Wichita's Historic Movie Palaces, Theaters, Drive-Ins
Wichita has been home to a great number of movie theaters over the years. Some of these early venues are long gone, some still stand but operate as completely different businesses and one of them remains! These are just a few of the theaters that have called ICT home. Do you remember them?
54 Drive In
The 54 Drive In, named for Kellogg, US Highway 54, opened on September 4, 1947.
Owned by O.F. Sullivan, who had several theaters in Wichita and Kansas City, the 54 Drive In featured one screen and could accommodate up to 650 cars, according to Cinema Treasures.
The theater was located at 6251 East Kellogg and permanently closed in the early 1970s. The 54 Drive In was demolished in January of 1973.
The motion picture “Phone Call From A Stranger” dates this photo to 1952.
81 Drive-In Theatre
The 81 Drive In Theatre was Wichita's first drive in. The concept was so new to the Wichita area, that the text at the bottom om the pictured marquee gives the following instruction:
"Sit in your car see and hear the movies".
Located at 6250 North Broadway, near the intersection of 53rd, the 81 Drive In Theatre was located just north of Wichita's city limits. It, too, was named for the US Highway on which it had been built. Featuring one screen and a 600-car capacity, the theatre opened in August of 1946.
"The Hurricane”, the movie showing at the time this photo was taken, was released in 1937, nine years prior to the theatre's opening.
Wichita's Arcadia theater was located on Water Street and it opened in 1918, according to Cinema Treasures. The theater had one screen.
In the early 1960s, the Arcadia Theater was a venue for live performances as well as movies and Setlist.fm reports that Johnny Cash played the venue in November of 1956, January of 1960, January of 1962 and February of 63.
The Arcadia Theater has since been demolished.
Wichita's Boulevard Theater is said to have opened on May 17, 1945. Part of the Boulevard Shopping Center, the theater had one screen and 972 seats.
"The Virginian", the film on the marquee in the photo, was released in 1946, dating the image back nearly to the theater's debut.
The building still stands at 900 George Washington Boulevard.
The Crest Theater at 4825 E. Douglas Avenue, was built in 1950 near the Lincoln Heights Shopping Center. It featured one screen and 1,200 seats. According to Cinema Treasures, the theater was designed by the architectural firm Boller & Lusk.
Serving as a live venue for a time, the theater did not close its doors until 1989 and it was demolished eight years later.
Today, the Douglas and Oliver Il Vicino Wood Oven Pizza and neighboring physical therapy clinic stand where the Crest Theater once was.
The Dunbar Theater opened in 1941. It featured one screen and a total of 467 seats.
According to Cinema Treasures, the theater was named after Paul Laurence Dunbar, an African-American poet. It closed in the 1960s.
The building still stands in its original location at 1007 North Cleveland Avenue.
A sustained effort was made by the community to refurbish the theater as part of a renewal project in the McAdams neighborhood.
A few fundraising events have taken place, and the building received a new marquee among other upgrades.
The Kansas Theater, located at 221 E. Douglas, had one screen and 340 seats.
Originally opening in 1910 as the Star Theater, its name was changed to The Kansas after a contest in 1921, according to Cinema Treasures.
The theater was one of many Wichita theaters that would be owned and operated by the McCollister family.
When the McCollisters leased the second floor of the building and turned it into a balcony, the total seating capacity increased to 600 seats, according to Cinema Treasures comments.
Once the renovation was completed, a new name was requested for the new theater in 1921. A contest was held and the winner would receive $25 and a free season pass to the theater.
Today, the Kansas Theater building still stands but it is vacant.
Wichita's Meadowlark Drive-In was located at 4445 East Harry. According to Cinema Treasures, the single-screen drive-in theater opened in 1950.
Designed and owned T.H. Slothower and his wife Merta, The Meadowlark had a 1,000 car capacity.
The Slothowers added an additional screen and room for another 400 cars adjacent to the existing theater.
The theaters offered a combined capacity of 1,400 cars.
Each screen had a children's playground in front and the concession stand had a patio with additional outdoor seating.
The theater has since been closed, and Ourr's Family Dining stands on the lot it once occupied.
Wichita's Miller Theater, located at 115 N. Broadway was absolutely breathtaking. Opening in 1922, the theater featured a baroque style with three balconies. Seating capacity was 2,000. The theater operated for 48 years, highlighting films, live stage shows, music programs and celebrity appearances before closing in 1970. The theater was demolished in 1972.
The Miller Theater was recognized in KPTS's 2016 film "The Lost Theatres of Wichita" by Jim Grawe.
While researching the theater, Grawe found the organ that had once been housed at the Miller Theater. He also came across 16 millimeter, color film of the theater from its last night of operation that was featured in the film.
“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."
Wichita's Nomar Theater was built at 2143 North Market Street in the late 1920s. The name came from the combination of the words "North" and "Market."
The theater had one screen and 800 seats. Opening in 1929, the Nomar was designed by notable theater designers the Boller Bothers. In the 1950's, one Cinema Treasures commenter reports, the Nomar is said to have highlighted live musical performances in addition to movies.
The Nomar screened adult films for a time prior to closing its doors in 1983. In 2009, a group of citizens worked to restore the theater to its former glory, though in has not reopened.
The Palace Theater opened in January of 1916, according to comments on Cinema Treasures.
The Palace was the second theater in Wichita to be owned by Lewis Miller, after he first acquired the Princess Theater. When the Palace opened, it was the biggest theater Wichita had ever seen.
It had one screen and 1,234 seats. Closing its doors in 1961, the Palace Theater was razed in 1966. The space it once occupied is now being used as a parking lot.
The Pawnee Drive-In was opened on July 4, 1950.
Located at 2400 South Broadway Street, the theater had room for 400 parked cars.
The theater operated for more than 20 years before being demolished in 1970s.
Today, the plot of land that was once the Pawnee Drive-In is currently occupied by an Advance Auto Parts store, Subway, and the Pawnee and Broadway Walmart.
According to Cinema Treasures, the Princess Theatre opened on April 5, 1909 bringing a new screen and 1,000 more seats to Wichita's movie theater scene.
The Princess, located at 230 E. William Street, was Lewis Miller's first Wichita theater. He would later go on to own other local theaters, acquiring the Palace and the Miller next.
Cinema Treasures reports that after the opening of The Wichita in 1918, the Princess switched to a grindhouse policy, showing lower quality, B movies. By 1922, the theatre had closed. It was demolished in 1927.
The site of the Princess would later serve as the Innes Department Store, Macy's, Dillards, and a state office complex. Though plans were made in 2016 to revive the Finney State Office building, they were not carried out. Today, 230 E. William is vacant.
Rainbow Drive-In (Now Starlite)
Rainbow Drive-In opened in 1974 at the intersection of Hydraulic and MacArthur.
Sound familiar? That's because you've likely visited. Today, the Rainbow Drive-In operates as the Starlite Drive-In, Wichita's only remaining drive-in theater.
Rainbow was built from the ground up in 1973, prior to opening a year later.
Check out photos of the Rainbow being built and more information in our Starlite Drive-In blog.
The Sandra Theatre, located at 121 E. William Street, opened in 1939. According to Cinema treasures, the theater was operated by Fox Midwest Amusement Corp. by 1942.
With one screen and 640 seats, the Sandra Theatre brought entertainment to Downtown Wichita.
According to comments on Cinema Treasures, the Sandra was featured in several issues of Boxoffice.
One article, from March of 1952, explained that the theatre had been built for T.H. Slothower and his wife, Merta. The couple operated the theater until 1942, when they leased it to Fox.
The Slothowers, however, continued to operate several theaters in the area until 1970, according to the Boxoffice article.
The Sandra was designed by Lorentz Schmidt, one of Wichita’s leading architects of the period, known primarily for designing a number of schools across Kansas. The Sandra is thought to be his only commercial theater design.
According to a Facebook post from the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum in 2010, the Southern Theater opened in 1935 with one screen and 450 seats.
The Southern Theater was located at 408 E. Harry, a site which is now occupied by a Veterans of Foreign Wars post.
Comments on the Facebook post suggest that this photo of the Southern Theater was taken in the 1950s, as the theater's entrance had been moved to avoid regular flooding that occurred in the area.
Formerly known as Rainbow, the Starlite Drive-In is the only currently operating drive-in theater in Wichita. Running for 43 years, the Starlite is one of just 348 left in the United States. Of those, just five are located in Kansas. The drive-in persevered through a number of trials, including the cost of converting to digital projection.
Starlite Drive-In has the Wichita community to thank for its continued support over the years. This support has allowed the theater to remain profitable.
“We’re going to be around for as long as Wichita continues to support us, we’re very family oriented, we love our customers, and nothing’s going to be changing,” said Chuck Bucinski of Starlite Drive-In's management team.
Read more about the Starlite Drive-In.
Opening on Christmas Day in 1951, the Sunset Theater had one screen and 970 seats on a single level.
The theater operated for 29 years before permanently closing in 1980. The Sunset Theater was located at the intersection of Harry and Lulu at 1600 Lulu Avenue.
The films "Thunder on the Hill” and Anne of the Indies” headlining in the photo were released in 1951, the year that the theater opened.
The Tower Theater
The Tower Theater was located at 526 N. Oliver Street. With one screen, the theater could seat up to 886 people.
According to the July 24 issue of Boxoffice, the Tower Theater opened on July 16, 1948, after construction was delayed. The theater operated for nine years before closing in 1957.
The location of the theater served many other purposes over the years, supposedly operating as a Knolla's Pizza, a bingo parlor, a floral shop and more. Today, the location holds a Burger King.
Twin Lakes Theatres
Located at 310 E. Douglas, The Wichita Theater had one screen and seated up to 1,400, according to the Film Daily Yearbook in both 1941 and 1943.
Opening in 1918, the theater had a unique European design by Carl Boller.
The photo of the Wichita was taken at the 1958 world premiere of the film "Hot Rod Gang" in 1958.
By the 1940s, The Wichita Theater was operated by Fox Midwest Amusement Corp. The Wichita remained open through at least 1950, but was demolished in June of 1970.
Fun Fact: The Wichita is said to have had a 12-piece orchestra that accompanied movies both in the evening and during matinée performances.
Wonderland Theatre was located in Wonderland Park, which was located on the former Ackerman Island (which was actually much more a sandbar than an island) more than 100 years ago.
Ackerman Island was located on the big Arkansas River and it ran from the Douglas Street bridge north past Second Street.
The Wonderland Theatre opened in 1905 and featured 1 screen and 1,100 seats, making it one of the largest theaters of its time. Financial issued forced the closure of all Wonderland Park facilities in 1918. Flooding in the 1930's resulted in the complete removal of the sandbar/island.
Remember These Theaters?
What shows did you see at these theaters? Share you memories in the comments! To learn more about these and other Wichita theaters, visit cinematreasures.org.