Keeper of the Plans

The Starlite Drive-In is saved: Anonymous Wichitan purchases theater

Anonymous Wichitan purchases Starlite Drive-In

The Starlite Drive-In, which closed in October, has been purchased by a local who intends to keep it open as a drive-in, announced Landmark Commercial Real Estate, a Wichita-based group that brokered the deal.
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The Starlite Drive-In, which closed in October, has been purchased by a local who intends to keep it open as a drive-in, announced Landmark Commercial Real Estate, a Wichita-based group that brokered the deal.

Wichita’s last drive-in is getting a second life.

The Starlite Drive-In, which closed in October with plans to redevelop the land, has been bought by a local who intends to keep it open as a drive-in, announced Landmark Commercial Real Estate, a Wichita-based group that brokered the deal.

The group announced the deal at a news conference at its downtown headquarters Friday afternoon.

The purchase price was not disclosed, though a would-be buyer of the drive-in at 3900 S. Hydraulic had previously told The Eagle its owner, Chuck Bucinski, was seeking $850,000.

Marc Knowles, the Landmark agent who brokered the deal, reached out to the buyer about purchasing the drive-in. Knowles said the buyer wants to remain anonymous.

“He’s got children he takes to the drive-in and he wants to continue to take them to the drive-in,” Knowles said. “It was a personal decision to buy the Starlite.”

The new Starlite buyer is leasing drive-in operations to Blake Smith, co-owner of the Admiral Twin of Tulsa, Okla. Smith’s family has owned the Tulsa drive-in since 1951.

Smith had previously been part of a joint offer to purchase the Starlite Drive-In outright for $750,000.

He intends to reopen the drive-in in February — provided he can acquire two new digital projectors expected to cost at least $175,000.

The theater’s existing two Barco DP4K-32B projectors — purchased partially with the help of an extensive fundraising campaign in 2013 — were sold by Bucinski for about $25,000, well under the original $187,000 price.

City helps make the deal

City council member James Clendenin, who represents south Wichita, went to great lengths to negotiate the deal — and the city may get more involved.

At the Dec. 18 council meeting, Clendenin said he will propose extending a $200,000 loan to the Starlite Drive-In, to be paid back with interest, to purchase new projectors.

The money will come from the proceeds from the sale of the downtown Hyatt in 2016, he said.

Clendenin said each council member was to allocate $1 million for use in their district, and he has exactly $200,000 left to allocate.

The Wichita City Council will have to approve the move at its Dec. 18 meeting. Clendenin said initial interactions with his fellow council members about it have been positive.

“The City of Wichita won’t normally do kind of an economic development loan, or whatever we’re going to call it — this is really kind of a one-time deal,” Clendenin said. “The city is not getting into loaning businesses money. ... This is just a much more agile, quick way to get (a deal) done.”

Clendenin said in his nearly eight years on the council, “there hasn’t been one issue that has driven (more) phone calls, email traffic, and messages to my Messenger.”

“There are not a lot of things that will make me jump into a private deal, but when something like this is so important to the community, it was at least important for us, as city officials, to listen to the public and try to have a conversation with those people that were wanting to sell and purchase,” he said.

“The Starlite theater is probably the No. 1 quality-of-life entertainment establishment in south Wichita. ... In an area of town that is declining in many ways, this was an amazing quality of life that is woven into the fabric of the neighborhood, the area and our city.”

How will the Starlite repay the city?

Supporters of the Starlite have for the last few weeks led a pledge drive, asking people to commit money to the purchase of new projectors.

About $50,000 of its $200,000 goal had already been pledged by the community as of Friday.

Beth Quick Defenbaugh, who helped organize the pledge drive, said in the coming weeks, people will be asked to pay the money they had pledged to the drive.

Smith, the drive-in owner from Tulsa, said his lease agreement with the new owner should be workable.

If the pledge drive doesn’t reach its intended goal, he said he will be able to budget loan payments into the theater’s operation.

He said he’s seen the Starlite’s profit-and-loss statements from recent years, and he’s confident the Starlite Drive-In will be profitable.

“It’s always been a well-grossing drive-in theater and it’s fairly well-known across the country — I would say it’s nicer than my facility in Tulsa,” he said with a laugh. “It’s a risk, but it’s a calculated risk.”

The Starlite’s popular Facebook page and its website are to be included in the deal, he said.

Smith wants to open early in 2019, he said — “the sooner the better, because the clock’s ticking.”

He doesn’t plan on changing the name. It’s unclear if there will be changes in the Starlite’s prices.

“I’m excited and I’m scared, because I’m starting at ground zero,” he said. “I’m going to have to go in there and see what hand I’ve been dealt.”

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

Previous owner speaks

Bucinski wrote the following in a prepared statement:

“Having our original buyer recognize the passion the Wichita Community has for the Starlite, along with having been granted permission to explore the possibilities of allowing this landmark to remain as such after consulting with my attorney ... a team of people looked to find a way to keep it as a drive-in theatre.

“Then Landmark Commercial Real Estate agent Marc Knowles and council member James Clendenin teamed up to locate a new anonymous local buyer. Followed by a call to Blake in Tulsa to see if he’d be interested in running the Starlite. It was a yes on all sides.

“Everybody just did what was best for Wichita and I’m thrilled.”

How the Starlite changed hands

Bucinski was willed the Starlite Drive-In from its previous owner, Jim Goble, who died in 2015.

He closed the drive-in in October, saying financial difficulties forced his hand.

Earlier this summer, Bucinski had successfully re-zoned the drive-in land to allow for industrial and commercial uses.

He had struck a deal with an anonymous land developer who intended to raze it and construct a “relatively clean industrial development” there, according to plans shared at a summer meeting of the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission.

After the Starlite closed, a movement to “Save the Starlite” swiftly gained steam. The city — led by Clendenin and Mayor Jeff Longwell — made a public plea in early November encouraging all parties to come to the negotiating table.

The would-be warehouse-builders backed off of their plans after that, said Rick Cohen, a Buffalo, N.Y. drive-in owner who was in serious discussions to purchase the drive-in land last month.

Cohen’s plans to purchase the Starlite were scuttled when it was discovered Bucinski had sold the projectors.

Supporters of the Starlite Drive-In continued to advocate for the theater, leading a pledge drive to purchase new projectors.

Smith, the new operator, credited the “Save the Starlite” campaign for pushing the deal along. “Without the community’s outcry, there’s absolutely no reason that I would be here at all.”

The two-screen outdoor theater, one of only five 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.

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)

Matt Riedl covers arts and entertainment news for the Wichita Eagle and has done so since 2015. He maintains the Keeper of the Plans blog on Facebook, dedicated to keeping Wichitans abreast of all things fun.
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