History definitely has a way of repeating itself and for the small town of California, Missouri that’s a good thing. Letting the past be their guide, the community came together to save one of its treasured buildings and bring a historic theatre and the downtown area back to life.
The California Opera House opened on Friday, August 6, 1885 with a “grand musical concert” of local talent followed by a ball on the second floor of the building. In the following years, traveling road shows, vaudeville, musicals and other entertainers performed at the 600-seat auditorium just down the street from the courthouse, which was built in 1867 and remains the oldest existing courthouse west of the Mississippi River.
Later known as the Finke Opera House (1897-1922) and Finke Theatre (1922-1937), named after its sole owner and one of the town’s most prominent and pioneering citizens, the building became a movie theatre, The Ritz Theatre (1937-1978), until closing its doors. Empty for decades and set to be demolished, the community took action.
“We knew this was a historical building that was quite unique to our town,” said Gail Hughes, a long-time board member of Friends of the Finke and California Progress Inc., CPI. “It had also been such an important part of the community, a centerpiece really, and we believed it could be again.”
After a five-year painstaking process, the renovated and restored Finke Theatre reopened in September of 2009 at 315 N. High St., and continues to serve as a living testament to the town’s early growth and rich history.
A business pioneer, Henry C. Finke built the first brick business in town in 1857 and ran the Finke Mercantile. The one-time city treasurer and city council member along with other community leaders commissioned well-known St. Louis architect Jerome Bibb Legg, who had designed many Missouri courthouses and schools and remodeled the Missouri state capitol in 1887, to build the California Opera House.
After Henry died in 1895 his son, William, purchased the opera house in 1897. He would go on to serve two terms as mayor and had several buildings constructed, including what’s now the United Church of Christ, and the building adjacent to the opera house that still bears the Finke name.
William died in 1925 and his widow and daughter continued to operate the opera house until 1937. During this time, silent motion pictures were born and in 1919 “The Knickerbocker Buckaroo,” an American silent western starring and written by Douglas Fairbanks, was shown there. In 1937, M.J. Nash and Henry J. Halloway purchased it and remodeled in the art deco style and it became the Ritz Theatre.
Until the early 50’s, the Masons and Oddfellows each owned half of the upstairs. Later the Masons deeded their half to the Oddfellows, and the Rebekah Lodges’ club used the other half.
As one of the only places to go for entertainment, the theatre served as a social center for many young people, who still have memories of seeing movies there or just hanging around. At one time the theatre was segregated and black people had to sit in the balcony. Herschel and Amber Aldredge owned the theatre from 1961-1971 and later a group from St. Louis bought the theatre until it went dark in 1978; reportedly the last movie shown was “One on One” starring Robbie Benson and Anette O’Toole.
A salvage company purchased the building with the intent to demolish it for its historic materials. At this point the remaining members of the Oddfellows sold their interest to Tom Scheppers who wanted to save the building. When the salvage company became aware it had no right to demolish the building, because they owned only the lower floor, Scheppers, for the first time in more than 100 years, became the sole owner. In February of 2003, he donated the building to CPI, opening the way for its renovation and the theatre was listed on the National Register of Historical Places for its architectural significance.
Joe Scallorns, who then owned Farmers & Traders Bank (now Central Bank), was one of the original founders of CPI. He had already purchased the block of buildings across from the bank and renovated all the storefronts and apartments upstairs in the Finke building, now the site of newly opened businesses serving the town. He also made sure the Finke name at the top of the building, at the corner of Oak and Smith, was restored and it remains there today.
“Over the years CPI has helped raise money for the Moniteau County Historical Society and the Wood Place Library, but we would never take on a project if there wasn’t a group ready to take it over in the future,” Hughes said.
CPI began raising money through private donations and grants. Donors to the Finke received a 70 percent tax credit through the Missouri Department of Economic Development’s Neighborhood Tax Assistance Fund. An anonymous donation of $50,000 was made that included the attached building that is now the concession area. In September of 2014, CPI turned over total ownership to the nonproft Friends of the Finke.
Early on, Patty Kay, an interior designer, served as the chairperson of the Downtown Architectural Review Committee and later the Design and Construction Committee. Greg Baer of Baer Brothers Woodworking also served as chair of that committee for three years.
“We used an architectural study done by the late architect Pon Chinn as our guide,” said Kay, who drew the initial theatre design to scale.
The late Roger Verslues, founder and owner of S & V consultants, created the drawings that helped the contractors shore up the sagging floor of the main story and the balcony. A beam was added to reinforce the roof trusses, too. Dan McGrath designed the heating and cooling system installed in the theatre. The stage was enlarged and the dressing rooms underneath were rehabbed. Baer Brothers Woodworking built all of the cabinetry in the new concession area, and the ticket booth at the entry of the theatre and stained and finished all of the woodwork and doors. Throughout the renovation, some companies donated all or part of their services to the project.
Prisoners on good behavior from the Tipton Correctional Center helped scrape all of the chewing gum off of the floor underneath, so the original floors could be refinished. Another big project was the rebuilding of the chairs, an effort spearheaded by Jim and Nancy Martin. The seats were taken out and cleaned, refurbished and the silver strips were polished and Ed Forsythe upholstered all 273 of them, including those in the balcony.
“It was very important to Jim that the theatre was restored as close to its historic roots as possible,” Baer said. “He was our resident historian plus he did everything he could to help out when we needed something and Nancy was there every step of the way.”
The four original wall sconces on either side of the theatre walls were restored and the same font used for the lettering of the old Finke Theatre sign, which was found under the 1937 Ritz marquee sign and used in the new marquee.
Many member of the community volunteered their time and spent countless hours doing whatever was needed, including painting the tiles of the murals on either side of the walls. Kay picked out four shades of green and numbered each one to guide volunteers who painted them on scaffolds.
During the renovation, the Finke was open for the public to see what was going on inside during the annual Ham and Turkey Festival, held the third Saturday of September. The Festival celebrates the family-owned Burgers’ Smokehouse that ships hams, bacon, sausage and a catalog full of products throughout the U.S., and the Cargill Turkey Plant, which packages several brands of bird, including Honeysuckle White.
Hay bales were brought in for seating during performances at the Finke held during the festival and slowly everything came together. The late Ray Rouse, who worked at ABC Radio Network and owned what is now the KRLL 1420 AM Radio Station, served as the sound consultant for a time and a new sound system was purchased and installed.
“Ray told us what we needed and who to get it from,” Baer said. “The sound system is like the one used at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Doug Hill worked with Ray and then became the main sound and light man and Casey Wassar is training under him.”
Finally the Finke’s grand opening was held with a performance by Kapital Kicks, a big band style musical group out of Jefferson City, who have performed several times.
Echoing its origins, today a different show takes the stage every month–magicians, musicians and comedians–and the theatre has become a gathering place for special events, too. Popular acts have included Bach to the Future, Rick Thomas, a magician who performed for years in Las Vegas and is now in Branson and Andrea LaRae, a hometown musician who graduated from Belmont University’s School of Music in Nashville and is pursuing a career in country music.
The Friends of the Finke working board run the theatre and serve on various committees, overseeing ticket sales, entertainment and fundraising. Current President Marj Friedmeyer, a member and director for 30 years of the Heart of Missouri Sweet Adelines, has been involved in the entertainment committee for six years.
The new 2016-2017 season kicked off in September with Gracie & Lacy – Swing St. Louis, a tribute to Judy Garland and upcoming acts feature Jefferson City magician and juggler Gerry Tritz, Ivory and Gold, a flautist, vocals and pianist duo return and the five-man a cappella group Cat’s Pajamas who perform in Branson and have been featured on “America’s Got Talent.”
Some of the performers, like Gracie and Lacy are Missouri Arts Council touring Artists.
“We receive a grant for up to $3,000 annually from the MO Arts Council Touring Program and that helps us book acts,” said Friedmeyer.
Hughes has written these grants for years. The board members can only serve two terms as president but rotate around serving other offices.
Pam Green is now treasurer and head of the fundraising committee and Carolyn Miller is vice president handles the newsletter and promotions. Mary Ann Pitstick Wasser is secretary. Long time board members Gail Hughes and Suzanne Taggart, who has served as vice president, were replaced with new board members, Kay and Christina Rose Tims McMillian. Charla Friedmeyer, Marj’s daughter-in-law has handled the web site but Nathan Donnelly is taking that over. Baer is a staffer in charge of building maintenance.
Usually there are between 150 to 175 season ticket holders, with the remainder of seats for each performance open to the public.
The Finke Theatre is also home to the Community House Band and the Finke Players acting troupe, who put on a play every season. Most recently, Green and Miller co-wrote a play about finding the bees and honey combs when the plywood covering the windows on the north side of the theatre were removed. They performed the play with the five pints of honey at the fairground during the 150th celebration of the Moniteau County Fair.
In his day, W.C. Finke served several years as the director of the Moniteau County Fair so the Finke legacy is still alive and has come full circle. The Finke Theatre is once again an integral part of the cultural fabric of the community now and for generations to come.
Visit their website to view the theatre’s upcoming performances or to purchase tickets.