NEOLA, Iowa (AP) - Shirley Kenealy remembers that stagecoach.

Kenealy grew up in the 1930s and 40s, going to the movies at the Phoenix Theater in Neola, where movie serials kept people entertained before the feature film began.

In those serials there was always that stagecoach - no doubt with a damsel in distress on board - that barreled toward destruction on a desolate patch of wasteland.

"They'd have the stagecoach coming close to going off a cliff," Kenealy said. "Then they'd cut off the film and make us come back next week."

Kenealy, 82, is among the many Neola residents reliving the days when the Phoenix soared on Front Street, as the city prepares to restore the theater more than 50 years after its last credits rolled.

The restoration is a joint project being managed by the Hoodoo Corp., the nonprofit organization of Neola, according to Pete Sorenson.

Sorenson, who is the local Farm Bureau representative by day, has spearheaded the Phoenix project.

"The idea is to fix an old building in town, otherwise it will fall down," Sorenson said poetically. "We feel this is a project that will really help Neola."

The total budget goal is $120,000, according to Sorenson. Six Neola-based groups are involved in the project, including the Lion's Club, 4-H, Community-Senior Center and fire department, along with student groups from Tri-Center High School.

Sorenson said the ideal finished product is a Phoenix Theater with a nostalgic glass facade and lobby area, taking moviegoers back to a time when stars like Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis ruled the dreams of children and parents alike.

"Once you get inside, however," Sorenson said, "it'll have all the newest technology, all digital."

He said he's still researching the old theater and is looking for pictures of the building's front.

The Phoenix Theater was built in 1913 to replace the Novelty Theater, which burned down on Dec. 14, 1912. The name was changed to "Phoenix" after the mythical bird born of fire.

The movie house was the site of the first talking picture shown in Pottawattamie County, when the Joan Crawford and Robert Montgomery comedy "Untamed" played in March of 1930.

The restoration plans have Kenealy and a group of friends remembering an era when matinees cost a dime.

"The theater would be full and there'd be a line out the door for the next show," said Gerry Gardner, a Neola resident all 78 years of her life. "It was the place to be."

Sitting at the Community Center, a group of friends that grew up in Neola reminisced about their years attending flicks at the Phoenix.

Gardner, 78, was accompanied by her older sister, Alice Schnitker, 79, who is a Neola-native in town from Laramie, Wyo.

"We'd ask our dad for a dime to go to a show," Gardner said. "If we were really brave we'd ask for a nickel for some popcorn too."

Ah, the popcorn.

"The popcorn there was great," Gardner continues. "Why is theater popcorn so good?"

On summer evenings in Neola, families would walk from their homes on Mendel Avenue or High Street or Garfield Avenue, to the Phoenix, to catch the latest Hitchcock thriller and to find the answer to that popcorn question.

"We walked just like this," Schnitker said with a smile, taking a hold of her sister's hand and swinging it.

"You didn't have purses back then. You had a handkerchief, with your dime tied in the corner," Gardner added.

"Don't lose it," Schnitker said.

Kenealy recalled a friend from Neola, Jane Liddell, going from Phoenix patron to actor.

"She always wanted to be a movie star," Kenealy said.

Liddell made her way to Hollywood. Kenealy said one night word spread through Neola that one of "their own" would be featured on the Phoenix big screen.

"I couldn't wait to go see her film at the Phoenix," Kenealy said. "Then in the movie, she walked into a room, sat something down on a desk and walked out. That was it."

Kenealy laughs at the disappointment, recalling a day when she expected to see a friend become the next Grace Kelly.

She can't remember the name of the film Liddell "starred" in, but the time machine that is the Internet helps narrow down the choices.

At imdb.com is Liddell's filmography, which lists six movies she was in over a six-year span.

Her credits include the role of "Model" in the Marilyn Monroe/Lauren Bacall/Betty Grable romp "How to Marry a Millionaire" and "Police woman following Eleanor" in "Woman on the Run."

Her big break appears to have come in 1956, when her character had a name, "Ruth Benjamin," in "Westward Ho the Wagons!" But what might've been the beginning was, in fact, the zenith of Liddell's career, as she apparently didn't appear in another film.

With Liddell's career ending, Neola's connection to Hollywood began to fade, the dimming light going out three years later when the Phoenix closed its doors for good in 1959 because of waning business.

The Neola Masons bought the building in 1960 and maintained it as their temple until 1990, when it was sold to the Eastern Star fraternal organization, Sorenson said. In 2000, the Eastern Stars were gone and the building has been vacant ever since.

The Hoodoo Corp. bought the building on April 2 of this year.

The group plans to apply for a Vision Iowa grant, which would match funds already raised. Sorenson said Neola and Pottawattamie counties had pledged funds, a requirement for the grant, with other fundraisers including a lasagna dinner and 5K run and walk. So far a little more than $30,000 has been raised.

Sorenson said the theater would be run as a nonprofit; which means the huge sums of money on the venture isn't the No. 1 priority.

Ticket prices will be in the $4 to $5 range, with popcorn to cost $1. Profits will be split among the six groups involved.

"If it makes $3,000 a year, each will get $500," Sorenson said. "That's as good as a pancake dinner."

The people who dole out tickets and sell popcorn will be Tri-Center students, who will earn course credits by running the theater as part of business classes at the high school.

Members of the Tri-Center industrial tech classes, Future Farmers of America and vocational agriculture clubs have been part of the building restoration.

"With it being a part of the T-C community it was a good opportunity for our kids and staff to be engaged in the real-world operations of running a small business," said Tri-Center Superintendent Brett Nanninga.

And the community pride part of it - being involved in the renovation, construction and managing of the theater is exciting to the kids. It's something they'll get to enjoy. And they'll feel they accomplished something and been a part of it from the beginning."

The restoration project is one-third complete, according to Sorenson, with the glass facade being planned and painters scheduled to work the building.

Sorenson said the theater should be ready to go by Neola's Christmas celebration in December.

The theater will be a gift to people of all ages, conjuring up those memories of past glory and creating new ones as well.

"For older people it'll be a place to remember the good old days," Sorenson said. "For young kids, it'll be a place to make the memories that become their good old days."

 

 

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