The Gillioz Theatre
325 St. Louis Street (just outside the west end of Park Central Square)
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Newly restored as of October 2006!
The Gillioz Theatre, October 2006, by Matt Loveland, Gillioz Tour Guide
In 1926, a road and bridge builder, M. E. Gillioz, from Monett, Missouri wanted to build a movie theatre in downtown Springfield. The site where he originally wanted to build it was not available. Land was available on the south side of Olive Street, but he wanted his theatre to face St. Louis Street (designated Route 66 later that year). Thus he bought the lease to an existing storefront property, at the time a laundromat.
He used his knowledge of construction and materials to build his theatre of the same materials in building bridges. Thankfully, because of this, the theatre has stood well for the past eighty years. The main structure was built of steel, brick and concrete. There is very little wood in The Gillioz with the exception of handrails, seats, furniture, and doors. The theatre was designed to hold nearly 1,100 people. It was also a transition house, designed to show movies as well as vaudeville shows. Thus the theatre has a small orchestra pit and stage.
On October 11, 1926, the theatre opened. Two lines of patrons always formed at the box office, formerly just inside the entryway. On opening night, one line extended as far west as the Public Square, and the other wrapped around the block and down to the intersection of Jefferson Avenue and Olive Street. The opening gala included a variety of performances . . . the Swiss Song Birds (a pair of ukulele players), an organ concert, a Felix the Cat cartoon, a newsreel flown in from New York showing highlights from one of the games in the 1926 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Yankees, and the movie Take It From Me starring Reginald Denny. The theatre's colorful history began.
The Gillioz held its fair share of world premieres. In 1938, Swing Your Lady played, starring Humphrey Borgart and a young Ronald Reagan. The Weaver Brothers and Elviry, a famous vaudeville group from the Ozarks performed the same night. The biggest premiere held at The Gillioz was in June of 1952. The movie shown was The Winning Team starring Ronald Reagan and Doris Day. In the movie, Reagan played the role of a real-life Cardinals pitcher, Grover Cleveland Alexander. By coincidence, Alexander pitched the game in the newsreel shown on opening night, 1926. Since Reagan was a Democrat and president of the Screen Actor’s Guild, he wanted to entertain President Harry Truman, since Truman just happened to be visiting Springfield at the time for a World War I reunion of the Missouri 35th Division. Festivities included the premiere, a ceremony for the president at the Shrine Mosque (Truman was a Shriner.), as well as a parade.
A few years later in 1956, The Gillioz was visited by another special visitor. Elvis Presley was performing at the Shrine Mosque. Between shows and rehearsals, he quietly sneaked out! Escort, Colonel Tom Parker, could not find him, and asked Springfield police officer Les Reynolds if there were any movie theatres nearby. Officer Reynolds took Colonel Parker to The Gillioz and found Elvis watching Jubal, starring Glen Ford. They found Presley sitting in the back row of the house in the seat next to the far west aisle on the right side.
Sadly, the theatre’s popularity declined like so many other motion picture venues with the advent of television. Beginning in the 1960s, local people also abandoned Springfield’s downtown and The Gillioz for the new Battlefield Mall and multi-screen movie theatres located in south Springfield. The Public Square was soon renamed Park Central Mall and closed off to vehicle traffic. Gillioz attendance dropped significantly. In 1980, the theatre finally closed with its last movie, The Amityville Horror. The building sat vacant for many years, with the exception of a few homeless people who left their mark on the theatre. However, the future would eventually look bright for the once glorious Gillioz.
In the late 1980s, the theatre lobby was purchased by Jim D. Morris. Soon afterward, the Springfield Landmark Preservation Trust was formed. In 1991, it acquired the deed to the lobby, theatre and building next door, the Netter's Building. Shortly thereafter, restoration began. However, this would be a long process as funding was a challenge, especially after the terrorist events of September 11. Thankfully, initial funding was obtained through grants and donations. One of these grants came from the Republican Party. It formed a group that wants one theatre in all fifty states to be dedicated to President Reagan's acting career. The organization sent a contribution to the theatre in the name of The Gillioz and the Morris Building (formerly the Netter's Building to become The Ronald and Nancy Reagan Center). Springfield’s hotel/motel tax also contributed to the theatre.
Soon, major restoration work began. In July 2005, scaffolding went up to fill the lobby and theatre. Conrad Schmitt Artiseans restored the original plasterwork. The Morris Building was connected to theatre by an opening, remodeled, and refitted for elevators and bathrooms. This work was done to make the theatre more accessible for persons with disabilities. Some remodeling was done in The Gillioz, but it still has its original 1926 appearance. By July 2006, the scaffolding was removed from the lobby, and from the theatre in August. Some original furnishings were restored and installed. The main part of the project was finished by the week of the re-opening, including the installation of the theatre seats.
On October 6, 2006, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held in the lobby attended by board members, the press, and Congressman Roy Blunt. One week later, Friday, October 13th, The Gillioz was finally re-opened! Earlier that day, a dedication ceremony was held, which included a film showing how the theatre looked fifteen years ago. Later that night, Encore 2006 officially kicked off, with Vaudeville!, a 1920s style vaudeville show by Missouri State University students.
The first week included a variety of free events ranging from a Charlie Chaplin movie, the Skinny Improv, as well as a performance by the Springfield Symphony Orchestra. The weekend's festivities included Date Night on October 21st and the Family Gala on October 22nd. Date Night was well attended by many, and it included performances by different Missouri State University students and faculty members. It also included musical and dance performances, and film clips of movies and movie stars from Missouri. The Family Gala included many of these same events, but condensed. After the Family Gala, a time capsule was filled with different pieces of the Gillioz's current history and deposited beneath the lobby. Lobby Lunches were held with different entertainers on different dates.
In the long-run, The Ronald and Nancy Reagan Center will prove to play an important role in downtown's revitalization and in Springfield's theatre community. The theatre can be rented by groups or organizations for presentations or meetings. It is a place for live performances, film festivals, concerts, weddings, and other events. The Jim D. Morris Arts Building will also be used for various events. In September, Wellington Place opened on its second floor, managed by Ryan Tiller and Dining By Design. Office space is available on the third floor. In 2007, the first floor will be finished and it will house Tonic Ultralounge, a restaurant/lounge.