|City/Town: • Burlington|
|Location Class: • Theater|
|Year Built: • 1940 | Year Abandoned: • 2010|
|Historic Designation: • National Register of Historic Places|
|Status: • Abandoned • Under Renovation|
|Photojournalist: • Emily Cowan|
Original Plaza Theater
The first Plaza Theater of Burlington was constructed in 1940. It didn’t have long to create success before a terrible flood ravaged the community. In late May of 1941, the town of Burlington was halfway underwater after 12.69 inches of rain fell in 24 hours. The newly built Plaza Theater was one of the hardest-hit buildings ruining almost everything except for the stage and lobby. The sloping area containing seating gave way and fell into the basement. The east wall of the theater and roof collapsed as well. “Things like this happen all the time all over the country,” said owner A.J. Simmons, “Floods, cyclones, tornadoes, and dust always are taking their toll. We’ll recover from this. I think when we rebuild we will take the building next to this one and make it all into a bigger theater.” An insurance suit for $11,700 was filed by Plaza Theater against the insurance company charging that the building had been destroyed by a natural disaster.
New Plaza Theater
Work on rebuilding the new Plaza ensued quickly by architect Al Hauetter, hired by new owner Warren L. Webber. The competition in town was Newk’s Theater who had been the only theater in Burlington for quite some time. The first week of showings were specially selected by Mr. Webber including, “Shut My Big Mouth” as the movie played on opening night. Friday and Saturday showings were “Under Fiesta Stars,” and “You’ll Never Get Rich.” Sunday and Monday featured the film “Louisiana Purchase,” and Wednesday and Thursday were “Shepherd of the Hills.”
The Plaza was rebuilt to withstand fire and flood featuring steel doors, flooring, and a roof that was covered in rubber material. It was reinforced with concrete from the basement up to ensure that in the event of a fire or another natural disaster the floors would not collapse in on themselves. Equipped with 519 seats the theater also installed three electric pumps in the basement to prevent flooding. The exterior of the building consists of ceramic tiles in cream, green, yellow, rust, as well as bricks. The Moderne-style appearance was unique for its time. Inside includes a projection booth, restrooms, office, and a cry room. A cry room was a soundproof room where mothers and children could attend and watch the shows without disturbing others, something that was fairly new in the 1940s.
October 11, 1958, closed after its show that Saturday night. The rise in popularity of television amongst other attractions were blamed for the decline in movie-goers in recent years. Rumors quickly circled that the theater would reopen during the construction of the John Redmond dam due to the surge in workers possibly bringing in more business. And on Christmas Day of that year, it did reopen with a plan to run daily shows through January 5, 1959. Then a four-day schedule would be in place while construction started on the dam. In July 1980, the Plaza Theater was purchased from Dickinson Operating Company by A-B Theatres of Iola. Homer and Lydia, former owners, would continue to manage the theater. Nine years later the Plaza Theater would close as a movie theater.
Flint Hills Opry
January 20, 1990, the Plaza Theater reopened as the Flint Hills Opry, a live performance venue. Stan and Chely Wright, co-owners, have found quite a number of talented performers in the area. The Wright’s bought the building a month prior to opening and worked hard to transform the atmosphere into the ideal live showroom. Painting the walls light to make the room appear bigger, reworking the stage, and installing a new sound system. Every Saturday night a show played with $5.50 admission, “We’re not limiting our shows to music. We want to showcase all of the talent in this area,” said Chely Wright. The Flint Hills Opry ran for when it became the Music Box Theater.
Around 2000, the theater continued live performances with the new name the Music Box. Talent from near and far performed at the Music Box theater for the next few years under owner and performer Jill Warren. It lasted for a few short years before going bankrupt, changing owners and names once again in 2003.
In December 2003, David Wooge, purchased the former Plaza Theater for $82,000 and started the Burlington Opry in it. David had previously played in shows when it was the Flint Hills Opry and the Music Box. It ran shows every first and third Saturday until October 2010 when the business became unmanageable due to lack of attendance and prices having to be raised. David sold the theater in 2011 to a gentleman from Canada for $32,500. He started work on restoring and revamping the theater but was found to not have correct permits and the building was removed from his possession. In 2012 a drunk driver was running from police, cutting the corner too quickly and crashing into the unoccupied building causing damage to the left side where the office resides. Plywood was put up to cover the damage, pictured in the gallery below.
Article by AKS Photojournalist Emily Cowan
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“NPGallery Asset Detail.” 9 Feb. 2005, npgallery.nps.gov/AssetDetail/NRIS/05000005.
“Plaza Theatre.” Cinema Treasures, cinematreasures.org/theaters/19871.