© 2023 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

After 26 Years, American Heartland Theatre Goes Dark In August

It was an unexpected announcement on April 4 that the American Heartland Theatre on the 3rd level of Crown Center would close after 26 years. By all accounts, the for-profit theater often didn’t make a profit – but it’s had a loyal audience for its Broadway-style shows and plays. Director of Production Paul Hough and Executive Director Lilli Zarda reflected on the final season and the theater’s history.

"The theater opened on April Fool's Day, 1987. The purpose of the theater was to draw people from around the metropolitan and the regional area to Crown Center," says Zarda. "So that's why American Heartland Theatre was supported by Crown Center for these many years."

But, since the theater opened, other venues and attractions have been added to Crown Center, from the Off Center Theatre to Legoland. And, on April 4, Zarda and Crown Center officials announced the American Heartland Theatre would close at the end of the season.

Crown Center's Rick Brown told The Kansas City Star it was a matter of sustainability: "We looked at lots of options and we just didn't see one that looked like it would sustain itself...it's just that Crown Center's needs have changed."

Laughs, good times, and music

Director of Production Paul Hough says the American Heartland Theatre, as a for-profit theater, programmed in a different way than a non-for-profit; there wasn't a "social mandate, a social goal."

"Ours was to provide quality entertainment, so that starts to shape your choices dramatically," says Hough, "We didn't, as a rule, do challenging subject matter. We liked to emphasize the laughs and the good times and the music." 

"We also tried to do a variety of different types of theater. We tried to do mysteries, musicals and plays," adds Zarda. "And, if we could get a nice message or something that would touch your heart that was something that we strived to do always. And I think we did that many times."

From looking ahead to the next season, to looking at the final shows

Auditions for singers and actors for the American Heartland Theatre's 2013-2014 season were scheduled for March 19 - 24.

"We actually did have those auditions," says Zarda. "We did not know the theater was closing; that was a corporate decision. We apologize for all those people that came out and did those auditions. Obviously, we're not going to have a season."

Both Zarda and Hough said they might have shaped the final season differently - if they'd known as they were mapping it out. But Hough says, closing the season with "The Bikinis," a production "designed to just give us a summer of great, unmitigated fun" is not a "a bad way to get out of this, to have a show we can celebrate, enjoy, and have a great time with."

Zarda adds, "I just am so glad the last 21 years I've been able to do a job I absolutely adore. I will miss it."

The American Heartland Theatre presents three final shows, including the current production, "Life Could Be A Dream,” before closing in August.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and powerful storytelling.
Your donation helps make nonprofit journalism available for everyone.