In January, longtime performing arts lover Brian Williams of Kansas City gave up a 30-year career practicing law to become development director of the Folly Theater, FollyTheater.org. This conversation took place at the theater.
Your job is all about raising money. Kansas City has a lot of generous, philanthropically minded donors and a lot of arts organizations vying for those dollars. How do you get people to open their pocketbooks for the Folly?
Everyone has different passions, so our job is to identify the people that have a passion for the arts and specifically this wonderful venue. You have breakfasts and lunches and you communicate by letters and emails to provide information and build friendships.
After you identify them, how do you ask for money?
(Laughs.) Asking for money is the end of a relationship-building process. If you can get people interested in revitalizing downtown and supporting the arts and maintaining this historic building they naturally want to support you.
I heard you throw great parties.
My partner and I say our mission is to save the world one cocktail party at a time. We throw a lot of parties, and we love to entertain.
In May we are hosting a backyard picnic at our house in Central Hyde Park for the Folly. We’ve engaged Sons of Brasil to play Brazilian jazz, and we’re going to have fried chicken and hotdogs and hamburgers and hopefully get a couple hundred people to help us celebrate the Folly’s 115th birthday.
Is it true that the Folly was once a burlesque theater of the striptease variety?
Oh, yes. In the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, the Folly was on the national burlesque tour. We had some of the biggest names in burlesque performing on the stage of the Folly, including Gypsy Rose Lee.
I’ve been told that we are the only burlesque house on the National Register of Historic Places.
What is so special about the building?
The Folly has beautiful plasterwork and painting. It has pristine acoustics — it’s amazing that it was built 115 years ago, and they got it so perfect. It is the only remaining music hall of its age in Kansas City. It is a cultural asset to the city.