The Stiefel Theatre in Salina has a lot in common with the Jayhawk in Topeka.
Both theaters were built by designers Carl and Robert Boller — the Jayhawk in August 1926; the Stiefel in February 1931. Both were described as luxurious movie and live performance palaces, and both were cooled by refrigerated air.
The Art Deco-style, 1,287-seat Stiefel cost $400,000; the ornate 1,500-seat Jayhawk, also $400,000. Both theaters would become cornerstones in downtown retail districts and later close as entertainment trends moved toward drive-in and multiplex theaters, television and videos.
The Stiefel, however, has seen a rebirth — something the Jayhawk also hopes to achieve.
“Local citizens who knew the history and story of (the Stiefel) got together, and they raised money for an authentic and historic renovation,” said Jane Gates, executive director of the Stiefel Theatre.
The Stiefel closed as a film house in 1987, and two years later, its owner sold the theater for $1 to the city of Salina. The city repaired the roof and mothballed the building until 1997, when it was turned over to a nonprofit group for a multi-million dollar restoration.
“Exquisite care was taken during the renovation,” Gates said, describing how stenciling was recreated and the original carpet design was used.
The Stiefel reopened in 2001, with state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems, and has since become a major concert venue in the Midwest, booking such acts as Steve Martin, Darius Rucker, Emmylou Harris, Garrison Keillor, Gladys Knight, the Piano Guys and the Avett Brothers. The theater is also home to the Salina Symphony Orchestra.
Gates said the three-year renovation process wasn’t without its controversies, as people questioned why one business was hired or a particular product used over others.
“Every little bump along the road led us to where we are now,” she said.
The Stiefel is self-sustaining and depends on donations and ticket sales to cover its costs. It books 30 to 35 shows a year, drawing patrons from as far away as Oklahoma City, Kansas City and Colorado. Last year, 30,000 people attended the concerts.
Like Topeka, Salina is experiencing a rejuvenation of its downtown, and the Stiefel Theatre is playing a key role in attracting people to the area.
“It’s critical,” Gates said. “The Stiefel is kind of like the crown jewel.”
The Paramount Theater in Abilene, Texas, not only is drawing people to the city’s downtown, but the 87-year-old theater has started a trend of restoring historic buildings.
Betty Hukill, executive director of the Paramount, said after the 1,199-seat, Spanish-Moorish-themed theater was restored in 1986, residents realized how beautiful the theater was and how close they came to losing it. They started looking at the city’s other historic buildings and the possibility of restoring them.
“It started a chain reaction of restoration,” Hukill said. “Downtown has regained the vibrancy it lost.”
The Paramount’s stage was renovated and technical equipment upgraded so it could accommodate films, live performances, business meetings, private parties, weddings and community events. The Paramount is the producing organization for an international short film festival and home of Paramount Productions, which presents live theatrical performance using local and regional performers guided by theater professionals.
Hukill, who wasn’t at the theater during the project, estimated the restoration cost to be at least $3 million.
The building is occupied more than 200 days a year, with an estimated 50,000 people passing through its doors.
Hukill said the theater is funded through donations, box office and concession sales, and rental income.
Unlike the Stiefel Theatre in Salina, the Paramount doesn’t lure patrons from hundreds of miles away.
“We are isolated,” Hukill said, referring to the west Texas city. “We draw from small neighboring towns.”
Some years, she said, the theater makes a profit. Other years, it squeaks by.
Diane Fallis, business director at the McPherson Opera House, says many restored historic theaters continue to face financial challenges after the final nail is driven and the stage curtain once again rises.
“The challenge is to raise enough funding to keep the doors open,” Fallis said. “Fundraising never stops. Every year, we try to boost memberships, show sponsorships and named gifts.”
The McPherson Opera House, built in 1889, underwent a $8.5 million makeover that included new seating and advanced audio-visual and lighting options in the 488-seat auditorium. Work was completed in 2010, after a three-year renovation.
The building, in downtown McPherson, is used for concerts and other live performances, film and lecture series, weddings, and community programs.
Fallis said two-thirds of the opera house’s operating costs is covered by private donations and memberships. Additional revenue is generated by a one-half percent guest tax from the McPherson Convention and Visitors Bureau to pay for marketing costs; ticket sales; sponsorships; and facility rentals.
In addition to the auditorium, the three-story opera house includes meeting rooms and a 90-person capacity ballroom/banquet hall on the top floor. Current tenants include the Visual Arts Association of McPherson and Luke’s Barbershop on the first floor; a financial advisers office on the second floor; and McPherson Arts Alliance, which rents space within the Mary Anderson Arts Center, in its lower level. The west portion of the opera house contains commercial businesses.
“The intent is for the building to be used as much as possible and benefit as many people as possible,” she said.
Hukill, at Abilene’s Paramount, said maintaining an aging historic building and making sure programming is timely are also hurdles to leap.
“You have to stay flexible to accommodate the changing times,” she said.
Contact niche editor Jan Biles at (785) 295-1292.