The Enchanted Years of the Stage: Kansas City at the Crossroads of American Theater, 1870-1930

By Skidmore, Joey | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), June 2008 | Go to article overview

The Enchanted Years of the Stage: Kansas City at the Crossroads of American Theater, 1870-1930


Skidmore, Joey, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


The Enchanted Years of the Stage: Kansas City at the Crossroads of American Theater, 1870-1930 Felicia Hardison Londré, Columbia: U of Missouri Press, 2007

Felicia Hardison Londre's The Enchanted Years of the Stage not only offers a flashback to a post-Civil War era cow-town trying to transition into a culturally-affluent city through a series of performances of everything from opera to burlesque, but it also shows a richly detailed representation of the exploding national theatre scene as a whole-from a Midwest perspective.

While Londre's detailed research might be overwhelming to the casual reader, the anecdotes are so alluring, and sometimes humorous, that everybody-not just historians and academics-will enjoy being drawn into this strange world of the first golden age of theatre.

During this golden era from 1870-1930, visitors to Kansas City not only featured "superstar" actors such as Sarah Bernhardt, Sir Henry Irving, and Edwin Booth, but a colorful array including everyone from Jesse James to President Grover Cleveland and North Pole explorer Dr. Frederick A. Cook.

While most of the information comes directly from newspaper accounts and the writings of theatre critic Austin Latchaw, some of the stories turned into urban legends, making it tough to differentiate fact from fantasy.

The annual Priests of Pallas festival, featuring a parade of elaborate floats depicting detailed dragons and other fantasy characters, may have inspired traveling salesman L. Frank Baum to write The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and thirteen other Oz books if he visited Kansas City-or perhaps the annual festival merely adapted their floats after the turn of the century when The Wizard of Oz became popular.

This is an example of rumor and fact becoming indistinguishable after so many years. It is interesting to note, though, that the Priests of Pallas festival began in 1887 and continued every year until its "final" festival in 1924. After a lapse of over eighty years, it was revived in 2005 at Kansas City's revamped Union Station.

Even the newspaper reporting of the era was notoriously unreliable. Sir Henry Irving was a perfectionist who still preferred limelight-or calcium light-over modern electrical lighting. While the softer lighting was preferable to his eye, his insistence on this older form of lighting was not without a price: Irving had to travel with an entire railway car full of oxygen tanks to fuel it. …

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