MetKC survives a missing mascot and a devastating fire at its Warwick Theatre home

A view inside the Warwick Theatre following the Feb. 7 fire, which primarily damaged the northeast corner of the building’s interior. (photo by Jim Barcus)

Poppy is back, but restoring the building will be arduous and expensive

In February, Karen Paisley, artistic director and co-founder of Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, found herself in an emotional vortex of shock, sadness and horror as she dealt with two back-to-back crises.

Photo of Karen Paisley the day she adopted Poppy from the Great Plains SPCA (photo courtesy of Karen Paisley)

The first had to do with her beloved dog Poppy, a Great Pyrenees/Golden Retriever mix, who had disappeared from Paisley’s backyard, evidently through a gate that someone had opened. That was on Feb. 1.

Paisley, with the help of a small army of volunteers, plastered lost-dog posters on buildings and in businesses, and did the same virtually on Facebook and other social media platforms. Soon she was receiving reports of possible sightings at various metro locations far away from her neighborhood in the Hyde Park area. Among those helping in the search were her partner, Steve Brown, and her ex-husband, MET co-founder Bob Paisley.

“The most extraordinary thing was the number of people who volunteered to help,” she said. “Without them we would not have found her. My kids were helping from New York and Atlanta.”

But Poppy had not been located when Paisley got a call just before 5 a.m. on Feb. 7 informing her that the historic Warwick Theatre, which was home to the MET, was on fire. Within minutes she drove to the theater near 39th and Main. When she arrived, she saw flames shooting though the roof and smoke pouring out of the building. She saw six fire trucks in back and three in front.

In a few hours, Paisley was able to get inside the building to see the damage firsthand. Most of the garments in the costume collection, which was assembled over decades, had been damaged by smoke and heat. Parts of the building were scorched; others were relatively intact. (Paisley said the fire apparently started when a volunteer disposed of cleaning rags improperly.)

As she stood there in the ruins of her beloved theater contemplating a questionable future, she received a call on her mobile phone. A stray dog had shown up at a farmhouse occupied by a young couple near Odessa, Missouri. The stray matched the descriptions and photos on social media. When they saw the Facebook postings, which included photos of Poppy, they were pretty sure it was the dog they had been feeding for a day on their front porch.

“It was a conflagration of emotions,” Paisley said.

Paisley wasted no time in making the 40-mile drive. As she pulled up to the house and saw Poppy, the dog seemed to recognize her.

“First she barked at the car and then stared at us,” Paisley said. “Then she got low to the ground, like, ‘I’m gonna be in so much trouble.’”

Paisley said Poppy was chipped, and the young couple had planned to have her checked. But that was unnecessary. The series of events raised questions that nobody could answer. How did she get to Odessa? Did somebody dog-nap her? If so, who? And why?

“She is really special,” Paisley said. “She’s not just a guard dog. She’s my best friend. She had been bred for puppies and then given away. And most of the burrs have been gotten out of her hair.”

Paisley adopted Poppy from the Great Plains SPCA in Merriam.

“She picked me,” she said. “In the car she began to bark. Huge bark. That might be why the people who took her let her go.”

So now the MET’s mascot was home. One question answered.

Karen Paisley’s gloved hand holding a rosary given to her years ago by actor Alan Tilson. Miraculously, it was not damaged in the fire.(photo courtesy of Karen Paisley)

Still lingering are some daunting unknowns.

Paisley said most of the costume collection was destroyed or simply couldn’t be salvaged. Some men’s costumes happened to be at the dry cleaners. But all the women’s clothes had smoke damage. A few were still in their plastic dry cleaners’ bags, which melted in the heat. Among the lost and severely damaged items were fur coats, all men’s hats and 1,000 pairs of shoes, including riding boots and combat boots. The box office computer survived. All other computers did not.

Even so, Paisley said quite a few items survived undamaged, including vintage typewriters.

“Fifty percent of the office was eviscerated,” she said. “All the dressing rooms suffered smoke and water damage.”

A few undeposited checks were saved.

The firefighters, having done their job, left. But then a second wave of destruction began in the form of burglars, who came on more than one night — including the first night after the fire.

“We discovered it the next day and boarded up again that night,” she said. “But they busted the boards and came back in . . . The first night, they took all of our top-of-the-line tools, some liquor and Bob’s cameras.”

During return trips they stole everything in the bar, bronze sculptures, furniture, catering set items for the (fundraising) gala, a point-of-sale tablet, more sculptures, the sound board and 15 microphone receivers — which are useless without the headsets to go with them.

One donor offered a $50,000 challenge grant. More than half of the matching funds had been raised at the time of this interview.

“These dollars will keep the company funded through the end of the fiscal year and help us manage, especially given the loss of the rental revenue we (no longer) have from the Warwick,” Paisley said.

At the time of the interview some of the shock had diminished, but an enormous amount of work remains.

One day in late February, Karen Paisley sat on the back steps of the fire-ravaged Warwick and recorded a video for her Facebook followers.

“Hi there, Kansas City,” she said as a stiff breeze tossed her hair and she maintained a melancholy smile. “It’s been a heck of a couple of weeks. I think I accidentally let you think that the Warwick is fine. And it isn’t. It’s not fine at all. It’s burned through three floors and it’s gonna be a really long time before we can open it. And we need your help. It’s overwhelming. Just not quite sure how much we can take. But giving up — not gonna do that. We’ll be coming at you with more information. Been in here all morning. It’s really dark . . . It’s been robbed five times. So that’s a lot. But we’re not quitters. We’re just gonna need help. And I just wanted to tell you how much we love you and how much we love this building and having a home. And thanks to everybody who’s been helping. I really appreciate it. Everybody does.”

For more information on the Warwick and the different ways to contribute, go to www.metkc.org.

Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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