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Each week, KCUR's Creative Adventure newsletter brings you a new way to explore the Kansas City region.

Take a tour of Kansas City's historic theaters, dating back more than a century

Uptown Theater 1
Sergei Shapoval
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Uptown Theater
Built in 1928 as Missouri's first "atmospheric" theater, Uptown Theater is just one of Kansas City's many historic venues.

With concerts and touring acts returning to Kansas City theaters, take a peek behind the curtain at some of our historic local venues.

This story was first published in KCUR's Creative Adventure newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox every Tuesday.

One thing’s for sure — we’re lucky to live in a city brimming with architectural excellence, and history to boot. With concerts and touring acts returning to Kansas City theaters, we're looking back at the history of some of our favorite local venues.

Kansas City's oldest theater dates back to 1900 and once hosted vaudeville and burlesque acts. Another classic Kansas City theater is rumored to have had "an elevator large and powerful enough to haul elephants to the stage."

Whether you're there to see a movie or your favorite musician, we think you'll come away from Kansas City's iconic theaters with a story to tell as well.

Folly Theater

The Folly Theater
The Folly Theater
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Built in 1900, Folly Theater is Kansas City's oldest theater. Civic leaders helped secure its spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

Kansas City’s oldest theater seems as good a place to begin as any. If you’ve ever walked east on 12th Street toward Power and Light, you have likely glimpsed the iconic Folly sign glowing brightly in one corner of the Palladian-style building.

Built in 1900 as a venue for burlesque and vaudeville acts, Folly Theater was originally called the Standard Theater. By 1902, renamed the Century, the theater was advertising on-stage boxing matches. In 1920, there was a fire in the balcony, “but the show went on that night with sawdust on the floor," according to the Folly's website.

When New York City’s famed Shubert brothers bought the Folly in 1923, they named it Shubert’s Missouri, and brought Shakespeare’s plays to Kansas City. However, as businesses shut their doors in the 1930s, the Folly booked fewer shows. It reopened in 1941 as a striptease club but was soon set for demolition.

Thankfully, the Folly was saved from parking lot doom by civic leaders Joan Kent Dillon and William Deramus III, who secured its spot on the National Register of Historic Places. The renovated venue reopened in 1981, even hosting former President Barack Obama in 2010.

Gem Theater

Gem Theater
Carlos Moreno
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KCUR 89.3
Constructed in 1912 as a "silent movie palace," today Gem Theater hosts live music, theater productions and community events.

Located in Kansas City’s historic 18th & Vine arts district, the Gem Theater lives up to its name. Built in 1912 as a “silent movie palace," the structure was originally called Star Theater.

Over the years, the Gem’s silent showings shifted into “talkies,” as they were called, but the mission remained the same: to provide an entertaining space for Kansas City’s Black community.

This objective became especially key in the 1980s when Mayor Richard Berkley and then-City Councilman Emanuel Cleaver agreed to renovate the Gem and emphasize the greatness of 18th & Vine. Learn more about recent redevelopment efforts in the18th & Vine district from KCUR's Carlos Moreno.

Today, you can catch live music at the 500-seat performing arts center, plus participate in theater productions and community-wide events.

Mainstreet Theater

Mainstreet Theater 2022
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Mainstreet Theater is rumored to have been used by bootleggers during Prohibition, and might have even had an "elephant cage ... and an elevator large and powerful enough to haul elephants to the stage."

Completed in 1921 as the Mainstreet Missouri, the Mainstreet Theater was once a vaudeville hall. Its exterior mixes Neoclassical and French Second Empire styles. The term “neoclassical” is a loose one — it translates to less extravagant and built with the intent to serve a purpose.

In contrast, the French Second Empire style is highly eclectic, featuring maximalist elements and low, square-based domes like the one seen at Mainstreet today. Even the most disparate schools of thought can come together in ways that lend a fresh perspective.

According to a Kansas City Times article from 1987, a tunnel was built to funnel actors from the theater to their dressing rooms, connecting Mainstreet to the President Hotel. Like many passageways tunneling under historic buildings in Kansas City, the alleged one beneath Mainstreet is believed to have been used by bootleggers during Prohibition.

The same article mentions Mainstreet’s basement, which might have had an “elephant cage, a pool for seals and an elevator large and powerful enough to haul elephants to the stage.”

Madrid Theatre

Madrid Theater Bar
Jana Marie Photos
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The Madrid Theatre
Visitors can enjoy the Madrid Theatre's intricate interior design, including bars created from a 1920s carousel.

South in Midtown, the Madrid Theatre opened its doors in 1926 as a Spanish Revival-style silent film house. This style takes some cues from the Mediterranean Revival style, which utilizes Latin American components such as red-tiled roofs, terra cotta and asymmetry.

Outside of the Country Club Plaza, the Spanish Revival style is rarely seen in Kansas City, which is what makes the Madrid stand out even more.

Once a storage warehouse in the 1950s, the theater was purchased by craftsman Victor Patti in 1983 and used as a woodshop. In 1995 — after it had been all but gutted — investors took interest in the building and it was renovated.

Currently, the Madrid hosts weddings, concerts, fundraisers and the occasional salsa party. Schedule a tour if you want to check out the event space.

Midland Theater

Arvest Bank Theater at the Midland
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
At the time of its construction in 1927, the Midland was the largest theater within 250 miles of Kansas City.

Now known as Arvest Bank Theater at the Midland, the Kansas City institution was constructed in 1927 in the Renaissance Revival style. This style is similar to Italianate and considered by some to inhabit the same architectural category.

The Midland has been called Loew’s Midland Theater and the Saxon Theater. At the time of construction, it was the largest theater within 250 miles of Kansas City. It housed a pipe organ that was played during stage shows until film took off after World War II.

Today, it’s still impossible to miss the theater’s soaring four-story window and giant gold-and-copper marquee — especially when it’s lit up at night. The interior lights reflect over 500,000 feet of gold leaf and glittering crystal chandeliers.

The Midland schedules a variety of comedians, Broadway shows, concerts and live television experiences.

Uptown Theater

Uptown Theater 2
Sergei Shapoval
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Uptown Theater
Another Midtown jewel, the Uptown Theater was — and is — a rare bird.

Rounding out our list is another Midtown jewel: the Uptown Theater. Built in 1928 in Italian Renaissance style, the Uptown Theater was — and is — a rare bird. It was known as Missouri’s first “atmospheric” theater.

Designed by John Eberson to replicate a “romantic, outdoor Mediterranean courtyard,” the interior featured a “nighttime-sky ceiling, complete with twinkling stars, clouds and mechanical flying birds.”

The theater’s website goes on to mention appearances by movie stars like Shirley Temple and Roy Rogers, and — in keeping with the general lavishness — Uptown started pumping out something called a “fragratone” in 1939. This meant the theater would fill with a fragrance, “adding olfactory pleasure to the entertainment experience.”

Until the 1960s, the theater blended vaudeville and stage productions with films. The Lyric Opera Company found residency within its rooms in the 1970s, and eventually the theater became known as a music venue.

Though Uptown shut down temporarily in 1989, it was renovated in the ‘90s to the cool tune of $15 million. Standing in line to see a concert there is a rite of passage in Kansas City.

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Emily Standlee is a freelance writer at KCUR and a national award-winning essayist.
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