Community

Tama, Toledo unite to renovate historic Wieting Theatre

Saving a theater and building community

This is the interior of the Wieting Theatre and Opera House in Toledo. The theater, built in 1912, underwent a $1.4 million renovation in 2012, with a second, $1.5 million addition completed this fall. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
This is the interior of the Wieting Theatre and Opera House in Toledo. The theater, built in 1912, underwent a $1.4 million renovation in 2012, with a second, $1.5 million addition completed this fall. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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This is News Track, where The Gazette catches up on an earlier story.

BACKGROUND

In 2015, the century-old Wieting Theatre and Opera House in downtown Toledo received a $260,000 Iowa Community Attraction and Tourism grant to apply toward the $1.5 million, second-phase renovation of the historic structure.

The funds were earmarked for creating an event space, catering kitchen, dressing room and green room for performers, scenery construction area, restrooms and storage space.

Phase 1, with a $1.4 million price tag, focused on renovating the original 1912 structure, built for $20,000 and named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

The renovated theater was dedicated July 1, 2012.

The renovation preserved the integrity of the original wooden floors and the elaborately painted front curtain onstage, while updating other aspects of building and adding a new roof and air conditioning.

Recently released movies are shown in the auditorium Friday through Saturday, using a new digital 2D and 3D projection system. Concerts, plays and other entertainment offerings are staged throughout the year.

Corporate and community donations, pledges and loans rounded out the financing for both projects. Phase 1 was paid off in three years, and $500,000 remains to retire the debt on Phase 2.

WHAT’S HAPPENED SINCE

The adjoining Phase 2 addition to the theater was built on the site of the old Community Building, which the city sold to the Wieting Guild for $1.

The new facility, designed to look like an extension of the opera house exterior, was dedicated Sept. 8. It’s ready to host receptions, parties, meetings, reunions and more, with new offstage amenities for performing groups.

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“When you put almost $3 million into a building, you want it to be used more than Friday, Saturday and Sunday night,” said Denise Fletcher of Toledo, past-president of the Wieting Theatre Guild. “So we’re hoping that we can have this rented out quite often.”

A few minutes later, a crew arrived to roll an electronic keyboard into the auditorium for South Tama High School’s musical production of “Cinderella,” slated for the Wieting stage from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2. A grand piano that was donated to the theater also will be moved from the front corner of the community room into the auditorium for that show and any others, as needed.

All staffing is volunteer, which keeps operating costs down and also allows the theater to charge bargain-basement prices of $3 for 2D and $4 for 3D movies, as well as low-cost snacks.

“The guild has operated the theater since 1960,” said Jim Roan, a retired lawyer who served as project manager for both renovation phases. “The guild operates the theater and leases it from the trustees. They work together for the benefit of the theater and the general community. We have no paid employees — it’s run by over 125 local volunteers.”

The volunteers come from around the area, not just Toledo, Fletcher said.

“It’s a Tama-Toledo project,” Roan added. “We’re one community.”

The Wieting Theatre has fostered a sense of community since its doors opened Sept. 12, 1912, with Verdi’s opera “Il Trovatore.”

The original plaque above the front door still beckons, with the inscription: “This playhouse was built in the year A.D. 1912, by Ella W. Wieting as a memorial to her husband, Philip G. Wieting, and dedicated to our many friends in the town where we so long abode.”

Repairing historic opera houses and theaters like this one, as well as the Englert Theatre in Iowa City and opera houses in Coggon and Ainsworth, brings a piece of the past into the present. In Independence, a GoFundMe account has been set up to raise money to repair water damage at the 1946 Malek Theater.

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Besides preserving pieces of history, breathing new life into these historic cultural jewels also provides all ages with “something for everybody to do, from a 2-year-old coming to a movie to a 100-year-old person coming for one of our events,” said Michelle Evans of Tama, Wieting Guild treasurer. “We try to offer something for everybody.”

“It also weaves people together,” Fletcher added. “You come to the theater and meet new people, and you have a sense of community. You’re all sharing an experience together.”

“That’s what it does,” Roan agreed. “It’s community. The mayor of Tama, the mayor of Toledo and the president of the Chamber of Commerce for Tama-Toledo spoke at the dedication on (Sept. 8), and they all spoke of community — and that’s what we’re after.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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