Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Vivian Patee

Mary Elizabeth "Lizzie" McDermott was born in Cleveland, Ohio on January 4, 1860. At the age of 12, the McDermotts moved to the Lawrence, Kansas area where she attended the White School until the age of 16 when she got a job at the Lawrence Tribune. She was employed at the Tribune for a few years until moving to Topeka to work at the state printing office and then to the Topeka Daily Commonwealth. It was in Topeka that she met Claire M. Patee, who managed a traveling theater. They got married in 1884 and she joined him traveling around the country with the theater and soon started appearing on stage as well. It was here that Vivian Patee was born.

ad for the Patee Comedians performing
at the Bowersock Opera House in
Lawrence, Kansas. Sept. 1891.
Clarence M. Patee was born in Ashland, Kansas on May 6, 1857. Claire founded the Manhattan Mercury before becoming involved with the theater, creating his own troupe and performing a variety of plays and musicals. Around the turn of the century, the Patees quickly hopped onto the advent of motion pictures. Claire reportedly helped Thomas Edison with his work on movie projectors and owned one of the first movie theaters in the United States, located in New Jersey and opening in 1898 in Jersey City.

Taking this newfound technology, the Patees returned to Lawrence around 1903 to care for Vivian's stepfather and opened The Nickel, not only the first movie theater in Lawrence but the first one west of the Mississippi River. Patee would later open a theater in Kansas City. The Nickel was located at 708 Massachusetts Street. The location today is home to the Dusty Bookshelf.

The Patee's opened a new theater in 1913, a grand building at 828 Massachusetts Street. The Patees would continue to operate this theater until Clair's death in 1930. It would later be operated by Commonwealth Amusement. Sadly, the building would burn down in 1955 and would be demolished later that year. Part of the new J.C. Penny building (The Antique Mall) and alleyway was built in 1959.

The 1913 Patee Theater
Harlem Renaissance poet, Langston Hughes would spend countless hours in the theaters of Lawrence when he was growing up. He specifically remembers patronizing the Patee until one day he arrived to learn that they put up a sign banning black people from entering their theater. In fact, until Bowersock Theater, now Liberty Hall, opened in 1912, Hughes and the other black residents of Lawrence couldn't enter any of the movie theaters in town.

For most of 1915, Vivian suffered from stomach and bowel ailments that put her in the hospital several times. Vivian passed away on May 24, 1915 in Rosedale Hospital in Kansas City. She was only 54-years-old.

Claire continued working in the theater business. He even published a pamphlet about the movie industry trying to dispel the numerous falsities that permeated about the new industry. Claire passed away in 1930. Along with his wife, he was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Lawrence. She had purchased the plot shortly before her death and an elaborate gravestone was installed. The stone mentions her country origins, her time in journalism, and philanthropy but oddly leaves out her time in theater--both performing and entrepreneurship. The epitaph concludes with the journalistic shorthand for the end: "30".


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