The Jayhawk is remembered most as a movie house, but the theater also showcased live performances and unique events, from jazz concerts to weddings to Siamese twins’ performances.
— Cab Calloway — billed as “the major general of jumping jive” — brought his Cotton Club Orchestra and signature “Hi-De-Ho!” to the Jayhawk stage on May 1, 1945.
— Duke Ellington — known as “Harlem’s aristocrat of jazz” — and his orchestra filled the Jayhawk stage in the early 1940s for a show the theater described as “the season’s biggest stage attraction.” His all-star revue, which included Ivie Anderson, the “California song bird,” performed five shows on a single day. The Topeka show may have been one of the last performances by Anderson, who left the band in 1942 because of worsening asthma.
— Janice Gutzwiller, 91, of Topeka, recalls watching Chico Marx play the piano on the Jayhawk stage during the break between a double feature.
He was part of the Marx Brothers comedy act, with siblings Groucho, Harpo, Zeppo and Gummo, which spanned vaudeville, Broadway and motion pictures. Chico was an accomplished pianist with a unique finger-pecking style. In the 1940s, he led the Chico Marx Orchestra, with a young Mel Torme as vocalist.
— Grammy Award-nominated jazz singer Marilyn Maye grew up in Topeka and started singing as a child in local amateur contests during the Depression. She appeared every Saturday morning for two years at the Jayhawk, ending every show with “God Bless America.” RCA signed Maye, now 89, to a recording contract. She became a favorite of late-night television host Johnny Carson and appeared as a guest on his show 76 times.
— The Dynamic Superiors, a group of five young black performers, were featured at the “Midnight Special” on April 11, 1975, at the Jayhawk. The singers had performed a year earlier at Garfield Park. In the interim, they signed a contract with Motown and released the single, “Shoe Shoe Shine,” which sold more than 700,000 records.
— Daisy and Violet Hilton, known as the “San Antonio Siamese Twins,” were members of a company of entertainers who performed in January 1929 at the Jayhawk. The sisters, high school graduates who sang, danced and played musical instruments, were one of the highest-paid vaudeville acts at the time. The Hiltons, who were joined at their hips and buttocks, performed two days at the Jayhawk, presenting four shows each day.
— A powwow, featuring a cast of 20 Indians and the Haskell Indian Orchestra, drew a crowd to the Jayhawk in early April 1927. The show was billed as the theater’s “most elaborate presentation prologue.” The powwow was followed by the showing of “The Flaming Frontier,” an epic film about the Old West that culminates in Custer’s Last Stand.
— Maude Butler’s Piano Band — seven Steinway grand pianos being played at the same time — made quite an impression on Feb. 27, 1927. The pianos were arranged at different heights on the Jayhawk stage so all the players, dressed in evening attire, could be seen by the audience. The show was so popular that its three-day booking was extended to a week.
Tying the knot
— Jayhawk staff came up with a promotional gimmick in April 1928 — weddings on its stage, partially paid for by the theater. Ruby and Ernie Cramer, 20 and 19 respectively, decided to take the Jayhawk up on its offer, and had a day to get their attire together for the 9 p.m. ceremony. A minister conducted the ceremony, in front of about 1,200 witnesses in the audience.
The Jayhawk paid the Cramers $75. The Topeka couple also received a number of gifts: a wedding ring from the Santa Fe Watch Co.; a savings account with $10 at a local bank; a toaster from the Ed Marling Store; an end table from a furniture store; a pound of bacon from a packing company; and a $250 down payment on a bungalow from a real estate firm.
Another couple was married on the stage at 7:30 p.m.
Appealing to women
— The Crosby Bros. department store capitalized on its proximity to the Jayhawk by presenting fashion shows on its stage. The Spring Fashion Festival, advertised as “a gorgeous procession of spring styles displayed by Ivan D. Martin’s New York mannequins,” was presented at 1, 3, 7 and 9 p.m. May 27, 1927, as part of an entertainment package that included a newsreel, organ and orchestra performances and “Let It Rain,” a movie starring Douglas MacLean. Models were called “mannequins” in the 1920s.
In March 1929, Crosby Bros. staged “Fancies of Spring,” featuring the latest dresses and handbags, singers and dancers.
— Fifty contestants between the ages of 18 and 28 lined up on the Jayhawk stage to face the judges during the Miss America Beauty Show in August 1939. The contestants were vying to be Miss Topeka, with the ultimate goal of competing in the Miss America contest at Atlantic City, N.J. It was the third Miss America show at the theater.
Sources: The Topeka Capital-Journal archives; Topeka Day to Day