Missouri Theatre – Tough Luck, Mary Todd Lincoln’s cousin

In 2008, the Missouri Theatre, now called the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts, under went a $10 million renovation, again becoming the jewel of downtown Columbia.

But with every gain, sometimes comes a loss — as in the case of the 1928 construction of the Missouri Theatre.

Named in 1979 to the National Register of Historic Places, the Missouri Theatre is a shining example of the architecture of cinemas that began in France around 1894, according to the National Register of Historic Places document nominating the Missouri Theatre to the Register.

” …  ‘Cathedral of the Motion Picture (architecture) …  created, or tried to create a world of its own, more fantastic than any ordinary citizen of an industrial society could have ever seen — and it was available to all for just 25 cents,” the NRHP document notes. 

The Columbia, Missouri, theatre, was the only pre-Depression movie palace built in central Missouri, and is a “fine example of the restrained yet elegant style of the Boller Brothers of Kansas City, Missouri,” notes the  NRHP document.

Yet, one might wonder what was there on that site before the Missouri Theatre.

A footnote in the historic document reveals the theatre was built on the site of the 1841 home of  Robert L. Todd, which was first occupied by G.D. Foote, the builder of Academic Hall. Todd was the first cousin of Mary Todd Lincoln and one of the first two students to graduate from the University of Missouri.

The house was torn down to make way for the theatre.

The company that built the Missouri Theatre was created for that purpose — to finance and build the Missouri Theatre. The company was headed up by J.D. Stone of Columbia, the son of Elvira and Josiah Stone of Columbia.  Josiah Stone was responsible for building the Columbia Theatre at 1101 E. Broadway, which currently houses an Indian restaurant  and luxury apartments, and the Elvira Building at 1109 E. Broadway, which currently houses Willie’s Field House, a sports bar.

On October 5, 1928, the Missouri Theatre opened to a capacity crowd offering a varied program, as was the norm for the day. It featured the Missouri Orchestra, the Missouri Rocket Girls, a newsreel, cartoon and “Steamboat Bill, Jr.,” feature with Buster Keaton and Ernest Torrence as well as “obscure comedian named Bob Hope, who was not even billed,” the historic document continues.

According to the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts website, an full-page ad in the October 4, 1928 Columbia Tribune proclaimed: “Formal Opening of your new Missouri Theatre-Friday Evening … A $400,000 Showhouse of Unrivaled Beauty and Extravagant Setting in Central Missouri. The Magnificent Splendor of This Palace of Amusement Will Dazzle and Thrill You.” The website goes on to note that at that time, the price of admission was 25 cents for matinees, 25 cents for the balcony and 35 cents for the floor seats for evening shows. Children’s tickets were 10 cents at all times.

The NRHP document notes in the footnotes the economic impact of movies during this time period. Moving pictures made up the fourth largest industry in the United States by the mid-1920s. “By 1927, there were 20,500 theaters in this country with a total seating capacity of 18 million,” states a footnote in the document.

But as vaudeville and live entertainment attendance waned, the Missouri Theatre was transformed into a simple movie theatre.

In 1953, Commonwealth Theatres leased the building and remodeled it extensively. In 1968, the facade and shops under went remodeling. In the 1979 historic document, it states the building is excellent condition and Commonwealth’s lease had been recently renewed. When the owner, who lived in California visited around the time the National Register nomination was being written, the document notes, “local preservationists … urged her to continue operation of the theatre due to the importance of its interior decoration. Since the theatre is still a money-making concern, she responded favorably to these requests.”

At the time, the retail space surrounding the theatre housed Woody’s Mens’ Furnishings, Car Tunes, Telegift, Et Cetera Gifts, Second Nature Health Foods and Allens’ Flowers.

However, between the time of the 1979 nomination to the National Register and 1983, the theatre ceased being a “money-making” venture for Commonwealth due to the development of multi-screen cinemas, the MTCA website notes.

On Jan. 7, 1988, the Missouri Symphony Society (MOSS) bought the 1209-seat theatre, according to the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts website, “to serve as the home venue for the orchestra.”

In 2007, the Missouri Theatre launched a fund-raising effort and renovation project as described in a Dec. 21, 2008 Columbia Tribune article written by Lynn Israel:

“The marvelously maddening, sweat-filled, 10-month, $10 million renovation of this jewel was the talk of the town when David White III and his hardworking staff opened the doors in a May 21 gala with champagne, circus acrobats, vintage films and Charles Digges Sr., who attended the theater’s 1928 opening night at age 9. The work included burnishing the chandelier, new seating, a restored proscenium, state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems, and — gasp! more restrooms. Only legendary singer Tony Bennett could do justice to such an event, and he did not disappoint.”

Despite these accolades, all was not well. In June 2009, White resigned “amid a flurry of lawsuits over the arts center’s unpaid bills and lingering debt from the theater’s $10 million restoration project,” noted a June 2, 2009, Columbia Daily Tribune article written by Jodie Jackson Jr.

Today, the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts seats 1,216, and its website notes, serves as a performing arts venue hosting events such as “the annual Mozart-Higday Music Trust series, the Columbia Civic Orchestra, the “We Always Swing” Jazz Series, the Boone Heritage Foundation Ragtime Festival, and First Night Columbia.”

The MTCA’s website lists the following organizations as having a home at the Missouri Theatre: Boonslick Chordbusters, Columbia Chorale, Columbia Civic Orchestra, Junior Strings, Missouri Contemporary Ballet, Missouri Symphony Conservatory, Missouri Symphony Orchestra, the Missouri Symphony, Missouri Technical Theater Institute, MOSSCC (MOSS Children’s Chorus), MOSSYO (MOSS Youth Orchestra), Ragtag Cinema’s Missouri Theatre Film Series, Show-Me Opera, The Blue Note, Treblemakers and the Women’s Symphony League

Today, the retail space houses the Columbia Art League on one side and Yogoluv, a frozen yogurt shop on the other side. 

So while the Missouri Theatre could have gone the way of Todd’s home, it didn’t. And we can all once again enjoy the jewel of Columbia.

One thought on “Missouri Theatre – Tough Luck, Mary Todd Lincoln’s cousin

  1. We love your website. It has a LOT of good information and is obviously very well researched. Good Job Dianna! P.S. We had a fun time in Columbia with you!

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