Liberty Theatre

132 S. Main Street,
Mason City, IL 62664

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Liberty Theatre, Mason City, IL

This theatre opened by 1914. It seated 300. Around 1917 it was renamed Liberty Theatre. It closed in 1936. The building is boarded up and vacant.

Contributed by Chris1982

Recent comments (view all 7 comments)

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on November 18, 2014 at 5:26 pm

The Liberty might have closed for a while in 1929, but by 1932 it was open again and being run by Art and Leah Struck, who came to Mason City that year. In November, 1936 they opened the Arlee Theatre across the street, and on its opening the Liberty was closed for good.

Down Mason City’s Memory Lane, by Dale C. Fancher, has several lines about the Liberty, including a brief description saying “…there were three arches in the front with light bulbs to outline the top of the arches, with the ticket booth centered in the middle arch and the doors to the auditorium on either side of the booth.”

The Liberty was owned for a time by an A. W. Ackerman, Fancher says, and later by a John Bolinger. Mr. Ackerman had an earlier association with Mason City, according to this item in the December 13, 1913, issue of The Moving Picture World:

“Ray Montgomery has purchased the lease on the Lyric Opera House at Mason City, which has been conducted by Mr. and Mrs. A. W. Ackerman for the last five years. Mr. Ackerman will continue to manage the Prospect Opera House at Greenview, where he has been giving picture shows, as well as at Middletown and San Jose.”

SethG on January 20, 2019 at 9:38 am

In a picture from the early ‘70s, this was an annex to the hardware store next door (now the police station), and hadn’t yet been covered with that tacky siding. Storefront was bland and simple, no arches remained.

SethG on October 29, 2020 at 6:17 pm

This theater appears on the Sept. 1914 Sanborn, so the opening date is incorrect. ‘Liberty’ does make sense for a jingoistic wartime renaming, so 1917 could be relevant. The building was constructed sometime before 1887, and on the 1909 map, it’s a harness shop.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on October 31, 2020 at 1:00 am

The only theater listed at Mason City in the 1914-1915 American Motion Picture Directory was the Lyric Opera House.

SethG on October 31, 2020 at 7:21 am

I’m sure the map is more trustworthy. I’ll have to add the Lyric. Unless the maps specifically have them as showing movies, I don’t add opera houses.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on October 31, 2020 at 7:43 pm

The history section of the Arlee Theatre web site says that at some time after arriving in Mason City in 1875, Lipman Frank operated the Frank Opera House, “…where grand balls were held and Ward Ackerman showed early movies.” The opera house was upstairs in the LaForge building, at the northwest corner of Chestnut and Tonica streets. The history also says that “[i]n 1917, Ackerman moved his movie business to the Pritchett Building at 132 S. Main St. and named it the Liberty Theater.”

This is where it starts getting complicated. The web site is fairly recent, and some history has apparently been missed (for example, that the 1914 Sanborn shows a movie theater already operating at 132 S. Main.) The 1913 Moving Picture World article I cited in my first comment on this theater says that Mr. and Mrs. Ackerman had just sold the Lyric Opera House, which they had operated for about five years. There is also this item datelined Mason City Ill. from the August 19, 1911 issue of The Motion Picture News: “A. W. Ackerman of the Lyric Theatre has leased the opera house and will manage same.”

Puzzling stuff. The map is surely the most reliable source, so it’s probably safe to assume that the theater at 132 Main was in operation in 1914. The 1911 MPN item is probably accurate, and Mr. Ackerman did lease the Opera House that year. The question then becomes where was the Lyric Theatre, and did Ackerman continue to operate it along with the Opera House? Mason City had a population of only about 1,800 at that time, though there were undoubtedly many rural families living round about who also would have attended the movies, but was the total market large enough to support two movie theaters?

Then we have the 1913 MPW item, which raises the question of how Ackerman’s two theaters of 1911, the Lyric and the Opera House, became the single Lyric Opera House which he sold in 1913? Or was he selling two theaters, and MPW just garbled the information (the same might account for the single listing in the 1914-1915 Directory?) Or had Ackerman closed one or the other theater and combined the names at the single location still operating? If so, which of the two was closed?

My best guess would be that the Lyric Theatre of 1911 and the Lyric Opera House of 1913 were both the theater at 132 S. Main, since it was shown still operating on the 1914 Sanborn. If the 1913 MPW claim that the Ackermans had been operating the theater for five years is correct, and we assume it means during at least parts of five years, not five entire years, then we can have the harness shop shown at 132 Main on the 1909 Sanborn converted into a theater before the end of that year, and then being run by the Ackermans, first as the Lyric Theatre (mentioned in 1911) and then perhaps as the Lyric Opera House, into late 1913. The 1913 item notes that “Mr. Ackerman will continue to Manage the Prospect Opera House at Greenview….” Then when he returned to Mason City in 1917 and opened the Liberty, he would actually have been re-acquiring the theater he had sold in 1913.

This is all somewhat speculative, of course, but it is plausible, and does accord with the limited facts we do have, as well as accounting for the apparent discrepancies in the sketchy historical record. In the absence of access to historic Mason City newspaper archives, these surmises are the best I can do.

SethG on October 31, 2020 at 8:30 pm

That’s a lot of information, most of which agrees. I understood it to mean that the opera house (which is the large building at Chester and Tonica) was called the Lyric by no later than 1913. The 1887 map has the opera house labelled as La Forge’s Hall, and all subsequent maps just call it an opera house. It is a very basic box of a building, but could date to 1875. It was certainly not unusual for opera houses to be renamed, just as with theaters.

As far as population goes, I would think that 1,800 might support two small theaters, at least in the early years of the craze. So I might guess: That the opera house was occasionally showing movies under perhaps the ‘Frank’ name, and then right around 1911 we have the Lyric operating in this smaller building.

The owner of the Lyric takes over the opera house lease, and moves to the larger venue, and takes the name with him at some point. The small theater is still in business in 1914, but the Lyric is now the opera house.

Perhaps the small theater closes, and then is reopened in 1917 with a new name.

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