The 1906 Akron Opera House has been home to the local community theatre since 1970, when a high school teacher inspired students and the community to reclaim it from several decades of neglect. Now the town is embarking on an effort to save and rejuvenate it once again for future generations. That effort includes bringing in professional performances and even opera.
In what seems like an unusual arrangement, in 1905, the American Life Insurance Company of Des Moines promised the community of Akron an opera house if enough people bought its life insurance.
Now, it’s important to know that in the late 1800s and early 1900s, any town in Iowa that wanted to be considered civilized and progressive had to have a place for live performances, an opera house. The residents of Akron bought the insurance.
In February, 1906, the second show at Akron’s $18,000 structure was The Rajah of Altara, a musical comedy.
As best we’ve been able to determine, the American Life Insurance Company of Des Moines doesn’t exist anymore. The Akron Opera House still does.
And on March 3, 2009, Gaelic Storm was setting up for a concert. Their appearance here is part of a carefully planned effort to revive the old opera house, one of few in the state that still functions as a performance venue.
Mark D. Cline, Executive Director, Akron Opera House: “The beauty of what we have to offer them is the intimacy of a small theater with beautiful acoustics that isn’t broke, it’s just old.”
Just like the structures that were in many Iowa towns, the Akron Opera House featured businesses on the first floor, like a land office or a grocery.
The upper floors had the hall with the stage and a balcony. The front of the 2nd floor also had offices, even an apartment at one time.
The non-theatrical parts of opera houses like this often were what made the facilities pay, and possibly what kept this structure standing while others disappeared around the state. There’s still a downstairs renter.
After opening in 1906, the Akron Opera House had a good run, hosting traveling troupes and various community performances and activities. But times change and the curtain came down for good sometime in the 1930s.
Then, in 1969, the theatre got a second lease on life when high school teacher Richard Jacobs inspired students and the community to clean up the Opera House and reclaim it from time and bats.
Joyce Thorson got involved as the mother of a student and stayed with it for decades.
Joyce Thorson, Former Board Member, Akron Opera House: “They found out that they needed money and the school didn’t have money and we had to go and beg, borrow, steal and coerce the town to help us. And that was how it started and from that point on everybody got on board.”
Karen Taylor-Mortensen was a college student when the restoration was going on – and she helped her mother sew a curtain.
Karen Taylor-Mortensen, Board Member, Akron Opera House: “And she and my dad measured. And we got fabric; and we sewed the draperies; and we worked together on it. One of us would run the sewing machine and the other one would pull the fabric through because it was so heavy.”
Last year Karen made this curtain by herself.
Since 1970, the nearly 400 seat hall has been the home of the Akron Community Theater and, for a number of years, their children’s wing. It also hosted outside groups. Still, about a hundred years after it had opened, the Opera House was reaching a critical juncture.
Doug Olson, President, Akron Opera House: “We were at this crossroads. We’ve got money in the bank. Do we just sit back and, and do what we’ve been doing for the last 38 years? It was going to deteriorate and it was going to go away just like they all have across Iowa.”
Then last year, someone from South Dakota came to see a friend in a play at the opera house. By July, 2008, the board had hired him as Executive Director, its first ever paid position.
Mark D. Cline, Executive Director, Akron Opera House: “On a personal level, the seed that developed my interest came from coming and experiencing what was here, a live performance. And looking at what that could be with an imagination attached to it of more, and the more is what my job is all about.”
Along with the local community theatre’s productions, they created an expanded season with more events.
It kicked off last fall with the Missoula Children’s Theatre. That helps build future supporters.
Bringing in Gaelic Storm and other types of live entertainment is another part of the design. How well different events draw crowds, tells the board what the community will support.
The object is to build up the audience, locally and regionally. With just about 1500 people, Akron needs to make the opera house a regional attraction.
Drawing good crowds will in turn help create support for preserving and renovating the building, and getting some grants.
What people are doing here is a lot of work. And to succeed, they have to keep the balance between local productions that keep local support, and outside acts that draw people from a wider area.
But they have good reasons for taking on the challenge, something they’ve done before.
Karen Taylor-Mortensen, Board Member, Akron Opera House: “We’re connected to our history. This is our history and we love our heritage.”
Joyce Thorson, Former Board Member, Akron Opera House: “Right.”
Doug Olson, President, Akron Opera House: “We knew we needed to save this building for upcoming generations of Akron.”
These days, this old opera house is actually hosting the real thing: opera. Ironically, most of Iowa’s opera houses probably never did. The structures got that high- brow name because, in some circles, theatre people and theatres were considered rather unsavory.
But, if places like this were called opera houses, then the “decent” people in town could patronize them, whatever the entertainment. It sounds rather transparent to me, but it worked.
Additional Images: Akron Historical Society, Akron Register-Tribune, The Akron Hometowner, Reed Street Imaging, Joyce Thorson, Sioux City Journal; Photo by Charles Anderson, Copyright 1970 The Des Moines Register and Tribune Company, Used with Permission.
Akron Opera House: 712-568-8747