© 2024 KMUW
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Music Theatre Wichita's new 'Cats' scenery will tap into the memories and nostalgia of Joyland

Music Theatre Wichita artistic director Brian J. Marcum, left, and scenic designer Jordan Slusher created a new set for "Cats" that's inspired by the abandoned Joyland amusement park.
Suzanne Perez
Music Theatre Wichita artistic director Brian J. Marcum, left, and scenic designer Jordan Slusher created a new set for Cats that's inspired by the abandoned Joyland amusement park.

When Brian J. Marcum went looking for a set for this season’s production of "Cats," he came up short.

“We couldn’t find anything that was rentable that was good,” said Marcum, artistic director for Music Theatre Wichita. “And so when we decided to build the set, we thought, ‘How should we make it?’ and Jordan came up with this brilliant idea.”

"Cats" is normally set in a junkyard, amid overturned cars and burned-out trash cans. But scenic designer Jordan Slusher wanted an emotional connection for the audience.

“We thought, ‘Where else could this be set that Wichitans might connect to more?’ And that’s when the idea of setting it in Joyland, which is a place that generations of Wichitans have a connection to, came up. And we followed that idea.”

Music Theatre’s new version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic will be set in the ruins of Joyland — Wichita’s once-iconic, now-abandoned amusement park.

Joyland opened on South Hillside in 1949 and thrilled crowds for more than a half-century before it closed for good in 2006. Visitors once screamed on the roller coaster, splashed on the log flume, twirled on the Scrambler and peered around dark corners inside the Whacky Shack.

It’s gone now, the victim of economic hard times. Parts of the park are scattered throughout Wichita, including the Joyland carousel that now spins at Botanica. After the park closed, fires and vandals destroyed most of what was left.

But memories of Joyland live on for thousands of Wichitans who frequented the park in its heyday. Slusher talked to them as he developed the set.

“I spoke to the older members of my family and they have memories of Joyland from school trips and even dates and things,” he said.

During his introductions this season, Marcum told audiences about the upcoming production of "Cats" and its specially designed Joyland set. Many theater-goers applauded or audibly gasped, he said.

“I think this adds just another level of excitement to the production," Marcum said. "When we mention it from the stage, you see those emotions and those memories come back, and it’s fascinating.”

The centerpiece of the set is a broken and battered Joyland roller coaster, with its huge first incline dead-ending into a full-moon sky. Slusher says it’s the perfect setting for felines to frolic.

“Within the roller coaster, we could create areas to climb on and different levels for cats to move about,” he said. “The roller coaster also serves a portion at the end of the show that's very important.”

In the interest of avoiding spoilers, Slusher declined to elaborate on the show’s climactic moment.

Noah Jittawait works on pieces of a recreated Joyland roller coaster that will be the centerpiece of the "Cats" set.
Suzanne Perez
Noah Jittawait works on pieces of a recreated Joyland roller coaster that will be the centerpiece of the "Cats" set.

Joyland aficionados may wonder about Louie, the animatronic clown that played tunes on an old Wurlitzer organ near the entrance to Joyland. There’s a nod to Louie onstage, Slusher said, but no actual creepy clown.

There is, however, a certain trash-sucking pig.

“Porky the Pig was a trash vacuum in Joyland, and kids were either fascinated or terrified of this thing. And I just had to include it,” Slusher said.

Around the stage are recreations of Joyland’s famous signs, including the one atop the coaster that says, “Last warning! Don’t stand up, sit down!”

“The Joyland signage was often beautifully hand-painted, and so we’re recreating a whole lot of that with our beautiful paint shop,” Slusher said. “Those visuals … will be instantly recognizable.”

In the Music Theatre paint shop in the basement of Century II, Sydney Hagen put finishing touches on one of the signs while welders worked on the steel coaster next door.

“I had never heard of Joyland until I got here,” said Hagen, who lives near Dallas. “But I’ve done a lot of research after seeing this design, and it’s really incredible what Jordan has been able to do.”

After Music Theatre completes its run, the Joyland set will be preserved and made available for other companies to rent. Marcum, the artistic director, loves the idea of a piece of Wichita history on the music theater circuit.

“Once the word gets out to other theaters around the country who want to do it, they’ll be getting this roller coaster and all the signage and all of the great Joyland paraphernalia — and memories, too.”

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.