Time Machine

Time Machine: The Ideal Theatre

Building, adorned with oil paintings, was considered 'strictly fireproof'

The Gazette

Borgenson Sales, at 215 14th Ave. SE, is seen in 2009 in the NewBo neighborhood.
The Gazette Borgenson Sales, at 215 14th Ave. SE, is seen in 2009 in the NewBo neighborhood.
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Frank Smid’s new theater opened in 1914 with something few theaters ever had.

Two fresco artists from St. Louis were hired to paint 10 oil paintings of places Smid had visited in 1912 in Europe.

Frank A. Albrecht specialized in ecclesiastical art for many years. He and his associate, a man who is identified in The Gazette only as Golish, were graduates of art schools in Prague, Vienna and Munich. They painted the scenes over a two-week period. They also decorated the lobby.

The ten paintings included “Schonbrunn,” the palace of Francis Joseph, emperor of Austria; “Miramare,” the palace of Maximilian on the Adriatic Sea, later the summer home of Francis Joseph; “Venice” with its gondolas; “Karistein,” the castle of Charles IV of Bohemia near Prague; “Vodopad Mumlava,” a waterfall in a pine forest in the Schneska Mountains; “Bled Lake” in southern Austria near Switzerland; and “Trosky,” a castle in northern Bohemia on top of a mountain.

Albrecht and Golish also were the artists chosen to decorate the interior of St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church. The scenes they created of famous church and mission buildings in Bohemia were familiar to the older members of the parish.

Frank J. Smid, a native of Rasovice, Czechoslovakia, arrived in Cedar Rapids in 1884. He opened a tin shop in 1897 that he operated from a small room rented for $8 a month. He eventually bought the site at 219 14th Ave. East, where he built his hardware store. When the ground across the alley became available in 1913, he bought that, too and built the Ideal Theatre at 215 14th Ave. East.

The two businesses kept him so busy that his wife, Anna, and daughter, Adeline helped in the store while he took care of the theater.

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The Ideal opened its doors to the public at 2 p.m. on the Fourth of July, 1914. Its seating capacity was about 500. It was considered “strictly fireproof,” since the only wood inside was the seating and the strips of molding. The walls were concrete and brick, the roof steel and tin. There were automatic slides between the projection room and the auditorium that would close if a fire broke out in the projection area. There were six exits from the building, and eight large ventilators.

The theater’s mirror screen — mirror glass with a frosted surface — was a new innovation that produced a better picture for the audience. “The mirror screen makes pictures more natural and is less troublesome for the eyes than the plain wall screen,” reported the newspaper.

The program for opening day was Jansa’s orchestra and the movie “Caprice” with Mary Pickford.

The Ideal used films from Mutual Service for most of the week and Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players films for Sundays and special days. It typically showed three to five movie reels each day.

The eight-foot stage allowed for vaudeville acts that occasionally performed there in addition to the scheduled picture shows.

When Cedar Rapids businessmen expressed pleasant surprise at the beautiful theater, Smid explained that the south side “is entitled to and can afford the best there is.”

In 1915, the Ideal showed the Bohemian movie “Prodana Nevesta” (“The Bartered Bride”) for the first time west of New York.

By 1917, Smid decided to focus on the hardware store and decided to lease the theater. The first to take up the lease was W.M. Griffin of Washington, Iowa. Griffin planned to show Western and comedy films. He also planned to use the theater as a venue for his talented 12-year-old daughter, Lucile, who was billed to sing every night. The next to lease was Clarence A. Kyle, then a few months later, Joseph Papousek and Rudolph Maresh.

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None of those arrangements worked out, so the theater closed for nearly two years. When Smid reopened in 1919, he hired a crew to clean and decorate and set admission prices at pre-war levels. The first film on March 9, 1919, was “Her Moment” from General Film Co.

One of the last films shown in the Ideal was “Erstwhile Susan” with Constance Binney, advertised as “A brilliant star in a happy photoplay based on a successful play and a best-seller novel.” A program of comedy and music presented by five high school students was also on the bill.

The theater closed in 1921. Among the items Smid listed for sale in a June 29 Gazette ad were moving picture equipment, 475 opera chairs, one mirror screen, and one lobby including four mirror doors.

From then on, the hardware store and theater withstood many changes.

The theater building was turned over to George and Sydney Rutan in 1921. They petitioned the city to install a 200-gallon gas tank in the parking lot in front of the former theater for their automobile business. In August 1923 it became the home of the Enterprise Box Co., after a fire destroyed the box company’s business at the rear of 323 First Ave. West.

Joseph F. Sindelar bought the hardware store in 1924, keeping Smid on in the tin shop. Smid retired in 1937, selling his tinner’s tools.

Frank Smid died Oct. 6, 1954, at the age of 82.

The former Ideal Theater passed through the hands of a shoe shop owner, a saw and lawn mower service, two consignment store businesses, a chemical company, a commercial printer, and an auto paint and body shop supply store.

It is now being remodeled into a reception hall by Jon Jelinek of Parlor City Pub and Eatery.

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