The Grand History of the Midland Theatre

On the morning of October 28, 1927, what seemed like most of the population of Kansas City descended downtown to purchase tickets for the grand opening of its newest entertainment destination, Loew’s Midland Theatre.

The demand for what was hailed as the cultural event of the year was great. The line to the box office stretched several blocks and before the clock had a chance to strike noon, all 4,000 seats in the auditorium were sold out.

The vision of local businessman Herbert Woolf to bring a first-class movie theater to Kansas City was about to become a reality thanks to architect Thomas W. Lamb and brothers Carl and Robert Boller. Marcus Loew, president of Loew’s theater chain, agreed to sponsor the new $4.5 million dollar centerpiece of the city. Anticipation to see the venue was only amplified by the marquee, which proclaimed the Midland as “America’s Most Magnificent Theater” and “A Kansas City Institution.”

Grand Opening marquee Midland Thatre
Photo provided by Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri

The premiere feature was “The Road to Romance.” The silent film’s star Ramon Novarro, along with popular actors Aileen Pringle and KC native Buddy Rogers were on hand to join the celebration. The auditorium stage featured famed composer Anatole Friedland and his Club Anatole Revue. The Loew’s Midland Grand Orchestra rose into place on an elevated platform. During the film, a Robert Morton theatre pipe organ played to accompany the action on the screen.

When the Loew’s Midland opened, it was the third largest theater in the United States. The venue featured several engineering and architectural innovations including being the first theater to have a cantilevered loge, a mezzanine level of seats and a complete cooling, heating and ventilation system.

Midland Theatre
Photo provided by Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri

Inspired by the formula established by the Roxy Theatre in New York, the Loew’s Midland was designed to provide a theatrical atmosphere for the movies in a lush and ornate environment. The interior exceeded expectations as the unsurpassed beauty displayed Lamb’s trademark French and Italian Baroque style. The six-story Renaissance Revival exterior featured a cream, glazed terra cotta brick adorned with pilasters, winged figures, leaves, swags and arches. A four-story arched window rose above a copper and gold marquee that contained 3,600 light bulbs.

Movie goers were greeted by a huge, ornate lobby decorated with imported artwork. The theater was adorned with more than 500,000 feet of gold leaf, five giant Czechoslovakian hand-cut crystal chandeliers, irreplaceable art objects and precious antiques and spectacular wood and plaster work. Furniture from Alice Vanderbilt’s estate was used throughout the theatre. The Kansas City Star wrote that patrons experienced an “immediate and overwhelming feeling of unrestrained luxury.” The Kansas City Times declared the movie house “not so much a house as a palace.”

“In magnificence, it is equal to any theater in the world,” Edward A. Schiller, vice president of Loew’s Inc., said in the Oct. 28, 1927 edition of the Kansas City Star. “I have seen most of the imposing houses and I believe this performs the important function of combining good taste with luxury better than any of them.”

During the next three decades, the Great Depression, the rise of suburban living and emergence of television all greatly impacted the theater industry. The Midland closed in January 1961 but reopened in July as Midland Stadium following a remodel to accommodate its new National Bowling League team, the Kansas City Stars. Despite nearly 2,000 people turning out to its Hollywood-like event to unveil the team, the Stars were financially unsuccessful and left town in December 1961.

In May 1962, the venue returned to its movie palace roots and was rebranded as the Saxon with two theaters in the old Midland auditorium. While a new name hung from the marquee outside of the building, the interior still housed the grand staircase to the elegant balconies, luxurious décor in the lobby and opulent design that were trademarks of the Midland.

AMC Theatres (then a small Kansas City-area regional chain) purchased the Saxon in 1966 and renamed it the Midland 1-2-3 Theatre before returning to its original Midland Theatre name in 1977, the same year the building was listed to the National Registry of Historic Places. It operated as a movie house until 1981 when the venue transitioned into a performance hall for concerts, Broadway stage shows, ballet and other live events.

In 2006, the Midland Theatre closed for renovations. Two years later, the venue reopened following its $28 million makeover for its first show, Melissa Etheridge. Interior renovations were made to meet the historic preservation guidelines while, on the exterior, the Midland marquee was restored to its original appearance. The theatre can accommodate 3,200 people for live shows and  the customizable floor now allows the theatre to host corporate banquets, charity galas and receptions. Since then, the venue has packed the house by hosting many top names in comedy, music and special events.

On September 4, 2013, AEG Presents, the Cordish Company and Arvest Bank announced that the bank acquired a multi-year naming rights partnership to the Midland Theatre. 

“We love this building so much. When I walk through alone you can really feel the energy of 92 years of bringing joy to people. It is so much bigger than us,” says Katie Schillare, Director of Special Events of Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland.

Midland Theatre
Photo by EpagaFOTO

At the time of Midland’s opening, there was a boom of massive motion-picture palaces that seated thousands and created an atmosphere that was similar to going to a theater or opera. Around this same time, Kansas City was referred to as the Paris of the Plains because of its vibrant nightlife during an era where perfumed ladies shopped at Harzfeld’s Parisian Cloak Company and was later home to the 1,242-foot television antenna nicknamed the “Eye-Full Tower.” 

The combination of a booming movie industry and love of entertainment in Kansas City made this marriage of a lush, flamboyant venue and its new home a perfect one. While downtown Kansas City has undergone a significant recent transformation, the Midland Theater stands tall as a valued link between the reborn, vibrant downtown and its storied history.

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