Gillis Opera House
500 Walnut Street,
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Architects: Asa Beebe Cross
The Gillis was given to the citizens of Kansas City through the charity of Mrs. Benoist (Mary) Troost, whose uncle, William Gillis, a Kansas City pioneer, left his estate to her. After her death in 1873 she directed in her will that the Gillis money be used to erect a theater at the southwest corner of 5th and Walnut, then a very prominent intersection in the young city. Proceeds from the theater would be used to maintain the Gillis Home for Orphans (still operating today). The four-story building was designed by Asa Beebe Cross, cost $140,000, and opened on September 10, 1883. Much of the interior was finished in polished walnut, and the chandeliers were of dazzling polished glass.
This splendor was reflected in ticket prices as well: boxes ranged from $5 to $20; seats on the main floor $1.25; general admission $1; and balcony seats sold for 50 cents. Compared to 1883 incomes, these costs were undeniably steep, but patrons got what they paid for: The best in stage presentations, from Shakespeare to the classic operas, brought many well-known performers to the stage of the Gillis Opera House. By 1890, the main business center of Kansas City had shifted southward, away from the Market area. The Gillis began a lengthy decline. To draw business, theater owners began showing cheap melodramas.
After years of clinging to life, the Gillis Opera House was completely destroyed by a mysterious blast on June 25, 1925. The four-story building was leveled, and it was never known for certain how many people died in the accident because there was no accurate count of the number inside at the time of the explosion. Unofficial reports placed the number of dead at six, plus a fireman who was killed when a fire truck answering the alarm overturned at 9th and Walnut. There were 31 injuries that required medical attention.
The theater was replaced by a two-story structure costing twice as much as the original. It was designed to produce ongoing revenue through rental of storage and retail space. And, to meet the stipulations of Mrs. Troost’s will, a small theater was included that continued to present burlesque shows until the outbreak of World War II, when the talents of the women were needed elsewhere in the workforce. The building continued as a retail and storage space for the next few decades and in the mid-1970s, efforts were made to revive the as a combination dinner theater and disco. Despite these efforts, the plans never reached fruition. The Gillis Building’s most recent entertainment-based tenant, the River Market Brewing Company, opened in the space in the spring of 1995 and continues to find success there.
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