“Century II Fulfills Wichita Dream” proclaimed the headline in a special section of The Wichita Eagle and Beacon on January 5, 1969, previewing the opening week festivities in the new civic center. This month SPLURGE! Magazine looks at the many ways the Century II Performing Arts & Convention Center lived up to those grand expectations.
The Wichita Symphony’s first performance in the new facility was Beethoven’s 9th Symphony — and they were grateful to upgrade from their previous hall in East High School. Today Don Reinhold, Executive Director, has a commitment to “broaden our service to the community” and “build new audiences” with upscale pop concerts such as 2013’s Bugs Bunny at the Symphony and the recent Cirque de la Symphonie.
“From a more traditional perspective, the orchestra is sensational,” Reinhold says. “I don’t use the word ‘awesome’ lightly, but this is an awesome orchestra, and I compare it to others I’ve heard throughout my career.” Another key mission of the Symphony are the three Youth Orchestras, an educational outreach initiative to students in grades 4 – 12.
Creating original productions
Another anchor Century II tenant is Music Theatre of Wichita. “We really grew to be who we are because of what was offered within this building,” says Wayne Bryan, Producing Artistic Director. Legendary in the scenic community is the “magnificent” 55' x 26' motorized paint frame, which has drawn generations of fine scenic artists from as far away as China. Other unique features are a carpentry shop, costume shop and rehearsal rooms — “things that are not always found in recently-built performing- arts centers.”
These amenities give Music Theatre a leg up in creating original sets and costumes for productions that tour all over North America. For example, Disney is notorious for tight control of its intellectual property, but they actually approached Music Theatre to be the first regional company to re-create one of its titles. Beauty and the Beast, produced in partnership with two other companies, was a smash hit. Mary Poppins, The Little Mermaid, High School Musical and others followed soon after.
The original Century II planners probably never dreamed the complex would house a resident opera company. “There’s not that many cities in the United States that have opera companies, so there is some prestige in it,” says Margaret Pent, Artistic Director and founder of Wichita Grand Opera along with her husband, Parvan Bakardiev. In the 13 years since moving into Century II they’ve produced opera classics featuring internationally renowned guest artists such as Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, Marcello Giordani and Sam Raimi.
Quilts, Harleys, engineers and bunnies
Century II is somewhat unique in hosting both performing arts events and conventions, the latter in the Bob Brown Expo Hall. Some of the standout conventions in 2013, according to Susie Santo, President and CEO of Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, included the International Machine Quilters Association with 3,000 attendees, the Harley Owners Group with 1,000 attendees and the Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering with 1,200 attendees.
And then there was the American Rabbit Breeders Association. “That’s one of my personal favorites,” says Santo. “Last fall we hosted 20,000 rabbits.”
Conventions tend to bring “new money,” from outside the area, explains John D’Angelo, Director of Arts and Cultural Services for the city. “It’s good money that comes in through the community, that not only funds what we do, but it also funds restaurants, it funds shopping and hotel rooms.” Performing arts are “a huge economic driver unto themselves. They also employ people and create jobs, and it gives our region those entertainment options that people want.”
Century II is an integral part of Project Downtown, a blueprint to build Wichita into a “destination city” that draws not only overnight convention guests, but corporations looking to relocate, according to Jeff Fluhr, president of Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. “People look at the quality of life in a city first…and then they look at the job opportunities. So as we work with companies, the arts are an important part of it.“
The next 45 years
In 1969, facilities director James Clancy asserted, “It is my opinion that Century II could accommodate 90 percent of all the annual national conventions now held.” Today that’s no longer the case: A study commissioned by Go Wichita last year revealed that today’s super-sized conventions often demand taller ceilings and more contiguous space than the complex can accommodate.
Susie Santo says the city leaves $30 million in annual revenue on the table every year because convention facilities are not up to current industry standards. A second study to evaluate needs for the performing arts is currently underway, and the city will be making major decisions over the next few years about whether to renovate or replace Century II in order to prepare for the conventions, symphonies and holodecks of 2059.
As Jeff Fluhr says: “We have to prepare for the opportunities that we may not know of yet.”
To read more about these leaders’ perspectives on the future of Century II and the studies and planning in process, go to our web-exclusive story.
What are your personal favorite memories of Century II?
“When we had our young people with special needs come to see the matinee of High School Musical, there’s a lyric in there that says, ‘See me not as I am, but as I am inside’ and it was profoundly moving… because the kids in the audience stood up and sang along. It was really powerful.”
— Wayne Bryan, Producing Artistic Director, Music Theatre
“I love some of the car shows that come in. I’m a car enthusiast so I love going down and experiencing CII that way.”
— Jeff Fluhr, President, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation
As a little girl, I remember this being talked about as the most uniquely designed building ever to be built in Wichita with the meaning of "unique" not always complimentary. Then came the Tripodal piece. *chuckle* I always thought it was a neat looking building!
— Teresa Purcell Raehpour
As show production chair for my Sweet Adelines chorus, having access to that place was magical. I had my first experience with painting a huge brand new canvas backdrop with a scene of Bourbon Street for our Mardi Gras show. I didn't have a clue how the lift worked but Mary Sue Dymak came to my rescue with her knowledge and assisted when-ever we needed help.
— Rachel Klein
I confess that when I was in sixth grade, I fished all the change out of the fountains at Century II, walked to Macy's, and bought Jelly Belly's with a couple of pockets full of pennies. When I returned to my mother's workplace downtown, she was horrified.
— Cassandra Edwards