Jayhawk Theatre seeking renovation

Saturday night's Jayhawk Theatre Revival at the Celtic Fox raised approximately $750 toward renovating the theater.

Regina Budden

The floor is covered in a thick layer of dust. The ceiling and corners are progressively eaten away by a cruel plaster mold. Garish paint coats the walls but cannot quite hide the gold leafing beneath. Despite its need for renovation, however, The Jayhawk Theatre is now enjoying a crucial role in Topeka’s future.

The theater, hidden away on the corner of 7th and Jackson, has a grand historic past as a Boller Brothers theater, and it is the official theater of Kansas, but now there is renewed hope that it will have a significant role in the community as an entertainment venue. The theater is part of local efforts to provide Topeka with the same opportunities as surrounding cities, such as Lawrence. Kathy Duncan, president of the Jayhawk Theatre’s board of directors, has been with the theater renovation project since the beginning and she is enthusiastic about what it could mean for the community.

“The Jayhawk Theatre will enhance the economic development of downtown Topeka as well as cultural activities and the business activities and performance opportunities that it brings with it,” said Duncan.

The Jayhawk’s former glory stemmed from the former Hotel Jayhawk, now converted into the Jayhawk Towers complex. In 1925, Warren Crosby was denied a building permit for his hotel, and he decided the best way to obtain one was to build a movie palace with an adjoining wall to the hotel. Topeka architect Thomas Williamson doubted his ability to construct such a building, so Crosby went outside of Topeka to find a designer. The Kansas City-based Boller Brothers had recently enjoyed the premiere of the very first movie palace, but were apprehensive about Crosby’s proposed theater because some of their greatest works had recently burned to the ground.

“At the time that Mr. Crosby approached them,” said Duncan, “they had decided they weren’t going to design anymore theater houses until they could make something that was fireproof.”

The fire issue was resolved by building walls between 13 and 16 inches full of concrete, and the theater was the first built with exits at both the front and back. The Jayhawk also has the first curved steel balcony in the United States, and has no support posts. Duncan was relieved that in the recent structure assessment, the balcony was declared safe.

The Jayhawk was saved from demolition in 1996 and placed on a list of historical sites. Soon thereafter, the members of the Jayhawk project took a 60-mile radius survey of businesses and community members to find plausible uses for the building. They finally decided to bring the theater back as an entertainment business.

“It will be a multipurpose rental community facility,” said Duncan. “There should never be what’s called a ‘black night’ in the house. On nights that it’s not rented for an activity, we will be showing independent and foreign films, art films, so Topekans can stay in Topeka. They won’t have to drive to Liberty Hall in Lawrence to see the films.”

“Multi-purpose” hardly seems broad enough to incorporate the wide range of activities. Duncan’s brief list included art displays, local band performances, independent films, wedding receptions, ballet and a much-anticipated international film festival or two.

“[The activities] will be determined by how the community wants to rent the space,” said Duncan.

The theater will tackle the issue of preservation versus modernization by being as versatile as possible. Current plans include teleconferencing for business meetings and conventions. Also, multi-satellite up-linking will allow theater attendees to watch opening nights on Broadway and similar events from the comfort of Topeka.

“It’s going to give Topekans a global feel for the arts,” said Duncan. The Jayhawk has amassed a large collection of art since the opening of its Upstage Gallery in February of 2007.

Lance Johnson, curator of the gallery, is excited to be involved in the renovations of the theater. This is his third proprietorship, which he fell into at the bequest of Duncan a few years ago while he was attending Washburn for an art degree.

The Upstage is an industrial style exhibit that Johnson said still holds “fine art standards.” They participate in the First Friday Artwalks, which Johnson says brings in between 100 and 200 people once a month. This has helped validate the art style of the gallery, and it has also raised awareness for the theater and its place in the future of the community.

“It’s inspiring to see that we’re not plowing over the old to build the new,” said Johnson. “Not to mention having paintings and art that we are deprived of in institutional and recreational buildings today.”

Currently, the Jayhawk’s biggest obstacle is a lack of funding. Current plans will require a budget of $6.4 million. The support that has already been shown through donations by private citizens and members of the Jayhawk Theatre Society has been very heartening, but it’s only a start.

The most recent fundraiser will be hosted by Washburn University Student Publications at the Celtic Fox at 7 p.m. on Saturday, and it will include performances by local bands and other activities to promote awareness about the theater’s situation. Tours of the Jayhawk will begin at 6 p.m. A $5 donation will be taken at the door, and all proceeds will go to the theater project.

“The upcoming Jayhawk Revival is, to me, one of the most edifying things about this project,” said Duncan, adding the local bands may one day be able to perform in the theater itself.

Although it will be a difficult road to recovery for the Jayhawk, when it is completed, it will give Topekans of all ages the opportunity to celebrate their multi-faceted culture. The theater will provide a variety of activities for everyone to enjoy outside of solely mainstream culture, which is a prospect that holds great appeal for Johnson.

“It is exactly what we need,” he said. “Hopefully it will put the jazz back into our night life.”