116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — In April, Mark and Leslie Nolte of Iowa City shared plans to convert the former home of Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St. in Iowa City, into the James Theater.
By the start of the school year, they hoped to throw open the doors to a new community performing arts center, as well as a performance and workshop site for the Iowa Conservatory, a performing arts high school being incubated at Nolte Academy in Coralville.
The theater is a separate entity from Nolte Academy, said Leslie Nolte, who serves as the theater’s artistic director. She’s deemed her husband the theater’s executive director because he’s handling the business aspects.
The couple are renting the building from the Gilpin family, which previously rented it to Riverside Theatre from 1990 to 2020, when Riverside moved to virtual programming because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That professional troupe, formed in 1981, is developing a new home in the Pedestrian Mall’s Crescent Block downtown.
The initial James Theater renovation budget was $250,000, and the couple planned to roll out a fundraising 10-show countdown this summer, leading to a gala opening in the early fall.
What’s happened since
The wheels haven’t turned as quickly as the Noltes had hoped.
While the gala opening has been pushed back to late February, the doors did open for two holiday shows in what Leslie Nolte called “a very raw, not-yet-open space.”
Lynne Rothrock of Cedar Rapids held one performance of her Christmas cabaret there on Nov. 21, and Christopher Okiishi and Patrick Du Laney of Iowa City staged their “holiday cabaret for grown-ups” in the venue from Dec. 16 to 19.
Citing Rothrock’s cabaret, Nolte said “putting a few seats out for a small yet magnificent vocal show, it worked in a space that was probably not ideal for everybody involved, but it worked, and it gave everyone a good sense of what we can do there. Certainly, I was filled with excitement and joy to kick off and to see in reality what we could be for different organizations or users.
“We are so close to being the host that we want to be and what we've promised by way of the goals of why we did this in the first place.”
To that end, Nolte, 45, said construction “is chugging along.”
“We’re not exactly as on time as we wanted to be, but nothing is expected these days,” she noted. “We’ll roll with the unexpected, and I think my team and I are pretty good at that, so we’re excited.”
The curtains were delivered this month, and by the end of February, Nolte expects everything to be in place, from lighting and sound equipment to the “huge” seating project slated for February.
For the holiday shows, they used chairs from Nolte Academy’s black-box theater.
“It’s actually quite comfortable seating,” she said. “It's not like anyone's come in for (a show) with a lawn chair,” she added with a laugh.
Nolte and her husband received the keys to the building in late March, and “the biggest and largest project was to remove the stage,” she said.
It included a large portion of concrete and cinder block, raised up “so the semi trucks back in the day could get down into that lower level,” she noted.
Crews spent the first six weeks or so removing all that, “pretty much by hand,” and brought the raised stage down to ground level.
Since then, two dressing rooms and a new bathroom have been created in the basement.
On the main level, the performance area has been opened to the walls, even removing the carpeted risers that served as Riverside Theatre’s seating area. The lobby has been torn out and rebuilt, with a new bar/reception area and two new bathrooms.
The theater and basement also have a new system for heating and air conditioning, and all new electrical.
“Everything's been painted,” Nolte said. “Now we just wait for the really beautiful frosting part, so that will be the tile behind the bar, and the hardwood bar, all of the visuals in the lobby, the theater seating and the floor.
“The curtains have arrived, the lighting has arrived, so it is coming together. We are in the fun part for me now,” she said.
Despite the delays, she said they haven’t had any “upsetting surprises,” just “a little worry” over getting the hardwood sprung floor for the stage, which has enough give to be easier on dancers’ joints, but not enough to be felt by actors working the playing space.
“When dancers are jumping, we just have about a 2-inch sprung system underneath all of the hardwood to protect the bodies,” she explained.
Initial budget projections have more than doubled, from $250,000 to $550,000.
“Some of it is choice,” she said. “You get the initial bids, and it's what it could be. And then you start looking at actual light fixtures and tile and sound equipment and which lighting board to choose, and you just decide where you need to put more money.
“The length of time hasn't helped,” she added, “because we'll be paying rent for a space that has no income for four to six months longer than planned. You have to have more money in the front end in order to finally open before you have the income. We still have rent and property tax payments. … You’re just dealing with a longer timeline than planned, and rent doesn’t go away.
“So the short answer is the reality you finally learn and deal with when you're inside the project. I've never remodeled a theater before.”
Fundraising is on track, with about half of the new seats reserved.
“We feel really great about the response,” she said. “We know it's hard to commit to any unknown, so we are designing our early supporter wall in a way that we can add on if people finally see the space and then maybe give it some more trust and then choose to support it at that point.
“We’ve been super pleased, especially because we're not a not-for-profit, so you have to have the right candidate that's willing to support something that really is either for their advertising purposes as a company or just out of the goodness of their heart because they think it's cool and they're not necessarily interested in the 501(c)3 credit on the back end.”
Buoyed by positive comments in the community, she’s looking forward to what the new year holds for the James Theater, named after her father, James Bartnick of Arlington Heights, Ill., her biggest supporter in all of her works.
“While I feel like we've done a lot over the last 22 years, I have been inside my Nolte Academy bubble quite a bit, so I'm looking forward to meeting new performers and seeing how they work, and learning from them, and watching their projects be realized,” she said.
“And then on the other side of things, I'm excited to just be able to give people a space if they need a graduation party or a small wedding or things like this — just to be a part of people and events and celebrations and shows. And personally, to find some of my next collaborators I haven't even met yet, artistically.”
To follow the theater’s progress, go to facebook.com/thejamestheater/
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