The NoMar Theater: the ghosts of our past, the hopes of our future

Near the corner of 21st and North Market Street squats an empty theater. Faded and neglected but not quite defeated, the NoMar Theater, along with the neighborhood surrounding her, has sat in wait – sometimes patiently, sometimes not. The NoMar is the centerpiece of Wichita’s North End, the historically Hispanic neighborhood, and depending on who you ask, the theater is either a good or bad representation of its history. Either way, the NoMar belongs to the North End and She belongs to its people and together they dream of a better tomorrow.

While an unrecognized historical landmark, she is most definitely a landmark and not just because of her Spanish-style architecture or her birth date of April 3, 1929, but because the NoMar Theater is a shared story of the people of the community, especially generations of Mexicans who call or called the North End home. My parents are first generation Mexican Americans, and they still recall the 5 cent weekend matinees with friends and family and when they were finally allowed to sit in the lower level after years of being relegated to the balcony. My Godmother remembers seeing The Little Rascals at the theater and the “best popcorn, ever.” My sister and cousins remember the movies in Spanish that featured Cantiflas, Vicente Fernandez and Antonio Aguilar. I know there are many, many more stories.

My Master’s thesis was a collection of short stories that included a story about the theater. The story was based on a tale my uncle once shared, how he and his best friend got tossed from the NoMar after being involved in a fight inside the theater. Back in those early days, minorities were not allowed to sit in the lower level and were ushered to the balcony. This segregation was sadly ironic considering the large population of Mexicans who shared the same neighborhood as the NoMar, and the Black community that is just a mile or so east of North Broadway.  My uncle told me the fight started because he had taken his buddy to sit in the balcony which did not set well with a few of the guys from the neighborhood. My uncle’s best friend was white. So, the two tried to sit together in the lower level where they were met with blind anger. The two were thrown out of the theater before the movie even started and with no refund. During the walk home they plotted their revenge. They dug through a shoebox stash of firecrackers, returned to the theater, and tossed a lit string through the window of the ticket booth. The string of firecrackers slid across the short counter and into a trash can which amplified the deafening pops, sent the young woman working the ticket booth running and started a small fire. He said they both were banned from the theater for a long time.

In the initial draft of my fictionalized version of the story, the theater burned to the ground, its final audience standing along 21st Street to witness the tragic death. Some cried while others cheered as the flames reached high into a crisp October sky. My familiarity with the split sentiment among residents of the North End regarding the theater played a strong part in this scene. Through the years, I’d heard individuals wish aloud the theater would meet its demise in a ball of fire, taking its acts of prejudice and racism with it. Others longed for a return to its movie theater glory so they could reminisce about the good times, not the bad, while still others longed for revitalization due to the NoMar’s connection to the community. In the end, I revised the story so that the NoMar remained standing, which worked because later in the collection it became the darkened backdrop for a story about a forgotten community and the exodus of many of its residents.  

The theater closed its doors in 1983 and became a shuttered remnant of the North End’s past, yet her legacy has continued through the stories told from one generation to another. Even for those of us who never stepped inside her doors, the NoMar’s heartbeat is tied to the rhythm of the community so it is no surprise that for years there have been attempts to bring her back to life. Revitalization of a long pushed aside neighborhood seems to rest in the bosom of that old theater. Each time an attempt has been made to place the NoMar on the historical registry or she is the center of a street art installation or new mural, or the hot topic of revitalization, the hope of the community becomes palpable. And each time these efforts end in disappointment, the neighborhood falls into silent frustration, the walls of mistrust reinforced. When it was recently announced that the NoMar was going up for auction, longtime activists of the community stepped forward to be her voice – to speak to her history, her significance, her legacy and her future entwined with the community. They would rally for her future and theirs, and hold tight to their aspirations for long overdue change.

On April 9, 2021, current and former residents of the North End anxiously awaited results of the auction of the NoMar Theater. Other than providing extra storage space for Basham Furniture Rental and a home for pigeons and various rodents, the only growth over the years of this prestigious theater has been black mold and dampness behind its locked doors. Would this finally be the moment? When the announcement came that the NoMar Theater was purchased by Gene and Yolanda Camarena and would be donated to the newly established nonprofit, Empower Evergreen, with the goal of preservation and revitalization of this historical landmark, my eyes brimmed with tears. I imagined a great exhale throughout the neighborhood – a collective breath from the generations of North Enders and the theater itself – a collective breath held for decades in anticipation of a tragic swan song. Now, rebirth.

Today, during a visit with my parents who still live in the North End, we made a stop at the theater after visiting the recently unveiled Jackie Robinson statue in McAdams Park. I wanted to capture her in this moment, sitting on the precipice of truly becoming the anchor institution of this community. I wanted to stand beside her and listen to an energized heartbeat within my childhood neighborhood that despite all odds has kept its rhythm of hope. The North End deserves to be recognized for the richness of its community, its long history of hard work and perseverance, its entrepreneurial spirit, its love of familia, and its pride. For me, the North End is and always will be a large piece in my life mosaic. Along with so many others, we will push our doubts aside and move forward that this time things will be different. This time, the people of the North End will not be disappointed. This time, the community will bear witness to great change and harmony alongside its longtime and most recognizable resident, the NoMar Theater. The NoMar Theater carries the ghosts of our past, but also the hopes of our future. The road ahead will be long, and it will take a community effort to see it come to fruition, but I know one day the North End will become a destination place and a thriving piece of the Wichita puzzle without losing its culture, its people, or its history. Those who believe in everything the North End has to offer and who have never wavered in their love of neighborhood deserve this victory and so much more. The NoMar Theater has patiently waited to rise once again and this time the dream will not be deferred for another generation – the time will be now.

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