Folly Theater, Downtown, arts, architecture, entertainment, historic theater, Butler Standard, burlesque, 1020 Central Street
Since its 1973 preservation, the Folly Theater has brought old-fashioned charm to 12th Street in downtown Kansas City, Mo. With its beaux-arts façade and jutting fire escape, the Folly evokes Kansas City’s theater heritage, which dates back to the 1880s. This level of esteem is a sharp contrast to the reputation that built around the original Butler Standard Theater leading up to its opening in 1900. The Standard’s premiere performance was shrouded in spectacle and scandal. Bishop Glennon of the neighboring Catholic cathedral warned parishioners of the dangers sure to follow the opening of the Standard—a sinful burlesque house.
Though the theater scene in Kansas City now prides itself on its progressive material and daring performances, at the turn of the 20th century we were considered the most conservative market on the Orpheum Circuit. Edward and James Butler, a father and his son from St. Louis had begun establishing a burlesque empire (Empire Burlesque Circuit Company was founded in 1887) and the pious neighbor’s concerns did not deter them. They promised a polite and mannered variety show of burlesque and vaudeville that would appeal to not just men, but their wives and children, too.
It may come as a surprise that the Folly Theater, now distinguished as a classically beautiful building housing high-culture fare, in its original incarnation as the Butler Standard drew crowds to its seedy performers and “big city” exterior. The Butler boys had to quell concerns about their brand of entertainment, and assure the next-door saloon would be operated as strictly and respectfully as a high-end hotel bar.
Only three months into operation, the Standard would endure its first of many revisions: a fire at the Coates Opera House, which forced touring acts to shuffle around town and bring bigger names to bigger houses, placing the Woodward Stock Company’s production of Hamlet in this dicey burlesque house. The next week, O.D. Woodward struck a deal to lease the theatre through the season.
Changing its name to the Century in 1901, the theater rotated between “serious” works and raucous vaudeville through the 1920s. Playing host to shows from the Marx Brothers and plays right off Broadway, the theater alternately wooed and underwhelmed performers from many walks of the entertainment industry. Some enjoyed its proximity to the Edward Hotel—named for Edward Butler himself—and its boisterous bar that served Kansas City show people.
By the time Joan Dillon, a nationally active preservationist, was spearheading a movement to preserve the endangered theater in the early 1970s, the building had fallen back into its old ways, offering dirty flicks and peep shows. The building had changed its management and name twice more, finally settling on the Folly in 1941. Invested Kansas City theatergoers wanted to preserve the old show house in order to prolong its historic residency.
But what exactly were they preserving? The Folly stood then and perhaps still today more than anything as a testament to endurance. After 11 decades and almost as many owners, the Folly has been through a lot. The Butler Standard surely would’ve shuddered had it not been for the emergency production of Hamlet. Burlesque troops might have skipped conservative Kansas City were it not for the genteel management at the Edward Hotel. The Folly, then, is a happy accident of history. It’s a kooky old artifact of the theater community who’s seen it all and, my dear, it’s still here.