Not all movie romances take place on the big screen. Wichita’s one remaining movie palace, The Orpheum, was the setting for a romance that has endured for more than five decades.
It all starts in 1959. 15 year old Kenny is walking down his street. His neighbor, a theater manager, asks how old he is. Kenny replies 15. The manager, Paul Amick says, “If you tell me you’re 16, you can work for me at the Orpheum Theater.” Kenny says OK. The next day he goes downtown to the theater and starts working there as an usher in the balcony.
The Orpheum opened on September 4, 1922. Around the same time Wichita opened a new high school on East Douglas.
The Orpheum was one of the first atmospheric style theaters designed by architect John Eberson. Eberson also designed the Akron Civic theater, Flint’s Capitol Theater, and the Avalon in Chicago. Wichita’s newest theater was created to invoke a Spanish garden and courtyard. The theater was built for vaudeville but was converted in 1929 to include movies.
Ken learned the ropes of the theater business. That included learning how to do the reports, as Ken tells it, “One afternoon (in 1961) we were working in the office and this pretty young lady walked in and asked for a job. The assistant manager, Clarence Cook, told her to come back tomorrow and start working. Ken looks at his boss and says, ‘that’s the girl for me’.” Kay Lichtenberg turned out to be a hard worker, she was quickly moved to the second floor concession stand, which was a one person operation.
Now a doorman, Ken spent most of his time on the second floor talking to Kay. When Ken got his first car, a 54 Mercury, he started driving Kay home from work. “The first night I picked up a Cherry Mash at the concession stand and gave it to her in the car. She was really excited with the gift.” From that point on he would buy her a Cherry Mash every opportunity he found. Ken eventually asked her out on a date. They took in 1961’s “Guns of the Navarone” at the Meadowlark Drive-In.
Ken and his good friend Bill, started their climb up the corporate theater ladders. Bill was the assistant at the Miller, and Ken was the assistant at the Orpheum.
With Ken now in management, Kay was transferred to The Uptown Theater. The couple continued dating. Always meeting her after work and always bringing her a Cherry Mash.
In 1964, Ken and Kay were walking downtown and Kay spotted an engagement ring at Zales that she thought was “beautiful and really unusual.” The next day, Ken bought the ring. A few days later, Ken invited Kay to his bedroom to listen to some music. Ken hands her the box and says, “I would like to see if you would accept this.” He opens the box and the ring falls out on the floor. They both scramble to find the ring. Once Kay realized what was going on… “she was very excited.”
Ken and Kay were married June 12, 1965… They continued their love affair with the movies, watching “The Sound of Music” in 70mm at a Denver theater on their honeymoon. The Julie Andrews’ musical would become “their movie.”
Upon graduating from Wichita University, Ken was drafted by the Army, he ended up in Kaiserslautern, Germany. During the week he ran the busiest theater in the European Army base system, the 685 seat, Vogelweh (built in 1953). Kay soon moved to be with Ken. They used the extra money from the theater to travel around Europe on the weekends. Including a trip to Austria to see the shooting locations of “The Sound of Music.”
Ken served his time in the military and the couple returned to Wichita. The Miller Theater was now a parking garage and the trend in theaters was moving away from downtown and to the multiplexes in the suburbs. Ken stayed with the movie business working his way into upper management.
Ken and Kay had two kids; Kimberly in 1971 and Kevin in 1974.
The Orpheum spent its last few years running porn movies and martial arts films. The doors closed in November of 1976. The building was stripped and left to rot.
In 1978, the city declared the Orpheum theater a historic landmark and the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
In 1992 a non-profit group started to bring the theater back to its glory days.
In the early 2000’s Ken went to work with his old friend Bill, who once ran the Miller. During those years Ken helped Bill add an eastside Warren, a theater in Old Town, and three new theaters in Oklahoma.
As the guys rolled into their 60’s Ken took early retirement. Now empty nesters, Ken and Kay started traveling. They took several cruises including Kay’s bucket list trip… to the Holy Land. On one cruise in June 0f 2007 (their 42nd anniversary) they renewed their vows on the ship.
Kay passed away on Mother’s Day in 2013. Cherry Mashes were given away at her funeral.
Ken went back to work part time for Warren, but would retire for good when Bill sold the company in 2017.
Ken still watches “The Sound of Music” several times a year.
The Vogelweh is still operating in Germany.
Bill Warren is retired and still goes to the movies.
Kimberly is married. Her family lives in Emporia.
Kevin is also married and lives in Wichita. He celebrated his wedding reception at the Uptown Theater.
In 2021, most of the Orpheum’s renovations are complete, and the theater is hosting crowds again. Jeremy and I have seen a number of shows in the beautiful auditorium. We always visit the 2nd floor concession stand to pay tribute to the early days of my parents’ love story. Just wish they sold Cherry Mash.
All of the pictures in this post are from Ken’s personal collection. Unfortunately, we don’t have a photo of the concession stand where their love started popping. The photo below is from the second floor, the concession stand would be on the right.
I really appreciate my dad sitting down and sharing his story. I knew most of it, but there were a few surprises. It was wonderful just to spend the afternoon with someone that I have always looked up to and turned to for guidance. I could not have asked for better parents, and I hope you enjoyed this story. It was truly a labor of love. One last question for my dad: So why the Cherry Mash? “It was the cheapest thing we sold in the concession stand. Ha ha ha”
After the original story dropped, the good folks at the Orpheum invited Dad and I for a tour of the place. Check out our visit in The Return of the Usher.