The Return of the Usher

I recently wrote a story about how my mom and dad met and fell in love inside the last of Wichita’s original movie palaces. You can check it out, there are a number of original pictures from the early days. And how a little Cherry Mash became “their treat”. Shortly after the story, we were invited to the theater for a private tour. Dad and I were greeted at the front door by Rachel and Mallory.

The refinished lobby is gorgeous. Dad talked about the early 60’s when most of the beautiful artwork was covered by a false ceiling. “When I started here in 59, the retrofit was done, and it was ugly.” All these beautiful details were covered with a cheap looking drop ceiling. We speculated on who the female figure is in the ceiling. Our best guess is Orpheus. Orpheus is a musician, poet, and prophet in ancient Greek religion, and the namesake of the theater.

The box office has been rebuilt, but stands in the spot where the original was located. 

The tile floor always catches my eyes. It is spectacular. A beautiful tile mosaic.

On his first day, which was opening day for “Old Yeller…. There were two lines going separate ways around the building.  “One line was for those with tickets, one line was for those that did not have tickets.  My job was to tell people which line was which.”  

We moved past the lobby and through the doors to the auditorium.  The renovation along the back wall and under the balcony are amazing.  The detail in the wood carvings really shows the craftsmanship of the workers who built the theater and the artist that brought it back to life.

Dad pointed out a lobby bench that he slept on overnight after getting snowed in late one night. He said it was perfect on that cold night because the bench was right above the heat register.

While we walked down the steep slope of the auditorium my dad’s eyes kept looking to the ceiling. I asked, “what are you looking at?” He shared a funny story about his early days at the theater. He and another usher started playing tag with flashlights along the ceiling. After just a minute or two, he turned to see his boss, Paul Amick, standing over him. “If I ever see you do that again, I will shove that flashlight down your throat.”

The green room is white and pretty outdated. It’s not as glamorous as you would think, but it has mirrors and places to plug in for power, and there’s even a shower.

Walking around in the basement, you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the history of this place. The comedians, the plays, the artists that have played this house.  Created as a vaudeville theater in 1922.  It has hosted some of the greatest acts of all time.  Unfortunately there is no official log of all the guests.  There was once a wall that featured the autographs of all the visitors.  At some point, years ago it was painted over.

We moved up the second floor. There was a handpainted poster sitting up there. Dad said Blackbear Bosin painted posters for the theater. When a new movie started, Bosin would paint over the old poster and create a new one. We also talked about Edna Cline, an old school theater employee that ran the box office at the Boulevard Theater. At her estate sale, Dad and I went to just see her house. The attic was both a treasure and a great loss. Edna had taken old movie posters and used them as wallpaper to insulate her attic. Gotta shake my head at that.

We headed into  the womens’ restroom which is much nicer than the mens room.  It is also much bigger than it was before.  The manager’s office and a storage room were removed to allow for expansion of the ladies’ lounge.

Finally we made it to the concession stand.  This is where Ken and Kay, my parents, fell in love.  The current concession is a rebuild.  It matches the theme selected for the box office and the concession stand.  Dad took a minute to look around.  Rachel and Mallory honored him with a gift box full of Cherry Mashes.  Dad was appreciative of the gesture. 

We made our way to the balcony and Dad talked about the stairwell and having to carry film cases up the stairs. He would put my 2 year old sister on the stairs and she would slowly make her way to the top.  By the time she got to the projection booth, Dad had carried the entire movie up those stairs.  He often referred to the Orphuem as “Kimberly’s Theater.”  It was the theater he was running when she was born.  I guess that would make the Mall Cinema on East Harry my theater.  I’m not sure if that means something greater that her theater survived and my theater is an empty store now.

Mallory and I walked up to the booth. They still have a Simplex Projector (Simplex was the Cadillac of projectors back in the day) they also have a digital projector and mostly use it. The splicing table and supplies sat exactly where they were back in the day. I smiled when I saw the binoculars. It’s a trick many drive-ins use, the screen is so far away, the projectionist uses the binoculars to focus the movie.

That concluded our tour of the Orpheum.  My dad really enjoyed the trip down memory lane.  I want to thank the good ladies at the Orpheum that welcomed Dad home, listened to his stories of the old days, and asked him questions about his time at the theater.

On the way out I asked my dad for a Cherry Mash, he said “no way, theses are for me.” 

If you would like to read the original story, check out, An Usher and a Gentleman. You should also visit the Orpheum’s website.

Not all the pics worked in the story, but I know you theater folks would like to see more.

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