The Murder of Thomas Johnson: Johnson County’s Controversial Namesake

The following is a retelling of the events of Thomas Johnson’s murder, taken from his death announcement and the eyewitness account written by Edna Johnson Anderson, daughter of Thomas Johnson, who was present for the event:

The night of New Year’s, 1865, was quiet for the Reverend Thomas Johnson. The household was asleep, the fires out. The local patrolmen, whom Johnson was meant to oversee as Corporal of the Guard, had already checked in and were seeing to their orders for the evening – nothing unusual to report. 1864 had been a troubling year for those living on the Missouri-Kansas border. The Civil War was far from ending, Quantrill’s men still roamed the border territories, and neighborly conflicts blurred with political turmoil in the form of endless raids, ambushes, and killing. This night was quiet, but it would not remain so. An hour after midnight, the reverend, still awake, heard the sound of horses approaching the house.

Portrait of Thomas Johnson

Portrait of Thomas Johnson, courtesy of The Library of Congress

Thomas Johnson was one of the most prominent early white settlers of the Kansas Territory. Born in 1802 in Virginia, he came to Missouri as a Methodist missionary in 1826. Thirteen years later, he was integral in creating the Shawnee Indian Mission and Manual Labor School – a religious school located in what is now Fairway, Kansas, where Native American children were taught to read and write English, follow Christianity, and practice trades like woodworking and textile production. He spent most of his career as superintendent there but was also heavily involved in politics, both locally and nationally, and was likely one of the most recognized people in Kansas at the time – thus becoming the namesake of Johnson County in 1855. In 1858, after living in a house on the school grounds for many years, Johnson moved his family to a large colonial-style mansion near Westport called the Davenport House. There, he maintained a farm and worked with the Union Bank while continuing his duties for the Mission from a distance.

Black and white photograph of the exterior of the Shawnee Indian Methodist Mission building. The two-story brick building has a side gabled roof, three visible rectangular chimneys, eleven visible windows, and a built-in porch with wooden classical columns as porch supports. Bricks are missing at the roofline on the side gable and there is some sag visible in the porch. Surrounding the building is a fenced in yard. There are also several trees and shrubs.

Shawnee Indian Mission and State Historic Site – c. 1890, courtesy Johnson County Museum Collection on JoCoHistory.org

The Civil War broke out in April of 1861, mere months after Kansas was officially admitted to the Union as an anti-slavery state. A Southern man at heart, Johnson sympathized with the Southern cause and would have likely sided with them, had he not been a staunch supporter and friend of the Federal Government. Instead, when the time came, Johnson declared for the Union – loudly. The following years were bloody, as border ruffians, bushwhackers, and guerrillas from both sides burned homes and murdered their neighbors. Missouri was one of the most contentious states – having been seized by both sides at different points in the war. Eventually, a pro-Union Provisional Government of Missouri was established. This government adopted divisive new tactics to reveal hidden secessionists and ensure loyalty in the territory. Citizens would now be required to formally profess oaths of loyalty to the Union, with some requiring witnesses to provide official written testimony of their patriotism. This system relied on neighbors and volunteers to report disloyal activity. Naturally, it was an imperfect system. Johnson acted as character witness for many friends and neighbors, and it was not a role he took lightly. At this time, he was known as a community leader and prominent landowner, a man of wealth and standing, and a man with clout. His word had power.

Peering out a window, Johnson could see that he had visitors. It was a large group, enough to cause concern, especially at such a late hour. Johnson approached the front door and, when called, opened it a few inches. The commotion had woken his wife, Sarah, and she joined him at the entry. The men asked for directions to Westport and – when the reverend gave them – directions to Kansas City. The remaining members of the household were awake now, joining the family in the entryway, anxiously watching the exchange. The men asked to come inside and warm up from the cold January night before continuing their journey. After being told that the fires were all out, the men requested water, and Johnson indicated the well in the yard, telling them they were welcome to it. Sarah Johnson, sensing something amiss, urged Thomas to close the door. The men had begun to dismount, but not all were headed toward the well. Some were approaching the house. As the door shut, a bullet splintered through the thick wood, striking Thomas in the chest. His fingers grasped the lock, twisting it as he collapsed against Sarah. When his wife slid his sagging frame to the floor, Thomas Johnson was dead. Another volley struck the house and Sarah hurried to the storage of firearms. She armed her son and another young man and charged them with defending the property. The shooting did not cease as the men circled the house, setting fire to the back porch. Fearing for her home, Sarah gathered buckets of water from the kitchen and Cora, their 15 year old daughter, took up the dangerous task of dousing the flames. She rushed out of the house, ducking as more bullets tore through the wood around her and return fire exploded from the windows above. The standoff lasted for over an hour until Sarah Johnson shouted to the men that her husband was dead. At last they withdrew, riding off the same way they had come. More than fifty shots were fired into the house, but only Thomas had been struck.

Sometime in 1854, Thomas Johnson was allegedly approached by a woman living in the neighborhood. She had been given a printed affidavit by local officials that required a witness to proclaim her loyalty to the Union. To Johnson and many others, she was a known secessionist sympathizer. It was suspected that she illegally housed Southern guerrillas, men from William Quantrill’s infamous band, in her home. Johnson did not sign the affidavit. His refusal effectively labeled the woman a traitor and, according to rumors of the time, Quantrill’s men found out.¹

Pencil or charcoal drawing of buildings burning and soldiers shooting and trampling people.

Depiction of Lawrence Massacre – Quantrill’s Raiders, one of the most notoriously violent guerrilla groups of the Civil War, sacked Lawrence, Kansas, in a bloody assault in 1863. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

At dawn, more than one hundred neighbors had come to Davenport House. That morning, The Kansas City Journal reported, “It becomes our painful duty to chronicle another of those terrible murders with which our border has so long been ravaged. The Rev. Thomas Johnson, one of the most widely known citizens of western Missouri, was killed by bushwhackers last night in his own house about 2-and-one-half miles from Westport.” ²

This supposition, that the murderers had been bushwhackers from Missouri ‒ supporters of the Southern cause seeking to silence one of the loudest Union voices at the border ‒ was not the only theory as to what happened that night. Thomas Johnson may have been one of the strongest proponents of the Federal Government, but he did not subscribe to all Union ideals. For most of his life, Johnson was a slave owner and aggressive supporter of the pro-slavery movement. He is sometimes credited as being the first white man to bring slavery to Kansas. His support of slavery even went beyond the law, as he was known to have illegally owned slaves in violation of the Missouri Compromise for decades.¹ Prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, Johnson was elected as a pro-slavery member to the First Kansas Territorial Legislature – a group soon given the nickname the “Bogus Legislature,” as most of its members were pro-slavery Southerners elected by Missourians who crossed the border to vote illegally. The first acts of this Legislature were to remove all but one of the remaining Free-State members on the council and to move the headquarters to the Shawnee Indian Mission. Administration of the school had been called into question, as well. By some, Johnson was accused of unlawfully profiting not only from the humans he kept as property, but from the students of the school – using the proceeds from their manual labor to grow his personal wealth.³

This conduct would have been fiercely opposed by many within the community, particularly during the brutal Bleeding Kansas years, and many would not have forgotten his strong pro-slavery stance. Considering his past associations with slavery and vocal advocacy for the Union, it is not a stretch to think that a man in his position would have enemies. And there’s another obvious option. The reverend was known to be a man of wealth during a harsh time in the region. Many had lost their homes and families to the war. It was a time of violence. Were his political beliefs merely an incidental footnote to a failed robbery? No definite group was ever proven to have been involved in the murder, but the turbulent decade and perplexing figure of Johnson himself leave many questions.

Thomas Johnson was buried on January 3rd, 1865, in the Shawnee Indian Mission Cemetery, now located at Shawnee Mission Parkway and Canterbury Road in Fairway, Kansas. His wife, Sarah, went to live with one of their sons, finding the prospect of returning to the Davenport farm too painful. As with many historical figures, the details of his life have mostly been forgotten, but a legacy remains. He is still largely associated with the Shawnee Indian Mission, now a State Historic Site, and the county name is still his. Straddling both sides of the political line, considered both a traitor and a martyr – Johnson’s controversial history epitomizes the complexity of Civil War era Kansas and Missouri. 

Black and white photograph of the Shawnee Methodist Mission Cemetery. The photograph shows the cemetery where Reverend Thomas Johnson and his family are buried. There is a stone wall surrounding the cemetery with a chain link fence in the background. There are several decorative plants and trees within the cemetery.

Shawnee Methodist Mission Cemetery, c. 1935. Johnson’s grave is the tall obelisk toward the center of the image. Photo courtesy the Johnson County Museum Collection on JoCoHistory.org


 

  1. Thomas Johnson’s Story and the History of Fairway, Kansas, Joe H. Vaughan, 2014, Two Trails Publishing.

Note: Edna Johnson Anderson’s account is published in the above text.

  1. “Murder of Rev. Thomas Johnson!” Kansas City Journal, Jackson County, 3 January 1865.
  2. “Before Bleeding Kansas: Christian Missionaries, Slavery, and the Shawnee Indians in Pre-Territorial Kansas, 1844-1854” by Kevin Abing. Published in Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, 2001.

-Sam S., Johnson County Library

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Latinos in the Heartland: the Valdez Family

The month between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15 each year is dedicated as National Hispanic Heritage Month. This year, the Johnson County Museum unveiled its first bilingual, interactive digital exhibit. On view through Nov. 2, 2019, in the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center Commons, this FREE exhibit chronicles the long history of Latinos in the Kansas City region. It includes a call for action to Johnson County’s Latino community—help the Museum tell your story. With your stories, photographs, and objects, the Museum can tell a more complete story about the diverse community living in Johnson County. For more information, and to see Jesse Valdez’s mariachi suit, visit the Latinos in the Heartland/Latinos en el Corazón de los Estados Unidos exhibit Mon. – Fri., 9am – 9pm, and Sat., 9am – 5pm, in the JCAHC Commons at 8788 Metcalf Ave.

 

***Additionally, the Johnson County Museum and the JCAHC are hosting an event to celebrate Latino cultures on Thurs., 9/26. This FREE event will include music, poetry, dancing, art, history, food, and paletas! Join us at the JCAHC at 5:30pm at 8788 Metcalf Ave.

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Latinos are the fastest growing community in Johnson County. Over the last ten years, the population of the Latino community has increased of over 136%. While some Latinos—defined as those with Mexican, Central and South American, and Caribbean heritage—are recent immigrants, many have lived in the Kansas City region for generations. The Mexican American community, especially, has deep roots in the metro area, dating back to the 1820s with the opening of the Santa Fe Trail. But it was the Mexican Revolution (1910 – 1920) that drove many immigrants to the Kansas City area.

 

In 1918 the Mexican Revolution had taken its toll on the country and on the rural population. Thousands of families left México in search of economic opportunities that were no longer available in their home country. In the midwestern United States, job opportunities existed in the meat packing industry and the railroads. In fact, many refugees fleeing violence in México were placed on trains bound for northern railroad hubs, such as Chicago and Kansas City.

1-This photograph shows Eladio and Luz Valdez with four of their eight children. It was taken in the Kansas City area before 1938, when Jesse Valdez’s father was born.

This photograph shows Eladio and Luz Valdez with four of their eight children. It was taken in the Kansas City area before 1938, when Jesse Valdez’s father was born.

The grandparents of Johnson County resident, Jesse Valdez, came to the U.S. in search of a better life.  Ernesto and Beatriz Zuniga and Eladio and Luz Valdez (see photo) left México for Kansas in 1918. Both men secured employment with the Santa Fe Railroad in Kansas City, Kansas (KCK). The Zunigas settled on Kansas City, Missouri’s Westside neighborhood, and raised eight children. The Valdezes made their home in Argentine, Kansas, where they raised six children.

 

Jesse’s parents, Jesse and Cecilia Valdez were first generation Americans, born to immigrants; they married in 1965 and raised two sons, Jesse II and Ed, in KCK. In 1974, the family purchased a home in the Forest Park subdivision of Merriam, Kansas. The Johnson County schools attracted many young families like the Valdezes, who wanted the best education for their children. A home in Merriam also provided quick access to downtown Kansas City, Missouri, and to KCK, where family and friends lived. Jesse’s dad spent 45 years working for local grocery store chains. His mother was employed by the Jones Stores, working at various locations, including downtown Kansas City and Prairie Village. For over 40 years, Jesse and Cecilia traveled to México annually to visit family.

2-A young Jesse Valdez in a mariachi suit that his parents brought back from one of their trips to México. Jesse wore the suit to formal family gatherings. The suit is on display in the Museum’s exhibit, Latinos in the Heartland/Latinos en el Corazón de los Estados Unidos.

A young Jesse Valdez in a mariachi suit that his parents brought back from one of their trips to México. Jesse wore the suit to formal family gatherings. The suit is on display in the Museum’s exhibit, “Latinos in the Heartland/Latinos en el Corazón de los Estados Unidos.”

Jesse graduated from Shawnee Mission North High School in 1988, and went on to earn his degree from KU. Today he works for the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department, and is active in the Olathe Latino Coalition. When the Johnson County Museum approached him about displaying something in its Latinos in the Heartland/Latinos en el Corazón de los Estados Unidos exhibit, he gladly participated. Jesse said, “It is important to pass on my heritage to my children by sharing the traditions, customs, and experiences that my parents and grandparents shared with me. They will then share our family history with their children.”

3-Jesse Valdez, second from left, with his neighborhood friends in Merriam, Kansas.

Jesse Valdez, second from left, with his neighborhood friends in Merriam, Kansas.

The mariachi suit is on loan for the exhibit, but Jesse Valdez donated photographs and stories to the Museum’s collection. His efforts to preserve and share his family’s history–both for the Museum’s collection as well as with his children–are part of a larger initiative. The Museum is seeking to diversity the stories it tell, the documents and objects it collects, and the exhibits it displays. We know that building trust and friendship with the Latino community–one that is underrepresented in the Museum today–will take time. We look forward to working with the Latino community in our effort to tell a more complete Johnson County history.

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Starry Memories: Starlight Theatre Prepares to Celebrate its 70th Season

For nearly 70 years, Starlight Theatre has entertained people from all over the country.  Currently located in Kansas City, Missouri (in the heart of Swope Park), Starlight’s official history began as early as the 1920s when funding began to take shape for an outdoor theatre.  The Kansas City Federation of Music Clubs oversaw the fundraising efforts and in 1950, the very first production was “Thrills of the Century” – a historic revue that coincided with the city’s Centennial Celebration. The following year, The Starlight Theatre Association took control over the daily operations of the now completed outdoor venue.  To this day, Starlight Theatre is city owned facility that is operated jointly with Kansas City Parks and Recreation.  It is currently the largest and oldest performing arts organization in Kansas City.

Starlight Theatre

Starlight Theatre ca 1951. Photo courtesy of Starlight Theatre.

As a 501c3 (non-profit) organization, Starlight relies heavily on volunteers in terms of daily operations (ticketing, tending to the various horticulture, and assisting with auditions) and promotions for events (tours, guest information desk).   These giving volunteers are now considered to be ‘ambassadors’ and have grown to nearly 200 people strong and counting.

Last year, during the touring production of Love Never Dies, Starlight took the time to honor one of their longstanding ambassadors for her nearly 50 years of service.   Longtime volunteer and Johnson County resident Jan Morevitska  was given the surprise of a lifetime when she was recognized with a video tribute and a very special mention in Starlight’s Star Notes (their very special version of a Playbill).

Star Notes program with picture and article about Jan Morevitska

Jan’s tribute in 2018. Jan is pictured with her husband Lee Morevitska; Photo courtesy of Barb Schulte and Starlight Theatre

This was not Jan’s first recognition for her decades of service to the theatre industry.  Jan and her husband Lee were previously recognized in 2011 by the National Broadway League with a ‘Star of Touring Broadway Award’ for their (at the time) over 40 years of service.  This super couple became affectionately known as ‘Mr. and Mrs. Starlight’ after decades of service to every area of Starlight Theatre.  Highlights of their service include: assisting with cast parties and picnics, hosting backstage tours of the theatre and the grounds, ushering on show nights, promoting the season in the local KC Metro area, and archiving Starlight artifacts for posterity.

Jan and Lee Morevitska

Jan and Lee at a Starlight Gala in 2011.. Photo courtesy of Barb Schulte and Starlight Theatre

For Jan, her love of Starlight started very early, while she and Lee were high school sweethearts at Central High School in Kansas City, Missouri.  As a high school student, Jan could hear the sweet sounds of Starlight from her front porch.  In 1956, the theatre introduced half price ‘first-nighter’ tickets to metro area students.  Lee and Jan were quick to grab Orchestra seats for several opening shows that season for only $5 a ticket.  The couple hasn’t looked back since then; they became hooked as Starlight regulars, attending a number of shows every year.

In 1969, Jan was invited to join the Starlight Theatre Women’s Committee by one of her neighbors.  This group, formed in 1959 was established to promote civic participation and interest for Starlight.  During the initial years, members were only permitted to join by invitation only and by 1984, there were over fifty women that conducted backstage tours, hosted cast parties (Jan was often responsible for obtaining the food in her early years), and sold season ticket packages at various locations in the city (including Ward Parkway Shopping Center and Metcalf South Mall).  All members were required to be season ticket holders as part of their contribution to Starlight.  For Jan and Lee, it was never a difficult decision to become longstanding theatre patrons and supporters of the theatre.  In 1993, the committee was restructured and now known as Starlight Theatre Ambassadors.  Membership was now extended to men and was no longer offered by invitation only.  Lee was quick to become an Ambassador, though he had assisted with small projects before it became official.  Jan and Lee work as a pair to show off Starlight’s backstage area during the Thursday night tours, where guests can see the stage, lighting, and sound areas.  The backstage tours (performed on show nights) continue to draw in curious onlookers.  As of 2019, there are over 200 Starlight Ambassadors that keep Starlight shining through their volunteer service and dedication.  Their duties have since expanded to include daytime tours during the summer, which continue to be one of Jan’s favorite volunteer activities.

Playbill cover from 1969

A program cover from Jan’s first year volunteering with the Women’s Committee. Photo courtesy of Barb Schulte and Starlight Theatre

24 women who served in the 1984 Women's Committee at Starlight

1984 Women’s Committee (Jan is back
row center). Photo courtesy of Barb Schulte
and Starlight Theatre

Jan and Lee continue to be beloved by Starlight.  Jan has been the recipient of the ‘Ambassador of the Year’ award (assigned to her by her fellow volunteers) a total of four times – most recently last year in 2018.  The Morevitska’s even have a special room dedicated to them at the theatre.  The Morevitska room, established in the mid-2000s, serves as a break or visiting room for the Ambassadors.  Here volunteers check in and out of the building and relax during their shift.  Last year, the room received a well-earned renovation that included new furniture, paint, and a wall mural for the room’s namesakes.  This year, Starlight is placing a bronze plaque inside of Gate 3 to commemorate Jan’s 50 years of service.

Jan and Lee Morevitska holding their volunteer service awards

Jan and Lee celebrate their years of service in 2015. Photo courtesy of Barb Schulte and Starlight
Theatre

Jan Morevitska standing outside the Morevitska room

Jan poses outside of the famed Morevitska room. Photo courtesy of Barb Schulte and Starlight
Theatre

Starlight’s history has changed over the years while the Morevitska’s have been volunteering and as Vice President of Education and Outreach, Barb Schulte is well versed in Starlight’s strong history.  In the 1950s-60s, there were roughly 8-10 shows at Starlight every summer, and they were all ‘Starlight produced shows’ versus touring productions.  The 1970s saw production costs starting to rise for the theatre, and variety shows were becoming more popular, leading to celebrities coming to Starlight to headline a new show.  The 1970s also saw the occasional regional and national tour coming to Starlight.   Starlight currently maintains a balance between booking tours and in-house productions.  Rich Baker (President and CEO of Starlight Theatre) keeps a steady pulse on what shows are currently touring, planning a tour, and what shows have not been on Broadway yet.  When tours come to Starlight, they are typically in the back half of their run as most tours tend to begin in the fall season.  In recent years, Starlight produces at least one per season.

When shows are locally produced by Starlight, there is an excellent chance for local artists to return to Kansas City or make their big professional debut on the Starlight stage.  Kansas City resident Jessica Alcorn and stylist at Indigo Rose Hair Salon has the fondest memories of Starlight’s production of Hairspray.  In 2006, a rainy visit to Starlight still held amazing memories for Jessica and her mother, Cathy.  Starlight’s policy is on weather is that the show must go on in ‘rain or shine’.  The outdoor stage is now enclosed (since 2000) to protect the actors while they perform.  There are a variety of places for attendees to stop at in order to get out of the rain, including pergolas (arbors that provide an open roof structure) above the walkways for guests to stand under and still get a view of the stage.  Jessica and her mother stayed through the rain and were enticed to come back the following night and watch from the terrace in the back.  When the final number came on the stage, Jessica was anxious to sit up front – there was someone performing on stage who looked just like her (the plus-sized and enthusiastic character Tracy Turnblad).  She left that night in 2006 wishing that she could perform on the stage, and got exactly what she wanted in 2018 when she headlined Starlight’s production of Hairspray, in the very same role that she fell in love with over ten years agoIt was a grueling but fulfilling process for Jessica and the other performers who went through several rounds of auditions and callbacks before being told that they had a role in the production.  In-house shows are put together in roughly two weeks’ time, which means the cast learns several scenes and dance moves each day.  Alcorn’s role was recognized by Broadway World as ‘Best Professional Actress’ (Broadway World Kansas City Awards)  For Jessica and her fellow actors, it’s all worth it in the end when the lights come up at Starlight Theatre.

Jessica Alcorn as Tracy Turnblad in Starlight Theatre’s 2018 production of Hairspray. Photo courtesy of Jessica and Cathy Alcorn

One thing that does not change about Starlight is the joy and appreciation that patrons (and local actors and actresses) have for the playhouse.  For Jessica, performing on the Starlight stage was a lifelong dream that came true.  Her fond memories of coming with her family during the summer – they rode in a limo! – made Starlight a seasonal memory that impacted her personally and professionally.  For Jan, the appeal of Starlight lies in wide variety and ability to appeal to every age group.  After over 50 years of performances and variety show specials, Jan cannot pin down a specific favorite.  During our interview, she was able to joke that her favorite show was ‘the one she was watching right now’.  The Wizard of Oz, always holds a very special place in Jan’s heart, especially when Starlight is able to produce the show (it was the 2nd Broadway show of the 2019 line-up).

Part of Starlight’s celebration of nearly 70 years of entertaining the public includes the new addition of a Starlight Ovation Museum, which will be located in the spot traditionally held by the Ovation Gift Shop.  Barb Schulte and the Morevitska’s, along with dozens of other individuals have been busily preparing the space for a June 10 opening (coinciding with the start of The Wizard of Oz’s run).  The museum will share the story of Starlight with visitors through artifacts (programs, posters, photographs, props, and memorabilia) that will shed light on milestones, celebrations, and moments of remembrance. One of Starlight’s goals going forward is to build up their library of artifacts, which now currently include an original Broadway piano and telephone switchboard that were utilized during Starlight’s inception.

The memories of Starlight continue to endure for the staff, volunteers, company of actors, and visitors that grace the area each summer, all of whom are creating a Starlight memory of their very own.

-Heather McCartin, Johnson County Library

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The Wonderful World of Oz Theme Park, Part 3

“If Robert Kory is selling, I’m not buying.”

The Wonderful World of Oz theme park was originally slated for Wyandotte County but later proposed for the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant site near De Soto in Johnson County. This series of blog posts from the Johnson County Museum traces that history, beginning in the mid-1980s and running through the early 2000s. The posts complement the Museum’s temporary exhibit, Expanding Oz, on view through Nov. 2, 2019.

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A “yes” from the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) would have given the Oz Entertainment Company (OEC) the green light to start the long process of getting the Wonderful World of Oz theme park off the ground. The BOCC eventually voted “no.” But what happened? Why did such a major project, with the potential to economically impact the entire region, end up in the scrap heap of Johnson County history?

Wonderful World of Oz Theme Park plans, as presented to the BOCC.

Wonderful World of Oz Theme Park plans, as presented to the BOCC.

Detailed elevation plans for a Witch's Castle ride and environment. This and other original plans and artworks on display through Nov. 2, 2019 in the Museum's "Expanding Oz" exhibit.

Detailed elevation plans for a Witch’s Castle ride and environment. This and other original plans and artworks on display through Nov. 2, 2019 in the Museum’s “Expanding Oz” exhibit.

For one, the OEC’s needs and wants knew no bounds. What had started as a $220 million park and resort project in Wyandotte County in 1991, was $700 million when first introduced in 1998 to Johnson County, and exploded to a staggering $861 million by 2001. In order to finance this massive project, the OEC asked for public bonds to cover costs—one of the first uses of the STAR Bond in Kansas. The company also asked for an increase in local sales tax on the park site. The Kansas legislature approved this too, allowing Oz to collect a two-percent higher tax than in most jurisdictions. In addition, OEC asked for tax abatement. This also was granted, although not within the De Soto school district boundaries.

 

Secondly, OEC was constantly changing their plans and expanding project’s scope. By October 2000, the OEC asked the county to issue bonds to pay for 90% of the cost of an $11 million road to the park from K-10. They also asked the county to consider building a dam within the park site to create a man-made reservoir. Of the state, OEC asked for a $29 million interchange between the proposed county road and K-10, but the request went unfunded. Johnson County (JoCo) Commissioner Johnna Lingle, a sharp critic of the project, exclaimed, “I have good blood—do they want that, too?”

Wonderful World of Oz logo.

Wonderful World of Oz theme park logo.

There was one other major issue for the BOCC: an issue of trust. Robert Kory, the mastermind behind the project and OEC’s chairman and CEO, was infamous in the region (details in “The Wonderful World of Oz Theme Park, Part 1”). In fact, in 1999, Bonner Springs mayor Ted Stolfus stated, “If Robert Kory is selling, I’m not buying.” The OEC made some poor decisions leading up to 2001. For instance, in 1999, when the Kansas legislature approved the STAR Bonds, the bill also included a one percentage point increase in sales tax but OEC never mentioned it. This unintended gift simply snuck through.

Johnson County Board of County Commissioners debating the prospects of the Wonderful World of Oz theme park in 2000. [Sun Newspaper Coll., Johnson County Museum]

Johnson County Board of County Commissioners debating the prospects of the Wonderful World of Oz theme park, in 2000. [Sun Newspaper Coll., Johnson County Museum]

Another red flag was that OEC never purchased any land in Wyandotte or Johnson counties. Strangely, less than one week before the first BOCC vote in November 2000, the OEC purchased 125 acres in Wyandotte County. This upset Johnson County officials. The first BOCC vote on the Oz project resulted in a tie, 2-2 (at the time, there were only five commissioners, and one recused himself, citing a conflict of interest). Commissioner Lingle, who voted “no,” worried about the “the perceived lack of integrity, credibility, honesty and professional organization of the Oz project.”

 

The Kansas City Star published an article with the title “Issues of trust hinder further action on Oz” on November 13, 2000, and five days later Robert Kory announced he was stepping down as CEO of Oz Entertainment. He would continue as chairman of the board, but Dick Ferguson would take over operations. A change of face for the organization might have breathed new life into the deal, but trust issues continued to plague the company.

 

On February 16, 2001, one month before the second BOCC vote, Commissioner Annabeth Surbaugh called for time to review OEC’s feasibility studies. Commissioner George Gross called it an “11th-hour stalling tactic.” The second vote again tied. The commissioners immediately followed up with a 3-1 vote in favor of asking the Kansas legislature for a year extension on a July 1 deadline to decide the fate of the Oz project (the date the state’s tax package was set to expire). This extension would allow the BOCC time to conduct their own feasibility study of the Oz plan.

Political Cartoon by Bob Bliss for the Sun Newspaper. [Sun Newspaper Coll., Johnson County Museum]

Political Cartoon by Bob Bliss for the Sun Newspaper. [Sun Newspaper Coll., Johnson County Museum]

A deep divide in the BOCC emerged. Commissioner Gross said of the second vote, “The headlines in tomorrow’s paper should read, ‘If you’re in business, think twice before bringing your business to Johnson County.’ If you come to this board, what you’ll get is study after study after study ‘til your project withers on the vine.” The feasibility study was to cost JoCo taxpayers $168,300 and delay the vote for multiple months while studies of attendance, capital infrastructure costs, financial solvency, and the county’s potential costs were evaluated. Both houses of the Kansas legislature approved the tax funding extension. But Blaine Hastings of the General Services Administration (the federal government’s bureau for handling property sales and acquisitions) said that the BOCC’s tied votes and a delay for a feasibility study was “the worst possible answer for us.” The government could not make any plans for land transfers, renewing leases, or budgeting costs associated with the Sunflower tract until a decision about Oz was made.

 

“Issues of trust hinder further action on Oz.”

In the end, perhaps the biggest obstacle the OEC faced was trust—an obstacle of its own making. In spring and summer 2001, Wyandotte County (WyCo) had requested that the OEC repay the $550,000 that the Unified Government had provided for feasibility studies and other reports from 1993. OEC initially refused to repay what it called gifts of money that had been used as intended. In April, the State legislature ordered Oz to repay the full amount within 120 days, and soon Lt. Gov. Gary Sherrer asked the Kansas Attorney General to review the matter. In the meantime, Oz sent the Unified Government a check for $150,000. Simultaneously, the JoCo BOCC made repayment of WyCo a condition for a “yes” vote in the future.

 

In what can only be considered a major public image fumble, OEC declared that they did not owe any funds to WyCo, and stopped payment on the $150,000 check. OEC blamed the Unified Government, claiming the check written on July 27 had still not been deposited by mid-August. In a reversal, on September 5, OEC wired the $150,000 to the Unified Government, but the damage was done. OEC could not be trusted financially. On October 2, the state Attorney General Carla Stovall delivered an opinion that the full $550,000 must be repaid to the Unified Governments by October 29, 2001, or the OEC project would lose public financing. Without the STAR bonds, the Oz plan was dead.

 

On October 5, the BOCC canceled their feasibility study and voted 3-1 against the Oz plan. Commissioner Surbaugh said that OEC’s failure to pay WyCo quickly and cooperatively raised concerns about the “company’s financial capabilities, credibility in keeping commitments and management judgment and ability.”

Cover of a binder of information about the Wonderful World of Oz park, created for the BOCC.

Cover of a binder of information about the Wonderful World of Oz park, created for the BOCC.

This colorful artwork is from a Wonderful World of Oz binder created by Oz Entertainment Company for the BOCC.

This colorful artwork, from the same binder, shows an exciting roller coaster ride.

Kory released a statement after the final vote, reporting that OEC had closed and had “no prospects to build its Wonderful World of Oz theme park.” Kory blamed county politics, and, “to a lesser extent, economic upheaval caused by September’s terrorist attacks” (September 11, 2001). He revealed that the company only had $10,000 cash on hand, and it subsequently missed the October 29 repayment date to WyCo.

 

For Johnson County’s part, the commissioners next moved to what should be done with the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant site. As the BOCC’s Chief Legal Counsel, Don Jarrett, phrased it, “if we don’t do something, something is going to be done to us” (read about the site’s history since 2001 in “The Wonderful World of Oz Theme Park, Part 2”).

 

Robert Kory could not let the loss go. Ten years of his life had been devoted to planning a major theme park—something to rival Disney World—to be built in the middle of the country. In a 2001 letter, Kory wrote “[Oz’s] defeat is testimony to the tragedy of how local politics can derail the best of projects anywhere in America.” It is likely the necessary environmental remediation of the Sunflower site would have bankrupted OEC, and Johnson County officials worried the post-September 11th economic turbulence would have left a sprawling, shuttered amusement park on prime Johnson County real estate.

 

In the end, it seems it just was not the right time for a Wonderful World of Oz theme park. Will that time eventually come?

 

-END-

The Wonderful World of Oz theme park, although a failed project, resulted in the generation of eight boxes of legal documents for Johnson County.

The Museum is very grateful to Don Jarrett and the JoCo Legal Department for allowing us to review their Wonderful World of Oz documents, and to the Mid-Continent Library for making the Kansas City Star archive available online. Eight boxes of documents and 150 news articles were reviewed to create this blog series.

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A History of Dickinson Theatres: Reel Four 2000 – 2014

This is the final post of a four part series on the Dickinson Theatres. Read Reel One here, Reel Two here, and Reel Three here.


According to figures cited by Jennifer Mann in the Kansas City Star on October 3rd, in the year 2000 there were 66% more screens around the country than there had been in 1990, but theater attendance for the decade was only up 20%. Johnson County was an extreme example of a trend playing out all across the country. In trying to keep up with AMC and its multiplex/megaplex strategy, many competitors across the nation had overbuilt markets and hadn’t closed their old theaters quickly enough, and now, after a somewhat weak summer at the box office, a reckoning was at hand. By which I mean almost everybody except AMC reckoned they’d better file Chapter 11 to get their affairs in order.

In October of 2000, Dickinson Theatres – under new ownership after Wood Dickinson’s sale of the company and still expanding – filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization hoping to renegotiate some leases, and reject others that were draining the company of precious funds. Another sore point was Bob Goodrich’s lawsuit against the company, accusing them of breaching their contract with him by not giving him first refusal on the sale of the company. (Dickinson contended that right of first refusal was not in the agreement, and that this was more of a stock transaction change of ownership anyways, not an asset sale.)

The bankruptcy protection helped Dickinson renegotiate their lease with the troubled Great Mall theater (the mall was apparently very eager to keep them on board), and also allowed them to get out of their deal with King Features to use Popeye and his pals in advertisements. By February 2001, thanks in part to a strong holiday season at the box office, Dickinson had successfully emerged from bankruptcy with a plan to repay all of their creditors, and the company officially transferred ownership from Wood Dickinson to Hartley, Horton, and Miller. By then Dickinson had also settled the lawsuit with Goodrich, agreeing to pay him $225,000 to resolve his dispute.

In November of 2000, the marquee sign at the closed Glenwood was taken down. It had been purchased by the Fine Arts Theatre Group, along with 1,200 seats, the fireplace, the mirrors, and the concession stands. In February 2001, the group (which had previously reopened Dickinson’s Kimo South as the Rio near 80th and Metcalf in 2000) announced plans to reopen the Metcalf South Mall theater (previously Dickinson’s Metcalf Theatre, then a discount house operated by First International Theatres), as “The New Glenwood.” Bob Goodrich, Wood Dickinson, and the brass at Dickinson Theatres all reacted with surprise in the KC Star, indicating that they didn’t think the group could use the name. Eventually the group settled on the name The Glenwood Arts Theatre and all was well. They also had to fight with the city to put the Glenwood marquee sign back up, but we’re here to discuss Dickinson, so let’s get back on topic!

In February of 2002, Dickinson was having success with their strategy of focusing on smaller markets, where the bigger companies might not bother to look. As they upgraded existing theaters and expanded with new ones, they also smartly bought up equipment from other closing theaters at steep discounts. However, business was still business, and Dickinson was still fighting it out with other exhibitors, particularly in Wichita and Tulsa where it battled Warren Theatres. In Wichita, Warren had waged war on Dickinson’s Northrock 14 by opening a completely opulent-sounding luxury theater about four miles away in May of 2002, and then announced that he would build an exact replica of this theater in Tulsa blocks away from Dickinson’s Starworld 20.

In May of 2002, the Fine Arts theater in Mission (the old Dickinson Theatre building) closed, and was reopened by Dickinson as the Dickinson Top Two Theatre in September. Although Dickinson tossed around the idea of opening it as an arthouse, they eventually decided to try it out as a neighborhood discount house that played more family-friendly fare. That same year Dickinson sold the Red Bridge theater to Globe Cinemas.

At the start of 2003, plans for the NorthGlen 14 were back on the table. Approval was given, and the theater expected to be open by November. That summer plans for a “Palazzo 18” at 135th and Metcalf were announced, then revised a few months later to 135th and Antioch. An AMC spokesperson made it known that they were interested in the rapidly developing south Johnson County area as well, but Dickinson pressed forward.

On November 21st, 2003, the NorthGlen 14 opened in north Kansas City, seven miles away from AMC’s BarryWoods 24. It was described by the KC Star’s film critic Robert Butler as a plush theater that marked the triumphant return of Dickinson Theatres. The two biggest auditoriums had the “Gem” design pioneered by Wood Dickinson at the Northrock 14 in Wichita, where the theaters were twice as wide as they were deep and included a balcony. The theater also featured a coffee bar and an arcade.

Dickinson broke ground on the Palazzo theater in March of 2004, now planning for it to have 16 screens and open in November. Dickinson CEO John Hartley told the KC Star that it would be “the most lavishly appointed, high-tech theater ever built in Johnson County.” On Friday December 3rd, 2004, the company delivered a truly incredible theater: The Palazzo 16. Outside there was a large, Italian-style fountain with water streams spraying out of four bucking stallions’ mouths, and a fancy looking naked fellow on top. Inside, the large, open lobby was designed to look like a quaint Mediterranean village. The walls were façades of buildings with terra cotta roofs, and scenic murals ran along the ceiling. Another fountain sat in the middle of the lobby, and up above it was a small dome with fluffy clouds and a blue sky painted inside. The hallways leading back to the theaters had columns and additional scenic murals. The two biggest auditoriums also featured the Gem design, with huge balconies.

Also in 2004, Dickinson acquired the Jacksonville-based StarNet Cinemas nine locations. It was their first reach into the Florida and Georgia movie markets, and along with the Palazzo was a clear signal that they intended to stick around. In 2001 after pulling out of their bankruptcy the company had operated around 180 screens, and by the end of 2004 thanks to building and acquisitions they were close to 350 screens.

Not all was well, though. In April of 2005, Dickinson closed the Top Two discount house in Mission, and in August 2005 it was reported that the new Palazzo 16 had been struggling to draw crowds away from AMC 20 in Leawood and AMC 30 in Olathe. A free popcorn promotion got a big response, however, and reported admissions at the theater went up 40%, at least temporarily.

In August 2006, the company announced that it was now 50% owner of an apartment complex at 143rd and Metcalf, soon to be called the Palazzo Gardens, and it also added a laser tag game to the EastGlen complex with the hopes of drawing more people in.

In November of 2008, Dickinson revealed plans to convert 311 of its 380 screens to digital projection over the course of three years. The 69 screens they didn’t intend to convert, they said, were in older theaters or smaller markets, and the company planned to close or sell them eventually. Although expensive upfront (about $85,000 per auditorium, or more if 3D was involved), the switch to digital projection was also a cost-cutting measure, as it would allow them to get rid of the employees they had at each theater that built up and broke down the films each week. In addition, the studios would cover about 85% of the $40 million cost – the studios’ incentive being that they would save an extraordinary amount of money each year if they didn’t have to make and ship film prints.

In 2009, Dickinson lowered ticket prices during the weekdays and featured concession deals to draw in moviegoers in the tighter economic climate. The following year marked the 90th anniversary of the company, and there was another announcement about switching to digital, this time with another company.

Then, in July of 2012, John Hartley sold the company to Ron Horton. (Brett Miller, the third of the three executives that bought the company from Wood Dickinson in 2000/2001 appears to have left in 2004.) Soon after, Dickinson Theatres filed for bankruptcy protection a second time, citing a slow economy, unfavorable leases, the cost of converting to digital projection, and a slow blockbuster season as the primary factors in this round of anguish. On top of that, on September 28th, 2012, Paul Koepp reported in the Kansas City Business Journal that, “in a Sept. 22 court filing, the company pointed to ‘above-market-rate contracts with entities owned by relatives of (Hartley) and the acquisition of real estate outside the course and scope of Dickinson’s film exhibition business.’”

Dickinson’s reorganization plan involved surrendering some property to a bank, closing some theaters, and paying their creditors in full within five years. (Among the theaters they closed were the Blue Springs 8 in Blue Springs and the Northrock 14 in Wichita among them, both of which reopened later under different ownership, the latter under AMC.) Dickinson exited bankruptcy in early 2013. But the end was near.

In October of 2014, Ron Horton sold Dickinson Theatres, then down to 169 screens, to the Liberty, Missouri-based B&B Theatres, creating the ninth largest movie chain in the United States and ending Dickinson’s 94-year run. Locally, the The Palazzo became the Overland Park 16, the WestGlen 18 became the Shawnee 18, the NorthGlen became the Northland 14, and the EastGlen 16 became the Lee’s Summit 16. The Great Mall theater kept its name, but closed in 2015 and was demolished with the rest of the Great Mall of the Great Plains in 2016.

In 2018, Mr. Horton told the Wall Street Journal that he had calculated that it would cost about $50 million to renovate all fifteen of the remaining Dickinson locations, and that he just wasn’t willing to do that. B&B Theatres is currently in the process of renovating many of the theaters and bringing them up to speed.

One last thing: If this history got any of you excited about the old Glenwood, you should know that a piece of it still stands near 91st and Metcalf. Apparently left behind by developers to throw heartbroken moviegoers a bone, this monolith still stands, located in between Natural Grocers and First Watch…

Glenwood Monolith

The Glenwood Monolith. Photo courtesy of Mike Keller.

Cue Richard Strauss.

End of Reel Four.

-Mike Keller, Johnson County Library

The End Credits.

I’d like to thank Wood Dickinson for answering several questions I had and sending me so many great pictures to use. Make sure you check out his website http://www.wooddickinson.com, for a look at his blog, photography, and films. He has also written a book, “The Madness of Robin Randle,” and you can go to robinrandle.com for more on that.

I’d also like to thank Wade Williams for helping to answer some of my questions about the Fine Arts Group’s theaters. The Fine Arts Group can be found online at fineartsgroup.com.

Thanks to the fine folks over at CinemaTreasures.org. I consulted the site often and was helpfully pointed in the direction of a few scoops by the commenters.

And a huge thanks to all of the writers at the Kansas City Star and at the Kansas City and Wichita Business Journals, whose reporting made putting this history together possible. Readers should note that former KC Star film critic Robert Butler still reviews films at his blog butlerscinemascene.com.

Also, if anybody out there knows where the Glenwood’s chandelier ended up, let me know. I was unable to track it down. (It’s not at the Church of the Resurrection, as rumored online.) And if anybody has any pictures of any of the theaters they want to share, send them my way as well! My email is kellerm@jocolibrary.org. I’d particularly love more photos of the SouthGlen 12. I’d also love to see some pictures of Cinemark’s Movies 10 if anybody happens to have some.

Thanks for reading!

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The Wonderful World of Oz Theme Park, Part 2

“The complex puzzle that is the Oz project”*

The Wonderful World of Oz theme park was originally slated for Wyandotte County but later proposed for the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant site near De Soto in Johnson County. This series of blog posts from the Johnson County Museum traces that history, beginning in the mid-1980s and running through the early 2000s. The posts complement the Museum’s temporary exhibit, Expanding Oz, on view through Nov. 2, 2019.

————————————————————–

 

After initially proposing the construction of the Wonderful World of Oz theme park in Wyandotte County, Kansas, in 1991, the revelation in January 1998 that the Oz Entertainment Company (OEC) was also considering land in Johnson County sent shock waves through the region.

 

Senator Nick Jordan of Shawnee tried to maintain calm between the counties, saying “We just want to make it clear that Johnson County is not aggressively trying to attract the project to Johnson County.” While this may have been true, opposing factions developed within the Kansas State legislature by March 1998. Jordan continued to try to keep the conversation positive, telling reporters that he did not want the legislature to think of it as “a Wyandotte-Johnson County struggle.” Yet, on April 9, the Kansas City Star reported that a “war broke out Wednesday in the Kansas House between Johnson and Wyandotte counties.” After a two-and-a-half-hour floor debate, the House preliminarily approved a bill to begin talks about developing the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant (AAP) site for the theme park. Kansas City, Kansas (KCK) Representative David Haley bitterly responded, “They take a plum like Oz and leave us with the dregs—NASCAR.”

Map of Johnson County, Kansas, showing the location of the Sunflower AAP.

Map of Johnson County, Kansas, showing the location of the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant.

What interested OEC in Johnson County land enough to risk losing their primary site in KCK? The Sunflower AAP boasted 9,065 contiguous acres—nearly the size of Leawood!—that were mostly undeveloped, and located near the major arteries of K-10 and I-435. Sure, there was JoCo land available farther south, and land farther west, too, but none compared to the Sunflower site in proximity to population centers and major traffic routes. Yet, there was probably not a more problematic choice of land possible in this area. The Sunflower site had a long, interesting history that presented several major obstacles to development.

An aerial view of the Sunflower AAP site taken in 1984.

An aerial view of the Sunflower AAP site taken in 1984. The site is spread out, with clusters of buildings in among undeveloped wooded pockets and prairies. Johnson County Museum.

In February 1941, the federal government purchased thousands of acres south of De Soto, Kansas, in order to build a facility for the assembly of ammunition components for World War II. In the process, the residents of the small town of Prairie Center were given 30 days to clear out, and the Sunflower Ordnance Works (later Sunflower AAP) was built rapidly in its place—completed in under a year. It was the largest facility of its kind in the U.S., employing some 12,000 men and women in a 24-7 operation in nearly 5,000 buildings at its height. The plant continued to produce powder and propellants during every major U.S.-involved conflict through the First Gulf War, going on standby in the intervening years, until it was decommissioned in 1997-98.

Sunflower AAP in 1991, near the end of its production life. Multi-story structures and one of the four large water towers are visible. The water towers still stand, visible to the south from K-10. Johnson County Museum.

Sunflower AAP in 1991, near the end of its production life. Multi-story structures and one of the four large water towers are visible. The water towers still stand, visible to the south from K-10. Johnson County Museum.

Because of a half-century of creating rocket propellant and assembling the highly-combustible chemicals used to make bombs, much of Sunflower AAP was left heavily contaminated and in need of thorough, expensive environmental remediation. Just what was out there? Environmental testing at the site in 2000 revealed the presence of high levels of lead, reactive cyanide, 1-Chloro-3-nitrobenzene, trinitroglycerin, and asbestos. These were the remnants of nitrocellulose, nitroglycerin, and nitroguanidine munition components. In addition to the soil and water, nearly every foundation, pipe, and sewer from the plant was contaminated. The land was simply unusable.

 

In 2000, the OEC estimated cleanup cost at around $30 to $40 million. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment came up with drastically different numbers based on their own studies—totaling somewhere around $100 to $120 million. A lot of money fits between those bookend numbers. Today we know that both sets of numbers were too low. Had Oz continued with their plan to develop Sunflower, the company would have gone bankrupt in the process. Their prediction of $40 million would have been a drop in the bucket of actual remediation costs. The OEC’s timeline of completing the cleanup by 2012 has also been revealed to be unrealistic.

Environmental contamination lab report from 2000, detailing amounts of various chemicals within samples from the Sunflower AAP site. Johnson County Archives.

Environmental contamination lab report from 2000, detailing amounts of various chemicals within samples from the Sunflower AAP site. Johnson County Archives.

In addition to the cost of remediation, there was the complexity of the potential land transfer. The U.S. Army cannot transfer land to private entities, so a complicated auction and transfer process was concocted to make the arrangement possible (see the flow chart below). Beyond needing the approval of the JoCo Board of Commissioners, Kansas legislators and the U.S. Congress would need to pass legislation to make the land transfer a reality. These were not insurmountable obstacles, but they were high hurdles to be certain.

This page from the "Executive Summary for the Redevelopment Proposal of the Sunflower AAP" shows just some of the steps in the 22-step process of transferring the Sunflower property to OEC. JoCoLegal.

This page from the “Executive Summary for the Redevelopment Proposal of the Sunflower AAP” shows just some of the steps in the 22-step process of transferring the Sunflower property to OEC. Johnson County Legal Services.

 

OECs proposed redevelopment plan for the Sunflower site included the theme park and resort, residential space, business and light industry, and "open space" or park land. All was dependent on remediation.

OEC’s proposed redevelopment plan for the Sunflower site included the theme park and resort, residential districts, business and light industry, and “open space” or park land. The plan was dependent on expensive remediation.

It is not a surprise to readers that the Wonderful World of Oz theme park and resort was not built in JoCo (the story of exactly why will be told in the final part in this series, next month). Once the Oz plan officially died in late 2001, the Sunflower site sat in limbo. In 2005, a partnership between Kansas City’s Kessinger/Hunt and a Denver-based firm formed as Sunflower Redevelopment LLC (SRL). They presented a plan for redevelopment and ownership of the Sunflower land that was like the Oz plan. The U.S. Army filled an account with $109 million to be used for remediation. SRL then hired contractors to cleanup the land, with the goal of eventually purchasing the land at fair value once remediation was completed. SRL also believed this could happen by 2012.

 

Yet by 2011, nearly all the money had been spent and hardly any progress had been made. Things stalled for several years as the relationship between the Army and SRL became strained and funding sources dried up. For their part, SRL had hauled 34,000 truckloads of contaminated dirt to the Johnson County Landfill, but the job was not even half finished. The Army ultimately decided to take the lead, believing it could complete the task cheaper and faster than the contractors hired through SRL. JoCo government has required remediation at the site to be completed to the residential level—the strictest cleanup possible—so that all the land could potentially be developed into neighborhoods. This restriction has not shortened the cleanup process, but it does ensure that the Sunflower site will eventually be completely safe for occupation.

 

On June 17, 2019, the annual meeting of Sunflower stakeholders was held in the De Soto city hall. More than thirty participants attended, representing the Army Environmental Command, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, U.S. Senator Jerry Moran’s office, the City of De Soto, the JoCo Board of Commissioners, the County Manager, and the JoCo Planning office, among others. Over the course of the morning-long presentation, the Army revealed their progress and the timeline for completion. “Explosive Hazard Decontamination”—literally soil, water, and foundations that could combust—will be remediated within the next three to four years. But the Army expects to complete the entirety of its obligations in phases over the coming years, completing their clean-up in 2028. At that time, all contaminated sewers, foundations, ditches, pools, containers, groundwater, soil, streamways, and structures would be fully remediated. That would leave buildings with asbestos, lead paint, and pesticides for SRL to cleanup before their redevelopment could begin.

This colorful remediation schedule map prepared by the U.S. Army and presented in July 2019, indicates each individual "Area of Concern" (AOC) and "Solid Waste Management Unit" (SWMU). Each site will be carefully studied by the EPA and the KDHE. Reports as massive as 10-inches thick are published detailing the issues, work completed, and current condition of the Sunflower property. Courtesy of the U.S. Army.

This colorful remediation schedule map prepared by the U.S. Army and presented in July 2019, indicates each individual “Area of Concern” (AOC) and “Solid Waste Management Unit” (SWMU). Each site will be carefully studied by the EPA and the KDHE. Reports as massive as 10-inches thick are published detailing the issues, work completed, and current condition of the Sunflower property. Courtesy of the U.S. Army.

So what are the actual cleanup costs? Since 2005, $228 million has been spent to decontaminate 5,300 acres of the 9,065 acres. By the end of 2019, another 1,000 acres will be completed. The project is massive, and most of the work remains to be completed.

 

In many ways, Johnson Countians can thank the Wonderful World of Oz group for sparking redevelopment interest in the Sunflower site. Although Oz’s plan failed to materialize, it left a precedent for remediating the largest plot of developable land in the Kansas City metro. In the end, the Oz plan presented great potential, but the variables were simply not known at the time, ultimately rendering OEC’s plan moot.

 

If it was not the complicated issues surrounding the Sunflower site that killed the Wonderful World of Oz theme park and resort, what was it? In Part 3, the final part, we will take a closer look at the roller coaster ride that resulted from Oz’s interest in Johnson County!

 

To Be Continued…

Read the next part!  The Wonderful World of Oz, Part 3

Or, go back to the first part: The Wonderful World of Oz, Part 1

 

*Quote from Kansas City Star article August 18, 2000.

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A History of Dickinson Theatres: Reel Three 1990 – 2000

This is the third of a four part series on the Dickinson Theatres. Read Reel One here, Reel Two here, and Reel Four here.


In November of 1991, AMC opened their Ward Parkway 12 theater inside the Ward Parkway Mall on the Missouri side of 86th and State Line where, decades prior, they had operated the Ward Parkway Twin Theaters (1963 to 1978). It might not seem like much by today’s standards, but at the time 12 screens was the most of any theater in the area. The Ward Parkway 12 was a huge success from the start, and it meant trouble for Dickinson Theatres (particularly their Plaza and Glenwood theaters), and other nearby theaters. Representatives of AMC specifically told the Kansas City Star that by early 1992 they expected to be able to show distributors attendance numbers from their new theater that would pull exclusive bookings away from the Glenwood, which would have been celebrating its 25th birthday that month. Heck of a birthday present.

Dickinson Theatres put on a brave, unconcerned face in the press, but behind the scenes they were gearing up for battle. And not just with AMC.  In the spring of 1992, Johnson County newcomer Cinemark received approval from the city of Overland Park to build a 10-screen theater (to be the Cinemark Movies 10) in the northwest quadrant of the bustling intersection at 119th and Metcalf. A few weeks later, Dickinson received preliminary approval to build a 12-screen theater in the southeast corner of the same intersection. This was to become the majestic SouthGlen 12.

That fall, Kent Dickinson chose to step down from running the company and pursue other interests. His brother Glen Wood Dickinson III (hereafter referred to as Wood Dickinson), who had been serving as co-vice-president and mostly working on computer support, took over running the company.

The SouthGlen project ran into some troubles early on. First, there were some grumblings from the city planning commission about the illuminated 30-foot tower planned to rise out of the middle of the theater, but Dickinson and their builders assured them that it would not disturb the nearby neighborhoods. Then there were delays, publicly attributed to weather. In 1993, hopes for a late May or early June opening turned into an announcement for a July 30th opening, which was further pushed back into August. In the meantime, AMC’s prediction that the Ward Parkway 12 would spell trouble for the Glenwood proved to be completely accurate. They landed the summer’s hottest blockbuster: “Jurassic Park.”

The SouthGlen 12 opened at last on Friday August 20th, 1993, bringing Dickinson up to 38 locations and 148 screens in 21 cities. The Kansas City Star’s film critic Robert Butler gushed over the new theater, comparing it in an August 19th write-up to Xanadu (the paradisiacal Chinese city described in Coleridge’s poem, not the club in the Olivia Newton John film of the same name, I assume). The SouthGlen was an $8 million luxury theater that would seat 3,300 people (at the time, Ward Parkway could only fit a measly 2,700). The aforementioned rooftop tower built of glass blocks and metal rose high into the sky, giving the building a classic art deco kind of look. Inside was a massive lobby featuring a state-of-the-art concession stand that used fiber optic illustrations (a movie theater first) on the menu board above and behind the counter to display bubbling soda and popping popcorn kernels. And perhaps most memorable of all for local moviegoers, the lobby had a 1,000 gallon saltwater aquarium housing dozens of fish stretching along the back wall leading to the auditoriums.

Bird's eye view of a SouthGlen 12 auditorium.

An auditorium at the SouthGlen 12. Photo courtesy of Wood Dickinson.

The auditoriums had the classic movie house look, embodied by the Glenwood. In fact, Dickinson’s marketing director Gary Downs told the Star that they wanted the SouthGlen to be “the Glenwood of the ’90s.” Gold curtains hung along the walls, and the floor was tiered, sloping down toward the screen. The seatbacks were tall and the seats were covered in a soft dark red fabric. Also, there were cup holders and plenty of legroom. It was deluxe.

Unfortunately Dickinson couldn’t exactly sit back and celebrate their accomplishment. The SouthGlen 12 made them a much stronger contender in the film booking arena, and even allowed them to start bringing better pictures back to the Glenwood, but AMC was still a force to be reckoned with, and the Cinemark Movies 10 opened virtually across the street a month and a half later on October 8th, 1993. The SouthGlen 12 and Movies 10 announced that they wouldn’t be booking the same films at the same time, and Dickinson said that the Glenwood and SouthGlen also wouldn’t be playing “day and date.” With 26 screens between those three theaters and only so many new movies to go around, this meant that somebody was going to get left out – maybe even two somebodies.

Fortunately for Dickinson, in the first weekend the two theaters went head to head, Dickinson landed the biggest film (“Demolition Man”), but Cinemark probably did pretty well with the number two and three (“Cool Runnings” and “Malice” respectively), not to mention a special sneak preview of “The Beverly Hillbillies.” The Glenwood, meanwhile, made do with the fourth biggest earner that weekend, “The Good Son” and the month-old “Joy Luck Club” (sixth at the box office). It should be noted that all five of the top-five earners that weekend were playing at the Ward Parkway 12.

Starting around this time, Dickinson officials regularly dismissed speculation that the company wanted to close the Glenwood Theatre and sell the valuable real estate it sat on.

Metcalf Theatre entrance

The Metcalf Theatre. Photo courtesy of Wood Dickinson.

In January of 1994, First International Theatres of Prairie Village (who also owned the Ranch Mart theater, which became a discount house soon after Ward Parkway 12 opened up) took the Metcalf Theatre inside Metcalf South Mall at 95th and Metcalf off of Dickinson’s hands. Dickinson had run the two-screen theater since 1980, and was already running it as a discount house at that time.

That March AMC announced that the Ward Parkway 12 had been such a huge hit that they planned to add 10 screens and 1,000 more seats to it, making it the country’s largest movie theater. They proceeded to build two new screens on the upper level of the mall, and eight on the lower level beneath the theaters they already had there. An AMC spokesperson told the KC Star that they were selling out too many shows, which was actually discouraging people from going there, so they decided to add more. That same month, Dickinson announced plans for another luxury theater, this one more contemporary than the SouthGlen: The WestGlen 12 at Midland and Renner.

In the fall of ’94, Dickinson reported that the SouthGlen 12 was doing great and that the company had been very pleased with their new multiplex. They also signed a deal with King Features to use Popeye and his friends in pre-show advertising and posters and such. In more good news, Gary Downs told the KC Star at the end of the year that Christmas season ticket sales were up throughout the company. Then, that following spring, Dickinson announced plans to build a 14-screen theater in the upcoming Great Mall of the Great Plains. Things appeared to be going pretty well.

The WestGlen 12 opened on June 30th, 1995. It was substantially bigger than the SouthGlen, and got another rave review from Robert Butler. He was particularly taken with the mural over the concession stand. In a June 27th write-up, he said that after entering the theater, one of the first things you’ll see is “an eye-popping 3-D mural… This 8- by 24-foot explosion of light and color combines such astronomical elements as the planet Saturn and a speeding comet, a re-creation of the famous Hollywood sign and a cornucopia of moviegoing treats (popcorn, jellybeans, sodas) that seem to leap off the wall and into the air over the viewer’s heads.” He was also very impressed with the state-of-the-art sound systems in the four biggest auditoriums, and Dickinson’s typically generous legroom.

Concession stand with space mural above it at the WestGlen 12.

The concession mural at the WestGlen 12. Photo courtesy of Wood Dickinson.

Best of all for Dickinson, the theater was the only theater in its booking block, so it didn’t have to compete with AMC or Cinemark or anybody else for the top films. It was able to open with “Apollo 13,” “Batman Forever,” “Judge Dredd,” “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie,” and “Pocahontas.” Not to be completely outdone, AMC opened the first eight of their ten new screens at Ward Parkway on the same day the WestGlen opened.

In 1993, Johnson County had 36 screens in a handful of theaters. With the arrival of the WestGlen in the summer of 1995, the county was up to 70, or 90 if you counted the 20 at Ward Parkway just across the state line. It was a frenzy that couldn’t go on forever, but it could go on for a few more years.

On Saturday November 25th, 1995, AMC’s Ward Parkway 20 announced that they had sold out all 20 of their screens during the evening showtime. Dickinson reported a great weekend, as well, attributing the success to new films like “Toy Story,” “Casino,” “The American President,” and “Ace Ventura 2: When Nature Calls.”

In December of 1995, AMC won approval for a 20-screen theater at the new Leawood Town Center Plaza, less than two miles down the road from the SouthGlen 12 and the Cinemark Movies 10. This would put 42 screens within two miles of each other on 119th Street.

In September of 1996, well-before the planned AMC 20 opened, an employee at the concession stand of Movies 10 unofficially/accidentally confirmed to the KC Star that the theater would be converting to a dollar house on September 20th. It was a victory for Dickinson’s SouthGlen 12, but with AMC 20 on the horizon they may not have felt too much like celebrating. Still, the company had plenty of things to be happy about. That summer the KC Star staff had ranked the Glenwood as still the best first-run auditorium in the Kansas City area, and said that the best sound to be found in the area was at WestGlen’s four THX-outfitted auditoriums.

Also that month, Dickinson began managing eight KC area theaters previously run by Cinema Ventures Partners/CCC Theaters (the Blue Ridge East, Blue Ridge West, Blue Springs, Chouteau, Red Bridge, Truman Corners, Seville, and Watts Mill), bringing them to 96 screens in the Kansas City area. AMC only had 82 in the area at that point, but had plans to open 104 more. Most of the theaters Dickinson inherited from Cinema Ventures Partners were quickly closed or converted into discount houses. The proliferation of discount houses in the area in the mid-to-late ‘90s was hard for first-run theaters, but pretty cool for people that liked to go to the movies.

In November of 1996, Dickinson announced that the WestGlen would be adding six screens some time in 1998, indicating that business was booming in their little corner of the county.

Great Mall Theater Box Office

The Great Mall theater’s box office. Photo courtesy of Wood Dickinson.

Great Mall Theater Lobby

The lobby of the Great Mall theater. Photo courtesy of Wood Dickinson.

Front angle view of an auditorium at the Great Mall theater.

An auditorium at the Great Mall theater. Photo courtesy of Wood Dickinson.

On July 25th, 1997, Dickinson opened the Great Mall 16 a few weeks ahead of the Great Mall of the Great Plains’ grand opening on August 14th. It was their biggest theater yet, and was the Midwest’s first all-THX, all-rocker seat, all-stadium-seating movie theater. Dickinson put a lot into the theater, hoping it would give them an edge later that year when AMC’s 30-screen Olathe theater opened about six miles away.

That fall was a busy one. Plans were approved for Dickinson to build the EastGlen 16 in Lee’s Summit, and it was announced that the company was in talks to sell its prized Glenwood Theatre. The now four-screen theater was just over 30-years-old and having a very hard time competing in the new movie market. On top of that, the real estate it was on had become extremely valuable. In October, two developers that had teamed up to buy the Glenwood (but had not yet completed the purchase) submitted plans to turn the site into a retail center. That December plans were approved to raze the magnificent old Glenwood.

On December 19th, 1997, AMC pulled off a titanic feat that was surely seen as an iceberg from Dickinson’s perspective: They opened up 74 new movie screens in the Kansas City area on the same day. The BarryWoods 24, the Town Center 20, and the Olathe Station 30 opened simultaneously, reportedly enjoying a lot of sold out shows. Dickinson officials admitted their numbers for that weekend were down a little. The KC Star reported that the BarryWoods took a bite out of the Dickinson 6 up north, and the Olathe Station outperformed the SouthGlen and the Great Mall with “Titanic.”

For fun, let’s take a look at the 119th Street showdown between AMC’s Town Center 20, Dickinson’s SouthGlen 12, and Cinemark’s Movies 10 that first weekend. The big new releases that weekend were “Titanic,” “Tomorrow Never Dies,” and “Mouse Hunt.” Of the new releases, the SouthGlen scored the booking for “Titanic,” which did not play at the AMC 20 in its opening weekend. However, the AMC 20 scored “Tomorrow Never Dies” and “Mouse Hunt,” which combined grossed more nationally (I don’t have local numbers) that weekend than “Titanic.” (Obviously “Titanic” would go on to be huge, but it had a fairly modest opening weekend considering its later numbers.) Movies 10, meanwhile, only managed to book “Mouse Hunt” of those big weekend openers, and it shared it with AMC 20. Movies 10 was the clear loser of the bunch. The SouthGlen had the biggest picture of the weekend, but when you consider that AMC 20 had the second two biggest openers, as well as the holdover “Scream 2” which was third biggest film that weekend (and amusingly also played on four of poor Movies 10’s ten screens), AMC 20 looks like the winner overall.

(Author’s Note: I lived in the area at the time, and looking at the old showtimes now, I think my choice would be to go see “Titanic” at the Glenwood. According to my ticket stub collection, however, I didn’t see any movies in any theaters that weekend. Also, it appears that my first visit to the AMC 20 was six days after it opened when I saw “Mr. Magoo” on Christmas day. “Oh, Magoo, you’ve done it again,” indeed.)

Dickinson wasn’t finished yet, however. In 1998, the international powerhouse AMC was putting the squeeze on them, the fate of the Glenwood was still up in the air, their Plaza theater was on a month-to-month lease, and customer traffic at the Great Mall was about a third of what the mall owners had projected causing Dickinson to offer discounted tickets to draw business. But in 1998 the theater chain opened up a spectacular new luxury theater in Wichita called the Northrock 14 that showed it was still a force to be reckoned with.

Northrock GEM Auditorium

A “Gem” auditorium at the Northrock 14 in Wichita. Photo courtesy of Wood Dickinson.

Nevertheless, in September, Dickinson Theatres announced that Wood Dickinson was exploring selling the company. That October the company fired half of its corporate staff (17 out of 36 people), reorganized, and named John Hartley president. Hartley was the first non-family member to preside over the company.

In January of 1999, Dickinson closed the Olathe Landing 8 and the Gladstone Cinema, and announced that Goodrich Quality Theatres would be buying nine of their theaters, including the long-in-limbo Glenwood and the SouthGlen 12. The company’s owner, Robert Goodrich, stated that his plan was to keep the Glenwood open, improve it, and book movies aggressively. The Glenwood kept its name, and the SouthGlen 12 became the South Quality 12. (The other seven theaters were located throughout Missouri.)

In two different interviews in March and August of 1999, Wood Dickinson told the KC Star that the company had recently made it through some hard times that were impacting the entire industry. He explained that in the fall of ‘98 the theater chain was failing financially, having trouble paying vendors, and too top-heavy with upper management. But with the various closings, firings, and sales Dickinson Theatres had its finances in good order, and – even better – they had a plan. Going forward, the plan was to be that Dickinson would look to venture into smaller markets instead of large metropolitan areas. (They still intended to open the EastGlen in August, however.)

That spring, Dickinson closed the Plaza Theater in Kansas City, and began installing deluxe new sound systems at the WestGlen and Great Mall theaters in anticipation of the May 19th opening of “Star Wars: Episode One – The Phantom Menace.”

Meanwhile, back at Goodrich’s Glenwood, in June of 1999, Goodrich announced plans for up to six new screens at the old theater. He would keep the two largest auditoriums intact, but would demolish the Glenwood III and IV, and build the new screens in their place. He had already renovated the Glenwood I with a new sound system and projectors in anticipation of “The Phantom Menace,” and had expanded its already enormous screen as well. He also mentioned plans to renovate the ticket booth, lobby, and concessions area, and expand the movie choices to include both mainstream and arthouse fare.

Then, in February of 2000, plans were again filed to raze the Glenwood, along with plans to close the South Quality 12. Goodrich told the KC Star that he’d tried his best, but no matter what plan he had come up with for the Glenwood, he could only realistically expect modest business. Goodrich expected to about break even on the sale of the two theaters. In another interview with the KC Star, Wood Dickinson said he was sad to see the old Glenwood go, but agreed it was the right decision.

Sunday March 19th, 2000 was the South Quality 12’s last show before it was closed and turned into a gym. Estimating from showtimes and run-times, their final film to end that night was “Anna and the King,” which would have clicked off just after midnight. Or, if nobody showed up for that one and they never ran it, maybe “Eye of the Beholder” or “The Beach.” The world may never know for sure.

Sunday April 30th, 2000 was the Glenwood’s closing day. The last movie it showed was “Erin Brockovich.” The KC Star’s Christopher Hearne documented the last day of the theater. An employee told him that a few weeks prior to the closing, somebody had stolen a row of five seats and snuck them out the back door in one of the auditoriums. On the day of the closing, nostalgic theater patrons tore up strips of carpet for souvenirs.

Back at Dickinson Theatres, in April the company announced they would be building the NorthGlen 14 in North Kansas City. Then, in September, Wood Dickinson sold the company to a group of Dickinson executives (John Hartley, Ron Horton, and Brett Miller), ending 80 years of family ownership at the company. The plan was still for the company to focus on smaller markets, as the multiplex boom of the ‘90s had left metropolitan markets overbuilt.

Reporting for the Kansas City Star on September 9th, 2000, Jennifer Mann wrote, “Dickinson’s mission is to differentiate and distance itself from the overbuilt woes besetting the big players in the industry… Of the six largest theater chains in the United States, two have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization within the last month, and three are expected to violate terms of their bank agreements, which could send them into Chapter 11 as well. Only AMC is adamant that it will not take that path.”

As we will see in the fourth and final chapter of Dickinson’s saga, the company was not going to dodge the bankruptcy bullet. But they still had at least one great Johnson County theater in them.

End of Reel Three.

-Mike Keller, Johnson County Library

The End Credits.

I’d like to thank Wood Dickinson for answering several questions I had and sending me so many great pictures to use. Make sure you check out his website , for a look at his blog, photography, and films. He has also written a book, “The Madness of Robin Randle.

I’d also like to thank Wade Williams for helping to answer some of my questions about the Fine Arts Group’s theaters.

Thanks to the fine folks over at CinemaTreasures.org. I consulted the site often and was helpfully pointed in the direction of a few scoops by the commenters.

And a huge thanks to all of the writers at the Kansas City Star and at the Kansas City and Wichita Business Journals, whose reporting made putting this history together possible. Readers should note that former KC Star film critic Robert Butler still reviews films at his blog.

Also, if anybody out there knows where the Glenwood’s chandelier ended up, let me know. I was unable to track it down. (It’s not at the Church of the Resurrection, as rumored online.) And if anybody has any pictures of any of the theaters they want to share, send them my way as well! My email is kellerm@jocolibrary.org. I’d particularly love more photos of the SouthGlen 12. I’d also love to see some pictures of Cinemark’s Movies 10 if anybody happens to have some.

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The Wonderful World of Oz Theme Park, Part 1

“They Think the Land of Oz Belongs in Kansas”

The idea for a Wizard of Oz-themed amusement park in the KC region has been around since at least the 1980s. It seems the 1985 Disney blockbuster film, Return to Oz, inspired regional entrepreneurs, showing once again that Oz was a profitable theme. And what better place to build an Oz-inspired theme park than the Midwest? Perhaps the largest and longest plan was the Wonderful World of Oz theme park, originally slated for Wyandotte County but later proposed for the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant site near De Soto in Johnson County. This series of blog posts from the Johnson County Museum will trace that history, beginning in the mid-1980s and running through the early 2000s. The posts complement the Museum’s temporary exhibit, Expanding Oz, on view through Nov. 2, 2019.

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In 1985, David Landis, president of the Emerald City and Yellow Brick Road Productions, Inc., pitched the idea for a $20 million, 60-acre “Land of Oz” amusement park to be located at 87th Street and Interstate 435, near today’s Lenexa City Center. Landis suggested that if the Oz theme fell through, an alternative might be an “Osage Village and Frontier Town.” In either case, strangely, he thought the major attraction would be the water rides. Yet by 1990, when Overland Parker Burton Stonefield proposed an Oz park for Wyandotte County, Landis had not made any progress in Lenexa (although he did claim Stonefield had stolen his idea). Stonefield was also accused of securities fraud, and both plans faded away.

 

A competing plan based in Linn County, Kansas, about 60 miles south of Johnson County, was grander. It included a $100 million movie studio, a theme park, a shopping center, and a hotel on more than 1,000 acres of land. Led by George Sol of Kansas City, Missouri, the group pitched the film studio as “Halfway to Hollywood,” while a theme park located on the site would be called “Land of Oz.” By 1990, the Linn County plan had also died and one of the principle investors was in jail on two counts of selling unregistered securities for soliciting $10,000 in investments.

 

Another plan in 1986 proposed a “vacation park” to be called White Winds be built somewhere in the Ozark region. The 630-acre park would cost $400 million, and would include various themes, including Atlantis, the fictional planet Dune, Tinsel Town, and of course, a Land of Oz. Predicted to open in 1988, residents began to suspect a scam, and this plan eventually fizzled out like the others. An article about White Winds quoted Tim O’Brien, editor of Amusement Business, a nationwide amusement industry publication as saying, “Every spring we have eight to 10 announcements of new theme parks that are going to be started somewhere right away. By late summer or early fall, they’re gone and never heard from again.”

*                                                      *                                                     *

So what made the Wonderful World of Oz, proposed for construction in both Wyandotte and Johnson Counties, seem any more viable than those others? Like them, the idea of a potential economic powerhouse such as an amusement park might have been just too good to pass up. And in the early 1990s, Wyandotte County was looking for an economic stimulus.

 

The key proponents of the Wonderful World of Oz plan were August “Gus” C. Fasone, a Kansas City restauranteur; Robert Kory, a “Hollywood lawyer;” and Dave Owen, a former lieutenant governor of Kansas. Owen dropped out of the project quickly after he was indicted for tax fraud in an unrelated matter. Kory and Fasone first partnered on the Sandstone Amphitheater project in Bonner Springs. Kory represented World Entertainment, the Kansas operations company that managed Sandstone after buying out Fasone; Fasone had been a driving force in the project’s development. Interestingly, Sandstone Amphitheater (today Providence Medical Center Amphitheater) suffered from mismanagement, financial distress, and a bailout with taxpayer funds. This was much like another project for which Kory and Fasone teamed up, the renovation and management of Memorial Hall, in KCK. This project also suffered mismanagement and financial distress before the city sued World Entertainment to cease operations. Kory, it should be noted, had no experience in developing a massive theme park like the Wonderful World of Oz. And Gus Fasone, while having an undeniable vision for businesses, had a storied past including arrests, several FBI investigations, and a business storefront destroyed by a bomb blast in 1970. Both men bore the very real, very recent smudges of Sandstone and Memorial Hall financial failure on their reputations. Hindsight might be 20/20, but they were an unlikely team to boost Wyandotte County’s economic outlook.

Gus Fasone made the cover of the Kansas City Star's "Star Magazine" cover in March 1992. Courtesy Kansas City Public Library, microfilm. Photo by Steve Gonzales.

Gus Fasone made the cover of the Kansas City Star‘s “Star Magazine” in March 1992. He stands with a shovel, surrounded by cut-outs of Wizard of Oz characters. Courtesy Kansas City Public Library’s Missouri Valley Room, microfilm. Photo by Steve Gonzales.

Representing KC Theme Park, Inc., Kory and Fasone first pitched the Oz idea to Kansas City, Kansas (KCK), government in 1991. The KC Theme Park group had worked with Ted Turner’s company to secure rights to the Oz characters. They had also convinced the KCK City Council and Board of Public Utilities to contribute a combined $450,000 to help pay for economic and design feasibility studies. Fasone and Kory estimated their project to cost $200 million, opening in late 1995 or early 1996. They believed the Wonderful World of Oz could attract between 2.8 and 3.5 million people annually. Missouri’s Worlds of Fun amusement park quickly criticized these numbers as overly ambitious. Later, Worlds of Fun parent company, Hunt MidWest Enterprises, lobbied unsuccessfully in Topeka against taxpayer bonds for the Wonderful World of Oz project.

 

In October 1992, the company was renamed Oz Resorts & Entertainment Co., and the budget had grown to $300 million. The park was to occupy 55 acres, but was eyeing 900 acres to eventually develop for other projects: a 300-room hotel, a golf-course, an RV park, a lake, and a shopping district. According to Landmark Entertainment Group, the design and concept team, the Oz park would contain six themed areas. These included Old Kansas (a tornado ride would hurl visitors into the main part of the park and the Land of Oz); Munchkinland; Yellow Brick Country; the Haunted Forest (think Wicked Witch of the West); the Northern Kingdom (think Glinda the Good Witch); and of course, a gleaming Emerald City.

Artist's rendering of the Emerald City's main entrance. Created in 1996 by OZ Entertainment Company. In The Sun Newspaper Collection, Johnson County Museum.

Artist’s rendering of the Emerald City’s main entrance. Artwork created in 1996 by OZ Entertainment Company. In The Sun Newspaper Collection, Johnson County Museum.

To make this development a reality, Kory was pushing for $60 million in special obligation bonds from the state. The bonds would help build the park, and would be paid back over time from park generated revenue. Early in 1993, the Kansas House and Senate passed a bill granting the bond money (it is worth noting the Senate approved it 40-0), and Governor Joan Finney signed it into a reality. All this was achieved in a little less than three weeks.

 

The KCK, Wyandotte County (WyCo), and state governments all showed support, doing what they could to make the park feasible. In November 1993, the WyCo government, with the governor’s approval, declared a 3.8-square-mile tract a “public enterprise zone,” located west of Interstate 435 and north of Interstate 70. The zone would help hold down land prices for the development company. By that time, the project’s budget had increased to $440 million with a new opening date in 1997. A few months earlier, the KCK City Council had granted another $50,000 for development studies, and an additional $100,000 was being discussed. Early in 1994, the WyCo Commission even cut funding for four other projects by 15% to help build funding reserves for the Oz project.

Google Maps view of the land in Wyandotte County that was considered for the Wonderful World of Oz theme park site (outlined in red). Today, the Kansas Speedway occupies the eastern portion of the area.

Google Map view of proposed site for the Wonderful World of Oz theme park. Boundaries were roughly I-70, I-435, Parallel Parkway, and K7. The Kansas Speedway occupies the eastern portion of the area today.

Yet by the mid-point in 1994, the luster of the Wonderful World of Oz project was wearing off. The budget continued to increase while the project start date was pushed back again and again. In March 1994, there was talk of adding a casino, which immediately lost some of the project’s support in the Kansas legislature. Senate president Bud Burke said, “Dorothy would not approve.” Early in 1995, allegations arose that Gus Fasone might have used some of the $500,000 in KCK government grants to remodel his KCK restaurant—in an Oz theme, no less. Despite protests that Fasone’s project was financed through a Small Business Administration loan, the FBI initiated an inquiry, and by April 1996, Fasone was listed in the project roster as merely “a stockholder.” The FBI later dropped their inquiry.

 

In fact, the Wonderful World of Oz project seemed to fall asleep for much of 1995 and early 1996. A KC Star headline in April 1996 declared: “Oz theme park ‘alive.’” The budget for the park and hotel had grown to $500 million, with groundbreaking in time for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz novel’s publication centennial in 2000. In a sound move, the company added Skip Palmer, a former operations manager at Disney and world’s fair developer, to the project as president. But even by 1997, despite reportedly spending $7 million researching and planning, the Oz group had never purchased land in Wyandotte County.

 

An article in July 1997 detailed three major projects then proposed for WyCo: a Wyandotte Nation casino at the Woodlands; the Wonderful World of Oz theme park (for which KCK Mayor Carol Marinovich said “there really is no news”); and the Kansas Speedway, a NASCAR race track. It was this last project that resulted in direct competition for the Oz park. Track developers eyed a similar stretch of property east of the Oz park’s proposed site. It conflicted with the Oz park’s plan to later develop shopping, additional hotels, and other complementary projects. The Wonderful World of Oz plan by August 1997 was budgeted at $700 million, while the NASCAR project was projected to cost just $200 million. Robert J. Marcusse, president of the Kansas City Area Development Council predicted that there would be a “greater economic impact from racing than from the Super Bowl.” Oz officials warned that the theme park plan would require a “radical reconfiguration” if the race track was constructed. Still the Oz group had not purchased a single acre of land in WyCo.

A Salina Journal article from 1997, detailing the conflicting plans for the same piece of land in Wyandotte County.

A Salina Journal article from 1997, detailing the conflicting plans for the same piece of land in Wyandotte County.

And then a major turning point. In January 1998, in response to a constricted site plan (and perhaps simply due to unwanted competition from another project in WyCo), Oz president Skip Palmer confirmed that while the park developers “remain committed to working with Kansas City, Kansas,” they were in fact looking at a “possible alternative” site. Palmer revealed in the same interview that his team was considering the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant site, near De Soto in Johnson County.

 

To Be Continued…

Read the next part! The Wonderful World of Oz, Part 2

Or read the final part: The Wonderful World of Oz, Part 3

 

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A History of Dickinson Theatres: Reel Two 1970 – 1989

This is the second of a four part series on the Dickinson Theatres. Read Reel One here, Reel Three here, and Reel Four here.


 

King Kong/Orca movie newspaper ad

A great 1977 ad for a “King Kong”/”Orca” double feature playing at the Shawnee Drive-In (among others).

At the beginning of the 1970s, the movie scene in the Kansas City area was thriving. There were a lot of movie houses, and a lot of good pictures to fill them. Looking at the showtimes for one week in April of 1972, I was delighted to think that at one point in history a person could have had their pick between seeing “The Godfather” on the massive Glenwood screen, “The Cowboys” with John Wayne in the smaller auditorium, “Billy Jack” at the Aztec, “ZPG: Zero Population Growth” or “Silent Running” at the drive-in, or “The Stewardesses” in 3D at the Kimo South (say what you will, but it made a lot of money). And that’s just in Dickinson owned theaters.

The strange party seems to have continued throughout the decade, even as many area theaters and drive-ins built decades ago started to show their age and/or close. My understanding is that cultural changes of the 1960s put Hollywood into a bit of a financial and artistic slump, which opened the door to more experimental and diverse independent fare, and then the mainstream studios recovered by focusing on making fewer films in general, but making the films they did produce more artistic and challenging to appeal to this hip new audience. This began to change in the mid-70s with the release of “Jaws,” generally considered the first “blockbuster.” And then, in 1977, the blockbuster trend put the pedal to the metal with the release of one very special film. The film’s name? You guessed it: “The Other Side of Midnight.” Starring the ravishing Marie-France Pisier, John Beck, and Susan Sarandon, and based on a popular novel, the nearly three hour film is about a French woman who starts a passionate romance with an American pilot during World War II…

Wait. Let me check my notes real quick.

Ah, yes. My mistake. The game-changing film was not, in fact, “The Other Side of Midnight.” It was…

A 1977 advertisement for Dickinson’s various offerings.

On May 26th, 1977 “Star Wars” opened in the Kansas City area, playing exclusively at the Glenwood Theatre for its first ten weeks. The film wound up playing there (first on the Glenwood I screen, then on the Glenwood II screen) for more than a year, grossing over $1,250,000 at that theater alone. It was the biggest moneymaker in Kansas City history up to that point, and the KC Star reported estimates that around 355,000 people saw the movie at the Glenwood in its first six months. It was unprecedented. By the time “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” opened that fall, the managers at Dickinson Theatres (and at other theaters around the country) were already adapting to a new, more profitable business model by scheduling more showtimes to maximize opening week profits for these “blockbusters.”

As the ‘70s closed, some older, smaller theaters were struggling. The Dickinson in Mission (opened in 1938) shut down in March of 1978, with management saying that the single-screen model just wasn’t working anymore. On top of that, increasing property values around Johnson County meant doom for many area drive-ins. The Leawood Drive-In appears to have ceased operations in 1977, and the land was sold by Dickinson in the spring of 1978. Then a fire broke out at the Shawnee Drive-In in the concession stand in September of 1978. Nobody was there at the time, but a passerby spotted the fire and called for help. It shut down soon after, and in May 1980 was torn down to make way for additional Bayvet facilities.

One strange story of note: In May of 1979, the Glenwood Theatre was robbed of $2,700 on the same night that Ronald Reagan spoke at a Republican fundraising dinner at the Glenwood Manor Convention Center just across the parking lot (on the spot where Borders was in the ‘90s and ‘00s, and Natural Grocers is now). Thankfully there were no injuries, and my understanding is that former California Governor and then-soon-to-be President Reagan was at no point a suspect.

Newspaper ad of Dickinson showtimes in July 1980

An advertisement for Dickinson’s showtimes from July 1980.

In a 1980 article about the bustling film scene in Johnson County, Kansas City Star staff writer Eric Palmer wrote that the Johnson County was an ideal place to be in the film exhibition business, as it was full of mobile, affluent young people. “Try driving by the Glenwood Theater in Overland Park any weekend night,” he wrote. “Lines of people wind around ticket windows and off into the distance. Lines of cars block every entrance to the complex. And the Glenwood isn’t alone. The Ranch Mart, the Oak Park Mall, Trail Ridge… it’s standing room only at virtually every other theater complex in the county every weekend night.”

In 1982, Denise Putrah and Wade Williams bought the recently-closed Dickinson in Mission, and re-opened and renamed it The Fine Arts with equipment and a name they’d purchased from the non-Dickinson Fine Arts Theatre in Fairway. If you find the long history of the Dickinson Theatre confusing, don’t worry: I do too. Still, there’s going to be a test at the end, and it counts for half your grade, so pay close attention.

Sad news came in February of 1983, when Glen Wood Dickinson Jr. passed away. He had been running the company since his father passed away in 1963, and after his passing, his son Kent stepped up to run the company. Soon after taking the helm, plans were announced to expand the Glenwood by adding two auditoriums, the Glenwood III and the Glenwood IV, to help keep it competitive in the changing industry. The new auditoriums would hold 450 and 300, respectively.

Just after midnight on the morning of July 5th, 1983, the Glenwood Theatre was robbed again, but this time not for money. The thief caught projectionist John J. Smith in the parking lot, pulled a gun on him, and took him back into the theater where he demanded to be given the theater’s 70mm print of “Return of the Jedi.” (Well, first he took him back in, saw that there were other employees around, and then took Mr. Smith back out to his car where they waited for twenty minutes until the theater was actually empty.) Once they got up to the projection booth, the thief made the projectionist take apart the seven reels of film (which took about an hour) and put them in their metal film canisters for transport. Then, around 2 AM, he had him carry the canisters down to the parking lot and stack them, and go back up to the projection booth where he was instructed to wait without calling anybody for at least twenty minutes. Police were called around 2:15 AM, and later that day the Glenwood obtained a 35mm print they could screen so as not to miss any showtimes. An employee for 20th Century Fox that was interviewed in the KC Star expressed confusion about what a person would do with a 70mm print, and said he wasn’t too worried about piracy. Typically pirates went for 35mm prints, as they were easier to handle and duplicate onto 16mm, but with a 70mm print, it sounds like the most logical option was to screen it and make a videotape of the screening to sell as a bootleg. Or just have the ultimate collectible, I suppose.

The eighteen-year-old culprit successfully made off with the print, but was apprehended a few weeks later. He had apparently kept the print in his parents’ basement for several days before trying to sell it to the manager of a video store, who declined the offer, then alerted authorities. The FBI set up a sting where two agents posed as a couple wanting buy a print for their own personal use for $10,000. They met the thief in an Alameda Plaza Hotel room, screened one reel, and then arrested the man. He was sentenced to five years of closely supervised probation and 600 hours of community service – a very light sentence considering that it could have been a maximum of 10 years in federal prison and a $10,000 fine, but one that the judge felt was fair for the first-time offender.

1984 newspaper movie ads

June 1984 showtimes at Dickinson’s theaters.

In 1985 Dickinson Theatres ran into a bit of legal trouble itself when federal investigators began cracking down on “film splitting.” In some markets, theater owners from different companies were getting together and deciding in advance which theaters would get which new movies – from the predicted box-office bonanzas, to the expected duds. This way they wouldn’t be bidding each other into bankruptcy for the rights to various movies, and they weren’t as subject to the demands of distributors that often wanted higher and higher percentages of the box office earnings, advance payments, and/or guaranteed runs regardless of how well a film performed. This was called “the split” or “film splitting,” possibly because another way to describe it was “price fixing.” Though illegal, it was a fairly commonplace practice, and many exhibitors were fined throughout the late ’70s and ’80s. Dickinson got busted for arrangements with other operators in Topeka, Kansas, and Quincy, Illinois, and was fined. Reports indicated that they stopped splitting and fully cooperated with the government once the practice came into more light.

19 1986 The Olathe Landing 8 - Provided by Wood Dickinson

The Olathe Landing 8. Photo Courtesy Wood Dickinson

20 The Trail in Olathe - Provided by Wood Dickinson

The Trail in Olathe. Photo Courtesy of Wood Dickinson.

In 1986, Dickinson Theatres opened up the Olathe Landing 8, hitting 100 screens company-wide – a new personal record from what I could tell. This brought Johnson County up to about 30 first-run screens between Dickinson and their competitors, with more opening every year – quite a change from when a handful of theaters managed more-or-less exclusive bookings area-wide for the latest Hollywood movies. But it didn’t make much sense if there weren’t thirty new movies coming out every few weeks, which, back then, there weren’t. The distribution model began to change again, and gradually the area appears to have been broken up into smaller and smaller geographic and demographic blocks where mini-“exclusives” were granted to various theaters (presumably now through legitimate, cutthroat bidding), allowing each chain to have a shot at the hot new movies coming out without having to directly compete with other nearby theaters over the very same film. (I should note that there was still an incentive for the distributors to limit product because the cost of printing and shipping films on celluloid was considerable. Distributors didn’t necessarily want every movie house in town requesting to rent two copies of every picture, splitting the audience around and increasing their costs.) For exhibitors, the competitive key now was positioning.

And position they did! In the first sign of the seeming insanity that was to come in the 1990s, in June 1987 AMC opened a new theater, The Metro North Plaza 6, just north of the Metro North Mall, where AMC already had a six-screen multiplex (the Metro North Mall 6, open since 1976 and remodeled to coincide with the opening of the Metro North Plaza 6). One week later, the Dickinson Cinema 6 opened on the opposite side of the mall. This put 18 screens in the immediate vicinity of Metro North Mall, where previously there had been only six.

21 1989 August Movie Times

Showtimes for Dickinson’s theaters in August of 1989.

This was one of the first local stirrings of an aggressive expansion program by the similarly Kansas City-based but much larger movie theater chain AMC that would result in an absolutely brutal industry-wide bloodbath that would occur in the 1990s, bringing Dickinson Theatres and virtually all of the major chains to the brink of destruction by the decade’s end.

I may have spiced that up a little to hook you for next time, but just wait. The 1990s get wild.

End of Reel Two.

-Mike Keller, Johnson County Library

The End Credits.

I’d like to thank Wood Dickinson for answering several questions I had and sending me so many great pictures to use. Make sure you check out his website , for a look at his blog, photography, and films. He has also written a book, “The Madness of Robin Randle.

I’d also like to thank Wade Williams for helping to answer some of my questions about the Fine Arts Group’s theaters.

Thanks to the fine folks over at CinemaTreasures.org. I consulted the site often and was helpfully pointed in the direction of a few scoops by the commenters.

And a huge thanks to all of the writers at the Kansas City Star and at the Kansas City and Wichita Business Journals, whose reporting made putting this history together possible. Readers should note that former KC Star film critic Robert Butler still reviews films at his blog.

Also, if anybody out there knows where the Glenwood’s chandelier ended up, let me know. I was unable to track it down. (It’s not at the Church of the Resurrection, as rumored online.) And if anybody has any pictures of any of the theaters they want to share, send them my way as well! My email is kellerm@jocolibrary.org. I’d particularly love more photos of the SouthGlen 12. I’d also love to see some pictures of Cinemark’s Movies 10 if anybody happens to have some.

Thanks for reading!

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From Kansas to the World: The “Expanding Oz” Exhibit

Kansas is obsessed with the Wizard of Oz. There are multiple Oz museums in Kansas. There was almost a Disney-style Oz theme park here in Johnson County (more on that in a future post!). A Kansas City regional plumbing company has played on Oz themes with their recent billboards advertising to help with a “Land of Clogs.” Kansas even had a tourism slogan in the 1970s inspired by Oz: Kansas, the “Land of Ah’s.”

 

As a matter of fact, the entire United States loves the Wizard of Oz. Author L. Frank Baum wrote the original children’s novel in 1900, but just look at the continued success of Oz-inspired blockbuster movies, Broadway musicals like The Wiz and Wicked, and popular Halloween costumes year after year. Yet it might surprise you that people in Tokyo, Japan, and St. Petersburg, Russia love the Land of Oz just as much as Americans. In fact, Russian children have an original series of Oz books that has been produced for the stage and screen. Children in Japan and other countries learn to read by reading Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. What started as an American children’s novel has led to a global phenomenon!

Expanding Oz, the newest temporary exhibit at the Johnson County Museum!

Expanding Oz, the newest temporary exhibit at the Johnson County Museum!

On June 1, 2019, the next Museum Free Day, the Johnson County Museum will unveil its newest temporary exhibit, Expanding Oz. This family-friendly, brightly colored exhibition complements the 80th anniversary of MGM’s classic movie, The Wizard of Oz, as well as the 100th anniversary of Baum’s death. To accomplish the exhibit, the Museum staff took a deep look at the history of the Wizard of Oz franchise and worked with a local collector of all things Oz.

Jane Albright, Kansas City-based Wizard of Oz collector. Her collection fills the gallery.

Jane Albright, Kansas City-based Wizard of Oz collector. Her collection fills the gallery.

Jane Albright, a native of the Kansas City area, has collected Wizard of Oz related items for nearly her entire life. It began with the original series of books that Baum authored, a collection for which she won a book-collecting competition as a student at KU. Since then, she has pursued not only rare Oz books, but artwork, posters, games, toys, household goods, clothing, music, and so much more. Albright helped Museum staff to narrow down her vast collection to a sampling of over 200 items that help tell the story of the growth of the Wizard of Oz.

"Expanding Oz" explores the international obsession with the Land of Oz through pop culture objects and books.

“Expanding Oz” explores the international obsession with the Land of Oz through pop culture objects, posters, and books.

One of the first things that was recognizable in Albright’s collection was a large amount of material that was not in English—or made in the United States. Oz-themed chopsticks, Kinder Eggs, and a series of Oz books in Russian, Spanish, French, and nearly two dozen other languages, show just how far the story of the Wizard of Oz had travelled from Kansas. While we think of Baum’s book as the quintessential American novel and the MGM movie as an iconic American film, they have led to, literally, an entire world of Oz merchandise, stories, and international Oz enthusiasts. Global pop culture has felt the same level of influence as American pop culture.

This costume was worn by a resident of the Emerald City in the 1995 U.S. Tour production of the Wizard of Oz Broadway musical.

This costume was worn by a resident of the Emerald City in the 1995 U.S. Tour production of the Wizard of Oz Broadway musical.

Expanding Oz explores L. Frank Baum’s surprising life, as well as the life of his greatest creation since his death 100 years ago. In rich color and with a staggering array of objects, artwork, and other visuals, the Wizard of Oz will never have felt more familiar yet more surprising than in Expanding Oz. With fantastic photo-ops pulled from Baum’s original book (illustrations by famed children’s book illustrator, W. W. Denslow), an opportunity to tell the Wizard what you would ask for, and dozens of recognizable toys, games, and household objects all branded for the Land of Oz, this exhibit is one that the whole family will enjoy.

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The Expanding Oz exhibit opens Saturday, June 1, and will be on display through November 2, 2019. Don’t miss the associated programming: Wizard of Oz Tea Party and Fashion Show (7/19 and 7/20), Lunch & Learn: “Collecting Oz” with Jane Albright, and Theatre in the Park’s production of “Wizard of Oz,” beginning Friday, August 2nd! 

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