Englert Theatre kicks off 100th Anniversary celebration


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There’s just something about the Englert.

It could be the “intimate, historic vibe” that Englert Executive Director Andre Perry credited the theater, or its “iconic” position as a “grass-roots community victory,” as expressed by Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek, a former president of the Englert’s Board of Directors.

Whatever the reason for the Englert’s longtime success, the performing-arts facility at 221 E. Washington St. has weathered a fire, various owners, threats of closure, and extensive renovations to enjoy its 100th-year anniversary this month in downtown Iowa City.

“Part of this is just celebrating the history and trying to learn more about the Englert in its past forms,” Perry said. “The second thing we’re celebrating is the Englert as it is today and what it can be in the future. It’s just part of the fabric that is Iowa City.”

A facility worth fighting for

The Englert was opened by William and Etta Englert on Sept. 28, 1912, and immediately attracted visitors to its ornate stage.

But the going wasn’t always easy for the popular arts center. William Englert died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1920, and six years later, a massive fire caused $125,000 in damages to the venue, which cost $60,000 to build in 1912. Etta Englert and her new husband, James Hanlon, decided to rebuild, and the Englert passed through many hands and reconstruction projects over the years, until 1999, when a developer wanted to replace the theater with a nightclub/bar.

Community outcry ensued, and a group of Iowa City residents united in a “Save the Englert” campaign. The organization raised funds and collected pledges in an effort to purchase the building and restore it as a cultural center.

Architect John Shaw was enlisted by Save the Englert to repair and alter the space for contemporary use. To do this, Shaw said, he recovered the theater’s 1926 designs and worked on those, while adding modern features such as steel rigging, more functional lighting, and a national award-winning sound system. The total cost of the renovation was approximately $5 million.

“Without stepping too hard on the historic integrity of the theater, we did go in and retrofit it to today’s standards of theater performance,” he said. “It’s unique because it’s very much intact and fairly faithful to how it was rebuilt after the fire in 1926.”

Hayek also joined the movement, accepting a position on the Englert’s Board of Directors in 2001 and working to gather historical tax credits, which allocate funds for the restoration of structures such as the Englert. The movement’s intense efforts were not complete until Dec. 3, 2004, when the Englert received the final credits it needed to make it a viable, independent arts facility — just hours before its kickoff performance.

“I recall sitting in the audience with an incredible sense of relief and pride in this community accomplishment,” Hayek said about that opening night, the first time a live show had been featured at the Englert in 60 years. “Countless individuals gave time and/or money to make this happen, and it came together. It’s a real success story for Iowa City.”

A celebration to meet the hype

The Englert will host a series of performances between today and Nov. 8 to honor its centennial — a lineup Perry said represents the diverse programming for which the theater has grown famous.

“The core of the celebration is certainly the performances that we have,” he said. “All of them brings their own flavor, and they kind of represent the things we’re into, which we think are important as far as culture and arts that we would like to support and present in the community.”

The series will start with the Alloy Orchestra performing a live score to Nosferatu at 8 p.m. today. On Oct. 18, the Kronos Quartet will perform, followed by singer and songwriter Rosanne Cash on Oct. 19. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson will read on Oct. 24, accompanied by Eula Biss, and the Klezmatics will perform selections from its album on Nov. 8.

Additionally, the theater, with the Mill, 120 E. Burlington St., will host the Iowa City Sound Project performers on Nov. 2 and 3. The project will feature 31 local musicians or bands who were commissioned by the Englert over the last year to write and record songs inspired by experiences or impressions of Iowa City.

“It’s about embracing what’s here rather than looking far away for another act to come in,” Perry said.

Twelve years after from the group’s last performance at Hancher Auditorium, violinist David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet said he is excited to connect with Iowa City audiences by presenting new selections from the group’s award-winning repertoire, ranging from vintage electronic music to special arrangements of classic Richard Wagner pieces.

“Iowa City’s one of my favorite places in the whole country to play,” Harrington said. “You feel like you can really connect with each listener in a different way. As soon as you walk out on any stage, you have a sense of a group personality of the audiences, and we’ve found the intimate kind of setting [such as the Englert] is really great with our music.”

When Biss initially arrived in Iowa City to attend the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program almost 10 years ago, she said one of the first things she spotted coming into town was a “Save the Englert” sign by the road. Since then, she said, she has listened to some of the best writers in the world in the Englert’s seats —and now, as an acclaimed author, she will soon take the stage herself.

“I’m excited, and I’m intimidated, too,” she said. “Between the grandiosity of the Englert and the incredible power of Marilynn Robinson, it makes me feel very small.”

But Biss said she believes the Iowa City community will be receptive to her and Robinson’s work.

“Of all the places I’ve lived, including New York, San Diego, and Chicago now, Iowa City was unique in how alive literature is there,” she said. “Even the wider Iowa City community — even people who aren’t selling books or teaching writing — are very attuned to literature and the arts.”

Audiences may also tour an exhibit at the Johnson County Historical Society titled *Iowa City’s Metropolitan Playhouse: Celebrating the Englert Theater’s 100th Anniversary* through March 3, featuring artifacts representing the history of the Englert.

“I’ve learned a lot over the year collecting these stories and unearthing the history—it’s really fun stuff,” Perry said. “As far as the events, I hope all people can just find one thing to go to and enjoy themselves and forget whatever it is going on in their lives for two hours and just have a good time.”

Moving into the future

Whether it was a movie theater, a vaudevillian stage, or a multipurpose community hall, Hayek said the Englert has provided more than just world-class entertainment to Iowa City audiences over the years.

“The Englert experience showed me just how important the arts and culture scene is to our community, and that certainly informed my thinking when I joined the City Council [in 2007],” he said. “It’s a testament to historic preservation; it’s a testament to recognizing how important a vibrant downtown is to the community, and it’s absolutely the case that the Englert has a remarkable impact on the town and the broader community.”

Although the Englert has overcome its share of financial and managerial hurdles to become the relatively stable success it is today, Perry said, he hopes the theater’s future will remain dynamic.

“The Englert’s in a good place right now, but I think it probably will change,” he said. “In the arts-presenting world, you have to stay on your toes. We always have to be listening to the community for what they want to see, and at the same time, what things can we bring that will challenge them. You have to keep evolving, and stay relevant, and really connect with and know your community.”

Over the last 100 years, it would seem this connection between the theater and the community has rarely wavered. After all, there’s just something about the Englert …

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