Wis. man's basement holds ultimate home theater

(CBS News) RACINE, Wis. -- From the outside, the three-bedroom ranch in Racine, Wis., looks like any other house. On the inside, it looks like any other house.

But if you make your way down the stairs, you'll find a cellar unlike any other cellar. And it's down here where 87-year-old retired insurance salesman Fred Hermes works on his hobby in front of a live audience.

Fred Hermes works on his hobby in front of a live audience.
Fred Hermes works on his hobby in front of a live audience.
CBS News

"It makes me happy to see the enjoyment they get out of this," Fred says.

Yes, here in the basement, where most of us keep our water heaters and paint cans, Fred has a giant Wurlitzer and balcony seating.

Fred built this theater-in-the-ground in 1959. It wasn't so much that he wanted a theater as he needed a place to keep his organ and the 3,000 pipes that came with it. He rescued the organ from the old Michigan Theater in Detroit.

"Biggest organ that Wurlitzer ever made with five keyboards," Fred says of the organ. It was made in March 1926, which Fred notes was the "same month I was born."

Fred Hermes
Fred Hermes
CBS News

Fred says he feels a kindred spirit with the organ.

That explains the Wurlitzer, but what about the rest of his place?

"Then they started tearing down all these beautiful movie theaters around the country," he says. "And that's when I thought, 'Why not pick up some of this junk and make it look like a movie palace?'"

Which leads to the question: Why would anybody want that?

"Because they're crazy," Fred replies.

A few years ago, word got out that Fred had this theater and the tour buses have been stopping by ever since -- which is fine by Fred. In fact, he says he has a responsibility to share his place.

Fred Hermes rescued the organ, made in 1926, from the old Michigan Theater in Detroit.
Fred Hermes rescued the organ, made in 1926, from the old Michigan Theater in Detroit.
CBS News

"Here's the way I look at life: this is a gift that God gave me," he says. "And I think I owe something. And that is why I have people coming around here."

They say God works in mysterious ways. And if this is one of those ways, Lord knows what he's trying to tell us. Maybe follow your dreams, or share your passion, or maybe we're just supposed to appreciate the quirks of this great country.

Like Fred's home theater, sweet home theater.

If you want more information or would like to visit Fred's basement organ, go to RealRacine.com.

To contact On the Road, or to send us a story idea, e-mail us.

  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.

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