The Historic Missouri Theatre

The Columbia Missourian reported on the day after the grand opening that almost three hundred invited guests occupied special seating. The public followed, and was hushed by the magnificence of the lobby, with its thick red carpets–into which were woven the Great Seal of Missouri and the letter M–red and gold tapestries, and baskets of flowers. Large congratulatory ads were placed in the local newspapers by S. E. Shultz, general contractor from Chillicothe, Missouri; Boller Brothers, architects from Kansas City, Missouri, and Los Angeles, California; the Music Shop of Columbia, which supplied the Kimball piano; and the Boone County Lumber Company. The theater management received telegrams of congratulation from United Artists in Hollywood, from stars such as John Barrymore, Charles Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and from film-makers such as Carl Laemmle and Samuel Goldwyn.

On opening night, the crowd applauded the music of Bob Crowley at the organ console, and master of ceremonies Jack Keith at the piano with his Missouri Orchestra. The evening of enchantment was completed by a newsreel, a cartoon, dancing during the stage show, and the feature picture, “Steamboat Bill Jr.,” a United Artists film with Buster Keaton and Ernest Torrence. The Missouri Rockets, later to become the core of the Radio City Rockettes, were the dancers for the evening. Leslie Townes Hope, later known as Bob Hope, was reported to have been part of the dance troupe performing at the Missouri Theatre.

Columbia residents could enjoy all this at the Missouri Theatre for an admission of 25 cents for matinees, or 25 cents (balcony) and 35 cents (floor) for evening shows. Children were admitted for 10 cents at all times. The Theatre ran three shows each week during the first years of existence.

Save the Missouri Theatre

The Missouri Theatre, because of its size and elegance, was a challenge to maintain and operate from its beginning in 1928. The depression of the 1930s meant less money to spend on entertainment, World War II meant that people had less time to spend at the theater, and increasing costs of utilities, projection equipment and movie films during these years caused financial burdens for the Missouri Building Company, Inc. In 1953, the company leased the building to Commonwealth Theaters, Inc., which successfully operated the theater until the 1980s. In 1982, however, rumors spread that Commonwealth planned to modernize the Theatre by gutting the auditorium to make a three-screen cinema complex.

Citizens of Columbia rallied around a project to save the Missouri Theatre. The “Save the Missouri Theatre Now” campaign was started by a committee of the Missouri Heritage Trust. The petition stated:

THE COMPANY WHICH OWNS THE MISSOURI THEATRE (COMMONWEALTH AMUSEMENT, INC.) WANTS TO TURN THIS BEAUTIFUL THEATRE INTO A TRI-PLEX LIKE THE BISCAYNE III. The Missouri Theatre is on the National Register of Historic Places… a National honor — but the Federal Government has no authority over privately owned properties…therefore the interior can be GUTTED, removing all of the beautiful moldings, paintings and architecture, much of which was brought from overseas.


The petitions were distributed and signed by hundreds of concerned people who realized the importance of the old movie palace. The Columbia City Council and the Missouri Students Association from the University of Missouri also passed resolutions in favor of maintaining the historic and architectural integrity of the Missouri Theatre.

Additional support to keep the auditorium as a single cinema came from a statewide group. The Missouri Preservation News, a publication of the Missouri Heritage Trust, Inc., joined the effort by describing the theater as an endangered building by stating: “The Missouri Theatre is slated by its current lessee, Commonwealth Amusement Corporation of Kansas City, to undergo transformation from an opulent theatre palace to a more profitable three-screen complex.”

Because of the pressures exerted by these citizens and organizations, Commonwealth backed off from its plan. The theater struggled on with the profits from a single screen for six more years, staying open until January 7, 1988, when the Missouri Symphony Society purchased the Missouri Theatre.

Visions-Past and Present

J. Dozier Stone, who built the Missouri Theatre in 1928, was a visionary of the performing arts in Columbia.

The Missouri Symphony Society had a vision as well, and also a very real need for a new office space and a permanent hall for practices and performances of the orchestras. True to its vision, the Society moved into the Missouri Theatre in 1988.

Since then, members have planned and carried out many physical improvements to the Theatre. To prevent water damage, the Society had the exterior brickwork tuck pointed and the roof repaired. The basic mechanical systems were upgraded, and a new heating and air conditioning system was installed to stabilize the interior environment. An accessible rest room facility was built. Generous gifts have enabled the restoration of chandeliers in the auditorium and mezzanine, the refurbishment of the water fountain in the foyer, and installation of the new stage curtain.

However, much remains to be done to restore the Missouri Theatre to a historically authentic yet functional multi-use center in downtown Columbia. Plumbing and electrical fixtures must be updated. At present, inefficient air distribution creates temperature extremes. Primitive stage and backstage facilities limit the type and number of performances the Theatre can handle. The light board and sound system date to the 1960s. The paint is peeling, and the 1950s-era wallpaper is water-stained as well as out dated, and worn carpeting hides the terrazzo floors in the lobby.

The Missouri Theatre Center for the Performing Arts in the Twenty-First Century

In 1928, the Missouri Theatre opened as the people’s theater. Today, plans are underway not only to restore, but to transform the Theatre into the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts, returning it to its rightful place as Columbia’s premiere theater. This plan was first envisioned by David A. White III, who has been Executive Director of the Missouri Symphony Society since 2000. As he began his tenure with the Missouri Symphony Society, he recognized that the Missouri Theatre was underutilized, with the Missouri Symphony Society only using the theater primarily during the eight-week summer concert series. With the enthusiastic approval of the MOSS Board of Directors, the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts, as planned, will be dedicated to improving the availability and accessibility of the cultural arts to mid-Missouri citizens through performances, exhibits, and education. The Center will include gallery space, a rehearsal hall, a renovated auditorium, classrooms, a lounge, scene and costume shops, a gift shop, administrative offices, and an elevator. The first floor will feature the fully renovated and state-of-the-art auditorium. A restored freestanding brass and marble box office will guide visitors to the refurbished lobby and mezzanine, to updated and expanded administrative offices, and to a large art gallery and gift shop. The first floor will also offer costume and scene shops. The second floor of the Center will include the completely restored balcony seating area and newly constructed rehearsal hall, as well as classrooms and meeting rooms. On the outside, the marquee will be restored to its original architectural design, with finials added to match those on the exterior of the auditorium.

The vision for the hundredth anniversary of the Missouri Theatre in the year 2028 is to have the Missouri Theatre completely restored, expanded and maintained as the people’s Missouri Theatre Center for the arts.