Memories abound in a Kansas getaway
Posted on March 28, 2017
Although I’ve now lived most of my life in San Diego, I grew up in the Midwest. Memories of my childhood there flick through my mind like a slideshow of Norman Rockwell paintings. This is especially true in summer when thoughts of chasing fireflies, watching drive-in-movies, and eating watermelon bring a smile to my face.
Every few years I feel the need to revisit the Midwest in search of my favorite things, and Wichita, Kansas is where I have the most fun. Here, the corn is “knee high by the 4th of July,” and a wonderful theater reminds me of the Midwestern summer stock stages where I was introduced to Shakespeare and musicals like Guys and Dolls and My Fair Lady. The difference being that, instead of seasonal tents, Music Theatre Wichita’s shows are staged at Century II, a 2,100-seat theater with air conditioning and modern lighting and sound systems.
My husband first met MTW’s Producing Artistic Director Wayne Bryan at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego many years ago. The Globe’s founding director, Craig Noel, gave Bryan his first professional directing jobs. Bryan went on to perform on Broadway and TV, and direct at theaters across the country before taking the lead at MTW. In Wichita, Wayne’s eye for talent led to the discovery of Emmy- and Tony Award-winner Kristin Chenoweth, and Kelli O’Hara, the Tony winner who performed in La Jolla at Symphony at Salk last summer.
The 2017 Music Theatre Wichita season of Broadway-scale musicals opens on June 14 and includes Thoroughly Modern Millie, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Hairspray, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Disney’s Newsies.
In search of soda fountains and simple pleasures
Last summer, three generations of our family flew to Wichita to see MTW’s production of Beauty and the Beast. The big, beautiful show exceeded our expectations. When we weren’t at Century II, we had time to see the sights and sample local food. Walking through the door of the Old Mill Tasty Shop, Wichita’s favorite soda fountain, felt like stepping back in time. Of course, we all sat at the counter and shared root beer floats.
I also love the Nifty Nuthouse, a huge store with colorful displays of nuts, candy, and gum. This family-owned business was established in 1937, and I got the feeling that people drive from all over the Midwest to stock up on their favorites. Mine? The dark chocolate Amaretto pecans.
The Starlite Drive-In, another beloved Wichita institution, may very well be the country’s nicest remaining drive-in movie theater. It’s family- and dog-friendly, and a carload can check out a double or triple feature for a fraction of the cost of a single flick in San Diego. I reflected on some of my adolescent drive-in experiences and choose not to share those with the family.
Lest you think all food and activities in Wichita are lowbrow, I should mention George’s French Bistro where I enjoyed a wonderful seafood crepe and others raved about the duck confit and bouillabaisse. In addition, we were very impressed with Exploration Place, a new, hands-on science center overlooking the Arkansas River. This is a fun place to learn about Wichita’s extensive aviation history (think Cessna, Beech, Boeing) and experience a virtual reality flight in a Wright Brothers plane. I was also intrigued by the expansive model railroad layout depicting life in 1950s Kansas. We spent another enjoyable day at Tanganyika Wildlife Park feeding giraffes and riding camels, and an afternoon at Botanica, The Wichita Gardens.
But it’s not the new attractions and high-end restaurants that draw me back to the Midwest. It’s a chance to remember a kinder, gentler time when traffic wasn’t a nightmare, life moved at a slower pace, and no one obsessed about having the latest and greatest of everything.
In Wichita, we experienced the simple pleasure of a summer storm complete with loud thunder and dramatic lightning. The next day the Arkansas River was spilling over its banks, but that night the night sky was clear. As I watched 4th of July fireworks with my family and the company of Beauty and the Beast from the roof deck at Century II, I acknowledged — not for the first time — that America’s heartland still owns a piece of my heart.
We stayed at the Hotel at WaterWalk and appreciated the fact that all suites come with kitchens and the extra space that families need. The lead members of the Beauty and the Beast cast were also in residence, and it was fun to have breakfast with the Beast (Thaddeus Pearson), who also played Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar later in the season. We also were able to chat with Belle — Catherine Charlebois, who had just completed a long run with the Broadway cast of Wicked.
Rates at WaterWalk include a complimentary cooked-to-order breakfast and a big buffet including Belgian waffles and, of course, biscuits and gravy. hotelatwaterwalk.com
Other lodging options include the historic Drury Plaza Hotel Broadview and the luxurious Hyatt Regency Wichita, both located on the Arkansas River and close to Century II Performing Arts & Convention Center druryhotels.com, wichita.regency.hyatt.com
Regardless of where you stay, make time for a Midwestern meal at the Doo Dah Diner. Breakfast specialties here include Crab Cake Benedict, Banana Bread French Toast (gluten free), and Fried Bologna and Egg Sandwich. Lunch? How about Bat Out of Hell Meatloaf or Beefy Doo-Dad? doodahdiner.com
If you need a pizza fix while you’re in Wichita, I heartily recommend Il Vicino. ilvicino.com
Old Mill Tasty Shop, Botanica Children’s Garden, Fireworks: Photo courtesy of Visit Wichita Beauty and the Beast: Photo courtesy of Music Theatre Wichita All other photography courtesy of ADAMS HANSEN STOCK PHOTOS