Ames Theatre Company

Joe V. Gerbracht launched a 50-year career in the movie theater business in Ames in 1912. When he retired in 1962, he owned four theaters in Ames – The Collegian on Main Street, The Varsity and New Ames in Campustown and the Ranch Drive-In on west Lincoln Way.

Joe was an Ames High School senior when his father suggested to him, his two sisters, Helen and Della, and his brother, Wilford, that they go into business. With their father’s $5,000 loan, Joe, Helen and Della bought and refurbished the old Scenic Theater at 121 Main Street – the place where they had enjoyed many weekly films.

Gerbracht Buys Scenic Theater

from the April 16, 1913, Ames Evening Times

Fred Gerbracht, who now lives in Carroll has purchased the Scenic theater from H.C. Coulson, taking possession at once.  Mr. Gerbracht will continue his business in Carroll while his son Joe runs the theater here.  Some changes will be made in the arrangement of the building.  The stage and scenery will be torn out, and more seats added, and slight changes will be made in the front of the theater.
Mr. Gerbracht plans to continue the theater along the same lines upon which Mr. Coulson has conducted it for the past few months.  A mercury arc rectifier and concave curtain will be added making the pictures plainer.  A big exhaust fan which will change the air every five minutes will also be a new feature.

They remodeled inside and out, installed ventilation and a state-of-the-art movie screen and re-named the theater "Twin Star". Joe was general manager, handling bookings and advertising. Helen ran the box office and Della played the piano to accompany films. Wilford was just 13 when the theater opened and handled many odd jobs.

Joe was a great promoter! During the early years, they held contests for fiddlers, Charleston dancers and amateur performers. There were style shows and hair fashion shows, special events for college students and children, and humorous promotional stunts. Later, there were food and clothing drives for World War II refugees.

Joe took a 2-year leave from the business to serve in the Marine Corps during World War I.  When he returned to Ames, he and Helen bought out Della’s business interest and bought the rival Princess Theater on east Main Street, renaming it The Capitol.  The theaters were not without controversy.  In 1919, a Board of Censors was installed by local city ordinance to serve as a film reviewing body. This was before the development of industry ratings.  Learn more about Ames censorship.


Manager Gerbracht gives promise of Great Treats

Manager Joe Gerbracht of the Twin Star theater announced today that he had closed a contract for the showing of Paramount pictures and their brilliant galaxy of stars at his theater.  The first release under the contract comes on Friday of this week when Fatty Arbuckle will appear in "The Butcher Boy."

In making his announcement to the public Mr. Gerbracht states that it is his policy to give his patrons the highest class of pictures he could secure and believes he is insuring this for the future in signing up with Paramount.

"The Paramount policy is so strict," said Mr. Gerbracht, "that any production to be released under its banner must have a good, clean, interesting story, must be produced by stars of long experience and directed by the best brains that money can buy."

Mr. Gerbracht made a trip to Kansas City for a personal conference with the management of the Paramount productions before signing his contract, so that he knows from personal knowledge what he will be able to give his patrons.

from the June 7, 1917, issue of the Ames Evening Times
Also in 1919, talk began about opening a theater in Campustown. This was strongly opposed by college administrators, who deemed movies a distraction for students. An ordinance that limited construction of theaters to downtown Ames was passed in July, but repealed in August.  After the repeal, A.L. Champlin built the American Theater south of campus on Lincoln Way. It opened in December 1919 with the showing of Cecil B. DeMille’s Male and Female.  In 1920, Gerbracht bought the American and re-named it the Ames Theater.

Picture Show to be Built in Fourth Ward

From the July 23, 1919, edition of the Ames Daily Tribune and Ames Evening Times:

Unless something goes askew a new picture show is to be established in the Fourth ward, directly east of the Champlin store at the spot where a foundation was placed for the owners of the Twin Star.  At the time the foundation was placed, so much of a hubdub was raised and there was so much of a disruption that the city council established a theatre section and the section was all down town.  While the trouble was brewing there was a statement made that the picture shows would be established in the Fourth ward.  The foundation for the Twin Star was put in place while ground was broken for the other which was to be under the management of the Princess.  Establishing the theatre section caused all efforts to cease in the Fourth ward and the matter was dropped.

Now the matter is being agitated again.  Porter Young, a former resident of Ames, who assisted with the preparation of the first meal given at the Sheldon-Munn, has visited the city.  Since leaving here Porter has been down at Lamoni and has made a barrel of money in the real estate game.  He was in Ames yesterday, departing last evening for Chicago where he will take the preliminary steps that will eventually cause to be shipped to his address in Ames motion picture fixtures that will cost in the neighborhood of $10,000.

It is understood that eight of the business men on Boone street [Lincoln Way] have arranged to erect the building.  These men have always had faith that a picture house would bring a handsome return in the Fourth ward.  The plans have all been drawn and are now said to be in the hands of the contractors.  There is a stipulation in the contracts that the building must be completed by September 1.  It evidently being the intention to have the new show house going by the time college opens this fall.

What the present theatre owners will do about invading that territory is not known.  In times past they have stated they would protect the entire field.  There is the other question, to, as to how the new concern will get around the theatre section as provided by the city aldermen.  The building to be occupied is slated to cost $30,000 and with the additional $10,000 in fixtures will make a show worth while.  It is understood the building is to be of brick with a very fancy entrance, an orchestra pit, and a balcony that will permit of caring for more people than any house in the town.

In 1922, Joe bought Helen’s business share and became the sole owner of the Ames Theater Company. In 1927, A.H. Blank and Harry Weinberg of the Tri-State Theaters in Des Moines became Gerbracht’s partners. This happy affiliation improved the ease of getting pictures.

In 1928, the Ames Theater underwent a major rebuilding to modernize and increase its capacity. When it re-opened, Joe called it the “New Ames”. By the end of 1928, talking movies had arrived and the New Ames was showing both “Movietone” and “Vitaphone” films.  Learn more about the New Ames Theater.

Another controversy soon raged over Sunday movies. They were prohibited until a city ordinance permitted them downtown in 1928. The issue of Sunday films near campus boiled for nearly 5 years before it was resolved in 1933. Petitions, letters to the editor, editorials, numerous news stories and an election preceded an amendment to the law that permitted showing films seven days a week in all parts of Ames.  In 1938, Joe built a second Campustown theater, the Varsity. Despite the controversies, Joe always felt that he had good cooperation from university personnel.

Kingland Systems of Clear Lake, Iowa, has remodeled the Ames Theater building in Campustown to accommodate their business operations. Kingland sought to replicate the original front of the building as much as possible.  Prior to the renovation, the original façade was covered with decorative aluminum sheeting.  Kingland had other more recently installed materials removed and recovered the building front with compatible red brick.  They also retained the look of the theater marquee for their business sign.

Joe saw many innovations in the theater business – not the least of which was the introduction of sound in 1927. Early on, only part of a picture would have audio effects. The sound was recorded on records that were manually synchronized with the film.  Joe also saw the transition from eight to twelve minute “flickers” on short subjects to multi-reel, full length stories with plots. Technicolor, cinemascope, magnetic sound, stereophonic sound and 3D – as well as the movie rating system - all developed during his tenure at Ames theaters.

Theater Passes for Firemen, Policemen

From the December 19, 1949 issue of the Ames Daily Tribune:

Joe V. Gerbrach, manager of the Ames Theater company, today announced that all members of the fire and police departments, their wives and children will be guests of the company at a Christmas theater party.

Special passes have been given to Fire Chief Sam Long and Police Chief Orville Erickson for distribution to the members of their departments.  The tickets will be good for admission to any of the four Ames theaters, matinee or night Christmas day or Monday