Washington, Iowa is the county seat of Washington County and is located in the southeast part of the state. Its population in 1890, near the time of the construction of the Graham Opera House was 3,235. The story of Washington’s theatrical productions and opera houses is typical of most small Midwest communities. The oldest continuously operating cinema theatre is the Washington Iowa State Theatre (USA) in Washington, Iowa, USA, which opened on 14 May 1897, and as of 26 January, 2022 has been in continuous operation for 124 years, 257 days. The first moving picture shown at the Washington Iowa State Theatre was shown on a cinematograph that was made in Paris, France. Tickets for the first moving picture were 15, 25, and 35 US cents each.
Its first recorded entertainment was in 1865 when Yankee Robinson’s “Big Show” which included a circus, minstrel show, menagerie, and museum, came to town. Other early entertainments appeared in the courtroom of the county courthouse. The Town’s first space built specifically for entertainment purposes was Corrette’s Hall, located upstairs, it operated from 1866 to 1870. The second was Everson’s Opera House, also an upstairs space operated from 1868 to 1895.
The First Graham Opera House, also an upstairs house, opened in 1886 and became a social center until its destruction by fire in 1892. It had twelve sets of scenery: forest, garden, landscape, horizon, mountain pass, palace, palace arch, center door parlor, prison, kitchen, and a plain chamber. At the time of the opening, the Washington Press noted: “No danger from a fire amid the sceneries for there is a water supply on the stage.” However, it burned to the ground on Nov. 23, 1892.
The Press also reported: “Our beautiful opera house, the pride of the city and a pleasure to all our people is no more, and only the backend wall and a pile of debris are left of the most imposing structure in our city. Hundreds of people watched the flames lick it up with sad hearts, but were powerless to stay their progress.”
The second Graham Opera House opened on November 27, 1893, built at $ 35,000. The architects were Foster & Libbe of Des Moines. It was 110 feet long, with a frontage of 60 feet. The stage was 28 by 64 feet. It had six dressing rooms.
Seventy-five electric lights were on the ceiling, the border lights were gas, footlights were both gas and electric. It had ground-floor seating, a balcony, and a gallery. In 1894, the first full year of operation it housed twenty-three professional theater productions, in addition to home talent productions, lecturers, concerts, political rallies, and the high school commencement. The opening production was Sardou’s Odette, starring Clara Morris. The newspapers reported that she was “half dead” with grippe, was in poor voice, and attended by a doctor backstage. 1,000 tickets were sold at $5.00. The chairs had not arrived so playgoers had to sit on folding chairs. Clara Morris was a prominent actress of her day, probably the most famous to ever appear in Washington, but is almost completely forgotten today. She died in 1910, seventeen years after her performance at the Graham, blind and impoverished.
Through the years, many prominent townspeople were associated with the Graham, but none more interesting than Frank and Indiana Brinton. Frank and Indiana were both from rural Washington County, Gracehill and Verdi, respectively. Frank, like his father before him, farmed, traveled the world, and patented a number of inventions.
Repeated and lengthy trips to the Holy Land led to Frank presenting illustrated lectures in churches and public halls around the Midwest beginning about 1880. They traveled on the Chautauqua circuit displaying magic lantern shows of the holy lands, accompanied by models wearing native costumes. In 1895, The Press reported, “He has a vast new lot of views that he will throw on the screen in the Graham”. As early as 1895, Frank moved from magic lantern slides to motion pictures. Frank and Indiana showed the first films ever to be seen in the Opera House.
In 1899, The Press reported “He has vastly improved his show, adding many new moving pictures, as the destruction of Cervera’s fleet, the dynamite cruiser “Vesuvius” in action, Spanish artillery ditto, rough riders swimming horses across the river, cavalry charging, a street scene in Jerusalem with Arabs, beggars, peddlers passing; beheading of Mary Queen of Scots, etc. The sounds of the motions will be given, which makes them still more natural. Admission 10, 15 and 25c.”
Indiana became part of the programs after their marriage in 1898. She did not perform, but did organizational work and mostly just “looked pretty.” The Brintons traveled on their own and also as a part of the Red Path Chautauqua circuit. They were always based in Washington, even though they traveled much of the western United States.
State Theatre Mural
The mural was installed on the east side of the State theatre on July 31, 2021. It was painted and installed by Wall Dogs of Centerville, Iowa with design and installation assistance from the Washington Chamber of Commerce, Main Street Washington, and the L.E.T.’s Center. It was paid for by funds from the Washington Hotel/Motel Committee as well as a grant from the Washington County Riverboat Foundation.
Thank you Sarah Grunewaldt for designing our mural. The design depicts Frank Brinton’s original Acetylene Powered Projector with Frank and Indiana Brinton against the interior of the theatre as it can be viewed today.