Unusual items find home underground

In Lee Spence’s world, Jennifer Aniston shares a room with Vivien Leigh, Julia Roberts and other stars of screens both big and small, and he can stop by anytime.

No, he’s not dreaming.

Film and TV icons from Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, Disney, HBO and others enjoy an eternal roof over their heads — some 650 feet of salt and shale — thanks to Spence and his subterranean storage operation, Underground Vaults & Storage.

“We have millions of reels,” said Spence, flipping the light switches on yet another of his underground vaults, which occupy chambers in a former salt mine. “We have the originals of ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ‘Gone with the Wind,’ ‘The Shining,’ ‘The Ten Commandments,’ ‘Ben-Hur.’ We have a lot of Jack Nicholson. And John Wayne.

“Think of a name, and you can bet we have it.”

Spence’s unusual workplace is only one of the interesting, off-beat and downright odd locations and attractions that stretch below the surface of Kansas. Among them:

• Dozens of caves naturally carved out of the gypsum hills in south-central and southwest Kansas, providing caverns used as roosts and maternity sites by visiting Brazilian free-tailed bats.

• The Kansas Underground Salt Museum in Hutchinson, the only museum in the western hemisphere to be located adjacent to a working salt mine.

• A former Atlas missile site, southwest of Topeka, that has been turned into a private residence — complete with many of the control panels, steel doors and thick concrete walls that enabled the place to harbor a nuclear warhead during the Cold War.

And there are the underground vaults, where some 3,800 clients worldwide turn to preserve, protect and secure some of their most prized belongings — antique fruit crates from California orchards, compilations of seismic data for oil companies in Texas, or materials from some of the most popular films and television shows ever produced.

Spence said that his operation stores corporate records and other materials for most companies in the Fortune 500. He can’t name them all — there are confidentiality agreements, after all — but among those he can mention as being present include Yahoo, Koch Industries, Cargill and a variety of medical centers.

“There’s secret recipes for different companies, different formulas,” he said.

The KFC original recipe? The formula for Coca-Cola — the original, of course, not New Coke?

“Uh, no comment,” he said.

Underground Vaults also stores documents for the cryogenics industry, including some for Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Ariz., which gained particular notoriety a few years back for retaining the frozen remains of baseball legend Ted Williams.

“We do store corporate records,” Spence said, quickly emphasizing that biological remains are not in play underground Hutchinson.

Underground Vaults now occupies more than 3 million square feet below Hutchinson. Workers make their way by bike through lighted halls that used to accommodate heavy equipment used for salt mining.

The underground conditions are considered ideal for preserving both paper and film records, Spence said: a temperature of 68 degrees, with 40 percent humidity.

Some of the company’s vast holdings are allowed to be placed on public display, in the adjacent Kansas Underground Salt Museum. A recent display included Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze costume from “Batman & Robin,” along with one designed for George Clooney’s Caped Crusader. There’s a Superman costume, a gun prop from “Men in Black” and all kinds of other movie memorabilia.

“It’s fun down here,” Spence said.