Gillis Opera House

500 Walnut Street,
Kansas City, MO 64106

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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.

Contributed by Paul Salley

Recent comments (view all 3 comments)

RobbKCity
RobbKCity on January 29, 2007 at 11:19 pm

The Gillis Opera House seated up to 1,700 patrons when the theatre opened in 1883. Source: Mrs. Sam Ray Postcard Collection, Kansas City Public Library.

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on July 2, 2007 at 11:11 am

The New Gillis Theatre in Kansas City is listed in the 1897-98 edition of the Julius Cahn Official Theatrical Guide. Lester M. Crawford was Mgr., and ticket prices ranged from 15 cents to 50 cents. The house had both gas and electric illumination, and was on the second floor. The proscenium opening was 44 feet wide X 46 feet high, and the stage was 40 feet deep. There were 8 in the house orchestra. The seating capacity is listed as 2,059 but the breakdown is smaller: Orchestra- 575, Balcony- 314, Gallery- 500; total: 1,389 plus box seats. Possibly, the 2,059 figure was reached by adding standee spaces, as large numbers of standees were allowed in these 19th Century theatres.

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