Page 3 of 3
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?' "