Cotillion’s legacy of good times rolls on

Written by Joe Stumpe

The Cotillion burst onto Wichita’s entertainment scene way back in December 1960, when formally-dressed guests handed their cars off to valets, then headed inside to dance to the nationally-known Ted Weems Orchestra.

In sheer number of good times hosted since then, the place may have no equal in Wichita.

Rock shows and rap shows. County music and comedy. Proms, parties and professional wrestling. The Cotillion has seen them all and more.

“When you start breaking it down, a large percentage of the local population has been at The Cotillion at one time or another,” says Richard Leslie, whose family owned it from the late 1970s through March of this year.

Leslie’s father, also named Richard, was one of 21 original investors in The Cotillion, located on what was then the virtually uninhabited western edge of Wichita. Their original vision was a Las Vegas-style showroom where traveling big bands would be booked for multi-night appearances. The mod circular building with its 24-foot-high domed ceiling, hardwood dance floor and iconic neon-lit bandshell stage were all designed with that in mind. It soon became evident that the Wichita market was only big enough to support one-night stands. Fortunately for music fans of the time, many of those shows were by legendary jazzmen such as Louie Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Stan Kenton.

“Stan Kenton used to play there a lot,” Leslie said of the pianist and big band leader, who happened to be a Wichita native. “He really appreciated the acoustics of the ballroom.”

In those days, the only amplification typically used was a microphone for a band’s vocalist. The bandshell did a good job of throwing the sound out toward the audience.

After going through several managers, Leslie’s father took over that role in the mid ‘60s. The Cotillion brought in a local big band leader named Norman Lee to put on a popular dance called the “Over 28 Club” every Wednesday night. (In 1978, after one of those dances, Lee, his wife and manager were slain by a former band member in one of the city’s more sensational murder cases). Leslie continued to book bands, but also opened up the venue to schools, businesses, clubs and other organizations for their events.

Meanwhile, the types of bands appearing at the Cotillion changed with the era’s tastes. The Everly Brothers, Gene Pitney and Dick Clark’s “Caravan of Stars” were just a few of the early rock ‘n roll acts who played there. Paul Revere and the Raiders came through several times, always packing a matinee and evening show into the same day.

The Cotillion struck up relationships with KFDI and other radio stations, partnering with them to bring in artists geared toward various radio markets. As FM radio took off, now-iconic groups such as the Yardbirds and Vanilla Fudge performed there.

A totally random sampling of others who’ve appeared at the venue includes country stars Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, George Jones and Toby Keith; rockers Ted Nugent and Pat Benatar; comics Dave Chappelle, Sam Kinison and Lewis Black; Hispanic groups Little Joe Y La Familia and Los Tigres Del Norte; Ronald Reagan and Larry King.

“We did (hip hop group) N.W.A. when they were on their national tour,” Leslie recalled. “That one got a little wild. We had MC Hammer at the height of his popularity. The crowd kind of went crazy for him. People react funny to seeing somebody famous.”

The Cotillion has also hosted professional wrestling, roller derby and burlesque shows. It’s a favorite choice among members of the Hispanic community for wedding dances and quinceañeras.

Leslie went to work for his father in the late 1970s, while in college. They bought out other investors as that decade closed.

“I was a big music fan, that’s what appealed to me about it,” he said. Asked about his personal favorites through the years, he said, “I like the old blues acts, like B.B. King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker. I got to do all of those, which was a big thrill.” He caught bits and pieces of shows as time allowed.

But Leslie said he and his wife, Catherine, are also ready to take it a little easier. The Cotillion averages about 115 events a year, keeping a full-time staff of seven and up to 50 part-timers busy. “We worked at it really hard,” Leslie said. “It’s not a 9-to-5 job. I would say a 60-hour work week was more normal.”

Leslie said selling The Cotillion was made easier thanks to the identity of its buyers — Alex Thomas and Adam Hartke, who are also partners in Barleycorn’s.

“We felt like we had a couple of buyers who shared a lot of the same vision that we had,” he said. “It just seemed like a good opportunity to step aside and let them continue it.”

Thomas first saw a show at The Cotillion as a 19-year-old, featuring the bands 311 and No Doubt. A musician himself, he immediately thought: “This is a really cool space. I hope someday we get to play here.”

A year later, that happened when he and Ophil, his band at the time, were hired as the opening act for a band out of St. Louis. “I remember gathering the band together and saying, ‘This is it, we’re playing The Cotillion. This is our big break!’ It was a great experience.”

Thomas got to know Leslie as he played there several more times through the years. He admits it was a “a little surreal” the first time Leslie visited after the sale, and it was Thomas sitting behind the desk.

“I never thought in a million years I would be a part owner in The Cotillion.”

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