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Encyclopedia Dubuque


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Majestic Theater
This tile (8.5" x 14") was kilned in Holland for the roof of the Orpheum Theater.
MAJESTIC THEATER. The ATHENAEUM, the earliest building built on the site at Fourth and Main was erected in 1840 by Emerson and Childs. This site in 1877 was called the "Democratic Corner," the record holder for having the longest history of being a theater site west of the MISSISSIPPI RIVER.

C.H. Eighmey and a Mr. Waller purchased, refurbished, and reopened the theater as the Duncan-Waller Opera House in late 1877. The Opera House was a thriving operation until 1893, when it again changed names and became the Main Street Opera House. (4)

In 1896 - Mr. Bartell leased the building and renamed it Bartell's Dramatic and Vaudeville Theatre. Bartell's was taken over and renamed the COATES OPERA HOUSE by new management in 1903, then changed hands in rapid succession. In 1904, Jake Rosenthal, a Dubuque theater entrepreneur, assumed control of the theater and renamed it the Bijou. (5)

Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
In 1908, Charles H. EIGHMEY and Harker Brentnal SPENSLEY, Sr. purchased and renovated the theater and reopened it as the New Bijou. A few months later, the theater was leased to the Western Vaudeville Association of Chicago. A fire destroyed the fifty-three year old structure in April 1910. (6)

After the fire, the site was quickly developed as the first theater designed by the Chicago firm of C. W. Rapp and George Rapp, eventually the leading theater designers in the United States. (7)

The Majestic, built in 1910 at a cost of $90,000 in the style of Renaissance-Flemish architecture, was said to be a replica of a Paris theater. In 1920, the facility was converted into a movie house. (8)

The building was renamed "The Spensley" in 1929. (9) Its first program was a presentation of the talking motion picture, "Rio Rita." Jack Dempsey, former heavy-weight champion boxer of the world, and his vaudeville act "A Roadside Razz" appeared at the theater in 1930. (10) The stage was turned into a huge cooking school with demonstrations of "ranges, refrigerators, and other culinary equipment" in 1933. (11)

In 1932 even as the U.S. economy foundered, RKO, an American film production and distribution company, began buying up theater after theater to add to its exhibition chain. RKO was formed after the Keith-Albee-Orpheum (KAO) theater chains and Joseph P. Kennedy's Film Booking Offices of America (FBO) studio were brought together under the control of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in October 1928. The Dubuque theater, one of many purchased, became part of the RKO film theater circuit and was renamed the RKO Orpheum around 1934. (12)

By 1969 the Orpheum along with much of the area around Lower Main Street was suffering poor economic times. The theater was scheduled for demolition as part of a fifteen-block URBAN RENEWAL project. Led by such community activists as Wayne Andrew NORMAN, Sr., a group developed the idea that private donations could be collected to renovate the theater into part of an exhibition-arts facility. The project was named for the five national flags that have flown over this area.

In December 1971 the fund drive was launched. In July 1972 architects were hired to design the facility. In November 1972, the ORPHEUM THEATER was placed on the NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES. The theater was restored in 1975, renamed the Five Flags Theater and reopened on February 28-29, 1976. With restoration, the main floor seats 322, the balcony 357, and the boxes 38 for a total of 717. The theater has been used annually for performances of the DUBUQUE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA.

On August 17, 1976, an overwhelming 70% of the voters approved a bond referendum for the construction of the FIVE FLAGS CIVIC CENTER. Besides the arena, which covered 27,000 square feet of floor space and seats up to 4,000, the new plan called for theater support rooms, locker rooms, storage space, and administrative offices. The complex was connected to and designed to complement the restored theater. The new civic center opened its doors in 1979.

Interior view
Interior view
Interior view
Famous talent was regularly "booked" to perform. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Photo courtesy: Bob Reding



1. "Dubuque County Before 1880," Telegraph Herald, Nov. 2, 1933. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=BABCAAAAIBAJ&sjid=U6oMAAAAIBAJ&pg=1340,4189885&dq=lumber+yard+fires+dubuque&hl=en

2. "Theater at Fourth and Main," Online: http://fiveflagscenter.com/AboutUs/History.aspx

3. "Dubuque County Before 1880."

4. "Theater at Fourth and Main."

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. "Spensley Theatre to Open November 16th," Telegraph Herald and Times Journal, Nov. 10, 1929, p. 22

10. "Dempsey Comes Here Wednesday," Telegraph Herald and Times Journal, April 1, 1930, p. 5

11. "Make Spensley Theatre Ready for Cooking Demonstration," Telegraph Herald and Times Journal, Apr. 11, 1933, p. 5

12. "RKO Pictures," Wikipedia. Online: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RKO_Pictures