Karen Paisley was woken by a phone call just before 5 a.m. Monday, and instantly knew it was bad news.
In under ten minutes, she was at the scene of the fire at the historic Warwick Theatre in Kansas City’s Midtown.
“You could see the smoke rolling down Main Street and rolling down 39th well before you got here,” she said. “When you turned the corner, you could see the flames shooting out the roof of the building.”
The Kansas City Fire Department received a call shortly before 5 a.m. Wednesday and fought a multi-alarm blaze at the historic theater at 3927 Main Street, according to Battalion Chief Michael Hopkins. The first fire crews on the scene reported smoke and fire coming from the second floor at the rear of the theater.
It was initially difficult to find the exact location of the fire, but after initally having to pull fire crews out from the interior of the building due to safety concerns, firefighters were eventually able to gain control and contain it. The scene was cleared by 7 a.m., according to Hopkins.
Paisley, founder of the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, and board president Brad Dawdy stood in the parking lot through mid-morning.
“It’s sort of like if your child’s in trouble, you’re not gonna leave it,” Paisley later said.
Minimal damage was done to adjoining structures, mostly smoke and maybe some water damage. But the theater’s interior sustained significant damage.
‘We just love this building’
The Warwick Theatre originally opened on Sept. 26, 1914, and seated 1,200, according to Kansas City Times archives.
The building was designed by the Boller Brothers, a Kansas City-based firm that designed over 150 theaters across the Midwest and as far as California, according to Cinema Treasures. Some in the Kansas City area include The Midland downtown and the Granada theaters in Lawrence and Kansas City, Kansas.
According to Paisley, the theater suffered a previous fire in 1927, and it was rebuilt to include the iconic Warwick sign.
The space operated as a theater until 1953, when the red velvet seats and original decor were removed.
The building then held a Salvation Army Thrift Store and a furniture store before the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre bought the property in 2015, according to Kansas City Times and The Star archives. This year was their fifth year performing shows at the theater and their 19th season overall.
“We employ probably over a hundred actors and stage people throughout the season,” Paisley said.
“We also host other production companies and musicians perform here. So, you know, all of that here in the short term is not available unfortunately.”
For now, actors will go to the nearby Midtown Baptist Church to rehearse, until they can find another location for a short-term theater while repairs are made in the hopes of returning in a few months.
According to Paisley, the theater structure wasn’t damaged in the fire, but the costumes, electrical system and dressing rooms were destroyed.
Officials continue to investigate the cause of the fire, and the theater is working with their insurance on what the next steps toward rebuilding will look like.
“From a board perspective, we just love this building,” Dawdy said.
“We love the significance that it has not only to the theater community, but to Kansas City. We are committed to being excellent caretakers and bringing (the Warwick Theatre) back to what she once was.”
The Star’s Eleanor Nash and Robert A. Cronkleton contributed to this reporting.