Mainstreet Theater

Mainstreet Theater

The Mainstreet Theater, also commonly referred to as The Empire Theater, is a historic theater located at 1400 Main Street in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. The theater was landmarked and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in February 2007.

Early History

Designed by Rapp & Rapp, the 90,000 square foot theater opened on October 30, 1921 as the Mainstreet Missouri. The 3,200 seat theater was a popular vaudeville and movie house, and the only theater in Kansas City designed by Chicago firm Rapp and Rapp. The interior of the theater was designed in French Baroque style, and the exterior is a blend of neoclassical and French Empire. The lobby is topped by a dome encircled by circular windows. The Mainstreet Theater was the largest theater in Kansas City until the Midland Theatre opened in 1927.

The Mainstreet was the first theater in Kansas City to have a nursery for children whose parents were attending a show. The nursery was located in the basement, and it was staffed by a trained nurse. Toys and games were available for older children, and cribs were available for babies. A tunnel connected the lower level of the theater to the nearby President Hotel at 14th and Baltimore. The tunnel was initially created as a means for actors to enter the theater from dressing rooms, but the tunnel also became infamous as a passage for bootleggers to escape police during Prohibition. The theater also had space in the basement and sub-basement where animals were kept for vaudeville shows. The space included an elephant cage, a pool for seals, and an elevator large enough and powerful enough to haul elephants to the stage. Noted performers such as Cab Calloway, Charlie Chaplin, Sir Henry Lauder, the Marx Brothers, and Olson & Johnson all head-lined at the vaudeville house. In the early 1920s, at the height of the theater's popularity, attendance at shows averaged over 4,000 daily.

The name of the Mainstreet Theater changed to the RKO Missouri Theater in April 1941. The RKO Missouri ran Cinerama three strip film.

The AMC Era

AMC Theaters, then known as Durwood Theatres, bought the theater in the late 1950s and reopened it in December 1960 as the Empire. The first film shown at the theater under the new name was Exodus. The standard seating configuration of the new Empire was reduced to 1260 in order to accommodate more modern amenities and technology upgrades. Under Durwood, the Empire began running the seamless 70 mm film version of Cinerama, replacing the three strip Cinerama. The 70 by 30 foot Walker Hi Gain motion picture screen was designed to collapse, fold, and store on stage within two and a half hours to allow for quick conversion for live stage events. The stage curtain measured more than 120 feet and claimed to be the largest in the world. In fitting with Kansas City's reputation as the "City of Fountains," the Empire included decorative fountains in the the box office area and at the main staircase. The prominent signage suspended from scaffolding attached to roof of the building during the "Mainstreet" and "RKO Missouri" eras was removed when Durwood converted the theater to the Empire. The Empire did keep an organist until 1961, when there was a dispute with the musicians' union.

In 1967, the theater was split into two parts when a second theater was constructed in the former balcony of the original theater. In 1980 AMC converted the Empire into four theaters and it was known as Empire 4 Theaters. Two of the additional theaters were located in the upper level where the original balcony once existed. The Empire stopped screening films and closed in 1985.

An Uncertain Future

Prominent downtown landowner Larry Bridges purchased the Empire Theater in 1986 from Stan Durwood, then CEO of AMC Theaters. Between 1985 and 2005, the Empire was at risk for demolition on several occasions. Numerous efforts took place to prevent each demolition attempt. In 1986, actor and comedian George Burns even joined the effort and wrote a letter on behalf of the effort to have it declared a historic landmark. Since the theater was not listed as a local landmark or listed on the National Register of Historic Places, there was not much legal protection to prevent demolition of the deteriorating structure. Ower Larry Bridges expressed desire to raze the Empire several times and even obtained a pre-demolition inspection permit from the city in August 2003. Bridges planned to team with DST Realty to build a new headquarters for Kansas City Power & Light on the site. The City of Kansas City blocked the plan, which had called for saving the facade but demolishing the core structure of the Empire. In 2004, the Kansas City Chapter of the American Institute of Architects compiled a list of 25 buildings in the central business district believed to be significant downtown landmarks "worthy of attention and reuse." The Empire Theater was listed as the most endangered building at the time the list was compiled. The building had fallen under such an extreme state of disrepair that bricks were falling from the building and trees were sprouting from the roof.

Redevelopment

The City of Kansas City reached an agreement to purchase the theater from Larry Bridges in late 2004 while it was acquiring properties for the future Power and Light District. In November 2005, the State of Missouri approved up to $938,538 in Brownfields Redevelopment Program remediation tax credits to help offset costs involved in the cleanup of asbestos at the theater. An estimated 200 dump-truck loads of asbestos and mold-covered debris were removed from the theater during the cleanup process. Power & Light District developer Cordish reached an agreement with AMC to form a joint venture, Midland-Empire Partners LLC, to redevelop both the Empire Theater and the nearby Midland Theatre.

The Mainstreet Theater will reopen in 2008 under its original name as part of the Power & Light District. The renovated theater will feature a six-screen, all-digital, boutique movie theater. AMC plans to make the Mainstreet its flagship theater. It will feature documentaries, independent, and foreign films in one of the most technologically-advanced theater setups in the world.

References

  • "RKO Missouri to Become the Empire Theater". Kansas City Star. September 11, 1960. pg 25A
  • "Kansas City 'Empire' Reopens After Facelifting". Physical Theater. Vol 16 No 3, March 15, 1961. ppg 6-7
  • "Broad-Scale Campaign Ties 'Grand Prix' With Opening Of Empire II In Kansas City". Boxoffice. February 6, 1967
  • "End of the Empire--Longtime Downtown Theater Closed". Kansas City Star. October 25, 1985. ppg 1A, 5A
  • "Kansas City buys Empire Theater". Kansas City Business Journal. December 30, 2004

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