The era of downtown movie theaters is over.


Problems associated with the stalled high-rise project at Fifth Avenue and Walnut Street mark the end of long-standing efforts to return movie theaters to downtown Des Moines. 


The Fifth, as the project is called, was to include a hotel, apartments and multiple movie screens, all built atop and beside a parking ramp. The parking structure is done, but the city and a bank are in charge now and it is an open question how much of the rest will be completed. 


Much of the original motivation for the Fifth was the desire to have a movie theater in the Court Avenue area.


Local officials pushed that agenda for more than three decades, during which time they considered several proposals. Some efforts produced new residential units, restaurants and other retail, while other attempts faded and disappeared.   


For many years, movie theaters and a grocery store were seen as the amenities most needed to “bring life back to downtown Des Moines.” 


It was never clear exactly what that phrase meant, but most people agreed that having a downtown supermarket and a movie theater were laudable goals.

  

I’m not sure when the last downtown grocery closed because none existed when I arrived in Des Moines in 1975. But the opening of a Hy-Vee store on Court Avenue a few years ago removed that particular bugbear.


Movie theaters are a different story. 


The last traditional downtown movie theater was the Galaxy on Eighth Street between Grand Avenue and Locust Street. It closed in 1977, and the site became a huge parking ramp when 801 Grand, Iowa’s tallest building, was erected across the street. 


Another downtown stalwart, the Paramount Theater at Fifth and Grand avenues, closed in 1974 and was leveled in 1979 to make way for a convention complex in a building that now houses the downtown YMCA. 


The closing of the Paramount and the Galaxy left only the River Hills/Riviera theaters in the downtown area, although few considered those twin screens downtown theaters. They were more like suburban cineplexes, located near the freeway and not within easy walking distance of restaurants or other downtown amenities. 


In any case, the River Hills complex, which opened in 1968, closed in 2000 to make way for Wells Fargo Arena. 


A second-run movie house with seven smaller screens was added on the skywalk level when the Keck Center, a glorified parking garage, was built in 1987 between Grand Avenue and Locust Street, across from the site of the old Paramount Theater. But those theaters never caught on and the space was converted to a downtown school. 


Another theater of note is the Imax theater, which was part of the Science Center of Iowa when it opened on the southern edge of downtown in 2005. But water damage forced it to close in 2018, and it has not reopened.


Long gone are the glory days of the 1940s and ’50s when more than a dozen movie theaters operated in the downtown area.


Today, the digital economy has disrupted the movie industry the same way it changed the recording industry in the early 2000s. 


The pandemic has increased the pace of disruption to the point where filmmakers today ignore movie theaters and go directly to small-screen platforms like HBO, Netflix and Amazon.


All of which makes it unlikely that downtown will ever see another movie theater. 


And if that’s the case, the failure of the Fifth adds a layer of geographic symmetry to Des Moines’ movie story. 


It was not far from the unfinished high-rise that Abraham H. Blank introduced motion pictures to Des Moines in the early 1900s when he rented space near a Court Avenue trolly stop and set up a motion picture projector to entertain commuters while they waited for transfers.