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The State Historical Society of Missouri's Historic Missourians
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Harry S. Truman
George Washington Carver
Rose O'Neil

Carl Boller (1868 - 1946)
Robert Boller (1887 - 1962)



Carl and Robert Boller were architects who specialized in designing movie palaces during the first half of the twentieth century. Movies provided escape from the dull and the humdrum. Early on, the architecture of movie theater buildings aided in the illusion of stepping into a fantasy world.


Early Years and Education

Map of Kansas City and St. Joseph Missouri St. Joseph and Kansas City, Missouri

Carl and Robert Boller’s parents, Charles William Boller and Pauline W. A. Grutzmacher, emigrated with their families from Germany. They married on July 4, 1865, in Brunswick, Missouri, and set up their household in St. Joseph, Missouri. The Bollers had ten children. Carl, the second oldest, was born in 1868, and Robert, the tenth child, was born in 1887. There was a nineteen-year difference between the brothers.

Boller family Boller family Photo of the Boller family taken sometime before 1914.

Back row, left to right: Robert, Carl, and William Boller.

Center row: Laura (Lalla) Boller, Marie Boller Clark, Julia Boller Pritchett, and Addie Boller Gummig.

Front row: Fanny Boller Walker, Charles William Boller, Pauline Grutzmacher Boller, and Emma Elizabeth Boller McCann.

[Courtesy of Dorothy Boller Hall]
While not a lot is known about them, it appears that neither brother had any formal training in architecture. Their oldest brother, Will, worked in vaudeville
Vaudeville was a type of variety show that was popular in the United States during the late 1800s and early 1900s. A typical vaudeville show consisted of several separate acts, such as musical performances by singers and instrumentalists, dancing routines, comedy sketches, magic acts, gymnastics and acrobatics, juggling, short plays or individual acts and scenes from well-known full-length plays, and trained animal shows. Vaudeville acts fell out of favor with the growth of the movie industry.
, a type of live entertainment that included performances by a variety of acts. Will was known as Boller the Magician. He was also a scenery painter. The troupe performed a circuit through Kansas and Missouri. In 1898 thirty-year-old Carl joined the troupe as another scenery artist.


Carl Leaves Vaudeville for Architecture

La Belle Theatre La Belle Theatre Postcard of the La Belle Theatre, Pittsburg, Kansas.

[Leonard H. Axe Library, Special Collections, Pittsburg State University]

The first theater that Carl Boller designed was the La Belle in Pittsburg, Kansas. According to family tradition, Carl was working on scenery design in Pittsburg in 1903. From practical experience he understood the architectural spaces required for vaudeville. He was asked to help plan Pittsburg’s new theater.

A three-story brick building, the La Belle Theatre had red velvet box seats, a large stage, and three balconies. In the third balcony, called the “chicken roost,” the seats were only fifty cents. As vaudeville declined and silent movies became available, the theatre was revamped in 1910 to add a screen and projection room. Reopened as the Orpheum Theatre, the building was destroyed by a fire in 1915.

Many of the early Boller theaters were likely influenced by the 1904 World's Fair
The St. Louis World's Fair held in 1904 is also known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition because it celebrated the centennial of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Located on the grounds of current-day Forest Park and the campus of Washington University, the international exposition featured exhibits from 62 countries and 43 of the then 45 U.S. states. The exhibits showcased cities, industries, private organizations, and businesses among its educational displays and entertainment. More than nineteen million people visited the fair between its opening day on April 30 and its closing on December 1.
in St. Louis. Several countries built pavilions in the fanciful styles popular in Europe. The variety and richness of these pavilions inspired the Midwest public and the architectural world.

By 1905 Carl had opened his own architectural business. Located in Kansas City, the firm was known as Carl Boller, Architect.


Robert Joins his Brothers Firm

Columbia Theatre Columbia Theatre Postcard of the Columbia Theatre in Columbia, Missouri. The theater was designed by the Bollers in 1906 and later remodeled by their firm in 1926.

[Courtesy of Noelle Soren]

Like Carl, Robert finished eighth grade at the Ernst School in St. Joseph. Robert loved live theater and spent his allowance attending performances at local theaters.

After graduation Robert worked for a series of St. Joseph companies before joining his brother’s firm as an apprentice draftsman in 1905. He was eighteen years old.

The Bollers received work from across the country. Nevada experienced a gold rush in 1907 with boomtowns springing up throughout the state. The firm was hired to build several nickelodeons in Nevada towns. Nickelodeons were theater houses that charged a nickel to see moving pictures.

Empress Theatre Empress Theatre Postcard of the Empress Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri. The Bollers designed this theater in 1910. It has since been demolished.

[Courtesy of Noelle Soren]

In 1911 Robert Boller went to the West Coast to supervise architectural work for the Sullivan & Considine vaudeville circuit. Four years later he was back working with his brother in Kansas City. Robert joined the American Institute of Architects, and the Kansas City Chapter made Carl its president in 1917.


The Boller Brothers Firm

Architectural drawing of Cooper Theatre Cooper Theatre Architectural drawing showing a cross-section of the Cooper Theatre in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, designed by Carl Boller & Brother, Architects, 1919.

[Boller Brothers Architectural Records, c. 1915-c. 1953 (KC0065), The State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection-Kansas City]

Robert served in the United States Corps of Engineers during World War I. Carl, now fifty years old, kept the business going from their office in Kansas City’s Gayety Theater Building. When the war ended, Robert rejoined his brother at the firm and married Ina Dorothy Dickinson in 1919. Around 1920 Carl and Robert changed the firm’s name to Boller Brothers.

The Bollers had designed at least sixty-five theaters by 1919, establishing their firm as specialists in the architectural field of theater and movie palace design. Each theater was unique. The design was influenced by the history of the town where it was located.

The Bollers believed decoration should be elegant and refined. They strived for luxury and comfort in their designs, favoring Spanish/Italian themes.


The 1920s

Midland Theatre Midland Theatre Exterior view of the Midland Theatre in Kansas City, 1976.

[George Ehrlich (1925-2009) Papers (KC0067), The State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection-Kansas City]
Movie Madness
The American movie industry began on a small scale in the late 1800s, but started experiencing major growth during the World War I era (1914-1918). American films began to dominate the world's film industry after the war, which damaged European economies far more than it hurt the American economy and made it harder for the film industry to grow in Europe. Huge movie companies were created in the United States, many of them centered in Hollywood, California. To keep up with the American public's demand for movies, movie theaters were built all across the country during the 1920s. Demand for theaters increased as silent movies were replaced by talking movies in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Many of the theaters built during this time period were constructed with lavish interiors to enhance the entertainment experience of movie-goers.
” swept the country in the 1920s, and there was a huge boom in building movie theaters. The Boller Brothers firm briefly opened an office in Oklahoma before Carl moved to California to open a branch in Los Angeles. Carl Boller spent the remainder of his career there. Most of the theater buildings designed by the firm in the Midwest during the 1920s are likely the creations of Robert Boller.
Redmon's Majestic Redmon's Majestic Postcard of the Redmon’s Majestic Theatre, East St. Louis, Illinois, which was designed by the Boller Brothers in 1927-1928.

[Courtesy of Noelle Soren]

In 1927 the firm worked with Thomas W. Lamb, a New York architect, to design one of Kansas City’s grandest movie theaters, the Midland Theatre. The theater was located on the corner of Main Street and Thirteenth. The movie palace contained 4,000 seats and featured carved wood and ornamented plasterwork.

The firm continued to grow throughout the 1920s and employed thirty-five people by 1929. By the end of the decade, they had designed or remodeled at least eighty-eight theaters. The firm’s future looked bright until the stock market crashed on October 24, 1929.


Historic Theatres

A number of Boller Brothers theaters designed during the 1920s are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the KiMo Theater in Albuquerque, New Mexico; the Missouri Theater in St. Joseph, Missouri; and the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts in Columbia, Missouri. Built in 1927, the KiMo Theater features a Southwestern theme filled with Native American designs. The exterior stucco walls resemble an Indian pueblo. Longhorn skulls with electric light bulb eyes border the front of the building.

The Missouri Theater in St. Joseph opened in 1927, and its style is a combination of Spanish and Middle Eastern influences. The palace ruins at Persepolis, the capital of ancient Persia (known today as Iran), were the inspiration for the grand interior. The auditorium features a tent-like plaster canopy tied to the walls by ropes and shielding the audience from an intense blue sky.

The ornate interior of the Missouri Theatre in Columbia is influenced by the style of French royalty in the 1700s. The theatre was completed in 1928. The Missouri Symphony Society purchased the building in 1987, completing a full restoration of the movie palace in 2008.

The Boller Brothers firm also worked on other theaters in Columbia, including remodeling both the Hall Theatre The exterior of the former Hall Theatre in Columbia, Missouri, 2011.

[Staff: Elizabeth Engel]
(now a Panera Bread) and the Varsity Theatre Exterior view of the Blue Note in Columbia, Missouri (formerly the Varsity Theatre), 2011.

[Staff: Elizabeth Engel]
(formerly the Star Theatre and now the Blue Note, a music venue).


The Great Depression and War Years

Architectural Drawing of Theatre in Santa Fe Theatre in Santa Fe An architectural drawing of the exterior of a theatre in Santa Fe, New Mexico, designed by the Boller Brothers firm in 1930.

[Boller Brothers Architectural Records, c. 1915-c. 1953 (KC0065), The State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection-Kansas City]
Business fell off dramatically during the depression
In late October 1929 a devastating stock market crash occurred on Wall Street. The crash was the result of risky financial decisions made by investors in the stock market. The value of stocks fell dramatically, sending the economy into a tailspin. Many people went broke and faced tough times. The crash was followed by the Great Depression, a severe worldwide economic downturn that lasted until World War II. Many people were unemployed during this time, income dropped, and many families became homeless.
, nearly destroying the firm. During the 1930s Carl designed only about three theaters in California before retiring.

The Kansas City office experienced a series of contract cancellations, and Robert came close to bankruptcy after trying to keep all his staff. He was eventually forced to close the office and move his family to a cabin in the Ozarks in June 1932 to weather the bad economy.

Orpheum Theatre Orpheum Theatre Sketch of the Orpheum Theatre in St. Joseph, designed by Robert Boller in 1933.

[Boller Brothers Architectural Records, c. 1915-c. 1953 (KC0065), The State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection-Kansas City]

After receiving a handful of commissions, Robert was able to return to Kansas City in 1936. Instead of renting office space, he built a studio at his home on Brooklyn Avenue to save money. The firm’s staff was much smaller than before, and remodeling became their main work. The few new theaters designed by the firm were simpler and more modern in style.

Drawing showing Architectural detail Architectural Detail Architectural Detail.

Detail from an architectural drawing showing the stage area of the Main Theatre in Pueblo, Colorado, designed by Robert Boller in 1934.

[Boller Brothers Architectural Records, c. 1915-c. 1953 (KC0065), The State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection-Kansas City]
World War II
World War II was a global conflict that began in Europe on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. In response, Britain and France declared war on Germany. War broke out between the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) and the Allied Powers (Britain, France, and the Soviet Union). Japan invaded China, occupied the Philippines, and seized a number of islands throughout the Pacific, while Germany captured much of Europe and North Africa before invading the Soviet Union. Millions of civilians were killed; Jews were specifically singled out by the Germans for extermination, as were other minorities, such as those who were mentally ill, physically and mentally disabled, homosexual, or members of political and religious groups who opposed the Axis Powers.

The United States provided aid to the Allied Powers but remained neutral until Japan launched a surprise attack on the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. The United States then declared war on Japan and, in turn, Germany declared war on the United States. The United States joined the Allied Powers and launched an enormous war effort at home and abroad. On the home front, civilians made important contributions by helping to produce military equipment, supplies, and food in record amounts. American military forces fought in Europe, North Africa, and throughout the Pacific against the Axis Powers. By the end of the war, over twelve million Americans had served in the armed forces.

On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered, bringing an end to the war in Europe. The war in the Pacific continued until the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in early August 1945. The Japanese surrendered on August 14, 1945. By the end of the war, over 418,500 American servicemen were killed, and worldwide an estimated thirty-eight million people lost their lives during the war.
brought new struggles. The War Production Board, a government agency that oversaw the use of scarce materials during the war, halted construction of movie theatres from 1942 to 1944. On at least one occasion during this time, the firm took advantage of a loophole that allowed them to remodel a theater using approved materials.


End of the Firm

Carl Boller died of a heart attack on October 30, 1946, in Los Angeles. He was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California.

Postcard of the New Princess Theatre New Princess Theatre Postcard of the New Princess Theatre, Aurora, Missouri. The theater was originally designed by the Bollers in 1906. Their firm later remodeled it in 1937 and 1943.

[Courtesy of Noelle Soren]

Robert and his wife, Dorothy, built a dream home in Hermitage, Missouri, during the late 1940s. Not long after moving in, Dorothy suffered a series of strokes before dying in 1953.

After Carl’s death, Robert worked briefly with a new partner, but the partnership did not work out and ended in the early 1950s. He designed a few drive-in movie theaters by himself before closing the firm in 1957 and moving to Texas.

Robert Boller died of a heart attack on November 24, 1962, in Garland, Texas. He is buried in Hermitage, Missouri, next to his wife.


The Bollers's Legacy

Missouri Theatre Missouri Theatre The exterior of the Missouri Theatre in Columbia after it was restored, 2011.

[Staff: Elizabeth Engel]

The Boller Brothers helped shape the emerging architectural form of the movie palace. They designed or consulted on the design and construction of more than three hundred theaters in the Midwest and on the West Coast. While many have been demolished or modified, others have been listed as historic buildings and restored to the glitter of the fantasy age of movie palaces.

Text and research by Alice Anna Reese and Elizabeth Engel


References and Resources

For more information about Carl and Robert Boller's life and career, see the following resources:

Society Resources

The following is a selected list of books, articles, and manuscripts about Carl and Robert Boller in the research centers of The State Historical Society of Missouri. The Society’s call numbers follow the citations in brackets. All links will open in a new tab.

  • Articles from the Newspaper Collection
    • “Beautiful New Missouri Opens Doors Tonight.” St. Joseph Gazette. June 25, 1927. p. 1-2.
    • “Hall Theatre to Undergo Changes.” Columbia Tribune. October 27, 1927. p. 1.
  • Books
    • Soren, Noelle. The Missouri Theater, Columbia, Missouri (Part III). Columbia: University of Missouri Art History Dept., c. 1975. [REF H056.23 So68]
    • _____. Windows to Wonderland: Cinespace Creations of the Boller Brothers, Architects. Tucson, AZ: MGP Publishing, 1999. [REF F529 So68]
  • Manuscript Collection

Outside Resources

These links, which open in another window, will take you outside the Society's website. The Society is not responsible for the content of the following websites:
  • Cinema Treasures
    This Website lists movie theatres designed by the Boller Brothers.

Historic Missourians: Carl and Robert Boller
Carl & Robert Boller
Carl Boller Carl Boller (1868-1946)

[Courtesy of Joe and Judie Magonacelaya]
Samuel Langhorne Clemens Robert O. Boller (1887-1962)

[Missouri, Mother of the West, 1930, v. 4. SHS]

The Boller Brothers

Carl Boller
(1868 - 1946)
Robert O. Boller
(1887 - 1962)

Category: Architects
Region of Missouri: Kansas City
Missouri Hometowns: St. Joseph & Kansas City