When word got out that actor Hugh Jackman was going to visit a small northern Iowa city for the reopening of its old movie theater, John Whitesell didn’t think it was unusual.
The new owner of the 114-year-old Metropolitan Theater in Iowa Falls had known Jackman for years, and recalled how the Australian actor called him a few months ago to express appreciation for his efforts to restore the famed but rundown theater.
“He said, ‘You know, as I grew up in Australia, every little town had a movie theater.’ He said, ‘What happens is, cities start getting the bigger theaters and little towns start losing their theaters.’ He said, ‘I’m so glad that you’re (restoring), because every little community should have a theater.’”
Jackman told Whitesell he’d like to visit the theater, which is nestled between several businesses on one of Iowa Falls’ main roads. A few months later, Whitesell — whose adult son is Jackman’s agent — got the green light that Jackman’s Sept. 21 visit would be part of a promotional tour for his new film, “Prisoners.” His other recent film, “The Wolverine,” will play in the building’s second, smaller theater. Jackman will give introductions before the start of each film.
“Everyone’s walking around pretty shocked,” said Mark Hamilton, the theater’s publicist. “This is quite big news for people here.”
Iowa Falls is a city of about 5,000 people, 60 miles north of Des Moines. The theater, built in 1899, originally housed a grand opera house that featured performers like actor Otis Skinner and composer John Philip Sousa. Known first as the Metropolitan Opera House, it was converted into a movie theater around the 1950s and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It is the dominant thing on main street,” Hamilton said. “It’s a gorgeous building.”
The three-story building has multiple stained-glass windows inside, as well as chandeliers and a lobby mural that once graced the ceiling of the original opera house theater. There’s a ballroom on the top floor.
After a renovation in 1993, various people managed the building. Whitesell, a retired attorney from Iowa Falls, had admired the building for decades. So he bought it out of bankruptcy in May. While it had remained open, the theater had fallen into disarray over the years.
“I kept thinking, ‘I can’t let the theater go down like that,’” he said.
So he closed it for a short period over the summer and renovated the interior with new air conditioning, heating and electrical wiring. Most importantly, he installed two digital projectors. While he won’t disclose how much he’s spent fixing the place up, his goal is to make the theater financially sustainable.
“I just want to make sure it’s here all the time,” he said. “If we break even, keep it going, I’d be happy.”
For its opening night Sept. 21, limited ticket holders will walk down a red carpet leading to the theater. Jackman will also walk the red carpet, and organizers hope the star will be accessible to scores of visitors unable to win tickets.
“The idea, as far as I’m concerned, the event has two aspects to it,” Whitesell said. “One, is to let people realize what a great city we have here in Iowa Falls. No, we’re not a metropolitan area, but we are just a fantastic city. Secondly, to show how we’ve really come to love this theater that’s remodeled.”
Special $100 tickets were offered on a first-come, first-serve basis on Friday and sold out in 35 minutes. The remaining tickets are on sale until Sept. 19 as raffle tickets for $25. Winning tickets will be selected through a drawing a few days before Jackman arrives, and each winner will get two tickets for one of the two movie showings. The event is serving as a fundraiser to buy patient equipment for the local Ellsworth Municipal Hospital.
Customers can buy unlimited raffle tickets, meaning sheer luck could play a role if interest continues to grow. The big theater has 184 seats, and the small one has 107.
Aubri Rochlitzer, who sold popcorn at the theater when she was 16, recently became the theater’s new manager. The 21-year-old unpacked several boxes of newly delivered concession stand items on Friday. She said she was hopeful for the theater’s future.
“It’s going to be a wonderful new start to this theater,” she said. “And Hugh will help with that.”