Before the Grand was known as the Grand Theatre it was known as the Keokuk Opera House. The Keokuk Opera House was built in 1880 and was called the “new temple of amusement”. According to historical documents it was by far the most pretentious structure in Keokuk and was built at a cost of $30,000 on the southwest corner of Sixth and Blondeau.
This 60 x 68 foot building had an auditorium which could accommodate more than a thousand persons. The grand entrance was 20 feet wide and the stage was the largest in the Midwest. The Keokuk Opera House later became known as the Grand Theatre and continued to be the home of the city’s musical attractions. “The First Year”, a comic tragedy of married life, by Frank Craven was presented at the Grand Theatre on December 7,1923. At 12:30 a.m. a fire which broke out less than an hour after a huge audience had left the building caused enormous and devastating damage to the Grand Theatre. Fortunately no one was injured in the fire. According to a Dec 10,1923 Daily Gate City news article it was stated people believed the Grand theater fire was most likely burning during the performance. In past performances there had been several times where small fires started on stage or in the wings but they would be discovered and put out immediately. It was a custom that there were always five or six firemen on duty besides the regular force of the Grand prepared for such an incident at each event. Management said had there been a fire in the building while the performance was in progress it would have been discovered and the Grand would have been spared from the damaging fire.
In a matter of a few days after the destruction Merle F. Baker, a leading businessman in Keokuk, was determined to rebuild the Grand Theatre as a community theatre continuing with vaudeville stage shows. Merle Baker was heralded for building the Grand according to a January 23, 1925 edition of the Daily Gate City and Mr. Baker was showered with compliments since the new Grand first opened its doors on January 27, 1925. The Daily Gate City stated “the new Grand is a real gem combining the latest in beauty of design and finish, with dignity of lines, both interior and exterior, the latest devices for safety and the newest in ventilating and lighting systems. There are twice as many exits as inthe old Grand and from the balcony every exit opens on to an individual fire escape with counterbalances. The stage is 69 feet wide, 30 feet deep and 56 feet in height. This is one of the largest stages in the west and will permit the appearance of any traveling aggregation, with ample room”. Shortly after the new Grand was opened, talking pictures came out and slowly the live stage productions began to disappear.
Forty years later after being completely redecorated The Grand Theatre reopened its doors for large-screen type movies on Christmas Day, 1965 featuring Oscar award winning film, “My Fair Lady” starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. The Grand Theatre had been closed since 1957.
The Grand Theatre was teetering on the brink of being lost forever and even demolished for other purposes but as it is usually the case in Keokuk, a private group of visionaries filled the void. This group of twelve local investors bought the Grand Theatre when they each contributed $5,000 of their own money to preserve the facility believing the Grand Theatre could and should be preserved. It was this group of local leaders who deserve the credit for demonstrating that it would take individual efforts to save this community asset. They called themselves the Grand Theatre Corporation and because of their efforts they reopened the theatre in 1985. Unfortunately because of difficult times in Keokuk they were forced to close after only one year of operation.
In June of 1987 the Grand was purchased by the Grace Bott Milar Trust and given to the City of Keokuk to operate and preserve.
In the fall of 1987 the city council formed The Grand Theatre Commission consisting of fifteen community volunteers to manage the Theatre at no cost to the tax payers.
The Grand Theatre Commission has established an impressive record of improvements in the facility and it has been comprised of many dedicated and innovative citizens over the years. All of these past and current commission members have contributed greatly to the success and current excellence of the Grand and without their involvement, their sincere love for the facility and their hard work in making it the best that it can be, the Grand Theatre would not have survived.
The list of improvements are long and impressive. Improvements include effects like upgrades to the lighting, interior and exterior painting, safety upgrades for fire, sound systems, handicapped access, new seating and doors, lobby remodeling, redecorated dressing rooms, heating/air conditioning system upgrades, new stage floors and curtains, and the beautiful new marquee just to name a few.
Today you will find the Grand Theatre restored to its original stateliness with an art deco style. The Theater is used for live entertainment, conventions and other events. Anyone interested in renting the Grand Theatre or have questions regarding any upcoming event may contact the theatre manager at 319 524-1026. .