R. L. Fridley
22 March, 1917 – 3 February, 2021
Robert Lloyd Fridley, son of Laura and Lloyd Fridley, was born on March 22, 1917 in the small town of Westgate, Iowa. He passed away peacefully with family by his side on February 3, 2021. He was 103 years old. He was born one month before the U.S. entered WWI.
He was to many an inspiring and important man. Growing up poor, his early life revolved around helping provide for his mother, sister, and brother, who were separated for lengthy periods of time during the Great Depression, and setting out to make a living in the motion picture business. Family and movies were his life. He became infatuated with motion pictures when he saw his first movie at the age of 4. He couldn't remember the name of it, but there was a witch in it and he was fascinated by the moving pictures. His uncle, Bob Bernau, owned theatres around Iowa and was a role model and mentor for Bob. At age 14, hanging around the poster exchange in Des Moines, he was offered a job sorting posters. This wasn't difficult for him since he already knew which film companies produced all the movies. At age 19, he took over his Uncle Bob's Jackrabbit Circuit, which brought movies to small towns that didn't have a theatre. At age 22, he returned to Des Moines and started working at the National Screen Service. At age 24, he became owner and operator of the New Sharon Theatre. A year later in 1941, he received his draft orders to serve in WWII, where he was stationed at Camp Myles Standish in Boston. Since he had a theatre background, he was put in charge of managing the theatres there. With over 35,000 soldiers, he quickly learned how to manage theatre crowds.
Upon discharge in 1946, he returned to Iowa. In 1950, he leased the Lake City Theatre from his Uncle Bob, where he would meet the love of his life, Myrna Blanchfield. While studying movie production at the University of Southern California, he invited her to visit. She accepted and took the train to California, he proposed to her on Mulholland Drive overlooking the Hollywood Hills that night, and a week later they were married. Their love was here to stay. He would often call her the love of his life and he truly was the love of her life. Their love was steadfast and true. They were married 67 wonderful years. They settled in Des Moines, started a family, and Bob began to build his movie empire. From 1954 to 1975, he owned and operated the Varsity Theatre, which was across from Drake University and two blocks from his mother's home. Television had emerged in 1950, but Bob managed to keep the theatre running. The Varsity held many great memories. His children grew up there, enjoying birthday parties and Saturday kiddie matinees where he would have drawings for prizes, and where they would work when they were older. To drum up business, he would run Tuesday operettas in the summer and crowds would line up around the corner. The great old movies of the time were very popular with the Drake crowd. Business flourished and Fridley Theatres was founded. Theatre acquisitions grew rapidly in the 1960's and included the Capri, Plantation Drive-In, Sierra 3, and River Hills Theatres in Des Moines.
Bob's love for small town Iowa was also evident in his purchase and renovation of many old movie houses around Iowa, including the State Theatre in Washington, the oldest running theatre in the world, and a million-dollar renovation of the Metropolitan Opera House in Iowa Falls in the 1990's. He was given the key to the City of Iowa Falls, and a parade and gala opening of The Met were organized in his honor. Many years later, Hugh Jackman premiered his movie "Prisoners" there when The Met was purchased by Hugh's agent, Patrick Whitesell. Patrick is the son of John Whitesell, an attorney and good friend who was instrumental in Bob purchasing and restoring the Met many years before. Bob got an invitation to the premiere. He met Hugh Jackman and they had an animated discussion of the movies and the importance of theatres in small towns. It was a memorable evening for Bob.
Between 1936 and 2014, Bob owned and operated a total of 87 theatres. Ones holding a special place in his heart are the Lake City Theatre where he met Myrna, and the King Theatre in Ida Grove, which his uncle had owned and where Bob had lived for a period and attended high school. At age 101, he made a visit to the King Theatre to attend a meeting relating to a major renovation being done by the community, for which he was a donor. It meant a lot to Bob that the old King Theatre was being restored.
Gene Kelly once said "I can remember a time when where we went to the movies was just as important as the movies we went to see". That sentiment and his love of the old movie movie palaces of the past guided Bob throughout his career. Whether it be an old movie house he was renovating or a new theatre he was building, it was very important that he offer his customers a quality movie-going experience, from the picture and sound to the popcorn and drinks. He insisted on state of the art equipment to provide clear sound and a sharp picture, comfortable seats, comfortable temperatures at all times of the year, attractive surroundings, real butter on the popcorn, and a clean well-managed theatre. Many of his theatres had waterfalls, chandeliers, classic old movie stills, waterfall curtains, starry ceilings, and many other special features. Over the years, the theatre business evolved and it became harder to be profitable in the smaller towns. Bob donated several of his small town theatres to the towns to own and operate. Today, Fridley Theatres owns 18 theatres with 97 screens in Iowa and Nebraska, including the new Waukee Palms Theatre & IMAX.
Besides bringing movies to Iowa audiences and preserving many small town movie theatres, other accomplishments include a venture into movie production in the 1970's, producing two motion pictures of his own, and getting to know many Hollywood icons such as Frank Capra, Mervyn LeRoy, Buddy Rogers, Ginger Rogers, Loretta Young, Alice Faye, Fred MacMurray, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Kathryn Grayson, Joy Hodges, and more. He had a genuine love for the silver screen and a photographic memory of all the great movies of the past, being able to recall the producers, directors, actors, what year they were released, back stories behind those movies, etc. etc. He had a wonderful mind and great memory, able to recall the most significant details of any part of his life going back to his early childhood and all the way through his career, and loved sharing them. He loved keeping people entertained and filled many of our lives with great memories, entertaining stories, and great movies. He lived an extraordinary life.
When he wasn't working at the movies, he was showing them to his family and friends. His grandchildren have many fond memories of staying at their grandparents and their Grandpa showing them old classics such as Charlie Chaplin, Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, The Thin Man, Meet Me in St. Louis, and many, many more. His love of the movies and family kept him going for 103 years. He did what he loved, working hard from the time he was a teenager until he was nearly 100. He was a gentleman, generous, kind, responsible, honest, always professional and dignified. He was a successful businessman and had much respect and love for so many who worked for him over the years. He truly had a wonderful life, and he made a wonderful life for his family, and many others.
Bob told his family many times that when he died, he didn't want a funeral. He just wanted the theatres to open on time. Given the Pandemic we are in, he would have been very pleased that the theatres have continued to operate, and proud of its management and employees who have made that happen. Bob was preceded in death by his mother and father Laura and Lloyd Fridley, sister June Flowers, and brother Russell Fridley. He is survived by his wife Myrna Fridley, sons Brian Fridley, Jon Fridley, and Grant Thomas, and daughters Lisa Dotson and Erin Abbott (husband Don), 12 grandchildren, 16 great grandchildren, 2 great great grandchildren, and many nieces and nephews.
A celebration of Bob's life and history will take place at the Waukee Palms Theatre, to be announced at a future date. Memorial contributions may be made to the Variety Club of Iowa or Saint Jude's Children's Research Hospital.
No public services are scheduled at this time. Receive a notification when services are updated.
R. L. Fridley
14 February 2021
What a life. Bob was my mentor, and friend. He took me under his wing when I was only 11 year old working at the Varsity and Capri. I knew at an early age that theatres were in my blood. 50 years later I still make decisions by considering what Bob would do. He and Myrna would often take Julie and I out to eat and then go to the famed screening room in his house. Magical. When I build theatres now, it was his influence which guides me. I still try to visit Hollywood as often as possible so I can bring the magic home.... just like Bob did.
My condolences to Myrna and the kids.
14 February 2021
Iowa has lost a great showman. I treasure the years I worked with Bob on screenings, premieres and “sneak previews” and promotions while I was at KIOA.
Even if you didn’t know Bob, his well run theatres were part of your “growing up” experience in Iowa.
I will miss him and you will too.
Mike and Mary Earley
14 February 2021
We met Bob and Myrna nearly 40 years ago when they offered to babysit our first born child so that we might enjoy our first date in many months. Bob and Myrna were so kind to us as they were to so many people. We will never forget watching movies with them in their miniature but real in every detail home theater including popcorn and analysis of movies from their one of a kind collection. Bob was a wonderful man who made untold contributions to his community.
10 February 2021
The End credits mr iowa theatreman Robert Fridley.
Glad I knew him
6 February 2021
I loved going to the Fine Arts Theatre back in the 1980s. He was a very respected businessman.
6 February 2021
I have so many great memories of The Fine Arts Movie Theatre in Des Moines. The only place like it to see such great movies such as Spinal Tap, Talking Heads Stop Making Sense and Blue Velvet.
Thanks Bob for everything you did for the film loving public.
6 February 2021
I worked at Video Warehouse in Des Moines when it first opened. I worked at the Paradise Theatre in KCMO. Thanks Bob for giving me a chance and a great start in life.
5 February 2021
Robert reached out to me when he heard that we were restoring the Ida Grove's King Theatre. I traveled to Des Moines to meet him at his office. I didn't realize at the time his history in our part of the state, how he graduated from Ida Grove High School, and how he worked at the King. Later, Bob traveled to see our renovation progress... at the young age of 101. Still sharp as ever, he shared with us his experience with movies and the movie industry. Our group was proud to have our photo taken with him. We are sorry to hear of his passing but overjoyed that he has been part of our lives. We wish to express to your entire family what Bob has meant to us.
4 February 2021
Those of us who had the privilege of calling him Grandpa knew all too well of his immense passion for not only show business, but for creating memories. How many wonderful memories we have of watching movies, trips to California and Disneyland, Christmas Eve with Grandma and Grandpa. Digging in the closet for the building blocks to create something in the living room, and sleepovers at Grandma and Grandpa's house. And every bit of it was magical. Thank you for all the wonderful memories I will carry in my heart for all my life. God received a wonderful angel. All my love, Sarah