Forum Theatre rises from Wichita's history

Architectural gem from the 1920s is refurbished as the city's newest performing arts venue.

06/26/2014 4:55 PM

08/08/2014 10:33 AM

When Grant Rine heard of the abandoned 1920s church at 147 S. Hillside, he just wanted to bid on salvaging the stained glass windows.

"But when I toured the building, it was crying out to be saved. It was too beautiful to be torn down," says Rine, a radiation oncologist at Wesley for 15 years.

He has channeled his passion for vintage architecture and craftsmanship into his Old Town Architectural Salvage Company on the side.

"I thought at first I could save it to house my architectural salvage, or to use the sanctuary for auctions," Rine says.

But his wife, Janet Rine, owner of Caffe Moderne in Old Town, nixed that idea.

"I told him he wasn't going to get it dirty and destroy it with all his junk," she says of the neo-classical auditorium with gracefully arched ceiling, elegantly ornate cast-iron screens and nearly two-story-tall stained glass windows.

"Our friends all thought it looked like it would make a great theater. We hadn't thought of that, but suddenly it made sense."

This month, two years after buying the church, securing zoning and construction permits and pouring more than $600,000 into restoration and renovation, the Rines are launching the Forum Theatre for the Performing Arts.

The theater, with an eventual seating capacity of about 600 on two levels, will be a versatile venue for music concerts, stage plays and musicals, films — including teaming up with Wichita's annual Tallgrass Film Festival — and occasional one-night offerings from touring artists.

With meeting rooms in an adjoining church classroom building and a secondary 75-seat chapel, the Forum also will offer a venue for weddings, receptions, corporate meetings and retreats, the Rines say.

There is a second smaller stage in the basement that can be used by other local theater groups too small to have their own space.

Events were scheduled to begin Saturday with the first of four chamber music concerts by Wichita Wind Ensembles.

The first theatrical event, chosen because its title celebrates the new theater's name, will be the musical farce "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" starring Wichita native and award-winning London and Broadway star Karla Burns. That show opens Oct. 13 and runs Thursday-Sunday for three weeks.

The Forum name was chosen by Wichita native Grant Rine in tribute to Wichita's first civic auditorium, replaced in 1969 by Century II. Besides, he says, the old church's four columns and pediment on the east front also are reminiscent of ancient Rome.

Kathryn Page Hauptman, co-founder of the now defunct Stage One that helped launch new musicals to Broadway and Off-Broadway is the artistic director. She says the Forum's production company, Beehive Productions, has commissioned an original new musical adaptation of "Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol" for the second show.

Written by local composer Paul Jackson and playwright Conrad Jestmore, the show will begin a holiday run on Nov. 26 with the idea of becoming an annual offering exclusive to the Forum.

There will be two more musicals in February and May and a non-musical play in March that are still being finalized, she says.

New managing director Kevin Connelly, who is devising and managing the budget, says theater tickets of in-house shows will be priced at $24 for Friday-Saturday evenings and $20 for Thursday evening and Saturday-Sunday matinees. Seating this first year will be restricted to 199 in the center and front orchestra to hold down equity and rights costs.

"By keeping seating to 199 because of the favorable break we get in costs, we can have $24 tickets and still make a profit," Connelly says. "Because of limited seating, we have longer runs: 20 performances."

In the currently unused rear auditorium and balcony with side loges, there are sight-line problems because of structural columns. By next year, Connelly says, they hope to have reconfigured seating at the rear for cabaret tables with movable chairs and the side loges above the stage to premium, royal-box-type seating. That will significantly increase theater capacity.

For strictly musical events where sound is more important than view, some of the rear seating will be available now.

"Our acoustics are magnificent," Connelly says.

The Forum building was built in 1923-26 as the Hillside Christian Church, which sold it to Immanuel Baptist Church in the 1980s when it moved. Immanuel Baptist moved to a new location six or seven years ago and put the old church on the market, where it stayed empty and deteriorating for four years until the Rines fell in love with it in 2008 and bought it in 2009.

"Gov. Sam Brownback should love us because we are doing all this with private funds. We are not a non-profit. We are not asking for any grants," Grant Rine says.

Turning a church sanctuary into a theater auditorium took some imagination, says Rine, but the architectural bones were all there.

While the sturdy construction of the curving stage is new — designed by local set designer Michael Downs (who designed the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics medal plaza) —the decorative details are vintage architectural elements from Rine's salvage business that match the old church. So are four large brass and glass-globe chandeliers salvaged from the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka.

Music Theatre of Wichita's David Neville designed the lighting systems.

The color scheme is dark wood, warm buttery walls and sage green upholstered chairs. Flanking the proscenium are two huge paintings commissioned from local artist Steve Murillo depicting montages of ancient classical and mythical figures.

The Rines say the Forum is a work in progress. Soon to come will be remodeling a meeting room into a lobby and act-break bar with cocktails, espresso and hors d'oeuvres. Also on the drawing board is a lighted marquee that will top vintage stone columns Rine has squirreled away.

Further down the road is finishing meeting rooms, a small theater and a space that Janet Rine wants to turn into a gourmet cooking school.

The Forum is right around the corner from Crown Uptown Theatre, the city's oldest and largest dinner theater, which closed in June due to financial problems. It will reopen under new owners Thanksgiving weekend with the first of seven dinner-theater offerings.

The Rines say they welcome the competition.

"We have no qualms," says Janet Rine, "because as a restaurant owner, I know that restaurants do better when clustered together to become an entertainment destination. We're looking forward to Hillside and Douglas becoming a new theater district. It will be good synergy."

If You Go

FORUM THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS

* Oct. 13-30: "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" — Starring Karla Burns. Tickets $20-24.

* Nov. 5: "Music: An Expression in Musical Standards No. 5" — Wichita Wind Ensembles featuring composer/conductor-in-residence Larry Clark. Tickets: $15, $13 senior/student.

* Nov. 7: "Wicked" author Greg Maguire reading and signing. Tickets available at Watermark Books, 4701 E. Douglas, for $10 or with purchase of his newest book, $26.99.

* Nov. 17: Tallgrass Film Third Thursday screening. Tickets: $10.

* Nov. 26-Dec. 18: "Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol" — new musical adaptation by Wichitans Paul Jackson and Conrad Jestmore. Tickets: $24-20.

* Feb. 11: "Music: An Expression in Blue" — Wichita Wind Ensembles featuring Harry Watters on trombone. Tickets: $15, $13 seniors/students.

* March 24: Huron Breaux in concert. Tickets: $20.

* March 31: "Music: An Expression of Life at the Carnival" — Wichita Wind Ensembles featuring Dwight Beckham Sr. on trumpet. Tickets: $15, $13 seniors/students.

Tickets

Get tickets at 316-618-0444, www.4mtix.com or at the box office from 12:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday at 147 S. Hillside (office entrance on English). Information at www.forumwichita.com.

Coming next Sunday

Check out next week's Arts & Leisure section for a preview of what you'll find on Wichita stages _ from children's theater to professional groups _ this fall and beyond.

More photos online

Visit this story at Kansas.com/entertainment to see additional photos of the Forum Theatre for the Performing Arts.

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