Forty years ago a group of DeWitt business people marched up and down Sixth Avenue garnering support to make an offer on the “Majestic Theater,” historically known as the Operahouse.
Built in 1878, the Operahouse had transitioned into strictly a movie theater in the 1930s and renamed the Majestic Theater. Over the following four decades, the theater had fallen into disrepair and was a venue that had lost its attraction to both young and old. In 1979, the building was put up for sale, and rumor had it that it was to become a warehouse or subject to the wrecking ball.
The business leaders garnered adequate financial support, and once the building was pronounced structurally sound, they formed the “DeWitt Theater Company” and purchased the building.
To make a long story short, the community rallied around the idea to save the historic theater, and in the following three years, attracted over $300,000 in financial and “in-kind” support to “renovate” the theater into a clean and family-oriented entertainment venue for DeWitt and surrounding communities. Local contractors Robert Soenksen and Wes Witte came to the rescue of the business leaders to provide drawings, direction and machine labor to relieve the aching backs of the many community volunteers.
The entertainment that followed included movies on a regular basis, stage events and community gatherings. The community at the time had no other dedicated facility for live performances. As we all know now, the theater shows first-run movies nightly and creates a “destination location” for moviegoers from a wide region of Eastern Iowa. Where else can you see a first-run movie in a comfortable surrounding for five bucks?
The DeWitt Theater Company, a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization, continues to own the theater and is served by a local board of directors, many of whom have been engaged since the 1980 renovation. The theater has been leased to the Prichard family since the mid-1980s on a very affordable lease arrangement that has allowed the ticket prices to remain in the $5 range for nearly four decades. The Prichards, now in its second generation of management with Laura Prichard Miers taking over from Bim and Dianne over a year ago, have fulfilled the dream of those original business people that bought a “pig in poke” 40 years ago.
Under the Prichard’s management, the Operahouse has truly been and continues to be a community asset and attraction, providing screened entertainment for all ages and bringing traffic to many other area businesses.
Over the years, upkeep and improvements have been required to keep the theater attractive, clean and current. The theater board is constantly challenged to raise the funds necessary for roof repairs and replacement, for stucco repair and painting, for HVAC updates, for digital projection equipment, not to mention the major addition that was made in 2006 to add handicap access, handicap restrooms and a reasonably spacious art gallery. The board has a goal to increase what is now a quite small endowment that has been started through the Lincolnway Community Foundation to a point that might insure the future benefits the Operahouse provides to area quality of life and the local economy.
The Operahouse has had for some time a recognition program for those choosing to annually support this historical gem. Recognized giving levels range from $50 to $1,000. So, as we approach “Great Give Day” on May 9, the theater is hoping area residents might consider a tax-deductible gift to the DeWitt Theater Co. for the ongoing physical support of the Operahouse Theatre.
Contributions can be made by dropping them off at the Lincolnway Foundation office or by going to the following link: https://www.greatgiveday.org/dewittoperahouse.