Theatre magnate Fridley honors his part in the King’s history

Theatre magnate Fridley honors his part in the King’s history

A couple Saturdays ago, I traveled my well-worn Highway 141 path to Des Moines. It’s a 135 mile route I’ve traversed plenty in the past 25 years, mostly to see my parents. This time I headed to downtown’s Walnut Street to meet Bob Fridley who owns 20 Iowa and two Nebraska theaters, showing movies on 95 screens. In 2017, that number will grow to 112 screens.

Fridley, who will be 99 in April, told me that he had heard about our desire to renovate the King Theater. I knew Fridley had owned the King from 1950 to 1981; I also knew that Cherokee and Storm Lake theaters are Fridley Theatres. As if that wasn’t enough to wet my curiosity whistle, he said, “I have a sentimental attachment to the King Theatre in Ida Grove.” And I knew I would visit him and do so soon.

I tried for Monday, February 1st, but our regular city council meeting conflicted. Feeling the need to act quickly on Fridley’s invitation, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind meeting me on Saturday. “I am in the theater business and have been all my life,” stated Fridley. “I get up late and stay up late; I am at my office seven days a week.” We agreed to meet at 1 pm on Saturday.

Fridley stood up from his second floor office desk and shook my hand, warmly thanking me for taking the trip to see him. I felt humbled as he guided me to a conference room, theater history books on shelves, a pull-down projection screen recessed in the ceiling, and vintage theater posters on walls. He started where our phone call finished, “I have a sentimental attachment to the King Theatre in Ida Grove.”

In 1926, nine-year-old Bob Fridley, along with his mom and sister, visited his aunt Lu and Uncle Bob Bernau for two weeks in Ida Grove. Bob and Lu Bernau had bought the King Theatre’s operating equipment earlier that year. The King was only 12 years old at the time, just three years older than Fridley himself. “Although there were no matinees on weekdays, Uncle Bob was always busy every afternoon,” said Fridley. “He was always doing something to make the theatre better, the performance experience better, or he was dealing with film salesmen.

“One day at lunch, I said, ‘I am so bored; there is nothing to do.’ Of course, I wanted Uncle Bob to invite me to go to the theatre. Finally, he said, ‘You can come down to the theatre with me to scrape gum off the bottom of the seats.’ He did take me with him, but I did not have to scrape any gum from the seats! “To this day, I remember the movies that were playing during those two weeks: Harry Lloyd in For Heaven’s Sake, Dorothy Mackaill in Joanna, Bessie Love in Lovey Mary, Fred Thomson in The Light of the Western Stars, Hoot Gibson in Chip of the Flying U, and Syd Chaplin in The Man on the Box.”

During this time period, the King was owned by the Mansfield family of Belle Plaine, Iowa. However, Bernau owned all the equipment. He installed a sounds system in 1929, and the theatre was doing terrific business. In November of 1930, Harry Day of Wisconsin offered Bob $30,000 for the King’s operating equipment; the depression had not yet hit the Midwest but it was affecting the east coast. Fridley’s Uncle accepted Day’s offer. The last picture to be shown under the management of Bernau was Min and Bill with Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery.

Bob Bernau then bought the Lake City theater, and the Bernaus made Ida Grove home, where they bought a house at 611 Burns Street and remodeled it to their taste. In December of 1933, Fridley’s Aunt Lu died, leaving his two cousins, two and a half year old Bill and 15 month-old Rachel without their mother. Bernau tried running the home with a housekeeper, but it didn’t work out. Fridley’s parents were divorced and his mother was struggling in the depression and barely getting by in Des Moines. Bernau asked Fridley’s mother to come take care of Bill and Rachel. Bob Fridley entered Ida Grove High School and graduated in May of 1935.

World War II arrived a handful of years later. Fridley was recruited during his service years to work two brand new theaters in the Boston area due to his experience in the field. “I feel a great deal of guilt about that time,” stated Fridley. “Men were fighting and dying in Europe, and I was called on to work in theaters.”

Flash forward to 1948, a few years after the end of World War II. The King Theatre was owned by Harold Mansfield. In 1950, Fridley owned a theater in Pella and leased Lake City’s Stadium Theatre, which his Uncle Bob Bernau remodeled but who was also occupied with a popcorn plant and a tool business. Joe Anderson – the man who sold the Pella Theater to Fridley – bought the King from Mansfield and sold fifty percent to Fridley. Fridley fought tooth and nail to bring Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) films to his theater.

“MGM had hit after hit in those days. Their greatest hit at that time was Annie Get Your Gun,” stated Fridley. “It was a film with Betty Hutton as Annie Oakley. That film is the hallmark of my return to Ida Grove and eventual full ownership of the theater from 1954 to 1981.” Signs of Fridley’s King Theatre ownership? The east side rock wall where water cascaded. The free-floating stairs on the west side. Balcony seating for close to 100. The well-kept track curtain.

As we shook hands, he produced a $5000 donation from his wife Myrna and him. I now know the rest of Fridley’s story; he wanted to give back what Ida Grove had given him. I thanked him, and I asked if it would be OK to have a photo taken of him giving the donation. “I would like a photo with you,” he said. “But giving you the check seems a bit too boastful.” Apparently, humility is another Fridley trait.

On my way to my car, Fridley offered another lasting impression: “The Fridley family is happy to contribute to the renovation of the King. The King played a large part in my growing up. I bet I’m not the only one who feels that way.” Driving out of Des Moines’ downtown, I found myself assured in Fridley’s word, and I know our King Theatre will once again be a hallmark of downtown Ida Grove.

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