Gem Theatre

31 S. Frederick Avenue,
Oelwein, IA 50662

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Gem Theatre

This theatre appears on the 1914 Sanborn, on the ground floor of the old Wilson Hotel building, which was built sometime in 1900-01. The hotel no longer seems to be in operation by this point. The building was a two story brick structure with a turret on the corner. The Gem Theatre operated until 1929.

At some point, the building was badly butchered, and only the south wall shows any of the original structure. It is used for retail, but appears shabby and vacant on the most recent street view. It was demolished in November 2022.

Contributed by Seth Gaines

Recent comments (view all 12 comments)

SethG on August 20, 2023 at 3:25 pm

Then this was for sure the Gem. Orpheum must have been elsewhere, but it was not where the Grand is today.

SethG on August 20, 2023 at 3:30 pm

Perhaps the Orpheum is what later became the Ritz?

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on August 20, 2023 at 6:27 pm

To add a bit more confusion, the 1911 edition of the Chicago Daily News Almanac and Year Book contained an ad for the Western Vaudeville Managers Association, and the ad lists a theater at Oelwein, but it’s called the Lyric.

In the 1926 FDY three houses are listed at Oelwein: the 250-seat Gem, the 867-seat Grand, and the 420-seat Orpheum. All three survived into 1929, but only the Grand was listed in 1930. Odds that the Orpheum became the Ritz seem pretty good to me. There is no overlap in their operation, and they were about the same size.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on August 21, 2023 at 2:11 am

The November, 1911 issue of Motography had this item about the Gem:

“The Gem theater of Oelwein, operated by Messrs. Preston and O'Brien, has been purchased by Harlan Short and Arthur Dailey, who have had wide experience in the theatrical line and will doubtless meet with success in their new undertaking, as they propose to give their patrons the best.”
That is the earliest mention of the Gem I’ve found so far, and as the house was still listed (with 250 seats) in the 1929 FDY, it had a long run. The Gem was on the FDY’s national list of important first run houses in 1920. In the 1921 FDY, both the Gem and the Orpheum made the list.

As the Gem was listed in FDYs from 1926 through 1929 with 250 seats, I’m not sure what to make of the report in the September 1, 1923 issue of Moving Picture World that manager Ted Bryant was remodeling the Gem and planned to add about 400 seats. So ambitious a project probably would have involved taking over all the ground floor space in the building, and extensive reconstruction. As the Grand Theatre with over 800 seats had opened the previous year, it’s likely Mr. Bryant was unable to get financing for his risky project. It’s clear that it was never carried out. I suspect Mr. Bryant of having been on the pipe.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on August 21, 2023 at 3:02 am

A photo showing part of the Gem Theatre’s front in 1926 can be seen on this page (my mouse has been acting up and I’m unable to do any photo editing with it.) The photo is from the May 8 issue of Universal Weekly.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on August 21, 2023 at 3:05 am

Okay, I have no idea why my link is not working. Try this one, though you’ll have to embiggen it yourself.

SethG on August 22, 2023 at 6:47 pm

Found a postcard from 1956 or so (going by the last model of car), and this was still in good shape, and two stories. Most or all of the ground floor looks like it was a Rexall. 1960 was the peak census, and I think the downtown declined a lot after that.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on August 22, 2023 at 8:43 pm

I came across a news report from 1968 saying there had been a major tornado in Oelwein. That might account for its sorry condition today.

SethG on August 22, 2023 at 11:54 pm

Probably accounts for a lot of the ugly buildings and empty lots, but the town was pretty sad when i was there in 2009.

SethG on August 23, 2023 at 10:31 pm

The city demolished the sad remains in late November 2022. It apparently was damaged in the tornado of 1968.

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