By Katie Giorgio
Classic, vintage, iconic, and just plain cool, we found some old movie theaters sprinkled across the state—many of them long-time staples on the main streets of small towns across Iowa—that are sure to make any film experience memorable.
This hallmark of the Drake University neighborhood first opened as a theater on Christmas Day 1938. Longtime owner Bev Mahon, the man people called “Mr. Varsity,” wanted it to be a place that showed “movies worth talking about.” For decades Mahon used the artsy nature of the films he screened—American independent films, international films, and prestige studio releases—as a draw for local moviegoers.
Purchased and restored by the nonprofit Des Moines Film, the theater reopened recently following a $5-million renovation. Today it screens independent films and serves as a hub that encourages the growth of film culture in the Des Moines area.
Downtown Burlington has been home to this art deco jewel of a theater since 1937. Opening in the prime of the movie industry’s growth era, the theater closed in 1977 after falling into disrepair due to neglect from its owners. The Capitol Theater reopened in 2012 and is now a hub of community activity and connection.
The 367-seat venue also has a reception and gallery annex. It hosts independent and classic films as well as local, regional, and national touring artists who perform on a 1,500-square-foot stage. Each year the Snake Alley Festival of Film is held in the theater, celebrating the best short films from all over the world.
The Grand Theater might not look very grand from the outside, but when it was first opened in the early 1900s it was a local marvel.
Operated as a theater and opera house, it has actually moved since that opening. After a fire in 1922 forced a reimagining of the needs of the theater, it was reopened in its current location. It was not the only theater in Knoxville, an exclusivity that some other theaters on this list enjoyed in their own towns, so the Grand had to be cutting-edge to continue to bring in patrons.
For example, it had air conditioning as early as 1938—something we take for granted today but was a big draw back then. The Grand also hosted one of the first in-theater video stores in the country, housing Video Mart for many years.
Today, first-run movies are just $5 a piece and the theater’s legacy continues thanks to the work of the nonprofit organization that operates it.
The Red Oak Grand Theater is located in a three-story building built in 1900. Today, the movie house is run by volunteers and has a mission to offer family-friendly, affordable entertainment for residents.
Movies run on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. It may be the most affordable theater in the state as well, offering first-run movies at just $2 per ticket. Efforts are currently underway to raise funds to preserve the building and purchase the adjacent building so the theater can expand into a larger footprint, adding additional screens.
For more than 100 years, the Cresco Theatre & Operahouse has been a place of entertainment for all ages, beginning with live performances and silent movies and now offering 3D movies and Dolby surround sound.
When it opened, there were wooden seats for 725 people, with seating on the main floor and upper and lower balconies. When the wooden seats were replaced with cushioned seats, that changed the capacity to 425. Inside, the gorgeously restored architectural details and paintings are a sight to behold.
Today, the Cresco showcases first-run movies along with hosting a wide variety of other events such as dance recitals, 4-H award ceremonies, and weddings.
It might not look like an actual castle, but this eastern Iowa theater has been holding court since opening in 1935 as the only theater in all of Delaware County.
Rescued, reopened, and run by a volunteer committee since 2009, Castle Theater is a popular spot in Manchester to this day. First-run movies are shown nightly at 7 p.m. and tickets are just $4 for adults. Plus, they offer free popcorn on Wednesday nights.
It’s not surprising that the birthplace of one of Hollywood’s most iconic Western actors and beloved son of Iowa, John Wayne, is the home to an iconic, historic theater.
The Iowa Theater first opened in 1914 and has been a hallmark of the community ever since. Located in the heart of town, the theater has gone through many ownership changes and updates over the last century. It famously hosted the premiere of The Bridges of Madison County, which was filmed nearby, in 1995.
These days, the theater hosts a John Wayne matinee series, a Sunday Movie Club that features rare and independent films, Way Back Wednesday (classic films), as well as first-run blockbuster movies.
Built between 1930 and 1931, this sweet little art-deco theater was an innovation of its time, built specifically as the first in the region for high-quality sound movies.
Opened in 1931, the theater became a staple over 27 years of continuous service—although there was much initial discussion about whether it was appropriate to show movies on Sundays—before closing briefly in 1958. The community united to reopen it, but it closed again in the 1970s and was converted to a pharmacy until a renovation revealed the movie theater facade in the early 2000s. Efforts from then on were focused on restoring and reopening the historic theater.
Now run by a nonprofit organization that successfully reopened the Avery in 2013, the one-screen theater shows the latest blockbuster films for just $5.
Originally opened by the Watts family, who lived in a residence upstairs, the Watts Theatre has been entertaining patrons in northern Iowa since 1950—which you can likely guess from the theater’s vibrant teal blue and pink facade.
The first movie shown was Dancing in the Dark, which was then re-screened when the theater held a grand reopening in 1994. The reopening followed a big renovation that included restoring the theater to its previous glory after all seating and equipment had been removed. A new heating and A/C system was installed, along with new projection equipment and a new sound system. The number of seats was reduced from 580 to 364 for added comfort, too.
Still family-owned to this day, the theater is said to serve the best popcorn in town. Make sure to check out the cool mural painted on the building out back.
Two days after Christmas in 1899, the Metropolitan Opera House opened in Iowa Falls with a show featuring a famous comedian of the times. Donning their finest apparel, patrons paid $2.50 per ticket—a steep sum in those days.
Even today, it’s hard not to notice the building’s ornate structure, especially the large arched doorway featuring a bust of William Shakespeare. These details are thanks to millionaire philanthropist Eugene Ellsworth, who built the theater with a goal to make it the crown jewel of the community—the finest building for miles.
Years later, the theater was purchased and renovated by John P. Whitesell and his son Patrick. Originally one large room with 800 seats and a balcony, the theater was later converted into two rooms for multiple movie showings. When the Met had its modern grand reopening in 2013, the town was abuzz as actor Hugh Jackman came to Iowa Falls to help celebrate the showing of Prisoners and Wolverine.
Today, the theater hosts matinees and nighttime showings Tuesdays through Sundays.
“Long live the King!” So says the marquee when you roll up to the King Theater in the heart of Ida Grove.
This theater, built in 1914 and originally named the Princess Theater, sat empty since 2010, when the then owner closed up shop due to increasing costs in the movie-showing business. Five years later, locals committed to purchasing and renovating the theater to reopen it for regular movie showings. That renovation was completed in 2019 and the theater reopened with a showing of the 2019 live action remake of The Lion King.
With 350 seats, the King Theater has been entertaining the community ever since, playing movies Friday through Sunday. On Mondays, you can often catch screenings of classic movies. The space also has a retractable screen so the stage can be used for live performances as well.