By Diane Euston
The Folly Theater at 300 W. 12th St. was the center of activity when Kansas City hosted a variety of entertainment at various locations. Today, it is a significant survival of early 20th century theater architecture in the downtown area and holds 119 years of history.
The Standard Theater- Burlesque and Vaudeville
The history of the Folly Theater begins across the state in St. Louis. Col. Edward Butler had considerable influence over the political machine in the late 19th century in St. Louis, where in 1883 he opened Butler’s Standard Theater. In 1897, Col. Butler, along with his son, James founded the Empire Burlesque Circuit Company that would eventually be a part of approximately 50 theaters across the country. In fact, Frank James worked as a doorkeeper for several years at the Standard Theater in St. Louis.
In February 1900, ground broke at 12th and Central after they removed an old two story house. The plan was for it to be “a three story structure of red and buff brick with stone trimmings” and Col. Butler’s ambitious son, James, would run the business.
James toiled with the idea of whether to allow smoking inside the theater, noting that when theaters allowed it, sales increased 20 percent. He told the Kansas City Star, “Men go and smoke themselves sick. . . When they come to the theater where smoking is allowed they will burn cigars and cigarettes constantly.”
With burlesque performances, it was assumed there would be booze, but the idea was squashed at first. Even though the community surrounding the theater at 12th and Central noted there was a school a block away, the city eventually did grant a license to sell liquor.
The Standard Theater opened its doors Sept. 23, 1900, with the ability to seat 2,400. The first vaudeville show, “The Jolly Grass Widows” opened to a theater full of men eager to see how naughty the performance would be. The Kansas City Star said people were disappointed “for nothing of positive nastiness had been presented on the stage, and the actions of the entertainers merely approached the dividing line at times.”
A hotel adjacent to the theater, also built by the Butlers, featured a special suite for James to stay in during his visits. He could watch the show on stage while lying in bed and had a phone line that could ring different departments across the theater.
When a fire destroyed the Coates Opera House a few blocks away in January 1901, their opera and comic acts moved to the Standard Theater.
The Century and Then Shubert’s Missouri Theater
In 1902, the name of the operation changed to the Century Theater even though they continued to use Empire’s vaudeville acts. Famous actors, including Al Jolson, Maude Adams and Fanny Brice, were part of the various performances offered under the Century Theater name. They also offered wrestling and prizefighting, including Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey.
Extensive renovations of the theater were completed when the Shubert Brothers bought the Century Theater in 1923. The new owners shied away from vaudeville and focused on more traditional performances, including the Marx Brothers. Known commonly to Kansas Citians as the Missouri Theater, the Shubert’s continued their operation even as ticket sales fell off around 1928. The owners tried their hand in showing movies in lieu of live performances, but the attendance never showed a rebound. In 1932, the Missouri Theater closed its doors. In 1937, the theater was auctioned off for back taxes.
Returning a bit to their original roots, the theater was reopened in 1941 under a ten year lease with Folly Amusement Company. Warren B. Irons was in charge of the operation and was “connected with a burlesque circuit operating in 37 cities.” At a capacity of 1,500, the Folly Theater opened Christmas Day with a show called “Scanties of 1941.” The striptease promise of this show drew a crowd–the show was near capacity.
In 1958, the theater began supplementing live shows with some movies. Attendance wasn’t the best and the theater was starting to show signs of age. One of the owners, Harry Stuber, called the Folly “a filthy pig pen.” Canceling live performances and focusing on adult movies seemed to be the theater’s best answer in late December 1969.
This decision must have ignited something in someone against their decision. On Dec. 28, 1969, dynamite was placed in a metal drain pipe on the west side of the building. The explosion ripped through the outer covering of bricks but didn’t damage much of the inside. A small area about six feet in diameter was damaged due to the dynamite.
The theater stayed in business a bit longer, but by 1973, the Folly Theater threw in the towel and closed its doors after 32 years in business.
Fighting to Save the Folly Theater
The owners, Annbar Associates and Elk Realty out of New York, announced the building would be demolished and made into a parking lot if a new buyer could not be found. Led by Joan Ken Dillon and William Deramus III of the Performing Arts Foundation in 1973, efforts to save the Folly from destruction began.
With the help of the Landmarks Commission, the Folly Theater was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 because of its “importance as an element in the history of Kansas City architecture, society, and humanities.”
In order to save the Folly, the newly-formed Performing Arts Foundation needed to raise the funds. The building was for sale for $950,000. After the grassroots organization was able to raise $350,000 with help from local organizations and a $60,000 grant from the Department of the Interior, negotiations with the owners began. They were able to convince owner Annbar Associates to give the additional $600,000 as a donation, thus saving the building from the bulldozers.
Preserving “The Grand Old Lady of Twelfth Street”
It took seven years to restore the Folly Theater back to its former glory. At the cost of $4.4 million, it took a village to bring the place back to life. In November 1981, the theater opened once again as film stars Eddie and Edward Albert performed “Room Service.” The Folly is now the only turn-of-the-century playhouse in downtown Kansas City and features various productions and events throughout the year.
A major facelift showcasing the past happened in 2012 when a grand marquee sign–the first since 1974–was installed and lit once again.
In early November 2018, part of the crew operating the theater found a growing pool of water in the basement. Further investigation revealed that the 100-year-old fire sprinkler system had sprung a pretty serious leak and would cost over $100,000 to replace. Today, the Folly Theater, saved from demolition and brought back to life, needs help yet again in order to replenish their Building Maintenance Fund.
The organization launched a GoFundMe page Feb. 22 in order to raise the funds to keep the Folly standing for the next hundred years. At last count, they had raised just over $2,000 of the $100,000 needed.
Historic preservation efforts in order to maintain these pieces of important Kansas City history happen from the help of many. Maintaining the Folly Theater so that future generations can be a part of her history is paramount to preservation. To donate to the Folly Theater, go to www.gofundme.com and search “Folly Theater.”
Diane writes a blog about the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.