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One of the Midwest’s great old theatres is located on historic Route 66 in Springfield, Missouri. The Gillioz Theatre opened in 1926 to tremendous acclaim. The sold-out crowd was enchanted by the opulent Spanish Colonial Revival design, and modern visitors are equally impressed today.
The lavish detailing begins with the façade. The front doors are flanked by terra-cotta tiles, brick pilasters, and a terrazzo floor. A large stained-glass arched window in the upper façade features the letter G executed in blue glass. The corners of the building are banded with terra-cotta tiles, as is the roofline, and don’t miss the urns on each corner.
Just inside the front doors, visitors will find plaster friezes complete with griffins, winged cherubs, leaf-and-dart designs, and flowers. The auditorium is an exuberant mixture of molding, medallions, columns, wrought iron, organ pipes, a Proscenium arch with floral fret bands, and a recessed oculus in the ceiling. Spanish design plays a role here, but so do Italian and Moroccan. The theatre reopened in 2006 after 25 years of disuse. The current restoration is true to the original design, minus all the heavy, flammable drapery that was in vogue a century ago.
Maurice Earnest Gillioz was a well known builder and developer in southwestern Missouri early in the 20th century. He financed and built the theatre, which was named in his honor. Because of the materials to which Gillioz had access, the theatre is constructed of steel and concrete like a bridge, using wood for only the handrails, doors, and door frames. When restoration efforts began in 1990, the owners learned that the theatre was so well built that it would have cost as much to tear it down as to preserve it. Fortunately, preservation of the theatre and its historic character prevailed.
The theatre officially opened in 1926, when organist Glen Stanback sang the national anthem while playing the house Wurlitzer. The main feature of the evening was the movie Take It From Me. Later that year, Springfield, Missouri was dubbed the Birthplace of Route 66, when the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture officially designated the Federal Interstate Highway System in the neighboring Woodruff Building. The Federal highway ran right in front of Springfield’s premier entertainment venue.
The Gillioz introduced talking pictures in 1928 and Technicolor in 1936. By then, the theatre was famed for the outstanding service of its 10 ushers and doormen. Throughout the Great Depression and during World War II, the theatre hosted community songfests to raise morale. In an early version of American Idol, the Gillioz featured “Beauty with a Voice” competitions in which 15 girls sang on stage and the audience voted for its favorite. Ronald and Nancy Reagan attended a premier at the Gillioz in 1952, and Elvis was spotted there (before he died) sneaking away between his matinee and evening performances at the Shrine Mosque.
By 1970, customers were leaving downtown for theatres in suburban malls. A tarp was draped over the old unused Wurlitzer, and the Gillioz began to fall into disrepair. In 1980, the grand old theatre closed its doors following a final performance of La Traviata. By 1986, Springfield’s homeless population had settled into the abandoned space setting oil barrel fires to keep warm. While this use of the building did some damage to the interior, the steady human presence also protected the landmark building from vandals.
By 1990, a local group headed by Springfield business Bass Pro Shop founder John L. Morris had begun to talk about returning the building to its historic appearance and identity as a theatre. The group banded together to purchase it that year and, by 1991, had also formed a non-profit organization, the Springfield Landmarks Preservation Trust. Also in 1991, the building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. A year later, the Gillioz Theatre was deeded to the Trust. The Trust involved public and private partners to complete the rehabilitation project—a project originally quoted at $1.8 million and ultimately finished for nearly five times that amount. Replicating the original marquee was an early emphasis and interior renovations followed. The Gillioz opened its doors again in 2006 to rave reviews.