A school-bus-yellow excavator breaks the bones of the Orion Pictures Building on an overcast late-April morning. The digger claws the building's interior walls and nudges the ceiling, each blow releasing drifts of 57-year-old dust — final gasps from an architectural carcass.
By late morning, piles of mangled metal, brick and plaster litter the lot at the corner of 17th Street and Wyandotte, where the one-plus-story brick building once stood. From the 1940s until the late 1970s, the Orion was among 17 Kansas City outposts for Hollywood studios, including MGM, Fox and United Artists. Studios would send film prints to Film Row, and theater owners would travel from as far as 100 miles away to pick up and drop off reels. Publicity tours brought celebrities — Clark Gable, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry — to the studio buildings, linking Kansas City to the stars of Hollywood's golden age.
Shirley Helzberg owned the Orion Building. She directed the historic building's demise, and now she is orchestrating its future: a one-story retail structure with three floors of parking that she hopes will boost her Webster House restaurant and antique shop across the street. (She also owns Film Row's Vitagraph Film Exchange Building, home to the Kansas City Symphony's offices.)
Backlash to the Orion's demolition was swift on social media. "Nice one Shirley! Happy earth day!!!!!" one person wrote on the Save the Orion Pictures Building Facebook page. "Hey I thought they were going to salvage the materials...I knew that was a bunch of empty words...typical!"
Cyd Millstein says losing the Orion Building tears a hole in Kansas City's architectural fabric. Millstein, the owner of Architectural and Historical Research LLC, says the Orion was worth saving because it was believed to be the last Film Row building constructed. The Orion was also a departure from the district's squat, fireproof brick, utilitarian structures.
"That was a perfect example of the Art Deco slipping out and the Streamline Moderne coming into fashion," Millstein, who has worked in preservation for 30 years, says of the Orion's curved surfaces and metal accents. "That was the beauty of the Orion. It didn't just march off into another era without conforming to the buildings that were already there."
The Orion's final flicker has left neighbors, history buffs and preservationists scrambling to recognize Film Row's past and save the remaining buildings. But Film Row's future is in question without an organized effort and vision.
Crossroads developer Brad Nicholson says he had a plan for the Orion's future. Nicholson (who is The Pitch's landlord) says he wanted to make the building his office and home.
However, Helzberg convinced him, he says, to sell her the building, saying she wanted to convert it into the office of the Kansas City Symphony. In 2007, satisfied that Helzberg's cause was worthy, Nicholson agreed.
"I would not have sold the property if it was not going to be redeveloped for the symphony," Nicholson says.
Nicholson is still angry, two months after the Orion was turned into a crater. "The cut is deep, and I'm still healing now," he says. "I'm pissed off. I haven't been this mad in a long time."
Two years before Nicholson sold the Orion to Helzberg, Kansas City politicians were pushing to create a special district called "Old Film Row" in order to preserve and "enhance Kansas City's Hollywood Connection." The city commissioned a 23-page urban-design plan — the same month that ground was broken on the Sprint Center — that called for informational plaques, which would explain each studio's history and be placed in front of each Film Row building, plus informational kiosks, customized "Old Film Row" street signs and wrought-iron fencing around parking lots.
But the plan faded from memory as city leaders focused on the arena and the Power & Light District. Former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes tells The Pitch that she doesn't even remember the Old Film Row plan.
"Regrettably, I don't recall the history of the 2005 concept," she writes in an e-mail.
Butch Rigby, owner of Screenland Theatres, says the Crossroads' slow, organic growth into a hip arts district made many in the Crossroads leery of any proposal to commercialize the neighborhood.
"That was right at the time when the Crossroads was really starting to bloom," says Rigby, who first bought property there in the 1990s when the neighborhood was filled with vacant buildings. "And you had a lot of artists, who were pioneers themselves, who liked the organic growth. What you had was a lot of people saying, 'Oh, you're going to make this Hollywood. You're going to make this touristy.' "
Not wanting a tourist trap in the burgeoning Crossroads Arts District may have made sense in 2005. But without a neighborhood organization pressuring building owners to keep up their Film Row properties, or a unified push to get the district on the National Register of Historic Places, buildings like the Orion became endangered.
Film Row advocates are now taking a more measured tack than the 2005 blueprint. Kirk Williamson, the owner of a massage studio in Brookside and a film-history enthusiast, plans to start a nonprofit, Friends of Film Row, to chart the district's future.
"There were concerns about it becoming cheesy or a little too flashy," Williamson says of the original plan. "Those kinds of design considerations started to split the camps."
Williamson plans to keep modest the initial goals of Friends of Film Row, hoping to unite businesses, building owners and preservationists in an effort to bring more film-production and film-industry companies to the area.
"What if Film Row had a functional vision versus just a historical vision?" Williamson asks. "That could be something that's done right away. To me, the ideal Film Row is, whether or not the illumination of the historical aspects of Film Row that were outlined in the 2005 plan take place — to me, the other layer is, it's got to be this functional entity."
Williamson has since applied with the Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation to have Film Row recognized as "at risk." He cited the Orion's destruction as the main reason to place the district on Missouri Preservation's annual Watched List. "Since the owner of the Orion building owns three other Film Row buildings ... has pursued the purchase of others, and has demonstrated every intention to not be a team player with the spoken interests of the Crossroads Community Association, the Historic Kansas City Foundation, and others regarding the Orion, we have no choice but to mobilize every tool possible to come to the defense of our beloved Film Row buildings," he writes.
Missouri Preservation added Film Row to the list in late May.
Most of the buildings in Film Row are cared for and occupied by a variety of tenants, from printing companies to yoga studios. Historic Kansas City Foundation Executive Director Amanda Crawley says a decent occupancy rate now doesn't mean the district's long-term future is secure.
"Some of these buildings probably are immediately threatened," she says. "Most of them are in use, but there's no guarantee to say that in 10 years some of these buildings won't be threatened. Really it's about devising a long-term protection strategy."
Crawley says without the Orion going down, people might not have thought about protecting the old buildings. "The loss of the Orion building, I think it called to people's attention the possible need for a protection strategy for the rest of Film Row," she says.
Rigby says he would welcome some elements of the Old Film Row plan. The theater owner has refurbished several buildings in the area, including the old Commonwealth Theatres Building, at 215 West 18th Street. For that project, he placed four star-shaped plaques in the sidewalk outside the building to honor Joan Crawford, Walt Disney and other Kansas City film luminaries. The concrete around the stars is now crumbling, with hard gray scraps jutting from the sidewalk.
Standing outside the Commonwealth Theatres Building, which he sold several years ago, Rigby points across 18th Street to the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Building.
"That building right there could be stunningly beautiful with a little work," he says.
The building's windows are blacked out, walls are covered in graffiti and the foundation is cracked. But Rigby has his own vision of a refurbished MGM building: "MGM would be restored to look like a beautiful, grand Art Deco building of the '30s, and we would talk about how Clark Gable and people like that, when they came through Kansas City, would stop at that office."
Don Omer earned minimum wage working with his grandfather in the Commonwealth Theatres Building in the late 1960s. Omer, who is now 72, and his grandfather prepared orders of popcorn and candy for the Midwest's Commonwealth Theatres. However, Omer missed Film Row's heyday as a part of Hollywood machinery.
"According to my grandfather, it was not as busy as it had been years earlier," he says. But his grandfather did share stories of the area's glory years. "He had been there so long, he was kind of a character down there," Omer says. "He said that Roy Rogers and Dale Rogers [Evans], they'd always stop in to say hi."
Omer says Film Row should be added to the National Register of Historic Places.
"As I understand it, it's one of the largest still-surviving film-row areas in the country," Omer says. "Let's face it: It's not very surviving. But we ought to protect what's there."
The razing of the Orion has caused a rift among Helzberg, building owners and preservationists. Helzberg, who didn't respond to interview requests from The Pitch, has long championed preservation in the city. She turned the Vitagraph Building, across the street from the Orion, into an iconic Crossroads structure. She also added a bell tower to the Webster House when the property was restored.
Millstein has worked with Helzberg on past preservation projects, including the Vitagraph Building's application to the National Register of Historic Buildings.
"Shirley has a pretty good track record in Kansas City of preservation," Millstein says. But she doesn't understand Helzberg's decision to topple the Orion. "If you look at the properties and the amount of money she has put into renovation, it's very impressive. This one perplexes me."
Rigby also says Helzberg's preservation record is laudable, even if he disagrees with her Orion decision.
"She has done so many cool, incredible projects," he says. "I am not going to ever demean Shirley for what she did. I don't like it. I don't agree with it. But you know what? I don't always agree with what my girlfriend does, either."
Rigby says it's time for Kansas Citians worried about the future of Film Row to move beyond the Orion.
"Blossom House, Stover House, Webster House, Vitagraph Building, the Universal Building — when I think of all of those buildings that are now prepared for another 100 years of use because she put more money into them than was practical, more money than any developer could have for a profit margin," he says, "I have to at least look back and say, 'OK. That's done. But what do we do now as a community to agree that we have an important asset here?' "