by Mark Vierthaler
Founded in 1929, the Dodge Theater was a state-of-the-art picture house/live theater that continued the Queen of the Cowtown's already storied history of arts and entertainment in the old west. It boasted the newest films coming out of Hollywood to the little cowtown on the western edge of nowhere.
As the 1930s rode toward their end, the nation's fascination with cowboys and the not-so-long-lost adventures of the west came to a peak. Come 1939, Errol Flynn - the Brad Pitt of his day - starred in Dodge City, a romping western that featured the little Kansas town front and center. Thanks to the efforts of citizens across Kansas they convinced Warner Brothers to host the world premiere opening of Dodge City in Dodge City itself. Dodge City - then a town of 10,000 - played host to over 150,000 people as they pushed in to see Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, and Olivia de Havilland.
Time marched on, past decades of audiences and thousands of theatergoers and eventually the theater closed its doors as a movie house. The American public demanded the cinemaplex with its massive seats and countless rows of theaters showing just about every movie that was available. As such, the movie palaces like those in downtown Dodge City fell into disuse.
The galvanizing moment came when city safety inspectors brought the hammer down on the dangerously run-down marquee. While the theater still sat empty, the marquee was at least a reminder of the glory that once was the Dodge Theater. It's been more than 10 years since any business occupied the space, and the theater's second marquee has been taken down.
The only thing indicating the location of downtown Dodge City's one-time crown jewel is a few sun-faded posters.
Ownership of the theater has changed hands over the past several years, and each time the building has sat empty and fallen into further disrepair. With a growing movement to revitalize Dodge City's historic downtown, it's more important than ever to ensure the Dodge Theater isn't allowed to fall into further ruin.
However, with the marquee taken away, there was nothing. Just plain brick and the rusted skeleton of the sign. In a sense, another piece of history of Dodge City history had just passed on, like so much else. It was the fire, the spark that ignited our movement which consists of myself, fellow local Monica Springer, and one of my best friends, Lewis Mize, to find sponsors, donors, and those who had their fondest memories in that gorgeous neo-Spanish movie palace.
Dodge City-area native Judy Smith has fond memories that she didn't want to see disappear with the building.
"I started coming here with my parents when I was young," she said. "And, the balcony upstairs was the scene of a lot of sweaty hand-holding in junior high."
The Dodge Theater Foundation realizes that we will never compete with the big movie complexes. That's why we would like to restore the theater back to its original state from the 1920s to 1950s. Part movie house, part live stage. The original stage planks still rest behind the moth-eaten curtain. The dressing rooms with countless celebrity signatures from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s still stand in the basement.
By restoring this theater we would bring in travelling shows for both the Anglo and Hispanic communities, independent movies that appeal to all aspects of Dodge City's varied cultural structure, and create a medium-sized venue for shows and performers that are too large for the Depot Theater, but too small for United Wireless Arena.
To make that happen the building needs new plumbing, new heating and air-conditioning, new electrics. But, before any of that can happen, we have to own the building.
That's why, with all this history, we ask that you, the public of southwest Kansas support our goal as we work to continue solidifying Dodge City's status as the cultural jewel in southwest Kansas.
We can't do it without you.
"It always was a magical place," said Smith.