Thanks to the Winterset newspaper The Madisonian and the tireless efforts of the Madison County Historical Society, the life of The Iowa Theater has been chronicled. The timeline of The Iowa illustrates how important the theater and its improvements were and are to the community, and how The Iowa is part of America’s cinema history as a classic movie house that has withstood the test of time, grown to accommodate technological developments, and adapted to meet the needs of its audiences.
Built in approximately 1899, the location was originally a one-story grocer and meat market. In 1914 the building was remodeled with a new front and a raised floor to become, as the Madisonian noted, “a first class movie show.” A place for performance as well as cinema, the paper went on to report that same year that, “The new play house will be open on next Thursday evening with moving pictures for the first evening’s entertainment."
In 1920, the Madisonian wrote, “Manager A. B. Pettit has begun extensive alterations in the Iowa Theatre that will make it as fine as any theatre of its size in Iowa. As an improvement to Winterset's business section the Iowa will represent considerable expenditure of money on Mr. Pettit's part and the movie fans will no doubt appreciate his efforts to give the best possible results for the money. Pettit has also installed two new Powers 6-B picture machines. This means not only a much better and clearer picture, but will do away with stopping and rethreading between reels. This improvement will make The Iowa one of the best-equipped movie theatres in the smaller cities.” In 1925 the management purchased an “usual musical instrument”: a Fotoplayer pipe organ, a “new improvement in Winterset of interest to theater goers.”
In 1928 extensive changes included adding a second story to make room for a balcony, a new brick front and marquee and redecoration in the lobby. As the Madisonian noted, “When the building is completed it will be one of the finest theatres in southern Iowa.” After these extensive projects, The Iowa reopened in late 1928 and debuted the solid oak doors and woodwork that remain in the front lobby area today.
The Iowa continued to make headlines by offering the first presentation of a film with sound in 1930. “Engineers, electricians and technicians from the Chicago and Minneapolis offices of the RCA Photophone have been in Winterset for several days working on the installation," The Madisonian noted. "Patrons of The Iowa are assured of the finest sound and talking pictures it is possible for any theatre to present. You will see and hear the greatest variety of entertainment ever offered, the same quality that has been available only to the big city theatregoers.”
In 1938 extensive improvements occurred, including the installation of the red and ivory porcelain front panels and the renovation of the marquee, which was also faced in porcelain and featured neon signs and 100 lights under the canopy.
In July of 1944, it was announced that owner and operator Bruce Pettit would be selling the Iowa to new owner Eben Hays. Pettit was praised for his role in making the Iowa "one of the finest motion picture exhibiting houses in Iowa." Bruce Pettit ran the Iowa for 29 years, from 1915-1944.
June 1968 advertisement for Valley of the Dolls and children's matinee of Tarzan. Also, the first time the spelling of "theatre" changes to "theater".
The Iowa's dedication to live performance is evident in the theater's history. In January 1972, The Apple Tree Players, Inc. signed on to use the Iowa to perform The Mousetrap. The action supported both the theater and the theater group. The Iowa Theater will proudly be the new home of The Winterset Stage, beginning in June of 2017. As Mrs. Dick James, president of the Apple Tree Players said in 1972, "This community needs a movie theatre, and can support one."