Park Central East has changed over the years — but the Gillioz is still there. Here it’s shown in the late 1920s. (Courtesy of the History Museum on the Square)
M.E. Gillioz was in the business of connecting people.
A bridge builder, the Monett-based contractor linked roads in every county in Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kansas. The majority of those concrete-and-rebar creations, of course, were for cars. But one carried only foot traffic — and instead of places, it linked stories and lives.
That bridge is Springfield’s historic Gillioz Theatre. It’s a landmark with decades of history and a future yet to be.
And it’s a story that officially began 90 years ago today.
In the beginning
The Gillioz is now famously located on Route 66. But when plans for the theater were announced in 1924, the world-famous road didn’t even exist — and Gillioz wasn’t the man behind the project.
“A new motion picture and vaudeville theater, to cost approximately $150,000, will be erected on St. Louis street near the Woodruff building by a corporation which is being organized by Frank E. Headley and a group of other prominent local businessmen,” reported the Springfield Leader on Dec. 7, 1924, which also announced that the theater would be known as the Gayety.
Plans for the Gayety — later known as the Gillioz — were announced on the front page of the Springfield Republican on Dec. 7, 1924.
However, plans changed: Somewhere between December 1924 and August 1925, M.E. Gillioz got involved.
An article, published on Aug. 30, 1925, announced that “the building will be constructed by Mr. Gillioz, prominent contractor of Monett, who is also financing the proposition,” and that work on the theater began earlier that week. It also noted that the theater would be designed along Spanish lines, was to include a $40,000 pipe organ, and would be rushed to completion.
It made sense that Gillioz got involved. According to “The Gillioz ‘Theatre Beautiful’: Remembering Springfield’s Theatre History,” the Monett man wasn’t only a bridge builder. He constructed roads before turning to dams and bridges. Later, he added buildings, his influence present locally through places including Pipkin Junior High (now Middle) School, Springfield’s Lincoln High School (now Lincoln Hall at OTC), the Laclede County Courthouse — and at one time, a Gillioz Theatre located in Monett.
At the time of the announcement, the grand opening of Springfield’s Gillioz was slated for April 1926. However, there were delays: By the time the theater was ready to open, it was late 1926, and its price tag was approximately $300,000 (more than $4 million in 2016, according to an online calculator).
A grand opening was set for October 11, 1926. It was a month to the day before Route 66 officially became reality, which would bring thousands of folks across the theater’s front door — and through a highly elaborate lobby.
“Beautifully tinted walls, exquisite tapestries and elaborate pillars, with a blue and gold color scheme make up the main entrance,” recorded the Springfield Leader on Oct. 10, 1926. “Overlooking the main lobby is the promenade which is also elaborately decorated along the same lines as that of the lobby. The lobby, promenade and foyer will be handsomely appointed in expensively designed furniture, carrying out the general scheme of decorations.”
It’s safe to say that the public was excited. Before the Gillioz’s grand opening, many congratulatory ads from local businesses filled the newspaper — even one from the competing Electric Theatre, noting that “the Gillioz Theatre is a credit to our city.”
However, while much emphasis was put on the theater’s appearance, its management believed that there were other factors in creating a good experience. A story in the Springfield Republican noted that “courtesy (was) to be the main policy at the new Gillioz,” and that a team of ushers and doormen would help visitors’ experience be the best it could possibly be.
“We believe that courtesy is a mark of breeding for either man or institution,” stated Van Garrison, manager of the Service department, in the Springfield Republican. “We endeavor to instill the principles of manhood into our ushers, to educate them for greater things as they step out of the age of theater ushering. Character is the foundation of all service so first of all we endeavor to select young men with good character and then to strengthen this character. We stress tolerance, broadmindedness and human understanding. We teach them efficiency, to eliminate lost motion and make every move count, and we keep them enthusiastic by keeping them contented.”
And that’s not all. Garrison continued: “They have been given military drill, so that they stand properly, walk with snap and ginger, and perform their duties with the proper gracefulness.”
“One of the largest crowds ever seen on Springfield’s streets packed and jammed St. Louis street early last night, which marked the formal opening of the magnificent new Gillioz theatre. The house was opened at 6 o’clock, but long before that time the crowd began to gather, and long lines formed in each direction from the box office, extending more than a block.”
— The Springfield Leader, Oct. 12, 1926 (Courtesy of the History Museum on the Square)
Those ushers, presumably properly attired in their uniforms “corresponding to the general color scheme of the theater,” were at the ready when those doors opened on Oct. 11, 1926.
Hopefully they’d had some lessons in crowd control along with their military drills, because the opening generated “one of the largest crowds ever seen on Springfield’s streets,” reported the Springfield Leader the next day. “In front of the new playhouse was a crowd big enough to fill the theatre three or four times, and so eager was the multitude to witness the premier performance at the Gillioz a police line had to be formed at the entrance.”
In the end, thousands were turned away — some who had waited hours — who wanted a glimpse on the theater’s opening night. Others crowded into the lobby, waiting for the second run of the evening’s lineup to begin at 9 p.m.
And just a few feet away, the folks in the theater were enjoying its modern heating system while watching the film “Take it From Me,” a “Felix the Cat” cartoon, and a special showing of the previous Saturday’s World Series game. There was also dancing, music by the Gillioz orchestra, and selections by Glenn Stanbach, the singing organist.
That night was only the beginning: It launched a legacy that would continue for more than five decades.
As vaudeville fell out of favor, the theater showed many films — and even had a few famous guests. Elvis watched a Glen Ford western while in town for a performance; Ronald Reagan would come to town for a premiere. Another time, Clark Gable sent a telegram to the Gillioz when one of his films premiered.
But far more were the memories thousands of Ozarkers would make there.
Closing the theater
Sweet memories, however, aren’t strong enough to stop the passage of time. Gillioz owned the theater until his death in 1962; later, it was sold to Dickinson Theater Company Inc.
But time soon slowed the theater even further. By the 1970s, businesses were shifting southward, making downtown Springfield was a decreasingly desirable place to be. And the Gillioz began to fade, too.
In 1979, the grand pipe organ was sold; around that time, Dickinson closed the theater. The next year, the last event was held: In a special one-week lease of the theater, and after much work to make the theater usable, the newly formed Springfield Regional Opera performed “La Traviata.” At the time, the Opera debated purchasing the property.
But that didn’t happen. After the performance wrapped, the Gillioz — once dubbed Theatre Beautiful and “one of the most modern and most beautiful playhouses in the middle west” — sat abandoned.
Trying to restore
It wasn’t too long before a few folks tried to save the Gillioz. In November 1983, an article in the Sunday News & Leader announced that the property had been purchased by individuals with dreams of restoration.
A year later — on Nov. 25, 1984 — another article in the Springfield Leader & Press gave a little more information. The group, dubbed Springfield Gillioz Theatre Partners, purchased the property from Dickinson for between $100,00 and $150,000. At the time, they had plans of a $350,000 project to restore its original appearance for use as a movie house and concert hall. And in early 1985, a third story stated that the theater was set to reopen by that summer.
Those plans came to naught.
The work begins
The Gillioz’s stage as it appeared in 1990. (Courtesy of the Springfield Landmarks Preservation Trust)
By the time Nancy Dornan stood in the theater in the late 1980s with Sam Freeman and Laura Derrick, the Gillioz was a far cry from its former glory.
Dead pigeons, along with needles and broken bottles, littered the floor. Chair cushions were piled high, used as beds for homeless occupants; individuals who even burned wood inside giant oil drums to keep warm.
“The saving thing about it is that the building is all concrete and rebar,” says Dornan. “So even though they brought in oil drums and burned wood in them inside the theatre, the theater never burned down.”
Despite that scene — or perhaps because of it — there was only one thought on her mind: “The three of us stood in that godforsaken, nasty, outer lobby, looked at each other and said, ‘If we don’t do it, nobody’s gonna do it.’
Dornan was involved in the project for a number of reasons. The first was personal. “When I was a kid, it was a big deal on Saturdays to go up to see a double feature at the Gillioz,” she recalls. “I’d walk from my grandmother’s house on west Walnut over to watch the double feature.”
That love, along with years spent renovating historic homes (15 on east Walnut Street alone) gave Dornan special perspective for the project. “I’ve been a longtime advocate of downtown Springfield revitalization, and I recognized that all of these things were coming together to make the Gillioz something that I really wanted to get involved in,” she says.
Rolling their sleeves up
The auditorium, pictured both above and right, in 1990. (Courtesy of the Springfield Landmarks Preservation Trust)
The concerned citizens knew they had to acquire the building before they could do much of anything. But even prior to that, they started working towards getting the Gillioz on the National Register of Historic Places. Such a designation would open the opportunity for greater grant money — and would allow investors to receive 20 percent of the cost of restoration in the form of a tax credit, said an article in the Springfield Business Journal in March 1991.
It was placed on the National Register in July 1991. At the time, local businessman Jim Morris owned the auditorium and the lobby; however, he was willing to sell both elements to the group, organized as the Springfield Landmarks Preservation Trust. Aided a loan from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and Springfield-based Community Development Block Grant, the purchase went through in October 1992.
The Gillioz was signed over to the Springfield Landmarks Preservation Trust on Oct. 27, 1992. (Courtesy of the Springfield News-Leader)
That transaction allowed the real work to begin: Plans were drawn, and fundraising commenced. It was trickiest in those early stages, without the momentum of progress, to convince folks that the project would come to fruition. But looking back, Dornan says those donors were particularly crucial to the project. “Without that kind of early-on support, we couldn’t have made it,” she says.
Of course, major contributors were also desperately needed. One donor gave more than half a million dollars, and there were a number of three-figure gifts. “We did anything and everything that we could, both to raise awareness and to raise funds,” says Dornan.
As time passed, things brightened. Fifteen feet of the auditorium were restored in 1994 and unveiled to the public to illustrate the theater’s potential beauty. Later, a new marquee — an exact replica of the original one from 1926 — was relit in October 1996.
The Gillioz’s new marquee was added in 1996, and is identical to the theater’s original one.
In the late ’90s, two events led to major advancements for the Gillioz. A Springfield-based hotel-motel tax netted significant funds for the project, and the purchase of the next-door former Netter’s Department Store considerably expanded its footprint.
“We recognized that that was essential because we then could control our neighbors,” says Dornan. “We’d have a place for a box office. Would have an income stream from the renovation and eventual reuse of those three buildings.
“And that’s when we came up with basically what became a $10 million project. And all of us were just kind of winging it.”
Working through challenges
Over an approximately 15-year period, the Gillioz took shape. Despite the project’s length and expense — things which expanded time and again — the board’s members didn’t give up.
“We all knew it was going to happen, but ‘when’ was another question,” recalls Dornan. “In a sense, it’s kind of like being pregnant. You know that there’s a baby at the end of it, but when you actually hold that baby, it’s … wow!”
That “wow” moment came on Oct. 11, 2006. The facility was rededicated during a grand gala — 80 years to the day after the Gillioz opened for the first time.
“All of us, I think, felt a great sense of accomplishment,” says Dornan. “A great sense of pride in the team that had developed over the years to do this. And the more difficult it became, the more convoluted it became, the more we all kind of dug our heels in and said, ‘This is going to work. This has to work.’”
Before and after (Vintage photo courtesy of Springfield Landmarks Preservation Trust)
The Gillioz’s reopening, however, didn’t mean that the challenges were over. Four years after its reopening, the theater was nearly sold at auction after its bank filed a foreclosure notice over delinquent payments.
Various factors contributed to the financial issues. According to the Springfield News-Leader, that list included nearly $1 million in unexpected expenses during the renovation, the area’s economic climate, and the Missouri Department of Economic Development’s decline of $1 million in expected Historic Preservation Tax Credits.
To stop the sale, the Gillioz Restoration Partnership filed for bankruptcy in U.S. Bankruptcy Court on Jan. 3, 2011. Such action allows a business or organization the chance to restructure its financials.
Issues arose again in 2013, when the Gillioz was again slated for auction. According to online reports, community member Robert Low came to the the theater’s aid. The owner of Prime Trucking Inc., Low purchased the theater and signed a lease agreement with the Springfield Landmarks Preservation Trust to keep it operating similarly to as it was before. Later, according to Dornan, he donated it back to a Gillioz-affiliated LLC.
Vintage novelty, such as the lights and vents, remain. The lights have four color settings to correspond with the seasons, and the vents were used in the past to allow air — cooled with spring water — to “air condition” the theater.
Today, things are brighter. According to theater management, there are between 90 and 100 bookings at the Gillioz each year, some of which are multi-day events. And, in an effort to get away from its reputation as a “college” venue, those events represent a little bit of a lot.
“The language we use inside is that we’re ‘diversifying our palate,'” says Geoff Steele, executive director of the Gillioz Center for Arts & Entertainment. “Last week’s a perfect example. I did a film on Saturday, on Wednesday I did bluegrass, on Thursday I did comedy, and on Saturday I did jazz.”
Incredible detail fills every aspect of the Gillioz.
Those shows translate into financial stability for the Gillioz. “But that is not necessarily a good thing,” says Steele. “Most historic theaters, 50 to 65 percent of their budget, comes through donations and endowments.”
So in addition to overseeing the theater’s daily operations, part of Steele’s work is to help the theater’s patrons create memories that keep them coming back — and supporting the theater.
“Now the challenge is the 25 years it was empty,” says Steele, noting that gap is why they specifically pull in children’s programming for young families. “Because we desperately want to make sure that we have something that can leapfrog over that 25 years that you don’t have a memory of. And that doesn’t happen accidentally. It happens because we’re smart about it.”
There are other things Steele has done to help frame the theater’s place in local minds, such as by intentionally referring to it as the “historic Gillioz Theatre” when answering the phones.
“When you say historic, there’s something about that word within us, our DNA, that says ‘valuable,’” says Steele. “So the damage to the theater went down exponentially whenever we started saying (historic).”
“The one thing that I love to do is to stand on the second level of the outer lobby of the Gillioz as you’re looking to the south,” says Dornan. “You’re watching all these people, who don’t know they’re being watched. But all these people are coming in for a particular purpose. And actually, you can see people kind of look around and appreciate the architecture.”
And although Steele has a clear direction for how he wants to develop the theater, he recently created an Ambassadors group to serve as a sounding board.
Dornan leads the group, a position that gives her an excuse to keep thinking ahead for the Gillioz’s future. And it’s something, even on today’s anniversary, that’s on her mind.
“A 90-year anniversary is a big deal,” says Dornan. “But what’s even bigger is that we’re only 10 years from the 100th anniversary. And that, to me, is amazing. … There’s very few buildings from that time that are left at all, let alone in Springfield. So it’s been very satisfying from that perspective.”
Want to visit (or learn more)?
If you want to learn more about the theater, two resources include a book entitled “The Gillioz ‘Theatre Beautiful’: Remembering Springfield’s Theatre History” and a DVD called “The Gillioz Movie Palace, theatre beautiful.” Both can be borrowed from the Springfield Greene-County Library District.