Built in 1912, the Gem Theater, originally named the Star Theater, served Kansas City's African American population as a “silent movie palace” (VisitKC). It was renamed the Gem Theater in 1913 and soon became an “established fixture” in the 18th & Vine district. Eventually, the theater switched from movies to live performances before falling into disrepair after the 1960s. However, unlike many other architectural landmarks of 18th & Vine's jazz age, the Gem Theater escaped the razing that took place in the 1970s and 1980s as part of urban development projects. In the 1990s, the theater was renovated in a process that removed much of the original interior to make space for a modern performance venue.
Photo of the beautiful GEM theater illuminated brightly by neon lights
Backstory and Context
One of the most architecturally striking buildings in the 18th & Vine district, the Gem Theater is one of a handful of buildings from the 1920s and 1930s that has survived more or less intact, escaping the razing that destroyed many of the district's clubs from the 1950s to the 1990s. Originally named the Star Theater, it was built in 1912 to show silent movies to the African American community that had taken up residence around 18th & Vine in the then legally-segregated Kansas City. It was renamed the Gem Theater in 1913. By 1929, when the theater began to show talking movies, the Gem became a fixture on 18th Street as the major movie theater opened by and for African American audiences.
In 1960 the Gem Theater no longer showed films and began to fall into disrepair. As one of the most notable buildings to survive the industrialization and redevelopment of the district in the 1960s and 1970s, the theater became a centerpiece of plans to revitalize the Jazz District and figured prominently in the district's application for status as a historic district in 1991.
When the Gem was still playing movies, up until 1960, the seating capacity was 1,414, but after renovations capacity was cut to 500 seats. Indeed, virtually all that remains of the original theater is the facade, which dates to an early renovation in 1923. After the renovations of the 1990s, the Gem Theater opened for live performances in 1997. Like the American Jazz Museum across the street, the Gem is owned by the city government. Renovations were spearheaded by Patricia Jordan, who is now president of what has become the Gem Theater Cultural and Performing Arts Center.
Interestingly, the redevelopment and restoration of the Gem Theater and surrounding Jazz District was sparked in no small part by a movie: Robert Altman's 1996 Kansas City, which was shot on location. Given the destruction of many of the buildings in the district, and the disrepair into which the surviving ones had fallen, Altman's movie required the extensive use of facades to restore the appearance of 18th & Vine as it would have looked in the 1930s when the film is set. The facades made the rich artistic and cultural history of the district immediately visible, and the film's release coincided with a wave of investment that sought to redevelop the district and restore the area's historic vibrancy.
- Fleming, Beverly. Black History. Preservation Issues: Missouri Department of Natural Resources Historic Preservation Program. January 1st 1992. 1 - 2.
- Visit KC, “Business Details.”
- National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form - Historic Resources of the 18th and Vine Area of Kansas City, Missouri, 1991.
- Gem Cultural and Education Center, “History of the Gem Cultural and Educational Center." https://www.gemrocksart.org/. See also "Property Report for 29-620-12-02-00-0-00-000," Jackson County, MO. https://jcgis.jacksongov.org/propertyreport/PropertyReport.aspx?pid=29-620-12-02-00-0-00-000
- Bierman, Courtney. How Robert Altman's 'Kansas City' Helped Revive The Jazz District, National Public Radio - KCUR. June 8th 2018. Accessed February 12th 2020. https://www.kcur.org/post/how-robert-altmans-kansas-city-helped-revive-jazz-district#stream/0.
- Gem Theater. Visitors Meetings. Accessed November 27, 2017. https://www.visitkc.com/business-detail/gem-theater#sm.000010ltys5wjdficycype0207hla.
- About | Gem Cultural and Educational Center. http://gemrocksart.org/about/
- Alexander, Danie. Aptly Named GEM Theater Celebrates 100 Years. October 22, 2014. Accessed December 04, 2017. http://kcur.org/post/aptly-named-gem-theater-celebrates-100-years#stream/0.