Life

15-plus Cedar Rapids theaters raced to show silent films in early 1900s

Competition for audience was fierce

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This month saw the grand opening of the Ideal Social Hall at 213 16th Ave. SE within the historic New Bohemia neighborhood in Cedar Rapids.

It is a marvelous comeback for the old Ideal Theatre building, one of the few surviving former “silent” movie theaters in Cedar Rapids history.

Long before the Paramount (originally the Capitol Theater) and the Iowa (now Theatre Cedar Rapids) theaters opened in 1928, more than 15 theaters were showing silent movies in the downtown, New Bohemia and Kingston Village.

Competition was fierce. Each theater had its unique personality. Some, like the Isis and Olympic, had their own concert orchestras to accompany silent films.

The Sunday newspapers carried large ads for the featured films. In 1915, the Palace placed a huge ad when Charlie Chaplin’s “The Tramp” was playing. Across the street, the Princess advertised the comedy “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” and a promise of 90 minutes of laughter, “Don’t Come With A Cracked Lip.”

All films were presented with subtitles, and each show would feature the message, “Please read the titles to yourself, loud reading annoys your neighbors.”

THE FIRST ONES

In 1905, Cedar Rapids had only two theaters. One was the venerable Greene’s Opera House, in its 25th year of operation at 113 Second St. NE. The other was the People’s Theatre at 137 First St. NE, a relatively new venue featuring vaudeville entertainment. Both theaters focused on live stage performances.

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The following year, 1906, saw Cedar Rapids’ first “film theater” open at 310 First Ave. NE in an old wood-frame storefront that previously had been a cigar store. The interior of the Delphus Theatre was decorated with Greek designs. The films were short, “one-reel” attractions, but the Delphus was a hit.

Soon, a second film theater — the Lyric — opened two doors down at 306 First Ave. NE in a converted storefront within the old Grand Hotel.

These early “nickelodeons,” as they were sometimes called because of their very affordable 5-cent admissions, soared in popularity.

The Princess Theatre opened in 1910 at 323 Second Ave. SE, a former storefront redesigned for theater use by the Cedar Rapids architectural firm of Dieman & Fiske.

Then came the Air Dome, an outdoor film theater on an empty lot at the northwest corner of B Avenue and Third Street NE. The Air Dome was only open for a couple of summers before closing by 1911. It had the misfortune of being located next to a livery barn, and the constant odors ensured its short existence.

building boom

The year 1912 saw the introduction of the feature film, or “movies,” which created a theater building boom. Nine silent movie theaters would open in the next four years. Some were created out of converted storefronts, but six were new structures designed as movie houses.

Three of the theaters were built in the “south side” neighborhood now known as New Bohemia. The Solaro family built the Olympic Theatre in 1912 at 1124 Third St. SE. In 1914, the Smid family built the Ideal Theatre at 215 14th Ave. SE. A few doors down, at 227 14th Ave. SE, a smaller theater known as Praha (Prague) went up in the predominantly Bohemian (Czech) immigrant neighborhood. It opened in 1913 and had closed by 1916.

WEST SIDE

On the west side of the Cedar River, a commercial area — known simply as the “West Side” — was booming around Third Avenue and First Street SW.

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The 400-seat Colonial Theatre opened in 1914 at 106 Third Ave. SW. Around the corner, two small silent movie venues popped up across the street from each other in converted storefronts: the Family Theatre at 212 First St. SW and the West Side Theatre at 213 First St. SW.

downtown

In the downtown, a converted storefront became the Columbia Theatre at 313 First Ave. SE and was operated by the Pusateri family of Cedar Rapids for many years.

The new Palace Theatre was built in 1912 at 310 Second Ave. SE. Across the street, at 315 Second Ave. SE, two former storefronts were extensively remodeled to create the Egyptian-themed Isis Theatre.

The largest new venue — with nearly 1,700 seats — was the Strand Theatre at 314 Third Ave. SE. It opened in October 1915 as a stage theater but switched to silent feature films in 1916.

In addition to the new theaters, existing locations also changed. The Delphus was renamed A-Muse-U Theatre; a new brick structure replaced it and the name changed to Crystal Theatre. The Lyric was renamed the Grand Theatre.

The large vaudeville theater called the Majestic, which opened in 1908 at 129 Third St. NE, began showing silent film features in addition to live shows.

short-lived

Six of the sixteen theaters known to have shown silent films in Cedar Rapids had very short lives and closed before 1920. Three more closed after “talking” or “sound” movies appeared and after bigger theaters, like the Iowa and Capitol/Paramount, opened in 1928.

Four of the silent movie theaters are still standing:

l Ideal Theatre, 213/215 16th Ave. SE (was 14th Avenue SE): Closed as a theater in 1921; recently renovated as Ideal Social Hall.

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l Praha Theatre, 227 16th Ave. SE (was 14th Avenue SE): Front of the building was removed in 1935. It is now the west end of the Mad Modern retail store.

l Colonial Theatre, 106 Third Ave. SW: Operated as a movie theater until about 1935. Later converted to two storefronts. Today, the former Colonial is occupied by Lederman Bail Bonds and the Ten6 Tattoo and Piercing shop in the Kingston Village area.

l Strand Theatre, 314 Third Ave. SE: Changed its name to State Theatre in 1929 and then to World Playhouse Theatre in 1960. Was a movie theater until October 1981. Currently mostly unused, serving as an entrance to the Guaranty Bank building.

THE OTHERS

What happened to other former Cedar Rapids silent film theatres?:

l People’s Theatre, 137 First St. NE: Closed in 1910 after Majestic Theatre opened. Demolished in 1970. Now site of Tree of Five Seasons.

l Air Dome Outdoor Theatre, B Avenue and Third Street NE: Replaced by Quaker Oats expansion

l Majestic Theatre, 129 Third St. NE: Destroyed by fire in May 1934. Replaced by Armstrong Parking Ramp and Professional Park.

l Lyric (later the Grand) Theatre, 306 First Ave. NE: Closed 1928. Razed when Grand Hotel demolished in 1951.

l Delphus/A-Muse-U/Crystal Theatre, 310 First Ave. NE: Renamed the Rialto (some called it “Rat Hole”) Theatre and then the Town Theatre in late 1940s. Closed 1953. Demolished for bank parking lot in 1954. Now site of U.S. Cellular Center and DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel.

l Columbia Theatre, 313 First Ave. SE: Closed in 1928. Space converted to retail storefront until structure demolished in 1973.

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l Palace Theatre, 310 Second Ave. SE: Operated as movie theater until November 1960. Demolished in 1961 for bank parking ramp.

l Isis Theatre, 315 Second Ave. SE: Closed 1928. Building gutted in 1929 and rebuilt for Western Union. Structure razed in 2014.

l Princess Theatre, 323 Second Ave. SE: Closed in April 1915. Space converted to retail storefront. Building demolished in 1964.

l Olympic Theatre, 1124 Third St. SE: Later renamed the Sun, then Granada, then the Strand Theatre, showing movies until 1953. Became the home of Cedar Rapids Community Theatre (now Theatre Cedar Rapids) from 1954 to 1983. Demolished in July 1993.

l Family Theatre, 212 First St. SW: Open for less than three years. Later became part of Troy Laundry. Demolished in 1969.

l West Side Theatre, 213 First St. SW: Open for less than three years. In a storefront of the King Building. Space was part of Cedar Rapids Police Department from 1923 to 1937. Then a storefront again. Building demolished for Riverfront Park in 1969.

l Note: The Paramount Theatre (originally the Capitol), 123 Third Ave. SE, and the Iowa Theatre (now Theatre Cedar Rapids), 102 Third St. SE, both opened in 1928 as “talking” movies were starting. They both showed some silent films but mostly “sound” films.

l Comments? Questions? Contact Mark Stoffer Hunter at mark@historycenter.org. Stoffer Hunter, a research historian for The History Center in Cedar Rapids, writes this column periodically. A lifelong resident of the Cedar Rapids area, Stoffer Hunter has documented changes in the city for 35 years, beginning when he was 12. A graduate of Regis High School, he has a degree in art history, with an emphasis on architectural history, from the University of Iowa. He has co-written Cedar Rapids history books and led local history tours for more than 25 years.

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