Recent developments at the Historic Jayhawk Theatre, 720 S. Jackson, Topeka, are breathing new life into the 90-year-old theatre. The board’s volunteers and friends are working to revive the classic theater. Musicians, filmmakers and dancers have graced the stage in recent months, shining a spotlight on the theatre and its potential. Advocates believe a fully restored theatre would deepen the cultural renaissance taking place in Topeka.
“We believe a key component to downtown revitalization is the restoration of the Jawhawk Theatre,” said Jeff Carson, president of the Historic Jayhawk Theatre Board of Directors. “There is a lot of momentum for downtown Topeka. The Streetscape improvements really help. It’s all about quality of life. The Jayhawk Theatre is a big part of this.”
The theatre has been owned by a nonprofit organization, Historic Jayhawk Theatre, since the mid-1990s. The organization’s 501(c)(3) status had been suspended by the Internal Revenue Service because it had not filed tax returns for several years. Those tax returns have since been filed and the IRS granted the organization’s 501(c)(3) status as a nonprofit in 2015, according to Guidestar.org.
Carson said the Jayhawk Theatre recruited new board members and paid off some liabilities to the previous architect and selected a new architect, Vance Kelley of TreanorHL’s Preservation Studio. The board also hired new contractor Mike Greir of Eby Construction Co. Historic Jayhawk Theatre raised $1 million in grants and cash donations, including a $680,000 grant from the City of Topeka using transient guest tax dollars, and hired a new executive director, John Holecek.
“Financially, we’re the strongest we’ve been in years,” said Mark Burenheide, treasurer of Historic Jayhawk Theatre.
“People had lost faith in the project, but now we’re overcoming that,” said Carson, who, as president of the board of directors, is a non-paid volunteer at the Jayhawk. Carson works in media himself as owner at Gizmo Pictures, located just a block away. Carson often spends more time at the Jayhawk than his own business, but he loves the Jayhawk and believes that its transformation would be a wonderful addition to Topeka.
The Jayhawk Theatre opened in 1926 at a cost of $750,000 to $1 million. It was designed by the famed Boller brothers. The theatre was host to many live performances and movies over the years, but closed in 1976, due, in part, to flight from downtown. Jim Parrish acquired the theatre in 1994, and then Jim and Nancy Parrish deeded the theatre to the Historic Jayhawk Theatre organization in 1994. One of the early advocates was The Rev. Richard Taylor, who fought for Jayhawk’s preservation. Bob Hope performed at the Jayhawk Theatre.
“It’s the last of the great movie palaces,” Topeka historian Douglass Wallace said of the Jayhawk Theatre. At one time, Topeka had four big-scale movie houses, the Jayhawk, the Grand, the Dickinson and the Orpheum.
“The Jayhawk and The Grand were spectacular,” said Wallace, who attended the theaters beginning in the early 1950s.
Wallace remembers seeing a lot of Westerns at the Jayhawk in the 1950s. The entire movie experience included watching newsreels, previews of coming attractions, and cartoons, before the main event. “I always looked forward to the cartoons,” he recalls. “My parents and I always sat in the balcony, looking down at the movie.”
Wallace sees the Jayhawk as a part of Topeka’s rich history in the performing arts, from the early 1900s to more recently the recognition of Jayne Houdyshell — a Tony Award winner for her work in “The Humans” on Broadway in New York. “The Jayhawk would be a marvelous match for all of this,” Wallace said.
My first experience inside the Jayhawk was attending a rehearsal of a song and dance act by the Topeka Bar Association, with Ed Bailey, script writer, and Tuck Duncan, director, in 2008. Their Topeka Bar Show was political satire lampooning the Governor, the Legislature, and the Kansas Supreme Court.
More recently, the Jayhawk Theatre has been host to locally produced films by Gary Piland, rap and hip hop, folk music, Rocky Horror Picture Show and Kansas Ballet Academy. A hip hop show featuring Bizzy and Stick Figa raised $900 Feb. 25 at the theatre, Carson said.
The board of directors decided to hire someone with expertise in theatre renovation. John Holecek, executive director, has experience in historic theatre management and development. He raised $10.5 million for the restoration of the historic McPherson Opera House and served as executive director for six years. Funding from local transient guest tax is paying for his salary in Topeka during his first year.
The cost to restore the Jayhawk Theatre was estimated at $8.2 million, according to an Opinion of Costs, by Slemmons Associates Architects. Carson said that estimate is five to six years old. Carson said an updated estimate is $10 to $12 million. About $3.5 million would come from Historic Tax Credits.
Much of the restoration work is related to installing proper HVAC, fire safety sprinklers, plaster repair, flooring, plumbing, electrical, lighting and restoration of finishes in the main theatre, lobby, walkway, mezzanine and balcony. Each area needs an extensive amount of work. Some roof work has been done, but additional roofing would be needed during restoration, Carson said.
I’ve heard some critics say, “why not raise $2 million or $3 million and get as much done with that and then hold more events?” That’s a fair question, but when you look at what other theatre renovations have cost, $10 million is not uncommon, Carson said.
Professional seating, lighting, sound and production equipment are not cheap, Carson said. Several other theaters in the country have been renovated in the range of $8 million to $15 million to $30 million, depending how elaborate the design, Carson said.
It’s clear that Jayhawk Theatre advocates believe so wholeheartedly in the building’s promise, they are willing to give time, money and equipment to make it better. Warehouse 414 donated two couches and a table to the Jayhawk to dress up an empty corner. Dave’s Lights donated lighting for the stage and gallery, Carson said.
Art, music, theatre and film play a critical role in lifting up the spirit of a community. We can see this in Topeka where activists have been building up the art scene in NOTO. The renovation of the Jayhawk Theatre would deliver a valuable contribution to quality of life here. A capital campaign is underway to raise funds to further the renovation of the theatre.