Princess Theater Trained Actors

From the 1880s through the 1920s going to a theater performanceGrand Opera House, Burlington, Iowa, ca. 1910. Postcard published by J.J. Curran & Co., Burlington, Iowa. was one of the most popular forms of entertainment for Iowans. In the early 1900s there were no movies for people to enjoy – silent or talking. The invention of television was decades away. Iowans relied on stage performances to provide their entertainment. Many Iowa communities built opera houses during this era. Comedy, drama and musical performances drew packed audiences to the theaters and opera houses around the state. These years truly were the “golden age of theater.”

Traveling road show companies formed in New York and other large cities. Companies booked shows and tours in many Iowa towns. Traveling companies of performers arrived in Iowa communities by train. From the 1890s through the 1920s many well-known acting companies put on performances in Iowa opera houses and theaters. Road shows performed for one or two nights. Then they left for the next town.

The Princess Theater in Des Moines

By the early 1900s Iowa communities began to use local talent instead of depending entirely on traveling road shows. Small acting companies formed. The Princess Theater in Des Moines became known as “the place” for young actors and actresses to develop their acting skills. It was described as “one of the outstanding theaters not on Broadway.” Young actors and actresses came from all over the country to join stock acting companies at the Princess. They lived and worked in Des Moines sometimes up to several years. The acting companies put on nightly shows and three or four matinee performances each week.

Experience at the Princess Theater was looked upon very favorably when the actors and actresses left Iowa. They had gained valuable experience in the performing arts that helped them get jobs in Hollywood and New York. Some of the actors and actresses who trained and performed at the Princess led successful careers as stars of silent movies, talking movies, Broadway and television.

Famous entertainers of the era got their start at the Princess. Conrad Nagel, a silent film star who successfully made the transition to “talkies,” had his first acting experience at the Princess while he was still in high school. He later helped establish the Screen Actors’ Guild and was a co-founder of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and one of the creators of the Oscars. Ralph Bellamy, a respected Broadway and movie actor, performed at the Princess for three years. Later, when he moved to Hollywood to make movies, he appeared in over 100 films. Robert Armstrong, who appeared in over 160 films including the first “King Kong” movie, had his start in the Princess. Fay Bainter arrived in Des Moines during the week of the Iowa State Fair in 1914 and became the darling of the Princess Theater. She described her experiences at the Princess, “They just seemed to take me into their hearts.” She went on to Broadway and then a successful movie career, where she became the first performer nominated for Oscars in two acting categories in one year.

Another well-known actor of the early 1920s was Neil Schaffner, who spent some of his early acting career at the Princess, before becoming known to Iowans for his repertoire acting company called the Schaffner Players. His performances at the Princess brought him several reviews in The Des Moines Register. One reviewer wrote that, “He stopped the show, tied it up in knots, untied it and tied it up again. By all accounts, he is the funniest man the Princess has ever seen.”

The End of the Princess’ Reign

The last regular plays were performed at the Princess in 1928. Motion pictures and radio became the new entertainment interests for people. Many opera houses turned into movie theaters. After 1928 the Princess Theater was used for boxing, wrestling and public meetings. A 1933 fire caused extensive damage to the theater. Following the fire the building was restored and served as a church and a center for evangelistic meetings. The Princess Theater no longer is standing.

Marcia Meller

 

 


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