This is the first of a four part series on the Dickinson Theatres. Read Reel Two here.
In November of 1920, Glen W. Dickinson opened the two-screen Dickinson Marshall Theatre in Manhattan, KS. Business was good from the start. Dickinson had quit the family business for this (a Ford tractor dealership in Brookfield, Missouri), so the success probably came as a relief, but no surprise. If you had told him that the theater he had just started would eventually grow into a Johnson County-based company worth millions of dollars, with almost 400 screens at its peak, and that his descendants would some day be doing battle with enormous international chains in one of the hottest movie markets in the country though… that probably would have surprised him. At least a little. I mean, I never knew the guy, but surely.
After the rollicking success in Manhattan, Dickinson ventured into Lawrence, KS, opening the Dickinson Bowersock Theatre, and then another in the city. Business continued to thrive. By 1930 Dickinson had more than 30 theaters in Kansas and Missouri. He first reached into the Kansas City area in November of 1930 with the refurbishing and re-opening of the Bijou at 50th and Prospect. The theater’s first screening under Dickinson’s rule was of Victor Fleming’s “Common Clay.”
The KC Star reported that in October of 1931, bombs were set off in or outside of three theaters in Kansas City. The theaters, it seems, were attempting to operate without the two projectionists required by the union, so the union took action. One of the theaters that was bombed was the Bijou, but lucky for Dickinson it was the least damaged, as the bomb went off at the rear of the building. It blew out a window in the theater (as well as several nearby shops and homes) and damaged the electrics, but the manager estimated the damage to have only been around $50 worth (about $750 in 2019 money). Not nothing, but certainly better than at a competitor’s theater, where the lobby and projection machines were all ruined by a bomb.
A little more trouble came Dickinson’s way in 1932, this time in Lawrence, where two theater managers (only one of whom worked for Dickinson) were arrested and charged with violating Sunday “blue laws” by opening their theaters to the public on a Sunday – a day of rest, don’t you know. The Dickinson manager, CJ Topping, reported that crowds had turned out for the shows anyways, presumably with a shrug of his shoulders. Dickinson applied for a restraining order to prevent state and county officials from closing his theater on Sundays, alleging that the county attorney had unfairly singled them out among many other blue law violators. This appears to have worked, as I couldn’t find any other news of arrests, and I am currently able to go to the movies in Kansas on a Sunday.
Also in 1932, a Dickinson creditor, Mrs. Regina Frasier, claimed that $20,000 was owed to her in back rent for Dickinson picture houses in Osawatomie and Paola, and a man who had common stock in the company accused the theater chain of operating without a board of directors. They said that the company had debts of $125,000, and was solvent but mismanaged. Dickinson said that the actual rent owed was closer to $375, and the company was briefly put under court supervision. After three days the judge removed the supervision and had the plaintiffs pay Dickinson’s legal costs.
In 1938, Dickinson announced plans for a 1,000 person theater in Missionhill Acres (now Mission, KS) to be called The Dickinson Theatre. By the time it opened (with a double bill of “Stolen Heaven” and “Blonde Trouble” and a live performance by Colorado Pete, the singing cowhand), it seated about half of the original 1,000 goal, but the building is still standing strong at Johnson Dr and Woodson Rd, and is used as an event space.
In 1939, Dickinson sold half interest in 27 of his theaters to Griffith Brothers for reasons I was unable to discover. It looks like they continued operating together, so perhaps it was more of a merger and expansion than a move of desperation.
Soon after, the company hit the road… the road to the drive-in that is! Dickinson opened their first drive-in theater in Pittsburg, KS in 1946, followed by the 81 Drive-In Theatre in Salina, KS in 1948.
In 1947 Dickinson had an amusing run-in with the Kansas City censorship board. The company attempted to screen the Czech film “Ecstasy,” featuring Hedy Lamarr swimming in the buff, but was blocked. When Dickinson appealed the decision, Kansas City officials realized that they had never gotten around to swearing in (no, censors, not that kind of “swearing”) the five film censor appeal board members they had named a few months earlier. The city manager quickly called in three of the five members in to be sworn into office. Immediately after this, the city film censor Mrs. Eleanore Watson advised the banning of the film, and the board did so without even viewing it.
In August 1948, Johnson County Commissioners approved a Dickinson drive-in, which would become the Shawnee Drive-In. The Shawnee Drive-In opened on April 1st, 1949 with a screening of “Two Guys From Texas.”
Another censorship battle began in 1953 over “The Moon Is Blue,” which dragged on and on over the decade, spawning a lot of coverage in the KC Star, but perhaps that is a story for another post. The most important thing about 1953 in my opinion is the June opening of the Leawood Drive-In!
It had a 1,000 car capacity, and the screen building had a colonial façade on one side. In its relatively short life, it would be used for church services and concert/speaker events. Somebody set off a stink bomb there in 1958 and made the papers. There was also an incident where a woman either jumped or was pushed out of a moving car in 1963 after a man made unwanted advances on her. She was okay, and he was sentenced to 90 days in jail for assault. Also, the concession stand and vending machines were robbed periodically throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, but you know what didn’t make the headlines? All the great times people had there! You had to go to the showtimes page for evidence of that.
Oh, but you know what else about the Leawood Drive-In made the headlines? Beside crime? An epic, decade-long zoning battle that ensued after the land the theater was on sold in 1978. Again, maybe that’s a post for another day.
Now where was I? Looks like we’re about into the 1960s here. By 1961 Dickinson headquarters was in Mission, KS (having moved to Johnson County from Lawrence at some point in the ‘50s), and locally the company had the Dickinson in Mission, the Overland in Overland Park, the Aztec in Shawnee, the Trail in Olathe, the Englewood in Independence, the Kimo and the Glen in Kansas City, and the two drive-ins in Shawnee and Leawood. Business was good, and Johnson County was growing every day. Sadly, in 1963 Glen Wood Dickinson Sr. passed away. His son Glen Wood Dickinson Jr. took over running the company, and he would oversee one of the company’s finest achievements.
In 1966 a two page ad appeared in the Kansas City Star detailing what would become known as the grandest movie palace in the Kansas City area for decades: The Glenwood Theatre.
After $500,000 (more than $4 million in 2019 money) and five years of planning, The Glenwood opened on Tuesday November 22nd, 1966 at 91st and Metcalf in Overland Park. Although it might have looked fairly plain out front, inside it was a one-screen luxury movie palace with a huge, ornate lobby featuring a fireplace, nine gothic windows, high vaulted ceilings, and an enormous, imported chandelier. The auditorium seated 816 people yet allowed for more legroom than any other local theater, and boasted a 70ft wide by 35ft tall screen covered by 40ft high drapes. The theater could screen 16mm, 35mm, 70mm, and one-lens Cinerama.
The Glenwood opened with a for-charity screening of “Is Paris Burning?” and public showings started the next day. In his review of the film, the KC Star’s motion picture editor Giles M. Fowler gave the film a poor review, but the theater a rave. “By any standards,” he said, “the new Glenwood theater is an excellent one that should be visited. But the purpose here is to review films, not theaters, and I only wish the Glenwood’s opener were a more successful film than ‘Is Paris Burning?’”
“Is Paris Burning?” played for about two months (a short run by the standards of the day), and then the Glenwood switched over to running the then-two-year-old film “The Sound of Music” for about three months. Then it was “The Taming of the Shrew,” a new picture starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton for about seven months, followed up by 1939’s “Gone With the Wind.”
(Author’s Note: I looked into it and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which I imagined would have been perfect for the Glenwood, started in the KC area on June 12th, 1968 in an exclusive engagement with the Empire Cinerama by Durwood Theatres, and from what I could find it didn’t play at the Glenwood any time in its first run. It may never have played there, but I only looked through the first year or two.)
The 60s were a big decade for Dickinson Theatres, and they closed it out with a few more changes. In 1968 the Overland became the Kimo South after (I think) having been closed and remodeled some. And in February of 1969, they added a second theater onto the Glenwood, making it the Glenwood II. The second auditorium seated 601 people, and opened with the 1968 film “Oliver!” With their 50th anniversary as a company approaching, the folks at Dickinson Theatres had a lot to look back on and feel proud about. Little did they know, Wars was on the horizon.
End of Reel One.
-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 email@example.com. 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!