Sunflower Theater historical preservation about more than just Peabody building

PEABODY – The Sunflower Theater is continuing to bloom, as the histories of community members were recorded this past week. Coordinated by Susan Mayo and Cheyla Clawson of Wichita State University, the stories collected will be used by Clawson to choreograph dances honoring the history of the Sunflower Theater in Peabody.

Clawson said she and Mayo share a passion for rural Kansas communities.

I have done similar projects to this and have experience taking stories of people’s lives and utilizing embodied dance research. The movement created based on this research helps capture the emotions and essence of people’s memories in a visceral and visual way,” said Clawson.

The process of collecting memories and discovering themes is as much social as it is scientific.

I record with my phone (audio), a microphone (audio), and my own notes. This allows me to triangulate three sources to ensure I capture each participant’s story thoroughly. After collecting this information through live interviews with the participants, I utilize a qualitative research software, nVivo, to pull out themes of similarity while also considering differences,” she said.

Clawson’s passion for collecting histories came from her experiences with her own grandmother’s childhood in rural Butler County.

While she shared many of her memories of growing up in Kansas with me, I failed to capture her sharing her stories in her own words,” she said.

This is not Clawson’s first foray into documenting history, collaborating with students to document the stories of their mothers and grandmothers in “Matrilineage”.

That became an evening-length dance event that included the audience’s responses to the same memories and a Q&A after the performance,” said Clawson.

Another project through Wichita State collaborated with sociology professor Dr. Twyla Hill, “Kansas Lineage.” 
“We interviewed women in assisted living homes in the Wichita, Kansas area to collect their memories of growing up in Kansas,” said Clawson.

As an independent project, “I directed the film, “She Moved the Prairie” that was completed May 2021. I researched the labor practices of Kansas farm women in the early 20th century for this film.”

In researching Peabody and collaborating with residents, Clawson said more voices adds to the depth of any performance or documentation of history.

One challenge is making sure there is a diversity of experiences. This is directly impacted to the age of the participants and their lifespans. It can also be very challenging for older adults to have clarity in their memories from their youth,” she said.

Some of the memories shared by residents during the interview process included prices of common items, like popcorn, movie tickets and a hamburger meal. For less than 50 cents, Peabody children could watch a movie, enjoy popcorn and go for a burger and fries after the film.

Clawson noted, she had “heard a lot about Mrs. Sterling. And the ticket-taker.”

Before the main event, participants recalled cartoons like Roadrunner and Heckle and Jeckle being played before movies, along with newsreels from World War II. As children at the time, participants in the interview remembered seeing newsreels showing graphic footage of Japanese soldiers being burned with Napalm and reels of dogfights over Midway.

One of the most common memories of the theater, no romance movies were shown. Films were Westerns and popular films.

Several participants mentioned how television negatively impacted community and gathering. I was particularly moved by the length and closeness of friendships over time,” said Clawson.

Other common memories centered around Christmas, school and seeing films at the Sunflower Theater, before it was converted to a bowling alley in the early 1960s.

Interviewee Marilyn Jones noted many of the residents giving interviews were women, “because most of the men from that generation are already gone.”

Clawson said recording first-hand accounts of local history has been a blindspot for many historians, and one she hopes to shine light on.

The lack of documentation of everyday folks lives inspires me. Looking specifically at women, we have few accounts of Kansas life from the late 19th century through World War I.

The diaries that exist are from predominately wealthy and educated women/peoples. This was clearly impacted by the lack of technology to preserve stories. I feel it is vital to collect Kansans’ lives in their own words utilizing technology that allows for long-term preservation. I also feel individual experiences are valuable to not only preserve the past, but to inform the future,” she said.

Clawson said capturing first hand accounts of Peabody’s dynamic past is a way to ensure future generations have a deeper understanding of their communities.

All communities have a story to share that informs our history, culture, and understanding of the past that bridges us to a more thoughtful future. Often history is written after generations are no longer living. Utilizing today’s technology can help us document people’s stories in their own words to better and more clearly have an understanding of the diversity of our history and culture.”

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