jayhawk filming on the artwalk

The Jayhawk Theater is a historic, cave-like structure encapsulated in a space between the Jayhawk Tower and the modern-day Upstage Gallery in downtown Topeka. In its heyday, it was host to legendary performers like Bob Hope and George Burns, Vaudeville shows, a million goose bump-inducing cinematic moments, on-stage wartime marriages and lots of necking in the upper balcony. Its functions changed somewhat throughout the decades, but it was always a place of good times, an entertaining portal through which Topekans saw the rest of the world. But, on a more personal level, Topekans could glimpse a cross-section of their hometown in the Jayhawk Theatre, whether in the segregated balcony section, the ladies dressed to the nines in evening gowns or the ground floor teeming with children during a Saturday morning 1930’s serial cartoon.

All of that history echoes in the now empty, dusty and crumbling theater. But Juli Pitzer, a University of Kansas doctorate student and filmmaker, is determined to shine a light on that history by directing and producing a short film, and in the process, helping to save the physical structure that houses such a rich past.

“What’s significant about this theater is that it’s still here,” says Pitzer. “It’s the only theatre in downtown Topeka that exists from this time period and any other time period, and I hope that this film will help expose it.”

The 15-minute short, tentatively titled “Capturing the Community at the Historic Jayhawk Theatre in Topeka, Kansas,” is being created through a short film grant from the Kansas Humanities Council (KHC) and will contribute to statewide commemorations of Kansas’ 150th year of statehood next January.

Pitzer and crew will be filming at the Upstage Gallery, 720 S.W. Jackson, this coming Friday Sept. 3 during the First Friday Artwalk, 5-8 p.m. Visitors to the gallery will be able to tour the theater and tell their own personal stories to the camera with the possibility of being included in the short film or in a later extended version.

“For the film, we need the stories, and a lot of the stories are going away, because the population that came here and remembers its origins are in their 80’s and 90’s, so that history is already being depleted.”

But the film won’t just be a trip down memory lane for aged Topekans. Pitzer believes that there is a message for people of her generation, the 20, 30, 40-somethings who grew up with an altogether different movie house experience.

“We just take it for granted in our digital age, you know, media is always with us, so we don’t understand what has brought us to this place. We go to a box out in a suburb with a gazillion choices,” says Pitzer. “There’s very little detail that goes into creating a multiplex. To come in and see the history here and see the hand chiseled décor, to understand the pulling of the curtain, I hope that it births a little bit of passion or love for the nostalgia of those before us.”

The documentary will make its way to the public in January, 2011 for the sesquicentennial celebration. There are plans for an airing on WIBW Channel 13, community screenings and discussions, and, Pitzer hopes, a viewing at the Jayhawk itself, even in its current condition.

“It would be really hard to climate control it for a screening. I would love to do a screening in here. Maybe I could just fan it in some way,” Pitzer laughs.

[ Parts excerpted from seveneightfive Sept. 1 – Oct. 15 | Leah Sewell | photos by EJ Drake ]

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