—by Todd Thorson
The historic Story Theater Grand Opera House in Story City has had a long and illustrious run through its 100 years of history. Built in 1913 as part of the Story City Grand Hotel and Auditorium Company construction project, the long-running theater has seen thousands of movies, from the silent era through the "talkies", grace the silver screen. School plays, graduation exercises, vaudeville acts and community meetings were also a part of the theater’s calendar of events. On December 18 the Story Theater will celebrate its 100th Anniversary, and with that notable achievement the theater has the distinct pleasure of stating that it has never closed!
Known in the beginning as The Grand Auditorium and Hotel Block, this project was perhaps the Story City Commercial Club’s most notable achievement. Construction of the theater and hotel complex, which spanned an entire half block, began in June of 1913 and was completed by December of that same year. Total cost of the project: a mere $30,853! (Only $12,000 for the theater alone.)
The theater, called the Grand Opera House at the time, opened for business on December 18, 1913, with the melodrama stage play "The Two Orphans", complete with a full-piece orchestra. Tickets were sold for $3.00 each, considerably high for that period. At the time of its opening, the stage was the second largest west of the Mississippi River.
The original proprietor was Iver Egenes, and the four separate buildings making up the half-block structure included a grocery store, the theater, the Visergutten Norwegian newspaper and the Grand Hotel. The latter had 11 rooms, a waiting room and a dining hall, in what is now city hall. The theater consisted of 400 thin-backed opera chairs with hat racks underneath. Some of these original seats still remain in the theater balcony today.
Vaudeville and stage plays mostly occupied the entertainment schedule in the early years, and silent movies slowly became a staple as well in the late teens and 1920s. In 1917, "Birth of a Nation", the controversial film from D.W. Griffith, was presented with a full orchestra and 50 cent admission. And soon, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Rudolph Valentino and Lillian Gish were lighting up the screen on the back wall of the stage. Films continued alternating with stage productions until it was no longer economically feasible to conduct live theater, and the vaudeville era began to fade away. The last stage performance was presented in 1947, until it was resurrected and restored in 1988.
In May of 1930, the first full RCA Photophone sound system was installed in order to accommodate the latest "talking pictures" coming out of Hollywood; leaving behind the need for the theater’s player piano. The last player piano, which was used to accompany the silent movies that were shown, was placed in service just five years prior. A year earlier, in May of 1929, two new projectors were also installed.
Throughout the early 1930s, the theater began an extensive remodeling project, under the direction of new proprietors Jack and Gladys Pierce. The Pierces took over the theater in June of 1932 from Earl "Dusty" Rhodes. Rhodes had been operating the Grand Opera House since January of 1927. It was the arrival of Jack and Gladys that saw the name of the theater changed from "Grand" to "Story". The canopy out front was also installed in 1933, and a new steam heating plant was installed in 1934, along with the remodeling of the apartment upstairs. In October of 1935, the auditorium floor was sloped and new American Seating chairs were installed. The orchestra pit was also covered over, and the three phase blower for "air conditioning" was added in the basement.
By 1936, two new Century projectors and new wide-range fidelity sound provided yet another upgrade to the projection booth. In August 1937, the "Nu-Wood" that still covers the auditorium walls, the office and inner lobby was put in place. This "bulletin board" material made for excellent acoustics and sound quality, an asset to the theater even by today’s standards. The last major construction project initiated by the Pierces was the addition of two new Cyclex lamp houses, as well as the complete remodeling and sound proofing of the projection booth. The booth was actually relocated closer to the auditorium ceiling. In November of 1944, the Pierces would sell the theater after 12 years of ownership.
The arrival of the Petersons, Lewis and Mae, and their son Virgil, transpired in April of 1947. Another son, Richard, would join his family in December of that year, following his incredible, fascinating and emotional stint in the U.S. Army (that’s a story for another day and time, believe me).The Petersons would soon purchase the theater building as well from the Pierces in December of 1949.
For the next 36 years, the Petersons would operate the theater, live upstairs in the apartment and oversee and experience many changes in the film industry, not to mention the coming of television and even more technological changes in equipment. CinemaScope projection was soon unveiled in the 1950s, as the "big blockbusters" like Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments lit up the giant screen. A "cry room" was installed in the balcony in November of 1952. The theater operation was reduced to "two changes" a week instead of three in January of 1953. "Family Night" was initiated as well on Friday nights, when entire families were admitted for just $1.00! A new Voice of the Theater sound system from Altec was installed in December of 1954, along with a Raytone, 26 ft. x 12 ft. motion picture screen. It was also the year that the infamous Cole Spa soft drink machine was installed, where the cup would drop down, the ice would automatically fill the cup and you could make your own Cherry Cokes by turning the dial back and forth. Natural gas was finally piped into the theater building in July of 1957, and two months later a new Kewanee boiler for heat was installed. That boiler, incidentally, is still in operation today.
In the 1960s, a new popcorn popper was purchased, and the aluminum outer lobby doors, as you see today, were installed. New Strong X-16 Zenon bulb lamp houses were installed in February of 1971; one of which is still operating today. By May of 1971, the theater canopy needed recovering, and a year later, the long running tradition of Sunday afternoon matinees was discontinued. Two months later, the Story Theater goes to just one movie change a week on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.
The June 1976 tornado that swept through Story City ripped off the entire roof of the theater over the galley section of the back stage area, damaging, beyond repair, the large movie screen. A new Hurley screen was rushed into place and movies quickly resumed at the "never closed" theater. In 1978 Dick began an extensive research project that would span nearly a decade. Combing through old volumes of the Story City Herald, Dick compiled over 20 binders of history, artifacts, documentations, etc. of the entire history of the theater. He also applied for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, and by January of 1980, the Story Theater Grand Opera House was placed on the National Register. A plaque now hangs on the building outside the office door, commemorating Peterson’s hard work and the historical significance of this now treasured piece of real estate in Story City.
In December 1983, the long, 36-year run of the Peterson family came to an end when Todd Thorson took over ownership of the theater business. Thorson, who had helped out Virgil and Dick while in high school, became the 13th proprietor of the historic theater. A month later he dropped the admission price to "All Seats $1.00", just as the Nevada and Boone theaters had recently done just a few months earlier. Thorson quickly began upgrading as well, installing a new ice machine in the concession area in 1984 and automating the projection booth with a new three-tier platter system. New stereo surround sound was also installed, with three large JBL speakers put in place behind the screen and nine Bose studio speakers placed throughout the auditorium and balcony.
With the 75th Anniversary looming, Todd and former owner Dick Peterson soon began brainstorming about what to do for the upcoming milestone. One thing led to another, and a complete stage restoration began in January 1988. The back stage was insulated, the entire building was rewired (a three month project) and the stage lighting and sound system was put in place, with control being set up in the old "cry room", just off to the east side of the projection booth. Dressing rooms were remodeled and fixed up back stage, and the stage floor was sanded and stained. The screen was rigged to allow it to be raised for live performances, and a beautiful Austrian-fold red curtain was installed in front of the screen. On December 18, 1988, the stage was formally re-opened, just in time for the 75th Anniversary. Judge Story’s Theatrical Troupe performed select scenes from the original play, "The Two Orphans", which had opened the theater back in 1913.
Now, in conjunction with the 100th Anniversary, this also marks Thorson’s 30th year of operating the Story Theater. Thorson, who has always had a great appreciation and fondness for the opportunity given him by Dick and Virgil Peterson, said it was always the Petersons hopes and wishes to see that the theater business would continue. Together, Thorson and the Petersons have operated the Story Theater a combined 66 years of its 100 years of existence. Unfortunately Dick Peterson was unable to make it to the 100th year, as he passed away eight years ago.
"I do remember before Dick died, in a conversation we once had, we talked about the 100th anniversary," recollects Thorson. "We talked often about the theater, its past and even its future. His wish was to hopefully make it to see that special day, but unfortunately he didn’t live to see it."
He told me that he thought the theater was in good hands," Thorson continued, "and that I would do my best. He also said he was proud of me. It has been difficult, at times, to try and uphold this wonderful man’s perception of me, and it hasn’t been easy continuing in his footsteps. His kind words and wisdom were often prevalent throughout the years we knew each other, and his encouragement and happiness toward seeing the theater continue its operation brought a smile to his face as well as mine. I just hope the future of this wonderful facility can be maintained and preserved for many more years to come. Dick would have been so happy and proud to have known that."
Through the years, the Story Theater Grand Opera House has seen it all! It was the entertainment center of the entire community, and a gathering place for so many in its early years. Junior and senior class plays (1914 to 1945) as well as all junior and senior class commencement exercises (1914 to 1939) were held on the stage. Many of the infamous Lyceum Series of stage productions were contracted at the theater from the late teens through the 1920s, courtesy of entertainers, lecturers and musicians from all over the country. Many of the performances were of utmost high quality and high class caliber, and season tickets were sold in advance of the series. Rin Tin Tin performed on the stage, as did Babe Bisignano, the Des Moines restaurateur, who started out as a boxer. Fred Waring and his orchestra even made an unannounced stop at the theater in a blinding blizzard in the 1930s, and the "central" telephone service was able to get the word out to everyone in town, filling the theater despite the elements. Local organizations also utilized the stage, including churches and clubs. There was even a wedding held at the historic theater in May 2003, when I married my wife Patti on the stage.
From D.W. Griffith’s masterpieces and Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and Lillian Gish, to Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe, Henry Fonda and Greta Garbo, and on through to Jack Nicholson, Julia Roberts, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Johnny Depp and Meryl Streep, films from every era, every genre, every decade, every technological breakthrough, have sparked our attention, tickled our fancy and graced the big screen at the Story Theater. Oh, if those walls could talk!
And so, this wonderful story of a 100 year old Story City landmark is hopefully not finished being written yet. The Story Theater has indeed stood the test of time, and has provided a historical timepiece that is, in fact, "timeless". Happy birthday to the legendary Story Theater Grand Opera House! And as one of Dick Peterson’s favorite entertainers Bob Hope always said, "Thanks for the memories!"