The Webster Theater was built in 1906.
In the 1920’s the Orpheum was remodeled and renamed the Granada Theater. The main floor seated 600 and the balcony held 150 patrons. Then in 1939 it became The Webster and the marquee was added.
Around 1988 Bob Fridley of Fridley Theatres purchased the Webster Theater. It was remodeled at that time to the current seating capacity of 320.
The Webster was operated by Fridley Theatres until the mid-2000’s, when it was taken over by the BigTime Cinema chain. The last showing was Warm Bodies on March 7, 2013.
The theater went out of business March 8, 2013, and went into bankruptcy.
To learn more about the history of Webster City Theaters, click on the specific theater listed below.
The first entertainment business in Webster City was the Opera House that was built in 1870 by Walter C. Willson and operated by his brother, Sumler Willson. It was located on the second floor of the big brick building located at the northwest corner of the intersection of Des Moines and Second Street. The first floor was occupied by Crary’s Hardware. One corner of the first floor housed the first Hamilton County Bank. Later this bank, called the Hamilton County State Bank, moved across the street west to a huge new building. Its place was taken over by the small Webster City Savings Bank. The Willson Hotel was constructed at the southwest corner of this intersection. Sunder Willson was the first manager. After his death, the house was managed by W.B. Kearns.
The entrance to the Opera House was on the west side of the building. A wide stairway took the patrons upstairs. This building exists today in essentially the same shape. The Opera House was later divided into apartments. Musicals, plays, oratories, and other live performances were held here until after 1908 when other more accessible theaters came into existence. This was the major entertainment center in Webster City for a period of over 40 years.
Edward Overman of Des Moines took over management of the Opera House in 1907 from W.B. Kearns. Overman, who also operated the opera house in Fort Dodge, planned from 5 to 8 shows per season with changes planned on Wednesdays. A “Candy Matinee” was held each Saturday afternoon for the benefit of the ladies and children, at which the candy will be distributed free.
The Armory was constructed for the Iowa National Guard at 729 – 731 Second Street just after the Spanish American War, probably at the turn of the century in 1900. The cost of the building was listed as $25,000 in the December 16, 1909 issue of the Webster City Journal.
This building had a basement which was later converted to a gymnasium in May 1907. The first floor was the scene of many performances of opera, dramas, musicals using touring talent. In addition, many local groups used this stage to perform plays and musicals. At times, the school children would put on plays here, too.
Captain N. P. Hyatt was the guard commander in Webster City and he arranged for the productions that were put on. The newspapers of 1906 – 1910 list many plays including “Ole Olson in Spiritland”, “Knowles, the Hunchback”, “The Maid and the Mummy”, “A Ragged Hero”, “Peck’s Bad Boy”, and “We Are King”. Miss Della Pringle, of Webster City, presented the first of a series of plays here on January 7 – 12, 1906. It is interesting to note that this entertainment house was closed during Lent each year.
The management of the Delta Pringle Stock Company was taken over by Fred Bates on January 18, 1907. The new company was called the Emerald Stock Company, which commissioned acts for other opera houses in the area as well at the Armory Opera House. Company C of the National Guard even put on their own play there. “The Midnight Charge”” was presented on March 29, 1907.
To help with musical productions, a Victor Auxetophone was purchased by the Armory Opera House for $500 in May 1907. “The horn and disk are on top of the cabinet which stands five feet high. An electric motor drives the bellows which propel the sound. The disks and needles are the same as used by other Victor machines. The machine has been on exhibit at the Teed Drug Store the past two days”, according to the May 17, 1907, edition of the Freeman-Tribune.
“Madame Schuman-Heink to appear in Webster City at the Armory Opera House on September 8, 1910. Reserve ticket sales are available at Teed’s. All seats are $3”, according to the Webster City Journal of August 21, 1910.
Webster City had another theater, called the Family Theatre, which featured vaudeville, musical acts and other forms of entertainment. The theater was located at 617 Second Street in the same building that later became the Isis Theatre. E.H.Martin arranged for the acts and managed the theater until it closed in 1910.
The newspapers of the 1907 – 1909 mentioned the theater. An article in the February 8, 1909, Tribune appeared as “Miss Lillie Carson, the lady who appeared at the Family Theater in a vaudeville stunt the first three days of February, assisted an elderly German lady who could speak only a few words of English. She was traveling by train and came in on the Illinois Central but had to depart on the Chicago & Northwestern. She was confused and agitated when she was observed by Miss Carson. When Miss Carson figured out that her train would not be leaving until the following morning, she took the elderly lady with her to the Family Theatre that evening, afterwards taking her to a boarding house for the night. On Wednesday morning, Miss Carson escorted the lady to the depot to make her train connection.”
In the March 11, 1909, edition of the Webster City Journal a very large advertisement appears for this theater. “The Family Theater – The Home of the Vaudeville and Moving Pictures – Complete Change of Vaudeville on Monday & Thursday – Change of Motion Pictures on Monday, Wednesday & Friday.’
The ad continues “You always get your money’s worth. Come and bring your family. Stay as long as you want. It costs 10 cents, children under 12 years of age 5 cents.”
The first motion picture theater, the Unique Theater, opened on June 10, 1907, after a grand opening was held on June 5 – 6th. The features of the grand opening included “A Slave’s Love”, “Gibett’s Hotel”, “The Hundred Dollar Bill”, “The Pansy Maid” and the Illustrated Song – “Moonbeams and Dreams of You”.
The theater was located at the northeast corner of the intersection of Second Street and Willson Avenue at 547 Second. The proprietor and manager was O.L. Brown. Brown came to Webster City from Iowa City where he operated a similar theater. He held an afternoon schedule from 2 – 5 pm and an evening schedule from 7 – 10 pm. Each schedule had three different shows lasting 45 minutes each. “In connection with the moving pictures will be given the latest illustrated songs. Miss Caro Inman, of this city, has been engaged to sing at the entertainments,” the June 7, 1907 edition of the Freeman-Tribune reported.
The building was divided into two parts. The stage and staging equipment were located at the north end. The seats of the auditorium were purchased from the Willson Opera House. The lobby, located at the south end of the building, was equipped with 300 lights. A projection booth was constructed above the lobby so that the image could be projected high on the screen so that everyone could easily view it from anywhere in the auditorium. The admission price was quoted in the Freeman-Tribune as 5 cents for children, 10 cents for adults.
Business must have been good from the beginning as the July 19, 1907, issue of the paper stated that “W.O.L. Brown is considering establishing a branch theater in Fort Dodge and Ames.”
The August 2, 1907, bill at the Unique Theater featured these films: “Wrestling Matches of 1906”, “A Venetian Tragedy”, “Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight”, “Mason & Forbes”, and Illustrated Song – “Since You Called Me Dearie”.
In 1909, the theater was sold to Fred N. Martin, the son of E.H. Martin. He decided to run the theater three days a week as a motion picture theater only and four days a week with vaudeville acts, illustrated songs and the motion pictures. A different name was given to the three-day-a-week motion picture which was based on the ticket price of five cents. It was called the “Nickel Theater”. Soon, it became apparent that the public was not supporting the motion pictures only idea so it reverted back to the combination of vaudeville and motion pictures.
The January 29, 1909, issue of the Tribune states, “Fred N. Martin, the new proprietor, has decided to restore the vaudeville feature and charge ten cents. The public did not take to the five cent show. Mr. Martin has decided to give them a good ten cent show in the future.”
In 1911, the Unique Theater was closed. The building then housed the Grempel Harness Shop which was moved from the 700 block of Second Street.
The Orpheum was opened on Monday, November 29, 1909. It was located at 610-612 Second Street. The theater was owned by E.H. Martin and operated by his son, Fred N. Martin, the owner of the Unique Theater.
The opening night’s bill featured “the finest vaudeville ever seen in Webster City. The orchestra tended a number of high class elections and Billie Reeves, Irish comedian and parody singer, opened the program. He was followed by the Demarestio brothers, instrumentalists. Little Silver Plume, the child vocalist, was a favorite and has a wonderful voice. Lessick Anita, jugglers, closed the vaudeville offering.”
According to the December 2, 1909 edition of the Webster City Journal, “The Orpheum is a modern and beautiful little theater. Manager Martin risked a good deal in attempting to put on the high class bills he is offering in this magnificent house. The amusement loving people of the city owe it to him to extend a generous patronage to the end that the high standard of present offerings be maintained.” The opening night ticket price was $1, which was reduced to 10 cents for adults and 5 cents for children under seven years by December 23, 1909.
“This theater was built of brick walls and concrete floors. Every 16 inches there are one inch steel rods to reinforce the floor. The floor is raised one foot to every 10, occupying the first floor and basement. The rear stage will have a height of over fourteen feet. It will readily be seen that besides being the home of the refined vaudeville and moving pictures, the Orpheum might be used as a legitimate theater.”
“With the completion of the Orpheum, Mr. Martin will also install his own private electric light plant. It will consist of gasoline engine and dynamo with sufficient capacity to furnish light for both the Family and Orpheum Theaters.”
By 1911, the management was taken over by N.P. Hyatt, former manager of the Armory Opera House, according to the 1911 city directory. It was operated at this location from 1911 – 1916 when it was moved west one storefront to 610 – 612 Second Street. This new location provided a much larger theater with two aisles dividing the theater into three sections. There were two small side sections and the larger center section. This theater showed the first run movies and vaudeville acts in the beginning. “Manager Hyatt has booked the Emperian Concert Company for a special show. The prices are slightly elevated to 10 cents and 30 cents,” according to the February 6, 1911, Webster City Journal.
The theater housed a piano and a large organ which provided the mood music by playing tunes to fit what appeared on the screen. Fro a time, the organ was played by a blind man, Frank Volker. Earlier Gertrude Neudeck played in the Orpheum as well as the Isis for silent films.
This theater had a balcony. The projection booth was in the center of the balcony.
The theater was later sold to George Stevens and Floyd R. Puffer. It was Mr. Puffer who hired Art Downard to work as an usher. At Christmas time in December 1929, Art’s mother was attending church services and sat next to Mr, Puffer. When asked how things were going at the theater, Puffer replied that things would be fine if he could hire someone to help him. Mrs. Downard suggested her son, Art, then aged 14, might be willing to work. That was the beginning of Art Downard’s long career in the theater business in Webster City that ended with his retirement in 1988. Stu Lund, later an attorney in Webster City, was the doorman when Downard was hired. When Lund left the theater to become the night clerk at the Willson Hotel, Downard took over the doorman duties.
The Isis, located at 617 Second Street, was actually opened on February 23, 1911, by two men, F.L. Greeley and H.L. Wise. They came to Webster City and rented the Geo. J. Mauch Building which formerly housed the Family Theater. These were two men who chose the name Isis, which appeared in the Webster City Journal headline as “I-sis”.
“The policy of the house will be to have straight motion pictures with an occasional vaudeville act. The latest in opera chairs and the newest motion picture apparatus has been installed,” according to the February 23, 1911 edition of the Journal. They later sold the theater to A.C. Schuneman.
The theater ran double features, generally showing second run films. One central aisle with twenty rows of five seats on each side, seated 200 people. This theater had a piano and an organ to provide the mood music. The musician watched the film progress and provided the proper music to fit the scenes. Willy Knight recalled that one of the daughters of Lou Lenhard, veteran Webster City clothier, played at the Isis.
The theater was a family operation. A.C. (Arnold) Schuneman ran the projector while his wife, Helen, sold tickets, popcorn, and peanuts. This theater had a dirt floor in the basement. The place was a haven for rats and mice which scampered about the floor picking up the spilled popcorn and peanuts.
The ticket price was 10 cents but admission could be gained by turning in ten bread wrappers from the Webster City Bakery. Bakery owner, C.A. Phillips, would collect the bread wrappers and bale them and take them to the dump and bury them. This arrangement was good for either the Orpheum or the Isis Theaters. This promotion sold a lot of bread for the bakery. Many Webster City residents were known to have saved up bread wrappers so they could go to the movies.
The Isis for a time had a Kiddies Club. Kids could request a card which they carried with them to a Saturday matinee. The admission price for the Kiddies Club was 5 cents.
In the summer, the back door would be propped open to get the breeze flowing. Invariably kids would discover this and crawl inside and slither on the floor under the seats until they found one to sit in. This way their entry would not be detected by the manager. The kids did encounter rats, mice, refuse and other unpleasant things as they crawled across the floor.
The Isis burned on January 13, 1927, in a fire that destroyed the Freeman-Journal, the Denny Dry Goods Store, Farlin’s White Front Bakery and the theater. Schuneman rebuilt the theater in the same location trying to find larger frontage without success. The theater was sold to the Field Brothers of Minneapolis on February 1, 1930. The purchase was made in the name of the Pioneer Corporation which eventually owned 19 theaters. The three brothers, Harold, Dan and Leonard, were originally named Finkelstein but changed their names to Field due to the strong feelings against the Jewish people. Harold managed the theaters while the other two brothers were silent partners. Harold Field hired Jack Plant of Milwaukee to manage both the Isis and Orpheum Theaters in Webster City. This theater was torn down in 1954.
In 1917, another theater was operated in Webster City. The Princess Theatre was located at 504 Second Street. This was in the building the was first called the Grand Central Hotel. It was later renamed the St. James Hotel. The Princess was operated and owned by P.H. Treanor & Son and featured vaudeville, concerts and motion pictures. By 1926, the Princess Theatre disappeared. This building was razed in the 1980’s. This was about the end of the vaudeville to appear in Webster City.
The Orpheum was renamed the Granada Theater in the mid-1920’s. It was completely redecorated and remodeled but remained in the same building. The main floor seated 600 and the balcony held another 75 on each side.
The name Granada came from the Spanish motif of the decorations. There was a sunken garden between the two sides of the balcony. The projection booth was at the rear of the balcony.
After Jack Plant left the corporation, it was operated by Percy Long, who managed both theaters. This theater was a first run theater, so the price of admission was higher than the Isis. The price was 25 cents. The Granada held a weekly drawing which china was given away. Most evenings there were two showings. Between the two showings the lights would be turned on and Mr. Long went up on the stage with a wire basket which held the ticket stubs for the evening. Someone from the audience would be invited to the stage to draw out the winning stub. The holder of the other half would win the dishes.
In 1939, Mr. Long took over management of the Pioneer theaters in Jefferson, Iowa, and later the theaters in Perry, Iowa. At that time, Art Downard took over manage of the Webster and Isis Theaters.
During the war, Downard went into the service. Mr. Long returned to Webster City to resume management of the Isis and Webster Theaters. After World War II, Downard returned to Webster City. Since Long was the manager of the Webster City theaters, Downard accepted an assignment from the management of Pioneer theaters in Cherokee for a few years. Mr. Long left the theater management business in about 1949 to take over the job as Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce. He was one of three men to develop the name, “Webster City, Main Street USA”. At this time, Downard returned to Webster City to once again take over the management of the Webster City theaters.
By 1940, Webster City had only two theaters remaining – the Isis on the north side at 617 Second and the Granada, which has been renamed the Webster Theater. Both were managed by Art Downard. The Pioneer Corporation built the Corral Drive-In Theater at 1710 West Second Street in 1949. The Corral Drive-In was closed in 1987 and was later torn down.
Art Downard bought the Webster Theater and the Corral Drive-In from the Pioneer Corporation in 1964 and owned and operated them both until 1980. He was joined in 1979 by his son, Tom, who then purchased the theaters from Art. Tom owned and managed the theaters until 1988 then he sold the Webster Theater to Bob Fridley. Fridley owned many theaters in county seat towns all around Iowa. He invested approximately $340,000 in a complete remodel of the theater. For a time, he had a video rental business in the basement. Lack of parking and inconvenience of going to the basement caused problems with the rental business as other large rental places opened on Superior Street. Today, his company operates the Webster Theater, the last of the motion picture houses in Webster City.
When asked if any film stars ever visited in Webster City, Art Downard recalled two. Gene Autry and his musicians came here when he was just starting out in the movies. At a much later time, Dan Ackroyd came to Webster City with his girlfriend to visit the girl’s grandmother. His visit was much publicized. An open house wine and cheese party was held by Art at his home. The Blues Brothers were playing at the Webster Theatre at the time.
The Webster was operated by Fridley Theatres until the mid-2000’s, when it was taken over by the BigTime Cinema chain. The last showing was “Warm Bodies” on March 7, 2013. The theater went out of business March 8, 2013, and went into bankruptcy.
The story does not end here. The nonprofit group, Help Entertain and Restore Organization (HERO), was formed and the community rallied around the cause of bringing the Webster Theater back to life. When a community rallies around a cause, good things can happen. On September 20, 2014, the Webster Theater reopened its doors under the management of HERO and made possible by the generosity of the community and its residents and businesses.
The most recent theater to arrive in Webster City is the Webster City Community Theater for the Performing Arts. The group has been giving performances each summer in the Webster City High School Auditorium and the Masonic Temple. The organization then purchased the Faith United Methodist Church building at 1001 Willson. The church was then converted into a handicapped accessible, air-conditioned theater that puts on several community productions each year. The building is also available to groups for rent.
Information shared on this page was compiled by Martin E Nass. He used the following weekly newspapers to gather his information: Freeman-Tribune and the Webster City Journal. In addition, Art Downard, Willis Knight and Gus Demand served as resources.