Early Performing Arts History
Iowans developed a lasting interest in theater and the performing arts very early in the state’s history. Audiences first enjoyed live performances and stage productions beginning in the 1830s – a time before Iowa was a state. Dubuque led the way with cultural opportunities for some of the state’s first settlers. In 1837 the Iowa Thespian Society organized as one of Dubuque’s first cultural groups. The Iowa Thespian Society met at the Shakespeare House and performed plays, farces (comedies), and musical sketches. On February 26, 1837 the troupe of local actors put on its first drama called “The Glory of Columbia.. The performance ended with a variety of musical songs, duets and trios.
Several theaters opened in Dubuque. They led the way for theater performances during the state’s early years. Audiences enjoyed watching melodramas and comedies performed on stage. By 1860 the Julien Theatre staged a complete Shakespearian repertoire of plays.
Early settlers to Iowa came from the East Coast. They crossed the Mississippi River by steamboat or flatboat to establish homes in Iowa. The settlers brought their own heritage and traditions to their new homes. After they built churches and schools in new communities, they formed groups that studied and enjoyed literature, music and drama.
The Mississippi River was a major highway for travel and transportation. Iowa’s river towns formed first, becoming centers of trade, business, finance and culture. They became important centers for people to gather for business and entertainment. Strolling mimics, singers and acrobats performed in dining rooms, taverns and market places in Dubuque, Davenport and Burlington.
By the 1850s showboats came to ports along Iowa’s Mississippi River towns. Showboats were floating stages and theaters that were pushed along by steamboats. Performers on the flat-bottomed barges presented popular plays and musical programs. Showboat companies brought an entire theater and traveled from town to town.
Steamboats also brought another type of floating performance to Iowa river towns in the 1860s–floating circuses. Circuses were a popular form of entertainment for Iowans. The magical and wonderful world of sights, sounds and smells brought excitement to each Iowa community where a circus stopped. The circus showboat docked in a town and put on shows up and down the river. Iowans welcomed the entertainment that came to them on the river.
With the arrival of German immigrants to the state, performing arts activities increased. The German immigrants had a love for music and drama. They formed organizations of musical groups, choral societies, bands and orchestras. They held annual singing festivals. Several German Turner Halls were created around Iowa. The Turner Societies encouraged physical exercise especially dancing and gymnastics.
Many German immigrants brought with them a love for drama. They put on German productions of the plays of Schiller, Goethe and Moliére. German theater became a cultural activity for Iowans to enjoy. Amateur groups produced plays in the summer and winter, both on Sundays and weekdays. The German theater had an unusual custom. After the play ended the chairs were cleared from the floor of the theater. Everyone in the audience enjoyed a dance session. The dancing became the closing feature of the German theater.
Music played an important part in the lives of early Iowans. The immigrants brought their own music, songs, dramas and dances to their new communities. German, Czech and Welsh immigrants formed their own bands and choral groups. They sang in contests around the state. Immigrants in the Hispanic communities of Holy City and Cook’s Point in the Quad Cities held concerts in the park. Around the state when the Civil War broke out local community bands played as young men went off to war.
Pioneers Enjoyed Singing
Pioneer settlers gathered in one-room school houses and made their own entertainment. They held Thursday night singing schools. If pioneer children received musical training it was at the singing schools. Singing schools were held in the late fall and winter for three months after cornhusking was finished. People in the pioneer communities liked to gather together and sing as an evening activity. If an outstanding singer happened to be in the community, that person was asked to lead the groups.
In many communities church services offered the only opportunity to enjoy music. Churches formed their own choirs and orchestras. Many times a church was the first place where small-town children heard a pipe organ or a piano. Dramatic talent developed through plays produced by various churches too.
In the years following the Civil War railroad transportation developed and spread swiftly across Iowa. Trains became the fastest and the best way to travel. Between 1865 -1904 thousands of miles of railroad tracks and branch lines spread across Iowa.
Traveling road show companies formed in New York and other large cities. Rail travel allowed them to perform in places they could not easily reach before the coming of the railroads. Large companies booked shows and tours in many Iowa towns. The 1890s through the 1920s were known for the arrival of traveling road shows. Well-known entertainers of the era arrived in Iowa’s towns by train. They performed to packed audiences at opera houses and theaters around the state.
Opera House Performers
Many communities in Iowa had halls called opera houses where actors and musicians performed. Sometimes the performers were local people; at other times the performers were professionals who traveled from place to place.
Well-known actors and musicians sometimes found their way to Iowa’s opera houses. Burlington was known as a popular theatre town. It was a favorite for the New York road shows. The Grand Opera House in Burlington became known in the theater world as “that theater way out west where they always play to a packed house.” It was the first theater in Iowa to use uniformed ushers and an orchestra. Famous stars of the era performed at the Grand Opera House.
Lillian Russell made her first stage appearance in the Davis Opera House in Clinton in the 1890s. She later became an internationally known performer who was referred to as “the American beauty.”
In the early 1900s march king John Philip Sousa sold out the What Cheer Opera House in What Cheer, Iowa. When Sousa and his band performed the band was so large that it became necessary to open the stage doors. Part of the band had to be seated in the alley.
Beginning in the early 1900s traveling tent shows called Chautauquas offered summer entertainment for audiences in Iowa’s small towns and rural areas. The programs were educational and entertaining. Music was an important part of Chautauquas. Band music was especially popular with Iowans. By 1924 drama was the most popular feature in Chautauquas.
Another summer event rural Iowans looked forward to was the traveling theater productions. Small groups of actors put on different kinds of nightly plays in a tent. They lived in a community for a week.
By the 1930s many Iowa families owned a radio. The radio became the first source of live entertainment that came into homes. People listened to soap operas, big bands, entertainers and speakers. In the 1930s, ‘40s and early ‘50s radio was a major source of communication and entertainment.
Interest in local community theater productions started with a statewide movement called Little Theater. Plays were written just for Little Theater groups. In 1922 Iowa State University set up the Little Country Theater at the Iowa State Fair. The college extension service taught members of 4-H clubs and other rural community groups to produce plays. Over the years hundreds of plays were presented at fairs, cattle congresses and to local audiences. Drama Week held in Iowa City developed a statewide interest in theater among high school students.
Colleges and universities developed into centers for culture—offering dramatic and musical performances. They built special buildings for stage performances. They continue to offer live performance opportunities for professional touring groups.
Theaters, concert halls and civic centers have been built in Iowa’s larger cities. Local communities may offer children’s theater, high school performances, community theater, concert associations, symphony orchestras, festivals and fairs. The performing arts are alive around the state.