The county needed theater space and room for a museum. Some creative thinking by a handful of county officials turned an old and abandoned bowling alley into an arts and cultural center. Listen to the stories of performers who got on stage and one person whose life was actually saved by art classes in Johnson County, Kansas.
Transcript of What’s Old is New Again updating a bowling alley to art Center (S1E7)
Carol: This is a good government show.
Nancy Wellerstein: It solved a lot of different problems. one, it was becoming an eyesore as the parking lot and everything was kind of deteriorating around it. And to it provided a home for the the Johnson County Museum.
Ed Eilert: It probably would have been torn down and a gas station set foot on the property, which, you know, I suppose that’s okay. But I think I think saving and saving the structure, modernizing the structure, redeveloping it turned out very, very well.
David: This is a story about making something old new again. It’s about restoring a landmark building. It’s about the history of electricity and creating a new arts community. It’s about local government seeing an opportunity and creating a new use for an old space.
It’s about government working. Welcome to the Good Government Show. I’m David Martin.
Carol: And I’m Carol D’auria. So, David, where are we off to now?
David: We’re off to Johnson County, Kansas, and this is a Kansas City suburb called Overland Park.
Carol: So what good is the government doing in Johnson County?
David: Well, they’re doing something pretty remarkable, actually.
Carol: Well, to tell you, said the history of electricity, how does that figure in?
David: Well, I’m glad you asked. So first, we have to go back. There was a time when having an electric hair dryer and iron that you plug into a wall and a television was a big deal. And one of these new housing developments they were building, the Kansas City Gas and Electric built a model home. It was a 1954 state of the art house.
Carol: Oh, I can’t imagine what this a state of the art house in 1954 look like.
David: Well, to the people of 1954, it was very modern. And even today it’s pretty cool that modern extras, electric curtains, you push a button and you curtains open. No gas, no coal, just electricity to run your stove, heat your house and power your house.
The new television is still black and white, but it was hidden behind a painting push a button and the TV was revealed. Pretty modern, exciting stuff. This electric house was actually lived in by two families.
Carol: It reminds me of the Old World’s Fair and General Electric had the House of the Future, I guess, for 1954. Pretty advanced stuff, huh?
David: Sure, a lot of it is standard today, and some of it didn’t really take off, but no one uses a cast iron to press their clothes anymore. It was pretty amazing, and it was pretty well preserved two families live there.
Carol: So you said the history of electricity? Is there more history?
David: Yes, there is. But we’re going to stay in the past, but we’re going to just jump forward a little bit to 1959. Someone’s living in the electric house, they’re using all their modern conveniences. No doubt the envy of their neighbors.
But the area is expanding, and this was the year they built the King Louis bowling alley. But this was no ordinary alley. first, it was a great example of Googie architecture.
Carol: Googie architecture? You’re going to have to explain that one to me.
David: You’re not familiar? All right. Well, look. Think about the Jetsons, right? Think futuristic design. You’ve seen Googie architecture. You probably didn’t even know it. Think about those original McDonald’s with those big buildings and this big golden arches on both, right?
Carol: Oh, okay.
David: See, you are well-versed in Googie architecture. The the main theme building at Los Angeles Airport when you fly into L.A., that kind of building right in the middle. The Welcome to Las Vegas sign. It was space age. It was atomic atomic designs and it was intended to look modern.
Carol: Who knew? So Googie architecture, you learn something every day. So was this just a modern bowling alley with a few space age signs?
David: Oh no, no, no. This was not just a bowling alley. They had in an ice rink. But really, this was the center of community life. If you’re a kid or even a teenager, you went to the King Louie in its heyday at hosted parties had school events.
I think they even had the prom there once. They even had a local bowling for dollars TV show there there was a mezzanine where you could sort of check it out and look down on people skating. I mean, really, it was the place to be.
Carol: A cool place.
David: It was a cool place. It was the place to be. But you know, like all things that started to fade, it lost its popularity shopping malls, new, you know, multiplex movie theaters and other new cool venues.
Carol: OK, but you kind of lost me there. We have an electric house and a one time popular bowling alley. What’s the connection?
David: All right. So now we leave the 1950s and now we’re here in 2016, and here we are in Johnson County, the all electric house that has become a museum piece two families live there. They moved out. Someone decided to preserve it.
They put it in an old school. But that old school building is falling apart. And the King Louis, that’s pretty much falling apart. It’s been abandoned. It’s been gutted. It’s probably not long for this world. You know, it’s become sort of an eyesore for the community.
So there are two issues here. one, the electric house is getting moldy and they have to move.
Carol: It sounds like somebody wants to take a bulldozer to it.
David: Well, no, because this is history. You can’t do that. And the bowling alley with its Googie architecture is now, well, familiar with, you know, now it’s just a useless old building. But behind the scenes, people are working. The Johnson County administrators are looking for a place to house the electric house, and everyone agrees that this bowling alley could work. And this this is where Nancy Wellerstein comes into the picture. She’s on the County Parks and Recreation Committee and with her colleagues, they come up with the idea of moving the electric house into the bowling alley.
It’s a space where you can move a whole house into and they want to refurbish the King Louis.
Carol: So it’s like a two, for one thing. Problem solved.
David: Yes, problem solved, but not quite so fast. Not everybody’s on board with this plan. This is going to cost money, but this is where Nancy Wellerstein steps in and she really starts to lobby. Not only that, she’s also a major supporter of the arts.
I’m including the county’s theater in the park program. As you can imagine, you can only perform in the park in the summer, and she’s looking to add indoor space, and she seized on it when she had the chance.
Nancy Wellerstein: I had to come up with an I. Here to make it a functional, financially sustainable building and hub for the community. And the first thing that happens in a community when school districts have to cut budgets, they cut the arts.
And there was a need for more arts programing in the community, and so this was the opportunity and it has turned into a hub of activity that I don’t think anyone has even imagined that it could be this vibrant.
Carol: So she’s right. Or it’s do get cut every time, that’s always the first thing to go when money is tight. So the county steps in to save the arts.
David: Well, yeah, but there was still a lot more work to do. Ed Eilert is a Johnson County commissioner, and he was the one that Nancy lobbied to get his vote to approve funding to renovate the bowling alley.
Ed Eilert: She came up with the idea that we could have some other community activities at that facility. One of them was we created a black box theater for use by community theater groups and also the Johnson County Parks and Rec has a Theater in the Park Summer production and they could use it for winter productions if they so desired.
Carol: So Nancy won and good government prevailed. I love it. So just what is the bowling alley doing now, though?
David: Well, for starters, now it’s called the Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center. There are so many things going on inside. There are two theaters. There’s dance space, there’s art space, there’s art exhibit space. Folks get married there. They have meeting spaces. They have their county parks, offices there. It’s just a constantly busy place.
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So let me introduce you to Tim Bair. He’s the producing artistic director of theater in the park and the manager of fine and performing arts for Johnson County Parks and Rec.
Carol: Well, he sounds pretty busy.
David: He is, but he’s been waiting for an opportunity like this.
Tim Bair: We were always looking for an opportunity to expand our summer season. Traditionally, we do five big musicals in the summer, which starts generally around the first of June and goes through the first weekend of August, depending on how summer falls, of course.
But we were always really looking for the opportunity to do something beyond our summer season. The difficulty was that we just had no facility to do it, so we were really looking for an inside theater, a space that we could produce theater in something other than the summer.
Carol: So it sounds like this is really coming together.
David: It is, but I’ll let Tim explain it more.
Tim Bair: We’ve created an opportunity for people in our community inside this facility to continue to just fill our black box theater here with theater. So, yeah, we have in a way created a kind of a kind of a theater scene inside this facility.
I think it’s really important for Johnson County, Johnson County as it is a great place to live. Honestly, where we are in Kansas and across the border is county, Missouri. There’s there’s lots of small theater spaces inside Kansas City, Missouri, across the state line down in kind of the urban core of the city.
And there really isn’t. There wasn’t anything in more the world of suburbia kind of. And that’s kind of how it feels here inside Johnson County. So I think it’s really great that there’s a space now inside a different kind of area, really.
I know that’s what this is not inside, but Theater in the Park has a large demographic that attends theater know when we’re doing our outside season. But again, because of this, the small nature of our theater here and the spirit of the shows that we can produce inside, I think we’re reaching a broader audience just by virtue of that, by what we’re able to offer. And the other groups that have found some kind of home here as well are able to do to do theater that that they wouldn’t otherwise get to do.
Carol: A home for theater in an old bowling alley. Who would have thunk it? This really is a great story and makes me want to go to Kansas.
David: I’m sorry, Carol, you’re not in Kansas.
Carol: You had to do.
David: I had to. I had to. So let me introduce you to Darcy Hingula. She’s a songwriter and a performer. She just graduated from high school, and she had a song included in a local production called Songs for a New Now at the theater, at the center.
And actually, she’s headed to New York University to study theater, and she hopes to get on Broadway. She works the arts center, and she performs there.
Darcie Hingula: It’s a second home for me. I’ve definitely found a really close bond with the people I work with, but I’ve also found a close bond with the people I perform with. And so this this place has definitely created a home, a second home for me outside of my family.
David: What it’s also done is provide a venue for local people to perform right in their own town.
Darcie Hingula: You know, I’ve worked here many times that I do definitely get a lot of opportunities to perform than other, you know, again, other towns and other places near us don’t have. I feel very grateful that I have all these opportunities to perform.
Carol: So it seems this new arts center really has created a new community center. That’s cool.
David: It has, but there’s a lot more to this place. And for Diane McLean, the Arts and Heritage Center really saved her son, Daniel’s life.
Carol: Those are strong words. Really saved his life.
David: Yeah, it really did. Daniel suffers from a few medical and mental conditions, including being autistic. So after a recent hospital stay, she said her son was basically non-communicative and nearly catatonic. His older sister had gone off and got married.
He was out of high school, but he couldn’t have a job. He had taken a few art courses at the local community college, but basically he had nothing to do and pretty much no motivation to do anything. His physical and mental conditions were getting worse. But then he found the arts program at the center.
Diane McLean: He started the program after he had been discharged about six months, and he went from barely being able to talk. And or if he did, it didn’t always make sense to being like the spokesperson for this group. And and, you know, this program totally changed his life.
He started the program. After being through a series of hospitalizations, the last one was three months and he was pretty much non-functioning due to catatonia. That’s related to autism and he we thought we were totally losing him.
Carol: Wow. This new arts center sounds like it really did change his life.
David: It really did. He shows up now. His overall health improved. He even sells his art, and he shows the theater and he has friends.
Diane McLean: This gave him something to do. Somebody expected him to be there. Somebody appreciated what he did and valued what he did and was able to help support him because it was he. He couldn’t do it independently. And so that he has a purpose now, and he feels like he has something to contribute and that he’s able to have a job and do what he loves. And it’s really rewarding for him. It gives him a huge sense of independence and some hope that he can, you know, become more independent.
Carol: It’s amazing how it shows one small project building an arts center, how the whole thing can really affect just one person.
David: It really does, Carol, and this really shows how government really can improve and change a life. And there are many Daniels in this program.
Carol: OK, I really do want to check out this place. It sounds wonderful.
David: Well, I have something for you this fall that, yes, this fall they’re staging the Full Monty. Yes. At the Black Box Theater. So how’s that for you? Go see a play. The men do the full monty right there in Kansas.
Carol: I could get into that.
David: All right. You go see the play. I’m going to go check out the electric house I’m in.
Carol: Well, this is certainly a good government success story.
David: It is. But I’m going to let these folks sum up what it’s like to have a new and vibrant art and heritage center and what it means to them. first, we’re going to go back to Nancy.
Nancy Wellerstein: Every day it’s just my chest puffs up and I I just have some tremendous pride in what this has become and how it has become a hub for the community and bringing arts into the community that is really was fairly barren for Johnson County. There’s there. We don’t really all of the arts that you seem to go into the Kansas City, Missouri, area, but this is one of the ones out in the suburbs for the county and for all of the the locals.
David: Tim sees this place as a space for all artists.
Tim Bair: We’re providing opportunity for artists in our area to to exhibit their work and to share what they do with the community that lives here and now.
David: That’s proven be a success. The politicians can look back on a wise decision.
Ed Eilert: Being in public office over a period of years. There are a lot of decisions you have to make, and you hope that the decisions you make are the right ones for the benefit of the community. And this one turned out very, very well. And I’m sure in my career in public office, there have been some that did not go so well, perhaps. But this one? Yes, I’m very proud of.
Carol: But ultimately, it really comes down to the people, a government helping the people who voted them into office. And when you have a story like Daniel McLean, his mother Diane, it shows how good government can really change a person’s life, even if it’s just a few art classes.
Diane McLean: Oh my gosh. Without Arts and Heritage Museum and the and the space they’ve provided for the emerging artists, um, I don’t know. I really I don’t know what we would have done because he needed engagement. The engagement is what saved his life. The art is what saved his life.
Carol: That’s good government inaction renovating an old bowling alley and an ice rink and creating new programs and opportunities for today. Great story. But I want to know how you get those tickets for The Full Monty.
David: Well, we just have to go to the Johnson County Art and Heritage Center, and you can see a fun musical. You can see the men going the full Monty, but you also see a great example of good government at work.
So thanks for listening. I’m David Martin.
Carol: And I’m Carol D’auria, and this is the good government show.
David: The Good Government Show is a Valley Park Production, Jason Stershic is our editor and producer. Associate producers are Jade Ludlow and Mackenzie Martin, the executive producers of The Good Government Show are Jim Ludlow, David Martin and David Snyder. Join us again right here for another episode of The Good Government Show.