It’s been 90 years since the Jayhawk Theatre first turned on its stage lights and movie projector. Here’s a chronological look at the theater’s history.
Aug. 11, 1925: The beginning
Topeka businessman E.H. Crosby announced on Aug. 11, 1925, his plans for a new entertainment complex that would include a hotel, theater and arcade at the corner of S.W. 7th Ave. and S.W. Jackson St. Crosby was co-founder of the Crosby Bros. department store.
Work immediately began on the complex, which ended up costing $1.25 million, of which about $400,000 was spent on constructing the Jayhawk Theatre.
The 1,500-seat theater was designed by Carl and Robert Boller, of Kansas City, who were so pleased with the outcome they used it as a model for other theaters. Thomas W. Williamson, who designed Topeka High School and other capital city buildings, was the supervising architect.
Aug. 16, 1926: Doors open
The Jayhawk Theatre opened its doors on Aug. 16, 1926, with nearly 6,000 people coming to view the ornate theater and see its first show, which was presented five times that day. The show featured live organ and symphony music, newsreels, a cartoon, a song-and-dance number and “Mantrap,” a movie starring Clara Bow.
Patrons marveled at the theater’s $25,000 Kilgen organ, which had the volume of a 30-piece symphony and could duplicate the sound of several instruments, including the trumpet, snare drum and xylophone; Jayhawk Walk, an arcade displaying the latest fashions and products in its large windows; “refrigerated air” created by its $50,000 refrigeration, heating and ventilating system; and a mural depicting the goddess of agriculture by Chicago artist William Peaco.
Another eyebrow-rising highlight was the lighted ceiling dome, which could change color — from bright daylight to sunset to moonlight night and then rosy dawn. The dome was pierced with tiny holes to create twinkling stars when nighttime effects were used.
“Charles ‘Stag’ Windburn, master electrician of the Jayhawk, believes he could make a chicken go to bed or a rooster crow, depending upon whether he turns on the twilight or the dawn,” the Topeka Daily Capital reported.
The balcony was supported by 78-foot-long steel girders, and the theater’s walls were 17 to 21 inches thick. Dressing rooms were underneath the stage, and a projection booth sat above the balcony. The steel-and-concrete structure had two exits with box offices — one on S.W. 7th Ave., the other on S.W. Jackson St.
1927-30s: Silents to talkies
In its early days, the Jayhawk projected silent movies onto its silver screen and booked vaudeville acts and local performers to provide entertainment before or between the films. Fashion shows, beauty pageants and amateur contests also were mainstays.
The Jayhawk employed its own organist and small symphony orchestra.
“In the day of the silent picture, the larger theaters had regular orchestras who played throughout the performances. The music was quite important, even as it is today, to bring out the proper mood for the scene at hand. … Maintaining an orchestra, even a small one, was an expensive overhead and one that was eliminated just as soon as music could be recorded and reproduced in full fidelity,” wrote James D. Wallace, a Topekan who saw hundreds of movies at local theaters during the 1930s.
Talking pictures were introduced at the Jayhawk on April 15, 1929, with the showing of “The Jazz Singer,” a 1927 feature-length film starring Al Jolson. The talkies and the transfer of its stars from stage to screen in the 1930s ended the days of vaudeville circuit touring.
1940s: Wartime effects
Topeka historian Doug Wallace said two types of movies ruled during the 1940s — patriotic films and musicals. As war spread across the globe, newsreels became important, allowing people to watch actual events a few days after they happened.
The Jayhawk favored westerns and adventures, while musicals and epics were booked at its competitors, the Grand and Orpheum theaters.
After World War II, the Jayhawk — and movie theaters across the nation — took a hit when televisions became a common home appliance.
“I can’t believe that television was the sole contributing factor in our declining interest in the theater, although there can be little doubt that it is much simpler just to sit at home and let the movie come to you,” wrote J.D. Wallace. “Nonetheless, a 21-inch or 24-inch screen can’t quite take the place of the fascinating huge screen with its stereophonic sound which almost makes one a part of the action.”
1950-76: Declining audiences
The Jayhawk installed a Cinemascope screen in 1953 so it could display widescreen and 3D movies. But even the new technology couldn’t stave off the growing popularity of drive-in theaters in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
By the 1960s, the Jayhawk was no longer a luxurious movie palace. For several months in 1963, the theater was closed when there was a shortage of films.
“What really becomes the kicker is when (they started) developing mega-shopping centers and the indoor malls,” Doug Wallace said.
Gage 4 Theatres, a four-screen complex at 4121 S.W. Huntoon, opened on Oct. 17, 1969, siphoning off moviegoers from downtown Topeka.
In 1974, the Jayhawk was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, but even that didn’t boost ticket sales. The theater started showing R- and X-rated movies in an attempt to make a profit.
In May 1976, the Jayhawk closed, and the vacated building lay dormant until the 1990s.
1990s-2016: Restoration efforts
The Jayhawk Theatre was nearly razed in 1992, when developer Howard Paul planned to demolish the theater and replace it with a four-story parking garage. Preservationists rallied and blocked the demolition.
In early 1993, the Rev. Richard Taylor launched a drive to “save the Jayhawk,” and the state Senate passed a resolution designating the Jayhawk as the “State Theater of Kansas.”
Jim Parrish, president and CEO of Parrish Hotels, said he purchased the Crosby Brothers Department Store property, which included the theater, in January 1994.
“Upon acquisition, we began talking to Rev. Taylor,” Parrish said.
In December 1994, Parrish and his wife, Nancy, donated the theater to Historic Jayhawk Theatre Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to the theater’s preservation. Fundraising efforts to restore the Jayhawk began, and its future use was debated.
Taylor wanted to construct the theater’s future around “In His Steps,” a play adapted from the best-selling book by the Rev. Charles Sheldon, a Topeka minister who initiated the “What Would Jesus Do” movement.
Taylor believed the stage production could be as successful as “The Shepherd of the Hills,” an outdoor drama in Branson, Mo., based on a novel by Christian minister Harold Bell Wright.
Other supporters had a different vision for the theater, and when Taylor realized those plans included serving alcohol, he resigned from the nonprofit’s board of directors.
Restoration and fundraising efforts continued, although slowly. The roof of the theater was repaired, and temporary electricity and air conditioning were installed using city funds. The gallery was updated, and a temporary remodeling of the candy nook was completed.
Present day: Renewed efforts
Taking advantage of the energy created by the revitalization of downtown Topeka, a renewed push to restore the Jayhawk to a movie and live entertainment venue has begun.
A capital campaign to raise an estimated $12 million is expected to be launched in early fall. Much of the cost likely will be covered by historic tax credits, grants and corporate and individual donations.
“It’s been not just a fight to preserve the the theater, but to deter it from further deterioration. … All you need to do is get people inside to see what it could be,” Parrish said. “To see the progress happening now is really gratifying.”
Patricia Kane, former Jayhawk State Theatre of Kansas board member, said the Jayhawk is the only movie theater left standing in downtown Topeka.
“I want to see it preserved as part of our history,” Kane said. “We have lost so many beautiful buildings in this city.”
Contact niche editor Jan Biles at (785) 295-1292.