This is the second of a four part series on the Dickinson Theatres. Read Reel One here.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!