Ovation(s) for A Tiny Movie Theater

Photo by Teddi Yaeger teddi@teddiyaeger.com

The Iowa Theater in Winterset, Iowa, known locally as “The Iowa,” is once again a gem of a space—Art Deco facade, classic marquee, single silver screen, 150 seats (including balcony), red velvet curtain that opens dramatically at start of show, and a concession stand offering Iowa-grown popcorn served with real butter.

The Iowa closed in 2015 after years of dwindling attendance and a resulting lack of revenue. Somehow, I got the chance to help bring it back to life. My youngest daughter Rebecca majored in Film at the University of Iowa, going on to earn a graduate degree in Art & Media Management at Columbia College, and work at Cinema Chicago, producer of the iconic Chicago Film Festival. Rebecca and I partnered to become the driving force in the two-year, full-gut-and-rehab of Winterset’s beloved little theater on the square.

We cleaned out accumulated (often gross) debris, applied to the IRS for nonprofit status, got fundraising started, and worked with the contractor every step of the way. To be honest, despite our many life experiences, and as enthusiastic as we were, Rebecca and I didn’t exactly know what we were doing, especially when it came to operating a movie theater. But we knew where to get help.

Starting in 2016 (when The Iowa was still in shambles), we traveled to Utah each January for the Art House Convergence, a national meet-up for operators of independent movie houses. The conference takes place not far from Sundance, where the famous film festival follows later in the month. We attended seminars, networked, learned about distributors, point-of-sale software, marketing, and (of course) popcorn. The conference was an extra-special blast because we did it together, sharing a hotel room, splitting up to absorb the available knowledge each day.

A favorite Convergence program is “Art House Tales,” an evening event no attendee would miss. Each year, a handful of theater operators get to tell their story—but with very strict parameters. Presenters provide 20 slides, and each slide is on the screen for only 20 seconds (that’s six minutes and 40 seconds, total). And, the slides are advanced automatically by the tech person, so you have to talk fast!

During Art House Tales back in 2016, we nudged each other. “Some day, we’ll have a story to tell!”

The Iowa reopened in 2017, and this year we were chosen. Rebecca selected the slides, and together we drafted our script. We practiced and practiced so not to flub our words. Hundreds of people filled the ballroom, and we were nervous before we began. By Slide #8 we could feel the audience absorb our energy and feed it right back to us. When we reached the final image, we were choking back tears, and the audience was cheering. We looked up from our scripts to see people jumping to their feet. Our small town story received a standing ovation, a first for Art House Tales!

Use this link to hear The Iowa’s story—maybe have a tissue handy.

But don’t go away, there’s more! The Iowa’s marquee was also featured recently in a national media ad from Bank of America, voiced by Academy Award winning actress Viola Davis, a message to the graduating Class of 2020. See the lights go on sixteen seconds in!





12 Responses

  1. Merrie Star
    | Reply

    Bravo! Bravissimo!!

  2. Pam W.
    | Reply

    How wonderful Marianne and Rebecca and Winterset!!! Congratulations!

  3. Becky H
    | Reply

    What an accomplishment. I donated a small amount of money to the theater and wear my “The Iowa” T-shirt with pride in Illinois.

    • Marianne Fons
      | Reply

      Thanks for helping us out. The Iowa is open again with only three screenings per week (classic movies), and a maximum audience of about 35 people. Available seats are very far apart. Last night (Friday), only three moviegoers for “Little Shop of Horrors,” but we did receive some aid and a grant, so we are managing to make our monthly loan payment. So cool to know you promote The Iowa in Illinois!

  4. Kelly Ashton
    | Reply

    OMG!! You weren’t kidding about the Kleenex! Congratulations!!!

    • Marianne Fons
      | Reply

      What a warm, fuzzy feeling to know we made you tear up, Kelly!

  5. Jean Walker
    | Reply

    That was just so cool to watch and to listen to! Thank you for sharing this, Marianne.

    • Marianne Fons
      | Reply

      Jean, I would be embarrassed to say how many times I have watched this, and actually have not kept count!

  6. Liz Pierson
    | Reply

    How cool!

  7. Brian Downes
    | Reply

    Marianne and Rebecca did their part. Now the community needs to do theirs with loyal attendance.

  8. Jim Graham
    | Reply

    I’m so proud of you and my niece, Rebecca. I’m glad your work to make a dream come true (and a gift to your community) caught the attention of that audience who could most appreciate your efforts.

    Your Brother, Jim

  9. Rebecca Fons
    | Reply

    The experience of rehabilitating the Iowa Theater with my mom (the best mom, business parter, colleague, big dream brainstormer, crunch-time-motivator and cheerleader a kid could have) has been one of the best experiences of my life. The process and excitement of reopening, and the continued joy the Iowa brings us is worth all the hard work!

    Presenting our story, side by side in front of an audience of about 700 of our peers in the independent film world, was INCREDIBLE. We collaborated on the presentation over the course of a few weeks and practiced on Christmas Day (and again in our hotel room in Utah). Our knees were knocking when we took the stage, but being next to my hero, my mom, made me feel confident. The audience started laughing, clapping and responding to our presentation, and I could feel what a special moment we were in. Our presentation ended, the audience rose to their feet, and my mom and I embraced. I’ll cherish that moment, and all the moments that led to it, for my entire life.

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