The Starlite Drive-In is saved: Anonymous Wichitan purchases theater

Wichita’s last remaining drive-in is getting a second life.

The Starlite Drive-In, which closed in October, has been purchased by a local who intends to keep it open as a drive-in, announced Landmark Commercial Real Estate, a Wichita-based group that brokered the deal.

The group announced the deal at a news conference at its downtown headquarters Friday afternoon.

The purchase price was not disclosed, though a would-be buyer of the drive-in at 3900 S. Hydraulic told the Eagle its owner, Chuck Bucinski, was seeking $850,000.

The new Starlite buyer intends to lease drive-in operations out to Blake Smith, co-owner of the Admiral Twin of Tulsa, Okla.

The drive-in is expected to reopen in spring.

City council member James Clendenin, who represents south Wichita, went to great lengths to negotiate a deal.

Bucinski wrote the following in a prepared statement:

“Having our original buyer recognize the passion the Wichita Community has for the Starlite, along with having been granted permission to explore the possibilities of allowing this landmark to remain as such after consulting with my attorney … a team of people looked to find a way to keep it as a drive-in theatre. Then Landmark Commercial Real Estate agent Marc Knowles and council member James Clendenin teamed up to locate a new anonymous local buyer. Followed by a call to Blake in Tulsa to see if he’d be interested in running the Starlite. It was a yes on all sides. Everybody just did what was best for Wichita and I’m thrilled.”

How the Starlite changed hands

Bucinski was willed the Starlite Drive-In from its previous owner, Jim Goble, who died in 2015.

He closed the drive-in in October, saying financial difficulties forced his hand.

Earlier this summer, Bucinski had successfully re-zoned the drive-in land to allow for industrial and commercial uses.

He had struck a deal with an anonymous land developer who intended to raze it and construct a “relatively clean industrial development” there, according to plans shared at a summer meeting of the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission.

Since the Starlite closed, a movement to “Save the Starlite” has gained steam — and counts the City of Wichita as one of its supporters. The city — led by council member James Clendenin and Mayor Jeff Longwell — made a public plea in early November to stop the demolition of the Starlite.

The would-be warehouse-builders backed off of their plans after that, said Rick Cohen, a Buffalo, N.Y. drive-in owner who was in serious discussions to purchase the drive-in land last month.

Cohen’s plans to purchase the Starlite were scuttled when it was discovered Bucinski had sold its two costly Barco DP4K-32B projectors for about $25,000, he said.

Supporters of the Starlite Drive-In led a pledge drive to pay for new projectors — and $50,000 had been pledged as of Friday.

It’s currently unclear what will become of those pledges, as no cash has exchanged hands yet.

The two-screen outdoor theater, which is one of only five still operating in the state — the only one in south-central Kansas — successfully navigated the transition to digital projectors in 2013 thanks to an extensive community fundraising effort. The projectors cost nearly $100,000 per screen.

It opened as the Rainbow Drive-In in 1953 and became the Landmark Twin in 1974.

When Wichita’s drive-in transitioned to digital projectors in 2013, the film reels went away. Starlite owner Chuck Bucinski shows how the Starlite plays movies now. (Matt Riedl/The Wichita Eagle)

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