It is not likely that anyone has first-hand memories of the Willis Wood Theatre. Designed by noted Kansas City architect Louis Curtiss, and built in 1902, the impressive Beaux Arts theater burned to the ground in 1917. One hundred years later, as part of a major announcement at the D23 Expo 2017, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts announced it will be building a replica of the long-gone theater at near Main Street U.S.A. at the Magic Kingdom.
The choice of a theater that no one has seen in a century is not random. Kansas City was the boyhood home of Walt Disney. Disney moved to Kansas City at the age of nine from Marceline, Missouri. While the small town of Marceline is the basis for the Main Street U.S.A. area at Magic Kingdom, there are also many references to Kansas City in the middle America–themed amusement park. In particular, signs from Kansas City’s Laugh-O-Gram Studio, the studio in which Walt Disney invented Mickey Mouse, can be found throughout.
While it is not known whether Disney ever attended shows at the Willis Wood Theatre, historians think it is likely. It is known that 33rd President Harry S. Truman frequented the theater to see Shakespeare plays performed. Built by Colonel Willis Wood, a successful dry goods merchant, the theater hosted live performances until being converted into a movie theater.
Today the site of the block-and-half-long theater is home to the Mark Twain tower, a historic landmark in its own right. With no chance of the theater every being rebuilt in its original location, it would seem central Florida will be the place for those looking for turn-of-the-century Kansas City. The real question is whether the new theater’s interior will match the reds, greens, blues, and gold that reportedly adorned the original, and whether the large nude caryatids will once again fill the main theater space.