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Folly Theater, Kansas City’s ‘Grand Lady of 12th Street,’ reopening after $4.2 million renovation

Exterior photo of a yellow and redbrick building shows a marquee sign with an advertisement for an event called "Shake, Rattle and Roll." Above and behind it is a large sign that reads "Folly Theater."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The Folly Theater will officially unveil its $4.2 million renovation Saturday with a jazz benefit performance, "Shake, Rattle and Roll," in Kansas City's oldest theater.

The 122-year-old former burlesque house — the oldest theater in the city — will officially welcome patrons to new carpets, artwork, larger seating and other upgrades after a four-month closure.

When visitors walk under the glowing sign of the Folly Theater for its grand reopening Saturday, they’ll see all of what $4.2 million can do to a place.

Nearly everything from the floor to the seats to the sconces on the walls have been refurbished or replaced inside the 122-year-old neoclassical building, a process that started four years ago.

“The changes are dramatic in my opinion,” says executive director Rick Truman. “When audiences walk in, practically everything they see will look new, refreshed.”

A history of reopenings

The red brick and limestone, Palladian-style structure sits at the corner of 12th and Central Streets, across from Barney Allis Plaza.

Interior of the Folly Theater shows the 1,005 new, cushioned seats in a balcony and floor seating of the Folly Theater.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The Folly Theater added 1,005 new seats two inches wider than the previous seating for the $4.2 million renovation.

Over the years, the Folly Theater has undergone several refurbishments, name changes and even the threat of demolition.

It originally opened as the Standard and was renamed the Century in 1901, hosting boxing matches, burlesque comedies and vaudeville acts.

In 1923, a $128,000 remodeling brought a new name, the Shubert Missouri Theater. It shifted to offering Shakespearean plays and national acts such as the Marx Brothers. Even Humphrey Bogart appeared in a 1924 production of “Meet the Wife.”

But the Shubert would close because of the Great Depression and wouldn’t reopen until 1941, this time as the Folly Burlesque.

Two men stand on a carpeted floor gesturing toward two framed black and white photos on a wall. The one nearest the camera is Phyllis Diller and the other is Ben Vereen.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Folly Theater Executive Director Rick Truman, left, and Director of Development Brian Williams talk about some of past Folly Theater performers whose photographs now adorn the walls in the renovated theater. Phyllis Diller is shown here along with Ben Vereen.

By the 1960s, burlesque as entertainment was on the decline, as was the theater, which switched to adult films.

Director of development Brian Williams says that, during the course of the current renovation, he’s heard many tales from this period in the theater’s lifespan.

“So many, so many people have come to us with stories about either their father used to come to the Folly back in the 50s and 60s, or they've heard stories about their grandparents seeing burlesque shows in the 40s and 50s,” Williams says.

The Folly closed once again 1974, slated to be demolished and turned into a parking lot.

It was rescued when benefactors Joan Kent Dillon and William Deramus III led a campaign that got the building registered on the National Register of HIstoric Places.

The Folly eventually re-opened in 1981 after a $4.4 million restoration. Walter Cronkite served as the honorary chairman of the rededication, while attendees included exotic dancer Tempest Storm, who had performed in the theater’s previous incarnation.

Interior of the Folly Theater shows stained glass installed on a wall with an elaborate, brass wall sconce holding two illuminated bulbs.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City artist Kathy Barnard installed stained glass art in the Balcony Lounge right between two brass wall sconces that were rescued from the trash and refurbished by Hiles Plating and Silversmith in Kansas City.

'Not your father's Folly'

According to Truman, several corporate, foundation and government agencies funded the most recent renovation of the theater, which operates as a nonprofit.

Starting in 2018, the theater had to replace an aging HVAC system on its last legs. The first-floor lobbies and Shareholders Lounge got a refresh, but workers had to wait until this July — closing down the theater during that time — to tackle the rest of the public spaces, including new carpeting and curtains, brass handrails and hardwood floors.

“What I love telling people is, ‘This is not your father’s Folly Theater anymore,’” Williams says.

Beyond the aesthetics, Truman says new technology has been built into the more-than-century-old space, including Wi-Fi, data ports, video cameras, live-streaming services and other audio/visual equipment for both performers and audience members.

“We like to say we are Kansas City's only remaining 19th-century theater, but we have 21st-century comfort amenities,” Truman says. “We have new seats that the handrails won't fall off and the backs will stay in place.”

Interior of the Folly Theater shows a man mopping the floor in the middle of the new brass handrails, carpeting, flooring, floor plaques, chandeliers and murals inside the theater.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The Folly Theater's revitalization includes new brass handrails, carpeting, flooring, floor plaques, chandeliers and Thomas Hart Benton murals inside the theater.

Chuck Haddix, curator of the Marr Sound Archives at UMKC (and host of the Fish Fry on KCUR), will emcee the re-opening night performances Saturday.

“It’s a miracle it’s still around,” he says. “It’s really one of the last standing of the grand theaters that dotted 12th Street and downtown.”

Kansas City has a number of otherhistoric theaters still standing, such as the Midland, Madrid and Uptown, but all of them were constructed decades after the Folly.

Haddix says he remembers many happy afternoons at the Folly as a teenager, even seeing Tempest Storm perform.

“When I was kid it was still a burlesque house,” he says. “If you could put money up on the counter, you could get in. And I did.”

Two large black and white posters are positioned on a wall separated by a few feet. The posters show a woman, Gypsy Rose Lee, and a man, Jack Johnson, who performed decades ago in the theater.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The Folly Theater uses posters of past performers like Gypsy Rose Lee and Jack Johnson to designate male and female bathrooms on the first floor. Upstairs, Humphrey Bogart and Sally Rand grace the respective bathrooms.

“It’s a real testament to its importance to the community that the community came together to renovate it," Haddix continues.

Williams says that flutist Sir James Galway, on a visit decades ago, described the Folly as “Kansas City’s Carnegie Hall."

“Some people wanna say we shouldn't be comparing ourselves to anything,” Williams says. “But I think that we are a cultural jewel of Kansas City. It is a place that everyone should want to call their home for experiencing amazing art.”

As KCUR’s general assignment reporter and visual journalist, I bring our audience inside the daily stories that matter most to the people of the Kansas City metro, showing how and why events affect residents. Through my photography, I seek to ensure our diverse community sees itself represented in our coverage. Email me at carlos@kcur.org.
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