Opening up the Orpheum

My favorite memory of the Orpheum Theater here in Marshalltown is easy to remember, since the date was so important.

July 3, 1996: The Day “Independence Day” was released.

I remember going to the movies with my dad, both of us being fans of the “aliens-blow-things-up” genre. And I remember that we went on opening day because the movie opens up on July 2, and follows the characters through to the titular fourth.

Yeah, it’s quite nerdy to enjoy watching the movie the day the movie allegedly took place … but I don’t care.

Because that’s my memory: Being 14 and having a blast watching a great (at the time) movie with my dad in a great theater here in town.

And it didn’t have a single thing to do with Jean Seberg.

I’m certain there was an angry shuffling of paper and an audible “harrumph” from at least half of my readers, so give me a chance to explain before you take pen to paper and find the most eloquent way to compose a letter comparing me to Hitler.

It was back in 2007 and 2008 that talk of revitalizing the Main Street district of Marshalltown was all the rage; this was before everybody decided to donate their time and money to making the tiny strip of land adjacent to the 13th Street Inn into a shiny place with a shiny statue that I’m sure will be well attended by the same people who donated their time and money and by few others.

I think it cost around $2.7 million to get the theater revitalized and ready for business.

$1.5 million of that came from Iowa Valley Community College District’s bond referendum in 2006. The rest came from disparate sources like the Martha-Ellen Tye Foundation, Marshalltown City Council and Marshall County Board of Supervisors and various grants raised over the years for the Orpheum.

So 2010 rolled around and the theater was ready to go. They held a gala opening event with spotlights and tuxedos and all the things you associate with a gala opening event that you’ve seen in movies.

Again, great for them. A lot of hard work went into renovating that theater and they did an excellent job. I don’t know a single person that didn’t go to the Orpheum once that year, if for no other reason than to check out all the work.

The theater looked good, the coffee shop was nice, the black box theater and the museum collection, focusing mostly on Seberg, was all well curated and displayed.

In the years after the Orpheum has held an annual Jean Seberg film festival drawing participants from around the country and abroad to discuss the historical significance of an actress from our little town in Iowa.

Another year, another festival. And I’d bet all the money in my pockets that the crowd has about an 80 percent retention rate from the previous year. In other words, the same people are going to the same thing, every year.

Do I think Jean Seberg deserves her place in history? Absolutely. Personally I’m a big movie fan as well as a bit of an historian (majored in history) and I can appreciate how little attention her career garnered and how much of that was due to her political thoughts at the time.

But, other than the annual festival, does anybody go to the Orpheum?

I’m not talking about when there is a special occasion, like the festival or a play being produced. I’m talking about day-to-day visits.

Take the Fridley Theater, the Plaza 9 out at the mall. Yes, they have new movies and giant screens and laughably large tubs of popcorn available for purchase; so they are in many ways different than the Orpheum. But what keeps that theater, or any other regular business in the world, open are consistent, repeat customers.

So why do I care what the Orpheum chooses to run?

Because that 2006 bond issue was on us taxpayers, and frankly I’d like to see my investment upgrade its monetization and downgrade its idealization of the past.

Stay with me.

The Orpheum is a great theater, with ornate interiors and a lush design harkening back to an older time for movies and for Marshalltown. But a movie theater that doesn’t have customers isn’t a movie theater, its a mausoleum.

So, what is to be done?

Step one: Keep the Seberg film festival. That thing actually draws attention, and a crowd, to the Orpheum and there is no reason to stop utilizing one of the few consistent customer generating events on the Orpheum’s calendar. Plus, she was a M-Towner and deserves to be remembered here.

Step two: You know who else is an M-Towner, deserves to be remembered here, and is still working? Toby Huss. Why is there no Toby Huss festival? Sure, there aren’t many movies to watch, but the man’s career in television is storied and loved by people surrounding my age. There might not be a lot of movies to choose from, but select episodes of his famous television work, including breakout roles on “King of the Hill,” “Reno 911”, and “NewsRadio,” all culminating in a marathon showing of his greatest role (in my opinion) as that of Artie: The Strongest Man in the World on the seminal gen-x TV show “Pete & Pete” is the sort of thing that draws a crowd.

Step 3: Spanish language versions of popular movies.

How is this money still sitting on the table? There is a sizable Spanish speaking population in Marshalltown, many of whom are residents close to the Main Street district. Get a license to show some less-than-new movies, the same versions that movie studios distribute to Spanish speaking countries, and show them on a daily basis at the Orpheum. Spanish language kids’ movies on the weekend or during the summer, Spanish language blockbusters for the evenings, original Spanish language movies that it probably doesn’t cost to much to show in the United States; this is an untapped pool of revenue waiting for somebody to come by and scoop it up.

Step 4: My Marshalltown Documentary contest.

Everybody has a camera on their phone, or access to one quite quickly; throw in some free editing software or computer time at the library or the community college and you’ve got a town full of filmmakers. Start a town-wide contest to make a short documentary (20-30 mins) about M-Town and hold a festival for all the entries. It would be a chance for people who may not normally feel connected to this town to offer a view we might not normally get to see.

And that gets to my real sticking point: Focusing so much on the past, Ms. Seberg in particular, goes beyond merely acknowledging and celebrating our history and progresses into the territory of exclusion. Most people in this town have very little interest in French New Wave cinema, but everyone in this town has staked some money in bringing this theater back from the dead.

The only thing I’ve ever done for this town was to help build the skate park over by the softball complex. My impact was minimal as Moon Chaplin was the heart of the thing, as well as many, many others more important to its completion than myself; but every time I go to the Sixth Street Kwik Star (which is frequently, I assure you) I see kids playing on it. All the time. Young kids, older kids, skaters, kids on bikes, kids just standing around talking to their friends … but, most importantly, the kids are actually there, enjoying what we made.

In maybe the most famous of movies about Iowa, “Field of Dreams,” the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson tells Kevin Costner’s character “If you build it, they will come.”

Well, Shoeless Joe was a ghost, fictional, and wrong. In the real world, you build it first, then give them a reason to show up … then they’ll come. Kids come to the skate park because it’s the best place to skate in town. It’s time to give people a reason to go back to the Orpheum.

Copy Editor Wes Burns is a Sunday columnist. The views expressed in this column are personal views of the writer and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the T-R. Contact Wes Burns at 641-753-6611 or