WAVERLY — Last February, Brandon Zelle took to Facebook and announced he would be abruptly closing the Waverly Palace Theatre.

It had been losing money, the theater owner explained in the post.

But many in the comments of his post begged him to reconsider closing the 90-year-old theater, a cornerstone of Waverly’s downtown.

“The theater is a staple in our community,” said Travis Toliver, executive director of the Waverly Chamber of Commerce. “A historic theater in a town of our size is rare to find.”

Waverly Palace Theatre opened with just one screen in the late 1920s at 90 East Bremer Ave. It underwent several changes over the years, most significantly when it expanded to three screens in 1999 with seating for 440 after a complete building remodel.

The theater became known for showing first- and second-run movies at a discount, with regular adult ticket prices at $8 and various discounted days and times. But building maintenance proved to be too much for owners to keep up with financially — prior to closing, they were down to just two operational theaters after a furnace broke in one.

It needed work. But it needed the right work, and amenities that would bring back customers, said Cory Henke.

“I just don’t see how you could renovate the Waverly Palace Theatre without bringing it back the way it was,” he said.

Enter Movie Guys LLC, a group of three managing partners: Cory Henke, Kyle Dehmlow and Brent Dahlstrom, who along with Zelle and project manager Wes Bruns are redesigning the Waverly Palace Theatre back to its historic roots — and adding modern theater amenities like a restaurant and bar, and upstairs apartments to boot.

The project isn’t yet in full swing, and thus has no end date in sight, Henke said.

“Trust me, I wish I knew,” he said.

All of the elements — from the historic approval to the exhaust vents to designing the apartments so that theater sound doesn’t creep in — are all being designed simultaneously.

“It’s all got to be orchestrated together, and that’s been some of the challenges,” Henke said.

But it’s worth it, he said. Henke said he remembers seeing his first movie, “The Bear,” in 1988 with his mother at the Palace Theatre, and the place he and his friends would visit often on the weekends. That translated into a love of going to movie theaters as an adult.

“What’s unique about Movie Guys is all three of us have a passion for going to movies ... . We all go to movies frequently,” he said. “It ended up being really cool the three of us were able to do (the renovation) together.”

Movie Guys is getting help from a Main Street Iowa grant awarded to the city’s Main Street Program, and Toliver said the program is also helping Movie Guys with some historic photos to aid in the design.

“They’re adding in some state-of-the-art features, but they really want to bring the Palace Theatre back to its glory days,” Toliver said. “I think it’s going to be a huge hit with the community.”

Henke says they’re working to put in a kitchen, restaurant and bar space while allowing plenty of space in Theater 2, keep Theater 1 larger and use elements of the materials and color scheme from the original 1920s building.

“Kyle, Brent and I would love to see elements of that era with a modern twist to it, so I think that’s kind of been part of our discussions,” Henke said.

The 12 upstairs apartments will be a mix of economy-sized studio and one-bedroom apartments modeled after the “Big 6” renovated apartments in Waverly, Henke said.

The movie experience will also be “renovated,” Henke said, with full meals and alcoholic beverages available to patrons whether they take in a movie or not.

“When you look at the movie theater experience, we’re not creating anything that hasn’t been trending across the country,” he said. “Consumers getting pop and popcorn is kind of old news. ... We’re just improving the whole experience.”

Henke said the community support for the project has been “great,” even though it hasn’t yet begun in earnest.

“It’s not every day you get to do a project that has this strong of support,” he said. “Seeing how the city of Waverly themselves has reacted has been awesome, to be frank, and it’s something that furthers our belief that this is right to do for the community.”

Toliver agrees.

“I think Waverly’s really excited about this opportunity to have a theater open again, and certainly in a new, updated fashion — and more downtown living,” he said. “I’m really excited about this project and hopefully it’ll get underway soon.”

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Staff Writer

Staff writer at The Courier 2005 (college intern), 2007-2012, 2015-present. Graduate of UNI 2006. Three-time Iowa APME award winner (investigative reporting 2008, lifestyle feature 2016, business feature 2018)

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