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View from the gallery of the Brown Theatre
View from the gallery of the Brown Theatre, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo: James Bell

Historic Performing Theatre - The Brown Grand Theatre

Once hailed as the most elegant theater between Kansas City and Denver, the 1907 Brown Grand Theatre was restored in a community effort in 1980. Since then the theater has reigned as a cherished community center and performing arts theater, admired by tourists, performers and patrons.

Colonel Napoleon Bonaparte Brown arrived in Concordia in 1876 with a suitcase rumored full of money, a beautiful bride, and a plan to become rich. He set up a loan company, and quickly profited from the Midwest's high interest rates. The family built and moved into the grandest house in town. Then in 1905, Brown announced plans to build an opera house, which would be the crowning jewel of Concordia, using local labor and native limestone. The famous Kansas City theater architect, Carl Boller, prepared blueprints for the French Renaissance style 650-seat theater, and Brown's son, Earl V.D. Brown, oversaw construction. When the $40,000 structure was completed, it stood nearly wide at it was 60-feet tall, and stretched 120-feet long.

The theater's gala opening featured a New York touring company, which presented the play, "The Vanderbilt Cup." Tickets started at $1 for gallery seats to $10 for the best seats. The theater's interior gleamed in the brilliance of 535 electric bulbs; its white, green, and gold color scheme complemented the delicately frescoed moldings of the proscenium arch and box seats. Earl Brown had secretly ordered a magnificent drop curtain, which was painted with a reproduction of the Horace Vernet painting, "Napoleon at Wagram," as homage to this father.

During the next four years, the theater prospered; booking agreements with the Shuberts and Erlanger brought Concordia the nation's best entertainment. Then in 1910, N.B. Brown died. The town had a huge funeral. Then four months later, another tragedy beset the theater when his popular son, Earl, passed away. According to theater lore, Earl's ghost haunts the theater, especially during the "opening" season.

The Brown widows presented the theater to the city of Concordia, but by 1915 the theater had become a financial burden and was returned to the family estate. Earl Brown's widow had married Ray Green, who took over theater management, bringing in best in live entertainment, including minstrel acts, dancers Ruth St. Denis and Martha Graham, and wrestling and boxing matches. In 1925, the theater was sold to the Concordia Amusement Company, and became a motion picture theater until 1974.

As Concordia prepared for its centennial celebration in 1971, townspeople began to talk of restoring the theater. After funds were raised to purchase the theater from owners Jack and Hanalesa Roney, it was then given to the city, then leased back to the newly formed Brown Grand Opera House Inc. which worked to restore and operate the theater. Soon the community was donating money and securing grants for the restoration. In 1973, the theater building was recognized as a National Historic Site and chosen as a National Bicentennial project, receiving $10,000 in matching funds. More grants and fund were secured and after six years, the $500,000 restoration project was completed in 1980.

On September 17, 1980, the theater's grand re-opening took place. Among the audience, sitting on the front row, were three Concordian women, who had attended the first opening night exactly 73 years earlier. Other patrons and dignitaries wore period costume to the production, which was a restaging of the original opening night play. Documentation comprises an 11-page project history; newspaper clippings; a commemorative program book from the theater's reopening; a brochure; a video; and 15 photographs.

Originally submitted by: Jerry Moran, Representative (1st District).

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The Local Legacies project provides a "snapshot" of American Culture as it was expressed in spring of 2000. Consequently, it is not being updated with new or revised information with the exception of "Related Website" links.

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