Restoring a Treasure at the Colonial Fox Theatre
“You can tell the world that Pittsburg has one of the finest theatres in [the] Southwest.”
That was the Pittsburg Daily Headlight’s introduction to the newly opened Colonial Theatre in March of 1920. By all accounts, the new theatre made a dramatic impact on the local entertainment scene; two thousand people attended its opening premiere, and its regular rotation of motion pictures and vaudeville performances (both accompanied by a house orchestra) was the center of entertainment in Crawford County for decades.
The idea for a new downtown theatre was put into action by the Pittsburg Amusement Company in 1918. The company, run by local businessmen Willard Daly, Robert “Bert” Klock and his son Glenn Klock, and Alexander Besse had recently bought two existing downtown theatres, the Mystic and Klock Theatres. Both were smaller in size, leading to the decision to build a new, modern theatre to better accommodate audiences.
Design and construction of the theatre was overseen by premiere local contractor Asa Messenger, who had also worked on the downtown National Bank and Russ Hall on campus of Pittsburg State University. Messenger designed the theatre to mirror Kansas City’s Isis Theatre, featuring a mixture of Italian Renaissance and American Beaux-Art design. Construction of the theatre cost $80,000, in addition to Messenger’s weekly payroll of $500 to $1,800.
From its opening in 1920 to 1927, the price of admission stood at .25 cents for adults and .10 cents for children for matinees, and .35 cents for adults and .10 cents for children for evening shows.
The first major change to the Colonial Theatre came in 1926, when a remodel of the front entryway, main theatre, and stage brought the theatre back up to modern standards. In 1944, the Fox Theatre Company bought the building’s lease, and renamed it Fox Theatre (later known as the Colonial Fox).
From 1944 to the 1980s, the Fox Theatre continued operating as the entertainment scene slowly evolved. Silent films and vaudeville performances were replaced by “talkies” of the late 20s and early 30s. Propaganda films littered theatres during World War II, and the end of Hollywood’s self-censoring production code in 1968 led to increasingly explicit and violent films.
In the early 80s, the owners of the Colonial Fox made the decision to move their operation from the aging downtown building to the considerably newer Meadowbrook Mall, and built an 8-screen theatre still in operation.
Uninhabited, the Colonial Fox Theatre fell into disrepair quickly, and faced likely demolition in 2007 when the building was put up for auction. Thankfully, the historic theatre was saved by two organizations – Colonial Fox Theatre, Inc., founded by Alexander Besse’s granddaughter Marsha, and the current Colonial Fox Theatre Foundation – who bought the building and began to plan restoration efforts.
To date, the Colonial Fox Theatre has been accepted to the Kansas State Register of Historical Places and the National Register of Historical Places. The foundation has received recent donations to assist in restorations, including $500,000 matching fund from the Save America’s Treasures Grant.
With the foundation’s continued efforts, the future of the Colonial Fox Theatre looks bright. The eventual plan is to reopen the Colonial Fox as a 620-seat theatre offering screenings of independent, foreign, and classic films and performances by regional acts. In the meantime, the Colonial Fox holds Friday Flix from May to October. At these weekly events, community members can watch classic and modern movies on a painted mural outside the building.