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The Missouri Theatre, a Columbia tradition

The Missouri Theatre has greatly expanded the type and style of shows and events put on in its humble stomping grounds since it opened in 1928 and has added even more variety after being purchased by the University of Missouri last summer.

The theater was previously owned by the Missouri Symphony Society, which bought the venue in 1988 to serve as a home venue for the symphony, according to the Missouri Symphony Society website.

The historical theater underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation in 2007 and 2008, thanks to the fundraising efforts of the Symphony Society.

“It was a large campaign,” says Missouri Symphony Society staff member Courtney Buska. “We refurbished and recreated lots of the historical parts of the theater.”

Marge Berchek, a member of the Symphony Society’s history committee, says some of the renovations included replacing decorative plaster pieces, replacing the theater seats, restoring the chandelier, replacing drapes, adding new bathrooms, installing a new sound system, new heating and cooling, replacing out-of-date technology, duplicating and installing the banisters and an interior expansion of the lobby area. An elevator was also installed to provide access to patrons with disabilities.

“The pipe organ is a whole other story,” Berchek says. “The short version is that after years of effort, there is an organ that is appropriate to the theater. The original organ no longer exists. The organ that is now installed is almost identical to the original. It came from the Oxnard Theater in Oxnard, California. It was a generous gift from Julia and Glen Spellman.”

Changing hands

The Missouri Theatre was officially purchased by MU in the summer of 2014, according to Nathan Anderson, general manager of MU Event Production Services, and the MU School of Music has been using the theater for several of its events for the past couple of years.

The Symphony Society decided to sell the theater after falling on hard times during the recession. It had raised $8.6 million for the renovations in 2008, but the restoration ended up costing $11 million. Struggling financially, the society made the decision to sell the theater to MU.

“It was easier to not have to worry about managing the theater,” Buska says. “We could focus more on the educational aspect and our performances.”

MU originally signed a leasing agreement back in 2011, which allowed the university to take over theater operations for three years before the purchase was finalized in 2014.

The theater is now the main venue for the University Concert Series, with upcoming shows including Potted Potter: The Unauthorized Harry Experience, The Chancellor’s Concert and the “Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. The Missouri Symphony Society continues to use the theater for office spaces and performances, and the Missouri Student Association uses the venue for films and speakers.

“It was an opportunity to have another venue besides just having Jesse Auditorium,” Anderson says. “We were missing a lot of opportunity for different events before.”

Preserving the past

Berchek says plans to build a theater and hotel were made in 1927. Originally, the building was supposed to have five stories of apartments above the street level shops and entrance to the theater.

The Missouri Theatre was built back in 1928 and is central Missouri’s only remaining pre-Depression-era movie palace and vaudeville stage, according to MU’s website.

“The Columbia Missourian announced on Jan. 1, 1929, that sound pictures would be shown three days each week,” Berchek says. “There would still be vaudeville acts. By the end of April 1929, the theater was going to present only talking movies and no vaudeville.”

The theater is actually modeled after the Paris Opera House. Although much of the theater has changed over the years, some of the original designs remain, including the plaster reliefs, the chandelier, stained-glass art panels and the Belgian marble wainscoting, according to MU’s website.

“In February 1966, a Columbia Missourian article said that the renovation of the Missouri Theater was completed last fall,” Berchek says. “The work included application of hand-printed pattern on the walls. The article said that the painters were from Germany. Other improvements included new terrazzo in the lobby, patio-style furniture and carpeting all the way to the outside doors in the lobby.”

Looking forward

Nathan Anderson says they’ve tried not changed a lot when it comes to the structure of the theater in an effort to preserve some of its history. MU has made small to moderate repairs to the theater, he says, and replaced some of the equipment that was previously used. Most recently, the university installed a new high-definition DCP-compliant projector system that Anderson says “brings the theater up to speed with some of the like-sized and bigger houses in the country.”

“It is capable of screening films in full HD as well as provide an overall brighter picture on the screen,” Anderson says. “In addition, when applicable, we will be able to download full-length films to the projector in order to allow them to stream seamlessly to the screen.”

The Missouri Theatre was one of the venues for documentaries for this year’s True/False Film Festival. Anderson says the theater showed at least a dozen different films and was close to or at capacity for each one.

“The new projector will have a big impact on the theater’s capabilities going forward,” Anderson says.

The university, with the help of the MU School of Music, also recently purchased and installed an acoustical shell in the ceiling above the stage. It allows for world-class sound, especially during School of Music and Missouri Symphony Society events.

For now, Anderson says MU is “evaluating what they have in the building and consciously working on a long-term plan” since it was purchased last summer.

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