KCQ: What were the Folly Theater auto races in Kansas City?


Start your engines! Classic sports cars and the performing arts collide in this week’s episode of What’s Your KCQ ?, a partnership between The star and the Kansas City Public Library. This time we explore the Folly Classic Vintage Grand Prix, a short-lived vintage car race designed for the benefit of the Folly Theater in the 1980s.

Some readers may remember the classic Ferraris, Jaguars, Maseratis, Porsches and Alfa Romeos surrounding the Liberty Memorial during this high-speed road race, all to help a restored theater pay off its debts. But how did this extraordinary fundraiser come about?

FGP01.jpg
The Theater of Madness during the Restoration, ca. 1970s. Kansas City Public Library.

In the early 1980s, the newly reopened Folly Theater was in desperate need of financial support. The Folly, which was originally the Standard Theater in 1900, had taken on various identities over the decades – from a vaudeville, burlesque, and Shakespearean theater to an X-rated cinema – before closing in 1973. The building was slated to close. be demolished until Joan Kent Dillon, an activist for historic preservation, led a campaign that resulted in its listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

After a $ 4.4 million restoration, the Folly Theater reopened in 1981. By 1983, however, it still owed about $ 1.5 million in loans and fees from delinquent contractors. Low ticket and rental prices also led to cash flow issues, leading to staff and budget cuts. The Folly Council, a voluntary organization, has been thinking about fundraising campaigns led by member Jane Bruening. What started out as an idea involving Paul Newman’s dressing and classic cars eventually evolved into something a little different – a vintage car race.

Plans for the Folly Classic Vintage Grand Prix quickly began with the hope that it would become an annual event for the benefit of the theater. Bruening led the project. The proposed 1.5-mile course would circle the Liberty Memorial and the Kansas City Chapter of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) would sanction the race.

Having secured the support of the city, including a temporary removal of the 35 mph speed limit, Bruening would have been successful in staging the Grand Prix in July 1983 if it weren’t for one problem. The SCCA required at least 1,300 cement barriers along the track. The Folly could not acquire them in time, and the race was postponed until the following year.

FGP02.jpg
Race President Jane Bruening stands to the left of Mayor Richard Berkley as he cuts the racetrack ribbon on June 6, 1984 .. Also pictured: Robert W. MacGregor, Kathy Gates (Vice President of the race) and Norm Miller. Kansas City Public Library.

The first Folly Classic Vintage Grand Prix was scheduled for July 7-8, 1984. It would be the grand finale of the Kansas City Spirit Festival, a nine-day civic celebration. The Folly advertised the Grand Prix as “a Monte Carlo style race through the streets of Kansas City… A first in the Midwest” and promised spectators a variety of exotic automobiles.

The race route would start and end in front of Union Station and run along Pershing Road, Kessler Road and Main Street. Peter Talbot of the SCCA, who designed the course, chose the location to avoid disrupting downtown businesses. Race organizers even performed a noise test to make sure the cars wouldn’t disturb patients at nearby St. Mary’s Hospital.

FGP03.jpg
The Grand Prix Folly Classic Vintage 1984 course, described as shaped like a whale. Kansas City Public Library

Safety was paramount. The cars participating in the race, all built before 1965, had to meet the strict standards of the Historic Motor Sports Association. According to the suburban newspaper The squire of the city, The racing authorities rejected an initial idea of ​​tracing the course near the Folly in the 12th and in the middle, because various obstacles would make the race “dangerous and unacceptable”. The Grand Prix would also be strictly amateurish, with no cash prizes to encourage overly aggressive driving.

About 70 drivers came from all over the country to participate. Drivers were divided into five groups based on their car’s specifications and model year, which ranged from 1927 to 1965. Older cars with engines below 2,000 cc, such as a 1927 Bugatti T37A, have were placed in Group 1, while Group 5 included those akin to the 1956 Ferrari Testa Rossa, which had a displacement of over 2,900 cc. Group 5 cars could reach up to 130 mph on the straights.

FGP04.jpg
Some of the participants in the 1984 Folly Classic Vintage Grand Prix. Kansas City Public Library

The opening day attracted over 10,000 people. In addition to training sessions, time trials and races, the two-day program also included an auto show and parade. Patrons and sponsors sat in a specially constructed grandstand, while most spectators paid $ 10 to watch from the slopes of Liberty Memorial Mall in Penn Valley Park.

The squire of the city reported: “Local favorites at the event include Joe Egle and his 1952 Jaguar C which was built strictly for Le Mans, France, Marilyn Congleton who calls herself the ‘Riding Grandma’ in her Luscious Lotus Eleven , and her husband Tom who drives a historic Ford GT 40.

FGP05.jpg
Cars cross the finish line at the Folly Classic Vintage Grand Prix in July 1984. Kansas City Public Library

The Grand Prix went well apart from some meteorological and technical delays. A minor accident occurred when former world champion Phil Hill pushed another car into the Group 5 race, damaging the headlight of his Ferrari. Hill, who had come from Santa Monica, Calif., Won the race.

Kansas citizen Craig Sutherland placed first in Group 4, while the winners of the other groups were from Illinois, Oklahoma and Connecticut. Joe Egle celebrated by drinking champagne with his second place trophy. Overall, the event was met with enthusiasm from the drivers, who enjoyed the street route and appreciated Kansas City as a central location.

FGP07.jpg
Coverage of the 1985 Kansas City Grand Prix program. Kansas City Public Library

Despite the positive response, the Grand Prix was not a financial success. Attendance was around 34,000 instead of the planned 50,000, and ticket sales could not cover the cost of the event. A percentage of the proceeds was allocated to Kansas City Parks and Recreation, which had partnered with the Folly to charge entry to Penn Valley Park. While Bruening signaled that the 1984 run would not make theater money, attendees expected it to gain traction in the next few years.

FGP08.jpg
The Kansas City Grand Prix, June 8-9, 1985. Kansas City Public Library

Unfortunately for the Folly, the race only lasted a year longer. The 1985 event, renamed the Kansas City Grand Prix, took place in June and was more ambitious than the first. In addition to about 100 vintage drivers, it included over 40 professional drivers and was to be the first race of the 1985 Pro Sports 2000 championships. Races ranged from 10 to 40 laps around the same course, and two pedestrian bridges costing about $ 92,000 was built on the street.

FGP09.jpg
Governor’s proclamation for the Folly Classic Vintage Grand Prix day, July 3, 1984. Kansas City Public Library

New manager Barbara Bailey also made the 1985 Grand Prix more family-friendly, with children’s activities, musical groups, and flyovers of vintage airplanes. The event turned a profit, raising $ 10,000 for the Folly after barely breaking even a year earlier.

Despite efforts to continue the tradition in 1986, the Grand Prix was canceled due to a significant increase in insurance costs. A required $ 20 million policy has become too expensive for fundraising. Meanwhile, the Folly Theater had successfully negotiated with several banks to cancel the majority of its $ 1.35 million loan, due in May of that year. The theater survived and the Kansas City Grand Prix became a cherished, albeit distant memory.

Kansas City Star Related Stories