Kansas City on film: A guide to our city's appearances in movies and TV
Since its film debut in 1897, Kansas City has shown up in movies, television and short films as both backdrop and star. Here's a behind-the-scenes look at some of those iconic cinema settings.
The oldest existing motion picture film is a two-second scene filmed in England in 1888. Less than a decade later in 1897, George Curtiss captured the hustle and bustle of Kansas City streets and quite possibly made the first motion picture in the Midwest. Some of Curtiss’ films are viewable on the Kansas City Google Arts and Culture page, courtesy of the Kansas City Museum.
Ever since, Kansas City has shown up in movies, television and short films as both backdrop and star. The streets and skyline balance the big city vibe within easy reach of suburban and rural settings, with a steady crop of talented actors available.
During his Cinema and Kansas City talk for the Kansas City Public Library, UMKC professor Mitch Brian highlighted some of the important films made right here in KC. The Kansas City Film Office also has a comprehensive list of works filmed in the Kansas City region.
Here's a behind-the-scenes look at some of those iconic cinema settings.
Lights! Camera! Cowtown!
Director Robert Altman made his directorial debut right here in Kansas City with “The Delinquents,” a 1957 cautionary tale. Most of the cast were local actors and scenes are set in the Loose Park Rose Garden and Kansas City Missouri Police Headquarters.
Bonus: You can see Kansas City legend Julia Lee & Her Boyfriends perform in the opening scene. Learn more about Lee in A People’s History of Kansas City.
Nearly 40 years later, Altman returned to Kansas City to film, well, “Kansas City.” Set in 1934, this thriller is an unglamorous depiction of the Jazz Age, packed with crime, violence and political corruption. Scenes take place around the city, including Union Station (which was in major disrepair at the time) and in the 18th and Vine District. Many of the buildings were given movie facades and neon marquees to replicate the 24-hour nightlife of the era.
In 2011, KCUR’s Laura Spencer visited the area with one of the film's set designers, where many facades were still visible and awaiting development in the district. You can still see a movie façade on Boone Theater at 1701 E. 18th Street.
Charlie Parker, one of Kansas City’s most famous sons, is the focus of the 1988 film “Bird,” starring Forest Whitaker and directed by Clint Eastwood, with multiple scenes filmed in Kansas City.
Released in 1990, the film “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge,” starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, shows another spectrum of Kansas City's racial divide. It's set during the 1930s and 1940s, within the stifled society life centered around the Country Club Plaza.
The film is based on books by Evan S. Connell, who grew up in Kansas City and modeled the character of Mrs. Bridge after his mother. Many landmarks still remain, including the Country Club Plaza, Drexel Hall, Liberty Memorial and the interior of Midland Theater. (They also visit the vault of the First National Bank, which has now been converted into a movie theater by the Kansas City Public Library.)
If dramas aren’t your thing, cozy up with a cute romance. The Lifetime movie “My Sweet Holiday” was filmed in Annedore’s Fine Chocolates at State Line Road and 50th Street in Westwood, Kansas, and in the lobby of the historic Muehlebach Hotel at Baltimore Avenue and 12th Street. Filmmaker Isaac Alongi and writer/director Sandra Martin talk about how they filmed a Christmas movie during the summer of 2020 with KC Media Collective’s Flatland.
On the small screen, Kansas City and its environs sometimes serve as a show’s setting, though these are usually filmed in Los Angeles or someplace similar.
So, how can you see a more “authentic” KC on screen? Reality television.
The Netflix reboot of “Queer Eye” filmed its third and fourth seasons in Kansas City. The Fab Five traveled all over the area, helping Kansas Citians “zhuzh” their looks, lives and businesses. While shooting, they lived in a loft at 2001 Grand Blvd., the old Firestone building that now bears the iconic Abdiana sign in the Crossroads Arts District.
Visit KC has Queer Eye self-guided tours that promote the local businesses and organizations featured in each episode, including the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Johnny Hammil bass studio.
Starting this past summer, a new television show is being filmed around town. “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning,” based on the book by Margareta Magnusson, helps Kansas Citians shed unwanted physical and emotional baggage in a sure-to-inspire series. KCUR reported on the filming announcement in July 2022.
But reality TV isn’t just about makeovers and inner strength — sometimes it's about outer strength, too. In 2015 and 2017, “American Ninja Warrior” set up its obstacle course right in front of Union Station.
In something of a reversal, the new TV show “Bel-Air” is set in Los Angeles, but represents a broad spectrum of Kansas City talent. The show is directed by Kansas City-native Morgan Cooper, who brought in a fair amount of Kansas City crew to help with the behind-the-scenes production, including artwork and costumes seen in the show.
Straight to music video
When the Irish band U2 came to play at Arrowhead Stadium in 1997, they decided that Kansas City was the perfect locale for a music video. They filmed the dystopian “Last Night on Earth” on the Jay B. Dillingham Freeway and a desolate downtown, shutting down the city for a few hours.
Released in 2022, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs filmed “Spitting Off the Edge of the World” in the Power & Light District, a defunct punk club and in the county roads north of the city. KCUR reported on how two Kansas City Art Institute graduates met the band and brought them here.
Rapper Tech N9ne hypes KC’s famous Gates Bar-B-Q in “O.G.,” an ode to Ollie Gates and this Kansas City institution. Not only is part of the video filmed in a Gates restaurant, but an animated “Struttin’ Man” nearly breakdances off the tray.
For local groups, it’s just good sense to use the backdrop of the city. During 2020, The Black Creatures filmed their “Wretched (It Goes)” music video in front of City Hall, the Robert Grahams’ Bird Lives statue, and up and down the main streets and back streets of Kansas City.
A significant part of Kansas City's film history resides in its movie theaters. Only a handful of old movie houses still stand in Kansas City, but those that remain have either been refurbished or have plans to be.
In the 18th and Vine District, Boone Theater at 1701 E. 18th Street is slated for renovation and will house the Black Movie Hall of Fame, which named its inaugural inductees this year. Built in 1924 and renamed in honor of piano virtuoso John W. “Blind” Boone, the theater is also a stop on the African-American Heritage Trail. Hopefully, the building will open back up to the public in 2023.
Just down the block is Gem Theater, originally a silent movie palace, which has long been a space for the performing arts. All that remains of the Eblon Theater, built in 1922 as "a venue for vaudeville and motion pictures," is the facade of the building — which was also fixed up for Altman's film.
Kansas City is home to one of the largest remaining Film Row Districts in the country. From the 1920s through the 1960s, major production studios kept distribution houses in cities around the world.
Along 18th Street between Baltimore and Broadway, most of those old buildings still stand, now an integral part of the Crossroads Arts District. In front of the Film Row Professional Building at 215 W. 18th St., the Kansas City Walk of Stars includes plaques for Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, Robert Altman, Joan Crawford and Walt Disney.
Speaking of Disney: he and friend Ub Iwerks started Laugh-O-Gram Studios in 1921 on the second floor of 1127 E. 31st St. The company only lasted a couple years, but the eventual impact of Disney & Co. is unquestionable. Organizers with Thank You, Walt Disney are currently raising funds to restore the building and create a museum dedicated to preserving the legacy of Laugh-O-Gram Studios. Listen to A People's History of Kansas City for more on this piece of Kansas City film history.
Though many of the remaining theaters have been renovated into office or event spaces, a few have stayed true to their silver screen origins, such as Screenland Armour in North Kansas City. The Rio in Overland Park shut down during the pandemic, but as of August 2022 its owners were still hoping to reopen it eventually.