Arts News: Preserving “The Folly Experience”

The doors have reopened on the renovated, historic Folly Theater.

The first-floor lobby and shareholders lounge display revitalized finishes, furniture and lighting. A new curved bar area and ticket counter, inspired by design details in the original lobby and theater, allow patrons to flow through the space more comfortably. New floor tiles continue into the original lobby, seamlessly linking the two spaces (the brass donor plates remain).

A new stairway provides performance patrons with access to an inviting second-floor lounge, the Shareholders Room. A new catering area has been added on the second floor, as well as an elevator, new lobby restrooms, a new HVAC system and updated ADA improvements.

The transformation began July 2, when the Folly Theater closed for two months to engage in a $2.5 million renovation of one of Kansas City’s historic gems. Credit the design and construction help of Helix Architecture + Design and McCownGordon Construction.

The aim, according to James Maiden, marketing manager, is “to bring the Folly into the next century and preserve its legacy for generations to come.” Gale Tallis, executive director, adds that while providing new and engaging creature comforts for patrons, the redesign will maintain the historic integrity of the 118-year-old Louis Curtiss design.

Originally called the Standard, the theater opened in 1900, featuring highly popular vaudeville entertainment as well as featured acts of the burlesque circuit, prize fights and wrestling matches. The $250,000 building was one of Kansas City’s most attractive and architecturally significant buildings. It was designed by a prominent Kansas City architect, Louis S. Curtiss, who also designed the adjoining Edward Hotel, which was demolished in 1965.

Located on the corner of 12th and Central Streets, the Folly is distinguished by its Neo-Palladian façade. It is built of limestone and red brick, with a Palladian window in the center of the street façade, the lower portion of which includes three arched windows, with an entablature over the center window dividing it from the lunette under the principal arch. The street level is composed of rusticated limestone with three arched entrances.

The history of the Standard, then Century, then Shubert, then Folly Theater, has been riddled by business failures reflecting changes in public entertainment tastes — burlesque, vaudeville, classic theater and adult movies — as well as urban renewal, building closures and sales, and in 1973, a close call with the wrecking ball and a destiny as a parking lot.

The Folly was saved through the efforts of the Performing Arts Foundation, a citizens group led by Joan Ken Dillon and William Deramus III. PAF purchased the building and had it placed on the National Register of Historic Places. For nearly a decade the building remained closed for major repairs and upgrades, including construction of an annex on the former Edward Hotel site.

When the Folly reopened in 1981, one of the most significant improvements was a major upgrade of the theater’s acoustics, which at the time were compared to those of Carnegie Hall. That positioned the theater to become a serious music venue for all kinds of live music, from popular — jazz, blues, rock — to classical. Further renovations and additions were made during the Folly’s centennial year of 2000 and in 2005.

The Folly renovation is part of the Performing Arts Foundation “Folly 2020” campaign, intended to preserve Kansas City’s most historic theater as a premier performance venue. It has been made possible by the generosity of several donors, but especially a major grant from the William T. Kemper Foundation.

“In addition to dramatically improving the functionality of the space,” said Helix principal Erika Moody, “our design team wanted the renovation to reflect the tremendous history of the Folly Theater.”

And there is much more to come. The Folly 2020 Campaign will proceed with goals of continuing building upgrades (new theater seats are in the offing) and establishing a $5 million endowment, all to preserve the 118-year “Folly Experience” for years to come.

Above: Recent renovations to the Folly Theater include a new curved bar area and ticket counter, inspired by design details in the original lobby, and a new stairway leading to an inviting second-floor lounge. (photo by Jim Barcus)

About The Author: Bryan F. Le Beau

Bryan F. Le Beau

Bryan F. Le Beau is retired from the University of Saint Mary, where he served as Professor of History, Provost, and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He is the author of several books on American cultural and religious history.

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