Downtown theater meeting draws dozens

Residents react to upcoming renovation plans; offer suggestions

Nearly 100 people packed into a meeting room at the Shawnee Public Library, eager to hear details about the former Aztec Theatre’s potential resurrection.

Liam and Marie Tripp, of Shawnee, purchased the historic theater, near Johnson Drive and Nieman Road, last month, with plans to bring it back to life.

The theater has sat vacant in the city for decades.

With a 90-day renovation goal, the couple will give the theater a 1920s art deco vibe, hoping to work in conjunction with Shawnee Town 1929 on future events and activities.

In addition to playing movies, both old and new, they hope the space will also be used for anything from acting classes to stand-up comedy.

The Tripps purchased the theater through their recently-founded non-profit organization, Shawnee Fine Arts Foundation.

They’re hoping to quickly put together a seven-person board for the foundation, as well as recruit volunteers to help with fundraising and renovation.

A grand opening is expected to take place some time in June.

“I don’t want to give the impression I have deep pockets because I don’t, but I’m responsible and I know there are people here who will keep us in the right direction,” Liam told attendees. “I don’t want this theater to reflect me. I want it to reflect us.”

Liam told the Dispatch that incorporating the community’s input and help has been their priority since day one.

Their enthusiasm and plans to bring the theater back to life touched Shawnee Mayor Michelle Distler.

“I couldn’t be more excited,” she said during the meeting. “I would like to see more arts come downtown. I am over the moon.”

Many residents also expressed their happiness and some even offered ideas.

Shawnee resident and independent filmmaker, Patrick Poe, suggested to the new owners that they give Kansas City area filmmakers the chance to screen their films at the theater.

He could easily see downtown Shawnee evolving into an arts district.

“There is high-quality art being made here right in the Kansas City area and most people have no idea,” Poe said. “At one point, my wife and I looked at moving elsewhere, but then we realized it was important to stay here and help grow the film community. It takes people working together to make it thrive.”

He’s looking forward to seeing a movie in the space one day because the theater has been vacant his entire life.

“I’ve driven or walked by the theater a million times, always hoping something would bring it back to life,” he said. “I’m excited someone is finally going to reopen it because it’s beautiful. It feels like the kind of theater where you get dressed up to go there.”

Residents a little bit older were lucky enough to remember the Aztec Theatre during its height.

Norma Barnes, who was Miss Shawnee in 1959, fondly recalls going to the theater with her friends as a kid and sometimes dancing on stage for the audience before the movie started.

“I came here (to the meeting) because of my memories,” she said. “Going to the movies at the Aztec was the only thing to do in Shawnee when I was a child. I just know when I step inside that theater again, I’ll return to my childhood.”

She suggested to the new owners that they track down the former glitzy Aztec Theatre sign to put on the building again.

“That’s what I want to see more than anything,” she said, wistfully.

Even those who don’t live in Shawnee showed up to hear the details of the theater’s future.

Nate King, a Lenexa resident who works a block away from the theater, attended the meeting out of curiosity.

“I think what they’re doing is great because it’s going to bring more traffic into the downtown area,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it opening.”

For the past two weeks, since the Dispatch broke the news of the theater’s sale, Liam said his phone has been ringing off the hook, with numerous people hoping to sit on the board or volunteer in any way possible.

He is overwhelmed and grateful for the community’s support.

“This is going to be a new silver screen,” he told the Dispatch, after the meeting. “It’s going to be the most beautiful theater in Kansas. The community has been very supportive and it’s quite clear they want this theater to succeed just as much as we do.”

Anyone interested in being involved with the theater’s process, or being put on an e-mail newsletter list, is encouraged to e-mail or call Liam at 913-514-2465.

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