the parts of the building damaged by the fire, the Brookside Theatre sustained the least amount of damage. The lobby was destroyed, but the auditorium was largely intact.

Altogether, some twenty businesses were displaced, although many found temporary homes in other spaces, sometimes sharing space with other merchants. Others would never return. Of those, the loss of Norman Hoyt Photography was particularly keen. Hoyt had photographed nearly all the events in Brookside for many years, and his pictures were a regular feature in The Wednesday Magazine. The fire destroyed all his negatives, and with them, a generation’s worth of Brookside images.

Jacobs would rebuild, but not the theatre. In 1980, Milgram’s opened a new expanded grocery store at the south end of the block, abutting a smaller lower-level office space at the north end of the property where Jacobs built his own offices. But the building was not the landmark for Brookside it had once been, and the beautiful – if garish – lighted “Brookside Theatre” sign that sat on the roof of the Brookside Theatre Building was gone for good.

(Photo credit: Fire and ice – a lone firefighter in front of the Brookside Theatre building on the frigid January morning of the blaze, image from a private collection.)

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