the iowa theater

Nonprofit of the Month: The Iowa Theater

Winterset-based The Iowa Theater is a historic, multi-use nonprofit movie theater and performance space, inviting visitors and locals alike to gather and be entertained. Marianne Fons, member of The Iowa Theater board of directors, who purchased the building and reopened it in 2017 after a two-year closure, discusses what the theater means to its community and the nonprofit’s upcoming Valentine’s Day gala.

What prompted the start of the nonprofit? The Iowa Theater closed in May 2015, on the eve of Madison County’s annual John Wayne Birthplace Celebration, which meant the event’s attendees were unable to watch John Wayne movies there. Like many small town theaters, the Iowa Theater had not been able financially to make the expensive transition from 35mm to digital projection, and the theater itself was in very poor condition. As a local person who loves movies, and whose children grew up watching movies at the theater on their home town’s single screen, I stepped in and purchased the building. I recruited my youngest daughter, Rebecca Fons (who had graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in Film Studies, and who was at the time Educational Director for the Chicago Film Festival) to help me form a nonprofit, raise funds, renovate the theater and reopen it. The project turned out to be a two-year, over $1 million, full gut-and-rehab. We reopened in May 2017, just in time for that year’s John Wayne Birthplace Celebration.

What is the greatest reward in being involved with the nonprofit? I’ve been a film buff all my life. I love the shared experience of watching a movie (or any type of entertainment) as a member of an audience. My career as a writer, publisher and TV host in the quilting industry took me away from Winterset frequently for two decades, as I traveled all over the U.S to teach quilting classes and lecture at national conferences. When my partners and I sold our business in 2006, I redirected much of my energy toward my home town, helping establish the Iowa Quilt Museum, also on the town square, and then the reimagined Iowa Theater. My husband and I now live in an historic building just off the square in Winterset. There’s simply nothing like walking across the square, seeing the marquee aglow as we approach, and taking a seat in the now-beautiful Iowa Theater. 

What is the biggest challenge the nonprofit faces? Has the pandemic affected the needs of The Iowa Theater? The profit margin for movie theaters (even nonprofit ones) is narrow. During the worst of the pandemic, we kept the marquee lights on 24/7, knowing health care and other essential workers might be passing by at any time of night. Our manager Scott Smith posted the message, “No Movies for Now, Good Health for All, USA Strong.” We sold popcorn and other concessions curbside on three occasions, and reopened with safety signs and practices, spaced-out seating, masks, the works. Luckily for The Iowa, movie-goers are back and our patrons love the theater. I think in many ways our community appreciates their theater more than ever, and like many other independently operated, small-town cinemas, we’ve benefited from having that loyal audience (we know our patrons’ names and their favorite candy!) and have fared far better in rebuilding post-lockdown than some of the large chain cinemas. 

What are your goals for the new year? We continue to whittle away at our remaining debt from renovation—a whopping $450,000 when we reopened—now below $270,000. Our goal is to keep using our creativity to dream up special events and programming people pay a little more for, rather than simply ask for money via a capital campaign. In 2021, a family friend who’s a member of the cast of The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway recruited other New York vocalists to come to Winterset with him for “Broadway at the Iowa.” We raised $20,000 in one weekend and put the entire amount toward our loan. This past September, we launched the Sunday Movie Club, a once-a-month screening of critically acclaimed, often-Oscar-winning films from the past few years that are a little less mainstream than the fare we regularly screen. We have over 50 members, with more joining every month. This program continues into the new year.

How can readers help? Attending movies, buying concessions (we make money on popcorn!), bringing friends and visiting The Iowa to see for yourself how comfortable and beautiful the theater truly is helps tremendously. Anyone who would like to receive a once-a-week email letting the know what’s playing that week can sign up here. 

Does The Iowa have any events or fundraisers on the horizon? Yes, as a matter of fact, we do! The “We Love the Iowa” Valentine gala fundraiser is Saturday, Feb. 4. Tickets are $75 per person. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Dress is “party!” We’ll have coat check in the ticket lobby, an open bar, delicious, abundant, savory and sweet hors d’oeuvre catered by Winterset’s wonderful new eatery, Petite Cafe, and bottomless popcorn. Attendees will enjoy food and drink and then settle in for the classic film, “It Happened One Night,” starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Colbert is a runaway heiress, and Gable is a scruffy newspaper reporter. The chemistry between the two leads is delightful. Click here to purchase tickets. 

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