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IOWA CITY, Iowa Flames nearly extinguished the Englert Theatre in its teens. Now it's basking in the glow of 100 birthday candles and a gala centennial celebration lasting into November.
"It was built as a destination theater a theater that was going to help Iowa City compete culturally with larger cities," says Englert restoration architect John Shaw, 62, of Iowa City. "And it was built to establish the commercial standing of the community, as opposed to the university. The university had already built significant buildings in town by then. But this established the private sector's bona fide standing as an important cultural and commercial force."
Cake and ice cream marked the centennial milestone Sept. 26. But it's going to take a lot longer to properly celebrate the birth and rebirth of the structure that cost $60,000 to build in 1912 and $5 million to restore 90 years later.
Celebration events begin Oct. 11 with the Alloy Orchestra adding mood music to silent vampire film "Nosferatu" and continue through Nov. 8 with The Klezmatics performing "Wonder Wheel: The Jewish Songs of Woody Guthrie."
Sidebar: Englert's centennial lineup ranges from classics to avant-garde
The scaled-back 730-seat theater now operates with a mix of four full-time staff, a cadre of part-time support staff, volunteers, board members and a budget just under $1 million, says Executive Director Andre Perry, 35, of Iowa City. But its history is as colorful as the marquee on show night, at 221 E. Washington St.
The original 1,071-seat theater opened in a blaze of glory Sept. 26, 1912, home to vaudeville revues, moving picture shows and rave reviews for owners William and Etta Englert. A cerebral hemorrhage killed William Englert in 1920 at age 46. Etta and the theater persevered.
Then on Feb. 13, 1926, a devastating fire burned "everything between the front wall and back wall," architect Shaw says. Etta and her new husband, James Hanlon, rebuilt the showplace. And time marched on.
The ornate interior was "modernized" in the 1970s and '80s, bringing dramatic changes. With the rise of multiplex cinemas and the demise of big screen theaters, a dividing wall went up in 1983, turning the Englert into a two-screen movie theater. Ornate facades went into hiding behind gypsum board and paneling.
By 1999, decades of change and decay threatened to lower the curtain on the venerable venue for good or turn it into a bar.
A core group of citizens rose with a rallying cry for the city to purchase the building and hold it in trust until funds could be raised to buy, renovate and turn the Englert into a community performing arts center. Their voices were heard. Businesses and citizens opened their checkbooks, rolled up their sleeves and the doors reopened Dec. 3, 2004.
The current design reflects the post-fire glory, gleaned from the 1926 schematics tracked down from crumpled up rebuild drawings in old ledger books, which led to a firm in Des Moines that had purchased the drawings and was archiving them.
"I had to wait about nine months, but then one day in the mail, I got a full 18-page set of the original linen drawings with ink on them and preserved with a sheen of potato starch over them," Shaw says. "That helped us significantly to understand what was done in the '26 rebuild. ... That set of drawings is over at the State Historical Society (in Iowa City), being kept in a humidity-controlled environment."
One of the first and perhaps most satisfying renovation tasks was tearing down the center wall.
Shaw still thinks about that day when he attends Englert events 10 years later.
"I swung a sledgehammer the day we had volunteers in to take the wall down that separated the two sides," he says. "Once we got the wall down, we looked at the shape and we said, 'I think this thing, just from the shape, should have really excellent acoustical quality.' We were right. We've got a sound system that's won national awards, but people can stand on that stage un-miked and be heard in the back seats of the balcony."
The deconstruction also yielded other surprises and gems.
"No one had seen the proscenium arch for about 40 years, because movie screens were built in front of it," Shaw says. The renovations also brought back the rounded wall separating the theater from the foyer.
Saving structures like the Englert or the flood-damaged Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids is vital, he says.
"It marks where we've come from. It's a marker of our past heritage and it proves that we do have a history," Shaw says.
What warms his heart the most, however, can't be measured by candles on a cake. It's the way the Englert has been embraced.
"Since it reopened as a place for the performing arts, the community has accepted it and almost doesn't remember that it wasn't always (used for) that," Shaw says. "It has really become part of the fabric of downtown. I'm almost even more pleased in the fact that people take it for granted as something that feels like it's always been there. I find that more satisfying than people thinking about how old it is."
But the 100-year mark is front and center for the staff planning the celebration.
"We've argued and fought a lot," Perry says with a laugh. "For the centennial, we said let's try to get some different things through each week through the first week of November. Let's have an event that's super-interesting in its own right."
The eclectic party programming of concerts, a silent movie and a literary event reflects the Englert's overarching mission to "provide diverse programming, educational opportunities and exposure to the performing and visual arts."
That mix is the lifeblood of the theater, which presents everything from community theater, concert and dance productions to Hancher events, international stars like Hugh Laurie and the Indigo Girls and the upcoming Landlocked Film Festival.
The Englert is, indeed, living up to its promises and potential, says Perry, who arrived in town in the summer of 2005 and stepped into his Englert role in 2010. He considers himself part of the "next wave of the theater."
"The last six or seven years have been (spent) figuring out how do we make a space like this work; how do we make a non-profit like this survive; how do we get it to support the community; how do we get it to program things that are awesome for the community to have; how do we get it to reach everyone in the community; and how do we make the bottom line work," Perry says.
"Since it's reopened, that has been the focus of all the people that have been involved, from the management to the production staff just making this thing work," he says.
"Right now, we're getting to the point where we do have a great team in place, and we do have enough history that we can see what works, what doesn't work. We have vision on all platforms, whether it's our programming vision, whether it's our development vision, our marketing, whether it's just the actual productions happening. Everyone is in place," he says.
"But there's still quite a bit of room for growth. We've got just enough experience and enough confidence in our abilities that we can really make it grow now. It's been the effort of a lot of people over time, getting it ready for us who are here now to make it grow to the next level," Perry says.
"It's actually kind of funny that the centennial happens to be dovetailing quite nicely with us starting to feel like we're really comfortable, like we can make this happen. No one planned it like that it just happened."