When it comes to Johnson County history, many roads lead to William Strang (1857-1921). Strang is known for being a successful land developer and railroad executive, but he also holds the distinction of being the first person to bring motion pictures to Johnson County in 1915. Strang decided it would be a good business move to bring entertainment to the residents of his suburban developments. Traditionally, people who lived in Overland Park and other Johnson County towns had to venture to downtown Kansas City to enjoy a night out. The motion picture industry was still in its infancy when Strang began showing the latest Hollywood movies on the side of a barn in Overland Park. Strang’s efforts nearly 100 years ago paved the way for other businessmen to bring the movies, and new theaters, to Johnson County.
The neighborhood theater was the next step in the evolution of movie-watching. The public enjoyed Strang’s outdoor shows, but in the 1920s, businessmen opened indoor theaters in Johnson County to keep up with the growing popularity of movies. Several neighborhood theaters opened in Johnson County during the 1920s; the Trail in Olathe, the Bank in Lenexa, the Star in Overland Park, and the Mission Theater in Shawnee. Unfortunately, some of these theaters closed during the Great Depression because of financial difficulties.
After World War II, business returned to normal and new theaters, including drive-ins, opened across the county. In 1966, the crown jewel of Johnson County movie theaters opened in Overland Park. The Glenwood Theatre featured an extravagant lobby and a main auditorium that seated over 800 customers. For over 30 years, Johnson County residents flocked to the Glenwood to enjoy Hollywood’s latest offerings.
In the 1970s, the movie theater business changed. Theater owners realized the potential of having numerous screens under one roof, and the age of the multi-plex began. Many of Johnson County’s smaller neighborhood theaters and theaters with limited screens could not compete and were forced to close, including the Glenwood in 2000.
It seemed as if smaller theaters were a thing of the past, but in recent years, businessmen have revived some old local theaters to give customers a more intimate movie-going experience. The Rio Theatre, originally built as the Overland Theatre in 1946, reopened to the public in 2000 and has been a steady attraction in downtown Overland Park. The Glenwood Arts, Leawood Theatre and Standees all offer movie-goers an alternative to the many bustling multi-plex theaters that are prevalent in Johnson County.
– Matt Gilligan, Johnson County Museum