“Unless we tell stories about ourselves, which is all that theater is, we’re in deep trouble.”
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Winter-time in Kansas City is like summer-time in Tucson – the streets looks deserted most of the day, as if everybody packed in the middle of the night and fled without notice. Instead of tumbleweeds, the crisp air carries dead leaves and newspapers.
I went on a walk in downtown Shawnee, through the nearby cemetery and up towards city hall. The temperature has been hovering in the teens and twenties; needless to say, I didn’t see any other pedestrians, save for the poor pitiful fool dressed as the statue of liberty, promoting a tax prep service on the corner. There ought to be a law against that kind of cruelty.
Pictured here is the Old Aztec movie theater.
The Old Aztec was designed by the Boller Brothers architectural firm of downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Their designs ranged widely in size and style, from minor vaudeville houses to grand movie palaces. To date, about twenty surviving Boller Brothers theaters are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Old Aztec is clearly among the smaller houses, commissioned by Shawnee’s third mayor, Mr. Marion Summeror, and opened on Labor Day in 1927.
It was named Aztec in the 1940s after it was acquired by Dickinson Theaters. The current signage was installed in 1972 after the theater was purchased by the Pflumm family. Closed for renovations in the summer of 1975, the theater never reopened. There was a time in 2005 when the building changed hands again. Renovations began again, too. The outside has been finished, but the project stalled and the status of the theater is not known.
I like the way old towns feel, although that sense of Main Street life has largely melted away. This little intersection in Shawnee is surrounded by an ocean of strip malls and shopping centers, traffic congestion and highways. But for one block, you can dig your hands into your pockets, bury your head between your shoulders, and walk down the sidewalk against the wind. You can look up at the old marquis and consider a time, almost a hundred years ago, when people walked the same streets, through the threshold and into theater, to watch a silent film dance across the canvas screen of a true American movie house.