Effort to restore, reopen Wichita’s historic Dunbar Theater

James Arbertha hopes the Dunbar Theater can reopen one day.

It will take raising $750,000, but Arbertha, executive director of Power Community Development Corp., thinks it can be done.

The Dunbar, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1941 at 1007 N. Cleveland. At one time it was considered the jewel in Wichita’s African-American community, particularly when it hosted acts such as musician Duke Ellington.

Built during the days of segregation, it was the only theater in Wichita that catered to African-Americans and one of the few theaters where minorities could sit anywhere. In other theaters, minorities were restricted to the balconies.

The Dunbar closed during the 1960s and quickly fell into disrepair. At one time it was placed on the city’s condemnation list because it no longer met city building codes.

But renovation efforts have helped bring the building back. It has a new roof, murals on the outside of the building and a marquee.

Next month, Power CDC will host another fundraiser for the theater, which is named after poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.

In its heyday, besides the Dunbar, the neighborhood boasted the Turner Drug Store, which was a gathering spot until it closed in 1990. Children would gather at the drugstore over the noon hour for hot meals and a break from attending Dunbar Elementary School.

The Dunbar was where movies were shown and concerts performed.

“The Dunbar Theater is a rich history that we are bringing back to life,” Arbertha said.

“Cultural arts are economic development. They create jobs and businesses.”

The Dunbar also represents the African-American legacy in Wichita, Arbertha said.

“Black folks need to own something,” he said. “They own the Dunbar through me and through the community development we have done.

“At one time, this represented the thriving area of the black community. Like a lot of things, it got away from them. Businesses moved away, the area became blighted.”

Saving the Dunbar, Arbertha said, is about taking back the community.

“We can’t do it fast enough,” he said. “We want it done yesterday.”

The money raised from next month’s fundraiser will go toward renovating the inside of the theater – plumbing for the bathrooms, creating stairwells and installing lighting.

“It is a lot of things that may seem little, but they cost money,” he said. “Once we are done, the Dunbar will never close again once we get it open.”