Twelve things about the Jayhawk Theatre you may not know:
1. In Capone’s footsteps
An 18-year-old Fort Riley soldier was arrested Nov. 10, 1975, minutes after he robbed a cashier at the Jayhawk Theatre of $11. Gerald W. Olson, of Portland, Maine, approached the cashier at 8 p.m., told her he had a gun pointed at her from under a coat on his arm and then demanded money. After sticking the money in a pocket, he told the clerk to wait 10 seconds before calling police and walked out of the building. When police officers apprehended Olson about 10 minutes later, he was unarmed.
The following April, Olson pleaded guilty to robbery. Shawnee County District Attorney Gene Olander said the soldier robbed the theater after watching a film about gangster Al Capone. “That guy got away with millions, and I get caught,” Olson reportedly said when he was arrested.
2. Three dimensions, circa 1958
When “The Fly,” a horror movie starring Vincent Price, was shown at the Jayhawk in July 1958, paper glasses were handed out so the audience could see the merging of the professor and the fly in 3D. The popular movie, which had a budget of less than $500,000, grossed $3 million in the United States.
3. For the homemakers
During the Depression, the Jayhawk kicked off a weekly promotion called Housewife Holiday. Women who didn’t work outside the home could go to a special show that included a movie; presentations by merchants about the latest models of washing machines or other products; fashion shows; musical entertainment; and giveaways of coupons, flowers or other items.
“They got all of that for the price for a movie ticket,” Topeka historian Don Chubb said. “It got housewives talking about the Jayhawk, so families went back more often.”
4. Who’s your caddy?
The Jayhawk stage wasn’t a place only for professional performers. Its lights fell on hundreds of people competing in its contests. While most of the competitions were among young people and involved the performing arts, others seemed rather random. Longtime Topeka resident Larry Breuninger remembers a contest for favorite caddy: “Clyde Streeter won. He got new golf clubs.”
5. Rooftop radio
In 1927, Arthur Capper, a U.S. senator and owner of the Topeka Daily Capital, purchased WIBW radio and entered into an agreement with the management of Jayhawk Theatre to broadcast live from its stage. The May 8, 1927, program featured former opera star Marie Rossini, Bob Shreffler’s Grand Theater Orchestra, a talk by Mayor W.O. Rigby, The Raven Trio and accordionist Ruth Nelson. The station was so popular that after a two-week trial period on the Jayhawk stage it was moved to the roof of the Jayhawk Hotel, where it began broadcasting on a regular schedule.
6. 1930s movie buff
Topeka resident James D. Wallace — father of Topeka historian Doug Wallace — loved movies, and during a period of his life from about 1930 to mid-1938, he documented the films he saw in a 39-cent red spiral notebook. During that nearly eight-year span, Wallace went to 194 movies at the Jayhawk Theatre, plus 116 at the Grand, 126 at the Orpheum, 31 at the Gem and 28 at the Cozy. He also listed motion pictures seen in Hutchinson and other cities.
7. Powerful pipes endure
Huge pipe organs, costing $50,000 to $60,000, could be found in most movie theaters during the silent-movie era. However, during the Depression, many theaters got rid of their organs, selling them for whatever they could get. Some organs were sold for as little as $550. The Jayhawk’s Kilgen organ, purchased for $25,000, was never sold. Some of its original pipes can be seen today in a display case outside the theater’s auditorium.
8. Linbergh flies to screen
The first motion picture about Charles Lindbergh’s nonstop flight from Long Island, N.Y., to Paris was shown the week of May 29-June 5, 1927, at the Jayhawk — nine days after the flight itself. The movies playing at the theater that week included “Flesh and Blood,” a drama starring Lon Chaney, and a short travelogue about Ireland featuring humorist Will Rogers.
9. Flower power
When the Jayhawk opened in August 1926, builder E.H. Crosby and his associates were inundated with flowers. According to The Capital-Journal archives, “Floral tributes to members of the Jayhawk Theatre Co. and the executives of the Crosby Brothers Co. are on display in every angle and turn of the Jayhawk Walk, the mezzanine of the theater and in the offices of the two companies.”
10. Keeping cool
Were its coils used to cool water rather than air, the original refrigeration plant at the Jayhawk Theater would have been capable of turning out 100 tons of ice a day.
11. The finest materials
Built into one of the display windows along the Jaywalk Walk were a pool and fountain, finished in the finest Batchelder tile. The floor in the display window, which could be reconfigured to cover the pool and fountain, was made of zenitherm, a fabricated material that resembled marble.
12. Tourism promotion
Hollywood actress Kay Gordon arrived in Topeka on June 6, 1935, to make a film to promote the city. The Jayhawk Theatre and The State Journal sponsored her visit. Once finished, the film was to be shown at the Jayhawk.
Sources: Topeka Capital-Journal archives; Jayhawk Theatre Newsette