Fond memories of the Hollywood Store

Written by Bob on December 20th, 2015

WATERTOWN, Minn. – The name may have changed to Hollywood Sports Complex, but for many old timers it will forever be known as the Hollywood “Store.” Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, some of the fiercest men’s fastpitch battles in Minnesota were fought on the two ball diamonds at the Store, located near Watertown and about 40 miles west of Minneapolis.

In 1974 the Store underwent a name change to the Hollywood Sports Complex. And in 2008 this historic fastpitch site reached a rare milestone, celebrating its 50th anniversary of hosting men’s fastpitch softball leagues and tournaments.

The fastpitch tradition began in 1959 when Melvin and Esther Littel, who owned the Hollywood Store, started a team and joined a traveling league. And for many years, the Store hosted three league games every Sunday.

“The Store was a beacon for fastpitch on Sunday afternoons,” said Bruce Johnson, 58, who grew up in the area and began playing on the Store ball diamond as a 16-year-old. Johnson retired in the mid 1990s at age 44, but fond memories of the little ball diamond play on.

    With Lights, Big Tournaments

“You could buy a three-finger glove there for six dollars,” said Johnson with a chuckle. “We had our very first big tournament in 1969 when lights were added to the field. Sixteen teams came from St. Paul and Minneapolis, Lake Lillian …It was amazing having some of the best teams in the state coming here.”

Gary Theisen, 57, lived across the road from the Store on a dairy farm owned by his mom and dad, Kenny and Delores Theisen. In 1967 the Theisens bought the little general store that served the area’s farm families. And soon after Kenny Theisen reconstructed the first softball field, then built a second and added lights.

When Gary Theisen was just a youngster he kept his ball glove hanging on the handlebars of his bicycle. And when the farm work stopped, Gary and his brothers Mark and Danny, and their pals jumped aboard their bikes and raced to the ball diamond for a few innings of baseball or fastpitch softball.

“We used to play between loads of hay coming in from the fields, or when we had a break from work, however long,” Theisen said. “I remember when I was about 12, I would go to the fastpitch games and lean against the fence watching. If a team was short of players, they would say, ‘ask Gary to play.’ That’s how I got my start.”

Others as well received their fastpitch baptism at the Store, including Kenny Stritesky. Now age 65, Stritesky has long since retired. But the memories of fastpitch at the Store and in the neighboring towns remain clear as if yesterday.

    Winning Fastpitch Teams

Stritesky started pitching at 11 and retired at 40, only because of a bad back, he said. In his prime, the teams in the area – Watertown, Silver Lake, Winsted, Waverly, and Lake Lillian – “were some of the best fastpitch around in a three-state area,” said Stritesky, who in his heyday at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds was one of the state’s most dominating right-handed pitchers.

Stritesky pitched the 1973 Silver Lake team to an ASA Class A State Championship. And in 1980, he helped lead the Winsted team to a state title. Both small towns were within a short drive of each other.

“We had great competition and the teams and leagues were all within 15 miles of each other,” Gary Theisen said. “You didn’t have to drive very far to play good ball.”

Although many of the Store’s fastptich players of the 1960s – 1980s’ have retired, one of the area’s best pitchers keeps on chucking.

    Forever Young

62-year-old Gary Holtz starts each spring as he did 47 years a go when he began pitching at age 15.

“I start throwing against the wall on my shed when the snow starts melting,” said Holtz, who pitches for a team from New Auburn in the Hollywood Sports Complex fastpitch league. “I just love to play and compete. I’m not as good as I once was, but it’s still a great game.”

Holtz recalls many great games, pitchers, and players he tangled with at the Store.

“Lake Lillian was the best team, and I would say that Kenny (Stritesky) was the best pitcher, and Gary (Theisen) the best hitter. I just hated to face him. He was one heck of a good hitter.”

Along with tournaments held at the Store, Holtz said that all the little towns from the surrounding area hosted great tournaments. “Hutchinson, Glencoe, Lake Lillian, Waverly …we went every weekend to tournaments and we hardly had to drive very far,” he said.

The Hollywood Store holds fond memories for Tom Stuewe as well.

“The Store is one of those Minnesota bumps in the road,” said Stuewe, who played on the 1980 Winsted team that won the state championship. “It’s now known as the Hollywood Sports Complex, but to the old guys, it was and always will be the Store.”

Although many of the tournaments and leagues have disappeared in the area, the Hollywood Sports Complex perseveres as one of Minnesota’s hot spots for men’s fastpitch and modified fastpitch softball. Because of owner, Joe Swartzer.

    Owner Loves And Promotes Fastpitch

Swartzer bought the Hollywood Store in 1996. Over the years he has expanded and remodeled the facility into a unique rural family entertainment center. The Sports Center offers bowling, food, catering for groups of all sizes, on and off sale liquor, live music on weekends, pool, darts, and video games. And fastpitch softball.

Swartzer organizes leagues and tournaments for men’s and women’s fastpitch; men’s and women’s modified fastpitch; a sand volleyball league consisting of 80 teams, and bowling leagues.

And on September 26-27, Swartzer and the Sports Complex will host the Minnesota Softball Federation Fall Men’s Fastpitch State Tournament.

“This is an exciting place to play because there is always about 100 to 150 people watching volleyball and softball,” Swartzer said.

“We are starting to get more younger players into fastpitch, who are the sons of former players. And we’re starting to have some of the modified players moving over to fastpitch. They say they really like it.”

    Memories Live On

From a 12-year-old, who got his first taste of fastpitch at the Store, Theisen went on to star on some of the best fastpitch teams in the state, including major powers like the St. James, James Gang (1981-’82) and Mankato Happy Chef (1983-’85).

His fastpitch travels have taken him all over the U.S. But when he looks back on his career, memories of playing at the Store remain etched in his mind. He talks of learning how to pitch on the Store’s ball diamond. Of towns such as Winsted, Lake Lillian, and Silver Lake bringing fastpitch pride and honor to the area by winning state championships.

Theisen recalls the tension and electric atmosphere of each and every Hollywood Store League game. Only the league champion qualified to play in the state tournament. And that created intense competition between the eight evenly matched teams.

“We had good crowds because all the league games meant so much,” Theisen said. “Guys would have quit their jobs rather than miss a game.

“My happiest memories are here. This is sort of like a Field of Dreams surrounded by corn and hay fields. An, ‘if you build it, they will come,’ kind of a thing. It was a great time.”

Click Here To Visit The Hollywood Sports Complex website

6 Comments so far ↓

  1. John Otto says:

    Hi Bob,
    What is modified fastpitch? I’ve never heard of it before.

  2. Bob says:

    In modified, the pitcher isn’t allowed to windmill. He or she must sling the ball underhanded toward the plate without rotating (opening and closing) the hips. There’s some other restrictions too including how a pitcher can snap his wrist – not sure about that rule. That’s the way it was explained to me. It allows for more hitting as modified pitchers aren’t typically as dominating as windmill pitchers.

  3. Gary Theisen says:

    Hi, Bob
    Just finished reading your article about the Hollywood Store. Thank you for bringing back such fond memories. I have done interviews before for reporters, and have found that some tend to take what you say out of context in order to put their own twist on things or make the story their own. You have done neither of those things and you got it right. Thanks again. A fellow fast-pitch player. Gary Theisen

  4. Bob says:

    Thank you Gary, I enjoyed talking with some of the former ball players who played at the Store, and hearing their memories and writing about a great place that has a wonderful fastpitch (and modified) reputation. Thanks for writing.

  5. Bobby Shoutz says:

    i was looking around one day for memories of my past. the one that stuck out most was my memories of playing at the store. i am glad i found your article and the store website. i live in california now but was part of that past originally playing with Chopper Lammers on the Miller Cattle team. wow what memories. i was so glad to hear that Joe had bought the place. that guy has been a fixture there for a long time and some other fond memories are of when me and Joe coached some of my wifes modified teams out there. i remember vividly how much Joe loved that place even though at that time he was just a bartender. i could talk all day about my memories of the store but the one thing about it that i would like to say the most is that without Hollywood Store, my life wouldnt have been the same. You didnt even mention the Snow tournaments they had out there and the buckets of beer and chicken drummies that would fly out of that place. Hi goes out to Ed and Johny and Steve Schaust, Jerry Goodale, Deby Secora, Sue Hoese and all my “extended family” at the Hollywood Store.

  6. Bob says:

    Thanks for writing and interesting reply Bobby. Places like the Hollywood Store live on in our memories for as long as we have memories. They are unique and unforgettable.

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