THEATRES OF WALNUT, IOWA
BY JIM HANSEN
For about 46 years, the citizens of Walnut enjoyed the entertainment of hometown theatres. In 1941, Transient House, one of the oldest landmarks in the city of Walnut, was torn down. The two other former theater buildings remained. The old Transient House had been built in the very beginnings of Walnut and had survived more than one devastating fire. Its location was a little more than half a block east of the intersection of Central Street (Antique City Drive) and Pearl Street with one side facing the railroad tracks. J. W. Cissna, who had owned the establishment since 1902, was the owner in 1908 when the first picture show appeared in Walnut at The Bijou. The projection booth was built across the sidewalk in front of the building, the auditorium was seated with park benches and the “silver screen” was made of wallpaper painted white. The building was sold in December of 1908. It is unclear whether Cissna or the new owner sold the movie equipment, but either way, in 1909, the equipment had been moved to the I.O.O.F. Opera House at 202 Central Street. The new theatre was named the Lyric and remained there for many years.
In 1913, J. C. Vollstedt removed the old wooden buildings he had owned since 1885 and built new brick buildings at 301 and 303 Central Street. He started the Happy Hour Theatre at 303 Central Street in competition with the Lyric. In The Walnut Bureau, the editor stated that, although Walnut appeared to be too small to support two theatres, he wished the new owner success. The real winner was the newspaper, due to all the extra advertising. The two theatres competed for about a year.
Then, in the fall of 1914, the Lyric converted its theater to a roller skating rink. Walnut’s City Council passed Ordinance No. 41, controlling theatres and skating rinks at this time, which rewarded the city coffers with a monthly fee of not less than $5.00 from each establishment. The rink opened on September 10, 1914, and was to operate for the fall and winter months. The last rink ad found was in the March 4, 1915 Walnut paper. Things didn’t sound good at this point, but The Lyric was far from defeated. One must remember that the Lyric was in the Opera House and plays, as well as other entertainment, continued to bring in dollars, while the movies and roller skating income wavered. Advertising for the Lyric theatre began again in the October 7, 1915 issue of The Walnut Bureau.
In 1916, J. C. Vollstedt purchased the Lyric and suspended operations at the Happy Hour, although a movie was shown there occasionally. Late in 1917, Joe Mahoney purchased both theatres from Vollstedt, closed the Lyric and reopened the Happy Hour. Later, J. W. Andresen purchased and opened the Lyric. On October 29, 1925, M. N. Wantz purchased the Lyric. This buying and selling was of the equipment and leases, not the buildings. One piece of information that is obviously missing from the early days of silent films is that of the pianists who played during the shows. Two names out of the many who played are all that I could find. They were Grace Mickel Caddock and Wanda Rieck Jacobsen.
The 20’s had been tough for the farmers and the 1930’s proved to be even worse. The Lyric sold in February, 1930 to Royal Duke of Sioux City and the name changed to the Ritz Theatre. This was the only name change to the theatre in the Opera House. The Walnut Theatre was the new name of the Happy Hour in 1931, as the new manager Earl Miller, opened to a full house. Walnut residents were hungry for new movie entertainment, with sound, but household incomes of most families could not sustain a steady diet of weekly movies. In 1935, new owners L. C. Staats, Harold Smith, Cecil Luxford and James Snapp renamed the Walnut Theatre the New Dreamland.
More changes — in the fall of 1936, Walnut had a “Name the Theatre Contest” which ran for several weeks. Finally, the three judges, Mayor Fred Fell, Otto Brehmer and August Ketelsen, chose the winning name, “Pep”, submitted by L. D. Wayne, who won a 1st place prize of $10. The Pep owner/manager was Byron Beard who sold the theatre about a year later, in June of 1937 to T. E. Griffin of Wolback, Nebraska. Mr. Beard’s health had required that he and his wife move to Phoenix, Arizona. T. E. Griffin sold the Pep to Guy Cocklin of Griswold, Iowa just two months later. Cocklin renamed the theatre at 303 Central Street the Strand Theatre. The prices were reduced to 10¢ and 15¢ for Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and 10¢ and 25¢ for the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday shows. He asked customers for their liberal patronage and promised to make added improvements and buy the latest equipment, as the support he received justified.
Several ads and news articles were found in the December issues of The Walnut Bureau for free shows and visits by Santa Claus. The Walnut Commercial Club arranged for Santa to hand out big bags of candy and nuts to the young folks of the community. Several of our citizens still remember those happy days of their youth while attending the free Christmas shows at the Strand Theatre. Other events were also held in the Strand. One such event was the January 23, 1940 Beauty Parade in which a Walnut girl was selected “Miss Walnut” to represent her town in the “Miss Iowa State Contest.” Miss Donna Lehnhardt was chosen in 1940.
- T. Carter sold the Strand on March 1, 1940 to W. J. Morrison of Sac City, Iowa. Mr. Carter moved to Des Moines.
“FIRE” “FIRE” was reported by Lawrence Rossmann on July 22, 1940 when he noticed smoke coming from the Strand Theatre. The fire damaged the theatre, the John Tramm garage just to the east, and the building to the south that housed the Christiansen Beauty Shop and the H J. Stahl Tailor Shop, to a lesser degree. The fire is believed to have been started by spontaneous combustion in a storage room just off the stage and had likely been burning an hour or so before its discovery. The fire was so hot that it took the Walnut firemen more than two hours to extinguish, because it had gotten into the rafters and burned through the roof. Damage to the theatre was extensive. The stage, equipment, and seats were burned, twisted and warped, and the walls and ceiling were greatly damaged. The building was almost beyond repair, according to the newspaper. J. W. Morrison, the owner/operator for less than five months, said insurance would only cover part of the loss and this would put him out of business. Henry Vollstedt, owner of the building, said his $6000 to $8000 loss was totally covered. The theatre was closed for over six months.
The Walnut Improvement Company purchased the damaged building and remodeled it with material from the Sieffert Lumber Company. The interior of the theatre and annex were encased with new wood that was designed for improved sound effects. Room corners were rounded, which made a pleasing interior. New floors were laid and the ceiling finished in new wood. A restroom, an office and the large round windows were built into the annex. A new heating system was also installed. Charles V. Shoecraft leased both the theatre and the annex, installed the latest in sound equipment, put in a fireproof projection room and installed 250 new seats. The business was renamed, for the last time, the Walnut Theatre, and reopened on January 10, 1941. H. E. Brookings, from Oakland, Iowa, took over operations in May of 1942, but the success of the theatre was in jeopardy. A sheriff’s sale in 1944, gave ownership of the building to the Sieffert Lumber Company who sold it to C. W. Ballantine in January, 1945. He resold it to Mary Wiese a few days later.
With WWII over in 1945, things seemed to rebound to some degree, but the inevitable popularity of the television was looming just around the corner. In 1949, operator Brookings hired Henry Johnson to manage the theatre, and all would be fine for a few more years. A larger screen was installed on a wider stage built by John Rethwisch in March of 1952. The improvements were probably built in hopes of bringing customers back. George Mertz purchased the building in September of that year and resold it to Clarence Walter in December.
Then, in January of 1953, the Walnut Theatre closed. Henry Johnson was quoted by the Omaha World-Herald, “The lack of patronage was the principal reason for closing. Business used to be good, but in recent months, it fell off sharply.” Henry Johnson wasn’t the only employee to lose his job, as the projectionists lost their 35 cents per hour job. Ned Pilling was one of those young men. He found work putting up TV antennas and helping his father at the Walnut Telephone Company.
Mr. Fleming, of Atlantic, made a deal with Brookings and tried his best to get things going again. He operated the theatre for a few months in the summer of 1953, but by March of 1954, Brookings had decided it was time to cut his losses and surrendered the building lease on May 1, 1954. The Walnut Theatre was forever closed. The AMVETS purchased the empty building from Clarence Walter and remodeled it to suit their needs.
The story doesn’t end just yet. In June of 1954, Don and Keith Smith of Omaha received permission from the Walnut Community Club to open the Walnut Drive-In Theatre at the ballpark. Shows were held on Wednesday evenings through September 16th and only then closed for the final curtain.
The Lyric Theatre in the 1920’s