A group of Topeka businessmen hoped to add a new major hotel in the capital city. In 1923 they organized the Topeka Hotel Company and began planning a complex that would include a theater and dining and connect with retail facilities. As the Kansan Hotel was under construction at Ninth and Kansas Avenue, J. R. Burrow, banker; E. H. Crosby, merchant; Charles P. Adams, printer; and Otto B. Gufler, grocer and hotelier; set to work on a facility one block north of the Kansas State Capitol that would extend the city beyond main street.
The group selected Thomas W. Williamson of Topeka as architect. Construction began in 1924 and was soon suspended. The project was resumed after a year delay and new hotel management was named. On August 11, 1925, Crosby announced plans for the new modern movie theater.
Initially intended as Hotel Topeka, the Jayhawk Hotel, opened amid fanfare on August 27, 1928. Interior design was provided by Andres Decorating Company of Chicago. C. A. Allen completed the interior decoration. The opening events featured Governor Ben Paulen and Mayor J. E. Thomas, and dinner and dance. The 300-room hotel became a center for the city’s social and political functions. From ground level the hotel’s marble stairway with decorative railing led to the main lobby on second floor, which featured ornate chandeliers, tile, and bronze elevator doors. The adjoining dining and meeting rooms were similarly ornate. A penthouse and roof garden with terrace were located on the 12th floor and were often used for social gatherings. In 1936 the hotel hosted Alfred M. Landon’s acceptance of the Republican nomination for president. Over the years numerous celebrities were hotel guests including George and Gracie Burns, Bing Crosby, Gypsy Rose Lee, Groucho Marx, Marilyn Maye, Robert Mitchum, Sally Rand, and Robert Young.
Williamson’s firm also designed the 1,500-seat theater and shopping arcade as part of the hotel complex. The theater was located between the hotel to the north and connected via walkway to the Crosby’s department store to the east on Kansas Avenue. The Boller Brothers of Kansas City may have contributed to the design, which had similarities with their future work.
On three levels, two grand staircases led from the lobby to the mezzanine floor, where the projection booth, lounge, cloak room, and offices were also located. The stage had an ornate proscenium arch with a mural by William Peaco of Chicago, whose work was featured in many public buildings in the Midwest. His mural depicted the goddess of agriculture surrounded by state symbols and the Seal of Kansas. The screen’s white surface had a new treatment to improve brightness on the reflected image. The stage was 38 feet wide by 30 feet high, with a screen 20 feet wide by 18 feet high. Underneath were dressing rooms for performers. The electric lighting console was promoted as one of the largest in the Midwest in 1926 and controlled lights for the auditorium, foyer, and stage effects. The telephone system was used to coordinate scenic, electrical, personal, and musical effects.
Built of steel and concrete, the auditorium was open, requiring no support posts to obscure the view. The domed roof had twinkling stars to represent the heavens. The pipes for the large Kilgen organ were stored in elaborate boxes with grillwork on either side of the stage. The air conditioner was promoted as the first refrigerated building in Topeka.
The Jayhawk Theater opened at 720 SW Jackson Street on August 16, 1926, at a cost between $750,000 and $1,000,000. Credits were given to Maurice Jencks, president of the Jayhawk Theater Operating Company, and G. K. Hooper, secretary, for overseeing construction and furnishings. R. T. Whitnak, Crosby’s window designer, designed the shopping arcade. It was promoted as Topeka’s first deluxe motion picture palace.
“Topeka needed a really modern theater,” Crosby said. “Topeka cannot be made a great city until we have here the industries that will employ people and give them money to spend, in every greater volume.”
Eight features were on the bill for opening day, including The Student Prince, Aesop’s Fables, and Pathé Revue. The organist first played several numbers before the pit orchestra’s arrival, which played an overture to introduce the first film.
For several years theater-goers could purchase tickets at two different box offices, initially on 7th Avenue and on Jackson Street. A canopied entrance was located on Jackson near the box office with a concession stand inside near the theater doors.
In addition to movies, the Jayhawk hosted live performances and events, including organ and orchestra concerts, fashion shows, and pageants. The Jayhawk added talking pictures on April 15, 1929, several months after they were introduced at the Grand Theater in Topeka, one block to the north. The theater’s first “talkie” was The Jazz Singer, a 1927 feature-length film starring Al Jolson and Warner Oland, which was the first motion picture with synchronized sound.
The theater continued to serve audiences for many years. A Cinemascope screen was installed in 1953 to display widescreen movies. In May 1976 owners announced that the Jayhawk would close because of a shortage of films.
The Jayhawk was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. In 1993 the Kansas Legislature named the Jayhawk Theater the state theater of Kansas. Fundraising projects to restore the theater have been ongoing ever since that time.
Entry: Jayhawk Theater
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: February 2017
Date Modified: February 2017
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.