Once A Cultural Hub For Black Wichitans, Dunbar Theatre Nears Revival

Jul 24, 2020

Almost 60 years after it closed, the historic Dunbar Theatre in Wichita’s McAdams neighborhood is ramping up for some major renovations.

Efforts have been ongoing for several years to reopen the theater located in what was once the epicenter of Wichita’s Black community. Now, that work is getting a new push.

The Dunbar Theatre in Wichita
Credit Carla Eckels / KMUW

The nonprofit Power CDC acquired the theater, named after the famous Black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, in 2007, after the building had been vacant for decades.

Dunbar is now listed in the national Register of Historic Places; a marquee has been erected and a mural has been painted on the north side of the theater. A cement floor was poured in April, but there’s still a lot more work to be done to restore the icon that’s the site of so many residents’ memories.

“I came here in 1948 and it was here then,” said 81-year-old John Collins.

He’s lived near 9th and Cleveland in Wichita for decades. He has fond memories of the Dunbar Theatre, which you can partially see from his front porch.

"It was great!" he said. "We had plenty fun. … It was packed every time you went because they had Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday night movies."

Movies such as  the 1943 musical Cabin in the Sky with music by renowned pianist and composer Duke Ellington, who also performed live at the Dunbar Theatre with his jazz band back in the '40s and '50s.

The theater also showed cartoons like "Popeye" and "Looney Tunes."

"It was awesome because all the kids in the neighborhood went there during that time," Collins said.

Credit Wichita State University Special Collections

Clydean Roberson also cherishes the time she spent at the Dunbar Theatre decades ago. Roberson, now 80, says she went every weekend from about 1949 to the mid-1950s.

"That was our special reward that we would get from our parents or guardians for being good all week," she said, "and it was like our Saturday afternoon time for getting together with friends and we would gather in and it was such a nice staff.

"We could spend a whole afternoon viewing the movies over and over again. We enjoyed the popcorn, which was, I think, about a quarter."

While Roberson remembers the popcorn, for others, like activist and former Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams, it was all about the candy. Her favorite was the chewy Black Cow sucker with chocolate and caramel in the middle.

Williams says the Dunbar Theatre was filled with fun.

"I’m the oldest of nine kids," she said, “so it was an opportunity for us because it was so inexpensive to be able to go to the theatre and sit most of the day and watch movies and cartoons and then walk straight down the street to my grandparents’ house.”

A Christmas party at the Dunbar in 1947
Credit Wichita State University Special Collections

The neighborhood was once made up of Blacked-owned businesses: a grocery store, drug store, dry cleaners, a night club, even a cab company. It was a gathering space for Black people.

"I think it’s a great opportunity for the community to reinvest in what has been a hub for social enterprise within the African-American community," said Dr. T. Lamont Holder, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church. "Especially in light of, at that time, they were dealing with segregation. We couldn’t go places and really interact with everyone.

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau and Rev. T. Lamont Holder, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church.
Credit Carla Eckels / KMUW

"This gave the Black community an outlet to be able to come and embrace our uniqueness as a culture and as people."

The Dunbar Theatre opened in 1941 and closed in 1963. It’s now on the verge of resuscitation, thanks in part to a recent $50,000 donation from Walmart.

Kansas Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau sits on the Power CDC board. She says the goal is to turn the theater into a state-of-the art performing arts center not just for the neighboring community, but for all of Wichita and even the state.

"It’s going to create jobs," she said. "It’s going to give children a place to go."

With the recent donation, the organization is now halfway to its $6 million goal for the first phase of reconstruction, which includes restoration of the 340-seat theater plus a two-level commons building with concessions, meeting rooms and a recording studio.

James Albertha is the founder of Power CDC. He’s built 105 houses in the area. He says the remaining funding for the project may take a while to raise.

"We’ll get there, you watch, cause I don’t give up," he said. "If it’s going to benefit this community, I’m going to be there."

Renderings show plans for the theater's renovation.
Credit Carla Eckels / KMUW

Supporters hope that the new Dunbar Theatre will once again be a gathering place for the neighborhood as well as the city as a whole, with events seven days a week to spur more economic development in the area.

Lavonta Williams, who serves on the Dunbar Theatre Advisory Board, has helped secure funding from the city and says she wants all of Wichita to buy in.

"Performing arts and academia go together, so my first initial thought was cultural events," she said. “It’s a venue opportunity for communities or workshops. A place for everybody to be able to come."

Elizabeth Bruce, a mother of six, lives two blocks down from the Dunbar Theater. She says this is going to be fantastic for her family.

Elizabeth Bruce with daughters De'Lainey Bruce and Zaniya Roddy.
Credit Carla Eckels / KMUW

"I love the fact that they are keeping it alive and they are trying to preserve it," Bruce said. "I am a strong believer that the arts enhance our children’s learning."

Her 10-year-old daughter, Zaniya Roddy, likes to dance, act and sing, and says she can’t wait until the theater reopens.

And neighbor John Collins says he’s sure the restored Dunbar Theatre will attract people, just like it did when he was a kid.

"I’m sure these young kids in this neighborhood now, they would take to it because we have a [more] mixed neighborhood now than what we had back then, and I guarantee you, when you open up that theater they will be there," he said.

"Not only the kids but the grown folks too 'cause I’d be one of them. I’d be right back up in there."

In the Mix airs monthly on KMUW's The Range. Find previous segments here.