July 18, 2024

Historical area theater faces closure

The Princess Theater, located in Mount Ayr on 101 W Monroe St. The mural on the side of the building was designed by Iowa State students in 2023. The marquee on the theater has been declared structurally unsound and will be need additional funding to repair.

MOUNT AYR - Since 1887, before the building received its name, the Princess Theater has seen changes in the entertainment industry and the town and residents of Mount Ayr. Converting from a live stage to the hybrid stage and movie theater today, the theater has seen its own share of changes as well. However, after a rocky period following the COVID-19 pandemic, the Princess Theater is facing hardship.

With a movie industry destabilized by COVID and ticket sales not returning to what they were pre-pandemic, the Princess Theater has been struggling to make ends meet.

“We’ve never, ever wanted to make money, that’s not what this building’s about,” said Martha Landphair, president of the Princess Theater board. “It’s just paying the bills.”

The Princess Theater is just one of several local area theaters, including the Iowa Theater in Winterset, the Grand Theatre in Greenfield, the Stuart Fremont Theatre in Stuart, the Corning American Theatre in Corning and the Lyric Theater in Osceola.

Creston’s Strand Theater, which closed in 2020, provided an update on Monday on their renovation work, stating electrical work had been finished and will be attempting to raise funds for additional repair with no opening date set yet.

History

The building which would become the Princess Theater was constructed in 1887 on the Mount Ayr town square as a part of a local department store. In 1914, the building was converted to the Princess Theater, showing silent movies with live orchestration, and would operate for a further 56 years.

Renovations would see the theater reopen in 1980, but close again in 1985. Starting in 2003, funds were raised for renovating and reopening the building after it was donated to the Princess Theater Troupe. The theater saw its doors open again in 2008 as a live stage and movie theater, offering the stage to local theater groups and schools. The first movie shown was “The Dark Knight.”

The theater has shifted and renovated but still remains a historical part of Mount Ayr. An archway in the lobby of the theater still remains from the building’s original construction, marking where the original space for the theater’s audience extended. Keeping the building representative of its historical status was important during renovations. A plaque detailing the theater’s history rests on the storefront of the building.

The inside of the Princess Theater, with a movable projector screen which can be wheeled back to convert the stage for live performances.

Today

The Princess Theater runs as a nonprofit, offering movies at a below-average ticket price ($7 per ticket is lower than 2023′s $10.78 average). In addition to what is shown in the theater, the group regularly holds screenings in the center of the square on the courthouse lawn.

The theater typically ran as a “second or third-run theater.” This means the Princess would show movies after their nationwide opening week, which would help limit costs which would be associated with obtaining films for their opening weekend.

This has changed as distributors force new restrictions onto theaters and a film industry environment change where the theatrical window for movies has shortened, with movies heading to digital stores and streaming services earlier and earlier. This forced a change from the Princess to become a first-run theater, depending on the newest releases to succeed.

“We have to pay the movie company a certain percentage of our ticket sales,” said Karen Bender, the manager for the Princess Theater. “That was manageable, but since COVID, and movies heading for streaming, we’ve become a first-run theater not by choice. Our percentages are higher that we have to pay.”

Theaters make the majority of their money off of concessions like popcorn and candy, but with prices rising since the pandemic, this hasn’t been as reliable.

Modern film distribution also changed how long smaller theaters screen movies, with some studios requiring theaters to hold their movies for a certain number of weeks. This isn’t a problem for multiplex theaters, who have the capacity to hold movies for weeks on-end, but for a single-screen community-driven theater, it is.

“Three days is enough for our population to show a movie and go on,” said Landphair. “Now they want us to keep them [at minimum] two weeks.”

Over the next three weeks, the Princess Theater will be showing “Inside Out 2,″ conceding multiple weeks to one of the biggest movies of the summer. Disney requires theaters to show their movies on at least one screen for three weeks.

Struggle

Making gambles on what movies would be successful and dealing with reserved schedules has led to a drought of ticket sales for the theater, with a dwindling nationwide 2024 box office which hasn’t kicked off quite successfully.

2023 brought the Writer’s and Actor’s strikes, which delayed and limited the variety of movies available for theaters, pushing the output of film studios to the future.

In addition to the theater’s current expenses, the building’s marquee has fallen into disrepair, being declared structurally unsound. Additional funds would need to be raised in order to pay for refurbishment.

As a century-old representation of movies both old and new, the Princess Theater remains a historically important part of recreation in Mount Ayr.

Help

During the pandemic alongside applying for grants, one of the ways the theater was able to make money despite being unable to show movies was selling theater popcorn and candy. While demand was lower, it’s the type of thinking the theater needed to remain operational.

The Princess Theater will be holding multiple fundraisers over the coming months into December, including a program starting in July for free movies after local baseball and softball games. Donations can decide what movie is shown while still able to make money off of concessions as well.

Fundraisers will also be held with events in the local square, closing the road and bringing a trailer to show free movies. In December, a live production called “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” will utilize the live stage. Programs like these help integrate the theater’s business with the local community, providing a service for the Mount Ayr community.

In addition, the theater offers a patron program which puts patrons who donate to the theater as a name shown on the theater screen before all screenings. Different levels of support include from a bronze tier at $25, silver at $50, gold at $100, and platinum for any amount over $100. Bender described this as the “best way to support” the theater.

For the next three weeks, the Princess Theater will be screening “Inside Out 2″ at showtimes of 7 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $7 per person.

Nick Pauly

News Reporter for Creston News Advertiser. Raised and matured in the state of Iowa, Nick Pauly developed a love for all forms of media, from books and movies to emerging forms of media such as video games and livestreaming.