Passing the Time

A history of Idaho Falls entertainment options

Published online: Nov 17, 2020 Looking Back Jeff Carr, Research by Judy House, Museum of Idaho
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What is there to do around here? Nowadays, you might answer that by talking about museums, escape rooms, axe-throwing parlors, indoor golf centers and the like. You might assume that in days of Idaho Falls past, there was nothing social to do. But you’d be wrong. 

As you might expect, some of the first social entertainment options for locals included agricultural fairs, school and church activities and balls, all in place by the 1880s as families began to join the mostly male settlers who arrived here first. Something you might not expect is that Eagle Rock was on the traveling road-show circuit by then as well, bringing in live performances from around the country to a little spot on Park Avenue and D Street, in downtown Idaho Falls. And if you wanted to throw your own party, a band called the Eagle Rock Cornet and String Band was available to play.

By the next decade, many more options arose. By 1893, the brand-new Highland Park­­—the city’s first—had a dance pavilion with music from a wind-up phonograph with a big horn. The next year, Heise Hot Springs was founded as a health resort, and quickly gained popularity among Idaho Falls day-trippers. As it grew, in addition to the pools, early visitors were able to enjoy camping, fishing and horseback riding, much like today. Idaho Falls also gained its own baseball team during this decade, and would play against other towns on a field between C (now Constitution Avenue) and D Street. 

The next couple of decades saw both the birth of Hollywood and a local population boom, resulting in motion pictures, first at the accurately named Dime Theater on Broadway in 1907. For some silent films without subtitles, a live “lecturer” would narrate to the audience. Many more theaters and nickelodeons opened in subsequent years downtown, including the Rex Theater in 1915 (now the Centre Theatre) and the Colonial in 1919, which boasted luxurious opera seats, box seats and the largest stage in the Mountain West, capable of accommodating any traveling show as well as films. 

One of the city’s longest-running entertainments, the War Bonnet Roundup, got its start in 1912 as officials from the brand-new Bonneville County (just split off from Bingham) looked for ways to increase interest in its county fair. For decades, the event was held each year in Reno Park, now named after early landowner Charles C. Tautphaus. (Tautphaus Park was also the original name of the park, but it was changed for a time to Reno—a later landowner—because of widespread difficulty pronouncing “Tautphaus.”) The zoo moved to the park in 1935, after a brief period on Sportsmen’s Island downtown.

One of the more successful cultural ventures in the city’s history appears now only in wistful obituaries. It would appear that numerous older Idaho Falls residents lived it up, and met their future spouses, at the Wandamere dance hall, built in 1929 on South Yellowstone Highway. The Wandamere, with a luxurious 20-foot ceiling, played host to many of the early 20th century’s best musical acts, including Tommy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Artie Shaw. Sadly, a heavy snowfall caved in the venue’s roof in 1951, closing it down for good just as a new (but dance-less) live performance venue, the Civic Auditorium, was under construction.

Things become more familiar in the last half of the 20th century, with drive-in theaters, the symphony and the opera theater getting their start, and the improvement and addition of more golf courses, following Pinecrest, which had been a highly rated public course since the ‘30s. The Paramount (Colonial) Theater showed movies through the ‘80s and numerous other cinemas popped up far from downtown as the city grew. The Bonneville Museum opened in 1985 and became the Museum of Idaho in 2003. The Idaho Falls Arts Council got its start in 1989, then took over the restored and beautified Colonial Theater and Willard Arts Center in subsequent years. And finally, after decades of the city slowly purchasing land around the river, late local historian Mary Jane Fritzen wrote in 1991 that this area “may be called the Greenbelt.” 

Click here to read more of the November isssue.

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