Riverside Theatre’s old space finds new owners

The owners of Nolte Academy, a local performing arts company, have leased Riverside Theatre’s old space, and plan to remodel it into a community performance venue called The James Theatre.


Jake Maish

The Riverside Theatre is seen on Sunday, April 26, 2020 (Jake Maish/The Daily Iowan)

Parker Jones, Arts Reporter

Last May, Riverside Theatre announced it would leave its home at 213 N. Gilbert St. in the northside neighborhood of Iowa City, after nearly three decades at the location. Now, the space has a new owner — and a new communal purpose.

Mark and Leslie Nolte, the owners of local performing-arts school and dance company Nolte Academy, have leased the space, planning to reopen it as a new performance venue called The James Theatre. The venue will be separate from the couple’s existing facility in North Liberty and will mainly serve as an option for local Iowa City artists’ performances. Nolte Academy will also use the theater as a workshop or performance space for smaller productions.

Leslie Nolte, who serves as Nolte Academy’s artistic director, said the performance space ultimately hopes to open by the end of this summer. After receiving the keys April 1, the couple began the process of remodeling and redesigning the interior of the space. Nolte said they have been in contact with an architect to plan the modernization and refurbishing of some older aspects of the interior.

“Some of [the remodeling] is quite extensive, just to bring it up to an audience space that makes everyone feel comfortable and is accessible,” Nolte said. “That work will be had for probably about 90 days, and then we will start our grand opening performances.”

The venue will have new air conditioning and heating systems, as well as completely remodeled bathrooms so patrons and performers alike are as comfortable as possible, Nolte said.

Adam Knight, producing artistic director at Riverside Theatre — soon to be relocated to the Pedestrian Mall — wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan that Riverside was thrilled to hear the news that its former location will continue to serve as a cultural arts space. Knight noted that he is personally looking forward to seeing a performance there in the future.

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“Many beautiful moments were created within those walls, and it’s inspiring to know that more will follow, even as Riverside charts a new path,” Knight wrote. “We wish Mark and Leslie Nolte all the best as they prepare to open The James Theatre.”  

The James, named for Leslie’s father who helped her begin Nolte Academy and continues to support her endeavors, will serve as a space available for artists who might not yet have the resources or reputation to perform at spaces like the Englert or Hancher Auditorium. The space may also act as a workshop and performance space for other local performance groups, in addition to Nolte Academy.

Additionally, Nolte emphasized the availability of the venue for University of Iowa students and faculty that are creators, noting that it isn’t always easy for students to find spaces to perform and that she hopes The James will become a home for them as well.

“We saw the opportunity for a creative space for the community, whether that be a small touring group or local performance organizations,” Nolte said. “That’s not to say larger groups wouldn’t be welcome on the stage, I just think it’s a niche that needs to be filled, and I’m just happy to be a part of it.”