The once and future Olympic Theater

Bobby Rush with Kevin Burt and Big Medicine

Olympic South Side Theater, Cedar Rapids -- Friday, Aug. 27 at 7 p.m.

The Olympic South Side Theater in the Czech Village/New Bohemia neighborhood, 1202 3rd St SE #200, Cedar Rapids. — Jav Ducker/Little Village

Once upon a time in Cedar Rapids, there was an Olympic Theatre. Located at 1124 3rd St, the records of the History Center show that it was built as a private home, but became the Olympic in 1912, remaining under that name until 1939. “The building showed silent flicks early on and then often showed Czech films during the 1930s,” the History Center shared in an email.

Over the decades, it became the Strand Theatre, then the Community Theatre, then the Community Theatre of Cedar Rapids Inc. In 1990, it evolved into the See Dar Rabbits Jazz & Blues Society. But in 1993, the dilapidated building was torn down.

Fast-forward another 25 years, and enter Steve Shriver. The Cedar Rapids businessman (Ecolips, SOKO Outfitters) had recently moved Brewhemia, the coffee shop he runs with his wife Andrea, into the lower level of 1202 3rd St.

The building had recently been home to the Chrome Horse Saloon and its upstairs neighbor, Third Street Live. But in 2014, an early morning fire damaged the building significantly. It was a four-alarmer, something that fire department Public Information Officer Greg Buelow told the Gazette at the time was “a very rare event.” The staircase to the second level performance space was destroyed completely, along with other significant damage.

The Chrome Horse found a new home across the street at 1201 3rd St, but no comparable music venue replaced Third Street in the Cedar Rapids musical landscape. And Shriver, a passionate advocate for the New Bohemia neighborhood and self-described “serial entrepreneur,” found it difficult to see the building remain unused.

“It was painful to see such a historic place sit empty for so long after the fire,” he said in an email.

So a few years after Brewhemia and then the restaurant Caucho had moved in downstairs at 1202 to repurpose the former Chrome Horse space, Shriver decided to take on the former Third Street Live as well.

“Each of my businesses fit a community or industry need, and I saw an opportunity to rehabilitate this amazing space and have it serve the community.”

Shriver hearkens back to 1202’s own history in his utilization of the space: Along with a few more mundane tenants, prior to Third Street it had been Shades Night Club in the 1990s and, in the first half of the 20th century, had for around 50 years been community social hub ZCBJ Hall (Západní Česko Bratrská Jednota; in English, Western Bohemian Fraternal Association), the History Center said. ZCBJ was an offshoot of the Czech-Slovak Protective Society, according to the venue’s website — that CSPS building being just down the road at 1103 3rd St.

But Shriver decided to pay homage to a different piece of history when he chose a name for his new venue: the Olympic South Side Theatre.

Naming it after the nearby space where the famed 19th century vaudevillians had one of their last performances was no accident. Shriver, a musician himself, is eager for the Olympic to come into its own as an arts venue with full programming, not just hosting private events.

“I’m … super passionate about art and music,” Shriver said, “so blending those into the programming is very fulfilling.”

The new Olympic is about to take a dive into the deep end of that effort. The space hosts a regular Thirsty Jam and has programmed a few local bands, but later this month, blues legend Bobby Rush will take the stage, with local blues legend Kevin Burt opening. It’s the Olympic’s first show of this scale.

“Like every other event venue, we were extremely limited on the events we could hold, if any at all,” Shriver said of opening last year, mid-pandemic. “In addition people were very conservative in their social lives. We are just glad to have that (hopefully) behind us.”

Shriver said that the 500-capacity space has “worked well to serve the community while still allowing indoor social distancing.”

Blues musician Bobby Rush will perform at the Olympic on Aug. 27. — Bill Steber

The Aug. 27 performance by 87-year-old two-time Grammy winner Rush will be a useful test case for the Olympic, to see if it can fulfill the vision that Shriver has for it.

“Our goal is to create a sustainable legacy event venue,” Shriver said — one that maintains a good public–private balance. He wants to book weddings and events when they’re available and fill the dates in the off-season and in-between with community events, live music and more. This year is a mix of newly scheduled events and reschedules from 2020.

“Being entrepreneurial, we will follow and cater to wherever the most demand comes from,” he said.

Inspired by venues like CSPS and by old theaters such as the Englert and the Paramount, Shriver found the renovation and design process of the Olympic South Side to be organic.

“Our goal was to create something super versatile, while being respectful of the building’s history and existing finishes,” he said.

That built-in, vigilant flexibility is the niche that Shriver hopes the Olympic will fill in the community. But he also notes that, “The location, size, history and customer experience of the Olympic really set us apart from the others.”

Genevieve Trainor believes the more music venues, the merrier! This article was originally published in Little Village issue 297.

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