What's in a Theater Name?
The names of Iowa's movie theaters are as varied as the theaters themselves. While we have little information about why theater operators selected certain names, to the right you will see a group of the most popular. Click on a name to see a list of theaters.
Not surprisingly, Iowa theater owners often named their establishments after famous theaters in large cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. These names were synonymous with live entertainment and motion pictures and in a word summoned the glamour of Broadway and the silver screen. They include: Avalon, Capitol, Capri, Empress, Grand, Lyric, Majestic, Odeon, Orpheum, Palace, Paramount, Princess, President, Rex, Rialto, Ritz, Riviera, Rivola, Roxy, Savoy, Starlite, and Strand.
Place names for movie theaters were also common (and in recent years, these are especially popular). Examples are: the Algona, the Ottumwa, the Hiland (for Hiland neighborhood in Des Moines), the Ingersoll Theatre (located on Ingersoll Avenue in Des Moines), the Waterloo, the Boone, the Waverly, the Manilla, the Clarion, and the Harlan. The all encompassing "Iowa" was chosen for theaters in Winterset, Onawa, Cedar Rapids, and undoubtedly many others.
Theater operators wanting a less conventional name took their inspiration elsewhere. The theater in Lake Mills was called the Dyme in honor of the price of a movie ticket. There are at least three theaters in Iowa named after the family who built or operated them. Consider, for example, the Watts Theatre in Osage (the Watts family lived in an apartment on the second floor), the Fraser in Spencer, or the Malek Theatre in Independence. The operator of the movie theater in Garner sponsored a contest to come up with a name for his new theater. Miss Miriam Love suggested the winning entry "The Avery" in honor of Anson Avery, the first white settler in the county. Names that spoke to the establishment's entertainment value included the Hollywood in Estherville, the Idle Hour in Aurelia, Happy Hour in Cherokee, Pastime in Logan and Iowa City, and Amuzu (or alternatively, A-Muz-U in Muscatine, A-Muse-U in Clinton, or Amuse-U in Bennett). Technological innovations were something to boast about and especially in the 1910s and 1920s a number of operators named their movie theaters the Electric.
Finally, some lesser common names evoked cultural references. Names associated with Native Americans may be related to the popularity of the western movie genre. The Tomahawk was located in Indianola, but also the Wampas in Keosauqua, the Chief Drive-in in Pocahontas, the Chief in Britt, the Wigwam Drive-in in Hawarden, and the Arrow in Cherokee. A few theaters appropriated regional references like the Alamo located in New London, the Tall Corn in Kanawha, and the Corn Theatre in Everly. The Camelot (in Nevada), the Castle (Manchester and Garden Grove), and the Oriental Theatre (in Bonaparte) surely evoked romance and the exotic for theater patrons.