With the opening of two magnificent theaters, 1922 would mark the beginning of a new entertainment era in Wichita. Both the Miller Theater and the Orpheum Theatre opened their doors during this year, and they offered the city more than entertainment; they offered a way of life. At the time these theaters were built, before the advent of the television, it was not uncommon for patrons to attend theater performances and vaudeville shows several nights a week.
The Miller and The Orpheum Open
Each theater was grand and breathtaking in its own right. The Orpheum was designed to resemble a Spanish courtyard, but its ornate molding, ceilings, tilework and architecture are reminiscent of styles that can be found throughout several other European countries, as well. Delmar Klocke, a member of the Orpheum’s Board of Directors suggests that these architectural styles likely made many of Wichita’s early European immigrants feel at home. Though the theater offered many an escape from the world around them, for these immigrants, it brought them back to the countries they called home.
The Miller Theater was palatial in appearance. Offering a baroque style with three balconies, the beautiful theater could seat up to 2,000 patrons.
Miller Theater is Demolished, Orpheum Shuts Down
Though these theaters quickly became a large part of life for Wichitans, this was not enough to keep them alive. The 1970’s proved a difficult time for the theater industry in Wichita, and The Miller Theater was demolished in 1972. Around the same time the Orpheum was shut down.
I know what you’re thinking. The Orpheum is still standing and is still fully operational. You’re right. It did close, though, and it narrowly escaped demolition when members of the community banded together to prove that the Theater itself was worth more than the ground it was built on. Today, the Orpheum hosts movie screenings, concerts and comedians regularly.
But at the time, when one theater shut down and the other was demolished, Wichitans were left to believe that this crucial chapter in Wichita’s history had come to a close.
"Lost Theaters of Wichita"
Jim Grawe, Journalist at KPTS has spent the past few months exploring this subject further for a film called “Lost Theaters of Wichita.”
“This story has never been told” said Grawe, who served as the producer, writer, interviewer and photographer for the film. “It’s truly a piece of lost Wichita history.”
Grawe spent months compiling information from the Eagle archives at the library, digging up photos, and conducting interviews. His original plan was to put together a brief, 10 minute piece, but as he discovered more and more interesting information, the piece grew. Now complete, “Lost Theaters of Wichita” boasts a full 30 minute runtime.
In his search for information, Grawe found the Miller’s organ, and had the opportunity to talk with its owner. He also had 16 millimeter, color film of the theater from its last night of operation. This is something that’s never been seen before.
“That’s what makes it really special. No one knew that this film existed,” Grawe said. “If you look for pictures of the theater, you won’t find them. It’s truly historically significant.”
Grawe also discovered that, while so many of today’s lifelong Wichitans have a soft spot for the Miller, by the time it closed, people had seemingly lost interest.
“Losing the Miller wasn’t really a big deal at the time,” Grawe said. “There was no public outcry, and this had been the most spectacular theater Kansas had ever had.”
The remaining of the film’s two subjects, the Orpheum, will screen “Lost Theaters of Wichita” on July 23.
“I had no original intent to premiere the film at the Orpheum,” Grawe said, “but when the idea was presented to me, it seemed to make perfect sense.”
“Lost Theaters of Wichita” will play at the Orpheum on July 23. The film will begin at 8 p.m., and doors open at 7. Tickets are priced at $10 per person, and can be purchased here. Some of those interviewed in the film will be present for a live Q&A.