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WXPR's We Live Up Here series is a home for stories that focus on the people, history, and culture that make the Northwoods of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan such a unique place to live.

We Live Up Here: The Historic Ironwood Theatre

Bruce Greenhill

The 1920s were known as the golden age for the construction of grand, opulent theaters, called “movie palaces.” While most of these epically built theaters have been either shuttered, repurposed, or demolished, one “palace,” the Historic Ironwood Theatre, has not only persevered but still retains its vibrant and elegant charm.

When patrons entered the auditorium of the newly opened Ironwood Theatre in 1928, it’s likely that the arched proscenium mural, caught their eye. The skyward-looking mural featured Bellerophon, the Greek mythology hero, riding atop the winged horse, Pegasus, with cherubs surrounding the demigod. Or, maybe, their souls were stirred by the music emanating from the Barton organ whose notes augmented vaudeville acts and accompanied silent movies.

“Oftentimes when those movies were distributed back in the early days, sometimes they had a full score with them for the local organist to play,” Bruce Greenhill, the Operations Manager at the Theatre, explained. “But more often, they would just have some notes. There would be a suggestion of a theme to play when the hero comes on screen. Here’s a theme you could play when the villain comes on screen. Here’s a theme for a chase scene or a fight scene, or a romantic scene. It was cheaper to pay one organist than a twenty piece orchestra.”  

Shortly after the Ironwood Theatre opened, however, the first “talking pictures” were released. Equipped with a soundtrack of speech, music, and sound effects, the “talking picture” not only made silent movies extinct, but also eliminated the demand for theatre organs, like the Barton, overnight.  

“So it wasn’t long after all of this money was invested in organs that people sort of turned away from it and said, oh, I don’t want to watch a silent movie,” said Bruce Greenhill. “There are organ counsels and pipes in landfills and at the bottom of lakes across the Midwest because people just didn’t want them.”

Credit Bruce Greenhill

The Ironwood Theatre then survived the economic devastation of the Great Depression, including the decline of many local iron ore mines. Then, from the 1950s through the 1970s, while operating as a first run cinema, the Ironwood Theatre underwent an unusual transformation. 

“The owners decided that they needed to modernize,” explained Bruce Greenhill, “and it should be darkened in there, so everything was painted dark blue, including the beautiful gold leaf finish, the mural that sits over the proscenium. Everything was covered in dark blue. The plush velvet seating was ripped out and trashed and laid-back aluminum chairs were put in.”

By the early 1980s, the Ironwood Theatre stopped showing movies and, for a few years, was dark. There was even talk about bulldozing the Theatre for additional parking spaces for downtown.  

“Fortunately, a group of people got together and said, no, we’re not going to lose this facility,” said Bruce Greenhill. “The City got involved and acquired the building on condition that they not bear any financial responsibility. A group of volunteers formed a non-profit group, and they were responsible for the initial restoration of the theatre.”

With the assistance of a mural restoration specialist, volunteers helped to remove dark blue paint, and over time, Bellerophen re-emerged atop Pegasus. Plush, velvet seats were reinstalled, and, after 13 years and countless volunteer hours, that unused and forgotten Barton organ was fully restored. 

There are only 6 in their original place of installation, explained Bruce Greenhill, “that have been fully restored to original, factory specs, and we’re very proud to say that ours is one of those. That still sits where it used to sit. It has not been subject to any digital or electronic enhancements. It still functions the way it did when it was installed back in 1928.”

Now, even though the stage is dark once again due to the current pandemic, the Theatre is continuing to stay connected with the community. Volunteers are shampooing carpets, painting offices, and remodeling the Green Room. Each Tuesday at 6 pm, the Theatre is featuring a local artist for a short, recorded concert, called “Ten Minute Tuesdays”. These weekly concerts also give the Theatre an opportunity to light up the “Ironwood” marquee that illuminates the downtown.    

“Everybody in the community knows that when that sign is lit, there’s something going on here, said Bruce Greenhill. “That sign draws people from throughout the Gogebic Range and northern Wisconsin. It is iconic.”

Hopefully soon, the theatre doors will also be open for the community. This includes high school drama students continuing to find their voice and confidence onstage to longtime patrons rekindling a romance that was sparked decades ago. For others, it’s a connection to our grandparents who also sat under the gaze of Bellerophen, while a prelude from the Barton organ played in the background. They have also waited in anticipation for the lights to dim, the curtains to rise, and the performance to begin at this “palace” called the Ironwood Theatre.

To find out more information on the Ironwood Theatre, please visit their website.

Larry Lapachin was born and raised in Ironwood, Michigan, and currently lives along the shores of Lake Superior. Keeping to his Yooper roots, Larry has been making pasties at Joe’s Pasty Shop in Rhinelander since 2004. His educational background includes a master’s degree in Environmental Science and a bachelor’s degree in Social Work. He enjoys running, reading, and traveling with his wife and aspires to become the World Champion in Rock Skipping.
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