Correction: An earlier version of this story had a wrong date for the “Cherish the Ladies” performance.
Newton has a long track record of preserving its past.
The city’s railroad roots are on display around town. Its storied past as a high school basketball powerhouse is the subject of a book and a documentary film. And now the city’s historic preservation focus has turned to the historic Fox Theatre downtown.
City government turned over the theater about a year ago to its community advancement coordinator, Barb Burns, and a citizen committee to raise money and revitalize the nearly century-old facility.
So far, the project is progressing with the help of some Wichita expertise. LawKingdon, the Wichita architecture firm, is readying plans for a renovation. Local theater entrepreneur Bill Warren is lending his company’s renovation expertise and helping the committee locate 35-millimeter movie projection equipment to show classic movies. And former Orpheum programming director Adam Hartke has joined the Fox as its executive director.
The theater project is another commitment by the city to preserving its past, Burns said.
“Our ReNewton 20-year plan postured a vibrant Fox Theatre as the key to a sustainable, vibrant city core,” Burns said. “So it’s in total alignment with our comprehensive plan and our downtown master plan.”
The committee launched a massive cleanup effort on the building, at 518 N. Main, after it took over last winter, and then jumped in with a series of live concerts to begin raising restoration and operation funds. Its next scheduled performance is “Cherish the Ladies” on Dec. 3.
The citizen board is pressing forward, raising money and lining up similar concerts underwritten by the theater restoration’s benefactors. Performances have ranged from Beatles Night to 2012 Grammy Award nominee Marcia Ball.
“What did we inherit? A building that was structurally sound but filthy,” Burns said. “ We have the same wiring and plumbing Fox put in in 1955.
“But we also inherited a building that holds so much love, so many memories and an iconic connection to this community’s growth. That we cannot buy.”
The Newton Fox was an immediate draw to some of Warren’s management team: Vice president Ken Crockett managed the Newton theater for Fox, and staffer Larry Robinson also worked for Fox in Newton.
“We can help them with the renovation, and we can help them with the administration,” Warren said. “We can help them sell this to City Hall. I’ve got lots of perfectly good old projection equipment.
“It definitely could be a big part of Newton’s downtown going forward.”
LawKingdon’s Roger Brown said the Newton project is a perfect fit with the company’s work at Wichita’s Orpheum.
“We really liked the concept of the community coming together in a place like the Orpheum, and we saw that to a smaller degree in the Newton Fox,” he said.
LawKingdon’s work is featured already around Newton: a new fire station, wayfinding signage and landscaping.
“So when they asked us to be involved in this, we can do that and we’re happy to help,” Brown said.
The theater was originally built in 1914 as a vaudeville stage. Its glory days as a movie theater came after the 1955 purchase by Twentieth Century Fox, which bought the building and did many of the renovations that still exist today.
The theater showed movies until the mid-1990s with Dickinson Theatres before closing in 1998 and passing back to the city for taxes, Burns said.
It was purchased by the Newton High School Class of 1965 in 2002 and converted into a live performance venue before the current citizen board, with the city’s blessing, acquired it in 2012.
Burns credited the 1965 class with preserving the theater.
“That was the heyday of the Fox,” she said. “If you graduated from 1955 through the 1980s, the Fox was like one of our classmates, our best friend, the date you thought you had.
“The class of 1965, they come back often, and they wanted to do something to revive Newton. Downtown was blah, pretty empty, at that point. But they said if they really wanted to revive downtown, they needed to do the Fox.”
“Doing the Fox” was a herculean task, Burns said.
“The roof had broken by that time,” she said. “There was dirt everywhere, dead birds, water damage. Big mess.”
Today, the concerts are generating operating capital and benefactors are coming forward, Burns said. There are plans to launch a capital campaign for building renovation once LawKingdon completes design work.
“People have been very helpful, very excited to help,” Burns said. “The commitment from the Wichita community has been excellent. ... We’re not a pretentious community and we don’t intend to be.
“We want this theater classy. We want it serviceable. We want it accessible. And we want it exciting.”