The Grand Opera House in Kansas City, Missouri, escaped demolition in 1926, but faced the dilemma again in 2007. Many residents came to its defense; one of the prominent faces was that of Felicia Hardison Londré, Professor of Theatre at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. When news of the planned demolition began circulating three years ago, she enlisted the aid of students and devoted herself to documenting and saving the Grand. Londré did not want to see the theatre destroyed, not only because it was the last surviving shell of a nineteenth-century theatre in Kansas City but also because of its pivotal role in the city’s history.
Built in 1891, Grand Opera House welcomed an audience totaling seven million to 8,800 performances during its twenty-two years of operation under the original owners, Mel Hudson and Abraham Judah. It became a premiere theatre in Kansas City, thanks in part to its beloved manager. “Sometimes,” Londré explains, “an actor would be hired to play Coates Opera House, but the first thing he would do was to go over to the Grand and say hello to Mr. Judah.”
The topic of Abraham Judah brings some sadness to Londré’s usually upbeat manner: the Grand was demolished earlier this year. “I would have liked to save his theatre,” she sighs, “but I guess he would have understood. During Mr. Judah’s lifetime, he saw how a city changes and how ways of life change. Unfortunately, in our time, it was not economically feasible to convert the building into a theatre museum or any other use we could conceive. Meanwhile the taxes, insurance, and perhaps structural instability made it a liability for the owners, headed by Jonathan Kemper, a generous and committed historic preservationist. It was the city that finally ordered demolition.”
As a Curators’ Professor of Theatre, Londré has taught theatre history and dramaturgy at UMKC for 31 years. Twenty-three of those years were spent researching the historical and cultural settings of all the plays in each season of the Missouri Repertory Theatre (now known as the Kansas City Repertory Theatre). This work has given her a wealth of stories, as well as a strong background in research; both are invaluable in her teaching and writing. “At the peak, we got up to eight shows a year, and my essays got better and better, as one would expect! I learned a lot about writing,” she says.
Several years ago, Londré founded the Patricia McIlrath Center for Mid-American Theatre, named for the beloved late founder of Missouri Repertory Theatre and longtime chair of UMKC’s Department of Theatre. The Center is home to hundreds of books on regional theater, with a wall specifically devoted to Kansas City stage history; newspaper clippings, photographs, and other artifacts from the Grand Opera House occupy two thick binders on that wall. “My dream was to start a center for the study of regional American theatre,” says Londré. “I think local history is a very important thing: we’ve lost a lot of our history, and that’s really sad, but the historian can do something to perpetuate that memory.”
This historian is doing quite a bit to perpetuate memory: her graduate-level courses focus on French, Russian/Soviet, and American theatre history, and she often encourages students to write on Kansas City theatre. Londré herself is the proud author of The Enchanted Years of the Stage: Kansas City at the Crossroads of American Theatre, 1870—1930 (2007). She starts by documenting the city’s stage history in its humble beginnings, when traveling troupes performed on the second floor of stores and saloons. Often, the stage was “just a platform—no proscenium arch, no scenery, no curtain.”
This all changed in 1870, when the first theatre was constructed in Kansas City: “not a the-ay-ter,” she drawls, “not like the places the cowboys went to see saloon gals on 4th Street and Walnut Street, but a real opera house!” The expansion of rail systems into Missouri ensured the success of Coates Opera House, as well as the many other playhouses that followed. Some years were better than others; Londré insists that 1887 stands out among them all. “That was Kansas City’s greatest year: 1887! We had two new theatres open in 1887. We had the first visit by Edwin Booth, Sarah Bernhardt came that year, we had our first Priests of Pallas [gala].” Leaning forward, eyes sparkling, she looks like someone about to share a thrilling secret. “We had a visit by President Grover Cleveland, the second President in office to visit Kansas City, after President Grant...and Grant visited Coates Opera House!”
“[The Enchanted Years of the Stage] just raised so many questions about peripheral issues, and I became absolutely fascinated with World War I,” she explains. Though there are “dozens of books” on English performers in London and abroad, little study has focused on French and American contributions to theatre during the war.
“General Pershing understood—people need theatre! He knew that his soldiers needed to be entertained,” Londré says. To address that need, Winthrop Ames and E.H. Sothern, both prominent faces in drama, formed the Over There Theatre League. Small teams of performers would travel among the soldiers, bringing mostly comedy and variety shows to the army camps. “They just spread out in cars…over these horrible muddy roads and in the most horrible circumstances, entertaining doughboys behind the lines and wounded in field hospitals,” Londré explains.
There were other entertainers who came overseas on their own. Elsie Janis, a vaudeville performer who often played Kansas City, became known as the “Sweetheart of the American Expeditionary Forces” after she and her mother traveled among the troops for six months. “They didn’t have the Red Cross or any of the other organizations behind them. They just went over, marched into one of the offices in Paris, and Elsie said, ‘I’m going to entertain our boys. Where can I go that I’ll do the most good?’”
Even when the subject matter takes her far from home, Londré’s research comes full circle back to her home city, for Liberty Memorial, the National World War I Memorial, is located in Kansas City. The centenary of the beginning of the war will be commemorated in 2014, “still in time for me to get a book written,” she comments. To make this deadline, though, something had to give in her busy university schedule. Londré teaches undergraduate theatre history, as well as graduate courses and seminars, and has only taken one sabbatical in 40 years of teaching.
“The thing is, I really love the teaching,” she admits. “I couldn’t miss a year of teaching—I wouldn’t want to miss a year of students.” Londré received a UMRB grant to allow her a one-course release. Instead of teaching a writing intensive undergraduate theatre history course in the spring of 2004, she took time for her research. “It gave me the time to go to the downtown library and sit there all day, reading newspapers, immersed in the past,” she chuckles. “I did not want the research to end. I just wanted to keep living in Kansas City at the turn of the century. It was such fun, it was like time travel!”
Though she is in love with the past, this time traveler never forgets her duty to the present. “All these books are books about local theatres,” she notes, gesturing to one of the walls in the Center. “I think more people ought to be doing that. Local theatre needs to be rescued, because memorabilia disappear, archives are incomplete, and people take their memories with them when they leave this world, so we’re losing a lot of our history.” Londré brings back records, artifacts, and stories from every excursion into history, making sure that this collective past survives far into the future.