The Theater

Nation's Great Stars Performed: Late 19th Century Was Golden Era

Clinton TheaterThe caption to this photo says "Glittering Performances Here" and underneath it reads: 'Before it was razed a number of years ago to make room for the present modern building now housing the National Guard armory, The Clinton Theater on 6th Ave. S. was the scene of many glittering performances.'

In the last decade of the 19th century, Clinton was known far and wide forits interest in the legitimate theater.

Some of the biggest stars in the nation made personal appearances here andthe "standing room only" signs usually were necessary.

Probably the very first was the Bijou, in Fifth avenue, South.  TheDavis Opera house was soon built on the southwest corner of Sixth avenue andSecond street, and then, in 1897, the Economic Insurance company of Des Moines,built the Economic showhouse.  It played such performances as "FrancesWilson," Geisha Girl" and "Polar Star."  Later, whenClintonians bought the building, it became the Clinton theater.  It wasoperated by Charles Dixon, and played top road shows and operettas, with suchstars as Eddie Foy, Richard Carles, Eddie Cantor, Clinton's native daughter,Lillian Russell, other Clinton native stars, Al Jolson and the Barrymores.

Forerunners of modern movies were the illustrated song slides.  EdKehoe, owner of the Clinton and Columbia hotels, opened the first of thesetheaters in Clinton in the block where the Volckman store is today.  Seatedon folding chairs on a flat floor, the audience saw two reel flickers and heardsome illustrated songs for a nickel.  Advertising was taken care of by abarker outside the theater.

The Nickelodeon, run by and out-of-town chain, was soon operated in Secondstreet, in the Henry Pahl building.  Walter Andrews was the singer forthese shows.  Later, when purchased by the Hart brothers of Clinton, thistheater became the Colonial.

Jack O'Toole used to sing at the Lyric theater, which was managed by a Mr.Angell.  This was in the building owned by Donlans, where the Western Uniontelegraph company is now.

The Best

Across the street from the Colonial was another theater owned by the HartBrothers and called the Best.  P. D. Alleman, who had been operating atheater in Freeport, Ill., bought the Best and renamed it the Princess in 1917.

In 1906 the Casino was built in the vicinity of the present Eagles building,and operated by a Mr. Peterson.  Oscar Stremlow played the piano forillustrated songs.

The corner where the Strand theater formerly was located was used in thosedays for cord wood storage in the winter and for tent shows, dog shows andminstrels in the summer.  In the early 1900's Dixon and Stewart opened itas an open-air showhouse and played stock shows at prices from 10 to 30 cents intheir airdrome.  Later the Langan building was built here and the theaterwas called the Royal, owned and operated by J. C. Langan.  In 1916 Mr.Alleman bought it and renamed it the Strand, also buying the Princess at thistime and the A-Muse-U later.

The A-Muse-U had been opened in 1908 by Dr. Henley and J. E. Purcell. When Mr. Alleman bought it Don Smith and Mrs. Simmons opened it for him in 1922,as the Rialto.  Later the vaudeville theater Orpheum, built and run by andout-of-town circuit, was purchased and renamed the Capitol by Mr. Alleman.

By this time there were two theaters in Lyons -- The Suburban, built in theearly 1900's and managed by Bill Iverson, and the Parkside, built in 1914, andnow called the Lyons.

Nickelodeons Once Popular: Clinton Has Had Many Theaters

W. W. HarwoodInventionof motion pictures ushered in a new era of entertainment in Clinton during theearly 1900's.

Leading the parade of theaters were the old Nickelodeons.  As the name indicates, admission charge was five cents.  Among the first in Clinton was one located at the present site of the Volckmann Furniture Co.  This was inthe early part of the century and among the early managers was W. W. Harwood.

That began a parade of theaters in Clinton -- The Colonial (where the J.& P. Shoe Shoppe now is located) the Princess (in the present Turnerbuilding), the Family (Bender Music Co.) the Strand (Langan building) theA-Muse-U (now the Rialto), Orpheum (now the Capital) and the Lyric (WesternUnion office).  

For a time the Family was a vaudeville house.

Preceding even the Nickelodeons was the Airdome outdoor theater at thenortheast corner of 4th Ave. S. and 2nd St. before the Langan building waserected.  This was open during the summer, with stock companies furnishingthe entertainment.

In the northend the first theater was the Surburba, located on Main avenuenear the postoffice.  

In 1913 the Parkside was opened, the name being changed to the Lyons inrecent years.

Dixon and Stewart Managed Old Clinton Theater for Many years

The names Charles E. Dixon and J. B. Stewart were linked with the colorfulClinton theater during most of the years of its existence.

In the early 1900's the two men acquired ownership of the theater and thepartnership continued until 1939 when Dixon died.

The walls of the Stewart Poster Advertising office at 828 S. 3rd St. arecovered with autographed photos of famous stars who visited in Clinton. The names comprise a veritable "Who's Who" of stars of the by-goneera.

Mr. Stewart, who retained an active interest in the advertising firm untilhis death May 8, had reams of information about Clinton's theater history at theend of his finger tips.

He related that in the year 1897, the Economic Insurance company, headed byGeorge Kuhns and Frank Thornburg, developed the much needed theatercenter.  The Clinton Theater company was formed about 1903 and purchasedthe building.  Then it was managed by the Busby Brothers for the EconomicInsurance Company and the Clinton Theater company consisted of Russell B. McCoy,Garrett E. Lamb, Frank W. Ellis, Edward A. Young, Marvin J. Gates and GeorgeMcDaid.

It was formally opened by Francis Wilson in "Half a King," HazenClark was the first manager.  Harry Tate, who had managed the Bijou Theaterand the Davis Opera House, came next and then Dixon & Stewart.

SOURCE: Centennial Edition, Clinton Herald, Clinton Iowa, 18 June 1955