Keeper of the Plans

Starlite Drive-In is no more — landmark Wichita theater ‘permanently closed’

A night at the Starlite Drive-In

Some of the sights and sounds associated with a night at Wichita's drive-in movie theater (April 2016).
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Some of the sights and sounds associated with a night at Wichita's drive-in movie theater (April 2016).

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated how long the Starlite has been in existence. It opened in 1953 as the single-screen Rainbow Drive-In, and became the two-screen Landmark Twin in 1974.

UPDATE, 11:25 a.m. Tuesday: Starlite Drive-In posted a message on its Facebook page, thanking its customers and staff, saying: “This was a difficult decision many years in the making with declining attendance and rapidly rising costs of maintenance and technology.” The message said the drive-in would have a public auction at 10 a.m. Nov. 13.

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The Starlite Drive-In has officially closed its gates for the final time.

Employees were notified via email Monday evening that Oct. 13 “concluded the last season for the drive in” at 3900 S. Hydraulic.

In the email, which was forwarded to The Eagle by a Starlite employee, owner Chuck Bucinski wrote that “the theater has been in financial trouble since the digital projectors were installed.”

“With declining attendance, increased film rentals, and higher maintenance costs, and after getting advice from my accountant and my attorney, I had to make this difficult decision,” he wrote.

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Bucinski wished his employees “the best with their future endeavors,” saying that employees will receive their final paychecks and W-2 statements in the mail — as well as advising that he has “changed the alarm codes, so anyone who has door keys, there is no need to return them.”

The Starlite had been the subject of an odd series of developments this summer, beginning with an unspecified “staffing issue” that temporarily closed the theater in early May.

Later in the summer, Bucinski filed for a zoning change to the property that would allow for a wide variety of industrial and commercial uses for the drive-in land.

When Wichita's drive-in transitioned to digital projectors in 2013, the film reels went away. Starlite owner Chuck Bucinski shows how the Starlite plays movies now. (Matt Riedl/The Wichita Eagle)

At the time, neighbors said they had heard there was a “conglomerate of investors ... wanting to buy that property when it comes for sale,” according to J Marrell Cornwell, pastor at First Pentecostal Church, across the street.

Bucinski, 36, said at the time the zoning change was strictly for estate-planning purposes and that “the Starlite is open, and will continue to operate as we normally do.”

At a meeting of the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission in July, a representative for Baughman Co., a land-development company, laid out a potential future “warehouse distribution center” on the Starlite Drive-In land.

“Although we’re asking for an expansion of industrial uses, we feel it is going to be a relatively clean industrial development if and when the Starlite ever … ceases to operate,” Russ Ewy told the commission in July. “ At that meeting, Ewy said he had already promised First Pentecostal Church that there would be significant landscaping along Hydraulic to shield any galvanized metal from the street.

In his email to Starlite employees, Bucinski said he “won’t be responding to any calls, texts or emails that I may receive.”

Bucinski bought the Starlite Drive-In from longtime owner Jim Goble’s estate in 2016 with a $146,983.91 mortgage, according to county filings.

The property is worth $560,810, according to Sedgwick County’s 2018 appraisal.

The two-screen outdoor theater, which was one of only four still operating in the state — the only one in south-central Kansas — successfully navigated the transition to digital projectors in 2013 thanks to an extensive community fundraising effort. The projectors cost nearly $100,000 per screen.

It opened as the Rainbow Drive-In in 1953 and became the Landmark Twin in 1974.

The last movies to play on its screens were “Searching” and “Crazy Rich Asians.”

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