Remembering the theaters we loved

The Strand. The Rialto. The Iowa. The Dodge. The Astro. Once among the most popular destinations on Central Avenue, they brought Hollywood to generations of Fort Dodge movie-goers, young and old.

Now they are fond but distant memories of those who plunked down the 35-cent admission fee to see their very first movie, join friends for a birthday celebration or have their first date with a night out at one of the single-screen theaters. Along with 15-cent popcorn and dime candy (remember Slo Pokes, Boston Baked Beans, Sugar Babies, Dots, Red Hots?)

“I saw about 1,000 movies growing up,” said Dr. Dan Cole, a Fort Dodge physician for 46 years whose father, Joe Cole, managed the theaters (including the Drive-In Theater) for Central States Theaters for nearly two decades. “Growing up with dad as manager was great. I was at the theaters almost daily and had a free run on free popcorn, candy, pop and any movie I wanted to see I got to see.”

The Rialto and Strand — earliest of the theaters — opened in the mid-1920s and continued for a half century until they and the others all had closed by the mid-1970s. (The Strand became the Astro when remodeled in 1966.) The drive-in theater closed in 1976. Today, Fort Dodge movie-goers are entertained at the Fort 8 Theater — with more screens under one roof than the combined total of the downtown theaters in their heyday.

The old single-screen theaters were victims in Fort Dodge and elsewhere to an economy of scale in the movie industry with multiple screens under one roof and with advances in technology offering far superior sound, visual quality and more comfortable seating than the theaters of old. Technicolor was a huge advance back then — but no match to today’s movies.

Back in the day, the Rialto at 604 Central, which opened in the mid-1920s, was the crown jewel with 755 seats that included a balcony, unique to Fort Dodge theaters.

Growing up as the son of the theater manager had its advantages, Cole said, and the reason had little to do with the movies themselves.

“The balcony at the Rialto opened when the main floor filled up but me and my friends, including dates, could always bypass the rope and head to the balcony for movies,” he recalled. “I used to go to the theater on weekends and look with a flashlight along the aisle seats for change that would catch there when they blew the old boxes and wrappers to the front of the theater for clean-up. I got my shopping change there and would run off to Kresges or Woolworth or Hobby Craft to buy some treasure.”

All of the theaters advertised their movies on marquees, and Sam Hartman recalls one of his jobs was to climb a wooden ladder to reset the lettering when a new movie began.

“Out in front of the theater,” he recalls, “on a ladder, with the faces of the marquee fully lit — here I am right on Central Avenue, with bumper-to-bumper traffic, with cars full of the youth of Fort Dodge. Constant yelled comments such as ‘You’re spelling that wrong,’ ‘Your slip is showing,’ ‘What does that say?’ ‘Don’t fall,’ etc. I often wanted to have a supply of water balloons in my letter box that I could throw, but I didn’t think Mr. Cole or the cops that ‘walked the beat’ at that time would see any humor in that.”

But it was worth the abuse, said the former Webster County correctional officer — $3 each time the marquee was changed on top of an hourly pay rate of 75 cents an hour and two free tickets to each movie “so we could take a date with us.”

The theaters did their best to attract business. Free passes were issued through Fort Dodge Police Officer Joe Koll to give to his school patrol boys. Patti Miller recalled U.S. Gypsum had a private showing at Christmas time for kids whose parents worked at USG. Susan Sudbrock recalled that First National Bank gave free passes to kids of members every summer.

“Our mom took us to see ‘Gone With the Wind’ at the Dodge when we were really too young to understand the film,” said Mary Zenor Terrass. “But I was still fascinated by the story. When we got home, I pretended to be Scarlett O’Hara. Our backyard in Round Prairie wasn’t quite like the plantation Tara, but I still buried a carrot and then dug it up while proclaiming ‘as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.’ It’s probably a good thing I stopped there instead of trying to recreate the Battle of Atlanta. But as a kid growing up in FD, I sure loved those three theaters on Central Ave!”

The theaters once featured a babysitter’s day on Saturdays, Cole said, where kids could be dropped off at 8 in the morning, watch cartoons through the day, eat hot dogs for lunch, and then be picked up by their parents in the afternoon.

John Clements recalls the Saturday matinee movies: “After watching ‘The Tingler,’ any kid with guts was obligated to ride his bike home via every commercial and residential alley, just to perpetuate the emotions of lurking danger.”

Cole recalls traveling with his father (who died in 1968) to area communities to distribute movie posters to gas stations, grocery stores and anyone who would post them to advertise the latest movies. From time to time, a lesser-known Hollywood movie celebrity would come to town during a publicity tour.

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