A 16-year-old Wichita boy with a squeaky voice was trying to decide between two jobs in 1965 – a decision that, unbeknownst to him, would affect the rest of his life.
Bill Warren could have made as much as $1.25 an hour working as a grocery sacker, but instead he chose only 75 cents an hour because he had a friend working at the downtown Miller Theater, which sounded like more fun than carrying groceries to people’s cars.
“And it was,” Warren says. “It probably was the right choice.”
There’s no probably about it. Warren went on to start two theater chains, the second of which – Warren Theatres – was a $200 million company he sold Friday to Tennessee-based Regal Entertainment Group.
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The sale includes all of Warren’s theaters in Wichita – the east-side, west-side and Old Town Warren Theatres, the Palace Theatre and Movie Machine inside Towne West Square – and his theaters in Moore and Broken Arrow, Okla.
The sale does not include the two new theaters Warren is building in Oklahoma City.
Nor does it include the Palace Theatre in Springfield, Mo., which is closing.
Warren says he handpicked Regal in large part because of the company’s CEO, Amy Miles.
“If it wasn’t for Amy, I don’t think I ever would have sold,” Warren says.
He calls her sharp, accomplished and “probably one of the most decent, easy-to-talk-to people I’ve ever met in my life.”
Warren says that was important to him because of how much he cares for his customers and employees.
“This is a legacy thing,” he says. “It is personal.”
No one with Regal returned calls for comment, but Warren says Regal will keep operating with the Warren Theatres name here. The theaters temporarily won’t sell alcohol while Regal applies for the appropriate licensing.
Warren says he’s not sure whether Regal will honor Warren Theatres gift certificates, but he says he can’t imagine that the chain won’t.
He thinks theatergoers will be happy with Regal, which is a public company and the country’s second-largest theater chain with more than 7,000 screens at 559 theaters.
Warren says the sale isn’t related to AMC Theatres’ plans to enter the Wichita market with a new 14-screen theater where the Dickinson Northrock 14 used to be near 29th North and Rock Road. He says his plans to sell were in the works for months before the chain, which is a competitor of his in Oklahoma City, made its announcement.
Though he won’t say how much he sold his company for, the twice-married Warren says, “I can afford to get married two more times now.”
Calling Mr. Carney
While still in high school, Warren began his theater career as an usher and then quickly ascended the ranks to doorman to various assistant managing jobs to finally becoming the Fox Theatre circuit’s youngest manager at age 18.
“I loved the business,” he says. “I had a knack for spotting movies and figuring out what they were going to do before they opened up. It wasn’t like a job.”
Warren asked his father to take him to New York to investigate a new kind of smaller, less-opulent theater that was becoming popular.
Determined to start one himself, Warren went to Wichita businessmen Nestor Weigand Sr. and Jack DeBoer. He says they were generous with advice but not financial support.
Warren says he was rejected about eight times before two people who had inherited some money agreed to back him. Instead of proceeding, though, Warren realized he needed to find a businessman’s help instead; someone he could learn from.
He decided to try Pizza Hut, which Wichita brothers Frank and Dan Carney founded here.
“I would like to speak to Mr. Carney,” Warren said when he called.
He didn’t realize there were two.
“I kind of stuttered and said, ‘Which one’s the president?’ ”
He was transferred to Frank Carney, who answered the call because his secretary was on vacation.
“Had she not been on vacation, I would still be waiting to get an appointment, I’m sure,” Warren says.
Within 30 days, they had a partnership agreement, and American Entertainment was born. Pizza Hut chief legal counsel Jerry Aaron was involved as well.
“Jerry was in for a piece of the action, and in return we got free legal service,” Warren says.
Their first theater was in the Westway Shopping Center on South Seneca.
The chain grew here and in Oklahoma before a burned-out Warren decided to sell to United Artists and Commonwealth Theatres in 1980.
“The worst period of my life was when I was retired,” Warren says. “I was unhappy. I was bored.
“It was kind of like I was going through an identity crisis.”
He made money in some other businesses, including the oil industry, but Warren says he needed his theater career back.
Warren made the investor rounds again.
“I wanted to build some high-end luxury theaters. It didn’t register,” he says. “The minute I said ‘discount theater’ … the gates of heaven opened and everyone wanted to be in on the deal.”
In 1989, he opened the west-side Palace Theatre, a second-run discount theater. An east-side Palace Theatre followed.
Andrew and Mark Hutton, brothers who are lawyers in Wichita, became new partners. They opened a Palace Theatre in Springfield, Mo. Then Warren and his new partners started on a new path with the much more upscale west-side Warren Theatre.
“That was pretty revolutionary,” Warren says. “No one was building high-end, luxury theaters anyplace.”
He built with high-end finishes, such as terrazzo tile.
“A lot of theaters are what I call fast-food interiors,” Warren says. “There’s nothing bad about them, but there’s nothing great about them.”
Mark Hutton calls Warren a visionary with “astonishing business acumen” and “wonderful artistic imagination,” which he says is a rare combination.
“A lot of successful businessmen are good at counting numbers,” Hutton says.
Warren is known more for bigger spending on the front end that results in bigger returns later, Hutton says.
“I really was never concerned that he was going too far,” he says.
Warren estimates that throughout his theater career, he’s sold between 75 million and 100 million tickets.
“It has been my privilege to do that,” he says. “It has always been more than just a business for me, and I would hope that everyone would realize … I’ve always cared about my customers.
“That it’s always been far more than about the money and the business. It has been showing my customers respect and that they count.”
Hutton says Warren “has this sixth sense as to the timing of everything,” which is why he’s selling now.
“He is never content. He’s always looking for new … products and ideas. Innovations to provide a more meaningful experience for his customers.”
Hutton says the proof is with the national recognition Warren’s theaters have received.
“Really, for almost three decades now, Bill has put Wichita on the map.”
Warren’s office will remain in Wichita even though he’s out of the theater business here. He says he’s looking to grow his business in other markets.
“We’ll be kicking tires elsewhere,” he says.
“I want to build a new type of theater, and I don’t know what that is yet, but I just want to try something different.”
Warren says he has some ideas that he can’t share yet and wants to explore what else he can create.
“I just want to reshape the theater business and reshape what people expect going into a theater,” he says.
“That’s my third reincarnation in the movie theater business, and I’m really looking forward to it.”