Yuletide Greetings from UMKC Libraries

A huge clay mask on top of a brick structure is covered by falling snow. The mask has closed eyes and an open mouth.
The UMKC University Playhouse fireplace as it might have looked with smoke curling from the unique dual chimneys.

Our UMKC Libraries team hopes this winter season finds you enjoying a cozy atmosphere and gathering with family and friends. The University Playhouse fireplace is a historic gathering spot on our campus, and we’re delighted to share this new look at its story. Perhaps a crackling fire, hot chocolate, and holiday traditions will help you greet a new year refreshed and ready to continue your work as a student, a teacher, a researcher, or another of the many roles that creates our UMKC community.

The University Playhouse story

The University Playhouse building arrived on the Kansas City University (KCU) campus in 1948 as one of five buildings acquired as war surplus from the U.S. Army. Previously an auditorium at Camp Crowder in Neosho, Missouri, the Playhouse building was moved to campus, reassembled and retrofitted to serve as a small modern theater. The project removed some seating to make space to add an orchestra pit and sound and lighting systems, but the building lacked the square footage for a lobby. A patio and fireplace were built of Arkansas stone at the Playhouse entrance to provide an area for attendees to mingle before performances and during intermissions. The focal point of the patio was a large fireplace topped by two masks representing Comedy and Tragedy, sculpted from local clay, and serving as chimneys so that smoke curled from their mouths.

A building with light colored siding has the words UNIVERSITY PLAYHOUSE on the front above a bank of six doors. In the foreground are some tree branches and a portion of a circular brick wall that surrounds a stone patio.
The University Playhouse exterior, undated. This view includes the patio wall opposite the fireplace.

Comedy and Tragedy masks

When the patio and fireplace were built in 1948 to serve as the lobby for the Playhouse, the comic and tragic masks were part of the original plan. The architect hired by the university had hired a sculptor to create the masks. But this sculptor did not create the masks and after a year claimed he was ill and wouldn’t be able to do it. So university president Clarence Decker asked KCU art professor Thomas Thomas to create them.  At that time the new School of Law Building (Cockefair Hall today) was under construction and they had dug up a large quantity of high quality clay when they excavated the foundation. Thomas and his students spent two years creating the masks. It was a process of trial and error as they worked to come up with a mixture of clay from campus and other clays and a design that could hold its shape under the heavy weight without collapsing on itself. Each mask when wet weighed over a thousand pounds! For part of this time Alexander Archipenko was an artist in residence here at the university it is suspected that he helped with the project, but mention of his involvement has not been located. He was one of the foremost creators of monumental outdoor sculpture, after all.

Workers operate by hand a mechanical crane that is lifting a huge clay mask into place on a concrete structure. The mask has closed eyes and an open mouth, which is hollow.
Construction of the Playhouse chimney, undated.

Thomas was friends with an executive of the W.S. Dickey Clay company (W.S. Dickey was Walter Dickey, whose home is now Scofield Hall). This friend volunteered the large kiln at the Dickey plant in Pittsburg, Kansas to fire the masks. They were sent by rail to the plant. It took six days to fire them and six days for them to cool before they opened the kiln doors. Thomas’ design was sound because there the masks sit 73 years later.

A crowd of people queue for picnic food on a a stone patio with a large outdoor fireplace at one end. The fireplace has a conical hood and the words UNIVERSITY PLAYHOUSE at the top.
A picnic on the University Playhouse patio, 1950s.

Today, what remains of the University Playhouse is the library’s back patio, positioned near the west entrance to our building. It’s a campus landmark and meeting spot, as well as a place that hosts outdoor events like student orientation activities, fairs, picnics, and Halloween read-ins. As the home of University Archives – the source for all these amazing photos – we love having this fascinating location just beyond the library windows where students study every day.

The University Playhouse today, viewed looking south from the Miller Nichols Library and Learning Center buildings.

Sources

Music: Marr Sound Archives, UMKC University Libraries. Sampled tracks “Woodmen of the World Audition” and “Vickers Imported China,” by Warren Durrett. Arranged by David Wei Dai, UMKC Doctor of Music Composition student.

Digitized images: University Archives, UMKC University Libraries.

Photos and video: Dani Wellemeyer, Sean McCue.

Decker, Clarence R. Decker, Mary Bell. A Place Of Light: The Story Of A University Presidency. New York. Hermitage House, 1954.

Wolff, Christopher. A Pearl of Great Value: The History of UMKC, Kansas City’s University. Kansas City, Missouri. UMKC Alumni Association, 2016.

Special thanks to Chris Wolff, UMKC Bookstore Manager, historian, and author of “A Pearl of Great Value: The History of UMKC, Kansas City’s University,” for providing additional information from his research.

By: Dani Wellemeyer, UMKC Libraries, and Chris Wolff

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Glass exhibit table

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