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As NoMar Theater Finds New Owner, North End Residents Hope To Preserve Piece Of Wichita History

This story was updated April 14  

The NoMar Theater in Wichita's North End has a new owner.

Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW
The NoMar Theater at 21st and Market

Gene Camarena won last week's auction for the historic theater at 21st and Market, and a neighboring parcel. He plans to donate the property to the newly formed nonprofit Empower Evergreen, where he serves as board chair.

"The main thing is it's going to be used as a resource for the community, and we want to keep it intact as it is," he said.

The theater, with its distinct Spanish-style architecture, was once home to movies and live musical performances. It opened in 1929 and closed in 1983.

J Basham owned the building with his brothers; their late father owned it before them. Basham said he tried to revive the theater a decade ago, but didn’t get much traction.

“What we were trying to do is raise the money to get the theater, then restore it,” he said. “We thought we could really have a true performing arts center.”

He looked into getting it added on a historic registry, but “we couldn’t get that far.”

After years of disuse and water damage, the cost to potentially restore the theater was exorbitant: about $2.5 million, Basham said.

“So we just decided that for us, the best thing to do after my dad passed is to just sell it off."

Credit Carla Eckels / KMUW
The theater goes up for auction at noon on Friday.

But Friday’s sale had many residents concerned.

“I think that this is one of the last standing monuments that reminds us of our history,” said Angela Martinez, an activist and longtime resident of Wichita’s predominantly Hispanic North End.

“I would really like to see it stay, and just maintain the integrity and the culture that I grew up with, that my parents grew up with, my grandparents grew up with."

She said her family frequented the theater when it was open. Her grandparents had movie date nights there for 10 cents.

The theater “is the centerpiece of the neighborhood,” said Martin Garcia, who also lives in the North End. He said he wants to see the same kind of investment and preservation efforts being made in Delano and Wichita’s Old Town.

“We need to start right there and revitalize it,” he said, “whether it’s someone that purchases the building privately or the city steps in and declares it of historical significance.”

Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW

Robert Chavez Jr. agrees. He said there’s a drive to get the city to pay more attention to the North End. 

“This was the uptown and how this community came together. This theater is iconic and something we can all share,” he said. “I would like to see a community center where we can share our cultural arts, folklorico dancing, the arts and culture of the beautiful Hispanic community that we have in Wichita.”

J Basham and his three brothers own the soon-to-be-auctioned NoMar Theater. He also is the owner of the Crown Uptown Theatre.

Basham, the theater’s owner, said he doesn’t want to see the it torn down. 

“I hope somebody can find the money because the building needs it,” he said. “I mean, it's just, it's in such bad shape right now.”

Camarena, who paid $300,000 for the theater and the building next to it, said he wants to invest in the neighborhood. 

"It's a wonderful community and one that I think that theater is a big part of," he said. "It's kind of the heart of the community, and we want to keep it that way."

Carla Eckels is Director of Organizational Culture at KMUW. She produces and hosts the R&B and gospel show Soulsations and brings stories of race and culture to The Range with the monthly segment In the Mix. Carla was inducted into The Kansas African American Museum's Trailblazers Hall of Fame in 2020 for her work in broadcast/journalism.