Those who have performed on the Crown Uptown stage during its nearly four decades of theater productions say they were saddened last week to learn that the venue’s owners had decided not to offer a 2015 season and would instead open up the calendar to concerts, weddings and private events.
Several Wichita actors say they have made a lifetime of memories at the dinner theater at 3207 E. Douglas, which late founder Ted Morris started in a former movie theater in 1977. And one fewer theater season in Wichita, they say, means a whole lot fewer theater jobs in Wichita.
But the Crown’s owners and managers are saying now that the mourning may be premature. They didn’t mean to imply in their statement on Jan. 17, which offered refunds to 2015 ticket holders, that the Crown was done with theater for good. Owners still plan to offer the Crown’s popular Christmas show in 2015, and they’re open to scheduling other theatrical shows this year as well – perhaps some Shakespeare, a few children’s productions or even a more standard musical, if the schedule allows it.
But they’re regrouping, trying to decide how to go forward, they say. It’s possible they’ll return with a season of theatrical shows in 2016.
“The decision is not as big as what I really think everyone got the impression,” said Ray Gans, who has owned the theater since 2011 along with his wife, Diane, and partners Scott and Lisa Ritchie. “But over the last year, we’ve had so many calls for concerts and weddings and corporate events, we started to schedule them, and when we got toward the end of the year, we were really having to cut down on shows because we’d scheduled so many events.”
The Gans and the Ritchies bought the theater from Morris’ widow, Karen, in 2011. Ted Morris had died in late 2008, and Karen had struggled to keep the theater going. In May 2011, she locked out the management group that had been operating the theater but had fallen almost $150,000 behind in state and federal taxes. The Crown remained dark until the Gans and Ritchies bought it that September.
Since then, the new owners have kept up the theater’s traditional seven-shows-a-season schedule, offering ambitious Broadway productions including “Spring Awakening” and “Sweeney Todd.”
But they also started renting the theater to local concert promoters, including alternative/hip-hop specialists Naymlis, who like the theater as a concert venue. Wedding business increased, too, said Kevin Gillenwater, who is the theater’s general manager and head chef. Already, the 2015 calendar is packed with 35 weddings and 15 other events, including concerts, corporate banquets and comedy shows. Just this weekend, blues musician Carolyn Wonderland was scheduled to play a concert there.
Theater still has a place at the Crown, though, Gillenwater said, and its managers will take 2015 to figure out what that place is.
“More so than anything we just have to sit down and rework our theater all together and completely start from the bottom to see where we’re at,” he said. “But we’re not stopping theater all together.”
Actors and technicians in Wichita, though, will definitely feel the loss of the 2015 season, said many in the theater community.
The Crown was responsible for bringing one of Wichita’s most well-known actresses to town. Karen Robu, who’s appeared in dozens of Crown productions and also has had high-profile roles in Music Theatre Wichita, initially came to Wichita in 1993 to act for Morris as part of a six-month contract.
She met her future husband and fellow actor, Tim Robu, there, and they married in 1996. In the late 1990s, Robu was the Crown’s costume designer, and her now 16-year-old daughter, Katie, would go with her to work at the Crown as a toddler. The couple last performed there in “Sweeney Todd” in 2012.
“I always like to say that this area has kind of one of every type of theater,” Robu said. “There’s cabaret. There’s the melodrama. There’s Music Theatre Wichita, which is able to do extravagant Broadway things. And we had the dinner theater, where we did comedies and musicals and revues,” she said. “It filled a niche, and I think it will be missed.”
Local actor and director Tom Frye has done at least 35 shows at the Crown over the years, both as an actor and as a director. The cancellation of Crown’s 2015 season will be hard on local actors and technicians, he said.
Wichita has only so many places to work. There’s the Mosley Street Melodrama, the Roxy and the Forum Theatre. Music Theatre Wichita is seasonal and largely uses out-of-town talent. And Wichita Community Theatre is a non-paying, volunteer job.
The theater community will have fewer options without a Crown season, he said.
“I’m looking at it the same way many of the artists in town are looking at it,” he said. “There’s a hole there as far as opportunities. It’s no different than you being an aircraft worker and they close Boeing down. Now I’m limited as to where I can work here in Wichita.”
He also was close with Morris, even delivering the eulogy at his funeral. Morris had a singular passion for the Crown and often kept it afloat even at his own expense. People that dedicated to the theater are rare, and Frye said he sympathized with the Crown’s new owners. Keeping local theater alive is a tough battle, as evidenced by last year’s closing of Cabaret Old Town.
“I know the Ritchies and the Gans, and they are trying to get the right formula to get that going,” he said. “The difference with Ted was that it was his passion. He lived at the Crown. He and Karen both poured their heart and soul into it.”
But Cabaret Old Town reopened in November as the Roxy Downtown after six months dark. Such is the nature of local theater, Frye said.
Music Theatre Wichita’s artistic director Wayne Bryan agreed, saying it wouldn’t surprise him if the Crown eventually returned its focus to theater. He says there’s a need for all kind of live theater in Wichita, including one where patrons can sit down and enjoy a meal and a musical.
The Crown’s new owners will stay busy figuring out how to take the theater into the future, Bryan said.
“In order to stay competitive, you have to stay on your game while always stretching yourself,” he said. “You have to understand how to maintain your niche market while building new audiences for what you do. It takes a lot of strategizing and planning to chart the kinds of shows that will both sustain your current audiences and attract new ones.”