Country Connection

113-year-old small town theater charts new future


First he was a kid in the audience. Later he worked the concession stand. Now Mac Howes owns West Liberty’s New Strand Theatre and hopes to offer today’s families the same thrills he enjoyed as a kid.

He and co-owner Deb Lowman are showing movies, renovating the theater, and preparing to bring more live entertainment to the 110-year-old building.

New Strand Theatre is located at 111 E. Third St., in downtown West Liberty.

It seats 230 people.

“The balcony should seat another 40,” Howes said. That’s among his current projects.

Before movies were shown there, the theater hosted vaudeville acts, and could seat 700 people.

“The balcony went all the way to the back wall, and there were two staircases and the seats were much smaller,” Howes said.

Howes decided he wanted to take it on because of the history he had with it.

We came here a lot when we were kids,” Howes said. “And then my older sister worked here first. She got me a job here. At first I got hired here to just do concessions.”

At that time, the owner was Todd Leach. He recruited Howes to help him with renovations, including painting the original tin ceiling.

“Nobody has put stuff over it, which has happened at a lot of the older buildings downtown,” Howes said. “They cover it up for some reason.”

The ceiling had to be cleaned before it could be painted because it was stained by cigarette smoke.

“You could smoke in here, so the ceiling looked brown, but it was actually yellow,” Howes said. “There was so much on it. It was a chore.”

Crystal chandeliers are replicas of the originals, he said.

Howes put an addition on the rear of the building,  and is working on the balcony. The former owner tore it down to the studs and left it that way. When Howes and Lowman bought it, he had to re-level the balcony floor.

He’s repainted the balcony, installed new flooring and bought a vintage concession stand he plans to install. The upstairs bathroom was renovated.

In 2008, movies went from being shown by film to digital. New Strand upgraded to digital to keep open.

“There were a lot of single room theaters that went out of business because it was super expensive,” Howes said. “That projector was $68,000 by itself, and that doesn’t make it work. You need the computer in the back to make it function.”

Some of the sound system had to be switched to digital, but the speakers could still be used, he added.

Movie showing time

Movies are shown Friday evenings, matinees Saturday and Sunday, and evening showings on Saturday.

“Usually, our busiest show is Saturday,” Howes said. “We’ll get families. There’s more people, but there’s less work.”

Generally, the theater doesn’t show R-rated movies because kids aren’t allowed in those movies unless adults are with them.

“We get less people usually with those,” Howes said. “Most adults honestly don’t want to see them like the horror movies. It will be a couple of college students and one older person.”

Children and older adults are the main patrons, he added.

Before COVID-19, the theater would be open during the week and draw small audiences. Now, Howes is happy if 40 people come, depending on what movie is showing.

Now, kids' movies are generally what brings people there to watch films, he said. He has already been asked to show the live action “The Little Mermaid” when it comes out later this spring.

Howes has to reach out to each production company to ask if he can show the movie there, he said. Most of the new movies go to larger theaters, first. He generally shows films for two weeks.

Future ideas

New Strand has a stage that can be used for entertainment.

I want live acts again,” Howes said. “I think that would be really nice to be able to use the stage and have real people in front of you again.”

Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre, of West Liberty, and a community radio show will use the stage, he said.

“We do have a few (live shows) here and there, but I think it would be nice to have live acts – a couple of bands every once in a while or something (like that),” Howes said.

A history of the New Strand: 763 seats on Dec. 6, 1910 opening day

In 1910, the New Strand Theatre was built as the West Liberty Opera House 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. “The Traveling Salesman” was the play. It was held on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 1910. The ticket sale opened at 2 p.m. on Nov. 30, and by 6 p.m., half of the seats were sold, the price being $1.50, $2, 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.

In 1921, Ludy Bosten became the proprietor of the New Strand, and was joined by Paul Tobias in 1927. During their 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.

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.

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 purchased the New Strand from Mr. Horton May 13, 1988. Tickets went up in price over the years to $2, but the “Buck Nite” was still available once a week. Also, Mr. Polman and his family lived in the converted 2nd floor apartment.

1990s makeover with Gov. Vilsack

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 was rebuilt, the original seats were refurbished and the entry, lobby and theatre were repainted with help by a group of 100 volunteers led by Gov. Tom and Christie Vilsack.

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 performance home.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Mac Howes, Deb Lowman, New Strand Theater, Todd Leach, Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre