To entrepreneur and visionary Zachary Mannheimer, life is a theater production. The curtains opened on his life’s production when he began running a theater company in New York. However, after 8 years of doing this and working extra hours at restaurants, he realized it was likely time to move on to the next act. Mannheimer wanted to see returns on investments that could do more than just pay the bills.
During the 2004 Republican National Convention in Madison Square Garden, Mannheimer’s theater company and five others collaborated on a politically charged production. The production was a 1938 anti-war play called the “White Plague” and the companies rented out the theaters surrounding Madison Square Garden. Their goals were ambitious. An influx of republicans and an influential anti-war play all in one place; minds were sure to be changed. Things didn’t happen quite that way. Reflecting back, Mannheimer says they were rather naïve. “We had great audiences and great reviews, but I don’t believe any single minds were changed largely because the majority, if not all, of our audience already agreed with us before they walked in the door,” Mannheimer said.
This outcome didn’t discourage Mannheimer’s big ideas. He just had to do a little improvisation. Upon realizing that New York was “over saturated with artistic talent” he knew that he needed to go somewhere else but didn’t know where. “We began to realize that the work we were doing was recycled and irrelevant,” Mannheimer said. “If we were truly trying to make a difference, as opposed to chasing fame or money, being in New York was the last place we should be.” So he packed his bags and gathered his ideas for his journey to find a blank canvas.
Before locating the perfect blank canvas on which to paint his ambition, he had to evaluate a crowded map. Here begins Act II, a cross-country road trip to 22 different cities. Mannheimer spent 8 weeks visiting each city for 3 to 5 days. The get-to-know-you process for each city involved hanging out at restaurants and bars and interviewing relevant community members. Some cities weren’t the right fit and others simply weren’t in need of the theater-restaurant duo he had hoped to create. Initially, Des Moines was a place to sleep between Indianapolis and Omaha. If his travels to find the right city were a rom-com about finding the right girl, Des Moines would have been the one he happened to sit next to on the airplane. In the end, of course, it was meant to be.
Choosing Des Moines
Mannheimer’s idea eventually formed into what is now the Des Moines Social Club, the city’s go-to venue for arts, entertainment and weekly events. He says he “brought the original idea but hundreds of other people helped form it.” The Social Club evolved into much more than his original mental blueprints. The art community in Des Moines longed for a place to call home and they were vocal about it. After meeting visual artists, the art gallery was added to the plans. After meeting culinary artists, the culinary school was added. After meeting musical artists, the music venue was added. This continued until the Des Moines Social Club became a thriving heart in the popular streets of downtown Des Moines, all settled in to it’s headquarters in the former home of the fire department.
Even though the Social Club was settled in, Mannheimer hadn’t gotten too cozy yet. After another 8 years of working 70 to 80 hour weeks, he decided to move on again. This time, however, he didn’t have to pack all his bags. His love story with Des Moines wasn’t over and Act III had barely begun. The Des Moines Social Club was a small idea turned into a big success, but Mannheimer didn’t want to stop at that. Now, he feels confident that the business is in good hands with the current executive director, Pete De Kock, as he focuses on other community building projects. Mannheimer is not entirely removed from the Social Club, since he is still on the board, but in the spirit of theater, the show will go on without him.
He recently took on an important role in creative place making at a company called Iowa Business Growth. Here he is directing what he calls his own one-man show. The position is still centered in Des Moines but he is working on economic and cultural development in rural towns throughout Iowa. For some towns, his projects could be miniature versions of the social club. For Others, he says, it could be the complete opposite. In whatever case, Mannheimer’s work will be specialized to the towns’ needs and this is the work he says he wants to be doing.
“All these towns have a ton of culture; they just haven’t had a physical vehicle for expressing that culture in some cases,” Mannheimer said, “So creating that vehicle is what keeps me going.”
The show goes on.