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Englert celebrates 99th anniversary

BY SAMANTHA GENTRY | OCTOBER 06, 2011 7:20 AM

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Iris DeMent, one of the performers in the Englert's 99th anniversary, said she hopes this weekend will be one of many opportunities to play at the venue.

"I hope the Englert is still around when I'm 99," DeMent joked. "I plan to be needing some place to play; do you think they'd be willing to put me on the schedule 49 years in advance?"

For the Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., entertaining the Iowa City community has been its job since 1912. The theater has been a home to passionate performers for almost a century.

To help celebrate the venue's 99th anniversary, a three-day event starting tonight and continuing through Saturday will take place at the Englert. Admission ranges from $5 to $25 depending on the performance.

Englert history

The iconic performance space appears the way we see it today because of William and Etta Englert.

The theater's marquis lends a retro feel to Washington Street in downtown Iowa City. The yellow sign with flashing lights and bright pink script letters that read "Englert" welcome community members to the richly decorated venue.

Inside, visitors enter a theater with around 1,000 seats in front of a red velvet curtain. Many of the seats are marked with dedication labels from community members who made donations to show how they value the theater's work throughout the years.

William and Etta Englert planned the building's construction in 1912, when they hoped to redevelop part of downtown.

As soon as the building opened on Sept. 26 of that year, vaudeville acts started performing at the theater, and locals and students filled the house. In addition to live performances, the Englert had a projection screen to show three-reel films.

Eight years later, William Englert died of a cerebral hemorrhage, and the future of the Englert was endangered when a fire in 1926 nearly destroyed the building.

The blaze caused $125,000 in damage, but that didn't discourage Etta Englert and her new husband, James Hanlon, from rebuilding.

From then on, the Englert went through many renovations and many owners, and in 1999, the theater's owners decided to close the then-cinema and sell the building.

When a bar owner bought the property to turn the space into a nightclub, the community protested and asked the city to purchase the theater and hold it until funds could be raised to purchase it and renovate it.

On Dec. 3, 2004, the community's hard work paid off, and after 60 years, the Englert reopened for its first live performance.

Today, the Englert strives to be a historic home for the arts.

"The iteration of the Englert is a young organization, and now, I think it's just starting to become part of its own and is developing its own identity in the community," said Englert Executive Director Andre Perry, who has worked with the company for a little more than a year.

This weekend's events

An International Writing Program reading at 5 p.m. today will kick off the celebration. Admission is free and open to the public.

Three of the best foreign writers, Perry said, will hold a reading of their new works or works in progress.

"We wanted to have an acknowledgment for different art forms in Iowa City," he said. "There are a lot of writers, theater folks, and musicians, so we wanted to be able to honor all of those different forms."

After the reading, a performance by the Poison Control Center will begin at 8 p.m. with a set specifically created for the event. Admission is $5.

The five members of the band from Ames consider Iowa City to be their home away from home.

Patrick Fleming, the guitarist and creator of the band, said he likes playing in Iowa City because it's always been a "rad" place.

Playing at the Englert for the anniversary is a special experience for the musicians, and their goal is to change the world one chord at a time. They aren't just performing for the free beers, Fleming said.

"We've played at Gabe's and the Mill a ton of times, and all these places are centered on downtown, so you see the Englert every time you're there," he said. "Playing the Englert is something that you shoot for, and it's a goal for a band to play venues like that."

At 8 p.m. Friday, DeMent will take the stage. Admission is $25.

Bo Ramsey, an Iowa City musician who will produce DeMent's next record, will open for her.

DeMent plans on going to Nashville to create a record that will be an example of her gospel and country style.

"Bo Ramsey is a wonderful musician, as most folks, particularly in Iowa, already know, and he's produced some fine records," she said. "I'm really looking forward to seeing what we can do together."

On Saturday, there will be two panel discussions, which are free and open to the public. The Theater Arts in the Cultural Corridor discussion will begin at 1:30 p.m., and the members will discuss how to get people more excited about the theater arts.

At 3 p.m., there will be an independent-artist discussion in which three artists will talk about what it means to be an independent artist in Iowa and how they create their art.

At 8 p.m., Pieta Brown will perform with Alexis Stevens. Admission is $15.

This show will be the d├ębut performance for the release of Brown's new record, Mercury, and she looks forward to being able to play in the Englert's intimate space.

"I think as an artist having lived around Iowa City and calling it my home, it feels good to be supported by the community and to also support the community with my music," she said. "It's an honor to be a part of something that is a community event."


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