When you mention “Jayhawk Theatre,” fond memories return for many older Topekans and former residents. Here are some of those memories; other accounts can be read at cjonline.com.
A tall order
June (Myers) Dewey came face-to-face with a legend-in-the-making when she was working in the mid-1950s as a cashier at the Jayhawk Theatre — well, sort of.
One day, the 16-year-old was sitting in the cashier’s booth, taking money from moviegoers as she always did.
“I had turned my head away from the glass area (of the booth), and when I turned back around it was all red. (I saw) nothing but red,” said Dewey, 77, of Holton.
The teenager leaned near the glass window, craned her neck and twisted her head so she could get a look at the person buying the ticket.
“I finally found a face up there, and it happened to be Wilt Chamberlain, which was quite exciting because he was quite a noted figure at that time,” Dewey said.
Chamberlain was a star player for the University of Kansas Jayhawks and went on to have successful professional basketball, business and entertainment careers.
Larry Breuninger’s father was the city manager for Topeka’s Fox theaters from the 1930s until his retirement in 1956. That meant Breuninger spent a lot of time watching movies and hanging out at the Jayhawk, which was part of the Fox system.
At times, companies would rent the Jayhawk to promote and sell their products. One of those items was Hadacol, which was marketed as a vitamin supplement but contained 12 percent alcohol.
“I was just a kid then, and I’m not sure quite how it worked, but they had the backstage (of the Jayhawk) filled with boxes of gifts they were going to give out to the kids,” Breuninger, 80, of Topeka, said.
“One Sunday morning, my dad and I … got into these boxes. I ended up with a few gifts of my own, including a cork gun.”
The plastic cork gun remains among Breuninger’s prized possessions.
“It was deadly on Christmas ornaments,” he said with a laugh. “You could kill those things without much trouble.”
Ted Mize, dressed in a white, silk-like shirt, blue shorts and socks, strapped on his tap shoes and took the stage in 1939 at the Jayhawk. The 8-year-old was determined to win first prize in the theater’s amateur contest and tap his way to fame.
“I danced to ‘The Sheik of Araby,’ ” Mize, 85, of Topeka recalled. “The prize was (an opportunity) to appear on WIBW radio.”
Mize won the contest, and he and his mother later arrived at the WIBW studio for his appearance on “Kansas Round-up,” a popular Saturday night music program.
Homer Cunningham, an announcer for the radio show, looked at Mize and said, “Oh, no, you’re a tap dancer.” The studio was carpeted, and the microphones wouldn’t be able to pick up the sound of the youngster’s tap shoes.
“They put masonite and a mike on the floor,” Mize said, recalling he also was issued a warning, “Don’t touch the mic.”
WIBW staff were so impressed with Mize that he was asked to perform as part of their promotional appearances in small area towns.
Avoiding a fight
Going to Topeka to see a movie at the Jayhawk was a big deal when Ken and Marie Carlat were growing up in small-town Kansas. Ken hailed from Dover, while Marie lived in Maple Hill. The couple now resides in Wakarusa.
Ken, 78, recalled how one of his earliest experiences at the Jayhawk wasn’t necessarily carefree.
“I suppose I was about 10, maybe 11,” he said, explaining how his parents had dropped a friend and him off at theater to see a movie.
The boys were sitting — perhaps shifting around or standing up — in the second or third row. Suddenly, a guy sitting in the row behind them directed an order to Ken: “Why don’t you remove the corpse from underneath that coat?”
Ken said he turned around to see who made the demand, and because the guy was much bigger than he was, decided to “turn around and shut up.”
“I enjoyed the movie the best I could thinking this guy might beat me up at any moment,” he said.
Later, when Ken and Marie were teenagers and dating, they would occasionally see a movie at the Jayhawk. Those times were more pleasant.
“We always sat up in the balcony,” Ken said, with a glance toward his 76-year-old wife. “But we won’t talk about that.”
Claus for concern
Marc Drayer thought he was going to see a cheery Santa Claus movie at Jayhawk on Dec. 24, 1960. But once the credits rolled and the lights came up, the youngster wanted nothing to do with the jolly old elf.
“Santa Claus” was billed as a fantasy extravaganza. The movie had been made in Mexico in 1959 and dubbed in English the following year.
“It was one of the creepiest movies that was ever done,” Drayer, 63, of Topeka, said.
In the movie, Santa operates out of an outer space laboratory and battles a demon that wants to ruin Christmas. Drayer said the lab is equipped with a talking computer with huge lips and a satellite dish with an ear that can tap into people’s dreams. Santa is assisted by children from around the world, who sing while he plays an organ.
“The creepiest part was these reindeer,” he said. “They’re white mechanical reindeer. (You) wind them up, and they give this creepy sounding laugh, ‘Haaaa-oooh. Haaaa-oooh.’ One reviewer said it sounds like they’re being electrocuted.”
When the movie ended, the theater’s manager came out on the stage and told the young audience members that Santa was there and they were welcome to visit him.
“Nobody took the offer,” he said.
Drayer’s perception of Santa and his reindeer hinged on the Mexican film’s depiction until four years later when he saw “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” a stop-motion animated television special.
The Mexican movie is now a cult classic that makes even Drayer laugh.
“It’s one of these movies that’s so bad it’s hilarious,” he said.
Tom Moses attended his first “somewhat R-rated” movie at the Jayhawk Theatre.
In the late 1960s or early 1970s, he and some buddies put down their money at the theater’s S.W. 7th Street box office to see a scantily clad Jane Fonda play the title role in “Barbarella,” a sci-fi fantasy.
“Jane Fonda was reaching her peak as an actress, and this was sort of a little bit of a divergent for her, I guess, because of a couple of racy scenes,” said Moses, 65, of Topeka. “But by today’s standards, it’s pretty tame.”
In the mid-1990s, Moses was co-owner of a commercial property management company that had a connection to the Jayhawk.
“We were charged with managing the Jayhawk and basically maintaining it and just being a custodial-type of caretaker for it,” he said. “I remember there were times where we facilitated tours (of the theater). It was still a popular attraction even back in that time, too.”
Linda (Colvin) Funk, an admission clerk at the Jayhawk, asked her sister, Norene Colvin, to fill in for her on Aug. 14, 1963. It’s a favor her sister will never let her forget.
Norene, 17, worked full time at the Dickinson Theatre — both managed by their uncle, Leo Colvin — and would occasionally substitute at the Jayhawk. That night, as Norene was selling tickets to moviegoers at the S.W. Jackson Street box office, the theater was robbed.
“A man came up to the office and (gave her a note that) told her to start giving him the money. So she started handing him $1 bills, a few at a time. And then when she got through with those, she started on the $5s,” Funk, 70, of Nortonville, said.
The robber grew nervous as Norene doled out the money and decided to flee.
The Topeka Daily Capital reported the robber — “a slender white man, about 25, with a tan complexion, wearing a dark suit and dark shirt with an open collar” — got away with about $85. An estimated $515 was still in the cashier’s booth. Six police cars fanned through downtown Topeka but failed to locate the robber.
Making a day of it
Marcia Cassidy and her adolescent girlfriends made a day of it when they went to the Saturday matinees at the Jayhawk in the late 1940s and early ‘50s.
“We would put on our Sunday clothes, and then we’d go down to the bus stop at Collins and Huntoon,” Cassidy, 76, of Topeka, said.
The girls would ride the bus to downtown Topeka, have a sandwich and milkshake at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, and then browse the store’s cosmetics and jewelry displays before heading to the Jayhawk to buy their tickets and watch the show, which would include a movie, newsreels and cartoons.
“My mother would always pick us up,” she said. “How she knew what time the movie was over, I’ll never know.”
A few years later, in the early 1960s, her future husband, Michael Cassidy, took her to the Jayhawk to see “The Guns of Navarone,” a war story starring Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn. It was Michael’s first time in the Topeka movie house.
“When I first came into the Jayhawk Theatre, I thought it was the strangest theater I’d ever been into,” Michael, 77, said, describing how they had to make their way from the S.W. 7th Street box office down the long Jayhawk Walk to enter the auditorium. “I was so use to paying my money and walking in.”
Topeka resident Jack Alexander said his strongest memory of the Jayhawk is as a teenager standing outside on the street and watching the doormen do their jobs.
“They were dressed in uniforms. They were usually tall people that had a feathery-like cap, and I used to stand and watch them as they would greet a car coming up to let someone out or to pick up someone,” said Alexander, 86, a former Topeka city commissioner and former Kansas Corporation Commission member.
Once inside the theater, Alexander had to sit in a cordoned-off area of the balcony designated for African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and other minorities.
“Of course, people of color at that time had special places where they had to sit in theaters,” Alexander said. “I personally have to say that I had no real affront to that at the time.”
As long as he saw the movie he had come to see and could socialize with his friends, he said, “it just didn’t matter.”
“It was just a formality,” he said. “It wouldn’t work today, but it was a formality then.”
Armed with a bat
Kathy Duncan, founding member of the Jayhawk State Theatre of Kansas, remembers a story Gov. Joan Finney told her about the Jayhawk and the lesson she learned as a youngster that would prepare her for a career in public service. Finney died in July 2001, at age 76.
Finney, as a young girl, took organ lessons from the Jayhawk’s organist. Finney noticed that her teacher would invite the male students to sit beside her while she played during the shows at the theater.
“She was very offended she was not asked,” Duncan said of Finney’s reaction. “So she begged and begged the teacher, who finally said, ‘Fine, but this might not be what you’re expecting.’”
A date was set for Finney to sit on the bench by her teacher. A few minutes into the program, the teacher handed Finney a baseball bat and told her she needed to use it to hit the rats as they started running out from underneath the organ so they wouldn’t scurry over her feet and disrupt her playing.
The rats emerged, and Finney tried to ward them off.
“Joan Finney said it was a life lesson. It taught her not to be wishful of something when you don’t know what the outcome may or may not be,” Duncan said.
The experience didn’t deter Finney from wanting to become a theater organist, but her mother shattered that dream.
“She was very devastated when her mother pointed out to her that the career might be a short one, because … the talkies were coming in,” Duncan said.
Topekan Don Chubb remembers having birthday parties with his friends at the Jayhawk when he was in first or second grade.
“We were born in 1946. We were the first baby-boom class, and there was a lot of us,” Chubb said. “I think by the time we got into grade school (our mothers) were sick of birthday parties, and they discovered the Saturday morning matinee at the Jayhawk. … They would always have a B-grade western, and there would be a couple of cartoons.”
Other theaters in downtown Topeka also had Saturday morning matinees, but Chubb thinks the mothers chose the Jayhawk because of its ushers, who knew how to deal with rowdy kids.
“There were trained to walk up and down the aisle, and if you put your feet up on the seat in front of you or threw popcorn over the balcony, they warned you once and the second time they marched you out of the theater,” he said.
Jillann (Mosier) Mahoney-Dawdy knew how to maximize her down time as a box-office cashier at the Jayhawk Theater. She took her Singer Featherweight sewing machine to work.
Mahoney-Dawdy, who lived in North Topeka, was a senior at Seaman High School who took classes for a half-day and then worked.
“I would work the matinee, and then I would sew in the manager’s office,” Mahoney-Dawdy, 76 of Grantville, said. “I did the evening (movie) as well. It didn’t pay me to get on the bus and go back (home) in order to turn around and come back.”
The teenager also had a brief encounter with Milburn Stone and Amanda Blake of the “Gunsmoke” television show while working at the box office on S.W. 7th Street. Stone played Doc Adams, while Blake was Kitty, a saloon owner.
Stone came up to the box office where she was working and asked, “Is ‘Gunsmoke’ playing here?” The teenager answered, “No, darn it.” Stone replied, “Alright then, I guess I have to go talk to these doctors.”
The actors were in town to make an appearance at a doctors convention.
Carol Yoho has a long history of movie-going at the Jayhawk, but four films are burned into her memory.
When she was 5 or 6 years old, she and a friend came to a 7 p.m. showing of “Old Yeller,” the Disney live-action movie starring Dorothy McGuire, Fess Parker and Tommy Kirk.
The ticket line was long, and by the time they reached the box office, the show had sold out. So the youngsters waited in the hallway, with tickets in hand, through the 83-minute movie and then eased into the theater for the later showing.
“What I remember primarily though was the end where the dog got killed, and how I cried,” Yoho, 67, of Topeka, said. “I cried and cried, but it was worth the wait.”
When she was junior-high age, she saw “Go Johnny Go,” a movie about an orphan who becomes a rock ’n’ roll star. A few years later, she took a chance with “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” a horror movie about cannibalistic psychopaths.
“It was full of blood and guts,” she said. “I’d never seen the likes of it before, and I’ve never bothered to see another movie like it.”
After the Jayhawk began running R- and X-rated movies in the 1970s, Yoho, who was taking art classes in college, bought tickets for “Fritz the Cat,” the 1972 adult animated comedy that satirized race relations, the free love movement, college life and politics.
“I confess that I’d read Fritz cartoon books, written by Robert Crumb,” Yolo said, “and the movie version lived up to my expectations.”
Contact niche editor Jan Biles at (785) 295-1292.