Miracle on John Wayne Drive: Happy Holidays to The Iowa Theater!

Viva la Iowa! (None of my pictures from last night are quite right, so I am gratefully using this one taken by the talented Todd Scott, when the Iowa’s marquee neon was first turned on.) Image courtesy the Iowa Theater website.


When my mom and my sister Rebecca Fons embarked on the project of the movie theater renovation in our hometown, I knew a few things for sure.

I knew they would do it “right,” aesthetically-speaking. I knew they would deal fairly in all business matters. I knew they would work hard. And I knew they would complete the project. None of this was ever in question.

And though I anticipated that, due to their approach, this non-profit movie theater/performance space would be financially viable, and though I hoped the whole project would be a success, I couldn’t know for sure if those things would come to pass. Well, the theater has only been open since late May and it’ll take at least a calendar year or two to understand how all this is rolling along, but so far, The Iowa Theater appears to have wind in its sails. The reason for this brings me to the third thing I didn’t anticipate:

The power of a well-run movie house in a small town.

To drive this point home, I need to tell you about Winterset’s annual “Festival of Lights” up on the town square.

The Festival of Lights is a kind of pop-up holiday fest that takes place the day after Thanksgiving around 7 p.m. A few shops stay open for business; vendors sell kettle corn and cider on the courthouse lawn (though you can be sure some grownups have something stronger in their cups); Christmas music is piped through the speakers; a horse-drawn trailer takes kids around the square; and various businesses, veterans groups, school groups, and cityfolk participate in a parade where candy is tossed to the crowd. The parade culminates in the appearance of … Santa, of course! And then Santa lights the Christmas lights on the square. It’s wonderful.

I was present at last year’s Festival of Lights when my sister and mother were neck-deep in theater renovations and plans, driving hundreds of miles back and forth from Chicago to Winterset and beyond, sourcing popcorn oil and dealing with studio screening contracts. The monetary and time investment was big. The work was intense. It was all happening.

My two sisters and I stood up on the square during the 2016 Festival of Lights last year, cheering for the parade floats as they went by, huddled together in the cold. Last year, The Iowa, which is smack on the square, was dark.

“This time next year,” my sister Rebecca said, shaking her head. “This time next year, we’ll be open. It’s gonna be awesome.” Then, in typical Rebecca fashion, she added, “I really hope there’s not some alien invasion before then or a global flood or something.”

No aliens, sis.

Last night, at the 2017 Festival of Lights, the cider was there, the kettle corn was there. Santa was there. And now, at the party, the Iowa Theater’s marquee blinkled and twinkled* and that beaut’ was there, too, open for business. Well, open for charity: If you brought a canned good or personal item, you got to see the 8 p.m. movie for free. Once Santa lit the lights, the theater was flooded, so many people on the square pouring into the Iowa with their food drive items and holiday spirits high. (I was working the door: I saw it, myself.) We ran out of seats way before we ran out of merry townspeople.

“We’ll do it again next year,” I said to the folks who got there too late. “Promise.”

So yeah, the Iowa is real. The community is responding to what they helped build. The theater couldn’t exist — nor can it continue to thrive — without all the support the community has given and continues to give, whether that’s approving grant proposals, buying pre-show ads, or simply showing up to watch the live performances or the movies.

“Wayback Wednesdays” are super popular; I went to see “Grease” the last time I was home and the place was packed, many attendees dressed up in Pink Ladies jackets and poodle skirts. At the screening of “Gone With the Wind,” a lady in her nineties stood up and said that she used to work at the Iowa as a teenager and when “Gone With the Wind” came out, she’d sneak in and watch it night after night, then go home and sob with love for Rhett Butler.

The “regular” movie nights are popular too, though some movies play better than others. Whatever the movie, with the Iowa Theater open again, Date Night is back in Winterset. Girls Night Out is back, too. Families come out together. Folks who need to get out of the house can get out of the house and come see a movie instead of … whatever else they had to do when the Iowa was dark.

This holiday season, there are a lot of good reasons to visit the Iowa; last night was just the beginning. The ballet group is doing “The Nutcracker.” The community players will present “The Gift of the Magi” later this month. You can see “Miracle on 34th Street” and “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” And since the theater will be on this year’s Winterset Tour of Homes, Rebecca’s planned to have”A Christmas Story” playing on a continual loop from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. — just drop in and out at your leisure, Ralphie.

Seeing my mom and Rebecca — and Steve and Marla and all the board members and the Chamber folks and everyone who has purchased a ticket or will in the years to come — seeing these people build this thing has taught me a lot. Namely, that it really is what you do locally that makes a difference in the world. It really is about our neighbors, about our backyards, about our communities.

Well, all that and lots of butter.



*blinkled and twinkled = a term I have just coined

7 Responses

  1. Christine Houghton
    | Reply

    I miss that small town feel. The mom and pop shops, the local theater/movie house, the town squares and all the small town Christmas celebrations. Reading about your town in Iowa gives me memories and warm fuzzies! Thanks for that, Mary.

  2. Melody A.
    | Reply

    How wonderful that is has gone well!! Tenacity obviously was involved and people that love their community!! Congratulations!! Take care from Southeast Iowa

  3. Cindy
    | Reply

    This is wonderful to hear. I have always loved Winterset even though I didn’t grow up there. I moved to Earlham 4 1/2 years ago because of family. I visit as much as I can and love to hear success stories like this.
    Congrats to your Mom and sister on making the theatre comeback a success!!

  4. Dorothy
    | Reply

    what you said — it is what you do locally that makes a difference in the world It’s about our neighbors, our back yards communities. In my neighborhood, we all “chit chat” over the fences 🙂

  5. Laura Altes
    | Reply

    Sounds like you should keep an eye out for the Gilmore Girls. Great job ladies!

  6. Emilio
    | Reply

    A miracle indeed! This makes me hopeful for humanity and for this country.

  7. Marianne Fons
    | Reply

    Hi Mar, it’s your mom! Just for the record, the lady whose favorite movie is “Gone with the Wind” is the fabulous Jane Martens. She’s not yet ninety, only in her late 80s, and she didn’t exactly sneak in to see her favorite movie of all time. She was employed by The Iowa while a high school sophomore, junior, and senior at Winterset High, and later, in the 1950s, when she was a student at Simpson College. Jane’s job was ticket seller, which means she occupied the adorable, one-person ticket booth in the lobby, and she told us it was a position of great power. She operated the switches that told the projectionists when to start the movie and whether the volume needed to be higher or lower. In those days, there was no barrier between the lobby and the screen, so once the movie started, all Jane had to do was swivel in her seat, and she could watch. The Iowa’s recent screening of “Gone with the Wind” was a tribute to Jane Martens and also a fundraiser for the rebuilding of Cedar Bridge, one of Madison County’s covered bridges, which was destroyed by arson earlier this year.

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