A ‘triple whammy’ of sadness as Wichita faces dismantling of beloved childhood sites

Demolition at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium

Lawrence-Dumont Stadium will be torn down to make way for a new $81 million stadium. City officials hope to have the 84-year-old stadium cleared away by the end of the year. (Nov. 5, 2018)
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Lawrence-Dumont Stadium will be torn down to make way for a new $81 million stadium. City officials hope to have the 84-year-old stadium cleared away by the end of the year. (Nov. 5, 2018)

It wasn’t even a month ago that Wichita was confronted with images of the red-and-blue seats at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium — seats where many young baseball fans spent summers planted next to their dads — being ripped from their stands, salvaged by the sentimental before the 84-year-old-stadium has its date with the wrecking ball.

For the nostalgic of the city, it’s about to get worse.

On Wednesday, the 57-acre property that was home to Wichita’s beloved but long-closed Joyland Amusement Park will be auctioned off, and a clearing of the final sad remnants — the rotting roller coaster, the abandoned Log Jam ride — is sure to follow.

Then, on Nov. 13, the owners of the recently closed Starlite Drive-In — a summertime Wichita tradition since it first opened as the Rainbow Drive-In in 1953 — will dismantle it piece-by-piece and auction off everything, from the car speakers to the cotton candy machine.

For some longtime Wichitans, it all feels like too much.

Sure, Joyland has been gone for a long time, and Lawrence-Dumont will be replaced by a bigger $81 million stadium.

But the final demise of so many Wichita favorites all at once has been hard on those who hold dear the childhood memories of time spent at the attractions.

Wichita plans to raze the 84-year-old Lawrence-Dumont Stadium this fall and replace it with a new $75 million stadium that will play host to a AAA minor league team.

“I just can’t,” wrote Wichitan Carly McDonald on Facebook, the day The Eagle announced the Starlite’s impending closure. “Why are all the pastimes leaving Wichita? Next thing you know, the Cotillion will close or they won’t replace Lawrence-Dumont Stadium after they tear it apart.”

It’s been overwhelming for many who associate Wichita’s longtime entertainment venues with happy childhoods, said Braden McCurdy, who is getting a first-hand look at the way Wichitans are taking it.

His family’s McCurdy Auction not only administered last month’s auction of the departing Wichita Wingnuts’ property and memorabilia at Lawrence-Dumont, but it’s also in charge of the approaching Joyland and Starlite auctions.

“It’s kind of unique timing, there’s no doubt about that,” McCurdy said.

The auction at Lawrence-Dumont drew many people looking for pieces of the stadium to hold on to as mementos, McCurdy said, and he anticipates the same will happen at the Starlite auction.

Saying goodbye isn’t easy, McCurdy said, and he gets it. At the auction at Lawrence-Dumont, he was reliving a few childhood memories of his own.

When he was a kid, his dad owned a building adjacent to the stadium, and it had a fenced-in area where foul balls would always land. He and his siblings would collect the balls and get them autographed by players. He also has memories of going to Joyland, which closed for good in 2006, and of seeing movies at the drive-in with his family.

But McCurdy said he also recognizes that things change. Old things are torn down. New things replace them.

“People are really proud of the quality family entertainment that these properties provided for decades for the community,” he said. “It may feel a little sad in today’s world to know that these properties are moving on to something else. There were lots of excellent memories associated with them.”

The Whacky Shack, a popular ride at Wichita’s abandoned amusement park Joyland, was destroyed by a fire in August 2018.

‘Make memories while you can’

Aaron McMullin is 30 now, but one of his clearest memories is from when he was 10.

He went to Joyland with a summer recreation program, and he rode a roller coaster for the very first time. He was hooked.

“I rode it seven times that day,” he said. “I couldn’t get enough of it.”

For McMullin, the latest round of goodbyes has been particularly hard. He’s grew up seeing movies at the Starlite Drive-In, and this summer, his 4-year-old daughter, Madison, fell in love with it, too. She loved going to see “Incredibles 2” with her parents and thought it was super special to hang out in the bed of the truck, snuggled into pillows and blankets and wearing her PJs while watching a movie.

On top of that, McMullin was an assistant general manager for the Wingnuts, and although he’s more at peace with Lawrence-Dumont’s fate — that stadium had outlived its functionality, he said — it’s still hard to see it go.

“Things like that are always going to come and go,” he said. “You have to make memories there while you can. As the city improves and moves forward, those are unfortunately decisions that have to be made.”

Though the triple whammy of goodbyes has been hard to take for longtime Wichitans, Lawrence-Dumont, Joyland and The Starlite are hardly the only once-popular venues Wichitans are still mourning, said Jami Frazier, curator of collections at the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum.

She frequently meets people who are obsessed with long-gone attractions like Kiddieland, which operated on East Harry until 1974; the Riverside Boathouse, torn down in 1968; even Wonderland Park on Ackerman Island, an amusement park that’s been closed for 100 years.

It’s not the places people are actually sad about, Frazier theorizes. It’s the memories they made at them.

“All of these are places where people would go in the summertime, primarily with their families and their extended families. They probably first went there when they were kids, and those times are so meaningful,” she said. “You have such a positive memory of those places. It really does feel like you’re losing a part of yourself when those places go.”

Though she uniquely understands how the passage of time changes cities, Frazier said she’s guilty of nostalgia about these places, too. She can still smell the musty aroma of Joyland’s Whacky Shack. She has memories of going to the drive-in with her father, who died a couple of years ago.

“To know that they’re never coming back, it hurts,” she said.

Fans were allowed into Lawrence-Dumont Stadium one final time on Saturday. For a fee, they could buy stadium chairs and take them home.

Hard to let go

Wichitans aren’t willing to just forget about their favorite places.

Many attended an event at Lawrence-Dumont last month where they were invited to unbolt and haul away the seats as souvenirs.

Joyland, despite being closed for 12 years, is still a big part of Wichita’s consciousness. Local gift stores have recently started selling Joyland T-shirts, and new video tributes to the park pop up online all the time. Business owners who’ve managed to salvage pieces from the old park, like Churn & Burn at 548 S. Oliver, have incorporated them into their decor. And Botanica recently broke ground on a new garden that will have the salvaged and restored Joyland carousel as its centerpiece

And a local group of Starlite fans, led by relatives of longtime theater manager Jim Quick, planned a rally on Saturday to try and put pressure on the owners to save the drive-in.

City Council member James Clendenin represents District III, which includes the Joyland property and the Starlite Drive-In.

Watching those two institutions meet their final ends has been difficult, he said, and he feels bad he couldn’t do more to intervene in the end of the Starlite Drive-In, which owners closed saying that attendance was down.

“It has me feeling very nostalgic,” he said. “It has me feeling very sad.”

Like many, Clendenin said the loss of Lawrence-Dumont is easier to take because the city is planning to replace it.

But drive-ins are a dying breed, and Wichita was lucky to still have one. Clendenin said he was also a frequent attendee.

“It’s those family things like Starlite, like Joyland that really cause us to be the most nostalgic because family memories are the most meaningful, and when you can incorporate a landmark or place with those memories, it makes them the most meaningful and it makes it hurt more when they go away.”

Clendenin said he was flooded with phone calls from people all over the country expressing their disappointment about the loss of the Starlite and asking him to intervene. The calls left him feeling helpless.

But they’re also spurring him into action, he said. He doesn’t know how, but he said he’s committed to helping Wichita replace what it’s losing.

“Though this is tough, I’m going to work to look at opportunities to find ways that people can make more memories in another way,” he said. “I’m not sure what that will look like yet.”

Lawrence-Dumont Stadium from the air Thursday night at dusk as the Wingnuts took on the Winnipeg Goldeyes. This was the Wingnuts last game at home this season. (Video by Bo Rader / The Wichita Eagle / Sept. 14, 2017)

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