116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Walking into The James Theater will put a bounce in your step — first by the wow factor of the Art Deco-inspired lobby, then by strolling into the performance space, where the entire floor is “sprung.”
“(The floor) can be a little disconcerting when you don't know it because it does have a little bounce,” said Leslie Nolte, 45, of Iowa City, the theater’s artistic director. “But it’s so much better on (dancers’) knees and ankles.”
That’s an important factor for the founder and artistic director of Nolte Academy, the Coralville dance studio she established in 2000.
What: The James Theater
Where: 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City; former home of Riverside Theatre
Events: June @ The James begins with jazz from the Curtis Taylor Quartet, 7 and 9 p.m. June 11; $29.87 general admission, $43 VIP
She and her husband, Mark Nolte, 47, have transformed the former home of Riverside Theatre, at 213 N. Gilbert St., in Iowa City’s Northside neighborhood. Asked about their roles in this venture, Mark Nolte quipped, “She’s the talent, I’m the labor.”
The couple are renting the building from the Gilpin family, who previously rented the space to Riverside Theatre from 1990 to 2020. That troupe, which offered virtual programming during the pandemic, has moved to a newly renovated home on the downtown Pedestrian Mall.
June @ The James
The theater’s conversion is complete, and after a series of soft rollouts, The James Theater is ready for its close-up, beginning with June @ The James.
First up is an evening of jazz with the Curtis Taylor Quartet on June 11; followed by MEKTOUB band’s “Elizabeth” album release June 16; the Iowa premiere of “Basic Training,” Davenport native Kahlil Ashanti’s award-winning one-person play, on June 17 and 19; and A Punk Rock Show, benefiting the Domestic Violence Intervention Program (DVIP), on June 24, featuring several bands, including Dave Zollo and the Body Electric, and Mark Nolte’s band, City Park.
A champagne open house, complete with a ribbon cutting, is in the works for July, on a day when people will be out and about for a farmers market or similar event. Leslie Nolte envisions having the theater’s doors open so the celebration can “leak out into the street,” with music changing every hour or so.
The idea is to “jump right into the Northside and have people walk in and out and see what we are,” she said.
The theater is named in honor of her father, James Bartnick of Arlington Heights, Ill. A huge supporter of all of his daughter’s endeavors, he’ll be coming over this summer to see the new facility.
The Noltes envision The James Theater as a community performance space, versatile enough to welcome dance, music and theater productions, as well as vocal and dance recitals, parties, seminars, receptions, workshops and art installations.
The theater’s flexibility includes 121 permanent blue velvet seats on retractable risers that can fold away like gymnasium bleachers to create a large studio workshop space.
Theatrical drapes can further define the performance space into various stage depths and even create a proscenium to frame the stage. And if a presenter wants to bring audiences closer to the action, more chairs can be placed on the floor. For a dance party or other standing-room-only event, capacity caps out at 240.
The lobby creates a dynamic first impression, with black and white geometric wallpaper on accent walls and dark gray paint on the gallery walls. Amber lighting fixtures cast a warm glow, and an ornate curved bar with subtle pops of teal immediately draw the eye. Leslie Nolte credits the look to Lisa Fender and Sarah Graf from evolve staging & design in Coralville.
Down the hall, a whimsical giant raccoon face covers the entrances to new men’s and women’s restrooms. It mirrors the raccoon that Iowa City muralist Ryan Bentzinger painted outside the theater in October.
“The raccoon is known as the original masked player, which feeds itself into all kinds of theatrical things,” Leslie Nolte said. “ … And then it was super cool to bring outdoor art and indoor art with Ryan into the space, just to give us something that truly is unique, that nobody else has. We've got raccoon eyes on our bathroom doors. We are one-of-a-kind in that way.”
Art displayed on the opposite lobby wall will greet visitors through July 31. Alicia Brown’s “Jazz Suite x 5 and other works” dovetails nicely with the June 11 jazz concert.
Leslie Nolte is especially thrilled to have Brown’s work christen the gallery, since Brown was her ballet professor and mentor at the University of Iowa.
"So to have Alicia’s art be the first on our gallery wall is a full circle of awesome,“ Leslie Nolte said.
The James has two full-time employees now — Zoe Fruchter, director of operations, and Julia Corbett, technical director. The Noltes are in the process of hiring a programming director and eight part-time employees. Soon they’ll have to replace Fruchter, who is moving home to Brooklyn, N.Y., to be closer to family.
“It's been the most incredible project to be a part of,” said Fruchter, a graduate of Grinnell College. “I feel so lucky to have seen how much this has grown, and to be able to work here.”
Bumps in the road
While tackling such a huge project during the pandemic gave the Noltes down time to figure things out, supply chain snags pushed back deadlines and opening dates. Rising costs and construction delays doubled the initial $250,000 budget to $550,000, and in the end, shot it even higher, to a number the couple declined to reveal.
One of the biggest tasks was chipping out the existing stage to create a level playing field to accommodate multiple uses. That process, which involved a crane, was slow going.
“It really was like watching paint dry,” Leslie Nolte said. “And then there was a hole that we were looking down into the depths of the earth. And then it was a floor. I mean, it was unbelievable.”
When contractors didn’t want to tackle the sprung floor layer, the project turned into a family affair.
“The night before Thanksgiving, all seven of us were here putting foam blocks on the bottom of four by eight sheets of plywood,” said Mark Nolte, who has installed those floors before. “That's the kind of family traditions that we have.”
The project wasn’t a one-day task, and Pat Gilpin, whose family owns the building, brought along some tools and a couple of friends to spend three days working on the floor, Mark Nolte added.
The final big puzzle piece is installing the outdoor signage, designed by MC Ginsberg, then flipping the switch.
"When that's lit up, and you can see it all the way down Gilbert Street,“ Mark Nolte said. ”It’s gonna be cool.”
Comments: (319) 368-8508; email@example.com