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This story first appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Patrick Whitesell was 6 years old when his father took him to see Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory at the local — and only — movie theater in Iowa Falls, Iowa. It was 1971, and in the years to come there would be many more trips to the Metropolitan Opera House, either with his father or as a tagalong with his five brothers every time a new picture came to town: Jaws, Rocky, Star Wars.
“There really was no other place,” says Whitesell of the theater in his hometown of about 6,000 people, located about 75?miles north of Des Moines. So when the WME co-CEO and his father, John, learned in May that the 114-year-old Met, most recently owned by Iowa theater chain Big Time Cinema, had fallen into bankruptcy, the two decided to step in. Together they paid $65,000, according to property records, to buy the theater and about $500,000 to fix it up.
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“It had not had any love and care for about 10 years,” says John, 85, a retired attorney who has lived in Iowa Falls with his wife, Patricia, since 1952. The electricity had been shut off, and everything from the air conditioners to the fire doors to the ice machine needed to be replaced. In addition to installing new lighting and a digital projection system, the Whitesells also hired contractors to remove “updated” interiors added by previous owners and restore the theater’s original features, including a waterfall curtain that opens to reveal the larger of the Met’s two screens. The Whitesells now are hiring staff, and John plans to be a frequent presence.
“Everything is going to be as it was,” says the elder Whitesell, noting that the theater, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, also is retaining the stained glass windows and proscenium arch commissioned by local benefactor Eugene S. Ellsworth in 1899. At that time, the Met was considered the most beautiful opera house in Iowa, and in the ensuing decades, it hosted everything from community theater productions to concerts by John Philip Sousa.
Another celebrated entertainer will visit the Metropolitan when it reopens Sept. 21: Hugh Jackman, who will host a premiere of his new thriller Prisoners in Iowa Falls and also will screen his summer hit The Wolverine. The younger Whitesell, Jackman’s longtime agent, says the actor came up with the idea in July at the London premiere of Wolverine, and Prisoners studio Alcon Entertainment agreed to fly in the movie and its star for the occasion.
“When Patrick told me about what he was doing with his dad for the theater in his hometown, I immediately wanted to be involved,” Jackman tells THR. “It’s not your typical place for a premiere, but the story behind the theater was just so compelling, I had to be there.”
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Locals began lining up the night of Sept. 12 for the chance to purchase a $100 ticket for Prisoners, which will screen in the larger, 180-seat theater. The next day, all 100 tickets sold out within 35 minutes. The remaining seats, which include the Wolverine screening in the 102-seat theater, will be raffled off for $25 apiece. All proceeds will benefit Iowa Falls’ Ellsworth Municipal Hospital.
“The community is just thrilled,” says John about the return of the Met, which will show first-run movies and occasional retrospectives. “I want people to understand that Iowa Falls is a lovely, beautiful little city and that we have the greatest little theater you’re ever gonna see.”
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