University Playhouse – brief history

Conservatory students perform on the University Playhouse patio.
Conservatory students perform on the University Playhouse patio.

UMKC “recycled” decades ago

75 years…and still making history.

In 1947 and 1948, five surplus wooden buildings were moved from an air force base, Camp Crowder in Neosho, Missouri, to the University of Kansas City (UKC) campus.

The former Enlisted Men’s Service Club was converted into the Student Union.

One building was home to the Fine Arts department; another housed the school for Freshmen Dentistry; and a camp barracks became the Pharmacy School.

University Playhouse, c. 1948

University Playhouse, c. 1948

The sole survivor is this barracks, which was relocated and is now the Student Academic Support Services Building (SASS). The post’s spacious movie theater became the UKC Playhouse in 1948. This was accomplished by placing the movie theater building over a new basement workshop.

The resulting structure – standing between the Miller Nichols Library and Swinney Recreation Center – provided a home for the Varsity Players, later called the University Players. Despite the humbleness of the structure, the Playhouse was far superior to the tents where plays had been performed in earlier days.

For the first show, Playhouse director Dr. John Newfield chose Maxwell Anderson’s “Elizabeth the Queen.” A production of “The Merchant of Venice,” featuring celebrated actor Clarence Derwent and staged in 1950, received national press coverage. The Playhouse served campus, community and professional productions until 1976, when it was closed.

Student Academic Support Services, 2008

Student Academic Support Services, 2008

All that remains of the old University Playhouse are the patio and the fireplace.

The decorative ceramic masques atop the fireplace, representing Comedy and Tragedy, were once functional chimneys. The site, especially the patio area, is still a frequent and popular gathering place for campus parties and picnics.

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