Dunbar inside

Drum rolls and add some trumpets for this extra special announcement.

The Historic Dunbar Theater, Phase 1A of a planned $18 million cultural hub for northeast Wichita, has been renovated, is open and ready for use.

The theater, built in 1941 and closed in 1961 was more than just a movie theater. Located at 9th and Cleveland, then the center of Wichita’s Black community, the theater was the social hub of the community. In 2007, James Arbertha, founder of POWER Community Development corporation, says the facility “accidentally fell into his hands,” but he immediately had a vision for what he wanted to do with the facility, but renovating the building that had sat vacant for 40 years was no small task.

Slow forward – not fast forward – 15 years and Arbertha’s dream is coming true with the opening of the renovated theater as a cultural center.

“I’m excited as hell,” said Arbertha. “It just took longer than it should have.”

James Arbertha POWER CDC
James Arbertha POWER CDC

Despite the delays and struggles to raise the money for the first-class renovation, made in compliance with the building’s status on the National Historic Registry, Arbertha said he never doubted they’d reach this first marker – opening the renovated facility, Phase 1A.

The completed Phase 1A was the total renovation of the original theater building. The renovation required almost taking the facility back to a shell before building it back. That required installation of all new infrastructure: plumbing and electrical, heat and air. Aesthetic improvements included new floor tiles, new ceiling with lighting and 20 state-of-the art Wi-Fi speakers. The original brick walks were cleaned and reset as needed, but for better sound, framed cloth acoustic panels were attached to the walls.

The stage remains at the front of the building. Two bathrooms; two offices; and two pantry areas, one with a sink, are both evenly distributed on both sides of the building’s front entry.

Until Phase 1B is complete, the renovated building will function as a community center with a capacity to accommodate small gatherings of up to 49 guests.

Even though the capacity is small, Arbertha has a big vision for things that can be done at the center. The concept for the total project is a culture and performing arts center and that’s how he’d like to see this initial phase used. He envisions the building hosting plays, movies, dance and music recitals, concerts, spoken word performances and fashion shows, just to name a few. And, performances don’t have to be just one night per week, says Arbertha. A full-schedule of cultural events can be planned for the center.

He would also like to see a performing arts troupe based out of the center, with lessons and a fully developed season of performances.

The goal is to have things for people to do and reason for people to come to the community.

“I used to see hundreds of people line 17th Street for Juneteenth and King Holiday parades, and then after the parade, you would never see them again,” said Arbertha. “I wanted to provide something to do in our community at a place that “we” own instead of going out of our community and giving someone else our money.”

Already, in conjunction with the Tallgrass Film Festival and The Kansas African American Museum, the center is hosting “Dunbar Under the Stars,” a three-week film series and a concluding street party. The series runs through Sun., June 19. For a complete list of “Dunbar Under the Stars” movies and times, see the box on this page.

If you have an idea for an event or just want to rent the facility for a meeting or seminar, it’s available. Although they had not been unboxed and set up when we arrived, the facility does have chairs and round tables, as well as banquet-style tables, for use. There are also four large televisions for videos.

POWER is looking to hire a manager and a salesperson for the facility.

The center will have its own telephone lines, but they still haven’t been installed.

For now, the center can be reached through POWER CDC at (316) 267-3036.

What’s Next for the Dunbar Cultural Center?

Dunbar future plans
Dunbar future plans

James Arbertha and his POWER Community Development Corporation members won’t rest on their laurels for long before they start raising the $2.5 million needed to complete Phase 1B of the Dunbar Cultural Center project.

Phase 1B includes more improvements to the original theater building and construction of a new two-story addition on the northeast side of the building. The addition will function as a new entry area and lobby for the theater, with bathrooms, concession stands and offices.

The original theater lacked an inside lobby area and individuals who walked up to buy a ticket were forced to stand outside in the elements. The new addition will add inside ticketing and a community meeting room. The addition will also have a basement for storage and offices.

In the original Dunbar Theater, Phase 1B will deepen the stage by knocking out the back of the stage and adding additional room for back of the stage entry and exit. This addition will also have a basement for dressing rooms and storage.

Since 1996, Bonita has served as as Editor-in-Chief of The Community Voice newspaper. As the owner, she has guided the Wichita-based publication’s growth in reach across the state of Kansas and into...