Dodge City It was home to the premiere of the 1939 movie "Dodge City." For close to six decades, it was one of the only options for the movie-going public in Dodge City.
Then the Dodge Theater began to fall into disrepair. The carpets became threadbare, and the seats began to break.
The theater showed the brief potential for a new renaissance in 1998 after the owner, Mike Burkhart, began to renovate the 70-year-old movie house.
On June 20, 1998, Burkhart and his wife hosted what was described as a gala reopening. Local officials arrived in style, celebrating the reopening of a city landmark. Burkhart repremiered the 1939 Errol Flynn movie "Dodge City." City officials lauded his efforts.
Cut to nine years later, and a green metal grate is chained across the theater's doors. Knee-high ashtrays still show a little graveyard of long-forgotten cigarettes, the butts jutting up like little tombstones.
The marquee, once adorned with neon lights and flashing yellow bulbs, is dark. Parts of the lights spelling "Dodge" on the front are broken. A weather-beaten poster for the Ben Stiller movie "Mystery Men" hangs limply in a frame above a banner declaring "Coming Soon."
A rich history
Repeated negotiations with the city to use the theater have stagnated. Private interest waxes and wanes, and still the theater sits unused.
Yet, take a peek through the grates and you can catch the still-preserved theater. Silver glistens on the box office front, and the carpet remains intact, nestled under a blanket of dust.
The newest addition sits out front. A medallion declaring the world premiere of "Dodge City" took place on this spot in 1939.
The Dodge Theater was built in 1929 and opened its doors Oct. 17, 1929. "The Love Doctor," starring Richard Dix and Virginia Moore, christened the theater.
Newspapers at the time applauded what was then named the "New Dodge Theater," citing Dodge City's rich history in stage productions and vaudeville. Over the years, the theater hosted countless popular movies, including the Al Jolson movie "The Singing Fool."
What is often considered the theater's biggest event was the world premiere of the movie "Dodge City." Estimates from the time put between 60,000 to 100,000 people flooding into Dodge City for the event. Time Magazine published a photo spread, and national media arrived to show the world the small Midwestern town.
Local movie theater owner Ron Cooper began to lease the theater in 1971. In 1985, Burkhart purchased the theater, kept Cooper on the lease and continued to show first-run shows as they came through town. Cooper stopped showing movies in the theater in 1997 after diminishing audiences brought in less money.
Burkhart began renovation in an effort to improve the theater and increase customers in a downtown shopping district that was slowly losing merchants.
Shortly after Burkhart's $200,000 renovation, he said, it became increasingly clear that he and his wife were down to three options.
Both worked full-time jobs outside the theater, and he said they were running themselves ragged trying to keep everything up by themselves.
He could have leased out the theater to another user. The danger, he said, was he wouldn't have any guarantee that the tenant wouldn't mistreat the building.
Renewed efforts fail too
Burkhart opted for the third option: Chain up the theater and hope that some entity would take enough interest in downtown renovation to reopen it.
In April 2006, a group of merchants from downtown Dodge City formed the Downtown Dodge Association. One of the group's goals was to purchase and revitalize the Dodge Theater.
The group, which now operates on a need-to-meet basis, approached the Community Facilities Advisory board to request money, but according to member Allie Craig, little ever came of it.
The local theater scene also saw the potential for the old building.
Ford County casino
In March, the CFAB expressed an interest in purchasing the theater and the surrounding building from Burkhart.
The CFAB said it was possible to use money from the "Why Not Dodge?" sales tax to purchase and operate the building, and an option was placed on the building.
However, as voters approved a destination casino in Ford County and a judge ordered the city and county to focus on building a special events center, the option to purchase the theater fell through the cracks.
During the Sept. 20 CFAB meeting, City Manager Ken Strobel said the city was still interested in the theater.
Even though the city has taken an interest in the building, it could also run into legal issues if it were to take immediate action. Because the city and county are under a court order to finish the events center before undertaking other projects, the theater, along with other projects like a water park and an expo center, have to take a back seat until work on the events center is under way.
Burkhart said he maintained high hopes for the theater, despite the setbacks.
"I hope the community can get behind it," he said. "I hope it can be used for film and live performances. I hope it can be a viable part of the downtown community."