Aztec Theater in downtown Shawnee celebrating new signage with lighting ceremony

Aztec Theater
Aztec Theater is celebrating its new signage with a lighting ceremony this month.

People passing through downtown Shawnee have started to notice the signage on the old theater has changed. Instead of the words “Fine Arts,” it now boasts its original name: Aztec Theater.

The Aztec Theater at 11119 Johnson Drive is still months away from opening, but the owners — brothers Jeff Calkins and Chris Calkins as well as Bruce Young — are ready to celebrate what they’ve accomplished so far.

The old signage reading ‘Fine Arts’ was removed earlier this year. Photo by Jerry LaMartina.

With removal of the old neon scripts and the new signage on the marquee, the owners are inviting the public to a lighting ceremony Saturday, Feb. 23. The night kicks off with a meet-and-greet at 6:30 p.m. at Betty C’s Bar & Grill next to the theater. Afterward, the public will gather outside for the official lighting of the marquee’s new neon signage.

The theater first opened in 1927 as the Mission Theater and often showed silent films, “talkies” and the occasional live entertainment on stage, Calkins said. Dickinson Theaters purchased it in the 1940s and renamed it Aztec Theater. It remained open until 1975, after which it sat dormant for 20 years until Wade Williams, a theater aficionado and movie producer, purchased it in the 1990s.

Restoring the theater to its former glory

Here is a photo most likely taken in 1955, as the movie posters displayed in front depict “Lucy Gallant,” “Seven Cities of Gold, “ and ”Gentlemen Marry Brunettes” which were all released that year. Photo submitted by Jeff Calkins

Williams recently sold it to the current owners who are restoring it to its former glory and working to create a destination spot for downtown.

The owners bought the theater for $250,000 and are making $500,000 worth of restoration and site work to comply with federal accessibility requirements and Shawnee city code. The city of Shawnee is pitching in $250,000 of city funds to assist with rehabilitations. Nonetheless, Jeff Calkins said they are trying to keep it as original as possible to the 1920s-1930s era, complete with an art deco theme and antique light fixtures and decorations.

Calkins noted that the original Aztec marquee was destroyed when they closed the theater. The current marquee on display came from a theater in Abilene, Kansas.

The owners hope to open the theater sometime this summer. The historic, single-screen theater will offer showings of classic films produced as early as the Silent Film era all the way to the 1990s. For now, all movies will be played on 35mm film, giving a nostalgic, “crackly” feel as part of the vintage experience.

Once complete, the theater will seat about 250. The theater will also be available to rent as an event space.