The ashes of the Baldwin Theatre, which burned on January 6, 1909, were not yet cold when the plans for a new theatre on Walnut Street were actualized. The Landers Theatre was designed by architects John and Carl Boller and was built in 1909 by John and D.J. Landers and R. W. Seward. Built for $100,000, the brick and terracotta building has been in continuous use either as a legitimate theatre or a motion picture house since it opened with the musical THE GOLDEN GIRL starring Lillian Russell on September 18, 1909.
The following is an excerpt from an article that appeared in The Springfield, Missouri Republican on September 19th, illustrating the atmosphere of opening night:
“Under the tempered glow and radiance of two thousand electric lights which shed their beams, rivaling the brilliance of a mid-day sun in ocean mist, or the witching haze of a dreamy Indian Ozark summer, the devotees of fashion and pleasure and of material progress, met and mingled last night, at the opening of the Landers theatre, a commodious and beautiful temple of amusement, the perfect appointments of which brought a flush of admiration and of pride to the cheek and a gleam of pleasure to the eye of those who greeted ‘The Golden Girl’ and witnessed the initial offering of the playhouse which came to Springfield as a heritage of fire.”
The Landers Theatre was part of the Orpheum circuit of theaters, showing vaudeville and “tab” or tabloid shows with a different show each week. The Weaver Brothers and Elviry were regulars at the Landers, before they went on to make movies. Some other famous performers who appeared here were George Cohan, Lon Chaney, John Philip Sousa and, Lillian Russell. In 1915 “Birth of a Nation” was shown in the theater, and afterward, silent movies were a regular feature with musical or drama productions playing between the motion pictures.
On December 18, 1920, the Landers suffered a major fire. The fire was first noticed at 12:45 p.m. The call was answered by fire trucks from all four stations in the city. After a few minutes, six streams of water were playing on the fire. It was feared that the flames might sweep the entire block. The fire was supposedly started by a boiler explosion and immediately spread to the coal bins in the furnace rooms underneath the stage. The entire stage was ablaze by 1:30. Three streams of water were thrown on the rear of the building and three lines of hose were taken through the main entrance. By 5:00 p.m. the fire had been extinguished. An asbestos curtain and other fireproofing precautions kept the theater from being a total loss.
Following the fire, the Landers was rebuilt and reopened on May 21, 1921, as part of the Orpheum Circuit by Ensley Barbour, and, under his management, touring artists, and vaudeville acts ranging from Fanny Brice to John Philip Sousa have appeared on The Landers’ stage. In 1928 the theatre became the 35th facility in the world to acquire “talkies.” Until 1970 the Landers continued as a movie theatre, doing double duty in 1959 when broadcasts of FIVE STAR JUBILEE a national NBC-TV show, were filmed live from our stage.
The Springfield Little Theatre organization, founded in 1934, purchased the Landers in 1970. Since that time, a number of restoration projects have been undertaken to return the facility to its full 1909 elegance. Many Springfield individuals as well as businesses and corporations have continued to contribute towards the restoration of this excellently preserved Baroque Renaissance/ Napoleon-styled architecture and decoration, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. The city of Springfield’s Hotel-Motel Tax Matching Fund has helped to accelerate the plans for the theatre’s beautification. Recent restorations of the 527-seat structure have been cited with awards from American Institute of Architects.
The oldest largest civic theatre operation in Missouri and one of the largest in mid-America, Springfield Little Theatre at the Landers produces a mainstage season of nine plays and musicals that are attended by some 60,000 Southwest Missourians annually. The Landers also has been the performance site for numerous other events that range from old-time fiddle music and barbershop choruses to modern dance and jazz ensembles, as well as other local organizations such as the Springfield Regional Opera and the Springfield Ballet, and has been a site for First Night Springfield since its inception until its dissolution. Among Landers alumni who have gone on to national recognition in theatre and film are Kathleen Turner, Tess Harper, and Kim Crosby, the original Broadway Cinderella in Stephen Sondheim’s INTO THE WOODS. Most recently, SLT Alum Lucas Grabeel has achieved success through DISNEY’S HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL franchise.
The past decade has seen remarkable growth at the Landers, both in attendance and in programs offered by the organization. In addition to the 90-plus performances on the Landers stage, the theatre has offered a variety of entertainment activities such as the Baird Studio Series and the Young Audience Series. The Education Program continues to offer a full range of after-school classes and summer workshops to students of all ages. The theatre’s Y.E.S. Troupe, made up of teens from throughout the Ozarks, has performed for young and old across the region and as far away as Honolulu, Hawaii.
For the past eighty years, Springfield Little Theatre has been the center of cultural life and entertainment in the Ozarks. As we enter the next 100 years of the Landers, the theatre is dedicated to maintaining that heritage by presenting the best of live theatre in an environment reflecting a rich past and an exciting, fulfilling future.