Theatre History

 

On August 11, 1925, E.H. Crosby of the Crosby Brothers Company made the first announcement of his plans to provide the capital city of Kansas with a modern theatre. After slightly more than a year of work by the Jayhawk Theatre Company, the luxurious “designed in every aspect for the comfort and amusement of its patron,” Jayhawk Theatre opened its doors in August of 1926. The total cost of construction was not published but has been estimated between $750,000 and $1,000,000.

Though the theatre was placed on the national register of historic places in 1974, it lists Topeka architect Thomas W. Williamson as the designer for the entire complex. It was later revealed that Mr. Williamson was the architect of record, and that the Boller Brothers, noted theatre designers from Kansas City, were actually responsible for the design of the theatre. These two brothers used the Jayhawk Theatre as a prototype for more than 300 theatres that they designed in their career. The domed ceiling, proscenium arch, side floor exits and a balcony not supported by columns were features that the Boller Brothers used throughout many of their designs. Elements such as the air conditioning and its steel and concrete structure made the Jayhawk Theatre unique and a forerunner of its day.

Whether it was the blustery winter winds or sweltering summer heat, a patron could forget about the outside weather by the constant 70 degree temperature inside the theatre. It took 3 months for the mechanics and engineers to install the huge refrigeration heating and ventilating system that accomplished this feat. The system was such an integral part of the theatre that installation began with the first yard of concrete poured. Ducts carrying heated or cooled air to all parts of the building were set in the walls and support columns. Heating, cooling and washing apparatus were positioned in the basement. Coils of steam pipes created the heating and cooling was managed by an ammonia-based system. Actors, comedians and vaudevillians who frequented the theatre during July and August fell in love with the Jayhawk, as it gave them a break from the hot, humid weather. Few theatres of its time could offer such a luxury.

In 1926, the theatre could seat an audience of 1500 people. A balcony capable of 650 faces the stage, with every person in the theatre having “the best seat in the house.” The Boller Brothers’ unique design incorporated steel trusswork and eliminated supporting columns in the auditorium, thereby allowing every seat to be a great one.

The stage opening measured 30 feet high and 38 feet wide. The picture screen, measuring 18×20 feet, was constructed of smooth, gray-white rubber, backed with a black rubberized substance, which was a new material in its day. This meant that there was a pure white surface when the light from the projectors hit it. It also meant that none of the glittering reflection caused by shimmering movies was present to tire your eyes. In 1953, a big CinemaScope screen measuring 20×40 feet was added to handle 3-D and regular films, as well.

Each department of the theatre was connected by telephones to make coordination of production easier. With this coordination, electrical controls were all centralized on the left-hand side of the stage behind one of the banks of organ pipes. The switchboard was touted as the largest in the Midwest and weighed 5 tons. All the dimming apparatus and lights for the auditorium, foyer and stage were controlled by it.

In May of 1976, the curtain closed on the Jayhawk Theatre for the last time, after half a century of motion picture and stage entertainment. During this time, Mann Theatres, Inc. owned the theatre and had future plans for downtown Topeka. A center-city mall or restaurant were among ideas to replace the theatre. The building was vacated on June 1, 1976, and has remained empty ever since.

The Hotel Jayhawk, also closed shortly after the theatre, was renovated into the Jayhawk Tower in 1982 and the theatre became cordoned off. In 1992, a local developer sought a demolition permit that would have included the Jayhawk Theatre. Due to prior placement on the national and state historic registers, the demolition permit was contingent upon approval from the Kansas State Historical Society. In October, 1992, KHS preservation officer Dr. Ramon Powers wrote a letter stating, “that demolition of the building would damage the historic character of the Jayhawk and two adjacent buildings on the register: the Jayhawk Tower and the Davis Building.”

In December, owner H. T. Paul offered to donate the Jayhawk Theatre to the city or Historic Topeka, Inc. in exchange for the city constructing a parking garage on the site of the Crosby Brothers building downtown. No one was interested in purchasing the theatre at that time because of high acquisition and restoration costs.

The City Council voted to postpone the decision to raze the Jayhawk Theatre until December 22, 1992. In November, Paul backed away from demolishing the Jayhawk due to additional funds that it would have taken to pursue this project. January of 1993 brought Rev. Richard Taylor forward with his proposal to save the Jayhawk. Through his efforts, the Historic Jayhawk Theatre, Inc. was formed as a 501C3 charitable corporation and the theatre seemed destined for rebirth. During the 1993 session, the Kansas State Legislature designated the Jayhawk as the State Theatre of Kansas.

1996 was a year of forward steps for the Jayhawk. Eagle Scout Sam Hayward and his troop cleared the theatre of debris for an open house celebrating the 70th anniversary of the theatre’s opening. For the first time in 25 years, people were allowed to tour the facility. That holiday season, the theatre joined in on “Miracle on Kansas Avenue” with over 2500 people viewing the silent treasure. A jazz trio performed on stage for several hours in the 40 degree temperature. It was the first live music in the “Hawk” for decades. In the past five years, over $125,000.00 has been raised and spent stabilizing the Jayhawk to preserve and keep further deterioration from occurring.

THE JAYHAWK THEATRE TODAY.

The theatre has been vacant since May, 1976. The Hotel Jayhawk was renovated into the Jayhawk Tower in 1982, and the theatre became cordoned off. In 1992, a local developer sought a demolition permit that would have included the Jayhawk Theatre. Due to prior placement on the national and state historic registers, the demolition permit was contingent upon approval from the Kansas State Historical Society. In October, 1992, KHS preservation officer Dr. Ramon Powers wrote a letter stating, “that demolition of the building would damage the historic character of the Jayhawk and two adjacent buildings on the register: the Jayhawk Tower and the Davis Building.”

In response, owner H. T. Paul offered to donate the Jayhawk Theatre to the city or Historic Topeka, Inc. in exchange for the city constructing a parking garage on the site of the Crosby Brothers building downtown. That did not happen. No one was interested in purchasing the theatre at that time because of high acquisition and restoration costs.

The City Council voted to postpone the decision to raze the Jayhawk Theatre until December 22, 1992. In November, Paul backed away from demolishing the Jayhawk due to additional funds that it would have taken to pursue this project.

In 1993, the Rev. Richard Taylor proposed staging theatrical performances of “In His Steps”, the best-selling novel by the Rev. Charles Sheldon of Topeka. The money from the shows would be used to finance the purchase and operation of the theatre. The “In His Steps” idea never got off the ground, but through the efforts of Taylor, local historian Don Chubb and others, Historic Jayhawk Theatre, Inc., was formed as a 501(c)(3) charitable corporation. During the 1993 session, the Kansas State Legislature designated the Jayhawk as the State Theatre of Kansas.

In 1994, Jim Parrish of Parrish Management acquired the entire Crosby Brothers properties, including the theatre, and Jim & Nancy Parrish and Loren Hohman, owners , generously donated the theatre to the newly formed corporation. 1996 was a year of forward steps for the Jayhawk. Eagle Scout Sam Hayward and his troop cleared the theatre of debris for an open house celebrating the 70th anniversary of the theatre’s opening. For the first time in 25 years, people were allowed to tour the facility. That holiday season, the theatre joined in on “Miracle on Kansas Avenue” with over 2500 people viewing the silent treasure. A jazz trio performed on stage for several hours in the 40 degree temperature. It was the first live music in the “Hawk” for decades.

Several hundred thousand dollars has been raised to replace the roof and stabilize the environment and slow further decay. Nearby construction in recent years has led to some water incursion which has created a plaster “virus” which threatens some of the original castings.

In 1997, Tom Little and Little Properties donated to the Jayhawk the first floor of the Commonwealth Building, which together with additional space to the south, will become the support space and lobby for the theatre. The space was used only for theatre offices until 2007 when a group of local artists and students asked if they could use part of the space for a local art gallery. This rapidly grew into the Upstage Gallery at the Jayhawk Theatre, a popular local art space that draws hundreds to its eclectic shows and First Friday gatherings featuring music of all types, even dance. The gallery has been a tremendous asset in getting people back into the theatre to see what it was and what it will become.

Now that public sentiment strongly supports downtown revitalization and other local fundraising projects like TCT, Great Overland Station and Discovery Center are complete, it’s the Jayhawk’s turn. Please help.

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Donations may also be sent to: 720 SW Jackson Topeka, Ks 66603 or by calling the office at: 785.233.4295

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