Tempest Storm was among the burlesque performers long ago at the Folly Theater. File photo
Tempest Storm was among the burlesque performers long ago at the Folly Theater. File photo

Living

Remembering Folly Theater’s tasseled burlesque past

By Darryl Levings

Special to The Star

August 19, 2017 08:00 AM

No doubt those thousands of fresh-faced and blue-jacketed farm lads who once wandered our streets every fall were extremely interested in historic architecture.

Why else would so many buy a ticket to enter the Folly Theater?

Their wide-eyed gazes, of course, were upon the wiggling superstructures of Sally Rand or Gypsy Rose Lee or Tempest Storm or whoever was on the bill during those weeks of the annual Future Farmers of America convention.

In 1900, when what was then known as the Standard Theatre first showed its fresh Neo-Palladian face at 12th and Central, it was a bit classier. Its first production, fittingly, was an eyebrow-raising burlesque called “The Jolly Grass Widows.” One comedy was billed as “built for laughing purposes only (which) has gained for itself the reputation of containing 180 laughs in 180 minutes.”

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The Folly Theater began as the Standard Theatre in 1900.
File photo

When the Coates Opera House went up in flames a couple of blocks away, its higher-brow productions shifted to the now-named Century. But fire followed in 1921, requiring a new neo-classic interior and yet a new name, the Missouri Shubert.

Offered were Shakespeare and Somerset Maugham, as well as vaudeville stars like the Marx Brothers, Al Jolson and Fanny Brice. Jack Dempsey and Jack Johnson swung leather there. (Johnson and his white wife stayed in the manager’s apartment, unable to book a downtown room.)

Next door was the Hotel Edward, later named the Missouri. Its basement grill/cabaret was opened by Pendergast crony Joe Donegan, the “Angel of Twelfth Street,” so poor showgirls could get a sandwich and beer after performances. Disreputables from prizefighters to newspaper men kept it rocking long past city curfew. It was torn down in 1965.

One tale has Ernie Burnett, the cabaret’s musical director, finishing “My Melancholy Baby” there. (Great story there: Burnett, later wounded in the head in WWI, lost his memory and dog tags. In a hospital bed, he heard the notes played, leaped up and said, “That’s my song!” and recovered his memory.) Frank James also is said to have worked backstage.

In 1941, the corner theater, renamed the Folly, became synonymous with the seedy red-light district. Eventually, the tassel swingers and dirty-joke comedians made way for XXX films.

The late Joan Dillon and William Deramus III stepped up in 1974 to keep the abandoned hulk from becoming a parking lot. Pigeon droppings (the legend is 19 tons) and porn mags were shoveled out with fallen plaster.

Placed on the National Register under the wing of the Performing Arts Foundation, the theater reopened in 1981, filling a proud niche with music from blues to chamber ensembles amid our city’s arts culture.