Forget the Alamo, Remember the B&B?

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The former Empire Theater was in tatters when this photo was taken in 2006, its exterior boarded up, its interior in ruins and trees growing from its roofop. The building was considered a prominent symbol of downtown's decline. (Photo by Len Fohn)

(Editor’s note, April 23: Cordish and B&B Theatres confirmed a lease has been signed for the historic Mainstreet Theater.

“B&B, a family-owned and -operated company out of Liberty, Missouri, plans to open the movie theatre after making some enhancements to the historic space later this year,” according to the press release.

“B&B has exciting plans for the incredible downtown space, including the installation of heated electric reclining seats, providing guests with unparalleled comfort, wider cushions and extended legroom, and the ability to reserve seats in advance of each showtime.

“In addition to the theater itself, B&B will expand its signature Johnnie’s Jazz Bar & Grill brand to the downtown theater, which first debuted at the company’s flagship Liberty location.

“Johnnie’s offers exceptional casual dining; top shelf wine, beer, and cocktails; and live jazz music, as well as other entertainment.”)

By Kevin Collison

The historic Mainstreet Theater at 14th and Main has played many roles throughout its 100-year history–Orpheum, RKO, Empire, AMC and most recently the Alamo Drafthouse–and it may be about to assume a new one.

B&B Theatres of Liberty, which operates 429 screens in nine states, would like to step in an take over the downtown theater that’s been entertaining Kansas City audiences since 1921 now that Alamo has called it quits.

“We’re absolutely interested and have been engaged with Cordish on that project and would love to make a deal if it’s mutually beneficial to both parties,” said Brock Bagby, executive vice president of the firm.

Alamo announced Wednesday it won’t be reopening after going dark a year ago because of the Covid pandemic. The Austin-based theater chain also declared bankruptcy and is closing many of its theaters around the country.

Alamo Drafthouse announced its permanently closing the theater its operated for eight years, it had been closed most of the last year because of Covid. (Photo from Alamo website)

For the Mainstreet, it’s yet another page in an entertainment story that began in 1921 when it opened in October 1921 as the Orpheum with the “Foy Fun Revue” featuring Eddy Foy and his four sons and two daughters.

It was the biggest theater yet in Kansas City with 3,250 seats and entertained audiences well into the 1930s with vaudeville shows, traveling acts and movies.

The theater became part of the RKO national chain during the Depression, was semi-closed in 1938 except for special events and reopened full-time as the RKO Missouri in 1949.

The operation was taken over in the early 1960s by Stan Durwood and AMC and renamed the Empire. In 1966, AMC inserted a floor dividing the building into upper and lower halves, making it a two-screen venue.

The movie palace closed again in 1985 and after decades of neglect, became a powerful symbol of the decline of downtown Kansas City, forgotten to the point that mature trees sprouted on its roof and its ornate interior was destroyed by water damage.

Architect Jay Tomlinson of Helix had to wear a hazmat suit the first time he toured the ruined Empire Theater because of mold and other environmental damage caused by water leakage. (Photo courtesy Helix Architecture + Design)

In 2006, the ruined building was included in the redevelopment plan developed by the Cordish Co. for the  Power & Light District.

Cydney Millstein, an architectural historian prepared its application for the National Register of Historic Places and Helix Architecture + Design was hired to renovate it.

“That was a tough one,” Millstein said. “I told Cordish there were a lot of architectural reasons for why we had to do it.

“We had to nominate it for its architecture…all the unique interior features were in shambles.”

Jay Tomlinson of Helix said the interior and all its beautiful plaster trim had been completed devastated by water damage caused by its leaky roof. Things were so bad, he had to wear a hazmat suit the first time he went inside.

“It had 93 different kinds of mold, it had been open to the elements for a decade,” he said. “The water had infiltrated the decorative plaster and it was all over the floor…There was nothing salvageable.”

Another image of the Empire Theater before its renovation, the tree with a 10-inch wide trunk can be clearly seen in upper left. (Image from National Register of Historic Places application)

About $25 million was invested removing all the interior rubble, stripping the still-strong exterior walls to their concrete and brick and then rebuilding the entire interior into a modern, six-screen movie theater.

“We were fairly unlimited in what we were allowed to do,” Tomlinson said. “We kept the old bones exposed and inserted these technically-advanced theaters in there.”

One fascinating leftover from its early history was a trap door on the stage that opened to pens beneath where animals were kept for shows. The backstage had an elevator powerful enough to hoist an elephant to the stage.

The historic theater reopened as the AMC Mainstreet Theater in 2009. Alamo took over in 2012.

With Alamo’s announcement its closing, Cordish officials released a statement saying the firm would try to find a new tenant for the space soon.

“We are saddened by the closing of Alamo Drafthouse Mainstreet,” Nick Benjamin, executive director said. “The Power & Light District is a proud steward of this iconic building, which plays a key role in Kansas City’s downtown neighborhood.

“We are working hard to find the perfect addition to write the next chapter for this historic venue, and we hope to have exciting news about its future soon.”

Bagby said B&B Theatres sees the Mainstreet as a great opportunity to display its flag at a prominent downtown location.

“We manage the Extreme Screen at Union Station and it would be great for us to have something downtown from a branding standpoint.

“It’s a great area with a lot of potential.”

While the theaters are in good shape technically, Bagby said his firm would likely do some improvements if an agreement can be reached with Cordish including adding reclining chairs and updating the facility to reflect its brand.

As for a potential timetable.

“It’ll take awhile to figure out if a deal is to be made,” he said. “It depends on if the numbers work.”

A 10-inch diameter tree was found growing from a drain on the Empire rooftop before renovation began in 2006. (Photo courtesy Helix)

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5 COMMENTS

  1. GREAT news for downtown and great news for movie and historic movie theatre lovers! Can’t wait to see how the creative and innovative B & B team will transform the old Orpheum into a state-of-the-art “new” movie palace!

  2. I can’t help but be disappointed this is who is picking up the torch. B&B are pretty much polar opposite in their philosophy to Alamo Drafthouse. No subscription service, no dine-in options, bland pre-show entertainment, outdated advertising, no quirky special showings or movie parties, a website that looks like it was last updated in 2005. They’re talking about new reclining seats, which almost certainly means ripping out the dining setup. This might even be worse news than if it were just bulldozed.

  3. I really enjoyed seeing movies at the Alamo, but after reading the Pitch article about them, I never would have returned. Under new ownership, I would give it a shot again.

  4. I second the sentiment about the Pitch article. What was worse is that they never officially responded to the unsanitary conditions alleged in the article. No way post pandemic would/should anyone have felt safe eating in there. If B&B can keep the place clean and sanitized I will give them a pass on other areas.

  5. It’s funny how people act like things are ever going back to normal, to the way they were prior to 2020, where they can go out, go to movies, go to sporting events, travel. LULZ. Things are NEVER going back to normal. If you haven’t figured that out yet, than you’re probably beyond hope. Or you have a job, or rather a role in the world, of selling lies. You’re never going to the movies again, concerts, etc. Never.

    If you notice, all of the movie studios have been drastically downsizing and re-scaling their operations for a straight-to-streaming distribution method. They first tried charging exhorbitant fees for online “tickets” to new movie releases but it didn’t really work so they’ve tried and settled on an obviously new distribution method which is set to become the actual business model going forward–that is, to collude with both each other and the major streaming services–apple, disney, netflix, etc–to selectively release new movies on each service separately, so that consumers–sitting at home–will be forced to subscribe to them all. Sit locked in your house, with your eyes and hands forever occupied with these silly electronic devices. STAY HOME!! They don’t even make real movies anymore but people don’t seem to be able to tell the difference.

    As for this building and the hundreds of others like it around the western world, who knows what will become of them. Shelters maybe?? Whatever they become know this: NOBODY is going to be leaving their house to go to one of these building to see any elephants flung up on a stage, ever again. They won’t be allowed to. Happy?

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