Classical theater serves students for 37 years

The Collegian Theatre had a state-of-the-art projection equipment, was the first theatre in Ames to have air conditioning and had the ability to show plays as well as movies.

Runying Chen

Of all the theaters that have graced Ames in the last 150 years, the Collegian Theatre was one of the more luxurious.

The people of Ames enjoyed the theater, which was at the present-day location of U.S. Bank on Main Street, for 37 years — from the 1930s until the 1970s. Passersby can still see three green tiles which once decorated the left side of the Collegian Theatre.

Joe Gerbracht, the owner of the theater, built it in 1937 for $70,000, although the estimated cost was $130,000. The theater could hold 900, and it was always full for every show, said Margaret Vance, research assistant for Ames Historical Society.

She smiled when she recalled the Collegian Theatre.

“This was the best one,” Vance said. “It was the first theater that had air conditioning. You know, the theaters at that time usually didn’t have air conditioning, and that would be very hot inside.”

The machine used for the air conditioning pumped 900 gallons of water in a minute. Modern furnishings were everywhere from the lobby to the restrooms.

Different from the other theaters in town — the Twin Star and the Capitol — the Collegian Theatre released the most popular Hollywood movies at the time.

“Other theaters were cheaper because they mostly released cowboy movies,” Vance said.

The Collegian Theatre had advanced equipment such as an art deco front, neon signs and state-of-the-art sound and lighting. Dennis Wendell, curator of Ames Historical Society, said two projectors that were worth $5,500 each were also installed in the theater.

The equipment wasn’t the only impressive thing about the theater; the service of Collegian Theatre impressed people a lot, Vance said. The ushers, usually teenage boys, stood in front of the doors wearing beautiful uniforms. They held flashlights and led audience members to their seats.

The Collegian Theatre showed both movies and plays. In the anniversary week of the Collegian Theatre, prizes such as televisions and sewing machines were sent to people.

People may never forget Gerbracht when they mention Collegian Theatre.

“Everybody knew Joe. The man always wore suits and a bow tie,” Wendell said. “By the way, he had a fabulous red Cadillac.”

Gerbracht was also the promoter of Collegian Theatre. He was involved in many events there. Children loved Gerbracht a lot because he gave cheap tickets for teenagers and students, Vance said.

“There were always a lot of children waiting in the long line in front of the ticket office,” Vance said. “I don’t remember the exact price for a movie at that time, maybe it was 35 to 50 cents per ticket.”

More than just popular Hollywood movies, Gerbracht invited Hollywood actors and actresses to come to the Collegian Theatre at the premieres.

“Gerbracht’s second wife was an actress,” Wendell said. “During the World War II, we even could see actors and actresses at Collegian Theatre more often; they were helping to raise war bonds that time.”

The Collegian Theatre was closed in January 1974.

“It is hard to say why Collegian Theatre was closed,” Wendell said. “Maybe more multiplex theaters appeared and they replaced the classical theater like Collegian.”

The Collegian Theatre was purchase by Union Story Bank. Subsequently, the theater was remodeled to become a bank. The theater was still full in the final night, but it had more staff on hand than attendees.

The curtain call of Collegian Theatre not only ended the 50-year stretch of Gerbracht’s theater business, but it also ended the time of classical theaters. Nonetheless, the Collegian Theatre won more applause than others.