Topekans share memories of Jayhawk Theatre

Keeping order

 

Sixteen-year-old Jean Christenberry was living in Topeka during the summer of 1944 and lucky enough to get hired as an usherette at the Jayhawk Theatre. When she arrived at the theater, she’d change into a uniform provided by the theater — a blue blouse and slacks with red accents — and pick up a flashlight.

“I’d walk down the aisle with my little flashlight and show the people to their seats,” Christenberry said. “I’d go tell the boys to take their feet off the seats.”

Sometimes, she’d have to go into the balcony, flash her light on the first row and scold hooligans tossing popcorn onto moviegoers sitting on the floor below.

About six years later, Christenberry was hired again at the theater — this time to sell tickets. Young boys often would come to the box-office window and scrunch down so they would look smaller, hoping to fool her into thinking they were young enough to pay 10 cents rather than the adult price of 25 cents.

“They’d put down a dime and say, ‘I’m 10 years old,’ and I’d look over and say, ‘Stand up,’” she said. “They were really 13 and 14 and had to pay the full price.”

Family connections

Ninety-year-old Jo Ann (Dyal) Harries saw only one film at the Jayhawk — a Brer Fox feature, when she was an adolescent. Nonetheless, she has strong familial ties to the movie palace.

Her brother, Johnny, worked at the Jayhawk as the head usher in 1941-42, his junior and senior years of high school. To help advertise the bullfighting movie “Blood and Sand,” Johnny stood outside the theater dressed as the matador played by actor Tyrone Power.

Another time, the theater brought in a model T Ford to promote a film and Johnny gave her a ride home in the car.

“Johnny would honk, and I would wave to the people along the way,” Harries, of Topeka, said.

As a youngster, Harries’ husband, Kenny, played his clarinet and saxophone during the theater’s amateur talent contests. He would later tour with various musical groups and perform on “Kansas Round-up,” a Saturday night radio show that aired on WIBW in the 1940-50s.

Budding actress

Susan Dunhaupt starred in one of the last theatrical plays performed on the stage of the Jayhawk.

Dunhaupt, who was 16 years old, was cast in the leading role of Topeka Civic Theatre’s production of “Wait Until Dark,” presented on Nov. 8, 1968. “Wait Until Dark” was first performed on Broadway in 1966 and released onscreen as a psychological horror thriller starring Audrey Hepburn in 1967.

“The theater was so magnificent. … The green room was stuck down in the catacombs underneath (the stage). The makeup rooms were downstairs,” Dunhaupt, 65, of Northfield, Minn., recalled. “The size of the stage was phenomenal because we had been using smaller stages. … It was a ‘real’ stage.”

Dunhaupt celebrated her 16th birthday during the production, and later married, and then divorced, the male lead.

Unexpected relic

A couple of months ago, Topeka resident Dorothy Tholen found something interesting in her father’s ukulele box — an advertisement for a program at the Jayhawk Theatre, most likely from the mid-1920s.

Her father, Sidney Hays, was a farmer and mechanic at International Harvester. He played the ukulele for fun.

“Dad never went to the movies,” Tholen, 84, of Topeka, said, referring to her surprise at finding the Jayhawk ad.

The advertisement lists a Saturday Midnite Frolic at 10:45 p.m., for 50 cents; a performance by Harry M. Snodgrass, billed as “the king of the ivories”; and the 1926 movie “Prisoners of the Storm,” starring actor House Peters.

A hard sell

During the couple of years Topeka native Cecilia “Ce” Clickner worked as an usherette and concession seller at the Jayhawk, the teenager would be tapped at times to help promote a movie playing at the theater.

In the early 1950s, that meant standing at the corner of S.E. 7th Street and S. Kansas Avenue and trying to sell silver dollars for 73 cents to promote the movie “Winchester ’73,” a western starring Jimmy Stewart, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea, Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis.

“I had 50 of them, but I didn’t sell very many. People were skeptical,” said Clickner, 84, of Zephyrhills, Fla. “If I sold 10, I sold a lot. People just didn’t go for that much.”

Man in the booth

Lyle Shoemaker worked as a projectionist at the Dickinson Theatre from 1957 to the early 1960s and would fill in whenever needed at the Jayhawk. Shoemaker, a student studying math and physics at Washburn University, would study between reel changes — or sometimes peer out the projection booth window to watch “the kids kissing in the balcony.”

“Every 20 minutes, a bell would ring to let me know it was almost time to change the film,” the 79-year-old Topekan said.

Films were delivered via truck to the Jayhawk, Shoemaker said. The films were wrapped on flimsy 15-inch shipping reels, so part of his job was to transfer the films to sturdier reels. If advertisements or cartoons were to be part of the show, he had to splice them into the film.

“I got to see a lot of movies,” he said.

What movie stood out to him?

“Elvis movies, ‘Blue Hawaii.’ I just like Elvis and all the girls,” he said with a laugh.

Popcorn queen

In the mid-1960s, Topeka High School seniors were allowed to leave the campus to work a half-day job. Linda Day was employed at the concession stand at the Jayhawk Theatre.

“I made the best popcorn in town. I knew how much oil, butter and salt people wanted,” Day, 68, of Topeka, said. “There were many a time the boss would come around the corner and I’d have my hand in the popcorn.”

For a time, the concession stand offered Chilly Dillys, dill pickles speared by a wooden stick and displayed in a bucket of ice.

Day also was asked to help promote “Girls! Girls! Girls!,” a movie starring Elvis Presley and Stella Stevens. Instead of wearing her usual white concession stand uniform, she and another teenage girl donned swimming suits and rode on the back of a convertible as it was driven around Topeka. The car carried a sign proclaiming “Girls! Girls! Girls!”

Celebrity sightings

During the year Bill Bond worked at the Jayhawk Theatre, from 1952 to 1953, he went from ticket taker to assistant manager and doing the payroll.

Bond often saw celebrities who had come to town to promote the motion pictures showing in the city’s movie houses. Most of them stayed next door at the Jayhawk Hotel, and he sometimes was charged with bringing them lunch.

“Ward Bond, Harry Carey Jr., Dan Dailey — they all came to promote movies,” Bond, 84, of Topeka, recalled. “They were fairly laid back. They weren’t demanding all.”

Bond never asked the actors for their autographs.

”I never got into that,” he said.

School break

In the 1950s-60s, some school districts paid their teachers to attend fall workshops. JoLene Rae Bloom’s mother, Frances Bloom, would sign up for the workshops in Topeka and take her three young children along.

The family would attend the morning meetings together at what is now the Topeka Performing Arts Center, but for the afternoon, her mother would drop Bloom, who was in the second or third grade, and her siblings off at the Jayhawk.

“After lunch, she would walk us to the Jayhawk Theatre, pay for our movie tickets before seating us in the cushioned chairs with promises of exciting adventures to view, and then she would return to the afternoon in-service program at the auditorium,” Bloom, 66, of Seneca, said.

“The oversized theater was immense from a grade-schooler’s viewpoint. The dark, luxurious environment with the drapes, lights and chairs was inviting and restful. We would stay until the features were finished and then meet our mother in the lobby as she had finished her ‘teacher day.’ ”

Frances Bloom taught at various country schools and Frankfort and Centralia elementary schools for 48-plus years, in addition to substitute teaching after her retirement at age 70.

Romance ignited

A movie date on Oct. 1, 1949, changed the lives of two Topeka High School students. Vera (Erwin) Abell was a 14-year-old sophomore, and her husband, Charles, was a 17-year-old senior.

“The movie was ‘Mighty Joe Young,’ and we double-dated with another couple,” Vera Abell 82, of Wamego, said.

As they were waiting in line to purchase their tickets at the box office on S.E. Jackson Street, Charles mentioned that the woman selling the tickets was his aunt, Mildred Mowrey, and the manager of the theater was his uncle, Doyle Mowrey.

“And, yes, we had complimentary tickets,” she said.

The date was the beginning of a 68-year relationship.

“We were married Sept. 30, 1954, almost five years to the day of our first date,” she said.

Summer mischief

Where there’s a will there’s a way — especially when you’re a pair of teenage boys wanting to see a movie about a college graduate being seduced by an older woman.

Dennis Jones said he became friends with Mike Purcell in the summer of 1967. Purcell had come from California to Topeka to stay with his uncle for the summer because his parents were divorcing. The two teenagers worked together at Bike’s Burger Bar, 2025 S.E. California Ave.

“‘The Graduate’ was playing at the Jayhawk, and he convinced me that we could get in,” Jones, 64, of Topeka, said. “We were all of 15 years old that summer, so I said there is no way we will get in. He convinced me to sneak in.”

The boys sat in the balcony undetected.

“But the whole time I kept looking over my shoulder,” he said.

Scary prank

Kathleen Hillin, a concession stand worker at the Jayhawk Theatre in 1975-76, remembers when the staff came up with an idea to give the audience an extra thrill.

“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” a horror movie about five teenagers who are attacked by a family of cannibalistic psychopaths, was showing. The image of a man wearing an apron and mask and armed with a chainsaw was shown as the movie credits rolled.

One Saturday night, one of the projectionists dressed like the chainsaw-wielding character and stood on the stage at the end of the movie.

“It looked like he was coming right off the screen,” Hillin, 58, of Topeka, said. “The first row was full of kids. There was hollering and a mass exit.”

Second-place singer

On a Friday night during the summer of 1948, Janice Gutzwiller stood on the stage at the Jayhawk and sang her heart out between showings of a double feature. She was one of the contestants in the theater’s amateur contest.

“I wore a lavender organdy bridesmaid dress my mom made for my sister’s wedding,” Gutzwiller, 91, of Topeka, said. “Whoever had the biggest crowd there for them won the applause, and that helped you win.”

Gutzwiller sang “There Will Never Be Another You,” a love song. She came in second to a small jazz group made up of Topeka High School students.

“I don’t know what the prize was. I don’t know what the jazz musicians played,” she said. “It was fun.”

Dance routine mishap

The Carrol Flanders Dance Studio would showcase its dancers on the Jayhawk stage during the 1930s. Peggy (Stevenson) Palmer was among the young performers, first appearing at age 5 or 6 and continuing through junior high school.

“What I remember the most was the terrible dressing rooms (in the basement),” Palmer, 92, of Topeka, said.

She recalls the dancers’ mothers applying heavy makeup to their faces, using a red pencil to add a colorful dot at the corner of their eyes. She remembers a makeup mishap that played out on the stage.

As part of an African-themed dance routine, the body of the lead dancer, Florence Green, was dusted with brown powder. During the routine, the powder came off, covering her male partners, who were dressed as African warriors.

“There was a write-up in the newspaper,” she said, referring to a review of the show. “It stated they didn’t like it.”

Lingering teen

When Lynn Davis was 14 or 15, his parents liked to go dancing on Saturday nights, on a dance floor on the top of the Gas Service Co. building at 200 S.W. 6th Ave.

While his parents were tripping the light fantastic, he would walk over to the Jayhawk to see a movie. One night, the theater showed an additional late movie.

“I never came out, and my dad had to go in and get me,” Davis, 82, of Topeka, said with a laugh. “There was a late movie, and I just decided to stay and watch it.”

Balcony’s the best

Sharon Weber Scarbrough and her friends walked from the Seabrook neighborhood to downtown Topeka on many Saturdays and Sundays during the mid-1950s to see a movie at the Jayhawk.

“I remember that it was a very impressive theater. It was the best theater to go to on a date.” Scarbrough, 74, of Topeka, said. “We always sat in the balcony, because if you sat on the first floor, the kids in the balcony would throw cups, popcorn and trash down on you.”

Back in time

Linda Moore saw her first silent movie at the Jayhawk Theatre — decades after the talkies hit the screen.

Moore, 68, of Holton, saw “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” based on the anti-slavery novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, at the Jayhawk in the late 1950s, when she was about 10 years old.

“I’d been to lots of movies there before,” she said, noting how she saw “Tom Sawyer” at the theater before adding, “It seems I was getting my literature at the Jayhawk.”

As she got older, Moore went to the Jayhawk with her friends to see Frank Sinatra and Sandra Dee movies. The last movie she saw at the Jayhawk was “The Graduate,” starring Dustin Hoffman as a young man seduced by an older woman.

Moore wishes the theater hadn’t shut its doors.

“I hated to see it close down,” she said.

 

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