From Burlesque to Bulldozers: The History of Kansas City’s Folly Theater

The Folly Theater, Kansas City’s oldest standing theater, recently kicked off fundraising and plans to renovate their lobby and Shareholders lounge. In order to completely upgrade the theater’s hospitality experience, the Helix design team is re-opening the original connection between the second floor lounge and the lobby below, as well as reconfiguring the lobby to improve patrons’ flow throughout the space.

Although Helix has renovated several of Kansas City’s historical theaters, the Folly’s history is unique among its peers. Opened in September 1900 as the Standard Theater, the venue first opened featuring Vaudeville. This entertainment genre was incredibly popular at the turn of the century and can be likened to an early version of a variety show, often featuring several acts including musicians, trained animals, comedians, acrobats, one-act plays and burlesque. The $250,000 building was designed by Kansas City architect Louis S. Curtiss (who is also known for his work on the Boley Building, home of Helix client Andrews McMeel Universal). A year after Standard Theater opened, the nearby Coates Opera House caught fire, and all opera and comedic opera performances were relocated to the theater, under its new name – Century Theater.

From top left, going clockwise: Architect Louis S. Curtiss, original architectural drawings, various vaudeville performance examples.

By 1922, vaudeville popularity had declined and the theater was closed, only to be re-opened the following year by the Shubert Brothers. The Schubert family is responsible for the establishment of the Broadway district in New York City and by 1924 they owned eighty-six theaters in the United States. Re-named (again) Shuberts Missouri, the new owners hired architect Herbert Krapp to renovate the balconies, reinforcing the wood structure with concrete, and began featuring theater productions throughout the mid 1920’s. Acts included The Marx Brothers, Shakespeare and O’Neill plays. The Shuberts subleased the space in 1928 to a burlesque troupe and in 1932 the theater was again closed.

From top, going clockwise: The Folly Theater circa 1941, a movie poster for the 1962 film Gypsy, the real Gypsy Rose Lee performs on stage.

The Folly Theater was born in 1941, and featured burlesque through two decades. Iconic burlesque dancer and entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee, whose memoirs were the basis for the stage musical and film Gypsy, is said to have taken the stage for the first time at the Folly. In 1958, ownership introduced movies to burlesque stage shows.

Finally in 1973 the theater closed and was slated for demolition. At this time, a local group of historic preservationist activists formed a non-profit, Performing Arts Foundation (PAC), led by Joan Dillon and William Deramus III. The group successfully saved the theater, with the City Council passing a demolition delay ordinance in March 1973. The theater was placed on the National Register of Historic Places the following year and purchased by PAC.

Images of the Folly Theater during renovations during the 1980’s and various members of PAC.

For nearly ten years, the theater underwent extensive renovations, including considerable cleaning efforts, plaster repair, window restoration, roof repair, new M/E/P, updated HVAC systems and the addition of a new wing. The theater re-opened in 1981 with a staff of eight, featuring the comedy “Room Service.” Since the grand rehabilitation of this historic gem, the Folly has gained a reputation in town for their niche market. The acoustics inside the theater have been compared to Carnegie Hall, attracting musical acts from blues bands to chamber ensembles.

As the Folly embarks on this latest renovation, the Helix design concept aligns with the character and history of the original structure. The project is the centerpiece of a $1.55 million campaign, which has already made major strides with a $775,000 donation from the Kemper Foundation.

The design revitalizes the lobby and shareholders lounge through finishes, furniture and lighting, while dramatically improving the functionality. A new curved bar area and ticket counter will be the highlight of the first-floor space. The curves of the bar, inspired by design details in the original lobby and theatre, will extend upward in the curvature of the columns. New floor tile, reminiscent of the early 1900’s, will continue into the original lobby, tying both spaces together seamlessly. The updated layout of the ticket counter, bar and lobby restrooms will allow patrons to flow through the space more comfortably. A new stair will invite guests to visit the second-floor lounge both before and after the show. Similarly, the addition of an elevator will allow this space to be easily shared by everyone. Lastly, the addition of a small kitchen on the second floor will allow for events to be catered more easily.

We’re thrilled to be working with such a fantastic client on such a beautiful piece of Kansas City’s rich and colorful history. Head over to Folly Theater’s website to view their list of upcoming events.

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