The United States of John Wayne

posted in: Day In The Life, Family, Paean 0
Outdoor screening of "The Searchers", Winterset, IA. Photo: Me
People showing up early for the screening of “The Searchers”, Winterset, IA. Photo: Me

Hollywood film legend John Wayne was born in Madison County, in my hometown of Winterset, IA in 1907. Wintersetians take this seriously. If we had to choose between being known for the covered bridges or being known as the spot on the globe where The Duke took his first breath, we’d suck on our collective teeth and shake our collective heads and have to take the latter. Then we’d ask you for your delicious cookie bar recipe and hold the nation’s first presidential caucus.

This weekend was John Wayne birthday celebration weekend and I was here for a particularly exciting part of it: an outdoor screening of John Ford’s classic The Searchers, starring John Wayne in one of the most important roles of his career. The screening took place on the town square, right on the lawn of the courthouse. This was the first time a movie had ever screened there, birthday weekend or no. Who do you suppose orchestrated the event? My sister and my mother.

My mother, as many of you know, purchased the movie theater in Winterset when it went up for sale some months ago. The restoration project is well underway; seven trips to the dump emptied it of garbage, rusted stuff, rotten boards, etc., and every day that passes more wonder is discovered in that old movie house. One of the treasures is the screen itself. It’s in great shape. And it was the Iowa Theater’s very own screen that was put up by our beloved contractor, Steve, for the movie last night.

Families came. A few teenagers came. Old folks came. There’s a film crew making a movie of the restoration project and they were there. My might-as-well-be-my-cousin cousin Will played his guitar and sang folk songs to the audience as we waited for it to get dark enough to start the movie. The air was sweet. With the music and the sun slowly sinking down the sky — the rain that was predicted never even threatened to fall — an eventide spell was cast. The Chamber of Commerce sold candy, soda, and popcorn from a popcorn cart. I can’t confirm or deny that I had a bottle of Stella Artois in my hoodie pocket, nor can I confirm or deny that anyone else had a go-cup of anything similar, but doesn’t that sound nice? We’ll never know.

My sister Rebecca is the head of the entire Iowa Theater restoration project; she’s writing the grants, touching every logistic from projector to neon marquee rebuild, doing strategic planning — everything. She was the engine behind the outdoor screening, too, and my brother-in-law ran the projector. Before the show began, Mom and Rebecca gave a speech about the future of the theater, how 95% of the work being done is being done by locals, how the goal is to make a space the town loves and uses and grows for a long, long time.

About thirty minutes into watching The Duke search for Debbie, I gave into the desire for popcorn. I went over to the Chamber kiosk.

“Hi! I think I’ll get some popcorn,” I said.

The person who scooped some up for me was a bubbly, attractive woman named Heather. She handed me a modest sack of popcorn and I was surprised at how happy I was it was not a tub as big as my head. Heather shook her head. “This is just amazing. Just amazing. You’re Rebecca’s sister, right?”

I said I was and we talked for a minute, geeking out with happiness at the scene before us: people outside, together, enjoying their town, their town’s history, tasty snacks, and a movie, all on a long Memorial Day weekend. We agreed this needs to happen every year, if not more often.

“It just makes me happy,” Heather said, looking out at the one hundred or so people in lawn chairs. “I guess it’s America, right? It’s good. It’s good that kids can come here and it’s safe. You know?”

That popcorn was a buck.


My Mom Bought a Movie Theater, Part I.

posted in: Art, Family 8
The IOWA Theater in Winterset, IA.
The Iowa Theater, 1951.

My mom bought a movie theater.

She didn’t (weirdly) buy some Cinemark movie theater: she bought the movie theater, the movie theater up on the Winterset town square, the shuttered, empty and badly-in-need-of-repair Iowa Theater. Everyone I grew up with saw movies there (e.g., Little Mermaid, Titanic.) Our parents saw movies and newsreels there (e.g., Klute, How To Live Through The A-Bomb.) Their grandparents went there to see movies (e.g., Steamboat Willie) and to show off their funny hats. The Iowa Theater was built in the 1920s and has been the site of tens of thousands of movie showings, thousands of live performances (back when the stage was in use), and countless adolescent gropings in the balcony. Who knows? The Iowa Theater may be responsible for the existence of a number of human beings. It’s definitely responsible for some cavities: just think of the Mike & Ike’s.

Here’s the scoop.

Earlier this year, the theater closed and went up for sale for the same reasons anything closes and goes up for sale: life changed, people moved, interest waned, money did things, etc. When my mother learned that the theater was looking for a new owner, she inquired. My mother is a mover, shaker, connector, entrepreneur, and a do-er; she is also creative, possesses a designer’s eye, she greatly values education and the arts, and she believes strongly in mixing Junior Mints into your buttered popcorn during the previews so they get nice and melty by the time the feature starts. Mom is only semi-retired and she is heavily involved in Quilts of Valor, the creation of an Iowa Quilt Museum, and she’s working on a novel. But the movie theater inquiries began to turn into real questions and the real questions turned into offers and offers into contracts and before long, Marianne had a new project and my family got 10,000 times cooler than we ever were when my sisters and I lived there. If any of us ever move back to raise a family in Winterset, our kids might actually be popular. Not that we have baggage about any of that.

The plan is to restore the Iowa. It will be beautiful — but it’s going to take awhile. The property is a wreck; the amount of work is overwhelming. Basically none of the equipment is worth a penny. There’s mold on the floor. We’ve only found one dead mouse, so that’s great. There are rooms upon rooms in the building; no one who ever saw a movie at the Iowa could ever guess what’s in there. There’s a third balcony and dressing rooms in the back; there’s a full pulley system for the stage curtain, sockets for footlights, old film canister storage cabinets — the wonders go on and on.

PaperGirl will be following this story as it unfolds. My rules state that I will only ever include one picture per post, but all the pictures I take of the Iowa Theater restoration process will be posted on my Instagram page; many are posted already and this is the page for that. The theater will show movies, it will be a place for cultural events — plans for the space will follow in another post and those plans will make you clap your hands in delight.

One day you get up and you have the same thing for lunch. One day you get up and your mom tells you your family now owns a 100-year-old movie theater. So get up!