In 1910, the New Strand Theatre was built as the West Liberty OperaHouse at a cost of $18,944.50. The money was raised by popular subscription, and stock subscribed by members of the Knights of Pythias lodge. The first floor was used for an opera house, which showed musical numbers and plays performed by traveling roadshows – Vaudeville actors and actresses. The second floor was used by the Knights of Pythias and the Pythian Sisters.
The first show to be held in the opera house was a benefit play, the funds going to buy the equipment. Will Maxon had leased the opera house and he, with C.A. Nichols and G.B. Embree were to have charge of the play. Ivan Noland had charge of the ticket sale. “The Traveling Salesman” was the play. It was held on Tuesday, December 6th, 1910. The ticket sale opened at 2:00 p.m. on the 30th day of November and by 6:00 p.m. half of the seats were sold, the pricebeing $1.50, $2.00, and $2.50. “Fig” Morris was the first ticket purchaser and he took the front row of the balcony, 21 seats. He locked up his store and they all attended. The house seated 763 people. The total sales for the night were $2,112.00. The Crescent Five composed of C.N. Rowley, Archie Ditmars, Elmer and Clyde Wells and Pearl Probst furnished music.
The first show held under Mr. Maxon’s lease was “Nancy,” a musical drama, on December 19th, 1910. The house was entirely sold out.
In 1921, Ludy Bosten became the proprietor of the New Strand, and was joined by Paul Tobias in 1927. Duringtheir ownership, the opera house ceased to have road shows, and was turned into a moving picture house known as The Strand. This required some changes in the balcony to house projection equipment. Mr. Tobias managed the theatre until November, 1961, when he ran an ad that he would be closed until after the first of the year, due to poor health. During this era, movies in the 30’s were 10 cents, and was open 7 days a week, but in the 50’s they cut back to weekend shows only.
The Chamber of Commerce responded to Mr. Tobias’s need to close by voting to continue the operation at least until after the first of the year if Ludy Bosten consented. This was due in part to their promotion of a free Christmas show for the kids. The venture was so successful that the Chamber continued the operation of the business until it was leased to Don Horton of Mt. Vernon early in 1963.
Mr. Horton leased the theatre until 1965 when he bought a half interest in the building and equipment. He became the sole owner of the New Strand after purchasing the remaining interest from the Bosten Estate in 1969. The theatre had been and continued to be the home of family films showing each weekend. In 1974, Mr. Horton originated the first “Buck Nite” in the state of Iowa, and reported that his most popular movie was “E.T.” in 1982. During the time Mr. Horton was the owner, he employed Richard Polman starting in 1971 who became the projectionist. Mr. Polman assisted in preparation for the Sesquicentennial in April, 1988 by showing the film “Gone with the Wind” and setting up a display of antiques at the theatre – a lamp house dated 1925 which was used to provide light to show a film, an old telephone, a small “coaster type” wagon, a light fixture that had hung in the lobby and poster advertising Hollywood stars in their great films. Two flags – a 48 star and a 50 star – were flown above the marquee.
Mr. Polman purchased the New Strand from Mr. Horton May 13, 1988. Tickets went up in price over the years to $2.00 but the “Buck Nite” was still available once a week. Also, Mr. Polman and his family lived in the converted 2nd floor apartment in front of what had been the Knights of Pythias hall. During the years Mr. Polman was involved with the theatre, many electrical upgrades occurred on the building and fans were added in the main theatre, in addition to upgrades that allowed staff to operate the projector, at least in part, from the box office.
Mr. Polman sold the New Strand to Todd Leach of Iowa City on July 1, 1996. Mr. Leach had graduated from the University of Iowa as a film major and had done some work on motion pictures in sound, but wanted to remain in the area close to family. During the time Mr. Leach has owned the building, the Neon Marquee has been rebuilt, the original seats were refurbished and the entry, lobby and theatre were repainted with help by a group of 100 volunteers led by Mr. and Mrs. Tom Vilsack, at that time the Governor of Iowa. The one week mission greatly improved the appearance and comfort of the interior. Mr. Leach also replaced the heating and air conditioning units to further improve the comfort of the building, as well as later replacing the seats with modern seating, and upgraded to digital sound.
In 1999, Eulenspiegel puppet company designated the New Strand as their perfomance home. They were able to obtain a grant so the screen could be made mobile so that live acts could once again utilize the full stage. Eulenspiegel collaborates with puppet companies from around the world, and so the theatre has housed a wide variety of not only puppetry, but also opportunities opened up for other live acts, which have used the stage since.
In 2007, Mr. Leach’s wife took interest in further renovations, so after significant planning and saving, in 2008-2009 they fully restored the entry way, decorating the ticket window as a small building surrounded by a theatre appropriate rendition of Gustav Klimt’s 1909 Tree of Life Frieze, using wooden appliqués and jewels, in addition to Goldberg reels, rather than enamels and precious stones. Also, the bathrooms were updated as well as the lobby with burgundy wainscoting and a gold swirled ceiling. Back lit movie poster cases were hung, and much of the woodwork was stripped and restored.
In 2008, Mr. Leach teamed with the West Liberty Free Public Library to host a now annual international film festival in the spring. In the fall of 2008, he updated film projection to digital projection, an amazing improvement over film. This also allowed for 3-D movies as well, which was particularly popular with families.
In 2009, the Leach family started the restoration of the tin ceiling. The ceiling originally was painted and gilded in typical early Art Deco colors. Later, the ceiling was repainted at an unknown time after the entertainment changed to movies. The ceiling picked up decades of cigarette smoke as well as smoke from popcorn and the open arc lamps from the original projectors. They painted the ceiling gold and hung chandeliers once again.
Todd Leach sold the New Strand in December, 2015 to Malcolm Howes and Debra Lowman. They hope to reseat and reopen the balcony and renovate the live stage area, among other things in the future.
While some may wonder, “why did they change the walls” or other items, one must keep in mind that the theatre has been in constant evolution since it was built, and many changes have happened through the decades. Changes in building codes for safety is part of the reason. Managing sound, for example, has required considerable changes in theatres across the nation to accommodate it properly.
The theatre currently hosts other events including piano recitals, dance recitals, weddings, family reunions with old family movies, movie premieres, screenings, and live acts ranging from puppets to magic and everywhere in between. Howes and Lowman are quite open to creative use of the space as long as it does not impact the evening movie time.
Information obtained from “One Hundred Years of History,” 1938, IAGenWebProject and Sesquicentennial, July, 1988, referencing the May 5, 1988 West Libery Index, as well as personal interviews. Photos supplied by various sources and by our local postcard collector, Scott Peters. No known additional copyrighted material used. Any missing information and errors noted within may be promptly corrected by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.