Mention “King Kung Fu” to a longtime Wichitan and you’re guaranteed some sort of reaction – whether it’s a positive or negative one remains to be seen.
The notorious B-movie, shot and edited entirely in Wichita in the 1970s, will be 40 years old this year, though it spent its first 11 years in a sort of production limbo.
DVD copies are available on Amazon for $15, and there is a pirated copy of the movie floating around on YouTube (though its producer is trying to get it removed from the site).
Producer Bob Walterscheid laughed when an Eagle reporter called to say he had watched the movie for the first time on a recent morning.
“Most people look at it in the evening so they can drink,” he quipped. “It isn’t the worst movie in the world. It isn’t the best, but it is what it is.”
A gorilla trained in the Chinese art of kung fu, en route to an exhibition in New York, takes a pit stop in Wichita “to let the rednecks gawk at him.”
In an attempt to score an exclusive scoop, two would-be television journalists inadvertently set the gorilla loose from the Sedgwick County Zoo. Attempts by the Wichita Police Department to corral the gorilla back into its enclosure result in roundhouse kicks to the face.
From there, the gorilla romps throughout the town, thwarting hapless capture attempts with his martial arts prowess at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, Joyland Amusement Park and Old Cowtown Museum.
As a spoof of “King Kong,” the movie’s climax predictably comes when the gorilla takes his only sympathizer, a Pizza Hut waitress named Rae Fey, to the top of what was then the tallest building in Kansas, the Holiday Inn (now known as 250 Douglas Place).
The movie was shot piecemeal from 1974 to 1976.
“The problem was, we just ran out of money,” said Lance Hayes, the film’s director.
It was shot on a $100,000 budget, using entirely local talent – notably including Tom Leahy Jr., known for portraying “Major Astro” on local television stations.
The editing process, which essentially lasted from 1976 to 1987, when the film saw its first public release at Wichita’s Crest Theater, cost an additional $80,000, according to Walterscheid.
Everybody knew going in to kiss their money goodbye unless we were lucky.
Bob Walterscheid, producer of “King Kung Fu”
“I was very fortunate to be able to raise money twice to get it done,” Walterscheid said. “Everybody knew going in to kiss their money goodbye unless we were lucky.”
The movie, which used hundreds of local extras in its scenes downtown, became somewhat of a joke in Wichita in the late 1970s and ’80s.
Historical record of Wichita
For those who were not living in Wichita at the time, the movie provides a historical record of the city between 1974 and 1976.
Century II and the Sedgwick County Zoo were both less than a decade old, the Holiday Inn was still the tallest building in the state (the Epic Center had not yet been constructed), and Joyland was still operational. The Wichita Aeros played at then-Lawrence Stadium.
Old Cowtown, though, looks pretty much the same as it does now.
There was even a scene of King Kung Fu at a bathtub race at the Wichitennial River Festival that never made it into the movie’s final cut, Hayes said.
It’s one thing to see historic photos of Wichita; it’s another to see real footage of the roller coaster and sundry rides at Joyland in action.
Hayes is now 77. He was 35 when he started filming “King Kung Fu.”
“It’s amazing, that was more than half my life ago,” he said.
It played in 11 movie theaters across the country, Walterscheid said, though it never recouped the money sunk into producing it.
“What was intended to be our springboard became an albatross, so to speak,” Walterscheid said. “I would have to say we got about 20 percent return on our investment.”
Despite this, the film has garnered somewhat of a cult following online in the years since – it has been reviewed by multiple websites just within the past five years.
Some have speculated that, had “King Kung Fu” been a smash hit, it could have jumpstarted Wichita as a filmmaker’s haven.
Hayes, who after filming the movie, had long teaching stints at Wichita State University and Butler Community College, doubts that.
I don’t think there was any grand scheme to make Wichita the next Hollywood.
Lance Hayes, director of “King Kung Fu”
“I don’t think there was any grand scheme to make Wichita the next Hollywood,” he said. “Some people, I think, used it in promotions, but I don’t think anybody ever really thought that would happen.”
It has all the hallmarks of a B-movie, though its creators did not set out to create one. They set out to create a comedy intended for wide distribution.
Walterscheid remains adamant it could have been a success if at least one “big name” acted in the film.
“We had no names and that was the thing that killed us,” he said.
“King Kung Fu” is the kind of movie you really will only want to watch all the way through if you are a fan of B-movies, Wichita history, or John Wayne impersonations.
But give credit where it’s due – Hayes and Walterscheid produced a feature-length film in a city that was not traditionally known for its ability to do so.
“Working in Wichita, Kansas, the one thing I did accomplish was I got a movie made,” Hayes said. “Good or bad, I got a movie made, and how many people can say they did that?”