Historic Folly Theater Debuts $4.2M Overhaul

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The refurbished main lobby at The Folly features reproductions of two murals from Thomas Hart Benton's "America Today" series, a new video display and photos of past performers. (Photo courtesy Don Ipok)

By Kevin Collison

The Folly, downtown’s oldest entertainment venue, debuted its fresh face last weekend after a $4.2 million makeover that added a balcony bar and lounge as well as new seats, carpeting and stage curtains.

The major overhaul of the former burlesque palace that dates to 1900 was completed in just over three months, and was celebrated by a weekend of entertainment featuring jazz on Friday night and a musical fundraiser Saturday.

Patrons were greeted in the lobby by reproductions of two of Thomas Hart Benton’s “America Today” murals, a revamped C. Stephen Metzler Hall with wider plush seats, and the chance to grab an intermission drink more quickly at the new Balcony Lounge Bar.

“We wanted to preserve the historic aesthetics of the building while incorporating 21st Century, state-of-the-art amenities,” said Brian Williams, The Folly development director.

The Folly executive director Rick Truman (left) and Brian Williams, development director, at the new Balcony Lounge Bar.

The project follows a $2.7 million improvement plan completed in 2018 that included a new HVAC system, renovation of the common areas, including the entrance lobby, and the Joan Kent Dillion Patron Lounge on the second level.

The Folly Theater opened at 12th and Central as a burlesque and vaudeville theater. The venerable hall is the sole survivor of the rollicking 12th Street scene, a zone of bars and clubs that jazzed up Kansas City’s pre-World War II national reputation.

The Folly was rescued from the wrecking ball in the 1970s and reopened in 1981.

As a salute to its past, the upgrade features big photos of previous greats who performed there at the entrances to the remodeled restrooms: Humphrey Bogart, Sally Rand, Jack Johnson and Gypsy Rose Lee. Gypsy performed her first striptease there in 1929.

The most high-profile addition is the Balcony Lounge Bar in the lobby outside the balcony entrance. The new bar features a stained glass artwork designed by local artist Kathy Barnard.

The Balcony Lounge Bar features stained glass artwork by Kathy Barnard behind the bar and a sculpture by Ed Dwight (Photo courtesy Don Ipok)

The work is entitled “Reflections on Louis Curtiss,” the architect who designed the theater in the Neo-Renaissance style. It originally was called The Standard.

At the time it opened, it was described as the “the largest and most comfortable theater in the Great West” and was one of the first to use electric lights.

In addition to Barnard’s artwork, a six-foot bronze sculpture donated to The Folly in 1988 named “Concerto” was relocated to the balcony lobby from its previous site in the donor’s lounge.

It was created by Ed Dwight, a native of Kansas City, Kan. who was the first Black person chosen as an astronaut trainee by NASA in 1962.

Other improvements to the balcony lounge lobby are new carpeting and couches, and new brass railings for the staircase.

Rick Truman (left) and Brian Williams inspect the wider, plush seats installed as part of the auditorium upgrade. The seating capacity was reduced from 1,072 to 1,006.

“We wanted it to be comfortable and welcoming,” said Rich Truman, who became executive director at The Folly at the beginning of the year. “It’s now a space for dinners and receptions, and we want to show it off as a party location.”

On a more practical matter, the additional bar also will provide an alternative to the often-long lines at the first floor bar that frustrated thirsty patrons.

“We’ve heard the complaints and we’ve responded,” Williams said.

In addition to the front of the house improvements, the performers’ dressing rooms have been updated and new audiovisual technology added to the patron lounge for meetings and to allow live streaming of small performances.

Much of the overhaul was funded by a $2 million gift from the Sunderland Foundation.

Reproductions of two of Thomas Hart Benton’s “America Today” murals from the 1920s are in the lobby.

Other major donors include the Hall Family Foundation; William T. Kemper Foundation, Commerce Bank, trustee; Bebe and Crosby Kemper Foundation for the Arts, UMB Bank, trustee; Richard J. Stern Foundation for the Arts, Commerce Bank, trustee; the Marion and Henry Bloch Family Foundation, and the Miller Nichols Charitable Foundation.

With the completion of the second phase of renovations, and a companion fundraiser that has increased The Folly’s endowment to $2.5 million, Williams said the old theater is close to completing its update for the 21st Century.

Fundraising is underway to install a “hearing induction loop” to improve sound for the hearing impaired. The Folly also is planning some exterior work to the building, a new digitally projected billboard and architectural lighting, both costing about $300,000.

And before the theater celebrates its 125th birthday in 2025, it plans to repaint its auditorium interior, a job last done in 2000.

The Folly Theater opened in 1900 as a burlesque palace and is the oldest entertainment venue in downtown.

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