Folly Theater, Kansas City’s ‘Grand Lady of 12th Street,’ reopening after $4.2 million renovation
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.
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.
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.
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.
'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.”
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 other historic 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.”
“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.”