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Text Size: A | A | A Print this Article Email this Article IOKA Theater to close
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The Ioka Theater in Exeter will close Dec. 24, 2008.
Rich Beauchesne file photo
By Jennifer Feals
November 18, 2008 10:51 AM
EXETER â€" The Ioka Theater, one of New Englandâ€\s oldest independently owned, privately operated theaters, will close its doors this winter after 93 years in operation.
Co-owner and President Roger Detzler announced Tuesday, Nov. 18, that the theater will close on Dec. 24, due to several contributing factors, including the need for a sprinkler system, increased utility and insurance costs and an overall â€œhostileâ€ business environment.
Fans will have one last chance to see a film at the Ioka as “The Nutcracker” featuring the Kirov Ballet will run at the theater throughout December. The last presentation will be Christmas Eve at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at www.iokatheater.com or at the box office.
The Ioka is a staple in the Exeter community that has been located on Water Street since 1915. The theater opened on Nov. 1 of that year with the epic â€œThe Birth of a Nation,â€ directed by D.W. Griffith, and has pleased audiences since with a variety of films, musical concerts and comedic acts.
Detzler cites the cost of installing a sprinkler system at the theater, which is a requirement following the Rhode Island Station Fire in 2003, as the primary reason for the closure. While it is in the interest of public safety, Detzler said this legislation has the unintended side effect of closing many historic businesses since the state has failed to provide funding to protect such operations.
Town Manager Russell Dean said town officials have had contact with Detzler about the new fire code and expressed the responsibility of the Ioka to follow the regulations for the safety of its patrons.
â€œItâ€\s not anything we can turn away from,â€ Dean said. â€œWe have a responsibility to make sure these regulations are followed and that businesses comply.â€
Efforts to create a non-profit entity to maintain the theater have also failed. Detzler said there are many challenges to such a transition. â€œIt requires a substantial amount of capital and would require a very different business model,â€ he said.
Detzler said the venue is currently for sale and he hopes to find a buyer with the financial ability and vision to maintain the current operation. However, time is running out, he said, and if no one steps forward before the closing date, the building will be sold for development.
This isnâ€\t the first time the building has closed, said Barbara Rimkunas, Exeter resident and curator of the Exeter Historical Society. With each threat of closing, she said, the Ioka has managed to come back. â€œIâ€\m going to hold out hope that someone will bring it back,â€ she said. â€œI really donâ€\t think it will be vacant long, thatâ€\s the optimism I have.â€
Though a handful of small town theaters still survive throughout New England, the Ioka was unique due to its age, its original architecture, and its lifelong dedication to both cinema and the performing arts. The Ioka represents the beginning of film in America, pre-dates the â€œmovie palacesâ€ of the Art Deco era, and was built for silent film and vaudeville, Detzler said.
â€œThe Ioka is not a museum; it is living history, a place that everyone comes to and everyone has a story about,â€ he said. â€œTime and time again we have people tell us that their first kiss was in the balcony and that they can remember what movie was playing.â€
Famous artists have crossed the stage including Fatty Arbuckle, Warren Zevon, Stephen Wright and many other comics and musicians. The Ioka was a draw for locals and tourists alike. The closure of the Ioka will be a loss to all of downtown Exeter, not just historically, Detzler said, but commercially as well.
The response to the Ioka closing was one of surprise Tuesday from community members.
â€œOh no!â€ said Rimkunas.
Rimkunas said she lived in town probably just four days before walking to the Ioka to catch the release of the â€œWizard of Oz.â€
â€œIt was wonderful to see that on the big screen,â€ she said, adding that green lights were on display to showcase the Emerald City. â€œItâ€\s a beautiful place to see a film. I will miss it horribly.â€
â€œI think itâ€\s a sad thing,â€ said Dean. â€œItâ€\s a real loss for the community. That building has been a part of the townâ€\s fabric for many years.â€
For Dean, who grew up in Stratham, memories of the Ioka are fond. â€œIt was a great place to go … I remember going there as a kid, around the seventh or eighth grade. It was a cool place to go. I vividly remember standing outside with friends and waiting for parents to pick us up,â€ he said. â€œI know there will be friends of mine sad to see it closing.â€