An early photo postcard shows the Landers Theatre, which was built in 1909. (Courtesy of the Springfield-Greene County Library)
When the Landers Theatre premiered as Springfield’s newest venue in 1909, a tragedy brought its stage to life. It wasn’t a production, however, that served as a catalyst for the theater’s start: It was a fiery blaze that burned the nearby Baldwin Theater to the ground.
“While the crumbling walls and charred columns of the old theater still were smoldering under the heat of fierce conflagration, John Landers, D.J. Landers, his son, R.N. Stewart, F.E. McJimsey and George Olendorf became interested in the project of a new theater on Walnut street and directly south of the old structure which was located on St. Louis Street,” reported the Springfield Republican in September 1909.
That interest tuned into action. Just 10 days after the Baldwin’s demise, plans for Landers’ namesake theater — to be a first-class establishment and ready for the next season — were announced. While it wasn’t said so in words, the plans also carried the promise that Springfield history would be made.
Nearly 110 years later, it’s evident that those efforts came to fruition.
“Everywhere you look, there’s a story,” says Beth Domann, executive director of Springfield Little Theatre at the Landers. “Every seat, there’s a story.”
The man behind the theater
John Landers wasn’t a local boy. He was born and reared in Quebec, Canada, where he lived before emigrating to Wisconsin and cultivating a prosperous career as a lumberman — something he didn’t give up after moving to Springfield.
According to the Republican, even after moving to Springfield around 1903, Landers was “interested” in the largest pine timber holdings in the United States, as well as some of the greatest saw mill properties in the country.
Despite his business interests, Landers became a quick supporter of the place he would live the rest of his life.
“During his six years residence in Springfield, Mr. Landers has conducted the business of the Landers Lumber company, has been an active partner in the Landers and Davis Manufacturing company, founder of the Bank of Commerce and a promoter of various building and mercantile enterprises on Walnut street where he has large holdings of real estate,” reported the Republican in 1909.
But that’s not all: At one time, he also owned both the Colonial and Sansone hotels. In 1914, he and his son built the Landers Building on Springfield’s Park Central Square, which in 2016 houses state offices.
“The record of John Landers is one of continual service: of struggling upward until he attained a commanding position in the lumber industry, amassed a fortune, adopted Springfield as his home town and then proceeded to spend his money and energy in the upbuilding of this community,” recorded the Springfield Leader in June 1926. “It can be truthfully said that some of the largest and best buildings in Springfield are due to Mr. Landers’ energy and capital. He was a shrewd business man and absolutely honest. He also was very generous.”
Introducing the theater
Even by current standards, the Landers’ construction was impressively quick. Some reports suggest that the theater had been in the works prior to the fire — but it wasn’t announced until after the Baldwin blaze.
“The new theater is to be The Landers in honor of the principal stockholder, John Landers,” reported the Republican in an article announcing the theater. “Mr. Landers graciously suggested that his associates give the theater some other name and modestly though earnestly declined to urge his claims for preferment. It was the unanimous opinion of his associates, however, that the new theater should bear his name.”
After plans were revealed in January 1909, work scurried along to its opening-night finish line. Even an announcement eight days later of plans to rebuild the Baldwin (which never materialized) didn’t deter the work.
The affair — a true “metropolitan-style” launch — was such a big deal that efforts were made to bring the nearby street up to standard. “It is proposed to work forces day and night in order to complete the paving by that time,” recorded the Republican on Aug. 22, 1909.
On Sept. 18, 1909, the night was there. The next day, newspaper headlines preserved the evening for the history books. “Fashionable audience marvels at beauty of magnificent temple of amusement erected for Springfield by well known capitalist,” proclaimed the Leader.
The Republican similarly described the scene. “Under the tempered glow and radiance of two thousand electric lights which shed their beams, rivaling the brilliance of a mid-day sun in ocean mist, or the witching haze of a dreamy Indian Ozark summer, the devoters of fashion and pleasure and of material progress, met and mingled last night, at the opening of the new Landers theater, a commodious and beautiful temple of amusement of which brought a flush of admiration and of pride to the cheek and a gleam of pleasure to the eye of those who greeted ‘The Golden Girl’ and witnessed the initial offering of the playhouse which came to Springfield as a heritage of fire.”
To some, the descriptions might seem a bit over the top. But before photos spoke a thousand words, reporters wrote in great detail to help readers visualize scenes.
“The many theater parties added greatly to the brilliancy and spender of the occasion,” printed the Republican. “Silks of the richest shades and laces of the rarest handmade patterns, characterized the gowns worn by society maids and matrons whose beauty surpass anything seen in the city for many months. Every head was a model of the most exquisite hair dressing each coiffure boasting an ornament of jewels.”
Inches of newspaper space were dedicated to describing the patrons, such as Mrs. Claude McElhaney, who “was most attractive in a picturesque white satin princess, with touches of gold lace, with which she wore a handsome chamois colored broad cloth opera coat and a gold and pearl bandeau in her hair.” Famous Springfield names — such as Heer and McDaniel — were listed among the attendees.
The story also described the theater’s various elements, including its lobby, auditorium, stage, lighting, smoking rooms, dressing rooms, check rooms and other things — one of which was safety.
After all, fire was a very real concern. The Baldwin wasn’t the only Springfield theater destroyed by flames: In 1895, Commercial Street’s Grand Theater also burned. To ease concerns, the Republican outlined measures included to protect the theater and its patrons:
“In the construction and equipment of the new playhouse, the safety of patrons has not been sacrificed in the interest of economy nor of beauty. Seven sets of double exit doors lead from the orchestra circle and a corresponding provision has been made for the departure of patrons in case of panic or fire. It is said that with the theater crowded to its capacity it might be emptied in a safe and orderly way in two or three minutes.
Every possible precaution has been taken, however, to guard against the possibility of fire. All electric wires are guarded by the most improved insulation. The house is equipped with water pipes and hose within the theater and upon the stage, the best that could be secured in the way of asbestos curtains have been placed for the protection of auditors and added to this is an automatic opening which works mechanically above the stage and which is designed to carry flame say from the audience while being placed in control in case of fire starting on the stage.”
Living its story
A 1924 view of Walnut Street, which shows the Landers on the right. (Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Missouri State University Libraries)
In its early years, the Landers wasn’t a movie house. At that point, films weren’t popular: When they were initially shown in Springfield in 1906, the first little-known operators soon went out of business.
“These pioneer motion picture operators are now unknown,” recorded the Leader in July 1927. “Nobody remembers even their names. They set up their little hand-operated projecting machine in a vacant storeroom next door to the old Baldwin theater, on St. Louis street, where the McDaniel Building now stands. Their pictures were only one and two reels in length, usual wild western thrillers as the feature picture in two reels, with a one-reel slapstick, pie-throwing comedy as an added attraction.”
Instead, vaudeville reigned supreme. That’s why, when the Landers opened, it was on the Orpheum Circuit — or, in today’s terms, a stop for vaudeville performers on their way around the country.
“You could see singers, and musicians and actors and dancers and all sorts of different types of acts. It wouldn’t just be one person doing something, it would be a bunch of different kinds of acts,” explains Domann. “And they would go from one Orpheum theater to the other, just like on a tour.”
A Springfield streetcar, circa 1925, carried advertisements for upcoming productions at the Landers. (Courtesy of the History Museum on the Square)
Famous names, including George Cohan, Lon Chaney, John Philip Sousa and Lillian Russell, came to the theater in those days. Shows could be extensive, like the time when “Ben Hur” was performed and “the stage was braced and enlarged in the rear somehow until the horses and the chariot were on stage,” recalled Helen E. Johnson, an early employee of the theater, in a 1970 article in the Springfield Leader & Press.
Besides vaudeville, another early popular pastime were “tab shows,” or “tabloids,” which could be musical, minstrel or dramatic presentations. Such shows were performed at the Landers five times on Saturdays and Sundays, each weeknight and midday on Wednesdays. “Groups of actors traveled around, and the tab shows would stay in a place as long as they could make money,” the article noted. “When the profits started dwindling, the actors moved on.”
As times changed, vaudeville went out and movies came in. In 1915, the silent film “Birth of a Nation” was shown and helped grow the theater’s popularity as a movie house. (Of course, part of that fascination might have been because one of the movie’s stars — Lillian Gish — lived in Springfield during her early years.)
The Landers changed with time in other ways, too. Despite the theater’s efforts to prevent fire, a blaze broke out in the boiler room on Dec. 18, 1920. It ultimately devastated most of the theater, but was held from the auditorium because of an asbestos curtain. According to the Leader, the fire was first noticed by an employee of the Hankins Dental and Surgical company who gave the alarm.
“Apparatus from all of the four fire stations in the city answered the alarm, and in a few moments six steams were playing on the fire. For a time it appeared that the fire might sweep the entire block.
The fire was gaining headway rapidly when the apparatus arrived, having started in the boiler room, supposedly from a boiler explosion. The fire immediately spread to the coal bins in the furnace rooms under the stage and in a few minutes the entire basement under the stage was aflame.”
Despite the severity of the scene, firefighters were able to control the blaze. And while next-day newspaper accounts listed the estimated damaged at more than $60,000, spirits weren’t dampened.
“Landers to be rebuilt on much greater scale,” proclaimed the Leader. “Architects will go over the building early this week to decide whether any portion of the building can be used or whether an entirely new structure will have to be erected. Mr. Landers could place no estimate on the cost of the new building, but stated that no expense would be saved in erecting a theater second to none in this section of the country.”
Work progressed speedily: By early 1921, plans were underway for reconstruction of the theater, and it reopened to the public on May 29, 1921. According to “Springfield of the Ozarks,” the theater only showed movies after its grand reopening.
As time passed, the Landers continued to be a popular destination for movie goers. It became the 35th theater in the country to add newfangled talking-movie technology in the late 1920s (followed closely by the nearby Gillioz and Electric theaters).
The passage of time
Despite its glittery history, not all of its story sparkles in a positive light. When the theater was built, the Republican noted that “entrances from the outside and not connected with the entrances to the main auditorium lead to the gallery, making it impossible for gallery attendants to mingle with patrons of the orchestra and balcony bringing its attendant disorder and confusion.”
Although the article didn’t explicitly state so, it’s likely that the secluded staircase was intended for African American patrons.
After all, the Landers wasn’t desegregated until sometime between the late 1950s and 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed. In 2010, the staircase, which had been bricked over, was discovered — and recalled by African American Homer Boyd. A Springfield native, Boyd’s memories of the segregated stairway went back to the 1930s.
“Ever since I was a kid, it’s been there,” said Boyd in the article. “You could go any night of the week, but you still had to go up the (back) stairs.”
Boyd also recalled that segregation at the theater got stronger with the passage of time. “When I came back from the army (in 1955), I was prepared to go upstairs,” said Boyd. “Then they told me, ‘you can’t go, period.'”
It was that encounter that kept Boyd from the theater for virtually the rest of his life.
“I told them to close (the theater) and don’t ever open it for me again,” said Boyd.
Even though Boyd wasn’t allowed at the Landers, he was singing for national audiences down the street at the Jewell Theater. He was a member of the Philharmonics, a vocal group from Springfield’s Gibson Chapel Presbyterian Church, that regularly performed on the nationally viewed Ozark Jubilee.
As fate would have it, the Landers would soon hit the airwaves in the same way.
Five Star Jubilee stars stand outside the Landers Theatre in 1961. From left to right: Tex Ritter, Jimmy Wakely, Snooky Lanson, Carl Smith, Rex Allen. (Courtesy of the History Museum on the Square)
In 1959, the Earl Barton Music Company — comprised of local well-knows including John Mahaffey, Si Siman, Lester E. Cox and Ralph Foster — purchased the theater. The sale brought the short-lived Five Star Jubilee, a spinoff of the Jubilee, to the theater in 1960.
According to longtime News-Leader columnist Hank Billings (and information gleaned from veteran broadcaster Fred Rains), the show’s 29 episodes had to be done after midnight to avoid interference from KTTS, which had studios nearby.
Springfield Little Theatre
The Landers Theatre is shown in 1968, two years before it was purchased by the Springfield Little Theatre. (Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Missouri State University Libraries)
Ten years after its national TV debut, the Landers began a new scene in its story: It was purchased by the Springfield Little Theatre (SLT). “We bought it for $100,00 which is exactly what it cost to build it in 1909,” says Domann.
The acquisition marked the convergence of much local history. Besides the Landers’ legacy, there’s also the SLT’s story, which began in 1934. Even at the time of the theater acquisition, SLT was the longest-running community theater in Missouri — and has produced alumni including Kim Crosby, Tess Harper and Kathleen Turner.
“This is a nationally recognized community theater — in Springfield, Missouri,” says Domann, who has been involved in various capacities since 1978. “You know, I’m pretty damn proud of it. We’ve done a really good job. And this is our community theater. These are your friends, these are your people who are from here that are out there doing that. And Springfield, and around here, really is a freaky vortex of talent.”
As that group has grown, it has spent much time and resources in restoring the theater — even as downtown Springfield seemed to evaporate around it.
“We were there when nobody else was,” says Domann. “Everybody else left. Downtown was a couple of icky things around and that was pretty much it. But we were there. We stayed.
“We’ve really been the cornerstone to all of that for quite some time.”
Even though SLT has continuously held ownership of the theater since 1970, it hasn’t been the Landers’ only inhabitant. Fans of the paranormal are quick to mention its ghostly residents, sightings which Domann confirms. In fact, the spirits are so accepted that they’re even listed on SLT’s website.
One of the ghosts is said to be a former janitor, who was killed in the theater’s 1920 blaze (although newspaper accounts don’t mention a fatality in the fire). A man, knifed and killed in the gallery balcony, has been spotted; another is baby tragically dropped from the balcony.
In the past, upper floors of the theater housed apartments used by touring actors and actresses (and, in later years, those connected with SLT). From that vantage point, people have seen “a tall apparition of a long-haired, blonde man, dressed in Elizabethan clothes peering at them from behind a curtain on the fourth floor in a room which is now a costume room,” says the SLT’s website.
Years ago, Domann herself lived in one of those apartments and recalls the unexplainable noises and bumps. “I had to walk that theater in the middle of the night with a baseball bat many times,” she says.
The theater’s auditorium is shown in 1970, just weeks after the Springfield Little Theatre took possession of the facility. (Courtesy of the Springfield Leader & Press)
When the SLT purchased the theater, $500,000 was soon invested in restoration efforts. Since then, other phases of rehabilitation have taken place — and recognition has come, too.
The Landers was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. In 1996, it was featured in Southern Living magazine as “Springfield’s Crown Jewel.” Five years later, the SLT netted the McReynolds Award for Historic Preservation, which recognized the group’s work to restore the building’s original style and elegance.
Despite those restoration efforts, Domann laughs when asked if there are any other projects in the works. “It is constant,” she says. “It’s a beautiful, historic building, but it’s over 100 years old, and it takes a lot of maintenance.”
And that maintenance takes a lot of money. “Just in keeping things going, we’ll do a little over $100,000 a year,” says Domann, noting that save around $16,000 in grant money, the rest of the work is funded directly from the theater’s productions and donations. Considering that must-do projects come in at many thousand dollars each, the need for funding is constant.
“As our board will tell you, the Landers Theatre is our biggest asset and our biggest liability,” says Domann. “But you know what? I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You can’t help but walk in and know that you’re a part of something. I mean, you feel it. It’s trippy.”
Want to learn more?
The next production is “9 to 5,” which runs from Jan. 20 to Feb. 5.
“Announcement made of plans to rebuild Baldwin Theater,” Springfield Leader, Jan. 24, 1909
“Birthday of local theater highlights dramatic history,” Hank Billings, Springfield News-Leader, May 26, 2008
“Blast causes $50,000 fire in Landers Theatre,” Springfield Leader, Dec. 18, 1920
“Discovered staircase reminder of segregation era,” Kaitlyn McConnell, Springfield News-Leader, Jan. 18, 2010
“Early day operator of of Landers recalls the road shows from New York, ‘Tabs’, Vaudeville and First Talkies,” Nancy De Ruyter, Springfield Leader & Press, July 1, 1970
“First motion pictures brought to Springfield in 1906 by showmen,” Springfield Leader, July 24, 1927
“Former Springfield girl seen in ‘Birth of Nation,'” Springfield Republican, May 12, 1916
“George Olendorf leases theater for ten years,” Springfield Leader, Jan. 18, 1909
“Golden Girls formerly opens Landers Theater,” Springfield Leader, Sept. 19, 1909
“Homer Boyd — ‘one in a million’ singer and local black history expert — dies unexpectedly,” Claudette Riley, Springfield News-Leader, June 21, 2016
“John Landers to be buried here Sunday,” Springfield Leader, June 19, 1926
“Landers plans to build new theater on Walnut Street,” Springfield Republican, Jan. 16, 1909
“Landers shines nationally,” Sara J. Bennett, Springfield News-Leader, Nov. 7, 1996
“Landers to be rebuilt on much grander scale,” Springfield Leader, Dec. 19, 1920
“Little Theatre finally at home in old Landers,” Mary Ritchie, Springfield! Magazine, March 1980
“LT buys Landers,” Springfield Leader & Press, June 22, 1970
“Preparing plans for new Landers Theater,” Springfield Daily Leader, Feb. 6, 1921
“Restoration of Landers wins honors,” Springfield News-Leader, Feb. 23, 2001
“Springfield of the Ozarks: An Illustrated History,” Harris and Phyllis Dark, 1981
“Springfield’s magnificent new theater to pen with the ‘Golden Girl,’ Saturday, Sept. 18,” Springfield Republican, Aug. 22, 1909
“Scenes of splendor mark formal opening of pretty new theater,” Springfield Republican, Sept. 19, 1909
“Theater to add talking movies,” Springfield Daily News, June 22, 1928
“TV producers buy Landers,” Springfield Leader & Press, July 28, 1959