Keeper of the Plans

Cash offer that would have saved the Starlite Drive-In rejected by owner

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).

An eleventh-hour effort by a New York-based drive-in theater owner to save Wichita’s Starlite Drive-In has failed.

Rick Cohen, owner of the Transit Drive-In in Buffalo, N.Y., had extended a $750,000 offer in conjunction with Tulsa’s Blake Smith (of the Admiral Twin) to purchase the Starlite from owner Chuck Bucinski.

Bucinski, who had owned the theater for about two years, closed the drive-in permanently last month.

One of the mortgage holders for the drive-in acknowledged Bucinski has sold it for an undisclosed amount of money, and that that deal is expected to close by month’s end.

Cohen had told the Eagle he was prepared to purchase the drive-in and reopen the theater – though it’s unclear if the digital projectors the Starlite purchased for nearly $200,000 in 2013 might have been sold. They are not listed as for sale at an upcoming liquidation auction scheduled for Nov. 13.

Greg Kite, president of the Historic Preservation Alliance of Wichita and Sedgwick County, had offered to front the costs of McCurdy Auction canceling the scheduled auction if Bucinski changed his mind.

More than 10,000 Wichitans have signed an online petition to save the Starlite, and a passionate group of fans rallied in-person to plead the theater’s case this weekend.

But despite those efforts, it appears the drive-in will be sold off piecemeal at auction, as was originally planned.

Jason Berg of Wichita holds of a sign during a rally to save the Starlite Drive-In at Chapin Park. The longtime Wichita business is slated to be sold for development. Travis Heying The Wichita Eagle

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Over the weekend, attendees at a “Save the Starlite” rally held at Chapin Park were told there was a slight chance the Starlite could be saved.

Bucinski’s attorney, Jason Reed, had contacted Cohen about his offer to purchase the drive-in and asked for his highest possible offer.

On Monday, Reed wrote back to Cohen, saying: “Based on the offer made, the parties are not going to be able to proceed forward.”

Those close to Jim Goble, who owned the Starlite from 1998 until his death in 2015, say he willed the drive-in to Bucinski, who did not have the money to purchase it outright – despite Goble fielding offers from Cohen and Smith to purchase the Starlite.

The assumption was that Bucinski would keep the Starlite open as a drive-in, or if not, that he would sell it to someone who had that same intention, Cohen said.

A video tribute to Goble and longtime manager Jim Quick that aired during the theater’s 2016 season confirmed as much: A slide on the video read that “It was very important to both of these men that The Starlite continue operation as a drive-in. Jim Goble made special arrangements to ensure this theatre’s survival. So, with your support, the Starlite will be here for many years to come.”

A tribute to Goble and Quick, longtime owner-manager partners at the Starlite Drive-In, plays at the theater every night before previews begin. (Courtesy of Starlite Drive-In)

Bucinski told his employees he was closing the drive-in because of rising costs, which were essentially squeezing him out of business.

Cohen, who was a close friend of Goble’s, has disputed the Starlite could have been in financial distress, saying it was one of the best-attended drive-ins in the country.

“Its attendance numbers were the envy of almost every other drive-in operator who looked at them,” he said. “Profitability here was not an issue.”

Bucinski himself said the Starlite was “one of the nicest drive-ins in the country” in an Eagle interview in April 2016, shortly after taking over as owner.

Bucinski at that time said he was looking forward to “keeping the status quo — Jim Goble and Jim Quick would have wanted it that way.”

At that time, Bucinski told the Eagle “as long as the town of Wichita continues to come, continues to support, we’ll be here for many more years to come.”

Bucinski has not commented on the Starlite situation since the theater was closed — and since then, the drive-in’s Facebook page has been deleted and its website has been locked.

One of the mortgage holders, associated with Goble’s estate, said the property had been valued at around $1 million. Sedgwick County had the property appraised at $560,810 in 2018.

Questions began swirling about the Starlite’s long-term prospects in May, when the theater inexplicably closed indefinitely – then reopened a few hours later – because of a “staffing issue.”

Then, over the summer, Bucinski applied for – and successfully received – a zoning change for the drive-in that allows for the land at 3900 S. Hydraulic to be used for a variety of industrial and commercial uses.

At a meeting of the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission this summer, Bucinski’s land-development agent referenced an industrial warehouse that could be constructed on site “if and when the Starlite ever… ceases to operate.”

The drive-in is within a mile of major highways, including the Kansas Turnpike, I-135 and I-235.

The identity of the Starlite’s buyer has been a tightly guarded secret.

Some online have speculated QuikTrip Corporation bought the land, though a QuikTrip representative called that “nothing more than an unsubstantiated rumor,” according to Leif Jonker, founder of the Wichita Big Screen Facebook group. Jonker said the QuikTrip rep added that she wished for “the best of luck with your endeavor to save the theatre.”

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.

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” on Oct. 13.

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)

Fans of the Starlite Drive-In gathered at Chapin Park on Saturday to hold a rally that they hoped would convince the current owner of the business not to sell it to developers.