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In 1910, around the time the Knickerbocker was constructed, the motion picture industry was in its infancy, confined to the old kinescopes and purely without sound on film. In the first decade of the 20th Century and the last decade of the 19th Century, a type of show known as Chautauqua was Holland's primary source of entertainment, and a predecessor of the up-and-coming vaudeville. Chautauqua was more or less a traveling institution or show (such as the old traveling religious revival shows) which historians describe as providing education by using popular entertainment in the form of lectures, concerts, or dramatic performances, often presented outdoors or in a tent. In Holland, the education was usually religious-oriented on Sunday and vaudeville-style shows were held during the week.
A local contractor by the name of Tieman Slagh, built many homes and buildings in the city, including the whole group of buildings around the Knickerbocker known as the Slagh Block. Mr. Slagh was interested in bringing entertainment to Holland and felt that the community was ready for vaudeville-style entertainment. Previously the Chautauquas were held in a huge tent erected on the block from 16th Street to 17th Street on River Avenue. There was no indoor facility year round for entertainment to be held, until Mr. Slagh decided to build the Knickerbocker. During the early 1900s, the most popular theatre in New York City was the Knickerbocker, which is probably where our Knickerbocker got its name. Mr. Slagh was deeply interested in theatre and entertainment, but had a difficult time getting a license to build. He applied for a license for a theatre, but the city of Holland turned him down. In another year he applied again, and the city told him that if he got enough people behind him, they would issue the license, but the area churches continued to stand in the way of Mr. Slagh's dream. Finally, after the third or fourth attempt, he got the license and took out a mortgage with the Grand Rapids-based Michigan Trust Company.
Construction began in 1910, but what Tim Slagh saw as an advancement in entertain- ment for Holland was ironically the cause of his death. Just days before the Knickerbocker was to officially open, Mr. Slagh was on a ladder about 28 feet above the sidewalk in front of the theatre putting electric light bulbs in the marquee spelling "Knickerbocker" when a link in the main chain supporting the sign snapped, and Slagh plunged to his death. He died almost instantly, never seeing his dream come true. Sentiment in town was such that many people thought Mr. Slagh died because he was doing the devil's work by constructing a theatre. For a long time after Slagh's death the theatre was not sold because people thought it was cursed. An excerpt from Tim Slagh's obituary printed in the February 25, 1911 issue of the Holland City News reads:
Tieman Slagh, part owner of the new Knickerbocker Theatre now about completed, was almost instantly killed last Saturday morning when he dropped to the sidewalk from a height of 28 feet with a large electric sign on which he had been working. Slagh was engaged with Conrad Smith in putting electric bulbs in the sign when a link in the main chain supporting it parted, hurling Mr. Slagh forcibly to the walk below. He landed nearly flat on his back, the fall snapping his spinal cord and causing almost immediate death. In the death of Tieman Slagh, the city loses a valuable citizen. The News can say this in the broadest sense of the word. Holland can thank Mr. Slagh for the up-building of the business end of 8th Street where he constructed a row of some of the most handsome buildings in our city.
It took nerve to extend Holland's commercial interests so far from the business center but Tieman Slagh believed that the section could be made as good as any and with the grit he possessed he built four of the handsomest business blocks that ornament our public streets. The putting up of the Knickerbocker Theatre which is the 5th largest building in that section of the city was also an enterprise that required nerve -- this is self-evident as an examination of this beautiful play house will verify.
The Knickerbocker Theatre was eventually sold. For many years it was known as the Holland Theatre, one of two local theatres. The facade lost much of its original beauty when it was "modernized," probably during the 1960s. Hope College purchased and began operating the Knickerbocker Theatre in 1988. The college conducted major renovations in 1990, redesigning the lobby area with a new concession area and theatre entrance. Photographs of the Knickerbocker depicting the theatre from its earliest years to the present day now hang in the new lobby. New and larger restrooms were added, along with new carpeting and lights. Seats were taken out of the auditorium on the main floor to allow for more leg room. Within the last few years new sound, stage lighting and house lighting systems were installed as well as a new air handling unit. Hope brought the facade back to its brick beauty and restored the Knickerbocker name.