Archive for Thursday, September 11, 1997

GEM THEATER IS USING THE ARTS TO INSPIRE A ONCE-LIVELY COMMUNITY

September 11, 1997

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— A deteriorating movie house re-establishes itself as the beacon of Kansas City's jazz district.

Pat Jordan stands in front of the Gem Theater in the 18th & Vine district, her eyes sparkling as she watches the 'round-the-clock crew putting the finishing touches on the box office.

Jordan, president of Gem Theater Management Co., the managing and booking agent for the theater, is seeing her 10-year dream come true with each hole that's drilled and each nail that's hammered.

"It's exhilarating and it's unbelievable," she said. "I think it's fabulous."

Jordan's dream wasn't to simply restore the Gem Theater, a center for African-American culture during the jazz district's heyday in the 1920s.

She saw something grander -- a performing arts center that would showcase top talent, offer its meeting rooms for corporate seminars and retreats and spark fascination about the arts among children.

The Gem Theater lights came back on the last weekend in August, with a $100-a-plate benefit featuring singer-actress Nancy Wilson. The house was packed.

"Interest has been high," Jordan said.

Even the syndicated TV show "Entertainment Tonight" has called.

Coming full circle

Jordan knows the arts can be a catalyst for redevelopment.

To understand that is to understand the history of 18th & Vine -- where it's been and where it's going.

"18th & Vine (flourished) because of segregation," she said.

And so did the Gem Theater, with its brilliant orange, yellow and red sign that lit up like a beacon for those in search of camaraderie, musical inspiration and perhaps an escape from the times.

Originally named the Star Theatre, the structure was built in 1912 by the Shriner and Powellson Amusement Company and was one of several theaters in Kansas City that served African-American audiences. It was renamed the Gem Theater in 1913.

Ten years later, the theater underwent extensive renovation to add a balcony, second floor and heating and cooling systems. In the 1940s, the marquee and outdoor lights were added, making it one of the country's most ornate movie houses.

The Gem, which stood near the homes of jazz greats Count Basie and Benny Moten, showed second-run Hollywood features, such as Hopalong Cassidy and Prince Kasaba. In the 1950s, a live crocodile was brought in to promote a jungle movie.

The Gem closed in 1960.

"After integration," Jordan said, "people moved south, and we saw deterioration of the area. Businesses and people moved to the suburbs. They wanted newer, bigger and better. There was no reinvestment in the community, so the deterioration was understandable."

The Gem was used by a number of churches until 1990, when the city of Kansas City, Mo., purchased it. The theater then became part of a larger effort to revitalize the 18th & Vine district, which included building a complex to house the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the nation's first jazz museum.

"We will make a difference in the way the community looks and the way other communities look to us," Jordan said.

Courting the majority

The newly renovated Gem retains its original facade and neon-light exterior sign, but the inside has been transformed. The $4.2 million project enlarged the lobby and stage areas and realigned the auditorium.

The 74-foot by 38-foot auditorium can seat 500.

"... We have a professional sound system, a computerized light board, a full-size video screen and feeds for TV and cable," said Joette Pelster, the Gem's director of operations.

Pelster said the Gem will not offer its own music, dance or theater series. Instead, they will be partnering with other agencies and offering outreach programs to children.

For example, in October, the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey is planning a week-long educational program for middle and high school students.

"If you're talking about theater and dance and music, 18th & Vine will do great things for Kansas City," Tyrone Aiken, the dance group's artistic director, recently told a Kansas City Business Journal writer. "It will give people an opportunity to connect to the richness of African-American culture in Kansas City -- not just people in Kansas City but people from places like Johnson County and Lawrence."

The first Lawrence venue to join forces with the Gem Theater is the Lied Center.

Jackie Davis, executive director of the Lied Center, said the Lawrence performance hall, the Gem and the State Ballet of Missouri have applied for a grant through the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Arts Partners Program.

The grant will provide money to bring choreographer Donald Byrd's "Jazz Train" to the Lied Center and to help cultivate audiences among the three agencies so that more Lawrence people will attend events at the Gem and State Ballet and more Kansas City folks will come to programs at the Lied Center.

"It will work well because the strengths we have will mesh with the weaknesses of another (and vice versa)," Pelster said. "The Gem is important for the minority but it's important to have the majority here, too."

Word on the grant application's approval is expected in December. Even now, the collaboration among the agencies has been fruitful.

"It's a matter of being good neighbors," Davis said. "It's a matter of having colleagues with similar goals and expertise. We're already colleagues and have learned from each other."

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