Granite State of Mind, #134: Ioka Theater, Exeter
Thanksgiving weekend of 2008 I wrote a post on Facebook wondering whether there would be local support for rescuing and restoring the iconic Ioka Theater and reinventing it as a community venue. The response was immediate and overwhelming, and before long with Carol Walker Aten and some other local dreamers we formed the Exeter Theater Company to spearhead the effort. Trevor Bartlett, Roger Goun, and many, many more. A ton of sweat and time were invested by a lot of people, and after some mirages of hope we were ultimately unsuccessful. It still rankles that we couldn't get it done. I've written extensively about the Ioka before, and below is an edited excerpt from an op-ed I wrote in 2011 explaining why the Ioka is so important to Exeter - and to me. I don't think I can articulate it any better now than I could then.
There are lots of old buildings. Exeter – as an old town – has a wonderful treasury of them. Why the big deal about the Ioka? It’s not even that old, relative to some other places in town. There are lots of reasons.
Others can trace the lineage of this venerable old theater better than I can, from its early days in the 1920s featuring silent movies, vaudeville and burlesque. Others can speak more intelligently and movingly about the interior design and architecture.
The Ioka is also an economic resource. Ask any of the downtown merchants and restaurateurs if an active, functioning theater on Water Street has a positive financial impact on their bottom line. A thriving entertainment business, one fully embraced by the community, has unlimited potential to be a magnet for local tourist and outing dollars.
History, economy, art – these are very real and legitimate reasons that the community should find a way to protect the Ioka. And yet there’s one reason more. I suspect it’s why the peril of the Ioka has struck such a fundamental chord in so many of us. The Ioka is one of those rare places that transcends brick and beam and becomes part of the beating heart of a community. It serves as backdrop and companion for so many of our younger days.
In junior high school we used to get dropped off there by our parents, fill our pockets with candy from Christy’s across the street (where Me and Ollie's is now) and make our way to the back of the balcony. I can vividly recall my own disastrous first attempt at putting my arm around a young lady’s shoulders there, at a revival screening of “Gone with the Wind” more than twenty years ago. Yes, I tried the “yawn move." This was in the last years before the information superhighway, when we were all doing the best we could on the information dirt road. Not long after, at a Saturday matinee, would come my only slightly more successful first kiss.
For nearly a century, the Ioka was where the boys and girls of Exeter and her surrounding towns grew up. First time at the movies. First date. First kiss. First time throwing M&Ms onto the lower audience from the first row of the balcony. (The growing up took longer for some. I admit nothing.)
At the Ioka we explored more than one kind of curiosity. We saw movies we’d never see otherwise, from bygone eras when cinema was about more than explosions and merchandising tie-ins. We saw, and more importantly participated in, live shows and concerts. We grew up in a town with a theater. With a screen, a stage, a marquee. We grew up in a town that valued the arts and valued history, amidst a world that tries every day to shove such quaint and profitless concepts to the side. We grew up in a town with a theater, and our children, and grandchildren, should too.
The Ioka should be preserved. Not as a museum piece, as a fly in amber from some prehistoric time, but as a dynamic, vibrant participant in the cultural soul of New Hampshire’s best small town. That it hasn't been - and likely may never be - is a tragedy.