April 9, 2008
Reading John Mark Eberhart's story in The Star FYI (April 9) commemorating the 40th anniversary of the release of the Stanley Kubrick classic "2001: A Space Odyssey" in spring of 1968 certainly reminded me of a visit to the Empire Theater. I was a 15 year old kid from the northern suburbs, who didn't get out to see movies much. So, when I was totally gassed about the impending release of this fantastic movie, my mother agreed to drive me downtown to see it at the Empire, which was the only theater in town that had the screen and projection equipment to show Cinerama movies. Cinerama was the precursor to todays Omnimax surround movies. The screen at the Empire was very wide and curved, unlike the flat screens of most theaters. It was darn near like 3-D: So vast was the screen at the Empire. Couple that with the giant sound system and the other Empire amenities (ornate lobby, terra cotta features, red velvet curtains, lights in the ceiling like stars) and this young lad was mightily impressed, so much so that I wanted to go to see the next Cinerama release there, "Zabriskie Point", which held little interest to me except to be in that magnificent theater again. I was so enamored of "2001" at the time, I became a charter member of Pan Am's "First Moon Flights" club (I still have my official membership letter), which, ostensibly, put me on the wait list for a flight to the moon. We all have seen what happened to Pan Am! In the intervening years, I have seen "2001" in many different theaters as well as owning video copies of it. But nothing could ever replace that first viewing, on opening night, at the Empire Theater. It was a powerful combination that remains with me today, forty years hence.
In a strange twist of fate, the Empire was renovated and made ready for Kansas City’s Power amd Light entertainment district. Part of the property was turned into a bar/dance hall where I played many nights with Lonesome Hank for the swing dancers of Kansas City. The theatre has been divided into a modern multiplex , but I was able to sniff around and see remains of the old glory days of the Empire theatre. Jeez, what a rush!