Mainstreet Theater, Kansas City, MO
Located in downtown Kansas City in Jackson County, Missouri, the four-story Mainstreet Theater is one of the city's most visible historic landmarks. First opened on October 30, 1921, during the vaudeville era, it was built for promoter Martin Beck by the distinguished architectural firm of C.W and Geo. L. Rapp of Chicago designed some of the most significant theaters in America in the 1920s and 1930s. It was the largest theater in the city until the Midland Theater was built in 1927, and it is distinctive for its Beaux-Arts design and prominent Byzantine-style dome. With a seating capacity of 3,250, it was one of the first theaters of its type to cater to the working class. Between 1921-1949 it presented vaudeville acts, movies, and traveling shows. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. After many years of being closed, the theater reopened in 2012 after being purchased and renovated by Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas. The theater closed during the pandemic and was purchased and reopened by B&B Theatres in 2021 and now operates as B&B Theatres Mainstreet KC at The Power & Light District.
Exterior of Mainstreet Theater in 2022
Backstory and Context
In the late 19th Century, a German-speaking Czech immigrant named Martin Beck tried to establish a career as an actor in America. Unable to fulfill this dream, but still wishing to remain in show business, he met a man named Morris Meyerfeld, Jr., also an immigrant, who served as president of the Orpheum Theater chain, to ask for advice. Meyerfeld was so impressed by Beck that he immediately hired him as a booking agent, and he later rose to the position of general manager of the Orpheum Circuit. The circuit at that time, with 60 theaters, had a monopoly on vaudeville houses west of Chicago, while the rival Keith-Albee Circuit covered the east coast.
Beck's objective, in his own words, was to "make the Orpheum Circuit bring the highest forms of art within the reach of the people with the slimmest purses." He quickly decided to construct a "junior Orpheum" theater in downtown Kansas City, employing the Chicago architectural firm of Rapp and Rapp. Unusually for the time, the structure had a cooling system that made the building comfortable even in the summer months. The theater even provided, for parents who wanted a night out without worrying about their offspring, a free nursery in the building, complete with a trained nurse and assistants. Featured live acts included Charlie Chaplin, Cab Calloway, and the Marx Brothers.
The design of the Mainstreet Theater was similar to other Rapp and Rapp theaters, such as the Chicago and Tivoli Theaters, in that a monumental arch was employed at the main entrance. The rusticated terracotta and brick building differed from those other designs, however, due to two distinctive features: the Byzantine dome at the entrance, embellished with golden tiles, and the storefronts lining the building's east facade.
Although films were beginning to outstrip vaudeville in popularity, Beck, a lover of live theater, resisted, and for that and other reasons, he was ousted from his position as Orpheum's president. (He went on to construct and manage the Martin Beck Theater in New York, now known as the Al Hirschfeld Theater.) The Mainstreet began to show films, but during the Depression, it was difficult for such a large theater to maintain an audience, even with a 10-cent admission charge. In 1938, it partially closed, then closed completely until 1949, when it was refurbished and reopened as the R-K-O Missouri. This theater had the historic distinction of showing the first 3-D movie in Kansas City. In the mid-1950s, the Missouri theater installed the complicated and expensive Cinerama process to attract a new audience, but the novelty of this widescreen technology soon faded, and the theater closed yet again.
In the 1960s, it opened under a new name - the Empire - with a much-reduced seating capacity: only 1200 seats. The Empire was eventually split into a multiplex with four separate theaters but still could not remain viable. In October 1985, AMC, its owners, closed it for the third time, and it remained so for over 20 years. The developer who purchased the property wanted to demolish the Empire and build office space, leaving only the dome, but the City of Kansas City resisted and bought the property in 2004. On May 1, 2009, AMC, which partnered with a local developer, reopened the theater as part of the Power & Light District as the AMC Mainstreet Theater (restoring its original name). A reported $30 million was spent on the restoration. In May 2009, the theater was awarded the "Dr. George Ehrlich Achievement in Preservation Award" by the Historic Kansas City Foundation.
The building was purchased from AMC by Alamo Drafthouse and operated under the name Alamo Drafthouse Mainstreet until the company filed for bankruptcy and the global pandemic led to the theater's closure. The historic theater now operates as B&B Theatres Mainstreet KC at The Power & Light District. The theater combines film screenings with in-theater dining to provide a novel moviegoing experience.
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Photo by David Trowbridge