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Kansas City's Tivoli Theater Gets A Hollywood Ending, Will Re-Open At The Nelson-Atkins Museum

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Former Tivoli owner Jerry Harrington (left) and Julián Zugazagoitia, CEO and director of the Nelson-Atkins, embark on a new partnership at the museum."

When Kansas City's oldest independent theater closed in April after nearly 40 years in Westport, Tivoli Cinemas owner Jerry Harrington said he didn't expect it to open again

"No, I did not," said Harrington. "I really thought I was retired."

But that was before Julián Zugazagoitia, director and CEO of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art — who Harrington describes as "the man who has many ideas, many good ideas" — reached out to him. 

Starting in October, the Tivoli will re-open as the Tivoli at the Nelson-Atkins. 

The Museum's 500-seat Atkins Auditorium will get significant upgrades, including updated digital projection equipment, a sound system overhaul and a new, larger film screen.

The initiative marks a quick turn for the Nelson-Atkins, an arts institution that often plans exhibitions, programming and events years in advance. 

"But I think it was the enthusiasm, both of our board, of our patrons, of our staff, for making this happen that has allowed us to move in this very, very, very speedy way," said Zugazagoitia. "And it's also recognition of how beloved Tivoli is in the city."

About a dozen donors, including past and present members of the museum's board of trustees, provided an undisclosed amount to fund the improvements.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
The 500 seats in Atkins Auditorium are surrounded by Thomas Hart Benton's 'American Epic' murals.

After Harrington announced plans to close the Tivoli last spring, he suggested in an interview on KCUR's Up to Date that the museum might be a good home for one of the Tivoli's projectors. This remark, said Casey Claps, manager of strategic initiatives, set the wheels in motion. 

"So we started to imagine, 'Ok, could we be a home for film? What would that look like?,'" said Claps, who's also the project lead.

The Nelson-Atkins now screens a few movies a month, often with ties to exhibitions (such as documentaries about sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, who is building a 'Walking Wall' across the museum campus). They'd wanted to boost their film programming, Claps said.

After researching what other museums were doing, Claps said, they put together a business model and decided to move forward.

"One of the things about this project that's so exciting is that it's Jerry's vision," Claps said. "He is going to be lining up the films, but we will have the ability to reinforce what he is bringing to Kansas City with the museum's resources and programs." (The projectors that sparked the conversation, meanwhile, ended up with Ragtag Cinema in Columbia, Missouri.)

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Julian Zugazagoitia, CEO and director of the Nelson-Atkins (at left), signs a letter of interest for film distributors as the Tivoli owner Jerry Harrington waits in the wings of the museum.

Independent, foreign and classic films will be shown four times a week, Mondays at 11:15 a.m., Wednesdays at 1 p.m., Fridays at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. Tickets are $10, or $7 for members.

"A lot of the films will not be rarefied, a lot of the films will not be difficult," said Harrington, who will take on a familiar role as film curator. "It's going to be Hollywood to Estonia, anywhere we go."

Changes to Rozzelle Court, the museum's restaurant, will allow people to come together to talk about movies at a "communal table," said Zugazagoitia. 

"In today's age, a lot of us could stay home and watch movies, but I think really part of movie-going is being with people," he said. "Just like coming to the museum. Seeing art and sharing the emotions, you want to be with people to do that."

The first film to screen in the new venue will be a one-time only showing of the 1926 silent classic "The General," starring Buster Keaton and backed by the Massachusetts-based Alloy Orchestra, on October 21. It's primarily a premiere for donors, and a limited number of public tickets will be available. 

Then, Harrington said, he plans to skip ahead a few decades to a 1940s film he used to "make" his employees watch: "I Know Where I'm Going."

"Julián asked me for a poetic and inspiring film, and this is the one," he said. "This is beautiful, inspiring, joyful, and that's what I want."

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter at @lauraspencer

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.
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