Aztec Theater in downtown Shawnee to show ‘Dracula,’ first movie on its big screen in 47 years

Aztec Theater will show the 1931 film "Dracula" on Wednesday. The theater in downtown Shawnee hasn't shown a film in almost half a century since it closed in 1974. Brothers Chris Calkins (left) and Jeff Calkins own the theater with business partner Bruce Young.

For the first time in 47 years, the Aztec Theater in downtown Shawnee is showing a film on its big screen.

To get into the Halloween spirit, the revamped theater at the corner of Johnson Drive and Nieman Road plans to show the classic 1931 version of “Dracula” this Wednesday night.

Since they first reopened the Aztec’s doors in December, the theater owners, brothers Jeff and Chris Calkins and business partner Bruce Young, have focused on other money-making efforts, including music concerts, live entertainment and private rentals.

This will be the first time the Aztec plays a movie since it closed in 1974.

“It’s very exciting,” said Jeff Calkins. “It was really our intention to be a vintage movie theater, but opening up in the middle of a pandemic, we sort of had to alter our plans.”

“Dracula” will play at the Aztec courtesy of a newly established partnership between the theater and local outdoor museum Shawnee Town 1929, which managed to obtain the rights to show the famed vampire film starring Bela Lugosi.

Hannah Howard, curator of education for Shawnee Town 1929, shared the museum’s staff excitement for this new partnership with Aztec Theater, which could mean showing more classic films in the near future.

“When we saw that the Aztec was getting restored and reopened, we were very excited to be able to partner with them on bringing out the original stories behind the building and what the community originally would have done and used the building for,” Howard said. “So this opportunity to bring film back, particularly early film from the 1920s and the 1930s is a really exciting endeavor.”

Calkins said the partnership with the museum is also part of their efforts to build community in downtown Shawnee.

“Anything we can do to help out, that’s just a bonus,” Calkins said. “It’s not always about just business, business, business. You just do it because it’s good for others.”

Why Dracula?

“Dracula” comes to the Aztec Theater courtesy of a partnership with Shawnee Town 1929.

It’s October, for starters, but it should be noted that the 1931 “Dracula” film was released around the same time period that the museum is paying homage in its re-creation of historic Shawnee.

“I don’t think there’s a better fit for a spooky Halloween film than the original ‘Dracula,’” Howard said. “It just so happens that a lot of really iconic films come out around the ‘20s and ‘30s. Our mission, even though our title is 1929, we’re committed to telling the broader story of Shawnee’s history in the ‘20s and the ‘30s.

“So much was impacted in Shawnee and Kansas City in general, that there’s a lot to say, and film is a big part of that.”

The original plan was for Aztec to show vintage movies on the weekdays, weeknights and some on the weekends. But the theater owners first needed to save up enough to buy a screen, projector and other equipment to start playing movies.

They also sought safer activities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Much of the credit for raising the funds to purchase the movie equipment goes to supporters who attended the Aztec’s opening gala earlier this year, which brought in about $20,000, Calkins added.

“It’s huge; lots of people say they want to back you and they’re really happy for you, but until they actually do something for you, that’s when you realize they put their money where their mouth is,” he said. “When you see that outpouring of support, that’s kind of nice.”

Significant milestone in Aztec history

An undated photo of downtown Shawnee. Photo courtesy Jeff Calkins.

The updated debut of film to the Aztec is also a significant milestone for the theater’s history.

The theater first opened in September 1927 as The Mission Theater, playing silent films and talkies later on.

Before the theater closed in 1974, the last movie to play at Aztec was the 1972 film “What’s Up Doc?” starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. The Calkins brothers made the discovery when they were cleaning out the theater to begin restoration efforts.

Jeff Calkins said lots of others had tried to rehabilitate and revive the single-screen theater but failed because megaplex theaters were much more profitable at the time.

Jeff Calkins said all 210 tickets to Wednesday’s showing of “Dracula” sold out by Monday morning.

Friends of Shawnee Town 1929 (members who pay to support the museum) received free admission if they reserved a seat in time.

But the Calkins sa “Dracula” is just the start.

They’re saving up to purchase more sophisticated audio equipment and cinema processors to show more modern classics from the 1980s and 1990s.

Once the Aztec has all the necessary equipment — hopefully by the end of this year, the Calkkins say — then they will start showing movies during the week and on some weekends.