There’s more than one Wizard playing at KC’s Union Station…
Oh sure, there’s The Great and Powerful Oz on the five-story tall, IMAX screen in stunningly bright 3-D. It’s a moviegoing experience that’s redefining upscale moviegoing in Kansas City.
However a less well known Wizard is also at play in the historic train depot turned science museum. His name is George Gusatello and he joined the then financially troubled station as CEO in December of 2008.
Four years later, and Guastello has three consecutive years of operating profits under his belt – that’s black ink, not red for those of you keeping score at home – and on top of that he’s just added the most spectacular movie watching experience to be had in the Kansas City region.
Not bad for a dude who used to shill for Starlight Theatre under the direction of a former used car salesman and rode horses and wore cowboy hats while leading the American Royal.
“I’m having the time of my life right here,” Guastello says. “It’s a pretty cool place.”
To say the least.
“Over the last two years now we’ve invested over $3.5 million on the science museum alone,” Guastello says. “And the office space is leased out completely, so the business model is here. Pierpont’s is doing very well and we reopened Harvey’s at Union Station and it’s doing breakfast and lunch, and on the weekends it just crushes with its Sunday brunch.”
Which brings us to Union Station’s new Extreme Screen Theatre.
Not that it’s completely new.
“The Regnier Theatre here was a 3-D, 70 mm, iwerks theater that was an enormous big deal back in 1999 when it opened,” Guastello says. “It played what is called in the industry fin and feather movies.”
For the uninitiated, “fin and feather” refers to family-oriented films usually about animals and wildlife that typically are shown at IMAX theaters that focus primarily on non commercial films, rather than mainstream movies.
Union Station’s iwerks theater continued to operate into 2012, although regular moviegoers and adults paid it little heed.
“A lot of things at the station over the years were off the radar,” Guastello concedes. “And this is part of the process of our coming back. After the Titanic exhibit we were about to show James Cameron‘s “The Abyss” and our iWorks equipment went kaput. And once that happened there was no way to fix it because the company went out of business and the light bulbs for the projectors alone cost $10,000 each.
“So we thought, ‘What can we do with a 440 seat stadium theater?’ And we looked at it and thought, maybe we can figure out how to make this work with a digital system and create a new digital innovation theater.”
That’s when Union Station’s wizard kicked into high gear last spring and began the process of raising the dough ($400,000) to make it happen.
“So we went out and got a new silver screen from a manufacturer in Canada that’s five stories tall and 80 feet wide,” Guastello says. “It’s actually a screen that’s painted silver to reflect the light better. And this screen came in on a railroad car in one giant tube and it took 40 men to roll it out. Then we bought Barco projectors – they’re state-of-the-art – and then we had to have two specially designed lenses made.”
To that add three, 9-foot tall stacks of JBL speakers behind the silver screen and, “When you get in there, it just rumbles beyond your imagination,” Guastello says. “So this is Kansas City’s premier digital theater. We can play movies, live pay-per-view, host live presentations – we have tons of options – and it was all built in a month!”
The only thing that remained was the monumental task of convincing Walt Disney to let Union Station show its blockbuster, new Wizard of Oz flick.
Fat chance, a local Disney rep thought, but Guastello would not be denied.
First he lined up local movie exhibitor Dickinson Theatres to run and book the theater. Then he played the Walt Disney starting out in Kansas City card. To which he added a pledge to bathe the entire station in Emerald City green light and install a yellow brick road, all to remain in place throughout the movie’s run.
All of which Guastello did on spec, not knowing if Disney would cave and allow the station to screen the movie.
“But when Disney saw us delivering everything, a week ago we got the call saying that we got it,” Guastello says. “You’ve seen the building, it looks like Emerald City, doesn’t it?”
So far, so good.
“We opened Tuesday to 400 people and had to turn away 150,” Guastello says. “And Thursday night it was sold out.”
The jury’s still out on how long Oz may play the station, but Guastello’s optimistic with three weeks of spring break and the Big 12 and NAIA tournaments coming to town.
That said, there’s no telling for sure what sort of future options may unfold for the station’s Extreme Screen.
With a boffo beyond belief weekend box office, some local movie insiders are placing their bets on Guastello landing other 3-D titles, as well as blockbuster 2-D offerings.
“All I know is we have to prove ourselves,” Guastello says. “And if the numbers are good, I guess we’ll see. All I can tell you is it’s a movie experience like you’ve never seen before.”
Is it conceivable Union Station could become a first run theater?
“If Oz proves to be that, maybe,” Guastello says. “It’s all about the business and economics and if we can deliver, then it’s definitely conceivable. Who would have thought we would have done 100,000 people for Diana in 88 days? And who would have thought 4,000 people would come to the Grand Ballroom at 4 a.m. to watch Harry and Kate get married?”