Robert Fridley built an empire.
Fridley Theaters employs more than 500 people, and owns 135 screens doted across the state of Iowa and into Nebraska. Fridley Theatres has been key to providing movie entertainment for Iowans over the past 60 years.
Robert Fridley has a gracious and joyous presence. He is also a natural story-teller, with vivid recall of events and people over his long career in the business. Though much of the day-to-day details of operations are handled by his associates (including members of his family), Fridley is still the heart of his business—and a wealth of knowledge about the history of film and the industry. He became a fan of the movie business early on.
“I had loved it since I was 4 years old and saw my first movie. My Uncle, who had owned the theater in Lake City, also had a theater in Ida Grove during the 1920’s. I used to visit him during the summer and I just loved being around the theater. It was so busy during the day, whether he was busy meeting with film salesmen, planning advertising campaigns, getting advertising ready, or just working on the theater. A lot of people think … ‘well what do you do during the day?’ You have a lot more to do during the day. You kind of let down when you open the theater in the evening.”
Fridley graduated high school in 1935 during the depths of the depression. He explains, “You just couldn’t get a job. I started what they called a kerosene or Jack Rabbit circuit.” Fridley rented portable projection and sound equipment and went from town to town showing movies in vacant theaters and opera houses.
Fridley smiles broadly as he recalls how his days of the Jack Rabbit ended. “The year 1939 was supposed to have been a great year for the movie business...a year of a lot of great releases. Of course, there were a lot of great releases during the 30s and 40s, but in 1939 I went broke. I was 22.” Fridley went back to Des Moines where he had been raised and worked briefly for National Screen Service.
Then, in August of 1942, Fridley was drafted into the Army. Fridley spent the next 3 ½ years providing entertainment for the enlisted men as the supervising theater manager at Camp Myles Standish in Massachusetts. The American Movie business was a big part of the war effort, both
domestically and overseas during World War II, with many professionals in the industry spending their time in the military helping to provide what movies do best—entertain and educate.
“Even when I was in the army, I couldn’t get away from the business,” Fridley muses.
The early 1950s brought the TV revolution to the country, and by 1952, TV had a great impact on the Midwest movie theater business. As attendance began to slow with the increased popularity of television, Fridley decided to move to California to study film production at the University of Southern California. “I decided if it had to be TV— then I would get a job behind the scenes in TV.” Even though he loved the course work at USC, he soon realized his living was destined to be made in the movie theater. Then, November of 1953 while in California, Bob Fridley married his sweetheart from Lake City, Iowa, and he and his wife headed back home.
An initial move back in his home state was to form a shared business interest in the Varsity theater in Des Moines with Bev Mahon. (Many years later that partnership dissolved). Then, in 1960, Fridley opened the first 70 mm theater in Iowa– the newly designed and re-furbished Capri Theater. In November of that year, the Capri theatre (near 42nd and University, which remained in business into the late 1980s) hosted the Iowa premier of Ben Hur.
Today the movie theater industry has changed and the focus on sustaining income has moved from the revenue generated by films to relying more heavily on concessions. Fridley acknowledges that it used to be that 35 percent of gross sales went to film rental but now it is up to 60 percent.
“It doesn’t leave you enough money to pay for the payroll, the insurance, the advertising, and the energy.” Still the Fridley mission remains to provide great movies in clean well-managed theaters with concessions that are reasonably priced.
Robert Fridley remains hands-on in his business, backed by
capable people. There are the daily activities of negotiating with film companies, overseeing the management of multiple screens, and their expansion. Fridley has also been in the video business for years, with the successful Video Warehouse, long a staple of video rentals and sales at the corner of Merle Hay and Franklin. For Fridley Theatres and Video, it has been a long and successful love affair with the movies, and it continues on.
For more pictures of Capri Theatre, Sierra Theatre, and River Hills check out the Download volume_1_issue_4.pdf issue of Small Business Buzz
Mahon - A Rebel with a Cause
His wit is sharp and so is his business savvy. You have to be sharp to be successful in this business—and Bev Mahon keeps busy running all the aspects of the Varsity theater. He knows his business and he respects the tastes of his patrons, so he makes it his business to keep in front of what is coming out, well ahead of the season.
How long have you been in the theater business?
“I was figuring that out the other day and I think I’m in my 74th year.”
How do you pick your films?
“I’m always reading and keeping up with pictures. There are so many routes through which I may get a film. It is not an easy process to follow. I tried explaining it to an attorney once and he asked me to try again. It is something that keeps changing, and there are new people all the time.”
Have your years in the business made it easier to obtain a film?
Twenty years ago there was a camaraderie but that doesn’t happen any more. Promises can be made and then broken. It used to be a two-way street. You’d be asked to help out with this film and then promised that the next one would be a better hit.”
Is picking the right films the primary thing you do?
That’s what it’s all about. Selling tickets and operating the theater is a small part.
Your concessions are always reasonably priced, a real deal compared to so many theatres all around.
“I went to see a movie not too long ago and noted that the cheapest drinks were $3.40. If you start to add up the price of tickets and the rest...a family can spend $60. A person can feel really cheated if he didn’t come out liking the movie. What I try to do is not insult anyone’s intelligence. I don’t think people should have to take out a second mortgage to see a movie. I hope it is appreciated.”
Do you pat yourself on the back when a film is a hit?
“I just turn out the lights and hope for the best. As they say, don’t read the press clippings or you’re likely to believe them.”
Do you have a favorite movie?
I remember when we had the Holiday on SW 9th and when Dr. Zhivago was released. That was a real event...a memorable movie.
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The enthusiasm in his voice is a giveaway.
Ask Mike Coppola, a Des Moines Developer, to describe his vision for creating Fleur Cinema & Café
and he’s very clear. “This theater is a demonstration that something like this can be unique. Fleur is like the specialty art houses in other cities...only better.”
The details stand out. The modular and vibrant décor of the lounge area welcomes you to take a seat while you let your date get the treats. This is not just a movie house that shows a wide range of movies for every taste—you can come hungry and grab a meal to satisfy your edible tastes as well. The concession choices include sandwiches, Paninis, baked goods, gourmet coffee, beer, wine and yes…even popcorn and candy. The prices don’t blow the budget, either, with reasonable prices for concessions as well as tickets.
But the food and the ambiance are just part of the bonus to what makes Fleur a real gem for Des Moines. It’s the movies. Not just movies that are in big release, but there is always a great selection of independent and other “small” films that wouldn’t even be seen in Iowa if it weren’t for this outstanding venue.
Coppola readily admits that he just loves movies. “They allow us an opportunity to visit other worlds and be inspired by people and stories.” His staff also knows and appreciates film. Special events are hosted at the Fleur, such as the upcoming Scrooge-athon for the holidays.
Coppola is a veteran of property management, but his voice is filled with passion for the movie theater. It was a project intended to contribute to the community. Fleur has also done double-duty as a resource for many charitable events.
Why did Mike Coppola think Des Moines was ready for Fleur Cinema and Café? He tells Small Business Buzz that “It really was a crazy gift to us all.”