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PHOTOS: A Few Teasers For The Kansas City Library's Folly Burlesque Collection

“Certain challenges arise when doing burlesque history research on a work computer,” says Eli Paul, the special collections manager at the Kansas City Public Library.

Paul has spent the last few months navigating around those “certain challenges” (i.e., worries that his Google Image search history might require some explaining) — and pondering the voluminous good fortune that fell upon his Missouri Valley Special Collections team when the Folly Theater bequeathed a mother lode of relics from its days as one of the nation’s most notable stages for naughty performers.

Earlier this fall, news broke that the Folly Theater’s board of directors had decided to donate their historical records to the library. Paul and his team spent a day rescuing “at-risk” items from file cabinets and boxes in the theater’s basement boiler room. Now the entire collection fills more than 300 linear feet of shelf space in the library.

A quick recap of some important Kansas City history: The Folly opened in 1900 as the Standard Theater and had a thirty-year run of respectable performances — vaudeville and the like, then classic plays after famed New York City theater producers the Shubert Brothers bought the building in 1923. A casualty of the Great Depression, the building was auctioned for back taxes in 1932.

It re-opened in 1941 and “became a burlesque mecca," Paul says, catering to the businessmen and soldiers spilling out from Union Station during the war years.

“This largely male audience, along with local patrons, watched such famed stage performers as Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand, Tempest Storm, and hundreds of other young women," Paul writes in a history of the Folly collection.

"Changing sexual mores saw the rather innocent live performances of the 1940s and 1950s devolve in the late 1960s and early 1970s to X-rated, mob-controlled movies. Before the commencement of serious urban renewal efforts, the nearby Twelfth Street chaos included an adjacent row of shabby businesses charitably called ‘cabarets.’ The theater closed in January 1974, its last performer of note one Miss Chesty Gabor.”

The building appeared destined to become a parking lot but preservationists prevailed; today the Folly is once again a high-culture landmark. And the preservation effort now underway in Paul’s shop promises to make the Missouri Valley Special Collections, on the fifth floor of the Kansas City Public Library’s Central Branch, its own brand of mecca.

Having spent the last couple of months inventorying the boxes, Paul and his staff now know what they’re dealing with. Some items date back to the theater’s earliest and latest phases, and represent esteemed celebrities such as dancer Alvin Ailey, newsman and Kansas City native Walter Cronkite, and musicians Dizzy Gillespie, Marian McPartland, Charlie Parker and Itzhak Perlman. But most of the collection covers those bawdy years starting in the 1940s. Stuff like:

  • 300 linear feet of correspondence; photographs; posters; business records; performance programs, press releases, and promotional materials; performer and union relations; musical scores; event calendars; the Folly Backstage newsletter from 1988.
  • Thousands of photographs of performers from the Vaudeville era through present day, some autographed.
  • Set lists from performances from the early 1950s.
  • Film posters from the theater’s days as an X-rated movie house.
  • Documents labeled “Artists Engagement Contracts from 1959-1960 for work as Exotic Dancers, Exotic Features, and Strip Talking Women.”
  • Significant quantities of “Golden Age of Burlesque” documents illustrate the level of detail of day-to-day business operations, for example: performer contracts from 1947-1968; correspondence directed to “performers and strippers;” various licenses, late 1940s; concessions contracts and correspondence, union contracts, and advertisement applications, 1947-1957; box office statements, tickets sold, and revenue for 1948-49; and scrapbooks from the 1950 and 1952 seasons that contains newspaper advertisements, programs, and scene listings for each week’s productions.

“Our next step is to seek funding to preserve, arrange, and describe the Historic Folly Theater Collection in order to bring it to the attention of scholars and make it available to the general public,” Paul says.

A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.
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