The Appeal of Small-town Movie Theaters

Community and Nostalgia–with Pigs, Ghosts, and the Wolverine Himself

Joy the pig is a local celebrity–performing tricks and entertaining patrons as the mascot of Newton’s Capitol II Theatre. The owner says locals realize that theaters are important community gathering places. I guess a talented pig adds to the ambience.

The Talent Factory in Nevada, Iowa, occasionally shows classic films, but it is earning a local following because of musical performers and variety shows. Formerly known as the Camelot Theater–and before that the Circle Theater–it is the place where, as the owner says, many in the area saw their first movie, had their first date, and brought their own children. Oh yes, one more thing. A recent article covered the possibility that ghosts haunt the place.

Metropolitan Theater in Iowa Falls recently drew a crowd that included famed actor Hugh Jackman–who attended because his agent and agent’s father renovated the classic small-town venue. Jackman was gracious, the locals were excited, and the theater was saved.

More Than Just Sticky Floors and Unearthed Corpses
I have complicated childhood memories of small-town movie houses. My brother and I nearly died of fright when an Edgar Alan Poe feature involved too many corpses, and I came close to strangling an irritating seven-year-old at the theater just six dusty miles down the road from our central Iowa farm.  
My first movie outing was at Hubbard, a classic farm town of the late 1950s. The small, cream-colored screen took up most of the south wall in the musty room, but it was a big step up from the flickering black and white TV in our living room. The film was more of a nature special–Fantasia and National Velvet would have been too much for us at that stage. My younger brothers sat to my left, and a “townie” wiggled in the worn seat on my right. I’d never met the boy, but he acted as if he was Bill Nye the Science Guy and I was a bumpkin. Every time an animal came on screen, he’d start lecturing me. “That’s a squirrel. It stores nuts for the winter.” I wasn’t clever enough to wait for the appropriate time to say, “That’s a badger. It viciously attacks anyone in the theater who irritates it.” Luckily a bigger kid behind us flicked us both on the back of our heads and told us to shut up.
A year or two later my folks went shopping in the county seat, a town of 5,000 or so. They dropped my brother and me off at the Circle Theater and took the younger siblings shopping. Tom and I grabbed some Dots and popcorn before making our way down a Cherry Coke-tinged aisle. Our shoes stuck with each step, and we nervously looked side-to-side at the big folks sitting in the shadows. The place was gothic before the term was cool–a dark upstairs section behind us, fake “opera windows” on each side of the stage, and wine-red velvet curtains covering the screen.
During the opening scene of Poe’s Premature Burial, a gaunt-looking grave digger unearthed a casket containing a decomposing corpse that had obviously been buried alive—it had a horrified expression and dried blood on fingers that had clawed the lid. Tom and I moved to the back row near the exit. As Ray Milland spent the rest of the film unsuccessfully trying to avoid a similar burial fate, we kept slipping out into the lobby during the scariest segments.
Kids nowadays are too savvy to wet themselves in a dark theater watching a horror film with bad special effects. They get scarier stuff on their iPhone Instagram feeds. But small-town theaters still have more than nostalgia to offer; they help keep a town together. Main streets have less tendency to dry up if the locals gather to watch movies. The theater is a town icon that helps give it a pulse during an era when many rural areas are withering away.
We didn’t have a magician, celebrity, or even performing pig at the country theaters I went to as a kid. But we did ride along with Ben Hur on his deadly chariot race; we bounced around on flubber shoes with Fred McMurray; and we went crazy with Jonathon Winters and the cast of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Social media now has much more to offer–but back then we did look up, laugh, squirm, and throw popcorn with an interactive group. Oh yes, I also learned that squirrels bury nuts for the winter.
by dan gogerty (top pic from, bottom from


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