At present, it may be just a shell of its former self, but a group of dedicated fans of Coffeyville’s historic Midland Theater are working to ensure this landmark has a secure and splendid future once it is restored to its former glory.
Built in 1928, the Midland Theater originally was designed to accommodate the vaudeville acts that were a mainstay of live entertainment, as well as the newfangled motion pictures, both with and without sound.
Its 10-foot-tall sign, adorned with 714 flickering yellow lights, attracted moviegoers of all ages to the Midland from the 1930s to 1990s, before time and economic downturns in the area took a toll on this town just north of the Oklahoma-Kansas state line.
In recent years, however, the city of Coffeyville has been making efforts to reinvigorate itself through a number of civic initiatives, including the Midland Theater Foundation Inc., which has begun a $3 million capital campaign to renovate the theater to be the community hub it was for much of the 20th century.
“If you ever lived in Coffeyville, you have some memories about going to the Midland,” said Brent Ortolani, the foundation’s marketing consultant. “That’s one reason why we’re wanting to reach out beyond the community, because we know there are a lot of former Coffeyville citizens out there who would like to see the Midland Theater open again.”
Daltons and Pearl
It’s likely that if the town of Coffeyville has any resonance in people’s minds, it’s because the town is known as the place where one of the more notorious outlaw gangs of Midwest, the Dalton Gang, attempted a double bank robbery in 1892 that ended with most of the gang killed or seriously wounded.
Many of the photographs of the aftermath were taken by John Tackett, who two years earlier had opened a photography business in town. Tackett would go on to open the Midland Theater in 1928.
Involved in the arts, Tackett played in the Tackett Orchestra (a band of three performers) and taught dance classes. Among his students was a young Will Rogers, according to historical information from the Midland Theater Foundation.
Tackett ran the theater for a couple of years before leasing to the Fox Theater Corporation. The theater had a couple of corporate owners until 1960, when local residents Talmadge and Pearl Richardson bought the Midland.
“Pearl was something a force of nature in this town,” Harbaugh said. “She would man the ticket booth, always dressed up and wearing her pearls. And she had the habit of parking her car in front of the theater — where no one was supposed to park — and have one of the workers move to her preferred parking space across the street. And if someone had the gall to park in Pearl’s preferred spot... then you waited until that person moved their car and parked Pearl’s car where it belonged.”
Harbaugh worked at the Midland as a projectionist for about two decades. “I was a teacher, and this was a good summer job,” he said. “We had these two 1950-era projectors that had been brought in to show Cinerama movies. And you had to physically change the reels of film, which meant you had to keep an eye for the spot (a circular image that would flash in the upper right corner of the image to alert the projectionist a reel change on imminent).”
Ortolani said his father, who was also a teacher, worked summers at the Midland, and he worked at the theater for a couple of years.
“I think just about everyone who’s lived in Coffeyville has some memory of the Midland, whether it was working there, or spending an afternoon or evening watching a favorite movie,” Ortolani said. “That’s one reason why we’re wanting to reach out to former Coffeyville citizens throughout the region, to give them a chance to help bring this part of our shared history back to life.”
Take a seat
When Pearl Richardson died in 1998, she deeded the theater to the city of Coffeyville. The Midland Theater Foundation was formed in 2004 to oversee the theater, but it wasn’t until recently, with an almost complete change in membership, that the foundation began to work seriously toward bringing the Midland back to life.
The foundation’s plans for the Midland Theater renovation is made up of four main projects. The first, titled “Secure the Shell,” focused on repairs designed to protect the theater’s interior from the elements, such as repairing or replacing doors and windows, replacing the fire escape and repairing the roof.
This project, which cost $146,786 and was funded in part by a $90,000 matching grant from the Kansas Historical Society, was completed early this year.
The second project, “Front of the House,” is expected to cost $467,092, and will focus on restoration and renovation of the theater’s ticket booth, foyer, concession area, stairs and second-floor ballroom, as well as constructing new ground floor restrooms to be ADA compatible and renovating the exterior office areas. Funding for this project is almost complete, and construction is to begin later this year.
The third phase will focus on renovating the backstage areas of the theater, including stabilizing its floor, repairing the stage mechanical devices and restoring the proscenium. Cost for this project is set at $175,723, with approximately half of the funding provided by a grant from a foundation in Kansas.
The fourth phase, which will fully restore the two-level auditorium and complete the campaign, is the largest portion of the project.
“That’s going to be the big-ticket item,” said Darrel Harbaugh, president of the foundation. “We’re estimating that will probably cost in the range of $1.3 million.”
Lisa Scheck, vice president of the foundation’s board of directors, said board members will begin to pursue funding for this stage later this year among former Coffeyville residents, major employers and charitable foundations in Oklahoma and Kansas.
“We’ve approached some people about contributing to the theater, and they expressed a real interest in helping to fund this final project,” she said.
Board member Beth Beeson said some people are already taking advantage of a program called “Take a Seat,” where for a donation to the theater, a commemorative plaque will be affixed to one of the seats in the finished theater.
“A lot of the donations we’ve received have been from people who want to have the plaque honor their parents,” she said.
Along with the restoration of the theater, the foundation is also working to renovate the Alamo Building, immediately adjacent to the Midland, into an event center that could host additional cultural and educational events.
“We believe the Midland Theater can be a economic engine for Coffeyville, and for this region,” Ortolani said. “It is an architecturally significant building, and restoring it is a way to spark even more interest in the downtown area and all the other things that people are doing to help revive the town.
“It’s also a way to invest in the arts and cultural education, to inspire future generations through the programs we will be able to offer at the theater and the event center,” he said. “Having the Midland Theater in operation will be a big part of bringing downtown Coffeyville back to life.”
For more information about the Midland Theater, and the Midland Theater Foundation: historicmidlandtheater.com
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