Hall of Fame: Liberty Hall celebrates a century of bringing community together

100 years of Liberty Hall

1912

Newly constructed Bowersock Opera House opens, called “the finest theatre for any town the size of Lawrence” by the Lawrence Daily Journal-World

1920s

Motion picture equipment installed to show occasional films in addition to live performances

1923

Bowersock is sold to Glen W. Dickinson Sr. and renamed Dickinson Theater, presents primarily motion pictures.

1928

First wedding performed in building.

1929

Air conditioning installed, making the Dickinson one of only two public places in town to have it.

1940

Theater changes hands, contest held to rename it. The Jayhawker is chosen because of the venue’s close association with Kansas University (KU drama performances and other events had been held on the site since the 1800s).

1940

Jayhawker hosts world premiere of “Dark Command.” The film, starring John Wayne, was set in Lawrence and inspired by the story of Quantrill’s Raid.

Late 1950s

Jayhawker closes, building sold and used for warehouse space

1960s

Civil Defense flags building as one of safest in town for a bomb shelter

1964

Building bought by John Brown and Mike Murfin, who open it as the Red Dog Inn. New concert venue draws acts including the Dick Clark Show, Arlo Guthrie, Fleetwood Mac and Ike and Tina Turner. At one point, owners once told the Journal-World, Red Dog was the largest draught Budweiser account in the country.

1974

Red Dog closes, building changes hands and identities numerous times in the next decade. Ventures include the Free State Opera House, the 7th Spirit Club (a nightclub in the basement), Bugsy’s Disco and the Lawrence Opera House.

1982

Lawrence Opera House closes, building goes up for auction. Venue open only for private parties.

1980s

City entertains plan to tear down building, and others nearby, to build a 400,000-square-foot mall.

1985

David Millstein and the late Charlie Oldfather purchase building at auction.

1986

After extensive rehabilitation, building reopens as Liberty Hall.

— Source: Watkins Community Museum of History

J.D. Bowersock surely never envisioned his elegant Beaux-Arts-style opera house with a Plexiglas dance floor and disco lights, people crammed shoulder-to-shoulder while Ike and Tina Turner rocked the stage, or even harboring unorthodox Christmas trees in its every nook and cranny.

In the last 100 years, the building now called Liberty Hall has changed names and motifs but rarely strayed from its identity as a community gathering place.

Bowersock descendent Stephen Hill, a Lawrence resident, says that’s probably fitting.

“I think he understood from the first that this was a contribution to the cultural life of Lawrence,” Hill says.

Liberty Hall’s current owners, David and Susan Millstein, of Baldwin, see the building at Seventh and Massachusetts streets as more than just a business.

“We feel the same way that Bowersock felt about it,” David Millstein says. “You always need a place for entertainment and community, and we’re here to fulfill that.”

Building to last

After his first Bowersock Opera House burned down in 1911, Bowersock rebuilt it to last, using brick and reinforced concrete.

And last it has.

The people of Lawrence showed up to watch opera, vaudeville and silent films, which eventually gave way to “talkies.” After Bowersock’s death, the building was sold and repurposed as a movie theater — first the Dickinson and later the Jayhawker.

The lengthiest period the building was not open to the public was in the 1950s and 1960s. It was being used as warehouse space and faced the threat of being razed.

“It was unsightly,” Millstein says. “It was the after-thought of downtown.”

But by the mid-’60s, crowds returned — this time louder and rowdier than ever.

The Red Dog Inn brought national acts like the Dick Clark Show, Arlo Guthrie and Fleetwood Mac, and hundreds of beer-drinking fans along with them to the old theater.

Good times

Ike and Tina Turner was the first show Millstein saw there after arriving in town as a college student.

There was only supposed to be about 1,000 people in the hall, but there must’ve been twice that, Millstein says. The crowd was packed like sardines, and the atmosphere was charged. Basically, he says, it was insanity.

“Ike was just — he was pushin’ it hard, man,” Millstein reminisces.

In the 1970s there was even a nightclub in the basement — the 7th Spirit crammed smaller-name bands and fans into the low-ceilinged, meandering underground level now used as dressing rooms for performers.

When current Liberty Hall event manager Rob Fitzgerald came to Lawrence for college in 1980, he hit Liberty Hall his first night. The hall became a regular hangout, where hundreds of people a night might show up for a punk band — BYOB.

“We had a good time,” Fitzgerald says, but the hall was starting to show wear and tear, not to mention it had orange-carpeted walls left over from its days as a disco.

All the while, in addition to entertainment, the hall has seen weddings, speeches, charity socials, Kansas University events and, in 1997, even William S. Burroughs’ funeral. 

Every day, Fitzgerald says, it seems like people walk in and comment about a show they saw there back in the ’60s, or that relative’s wedding they went to back in the ’90s.

The Festival of Trees is one of Liberty Hall’s longest-running community events.

For 23 years, members of the community that might not otherwise come together have converged on Liberty Hall for the festival, which raises money for The Shelter Inc., says Judy Culley, executive director.

“It’s a building that has served the community for a long, long time,” she says, adding that the old building’s beauty is a fitting backdrop. “It’s just perfect for it to be at Liberty Hall.”

Give them Liberty

When the Millsteins teamed with the late Charlie Oldfather to purchase the building in 1985, it had been vacant a couple of years and was pegged for demolition to make way for a shopping mall.

The Millsteins restored it and renamed it Liberty Hall — after the first designated community hall on the site, back in the 1870s — and reverted its purpose to involve more than partying.

Now, Liberty Hall serves as movie theater, performance theater, concert venue and community event space.

“I think it’s just back to its original function,” Millstein says. “It’s changed its moods a few times in the last hundred years, but I think we’ve struck the balance here. Hopefully we can get another 100 years out of it.”

Comments

Bill Lee 7 years, 5 months ago

When we started putting on Kansas Music Hall of Fame induction concerts, we couldn't imagine doing them anywhere but Liberty Hall. Join us next year for another great show. This year's was awesome!

Donna Kirk-Swaffar 7 years, 5 months ago

We had our wedding reception there in 1994--it was perfect.

irvan moore 7 years, 5 months ago

wasn't nothin' better than the old red dog inn

Carol Braden 7 years, 5 months ago

We had our wedding reception at Liberty Hall just after it was remodeled, May 23, 1987. Kelly Hunt's band played and we danced through the night. We just celebrated our 25th Wedding Anniversary!

jalbig88 7 years, 5 months ago

The Flaming Lips of Liberty...What an awesome moment in time this will be... But two other equally momentous moments echo from the Hall still...the extraordinary performance by Jonsi and his Icelandic volcano band in 2010... and the Reykawvik UFO Summit of 2011...

Mark Kostner 7 years, 5 months ago

In the 80's they were going to tear it down for a mall. Well we see how well that would have worked out! I have so many memories of that place. It put Lawrence on the music map and many bands played there. I also frequented the club cavernous club downstairs and remember the membership cards and liquor cards. It's great this treasure is still going strong.

Ron Holzwarth 7 years, 5 months ago

I sure do remember the bleak days that the Opera House went through in the very late 1970s after Bugsy's, the nightclub with the dance floor made of Plexiglass lit from beneath with different colors, had closed. Bugsy's was only open about seven months, and the story went around that the owner's brother had absconded with the contents of the cash till, and that is why they closed. I do not know if that was true or not, but that was the story that went around.

There used to be a small restaurant, The Submarine, in part of the building on the south part of the Opera House, and I was working there when Bugsy's opened. It was located where the ticket office for the Opera House is now.

We already had a stairwell that led down to the Seventh Spirit, and then a hole was punched through the east wall so we could sell food to the patrons of Bugsy's. I was only in Bugsy's once, and I was in the drinking establishment that was there just prior only a very few times, and I don't remember what it was called. For me, it was not a place for recreation, it was where I worked.

The Submarine has a very large role in my memories. Very early in February of 1976, on a Sunday, I was instructed to train the new employee. Sunday was the day selected for her training because it was a slow day, and we were only open about six hours. That was the day I met the woman who put herself and me into quite a situation some years later, on January 19, 1986. Sometimes it's difficult for me to believe I knew her that long before she did that.

After I had quit working at The Submarine, the bleak and dreary days for the Opera House began. The whole place had been painted black for use as Bugsy's, a rumor went around that the owner of the building was having financial difficulties, and the future of the building looked hopeless.

I was inside the building a few times back then. A former roommate and friend of mine was living in what is now the whole Opera House. His bedroom was way up high, in what is now the projector room, and he had a white cat for company. His white cat sure showed well in the place, since the whole place was painted black, and I remember thinking that he had the roomiest apartment I had ever seen, since he had the whole Opera House to live in. And, he lived there rent free as a fringe benefit of working there in some capacity. I don't remember for sure, but I think at the time he was the manager of the Seventh Spirit. I do know for a fact that he had been, and also was at the time, a bartender there.

Quite a few events happened at the Opera House back then that I will certainly never forget, and I have told only a very few trusted friends about them. They sure were interesting things, though!

The Opera House is such a beautiful building, it has so much history behind it, and now it's restored to its former grandeur, which I certainly never did see when I worked there. I hope its there in it's beautiful state for many more decades.

Steve Jacob 7 years, 5 months ago

I remember on channel 6 a special about the 25th anniversary of "Carnival of Souls" at the newly renovated Liberty Hall.

Ron Holzwarth 7 years, 5 months ago

You get a copy of that interview with the filmmakers and cast if you buy the DVD of 'Carnival of Souls'. This is a list of what you get:

Disc One: The Original Theatrical Version

New digital transfer of the original theatrical version

The Movie That Wouldn’t Die! The Story of 'Carnival of Souls': a documentary on the 1989 reunion of the cast and crew

More than 45 minutes of rare outtakes accompanied by Gene Moore’s organ score

Theatrical trailer

An illustrated history of the Saltair resort in Salt Lake City

The Carnival Tour: a video update on the film’s locations

English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired

Optimal image quality: RSDL dual-layer edition

Disc Two: The Extended Director's Cut

Selected audio commentary by screenwriter John Clifford and late director Herk Harvey

One hour of excerpts from films made by the Centron Corporation, an industrial film company based in Lawrence, Kansas that employed Harvey and Clifford for over thirty years

An essay on the history of Centron from Ken Smith’s Mental Hygiene

Printed interviews with Harvey, Clifford, and star Candace Hilligoss, illustrated with vintage photos and memorabilia

English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired

Optimal image quality: RSDL dual-layer edition

Theprof 7 years, 5 months ago

Bringing community together? And what about those days when people of color were segregated in the theater. Another example of perpetuating the American myth.

asixbury 7 years, 5 months ago

Not that it makes it ok, but everything was segregated back then. Besides that dark period in time, Liberty Hall did bring the community together. Move on.

Ron Holzwarth 7 years, 5 months ago

This is one of my "Guilty!" memories of The Submarine: I was working behind the counter when a man came walking in, and said this, "Is there a bar around here? I need a drink! See, I've got the shakes!"

He held his hand up so I could see that yes, his hand was trembling. This was in the days of the club memberships and liquor cards, so he couldn't drink at the Seventh Spirit unless he was a member's guest. So, I picked up the phone and called the bartender. I told him there would be a man coming downstairs, he was my guest, and he could use my liquor card.

Then I pointed to the door of the stairs, and told him, "There's a bar down there, at the bottom of the stairs." The man thanked me, went through that door, and I never saw him again.

A few minutes later, another man came into The Submarine. He asked me if I had seen a man fitting the description of the man that was my guest at the Seventh Spirit. He explained that he was that man's Alcoholic's Anonymous sponsor, and he was keeping an eye on him to make sure he didn't drink.

It was too late! And I said to him, "No, I don't remember anyone like that." Then he went out to look for that man somewhere else.

Do you think I'm going to end up in Hell because of that?

John Kyle 7 years, 5 months ago

Stranglers, Willie Dixon, King Sunny Ade....

pal00kaville 7 years, 5 months ago

Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Gun Club, Husker Du, Toxic Reasons, numerous shows with the Micronotz, Pedal Jets, and other locals, others can certainly add, I don't know why it says the Opera House closed in 1982, because all of these shows continued until 85 or 86.

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