Time Machine: The Iowa Theater

Construction began in 1927 and it opened in 1928

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Calvin Bard of Benton Harbor, Mich., was a veteran of the motion picture business.

He had a dream of building a theater with excellent acoustics and comfortable patron seating. On a business trip to Cedar Rapids, he took an instant liking to the city and decided it was where his dream would come true.

Bard moved to Cedar Rapids in the fall of 1927 in order to be on hand to supervise construction of his dream playhouse.

Oscar F. Paulson arrived in Cedar Rapids from Minneapolis in 1908 and went to work for contractor H.F. Jones, building homes and businesses. Among Jones’ projects were Johnson school and the Magnus Hotel.

Paulson married Jones’ daughter, Flossie, in 1909 and in 1913, set out on his own, founding O.F. Paulson Construction Co. His company already had worked on the Roosevelt Hotel and the new coliseum when he won the contract in February 1927 for one of two theaters being built in Cedar Rapids.

Paulson began digging the basement of the new Iowa Theater on the corner at First Avenue and Third Street East, former site of the Boyson Drug Co., finishing in September 1927.

Construction went into high gear as winter approached. An added incentive to finish more quickly was the new construction on Third Avenue and Second Street where Theodore Stark & Co. was working on the Capitol Theater (later the Paramount) in the new Century Building.

Work was halted briefly on the Iowa when scaffolding gave way and workman Roy Foster fell about 50 feet from the top of the building to the stage floor, along with a wheelbarrow full of mortar. Remarkably, he suffered no broken bones or internal injuries and was back on the job less than three weeks later.

Waterloo’s Palace Theater Manager Arthur Weld, who formerly managed Cedar Rapids’ Strand Theater, resigned his position in Waterloo in May 1928 to prepare to take a job at the new Iowa. By then the Corner, Lath and Plasterer Co. had most of the ornamental plaster done. Decorators had finished the ceilings and were working on the walls, and plumbers and carpenters were setting fixtures and trim.

The new Iowa Theater, a four-story, reinforced concrete and steel structure, was scheduled to open June 2, 1928, according to a mid-May announcement in The Gazette. The theater and building combined had racked up a total cost of $1 million. The theater contained several features that were new to this part of the country. It had a broad, shallow auditorium that brought upper and lower floors close to the stage. Even remote seats had a full view of the entertainment and were close enough to hear performers.

Another feature was the organ, believed to be the largest in any theater between Chicago and Omaha. The Barton Golden Voiced Bartola was noted for its wonderful tone as well as for its ability to mimic a bird, an airplane, thunder, horses’ hoofs and other stage effects. The Bartola was mounted on an elevator platform, and the entire console could be dropped down into the theater’s basement, almost out of sight of the audience.

The Iowa’s first organist was Don Pedro, who once served as organist to King Alfonso of Spain. George Cerventa of Cedar Rapids conducted the 14-piece theater orchestra.

The proscenium arch was more than 49 feet wide by 47 feet high. A 38-foot-deep stage was equipped with 44 drops. There was an asbestos curtain and a device that, in case of fire, sent a sheet of water in front of the curtain to keep smoke from the audience.

The theater’s silver screen was hung May 25 and projection machinery was installed a few days later.

The sign that hung on the corner of the Iowa building contained more than 4,000 globes.

The Iowa’s opening date had to be postponed several days when some furnishings failed to arrive on time. Its official opening was at 6 p.m. June 6 for the first of two programs. Even though an army of workmen still were busy inside the theater that afternoon, general manager Calvin Bard said there would be no delay. The doors opened on time to a large crowd and an even larger one at 9:15. Many had to be turned away and some people just stood across the street to watch the marquee and the big twinkly Iowa corn sign.

Opening night featured Don Pedro on the organ, and several vaudeville acts before the film “College,” starring Buster Keaton, screened.

The Capitol opened on Sept. 3, 1928, and was acquired several months later by the Paramount Publix Corp.

The Iowa’s programs of photoplays, vaudeville, concert music, organ solos and newsreels filled the house to capacity during every evening performance.

In October, the Iowa became a Mort M. Singer Theater, part of the Keith-Albee-Orpheum vaudeville circuit, promising patrons shows comparable to those shown at the “high-class” theaters in Chicago. In 1944 the Radio-Keith-Orpheum took full control of the Singer theaters, including the Iowa. Mort Singer had died a few months before.

The RKO Iowa revived vaudeville briefly in 1949 and occasionally hosted live shows.

In December 1965 it was leased by Iowa building owner O.F. Paulson to the Dubinsky Brothers. After a month of remodeling, in which the corn sign was removed and placed in storage, the Iowa reopened as a single-feature theater with a James Bond thriller, “Thunderball.”

The movie house closed on April 24, 1983. The playhouse reopened Sept. 30, remodeled as the new home of the Cedar Rapids Community Theatre.

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