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Longtime bartender brings historic Cedar Rapids theater to life with live music venue
The Ideal Theater & Bar hopes to transform local music scene
CEDAR RAPIDS — For most of her life growing up in Linn County, Kenyon Thorp tried to figure out how to escape the Cedar Rapids area. Now, at 33, she’s trying to figure out how to bring others in.
The Ideal Theater & Bar, opened in October after a seven-month renovation, brings to life a historic theater with a new vision for music and entertainment in Cedar Rapids.
With a period-specific design, Thorp’s music venue, owned with sister Kansas Thorp and father Jim Thorp, harnesses a passion for the space’s history with an eye for Cedar Rapids’ future. With a 245-person capacity, the space’s niche on the smaller side of live music venues poses a new opportunity.
“What that means is I can start to attract some of these up-and-comers who can’t play at the arena in town — but it’s more than just playing at a bar,” Kenyon said. “Before, I would have to travel to Iowa City or Des Moines to see acts like that. Now, I’m able to attract them here.”
A longtime Cedar Rapids bartender and live music enthusiast, Kenyon is hoping to drum up support from management of larger venues like the Paramount by becoming an incubator for small acts that will eventually feed into a larger entertainment ecosystem in the city.
“The fact of the matter is we’ve never had anything at the bottom of that ecosystem,” she said.
If you go:
What: The Ideal Theater & Bar
Where: 213 16th Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
Hours: 3 p.m. to midnight Sunday and Tuesday; 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday
Phone: (319) 600-1999
Details: With happy hour starting daily at 3 p.m., The Ideal Theater & Bar runs a rotating schedule of activities and shows every night — dance lessons, karaoke, comedy, live music and more. For information and tickets to upcoming shows, visit its Facebook page.
An upcoming show on March 4 features Anthony Worden & The Illiterati, Mr. Softheart and Maaaze.
History and evolution
Built in 1914, the newest occupant of the building reclaims the name used by the silent theater that first operated there until about 1920, when Prohibition took effect.
Between short, silent films, the theater had side show acts like jugglers and singers. Leading up to the Roaring Twenties, the theater was just one of many in a competitive scene around Cedar Rapids.
For about six years, just across the river from the Czech Village, The Ideal’s niche was that it showed nearly all of its films in Czech, Kenyon said.
For most of the 20th century, it served as a nondescript warehouse. By the late 20th century, it served as a paint shop.
Former owner Jon Jelinek started renovations of the building after it endured two floods in 2008 and 2016. With new infrastructure, fresh walls and a restored goldtone ceiling, the space served as an event and wedding venue for several years.
Jelinek sold the venue to the Thorp family in a pocket listing in March 2022 after Kenyon sold him on her vision for the space by honoring its history.
A fresh look
Today, the building’s new look draws heavy inspiration from The Ideal’s original tile entryway, still intact, and an inspiration Kenyon had been sitting on for about 20 years.
With tones of emerald green, gray and gold serving as the primary color palette, the hall is lined by banquette seating on one side and an elevated 32-foot bar on the other leading up to the professionally-equipped stage. Grained oak wood and dark green wainscoting guide the eyes along the seating, and dark red stained wood serves as a backdrop for a grand, turn of the century inspired bar — custom built with an eye for detail by a master carpenter.
“I wanted to build it big,” Kenyon said.
The Saloon-style bar, centered by the silhouette of a woman with a flapper headband, picks up where The Ideal’s first iteration left off in the early 1920s. Detail lighting illuminates every ornate detail in gold embossed panels behind the bar stools, and strategic spotlights highlight columns that pop thanks to special red accents.
With gold leaf set in 38 gallons of epoxy, the bar top itself is no exception to the gilded theme. Above it all is a gold ceiling encompassed by fleur-de-lis flowers on the perimeter.
Inspired by her first trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota as a child, Kenyon has been ruminating on the vision for 20 years. During vacations, her family instilled in her a fascination with antiques and the historical aesthetic in saloons that started to become popular west of the Mississippi River in the 1890s.
“Let’s recapture our history, because there’s a lot of it here and it’s beautiful and colorful and wonderful,” she said.
How she got there
Kenyon comes from a long line of nightlife enthusiasts. Her great-grandmother served as a bartender until she was 84 years old.
Growing up in rural Linn County, her father, Jim, taught her how to dance as they patronized local bands over the years.
“We had to create our own entertainment, in a sense,” she said. “It’s a family tradition.”
While attending school in Northfield, Minnesota, she went to parties entertained by talented musicians on their way to The Juilliard School through St. Olaf College’s top music programs.
After graduating with an English literature degree and working a job in marketing and communications here, the owner got back into hospitality for a needed change of pace. Over the years, Kenyon built a following as a bartender, most recently working at Moco Game Room & Hot Dog Bar for the Fun Not Fancy restaurant group.
After working in the bar and restaurant industry for more than 16 years, she realized her passion for the entertainment side of the bar industry and ventured to buy a place of her own where she wouldn’t need to manage a kitchen and restaurant.
But in between the dance lessons on Tuesdays, karaoke on Wednesdays and ticketed shows on weekends, The Ideal Theater & Bar will still serve catering for Thursday shows, as well as charcuterie board snacks and simple desserts to satisfy the munchies of patrons before or after dinner.
“There’s so much richness and color here. To bring that back after a century of neglect is extremely exciting,” Kenyon said.
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