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B&B Theatres Ponders Deal to Reopen Alamo Drafthouse Downtown Oasis in an Urban Movie Desert

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Above image credit: Alamo Drafthouse Cinema announced it is permanently closing the downtown Kansas City theater it has operated for eight years. The theater had been closed most of the last year because of COVID. (Courtesy | Alamo Drafthouse Cinema)
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4 minute read

The historic Mainstreet Theater at 14th and Main streets has played many roles throughout its 100-year history – Orpheum, RKO, Empire, AMC and most recently the Alamo Drafthouse.

It may be about to assume a new one.

B&B Theatres of Liberty, which operates 429 screens in nine states, would like to take over the downtown theater that’s been entertaining Kansas City audiences since 1921 now that Alamo has called it quits.

“We’re absolutely interested and have been engaged with Cordish on that project and would love to make a deal if it’s mutually beneficial to both parties,” said Brock Bagby, executive vice president of B&B.

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema announced Wednesday it won’t be reopening its downtown Kansas City theater after going dark a year ago because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Austin-based theater chain also filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy and is closing many of its theaters around the country.

For the Mainstreet, it’s yet another page in an entertainment story that began in 1921 when it opened in October 1921 as the Orpheum with the “Foy Fun Revue” featuring Eddy Foy and his four sons and two daughters.

It was the biggest theater yet in Kansas City with 3,250 seats and entertained audiences well into the 1930s with vaudeville shows, traveling acts and movies.

The theater became part of the RKO national chain during the Great Depression, was semi-closed in 1938 except for special events and reopened full-time as the RKO Missouri in 1949.

The operation was taken over in the early 1960s by movie exhibition mogul Stan Durwood, founder of the AMC theater chain, and renamed the Empire. In 1966, AMC inserted a floor dividing the building into upper and lower halves, making it a two-screen venue.

The movie palace closed again in 1985 and after decades of neglect, became a powerful symbol of the decline of downtown Kansas City, forgotten to the point that mature trees sprouted on its roof and its ornate interior was destroyed by water damage.

Architect Jay Tomlinson of Helix had to wear a hazmat suit the first time he toured the ruined Empire Theater
Architect Jay Tomlinson of Helix had to wear a hazmat suit the first time he toured the ruined Empire Theater because of mold and other environmental damage caused by water leakage. (Courtesy | Helix Architecture + Design)

In 2006, the ruined building was included in the redevelopment plan developed by the Cordish Co. for the Power & Light District.

Cydney Millstein, a architectural historian, prepared its application for the National Register of Historic Places and Helix Architecture + Design was hired to renovate it.

“That was a tough one,” Millstein said. “I told Cordish there were a lot of architectural reasons for why we had to do it. We had to nominate it for its architecture … all the unique interior features were in shambles.”

Jay Tomlinson of Helix said the interior and all its beautiful plaster trim had been completely devastated by water damage caused by its leaky roof. Things were so bad that he had to wear a hazmat suit the first time he went inside.

“It had 93 different kinds of mold. It had been open to the elements for a decade,” he said. “The water had infiltrated the decorative plaster and it was all over the floor … There was nothing salvageable.”

Empire Theater before its renovation.
Another image of the Empire Theater before its renovation. A tree with a 10-inch-wide trunk can be clearly seen in upper left. (Courtesy | National Register of Historic Places application)

About $25 million was invested removing all the interior rubble, stripping the still-strong exterior walls to concrete and brick and then rebuilding the entire interior into a modern, six-screen movie theater.

“We were fairly unlimited in what we were allowed to do,” Tomlinson said. “We kept the old bones exposed and inserted these technically advanced theaters in there.”

One fascinating leftover from its early history was a trap door on the stage that opened to pens beneath where animals were kept for shows. The backstage had an elevator powerful enough to hoist an elephant to the stage.

The historic theater reopened as the AMC Mainstreet Theater in 2009. Alamo took over in 2012.

With Alamo’s announcement its closing, Cordish officials released a statement saying the firm would try to find a new tenant for the space soon.

“We are saddened by the closing of Alamo Drafthouse Mainstreet,” said Nick Benjamin, executive director of the Power & Light District. “The Power & Light District is a proud steward of this iconic building, which plays a key role in Kansas City’s downtown neighborhood.

“We are working hard to find the perfect addition to write the next chapter for this historic venue, and we hope to have exciting news about its future soon.”

Bagby said B&B Theatres sees the Mainstreet as a great opportunity to display its flag at a prominent downtown location.

“We manage the Extreme Screen at Union Station and it would be great for us to have something downtown from a branding standpoint.

“It’s a great area with a lot of potential.”

While the theaters are in good shape technically, Bagby said his firm would likely do some improvements if an agreement can be reached with Cordish including adding reclining chairs and updating the facility to reflect its brand.

“It’ll take awhile to figure out if a deal is to be made,” he said. “It depends on if the numbers work.”

Flatland contributor Kevin Collison is the founder of CityScene KC, an online source for downtown news and issues.

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