There’s a lot of talk right now about Wichita’s future. Much discussion centers around decisions on renovating or building new with regard to many downtown buildings. Century II tops the list, and rightly so. What we decide about our convention and performing arts centers will be key to our future as a community. As a longtime arts advocate and now as leader of one of Wichita’s most important historic buildings, The Orpheum Theatre, I’m keenly aware of what’s at stake.
While there are many factors to consider, I’d like us to make these important decisions based on activity, not aesthetics. Yes, even though I work every day in an iconic venue, I truly and deeply believe that what goes on inside a building is as important as the building itself. Perhaps more.
Relevancy should be our mantra. Does the activity within the building bring value and meaning to the community, and is it inviting and welcoming to our growing and diverse population?
I recently attended a professional training session at the new Advanced Learning Library. At 11 a.m. on a weekday, dozens of library patrons of all ages, creed and colors browsed the stacks. There was another community gathering in a room next to ours, and people were queued up at the coffee bar. It struck me that all the activity happening in this new building simply would not have been possible at the old location, so “build new” was a good decision because it has significantly increased the library’s value to the community. And because of it, we will undoubtedly see greatly increased usage numbers for our libraries for many years to come.
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Now let’s consider the Orpheum Theatre. Built in 1922 for vaudeville, The Orpheum was the place Wichitans came to see their favorite radio and film entertainers: George Burns and Gracie Allen, Ella Fitzgerald, Houdini. Rumor has it that Gypsy Rose Lee performed her first striptease on our stage, a controversial act that today would be considered mild-mannered at best. Yes, there is incredible history here, but I still assert that what is more important is what happens inside the building — the presentation of A-list artists and entertainers to Wichita audiences. Just as when it opened 96 years ago, it is still the place for nationally-renowned artists, where Wichitans gather to see their favorite entertainers from radio, film, television and social media, too. Diana Krall, Bobby Bones, Norah Jones, Willie Nelson, Barenaked Ladies, Dave Chappelle, George Jones and Bernadette Peters are just a few of the legendary performers who’ve come to Wichita because of the Orpheum.
The Orpheum demonstrates its relevancy by focusing on diversity — booking nationally renowned artists from many different genres geared to all demographics. Our recent addition of Spanish-language programming further solidifies this commitment to programming for all. The Orpheum is Wichita’s only operating historic theatre and its only year-round, nonprofit performing arts venue. We present more than 100 shows each year. That’s almost two per week. This vibrant and busy performance schedule brings nearly 70,000 people to downtown each year.
As we grapple with these important questions of what to keep, what to scrap, and what to build new, let’s put aside personal likes and dislikes and instead consider what happens inside.
Diana Gordon is president and chief development officer of the Orpheum