Harlan Theatre

621 Court Street,
Harlan, IA 51537

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Harlan Theatre (Official)

Additional Info

Functions: Movies (First Run)

Previous Names: Long's Opera House

Phone Numbers: Box Office: 712.755.2310

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Harlan Theatre

Originally opened in 1882 as Long’s Opera House. It opened as the Harlan Theatre sometime in the early-1930’s with seating listed at 550. It was the larger of two theatres in Harlan the other being the Cozy Theatre on Main Street.

The Harlan Theatre has been operated by the same family for four generations. Two additional screens were added in former retail space in the 1990’s. It now operates as a 4-screen theatre.

Contributed by Chuck

Recent comments (view all 9 comments)

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on April 17, 2009 at 1:11 am

It looks like the Harlan Theatre is open again, and with four screens. There’s a page listing its current movies on the Harlan Municipal Utilities web site. I wonder if the municipal utility company operates the theater? Socialism comes to small-town Iowa!

The August 28, 1948, issue of Boxoffice Magazine mentioned the Harlan Theatre in their “From the Boxoffice Files: Twenty Years Ago” feature. In 1928, the house had recently been opened by Mr. and Mrs. R.E. Brown. A Boxoffice item about the Browns published in the October 7, 1946, issue said that the Browns had been in the exhibition business in Harlan for 20 years then, so they must have had another theater there before they opened the Harlan.

The Browns also ran the Cozy, at least during the 1940s and early 1950s. The Cozy was open only intermittently, though. There were items about it reopening at various times, and one 1947 item saying it was being closed for July and August. No air conditioning, I guess. The Browns were mentioned as operators of both theaters as late as 1951. The last mention of Ray Brown I’ve found is in 1957, when he vacationed in Florida while his son-in-law, Jamie Booth, ran the theater.

By 1961, the Harlan Theatre was being operated by Mr. and Mrs. S.J. Backer.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on April 17, 2009 at 1:41 am

Behold the Harlan Theatre! The name carved on the building says “Long’s Opera House,” with the date “1882.” It looks like they’ve expanded into the building next door to accommodate additional screens.

SharonLL on July 12, 2009 at 11:34 pm

Just to clarify a few facts. This theatre is currently open and has never been closed. The municipal utility company does not operate the theatre, but graciously advertise the movies on their website. I am the current owner of the theatre and have been since mid 2005.

S.J. Backer was my grandfather. He operated the theatre until 1970, when my uncle took it over for a couple of years. Our family (my mother is the Backer’s daughter) lived in South Dakota and ended up in Harlan because my grandfather told us that the Harlan Drive-In Theatre was for sale. Our family ran the drive-in from 1967 until the late 80’s. My father bought the Harlan Theatre from my uncle in the early 70’s and ran the theatre until mid 2005, when I purchsed it from him.

In the 90’s, my father purchased the adjacent buildings next to the theatre and added two additional screens. In 2002, after the large theatre was downsized from 500 seats to 252, and the back space rented out to a clothing store and a liquor store, it was finally remodeled into our mini theatre, hence the current four screens.

This theatre has never, ever been closed, and I don’t know why people think it is or ever was. It is alive and well and currently showing up-to-date movies!

kencmcintyre on July 13, 2009 at 4:32 pm

This is from the Harlan News-Advertiser in June 1959:

Mr. and Mrs. S.J. Hacker of Hankinson, North Dakota, are the new owners of the Harlan theatre. The new operators will take over June 1. Mr. and Mrs. Ray Brown, former owners, have operated the theatre since 1926 and are widely known in theatre circles as pioneers in the business.

The Backer family, which will move to Harlan June 15, consists of a married daughter, a son who has just graduated from high school and is leaving soon for the Air Force, and a 13 year old daughter. Backer has been on the Hankinson city council for 17 years and is currently mayor of the city. He is a veteran theatre operator, having leased his present theater and sold another one preparing for his move to Harlan. The sale did not include the building.

kencmcintyre on July 13, 2009 at 4:33 pm

First line should read Backer, not Hacker.

kencmcintyre on July 13, 2009 at 6:46 pm

Here is an item from the same paper in February 1952:

Highway Patrolman Has Car Towed In

The tables were turned Friday morning when Sgt. Al Sterzing of the highway patrol had his car towed in for improper parking. Sterzing is stationed at Denison and the towing was done at direction of the Harlan city policemen. Sterzing parked his patrol car in front of the Harlan Theatre, which is a no-parking zone at all time, even when a movie is not going on. Because of apartments over the theatre, it is classed the same as a hotel and parking in front of such a building is not allowed at anytime. There was also a gathering in the theatre auditorium at the time.

Trolleyguy on October 18, 2012 at 10:43 am

This theater was recently referred to in an episode of “House Hunters International” on the HGTV channel. The young lady who was a local resident called it the “dollar theater.”

Chris1982 on November 15, 2014 at 4:54 am

Featuring digital sound & projection on all 4 screens and small-town prices.

DavidZornig on August 24, 2019 at 10:43 pm

Photo and description added via Adrian Brisee.

May 19, 1974. Harlan, Iowa – “I’m setting my standards at the box office”, says Al Woodraska, owner of the Harlan Theater, the only movie house in town. “That’s what pays the bills.”

To help pay the bills, Woodraska is showing X-rated movies once a month. “Midnight Plowboy” did a good business in April. “Teenage Bride” is the next X-rated attraction.

Harlan is a farm town and county seat, community of white houses and front porches pocketed in the gentle hills of western Iowa. The telephone book lists 20 taverns, 28 churches, and 43 farm equipment and feed dealers Last year X-rated movies drew pickets from the local Baptist Church and city counsel condemnation in this town of 4,049. This year there hasn’t been a ripple. “Last Tango in Paris” critically acclaimed and X-rated set a box office record of $379.90 in four days – at the Harlan Theater in March. Harlan and its theater are far from unique. With increasing frequency, X-rated films are flashing flesh across the screens in small town America.

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