Local

Risque business: KC library collects relics from Folly Theater’s burlesque past

The Folly Theater has donated posters, autographed photos, contracts and other items from its 114-year history to the Kansas City Public Library. Last week, archivist Kate Hill inspected a poster of striptease artist Tempest Storm, who signed the artifact when she came to Kansas City in 1981 for the Folly’s reopening celebration.
The Folly Theater has donated posters, autographed photos, contracts and other items from its 114-year history to the Kansas City Public Library. Last week, archivist Kate Hill inspected a poster of striptease artist Tempest Storm, who signed the artifact when she came to Kansas City in 1981 for the Folly’s reopening celebration. The Kansas City Star

Miss Stormy Night was paid $175 a week to be exotic on stage. She must have been a bit more talented than Suni Daye, who got $165.

Cherry Smash got only $125, but she was just a stripper.

Oh, the things you can learn at the public library.

Those performer contracts from 1959 were among thousands of business records, glamour publicity photos, dirty movie posters and other ephemera that languished in the boiler room in the basement of Kansas City’s Folly Theater.

Now they are in the safe possession of the Kansas City Public Library, which intends to catalog the material and make it available to researchers and the general public. An exhibit is planned.

Scholars already are salivating.

“We’ve had a lot of interest in the collection since we received it,” said Lucinda Adams, senior archivist at the library’s Missouri Valley Special Collections.

These days, we think of the Folly as a venue for quality entertainment, but it opened in 1900 as a vaudeville house and for much of its history, it was a showcase for burlesque. In fact, burlesque theater owners meeting in Boston in 1959 voted the Folly the best.

Several big shots took the Folly’s stage, including singer Al Jolson, actress Sarah Bernhardt and such comedians as the Marx Brothers and Fanny Brice.

But there also were striptease artists such as Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand and Tempest Storm. Storm, now 86, recently was the guest of honor at the fourth annual Kansas City Burlesque Festival.

Forward-thinking people at the Folly held on to much of the material relating to those performers. The library staff packed about 150 boxes of stuff and carted them the few blocks that separate the theater at 300 W. 12th St. and the Central Library at 14 W. 10th St.

The Folly’s management and board knew what they had was important.

“It was two years that we considered whether we wanted to let go of our archives,” said Gale Tallis, the theater’s executive director. “Our realization was that we had no way to take care of those archives. We wanted them close by and we felt they (the library) had a team to take care of them the way we would like and to have them available to the general public once they had been cataloged.”

It will take a full-time archivist about two years to do that. The library is seeking grants to pay for it.

A preliminary inventory has already uncovered treasure. There are about 80 player piano rolls, including one dating to World War I called “The Tickle Toe.”

Thousands of glossy publicity shots reveal the range of entertainers who played the Folly, including comedians, puppeteers, jugglers, clowns and even a couple whose act involved roller skates.

The entertainment gradually became seedier. The Folly was raided in 1963 for allowing total nudity on stage. Someone tried to blow the place up in 1969. In 1970, a court ruled that the Folly was showing obscene films.

The collection includes campy posters for dirty movies such as “Jungle Girls,” which was presented “in sin-o-rama.”

Most of the material is from 1940 to 2000, including records relating to the theater’s 1981 restoration. That project is considered one of the first successful efforts to preserve Kansas City’s downtown and bring it back to life after decades of decline.

Tempest Storm came back for the reopening and signed a fading poster of herself, “Best to the Folly, with love.” The poster now has a storage drawer of its own.

The library in recent years has acquired large collections from the Kansas City Stockyards and the Kansas City Athenaeum.

The Folly material is a bit of a stretch for the library, acknowledged Eli Paul, the manager of special collections.

“Our intent is to raise the visibility of the Missouri Valley room, and a collection like this definitely does that,” he said.

To reach Matt Campbell, call 816-234-4902 or send email to mcampbell@kcstar.com.

  Comments