Warren to help rebuild theater in Greensburg

08/09/2007 1:01 AM

01/24/2008 5:15 PM

Larry Burke wandered the streets of Greensburg in shock the night of May 4.

Today, three months after a tornado leveled his hometown, the founder of Wichita's Copper Oven Cafe and Bakery is fighting back.

"I couldn't believe it that night. Still can't believe it," Burke said, shaking his head. "I remember walking west thinking 'Where will all this end, all the destruction?' It never did. You've just got to do something."

That something is teaming with his old boss, Warren Theatres founder Bill Warren, on a grass-roots drive to rebuild downtown Greensburg's Twilight Theatre.

Burke and Warren aren't talking restoration of the 1917-vintage art deco theater. They're talking bigger and better -- a 500-seat state-of-the-art theater to give back to the community.

"Greensburg needs a star," Burke said, "a centerpiece to pull people back into downtown. This is what I've got to do."

Warren is already in for about $250,000 in projection and sound equipment, interior decor and the services of his Wichita architect, Ron Spangenberg.

And Warren said he won't be shy about asking Hollywood for help with a project estimated to cost $1.2 million.

He's got one person already on board -- Wichita native Dan Glickman, the president and chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America.

"Theaters like the Twilight are not only a place to see movies but a center for social gathering in the community," Glickman said in an e-mail.

"I plan to donate funds to the worthy cause of rebuilding this historical landmark so it can continue to provide such a meeting place for people in and around Greensburg."

"That's just great," said Twilight board member Randy Kelly, a Greensburg accountant. "We're going to need help, and I'm sure they have expertise that we're going to need."

The project isn't a business deal for Burke and Warren. They intend to turn the theater back over to the nonprofit organization that has run it for the past 20 years

"We're not making money here, we're raising it," Warren said. "And we're not talking about building it back the way it was. We're talking about a first-class theater and stage.

"I think that what that city needs is something to jump-start their economy again and a regional theater could do that. It can draw people in, get the sales tax coming back in."

It's a way to give back to the community where he started his career, Burke said. He worked in the family-owned Burke Restaurant until 1994, then moved to Wichita a year later to run Warren's restaurants.

"These are self-sufficient people," said Burke, who drove to Greensburg the night of the tornado to check on the safety of relatives. "They work hard, and they clean up after themselves. They're not going to ask for much help.

"But they're going to need something to set the pace for their economy, to get people back in the notion of coming back to Greensburg. I think a theater that sets the standard is it."

The Twilight plans are in the formative stages and can't proceed until the city and the Federal Emergency Management Agency complete a downtown restoration plan, Kelly said.

"Right now, we don't know where we can build," he said. "But there's going to be a theater, and maybe a community auditorium with it, I can tell you that."

The idea today is to create a group of anchor tenants downtown, including Dillons, True Value Hardware, the theater and Fleener Furniture, a longtime Greensburg family business.

A theater would be a major economic development boost to Greensburg's recovery, said John Fleener, the retiring president of Fleener's Inc.

"The theater's going to be very important to us," he said. "It's been a very vibrant theater and the people running it were doing an excellent job bringing in recent movies and drawing people to town.

"This would really help."

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