Silver Screens and Curtain Calls: The Waldo Theatre Building

(originally published 2/6/20)

This is from my 2012 book The Waldo Story. It’s a segment on the many lives of one corner in Waldo that holds a lot of memories for a lot of folks. At the time of the book, that corner was still healing from a major fire five years earlier. Having lived in Waldo through the 1980s and 90s, I understood what that corner meant to Waldo. Coincidentally, I started working for the Waldo Area Business Association the morning of the fire. We were driving around doing a little job orientation when we spotted the smoke. We drove toward it to get a glimpse of what was happening, then headed back to the office asap. I do not recommend this as a way to start a job.

In every community that endures as Waldo has, there is inevitably a shop, a corner, a place that provided a central experience, a definition of what it was like to grow up there. Such places are often a curious mixture of the familiar and the exotic . There is something both thrilling and comforting in knowing that just around the corner, adventure, excitement, and entertainment are all waiting. In Waldo, that place was the Waldo Theatre.

While over the years, many names would grace the theatre’s marquee, the structure was known as the Westmoreland Theatre Building, the name most associated with the earliest days of development in the area of 75th and Wornall Rd. David Proctor, the original developer, constructed the Westmoreland Building that still stands today on the northeast corner of 75th and Broadway. Courtesy WABA.

The building that housed the Waldo Theatre was constructed in 1924, on the northwest corner of 75th and Washington Streets. Though the “Waldo Theatre” sign hung prominently from the brick structure’s corner, the building housed much more than the movie house. A drug store, a ladies dress shop and a small market filled the street-side shops. But the real magic was inside. The building was originally known as the Westmoreland Theatre Building, and at first the theatre took the same name. Back then, the Westmoreland was more vaudeville house than movie palace. Cinema houses were still new, and audiences expected to see live performances alongside movies. But by 1939, vaudeville was passé. That year, the owners made it exclusively a movie theatre, and at the same time rechristened it “The Waldo Theatre.”

The interior of the theatre when it was a Fox movie theatre, designed by the Boller Brothers.

The theatre’s interior was ornate, but far different from the gilded palaces to be found in downtown Kansas City. Some sources report the theatre was the design of the Boller Brothers, Kansas City architects renowned for their work in movie theatre design. Boller theatre designs typically combined elements of southwestern motifs and art deco angularity, and those features were present in the Waldo theatre. Dark ceiling trusses and intricate geometric designs in bold colors were perfectly set off by the stark stucco walls. The house accommodated more than one thousand seats. Over the years, the Waldo Theatre proudly announced the opening of all the most popular films of each successive generation. Originally independently operated, it became part of Kansas City’s own Commonwealth Amusement chain in 1955, which continued to operate the theatre for nearly twenty years more.

There is some irony to the fact that a large reason for the demise of the Waldo Theatre could be found in a national trend that had started just beyond Waldo’s borders. In 1963, Kansas City’s other major theatre chain, the Durwood Theatres (later known as AMC Theatres) opened the nation’s first multiplex movie theatre at Ward Parkway Shopping center, at Waldo’s southwest corner. The shopping center had been a retail competitor of Waldo’s since it opened in 1959. The Parkway Twin opened with two screens in 1963, expanded to four in 1966, and by 1969 was showing six different features simultaneously, all at relatively the same operating expense it took to run one movie at the Waldo Theatre. The competition was too stiff, and the Waldo Theatre closed forever as a movie house in 1972. In 1973, the building was sold to the Botwin Family.

The building wasn’t idle for long. The same year the movie theatre closed, two young and eager theatrical producers, Richard Carrothers and Dennis Hennessey, were renovating an old laundry in the neighborhood just south of the Country Club Plaza into a different sort of theatre. They were calling it “Tiffany’s Attic Dinner Playhouse.” Dinner theatre was a new phenomenon in the world of stage productions. There had always been combinations of live shows with food and drink, but the dinner theatre trend of the 1970s was different. The plays were light and entertaining, more in the vein of modern farce than classic drama. The comedies of Neil Simon were popular choices, as were small-scale musicals. The talent was largely local – the best of the area’s professional theatre troupes – but often productions were headlined by a “name”- some familiar character actor or former child star from television or film. The productions were marketed to families and groups looking for a different sort of experience, and the casual atmosphere made a night to the theatre seem accessible to folks who would normally never think of going.

The only slightly changing face of the Waldo theatre building in the 1990s.

Carrothers and Hennessey’s success with Tiffany’s Attic was strong from the start. It convinced them there was room in the Kansas City market for a second venue. The old Waldo Theatre seemed like the perfect place. By some reports the partnership invested $750,000 in the old Waldo theatre space. Significant changes were needed to make the stage work for live performances. The theatre entrance was reoriented to Washington Street, and the lobby motif was pure Hollywood glamour. Carrothers and Hennessey called their new place “The Waldo Astoria.”

For the next seventeen years, the Waldo Astoria entertained audiences. For several years in the late 1970s, the Waldo Area Business Association and the Lions Club would buy out the house for a fundraiser night for the two organizations. All together, ninety-eight productions were mounted during the Waldo Astoria’s tenure. Nationally, the dinner theatre craze had come and gone, but locally Carrothers and Hennessey had continued success with both their theatres. Still, times were changing. The typical audience member lived south and west of Waldo and South Plaza. The aging buildings themselves offered challenges, and were extraordinarily expensive to maintain. The partners had long ago incorporated their two operations into Dinner Playhouse, Inc., and over the years had moved away from the daily operations. In fact, much of their work in the 1980s was outside of Kansas City, producing television and film projects. When they returned to Kansas City in 1990, they felt it was time for a change.

In April of 1991, the curtain came down on the last performance of the musical comedy “Nunsense,” the final dinner theatre production at the Waldo Astoria. Dinner Playhouse, Inc. was moving to Overland Park, Kansas with a new name – the New Theatre Restaurant. But the space in Waldo was still a viable theatre. For a while, different performance groups and entertainment producers tried to make a go of the old theatre space. But there were always issues. Complaints abounded in the neighborhood over noise and parking. The building continued to need work. In 1995, the space that had housed the once spectacular interior of the Waldo Theatre was torn down. The lobby area was retained, and converted into commercial space. But where once the auditorium had stood was a parking lot. Over the next fifteen years, the original building returned to more familiar uses. Shops, bars and restaurants were at street level, and offices upstairs. These places became familiar Waldo haunts. The offices and shops that filled the space were important additions to the business community. But the beautiful brick building at the corner of 75th and Washington was a ghost of its former self, just another in a row of serviceable but unexceptional commercial buildings built in the 1920s.

The Waldo Theatre Building was a total loss after the fire in 2007. This picture was taken just hours after the fire had been extinguished.

All that changed suddenly and dramatically in February 2007. On a cold and dull winter morning, the smoke that had been smoldering for hours inside the old building was nothing more than a thin haze inside the bakery. Café Appanaire was the latest tenant of the old theatre lobby space. The bakery had several ovens, so a little smoke wasn’t unheard of. But this morning, the ovens weren’t on. Still, the bakery workers smelled smoke. They stepped outside and heard an alarm ringing inside Kennedy’s, just on the other side of the adjoining wall. It was almost ten o’clock when the first emergency calls came in. By the time firefighters reached the building only moments later, the smoke had started to billow from every crack in the old brick structure. Searching for the source of the flames, the firefighters headed into Kennedy’s to find a staircase that would lead them to the second floor. It was 10:10 a.m. The only lucky break that day was that they never found those stairs.

Eventually, investigators would estimate the fire likely started around midnight the night before, inside a wall at Kennedy’s. All night it burned at an ember’s pace, causing heat and smoke to slowly build. When the firefighters arrived, they saw no flames. Figuring the fire was on the second floor, they entered the bar. What happened next was a flashover – the wild combustion that occurs when a smoldering fire has consumed all the oxygen in a closed space, and is suddenly invigorated. When the firefighters came in, the air fueled the blaze. Suddenly, the building was engulfed. Five of the firefighters were caught in the inferno. They suffered injuries ranging from burns to smoke inhalation, but no lives were lost. The building, sadly, was a complete loss. The fire destroyed several businesses, including a travel agency and a bridal shop. It took several days before the few remaining charred walls of the building could be torn down, the scrap hauled away, and the streets finally cleared and reopened. By then, the building’s owner was already moving forward with a plan.

The family that had purchased the building forty years earlier still owned it, albeit passed to the next generation. Diane Botwin owned and managed several properties in Waldo for Botwin Development, most of them directly in the center of Waldo at 75th Street and Wornall Road. She had recently completely a renovation of the Westmoreland Building at 75th Street and Broadway, one of Waldo’s earliest and most recognizable commercial landmarks. Botwin understood what the theatre building had meant to the community, and understood, too, the traditions that were important to Waldo. Yet the decision she made about the old theatre building site was anything but traditional.

The Waldo Theatre Building was replaced by the Botwin Company, a long-time Waldo developer. The new Botwin Building was designed with a number of environmental innovations. Courtesy Google Earth

Botwin Development had already been in a successful working partnership with eldorado Architects, a Kansas City firm that was just becoming well known, gaining recognition as innovators in design. The firm’s principals contacted Botwin before the embers had cooled, and offered their support. Together, they created a visionary project. Understanding how important it was to dress the wound the fire had created, they successfully designed, financed, built and opened the new Botwin Building only eighteen months after the fire.

Waldo had never seen anything like the Botwin Building. The traditional brick exterior was gone, replaced by gleaming, art-filled glass and polished steel panels. The design was open, airy, clean, and innovative. The eldorado firm was skilled at using cutting-edge techniques, and in the Botwin Building those skills were apparent. The design incorporated natural ventilation, a central breezeway, art incorporated into the second floor windows that screened the sun, and a planted roof to offset rainwater runoff.

Some worried if the Waldo community would embrace the new design. There was no need to worry. In the way Waldo seems to have always done, it adapted to the times, and saw the new development as a statement that Waldo was a place in which to invest. As far as those in Waldo were concerned, as long as the Botwin Building served the community as its predecessor had, its form was irrelevant. And serve the community it did. The building had space for all the former tenants who wanted to return. Some of them had moved on, but many signed up, including Kennedy’s Bar & Grill. Even in the face of innovation, Waldo traditions like a neighborhood bar will abide.

(Featured Photo: The Waldo Theatre building, shortly after a major renovation made in 1931. Courtesy the State Historical Society of Missouri – Kansas City.)

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