Glowing brightly, it’s blue and red neon reflected in the polished steel of the art deco polished steel frames of its facade, the Gem proudly stands as a window onto Kansas City’s past and a venue to some of today’s greatest jazz musicians.
Built in 1912 by the Shriner and Powellson Amusement Company, it was originally named the Star Theater. Designed to serve as a silent movie house for the African American community of the surrounding area, the Star had no concession stand and did not feature live acts, just second run Westerns and Action films, along with race movies of the period.
Mabel Prior, now of St. Louis, remembers growing up in the neighborhood and going to the Gem during the week to watch the race movies. “They never showed them on the weekends, and there weren’t too many that came to town. I guess the owners didn’t want it to be a racial theater and all. Money was hard to come by, but we always went when we had a little extra. How important it made us feel, like a secret club house, it was just ours alone”, she says of evenings spent watching the legends grace the big screen. During the silent years and up until the mid 1940s, race movies were a special weekday treat at the Gem. Featuring all ‘Colored’ casts, and unlike Hollywood films of the time, they allowed black actors to display their acting talent in serious dramatic roles.
“These movies were known as ‘race films’ because they were intended to uplift the ‘race,’ in the same way that many African-American activists of this era, such as W.E.B. DuBois, referred to themselves as ‘race men,’” Stewart explained. “Many African Americans sought to avoid the terms then in circulation, so instead of using ‘Negro,’ ‘colored,’ or worse, they used the word ‘race,’ as in ‘race men and women,’ ‘race causes,’ ‘race progress,’ ‘race records.’¹
In Kansas City, Missouri there were several black-owned film companies: The Andlauer Film Company (housed at 928 Main St.), Progress Picture Producing Association, Gate City Feature Films and Turpin Films. Today, many of the silent screen black filmmakers are generally forgotten, most of their films lost or destroyed. A few, like author/director Oscar Micheaux made the transition into the era of the ‘talkies’, until Hollywood and the mainstream industry began exploiting black audiences and choked off the smaller Black independent producers and distributors.
The following year, the theater was more aptly named, the Gem, a name that has graced its countenance throughout the decades and it continued to serve as the local movie house well into the 1950s. In 1923, the movie house underwent a facelift, the simple one story building had a new second floor balcony and baroque-style, white terracotta front. On January 11, 1924, The Kansas City Call marveled at the improvements, “a work of art and triumph of engineering”.
Further renovations and improvements have been made over the years, during the 40s the “V” type marquee was added as well as a new ticket booth and larger balcony.
The last picture show played at the Gem in 1960. It stood alone, almost forgotten until the 1980s, when civic leaders in the Kansas City area decided to revitalize and renovate the 18th & Vine Jazz District. Today, it stands as a crowning ‘gem’ to the project, being restored to a state of the art, 500 seat performance venue. As the spot for KC’s famous “Jammin’ at the Gem” jazz masters’ concert, it is now part of the American Jazz Museum and is host to many community events, musicals, dance and theatrical performances.
¹The University of Chicago Chronicle, Jan. 10, 2002, Volume 21, No. 7