What performing arts venues are some of the oldest in the Kansas City metropolitan area? There’s the Gem Theater that opened in 1912 as the Star before being renamed in 1913. How about the original Midland which opened in 1927? A few months later in early January 1928, the Uptown Theater opened. A more rough-and-tough venue, Memorial Hall, opened in 1925. Then there’s the art deco looks of the 1936 Municipal Auditorium and the adjoining Music Hall. However, the grand dame of all these buildings is the Folly Theater, 112 years old and the recipient of recent facility improvements, and soon, a new marquee sign.
The Folly Theater, wrapped in its brick façade, like a burlesque dancer before she takes the stage, is more than just the building, but a true fixture in Kansas City’s history. Executive Director Gale Tallis says the Folly is like the counterpoint to the Kauffman Center. “We are the veteran hall similar to Carnegie in New York while the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts is new and more similar to Lincoln Center.”
Completed in 1900, the Folly Theater and adjacent Edward Hotel were the center of the theater world in Kansas City for many years. Designed by Kansas City architect Louis Curtiss, “The Grand Lady of Twelfth Street” was managed from 1902 to 1922 by a legendary character named Joe Donegan, who brought the biggest showbiz names in the country to Kansas City. The Folly stage played host to vaudeville and burlesque greats such as the Marx Brothers, Fanny Brice and Gypsy Rose Lee, as well as prizefighters like Jack Dempsey and Jack Johnson.
In the 1970s, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and restored to its early glory through a monumental renovation effort. Tallis says the building was close to demolition, but luckily city leaders, Joan Kent Dillon and Willliam Deramus III saw value in saving the Folly.
“We produce three series – the Folly Jazz Series, the Folly Kids Series and the Folly Cyprus Avenue Live Series. In Addition, our rental clients such as the Harriman-Jewell Series, Friends of Chamber Music, Alvin Ailey II, the Heartland Men’s Chorus and the Kansas City Women’s Chorus. There are unique events such as the American Red Cross Genevieve Byrne Speaker Series or a bodybuilding competition, for instance. City in Motion hosts recitals here as does Betty Tillotson and her school of dance,” Tallis says. “There’s such diversity in programming. Just think about the people who have sashayed, swayed or walked across the stage.
As an example, just in the month of November, performances include the Heart of America Youth Ballet’s Cinderella; Harriman-Jewell Series with opera great and hometown star Joyce DiDonato; Friends of Chamber Music with pianist Jonathan Biss; Cyprus Avenue Live presenting American singer-songwriter Roseanne Cash; and the Kansas City Civic Orchestra. “We treasure the diverse audience, and this year, we are bringing in some younger jazz musicians such as Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen Dec. 14,” Tallis says. “Of course, we applaud Cyprus Avenue Live’s diversity such as Los Lobos, Randy Newman and Blind Boys of Alabama. Even the unique teaming of Bill Shapiro with the Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company was such an experience.” Tallis says the performers like country singer-songwriter Shelby Lynne, gospel artist Mavis Staples and opera soprano Renee Fleming find a palpable energy on the stage.
An experience is defined as the fact or state of having been affected by or gained knowledge through direct observation or participation. Tallis says the Folly provides an intimate space to experience performances. “The audiences feel close to the performer and vice versa. The acoustics are beyond parallel. Think about this way … in 1900, the concept of amplification didn’t exist. Performers had to have help from the building itself. When it was restored, the original beauty was returned as was the desire to be one of the best theaters for performance.”
Children and families also find a place at the Folly Theater with the Kids’ Series. In this next season, children will find some familiar stories being told on the stage: Charlotte’s Web, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Skippy Jon Jones. On April 4, a group of Kansas City musicians will share a narrative about jazz, aimed at young listeners.
As executive director and part of a small staff, Tallis wears many hats. She not only schedules the talent on the stage, she has to make sure the building is looking its best. To mark its revitalization, and the 30th performing arts season since the Folly was saved, on Nov. 3 there will be a benefit called “Light the Lights.” Vocalist Sam Harris, the original Star Search winner, will perform tunes from the Great American Songbook and a few pop hits.
The crowning achievement for the evening will be turning the switch on the new marquee. “The Folly has not had any sign since 1974. The revitalization will continue to remind people that we are an exciting performance venue.”
Even the history and the ghost stories perpetuate the allure of the Folly Theater. Over the years, Folly employees and theater-goers have told some strange tales. A former custodian reported seeing a mysterious male figure in a bowler hat, who some believe is the ghost of Joe Donegan. The ghostly figure of a woman in a long gown rushing toward the stage, as if late for her cue, has also been described. “When we give tours to younger kids, tweens and teens, the ghost stories really draw them in.”
Where does a 112-year-old building go from here? As part of Kansas City’s history, the movement is forward and in the right direction, Tallis says. “We have great support here. In addition, we continue to present world class acts. In order for the Folly to thrive, we need patrons to come to our shows, become donors for our cause, and to remember the historic value of the Folly. Kansas City supports its artists and its venues. We want to continue to fuel that energy. Even the New Century Follies group, bringing burlesque and vaudeville back to the theater engages the audience, and brings a new, young and artistic energy to the theater as it continues to thrive.”