2017 IJA Festival in Cedar Rapids

When you arrive in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in July for our historic 70th Annual IJA Festival, you will find a sparkling-clean, mid-sized, friendly, safe and welcoming Midwestern US city. The City of Five Seasons straddles the Cedar River, along the banks of which Cedar Rapids was founded as a trading, meatpacking and grain milling river town in 1849. It was named for the rapids that once disturbed the river as it moved through the city, and for the many red cedar trees that lined its banks.

The river gave the new settlement life as it enabled trade, transportation and industry at the eastern edge of rich Iowa farmlands. As train, truck and highway transport supplanted riverboats and barges for most freight, Cedar Rapids diversified its economy and today is a vibrant metro area of about 130,000 people, with a mixture of light manufacturing and agricultural-related industry. Quaker Oats, Rockwell Collins, Maytag and Hy-Vee Foods are all major employers in the area.

One of Cedar Rapids’ crown jewels is the Paramount Theatre, which will be the venue for four nights of public shows and world championship competitions during our festival. Originally built in the 1920’s as one of thousands of Vaudeville-era show palaces across the country, the Paramount opened its doors in 1928 as the Capitol Theater. The following year, Paramount Studios bought the theater and re-named it The Paramount Theatre, and operated it as the premiere live performance theater in eastern Iowa for more than four decades.

 
But by the 1970s, the Paramount had fallen victim to changing tastes for live entertainment, and needed upgrades and renovations were not made through the years to keep the venue attractive to touring or local shows. Paramount Studios gifted the theater to the city of Cedar Rapids in 1975, and a visionary group of citizen volunteers organized to restore the Paramount to its original glory and return it to its place as one of the most spectacular live performance venues in the Midwest.

Over $400,000 was raised for that effort, and by 1980, the Paramount was again a stunning showplace, and back on the schedules of major Broadway and national touring shows and internationally-famous acts of all kinds. Another round of renovations and upgrades was funded in the early 2000’s, and the theater underwent an extensive, $7.8-million upgrade. Updates included a 57′ wing space addition, new HVAC systems, new restrooms, existing restrooms renovation, new carpeting, new seat coverings, plaster work repair, electrical and fire system updates and the addition of the Guaranty Bank Reception Hall. Photos of the Paramount like the ones you see with this article show how indescribably beautiful and grand the Paramount looked after those investments.

And then, in June of 2008, Cedar Rapids was decimated by one of the worst floods in the history of the state of Iowa – or anywhere in America.

The flood inundated 10 square miles – 1,300 city blocks – of the city, including all of downtown and the Paramount Theatre. It flooded over 1,100 buildings, destroyed City Hall, 9 out of 10 fire stations, police headquarters, the city’s main library, four out of five water pumping stations, the city’s only convention hotel, the attached arena and the convention center.

 
Fifty FEET of water covered several city blocks of downtown Cedar Rapids. The I-380 bridge was submerged under raging floodwaters, as were four other bridges across the Cedar River. River water covered downtown and nearby areas up and down the Cedar River, flooding 5-story buildings to their roofs. By the time the river returned to its banks a week later, 940 businesses and 5,200 homes had been flooded and mostly destroyed – more than 10% of the city – yet most Americans don’t know that this devastating flood in a sizable American city (the 2nd-largest city in Iowa) ever happened. Incredibly, no one was killed in The Great Flood of 2008.

Among the most precious of all the buildings decimated by the Great Flood was the historic and spectacular Paramount Theatre. When the waters crested at 31.12 feet above major flood stage, the Theatre was inundated by approximately eight feet of water on the main level. The basement and sub-basement were completely flooded to the ceiling, and in all, over $16 million in damage was wreaked upon the historic theatre. The priceless 1920’s-era Wurlitzer Organ that thrilled and entertained generations of patrons was found upside-down on the opposite side of the stage when the water receded. Every seat, every thread of carpeting, every wire and cable, every light and production instrument in the theater was ruined. It looked like a total loss, and not one that could ever be rebuilt.

But because they loved their city so much, the determined, hard-working people of Cedar Rapids rebuilt the city, almost entirely by themselves. As well, they built a new, gleaming all-glass main library, a new City Hall, five new fire stations (on higher ground) – and thankfully, they even fully rebuilt and restored the Paramount Theatre to its original eye-popping beauty. The people of Cedar Rapids considered the Paramount Theatre the heart of their city’s culture and arts community, and they wanted it back – even better than it was before the flood.

A dedicated team of professionals rebuilt, restored and enhanced the Theatre and its’ amenities. As destructive as the flood was to the interior of the Theatre, the structure itself remained solid. This provided the opportunity to restore the Theatre’s historic features and create the upgrades and improvements today’s performers and patrons expect when attending events.

After four years of work, the Paramount Theatre reopened in November of 2012, as the city continued to rebuild their downtown infrastructure. Along with giving a new life to the Paramount Theatre, the city built a new convention center and hotel, re-branding them as the U.S. Cellular Center and DoubleTree Hotel it and bringing the hotel under the Hilton corporate flag. The U.S. Cellular Center and the DoubleTree Hotel will be our juggling home for festival week, with our evening shows and championships in the Paramount Theatre just 2.5 blocks aways.

In the cold and snow of January, 2014, after six years of rebuilding and three years of ongoing discussions with IJA, Cedar Rapids invited us to come and see all the wonderful things downtown Cedar Rapids could offer our jugglers. When we saw the beautiful, state-of-the-art facilities, the gorgeous new hotel and convention center – and of course, the spectacular Paramount Theatre – we signed up immediately to bring our 70th Annual festival to the city of Cedar Rapids in 2017.

So friends, take a look at these gorgeous photos of the amazing, spectacular, too-beautiful-for-words Paramount Theatre, and then imagine being in the house for four nights of world-class juggling shows and championships during the IJA festival next summer.

As someone who has attended 23 IJA festivals, I assure you that the Paramount Theatre is probably the most beautiful – and also, one of the most intimate large theaters – we have ever had the luxury to hire. But don’t take it from me! Our festival director, Dan Holzman, a professional working juggler for more than 30 years, also says the Paramount Theatre is an eye-popper – probably the most beautiful theater HE has ever been in, too! The competitors and artists who will perform on the Paramount stage this summer will be working to thrill you inside one of what is certainly one of the best theaters we have ever had for our festival.

COMING NEXT MONTH: The story of the Paramount Theatre’s (and Cedar Rapids’) most-recent near-death experience. Learn about The Great Flood of 2016, and how the citizens of Cedar Rapids saved their city from the waters of the Cedar River, and SAVED OUR FESTIVAL!

Watch for it next month!

The International Jugglers’ Association holds the largest week-long juggling festival in North America. The convention is held in a different city each year during mid-to-late July since 1948. Aside from the competitions, at the convention there are shows open to the public in which professional jugglers perform, and workshops are taught by jugglers of all skill levels.

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