Crest Theater

Crest 1951

Wichita’s Crest Theatre opened on January 18, 1950 with Olivia de Haviland in “The Heiress.” The single screen theater was located at 4825 E. Douglas Avenue.

The General Manager was O.A. Sullivan of the Sullivan Independent Theaters.

According to the Wichita Eagle article dated January 6, 1950, the new Crest Theater was set to feature two remarkable giant murals, designed by artist Frank A. Lackner from Chicago.

Crest Interior

“On the west wall of the theater, a captivating mural depicted the early history of Wichita. When Lackner activated the “black light,” the phosphorescent paint came to life, unveiling a mesmerizing panorama of early Wichita as if by magic. The mural showcased Main Street in 1882, bathed in a shining light reminiscent of sunlight.” “It also portrayed historical elements such as the Cannonball stagecoach, the Fremont House, the Chisholm Trail with cattle and cowboys, as well as scenes of Indians, buffalo, and a fire, all providing a vivid snapshot of the city’s past.”

“Conversely, the east wall featured a “mural depicting Wichita in 1950.” Through the artist’s perspective, the mural artfully captured the essence of modern Wichita, with its vibrant industries symbolized by “wheat, oil, and airplanes.” The mural further showcased the growth and development of the city, including “houses, homes, and schools,” emphasizing its progression and prosperity.”

On January 15, 1950, the Wichita Eagle dedicated a full page to stories about the new Crest theater, highlighting its impressive features:

Over Mile of Neon Lighting in Theater: The Crest theater boasted a colorful neon display spanning the “75-foot front of the building, extending 20 feet back on each side. The marquee extended 12 feet from the building over the sidewalk, using a blend of yellow, green, rose, blue, and white lights on glass pylons through reflectors.” 

Artist Frank Lackner painting the murals, 1950
Courtesy: The Wichita Eagle

Sunken Lounge Feature of New Crest Theater: A unique feature of the Crest was the sunken lounge. “Accessible from the foyer via steps flanked by banisters of edge-lit glass, the lounge resembled a cozy living room with special lighting, luxurious furniture, and plush carpets.”

Crest Theater, 1950
Courtesy: The Wichita Eagle

Snack Bar Serves Patrons of Crest: The theater’s snack bar was designed with both style and functionality in mind. Its “semi-circle service counter was covered with stain and scratch-proof Formica that resembled blond wood paneling.” The counter was edged with stainless steel bands, and “the soft drink dispenser had the capacity to serve 50 to 60 drinks per minute. The Icrecreamolator displayed a variety of ice cream in a transparent Lucite case on top of the serving cabinet. Additionally, a popcorn stand, featuring a popper from the Jayhawk Popcorn company in Hutchinson,” added to the cinema-going experience.

Crest Theater Installs First Waterfall Curtain: The new Crest proudly showcased the first contour, or waterfall curtain, in Kansas. Made in one section and measuring over 3,600 square feet… it was flame-proofed and operated on eight cables controlled by an electric motor to raise or lower it smoothly.”

Crest 1957

Theater Features Mood Lighting for Atmosphere: The Crest employed “special dimming devices, color combinations, and other lighting effects to create a unique atmosphere. “Mood lighting” was achieved through cove lighting, border lights, and side wing lighting, all of which could be blended to achieve various effects. The transition from darkness to light at the end of a show was gradual,” enhancing the overall cinematic experience for the audience.

On January 15, 1950, the Wichita Eagle reported on the vibrant ceremonies scheduled for the Crest theater premiere. The front of the new theater would be illuminated by three searchlights, creating a dazzling display. Patrons arriving at the event would be greeted with fireworks every 5 minutes, adding to the excitement. Additionally, an airplane flying around the theater would broadcast news of the preview and the eagerly awaited grand opening on Wednesday.
Tickets were reasonably priced at 65 cents each. The theater itself featured a stadium-type design and had a generous seating capacity of 1,250.  Although I read several different articles that listed the seating anywhere from 700 to 1,500.

Crest Theatre

On December 28, 1989, the Wichita Eagle reported that the final show at the Crest theater would be “Look Who’s Talking.” After that, the iconic 90-foot marquee would go blank, the black-light murals would no longer glow each night, and the mohair seats would gather dust. United Artists’ real-estate division was set to search for a potential buyer for the 40-year-old building.
Crest manager Jim Darnell (who was possibly the city or area manager at the time, and a friend of the Crockett family) expressed his feelings about the closure, saying, “It’s sad-but not unexpected. It’s impossible for the single-screen theater to compete these days. I think we were all expecting it to happen.”

Crest, 1997
Courtesy: kpdennis

The Eagle January 1st, 1990 Eagle article, conducted an interview with Bill Warren, who owned the west side Palace theater at that time and was also involved in the development of the East Palace. Having grown up in Wichita during the 1950s and 1960s, he frequented the Crest theater as a patron. According to him, the theater is “a really neat version of what I would call an art-deco theater… It’s part of the heritage of the city.”
The Wichita Eagle reminded its readers of the city was losing, “The lush gold waterfall curtain.  The broad, deep balcony under a canopy of sunflower tiles.  The 1,200 lush seats with ample leg room.  The terrazzo floor depicting a wheat shock, a sunflower and an airplane.  The 99 foot terra cotta and glass marquee…”

Adam Schlenker at the Crest, 1990
Courtesy: The Wichita Eagle

I was surprised that none of the articles mentioned my favorite part of the theater.  Along the stairwell to the lower lobby were glass rails etched with a sunflower motif.  I always thought those were so sharp and classy.

I also remember when people could still smoke in the balcony.  The theater would run a reminder to only smoke in the balcony.  The film was black with white font and smoke filled the background.  It was a bit of a joke that everyone in the auditorium would start really coughing to make a show of it.

Crest, 1950

I saw E.T. in that theater.  Back in the day, when a new movie was starting , it came in on separate reels, the movie had to be spliced together.  To make sure everything was in the correct order, the theaters usually did a late night showing.  Some staff members and people from the other theaters would show up.  We went to the “screening” of E.T.  I was mesmerized.  It is still one of my favorite movies.  It was late, I was little, I was so tired, but I had to see what happened.  I think I remember my dad carrying me out after E.T. died so my crying wouldn’t annoy everyone else.  Once my tears dried up we made it back to see E.T.’s triumphant revival.

On January 12, 1997, The Wichita Eagle reported a glimmer of hope for the theater. Wichita Theater Organ Inc. expressed interest in making it the permanent home of the Paramount Mighty Wurlitzer at Century II. This impressive organ originally came from the Paramount Theater in New York.

Regrettably, the Crest was not chosen for this honor due to the advice of consultants who believed that Wichita could not sustain the theater.

The theater was demolished in December of 1997.

Demolition of the Crest, 1997
Courtesy of Wichita State University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives

Most of the theater’s footprint is now a parking lot and a nondescript strip mall.

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