COLUMBIA — As firefighters continued to battle the last of the flames that consumed Maplewood Barn Community Theatre tonight, the theater's family — so to speak — gathered with tears in their eyes.
"I'm completely distraught. I'm heart broken," Kristina Grant said. Grant had been performing in plays at the theater since she was 10 years old.
Firefighters were dispatched to the fire at 7:56 p.m. Several calls came in reporting the fire, and firefighters were on the scene almost immediately. Capt. Eric Hartman said flames were initially so strong that firefighters had to climb their ladders and shoot water down. The cause of the fire was unknown Monday night.
Word spread quickly about the fire. Grant heard from her family and said she immediately jumped in her car and drove from her home on Highway UU.
"I drove about 90 miles per hour the whole way," Grant said. Grant said she was set to direct "Othello" during the upcoming season. Shows in the Spring 2010 season were slated to start May 14. The first show, "Arsenic and Old Lace," had already been cast.
"I'm in shock. I love the barn and I loved performing there," Sue Ellersieck said on her way to the scene. Ellersieck said she got involved with the theater when she began bringing her daughter, Rachel, to perform in the children's theater program in the mid-1990s.
The pair had been in shows together, including "Inherit the Wind," "The Man Who Came to Dinner" and "Ten Little Indians."
Rachel Ellersieck went on to graduate from Stephens College with a degree in theater in 2008.
"It's rugged," she said about the theater. "You don't do theater there unless you really enjoy doing it."
She said it was humid and without air conditioning, and actors had to handle bugs flying in their mouths while still remaining in character.
"It really did jump-start my passion for the art form," she said.
Sue Ellersieck said the theater introduced her to community theater in Columbia. "It's a very big personal loss for me," she said.
Sue Ellersieck said her favorite performance at the theater was "Oklahoma!" two years ago. She played Aunt Eller.
"It was just fun to do a show like that in the country atmosphere," she said. "I'll miss being able to do shows in an open air theater — it's the only theater under the stars."
Some on the scene mourned the loss of the theater because of its historic value.The barn was built in 1877, Boone County Historical Society Executive Director Jenifer Flink said.
"This is a tragedy. It's a huge loss to the community and Nifong Park," Flink said. "We just lost a historic structure."
Grant expressed concern that the fire was the result of vandalism. The theater has been vandalized several times recently, most lately two weeks ago. Grant said the vandals tied the doors shut, painted the windows and emptied two fire extinguishers in the barn.
"I said then that I was surprised no one had burned it down yet," Grant said.
David Black, treasurer of the theater's board of directors, said he hoped the fire wasn't a result of vandalism. Hartman did not indicate that arson was suspected but did say that it would be several days before the cause could be determined.
"This is a 100-year-old barn, it can't be replaced," said Lee Wilkins Black, the vice president of marketing on the board.
Missourian reporter Alison Gammon contributed to this report.