Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday May 10, 2003 

Saturday Postcard 193: Englert Theatre, Inside and Out

The original stage in the Englert Theatre beckons a curtain call in this image from an advertisement printed in the
1917 annual of Iowa City High School. The Englert was opened in 1912 and was destroyed by fire in 1926, but not before
Sarah Bernhardt performed on it in 1919. Note the private boxes on either side, and the organ in the orchestra pit.

Crowds line East Washington Street in both directions to enter the Englert Theatre in downtown Iowa City, perhaps taken near the time
the theater first opened in 1912. A circa 1910 Model T Ford is parked curbside, trolley tracks mark the street and the original Englert
sign hangs far above the marquee. Image courtesy Carol Chopek Seydel.


By Bob Hibbs

Nearly a century of change is represented by the Englert Theatre in downtown Iowa City. The theater bridges a time from the horse-and-buggy era to movies sold on compact disks.

Dunkel’s Orchestra played for opening the Englert Sept. 26, 1912, led by Albert “Punch” Dunkel.  The orchestra played regularly next door west of the theater building in the large third-floor Paul-Helen Building hall, a venue later named Varsity Ballroom. Punch’s wife, Emma, played piano accompaniment despite being deaf.

This was a quarter century ahead of the “Big Band” era of the 1930s and war years of the 1940s.

Emma and Albert Dunkel also operated the Pastime Theatre which was opened at 205 E. College about 1911. 
It was called the Capitol Theatre during the 1940s and ’50s; was closed; and, then used for many years as a pinball game room inhabited by male youths of all ages.

Dunkel Saloon which during prohibition became Dunkel’s Cigar Store operated next door on the corner of Dubuque and College streets. These sites now are within the restaurant area of the Sheraton Hotel downtown.

Englert signage is a key factor in dating an image taken in the 200 block of East Washington Street. The original 1912 sign shows in today’s featured image, exhibiting a modest-sized horizontal rectangular shape. The sign erected soon after the 1926 fire was a two-story tall vertical rectangle. The garish bulb-burner now showing came along during the 1940s.

During 1946 at the peak of a movie-going craze which followed World War II and was accompanied by the nickel coke, there were five movie houses in Iowa City – all downtown.

In addition to the Pastime and Englert, the Varsity which later was called the Astro was operated in what is now part of the bank building located across Washington Street from the Englert. The Varsity site had been previously occupied by the fire-destroyed Garden Theater.

In 1946 the Strand occupied the southwest corner of College and Dubuque streets, less than 100 feet from the Pastime. It was destroyed by fire about 1969, and the site now is occupied in part by the walkway immediately adjacent to the Sheraton Hotel which provides a public access from the College Street section of the downtown pedestrian mall south toward Burlington Street.

The fifth downtown theater in 1946 was then the newest – the Iowa at 124 S. Dubuque. After a run of four decades, it was converted into a Burger King which was operated there during the late 1980s and the 1990s by one-time city counselor Dean Thornberry.

The Iowa City Drive-In Theater of this period actually was located in central Coralville, not far from today’s Coralville City Hall. The Coralville Library occupies part of the old theater site.

Ford Hopkins Drug managed by Ray Reimers sold nickel cokes on the southeast quadrant of the Dubuque-Washington corner in the heart of the 1940s theater district. The site is now a corner statuary park on the pedestrian mall. Movie admission was 10 cents; a hamburger with fries cost 25.

All seven of these grand old institutions are now gone, including the Englert Theatre, which a community-spirited non-profit calling itself the Englert Civic Theatre now owns and is attempting to resurrect as a stage venue for use by all sorts of community groups needing a “show house” environment seating up to about 800.

Their fund drive is ongoing, is nearing a new deadline, and could use gifts of any size. The Englert represents a small piece of our heritage seeking a 21st century helping hand which it may return many times over in future contributions to the civic, social and cultural life of this community.

Opportunities call every day!

Next Saturday: Oakdale – the State Tuberculosis Sanatorium.


Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and researches history related to them.


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