Sunday, February 21, 2016


Some people think Kansas City was just a "cow town" back in the old days.  But these people are wrong.  And that is because even though there were a lot of stockyards, there was also some culture, too.  The first culture came when a man named Kersey Coates decided that a growing place like the Town of Kansas needed a nice building where plays and operas could be performed.  So he built an opera house.  And right across the street from it, he built a hotel.  These two buildings were way out in "the boonies," beyond the city limits.  Now this place is at 10th and Broadway, and it's part of downtown Kansas City.

Coates Opera House, Photo from Missouri Valley Special Collection, Kansas City Public Library

The Coates Opera House opened in September 1871.  The streets weren't paved, so in bad weather, everyone's shoes got muddy, and women's skirts got muddy, too.  But it was a big deal to go to the opera house, which made people willing to put up with these conditions.

Coates Opera House and Coates House Hotel, with cows

Then on January 31, 1901, the opera house caught fire and burned down.  This is something that happened a lot to theaters back in those days because the buildings were heated with boilers.  Also they had hot gas or electric stage lights.  So for the audiences crowded into the buildings, there was always a  risk that they would not be able to get out if a fire started.

Luckily, when the Coates Opera House burned down, the play had just ended, and the theatergoers had left.  The actors still in the building managed to escape by breaking out windows.  But even though no one got hurt, the touring company lost thousands of dollars in costumes and props.  And of course, the building that had served as the cultural center for Kansas City was gone.

 About the same time that the opera house burned down, a man named Colonel Willis Wood moved to Kansas City from St. Joseph.  Col. Wood had made a lot of money in the dry goods business, and he was very interested in theater.  So right away, he decided to build a new theater.  It was located on the northwest corner of 11th and Baltimore, and it opened on August 25, 1902.

Col. Wood loved opulence and extravagant design, so he hired architect Louis Curtiss to plan the new theater.  Mr. Curtiss followed the colonel's wishes, because that was what he was paid to do, of course.  The theater was an example of the beaux arts style, which I think means "pretty art."  But in my opinion, it was not very pretty.  Mostly, I think it was gaudy and overdone.  But no one asked me because I am just a little dog, and besides, I hadn't even been born back then.

The Willis Wood Theatre presented only first-class productions, and it soon got a reputation as THE place to see and be seen among the city's elite.  Often people began the evening with dinner at the Baltimore Hotel, which was across the street.  Then they walked through a tunnel to the theater to attend the play.  At intermission, they went back through the tunnel to visit the hotel bar, which led to the tunnel's being called "Highball Alley."

The view east on 11th St, showing the south side of Willis Wood Theatre

Mom bought a postcard of the Willis Wood Theatre, and that is how I got the idea to write this entry.  The marquee in the photo says The Sultan of Sulu, which turns out to have been a musical spoof written in 1902 by George Ade in the style of The Pirates of Penzance.  But that is not the play that the person who sent the postcard saw.  The date on the card is 1904, and the message says:

Dear Harriett,
We saw charming Ethel Barrymore here last Friday night in "Cousin Kate" and wish we could enjoy her all over again.  How are you and the world?  You see I'm still on deck and not run out by old hay fever.  [signature illegible]

Ethel Barrymore, who was born in 1879, was a member of the famous Barrymore family of actors.  Ethel was regarded as the "First Lady of the American Theater."  She first appeared on Broadway in 1895, but also acted in plays in London.  Many men were attracted to her, including Winston Churchill, who asked her to marry him.  But Ethel did not want to be a politician's wife, so she said no.

The role that first made Ethel Barrymore a star was as Madame Trentoni in Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines.  She was also well known for her title role in Cousin Kate.  In addition to her work as a stage actress, Ms. Barrymore appeared on radio, TV, and in movies.  She married Russell Griswold Colt in 1909 and had three children before divorcing him in 1923.  She died of cardiovascular disease in 1959.

Ethel Barrymore, c. 1908, photo from Library of Congress

Anyway, back in Kansas City, the Shubert theater opened in 1906 at 10th and Baltimore, just a few blocks from the Willis Wood Theatre.  Competition between the two theaters was fierce, and the Willis Wood eventually lost out.  The owners tried stock theater, burlesque, and then they installed a $20,000 pipe organ to accompany motion pictures.  However, movies did not draw the large crowds the theater needed.  So the theater went back to plays performed by stock companies.  In January, 1917, a week before the last of these was to end, and the Willis Wood was set to try movies again, a fire destroyed most of the building's interior.  After about a year, the remaining shell of the theater was torn down, and the 20-story Kansas City Athletic Club building was constructed.  At the time, it was the tallest structure in town.  It is still there, now called the Mark Twain Tower.

Meanwhile, the Shubert Theater continued successfully for another 30 years, booking some of the best productions in the country.  Owners Sam, Lee, and J.J. Shubert controlled some 1,000 theaters during the heyday of traveling shows.  They used their estimated $400 million to bankroll the most popular plays of all time.  In 1936 the theater was finally razed.  Today a parking garage for the use of Kansas City Library patrons stands on the theater's former location.



  1. Great post!
    Thanks for all the research amd effort!

    1. I'm glad you liked it, and I appreciate your taking time to tell me you did. It's amazing what people were willing to do back in the old days to get some entertainment and culture!

  2. Great grandfather was a musician at the Coates Opera House. Thank you for the great photos and shared history that sheds light on our family's past!

    1. That is a very interesting connection of your family to Kansas City history. Thanks for sharing!