By Barry Owens
They just don’t make them like this anymore—not in public schools anyway. Deep stage, decorative ceiling, carved woodwork, a clock built in to the balcony and row after row of handsome wooden seats, like deck chairs on an old cruise liner. The theater and auditorium at East High School, which opened in 1924, has seen steady use for more than 80 years. And to look at it, you would think that with a little paint and polish, it could stand another 80. But behind the curtain, time has taken its toll.
“It is lovely, just a beautiful theater, architecturally beautiful,” as parent, theater patron and College Hill resident Kathy Briley put it. “Of course, the chairs are not in very condition and the sound system is not really good …”
And the list goes on.
The theater would see significant upgrades, the first in its history, as part of the $370 million bond issue the district is proposing. Those upgrades include new seating, rigging for the curtains and lights, and replacement for the old fabric ceiling (that is cloth stretched between the rafters). The bond issue is on the ballot Nov. 4.
The theater could also see upgrades in the wings and dressing room.
“While the auditorium is a grand space, there are needed upgrades due to the fact that the equipment and seating is original from 1923,” said Shawn Chastain, who is the executive coordinator of fine arts for the Wichita school district.
He noted that even the school’s grand piano, hidden behind a trick panel on the stage when not in use, is original. It has been dropped and otherwise dinged more than once over the decades.
“What you can see is just gorgeous,” Chastain said. “The bond issue will be looking at the items that you can’t see.”
East High School’s theatre director, Derrick Gronewold, led a visitor on a tour of the space last month. He pointed out the ancient lines in the stage rigging (much of it without counterweights which makes if difficult for students to safely handle), the intact but hardly up-to-code cloth ceiling, and the cracked or missing wooden seats, among other timeworn artifacts.
“How many people have furniture in their house that has been in constant use since 1923?” he said.
Aside from hundreds of band, orchestra, choral concerts and drama productions, talent shows, pep rallies, student elections and graduations, the stage has been home over the years to the Wichita Symphony, hosted the NPR show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” and in November will host the United States Air Force Band.
The bond issue, if approved, could also mean the construction of a second auditorium for the school. It would be built at the west end of the campus. That space would primarily serve school functions and productions, while the old east auditorium would continue as a musical performance space and could be rented out for community functions. The school’s current west auditorium, a much smaller theater housed in the former middle school, would be converted to a lecture hall.
“We would love to see this bond issue pass so that we can get the renovations to the east-side auditorium and the addition that is so badly needed. The conditions which they have been performing in for so many years are not satisfactory,” said Amy Menas, who is chair of a new booster committee formed over the summer called East High Friends of Performing Arts. The group hopes to raise funds for items not included in the bond issue, such as microphones, new risers, perhaps even a new piano. (To inquire about membership or donating, call Menas: 685-1194, or email; email@example.com).
Cheryl Smith, owner of Creative Catering & Cafe in College Hill, is a former East High School vocal teacher who recalls the space fondly.
“You can do things in there that you just can’t do in any other auditorium in the city,” she said. “We did ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ with over 300 people in it. It is just one of those bigger than life kind of places.”
But, she noted, it could also be a pain in there rear. “We used to put pads on the seats,” she said.
Those wooden chairs, all 2,200 of them, are likely to go if the bond issue is approved. They would be replaced with padded chairs with a wider berth than the slim-hip fit currently installed.
Gronewold said that would be the one visible difference in the old theater.
“But once you are sitting down,” he said, “it will look exactly the same as it always has.”