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Booth Theatre at nightA Golden Theatre Is Reborn in Independence

By Kristin K. Schodorf

Patrons worn suits and evening dresses, and the evening as an occasion, an event, a night on the town. The was an a era in which going to the theater was about much more than popcorn and Raisinets.

Independence is home to one of the last existing examples of this “Golden Age of Movie Palaces”, which reigned during the 1920’s. This distinctive time in history fostered the beginning of the motion picture industry. The Booth Theatre was the first and only movie theatre in Independence, Kansas, for more than 53 years, starting in 1927. It represents a time when going to the movies was a complete experience, and many of the movies shown paled in comparison to the theatres themselves. The lavish art deco style, in conjunction with the public fervor for motion pictures, made the Booth Theatre the hot spot for social gathering.

Booth Ticket OfficeThis was a time before cell phones, text messaging, and chatting over the “net”; so people used the local downtown movie theatre as a gathering spot to see and be seen. A small town community would converge to the local theatre as a form of entertainment, but also for social communication. Over the last eighty years, the Booth Theatre sat as a solemn witness to the Great Depression, World War II, the Vietnam War, but also first kisses, first movies, family outings, and the growth of a country.

The design is a blend of Spanish and Italian renaissance styles, created by the legendary Kansas City architects, the Boller Brothers, who designed many of the most ornate movie palaces in the country. The building was originally constructed in 1910-1911 as an office building. In 1927, local capitalist Thomas J. Booth in conjunction with Glenn Dickinson, president of Dickinson Enterprises, ventured into a reconstruction of the office building into a fine modern show house. At the time of its reconstruction, Independence was considered the entertainment centre of Southeast Kansas.

Booth in disrepair

Unfortunately, like many ornate movie palaces of the time, the Booth Theatre fell into disrepair. During the 1980’s movie theatres moved towards multi-theatre buildings, which in turn made “Movie Palaces” obsolete. The country’s architectural tone also changed. During the 1970’s and 1980’s, downtown communities were being fitted with dull, artless metal facades, mixed with a minimalist style that stripped existing street personalities and replaced it with "efficient" urban commercial structures.

Booth in disrepair

Suburban sprawl also took its toll, as the busy downtown was replaced by distant malls and even more distant "big box" retail stores. Downtown life disappeared, as did the beautiful brick and stucco buildings from the 1910’s and 1920’s, now covered up with metal facades and overhanging structures. The Booth closed in 1980. It was subsequently rented to tenants largely unaware of its historical value. The result was the painting over of the the theatre's elaborate and opulent murals and stenciling. Later, it was rented to a church, who valued the contents more for resale than use. This included a chandelier that was identical to those hanging in Union Station in Kansas City. It was when this same tenant tried to tear down the luxurious gold leafed dome of the theatre, that some local citizens took notice. At this point the theatre was turned over to a non-profit corporation, and the arduous journey of restoring it to its former glory began.

Booth in disrepair

There were several failed attempts, and, as might be expected, the non-profit corporation went seriously into debt. At this time, renowned television journalist Bill Kurtis of the A&E Channel was visiting Independence, his hometown. He had started his journalism career at Independence’s KIND radio as a teenager, which was located next door to the theatre. Feeling nostalgic, he decided to get involved. He purchased the theatre and its debt, and deeded to a newly re-formed Booth Theatre Foundation. He recruited civic minded citizens to be on the board, who then went about the arduous task of raising it from the ashes. His vision for the Booth Theatre is “to be more than just a movie theatre, but a full service community centre.”

The theatre was in blighted condition, a pale shadow of its past elegance. Pigeons had inhabited the vacant structure for years, causing immense damage. The board of directors started a capital fundraising campaign, which through both state and federal funds raised $225,000. The end goal of this campaign will be somewhere between $2 to $3 million dollars. The Booth Theatre Foundation received a Heritage Trust Fund Grant from the Kansas State Historical Society, a federal appropriation’s grant, with the help of Congressman Todd Tiahrt, and a Main Street Grant from the local Independence chapter.

The Foundation has identified three goals for the campaign:

1) Restore the outside, ticket booth, awning, entry way, concession stand, front bathroom, twin sprawling staircases, and upper mezzanine.

2) Restore the main auditorium, balcony, and vertical neon-lighted sign.

3) Renovate the on and off stage areas, dressing rooms, and equip it with all the fittings of a contemporary theatre.

Booth outside

Through initial fundraising efforts and received grants, the first stage is complete. The first third of the building is now open to the public for tours, and can be booked for events. Its final restored state will be a combination of a high-definition/dinner theatre, provide a permanent home for a repertory ensemble performing the plays of hometown playwright, William Inge. It will also be used as a community banquet hall and a musical venue, serve as a host to a documentary film festival, and give Independence an opportunity to attract national theatrical productions. The restored property will also serve as a "tourism destination theatre," where visitors to the community can view a short film about the area's local and Southeast Kansas attractions, before visiting them in person.

The future possibilities for the Booth are endless, and now include the corner building next door. Donated by journalist Bill Kurtis, who once again gave back to his home town community where he got his start so many years ago.

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Last Updated April 6, 2009-
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