116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Dinner theater — dining and watching a play while you’re doing that — became a popular outing in the 1970s.
The first dinner theater in the metro area was at the Longbranch Supper Club in Marion, where the nonprofit Olde Barn Players performed “Tartuffe” in 1974.
A pool and a play
The next dinner theater was the Fly-By-Night Players, which started in the former Piccadilly Tavern space in the basement of the Roosevelt Hotel in the spring of 1976.
After disposing of old mattresses, cleaning and painting and turning a men’s room into a dressing room, “Move Over Mrs. Markham” was performed Dec. 6. It went well enough that the Roosevelt spent $70,000 renovating and building the space, which was located under its parking garage.
The new space had a 23-by-17-foot stage, two dressing rooms, prop storage, an office, and areas for set construction and rehearsals. It also had the hotel’s large swimming pool next door, with large windows that allowed swimmers to look into the dinner theater.
The troupe, managed by Dick Hardiman, leased the performance space, hired actors and used the Roosevelt’s liquor license. Profits came from both box office receipts and liquor sales.
“It’s the only dinner theater in the world that has a combination bar and light booth, with a pool next door, and is under a parking ramp,” Hardiman told The Gazette.
Seating up to 95 patrons, the dinner theater provided an intimate atmosphere that allowed audience members to drink or smoke while watching a performance.
“We have a hard core of people who come to see every show,” Hardiman said. “Some people come to see a particular show two or three times.”
How did the area’s two dinner theaters affect community theater performances?
Joe Saxe, director of Cedar Rapids Community Theatre, thought there was enough audience to support all the theaters, saying “any theater stimulates another theater.”
The Community Theatre — now called Theatre Cedar Rapids — and the dinner theaters cooperated in choosing their plays so there was no duplication.
Finding enough actors to cover all the venues was a challenge, though, with actors from Center Point, Central City and Manchester joining those from Cedar Rapids and Marion.
Many of the actors in the Fly-By-Night troupe doubled as wait staff “so they don’t starve while they star,” producer Pam Gearhart said. It wasn’t unusual for patrons to be served drinks during intermission by actors in costume.
After three years and about 33 productions, Fly-By-Night closed it doors May 27, 1979, with Hardiman citing financial losses
Short Circuit Theatre
Seven months later, an improvisational group called Short Circuit Theatre set up shop in the space, taking advantage of equipment left behind by the dinner theater company.
Original material by seasoned performers J. David Carey, Tim Boyle, Richard Barker and Nina Weideman focused on satirical sketches.
Under new management in 1980, the hotel changed the lower-level lounge to “The Apartment,” featuring live jazz during the week and the Short Circuit Theatre on weekends.
After about a year, the former owners of the theater equipment came to pick it up, and Short Circuit came to an end.
The Longbranch theater lasted until 1980, performing the musical “Shenandoah” in July and August.
The Roosevelt’s basement theater was used in January 1981 when the Cedar Rapids Community Theatre, the Roosevelt and Coe College put on a musical revue, “Starting Here, Starting Now.”
The partnership staged “Side By Side by Sondheim” in December.
One more production was staged in March 1983 when the community theater’s Studio Theatre produced Lanford Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Talley’s Folly.”
After that, the hotel’s conversion from hotel to retirement housing took precedence.
The Roosevelt was sold to Roosevelt Limited Partnership in 1984, reducing the number of hotel rooms from 330 to fewer than 100. That effort stalled in 1985 when the developer backed out and the hotel went into foreclosure.
By 1988, it reopened under the management of Larken Inc. after a $1 million refurbishing. Two years later the Roosevelt was sold to a California company, American Realty Constructors, owners of senior citizen housing facilities. Two floors already had been converted to assisted living apartments for seniors.
The Roosevelt was sold in 1991 to Historic Housing for Seniors III, of Berkeley, Calif., for $6 million. A year later, 45 percent of the building had been converted to apartments.
The switchover to apartments had been completed by 2008, when the flood forced the building to close. After $14.4 million was spent to create 96 apartments and ground-floor commercial space, it reopened in 2010.
The parking ramp was demolished in 2011.