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 of the Columbia Fire Department said flames were initially so strong that firefighters had to climb their ladders and shoot water down. He said on his way to the scene the sky was glowing. As of Monday night, there were no reports of injuries.
The cause of the fire was unknown Monday night, but it is under investigation. Hartman said it could be two days before the cause is determined.
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.
Rachel Diemler, a member of the board of directors, was conflicted about the fire.
“I was just so surprised," she said. "I expected it, but it’s one of those things you don’t think about. I wanted to cry but I didn’t.”
According to previous Columbia Tribune reports, Michael Scott, president of the board, reported March 24 that pieces of lumber were torn off the south side of the barn wall. A “fort area” was created from a door, lumber and rope, Scott told the Tribune. Box fans were turned on in the women’s dressing room, but nothing was reported stolen.
“Inside they sprayed the fire extinguishers,” Lee Wilkins Black, vice president for marketing on the board of directors, said Monday night.
Another Tribune report said that in April 2008, Columbia Police Officer Jesse Haden said someone stole $6,000 worth of audio and video equipment from a storage shed. The crime was never solved and the items were never recovered. Parks Services Manager Mike Griggs said the damages to the wood and windows from the break-in could top $1,000, including labor.
Wilkins Black said other vandalism has occurred over the years.
“Copper was stripped and torn down,” she said.
David Black, treasurer of the theater's board of directors, said he hoped the fire wasn't a result of vandalism.
Board members plan to hold an emergency meeting Tuesday night to discuss what they plan to do next.
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 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."
Jason Cascio, a board member, said his fondest memories of the theater are “the long summer nights where everyone was drenched in sweat working towards the same goal: to get the show up.”
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 and others on scene were upset at the loss of the memories in the barn.
“We had a wall in the dressing room that all the cast members would sign after each show with our name and part. Now it’s gone," Grant said. "Our scrapbooks our gone, too.”
"This is a 100-year-old barn," Wilkins Black said. "It can't be replaced."
Although they lost a lot in the fire, one thing was salvaged: the new stage, which had been renovated roughly two weeks ago.
“It’s singed but intact,” Wilkins Black said.
“It’s truly a blessing the stage is still here,” Grant said.
The board members are certain about one thing, though — the show must go on.
“The show is going to go on no matter what,” said Cascio. “We will be a stage without a barn. That’s how theater is. You push through obstacles and the show goes on. This is just an obstacle.”
Missourian reporters Alison Gammon, Rachel Heaton and Taylor Combs contributed to this report.