Films, Campaign Stops, Pageants, Cottage Cheese and Ice Cream A Historical View of the Liberty Center Association for the Arts

The Liberty Center Association for the Arts is housed in the historic Liberty Theatre. What began in 1920 as a community effort to raise funds for a theatre continues the tradition today nearly 100 years later. Located at 111 West 5th Street it was originally called the New Lona Theatre.

In The Beginning
The New Lona opened on August 12, 1920 to a packed house and great reviews. The theatre originally seated 1500 people and the entrance was at 5th and Ohio now Fitter's 5th Street Pub. The crowd was greeted by an orchestra to an opening day overture titled "The Great American Fantasie" by Victor Herbert. The first show was a silent film titled "One Hour Before Dawn" and starred H.B. Warner who is familiar as the drunken pharmacist in "It's a Wonderful Life." Floral arrangements from Warner Brothers and Paramount Pictures arrived for opening day.

The Lona began with a group of businessmen who came together and raised $200,000 to build a modern theatre which would be equivalent to any theatre in a larger city. The Sedalia Democrat said it best about opening day: "For the Lona is equal to the handsomest theatre in any large city of the middle west, and for equipment and comfort has few equals and no superiors." Architect, Clifford H. Johnson of Baxter NE visited several theatres to get design ideas for the New Lona. Built in the Classical Revival style the new facility did not disappoint.

On October 9, 1920, then Vice-presidential candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor made a stop at the Lona. Filled to capacity, Roosevelt campaigned on the heroism of the men who fought and won World War I and the heroes who kept things going at home. He and his wife left by train to continue campaigning in Kansas City. While the ticket of Cox-Roosevelt was considered by some to be the better choice, the republican team of Harding-Coolidge won the presidency by a landslide campaigning on the promise to "return to normalcy" to a war weary America.

Theatre Becomes Warehouse
In 1928 the theatre became exclusively a movie theatre and was renamed the Liberty Theatre and the first "talkie" was shown. From the 1930's through the early 1950's Liberty Theatre continued to show movies but also hosted events showcasing local talent. Pageants include the 1936 Miss Missouri preliminary as well as a "Men's Beauty Contest – in feminine attire—no bathing suits please!" hosted by the Sedalia Elks Club and a square dance competition were well attended. By 1958, the building was sold to Beatrice Foods (owner of Meadow Gold) and became a warehouse distributor for cottage cheese and ice cream.

Concerned Citizens To the Rescue
At the end of the dairy warehouse era, the building was donated to the city who gave the building to the Sedalia Community Theatre. Ginger Swearingen, Jim Giokaris, and architect, Neal Reybourn rallied the support of the community to once again raise the needed funds to bring the building back to a theatre. The first fund-raising gala was held in 1983.

Queen of the Prairie Sculpture
Artist, Will Nettleship of California was commissioned in 1991 to create a piece of site-specific art work for the Liberty Center. "As explained to me, while Mr. Smith founded the city, it was his daughters, both shrewd business women, who put together real estate deals and the like that shaped much of the early days of Sedalia. The starting point for my thinking about a public sculpture was therefore the idea of Nineteenth Century Missouri women who were founders," says Nettleship.

"In my sculpture I have been interested in the interplay between images and abstract forms. As a first step in thinking about Sedalia's history I made a series of female figures dressed in Nineteenth Century long dresses. These were not literal representations so much as freely sketched figures with bold, simplified forms. The next question was one of translating the sculpture language developed during the figure studies into forms that would be suitable for the entrance of the Liberty Center. The pattern of red, black and buff brick and the shapes of the concrete paving, both the perimeter and the grooving within it, were all derived from the hem of the dresses of the figure studies. From a conceptual point of view, it is as though the 'Queen' is within the Liberty Center while her dress flows out of the entrances in an image of exuberance and abundance."

Courtesy of Kevin Walker
Today, the building houses the Liberty Center Association for the Arts which serves as the community arts organization for the Sedalia area. The LCAA's mission is to culturally enrich the Sedalia-region through quality arts programs and provides an historic arts destination as a space for people to come together to celebrate the arts. It continues hosting a variety of live productions, art exhibits, art classes, musical concerts and much more.