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Crosstown Connections: The Cinephilic Community Building of the Tallgrass Film Center

The marquee of the Emily Bonavia Tallgrass Film Center in Wichita, Kansas.The Tallgrass Film Center

A group of about 20 people trickles back into the green-lit microcinema after intermission smoke breaks to witness burlesque artist Emerald Spectre perform a striptease. Spectre comes out dressed as Halloween’s Michael Myers, complete with a prop knife dipped in red glitter, and dances to Radiohead’s “Creep.” Over the next ten minutes, the killer’s taciturn visage morphs into that of a gorgeous pin-up wearing strappy lingerie whose pasties occasionally fall out of place, prompting demure attempts at modesty. 

When we return to our regular programming, 2002’s Halloween: Resurrection, the audience shouts, “Beat his ass, Busta!” I’ve been to my fair share of kooky film events, but I couldn’t say that I’d ever witnessed pasties malfunctions in such close proximity to Michael Myers until I attended “Madame Mae’s Horror Frights” at Wichita, Kansas’s Emily Bonavia Tallgrass Film Center. 

The Tallgrass Film Center—a microcinema operated by the Tallgrass Film Association—has been open since 2022 and features a regular lineup of programs designed by community members. The 30-person theater, inconspicuously nestled into the back of the downtown Wichita Lux building’s ground floor lobby, features recliners and a full concession stand. The front doors of the cinema, marked by a discreet sign above, bear posters for upcoming local events. Offering year-round screenings, the film center is driven largely by the enthusiasms of its volunteer programmers and their audiences and is proving to be a vital incubator for the local film scene. 

Madame Mae, the hostess behind her eponymous horror show, is one such local visionary who benefits from Tallgrass’s democratic support of people who want to do cool things. Her genre-bending show wasn’t an easy sell. After falling into an opportunity to produce an Elvira-inspired horror show at The Camel City Playhouse in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she volunteered behind the concession stand, Mae moved to Wichita and immediately sought opportunities to continue that show. She emailed numerous venues and organizations, but nobody was interested. Then, a friend suggested that Mae reach out to Melanie Addington, executive director of the Tallgrass Film Association. 

“When I contacted Melanie, she immediately snatched me up and said, ‘When do you want to start doing this?’” Mae says. “She told me she was excited to see the feminine side of horror come to life—and that’s exactly what I try to do.” 

Thanks to Addington, “Madame Mae’s Horror Frights” is a regular event on the Film Center program, where any community member can enjoy a three-hour variety show—complete with drag, burlesque or the occasional game of Jeopardy!—for $15. “We are a small microcinema of stubbornly independent people living in Wichita,” Addington says. “We are just making room for those who want to be here.”

One of the advantages of giving community members free rein over a permanent exhibition space is the resulting cross-pollination. Both Addington and Mae allude to the siloing of Wichita’s art world, where creatives operate within insular scenes. “We saw our mission as a way to bridge gaps in the community by partnering with other arts groups, record stores, horror fanatics and Pride celebrations,” Addington says. She is committed to platforming as many enthusiasts as possible, a goal already realized through Mae’s events. At a recent Texas Chain Saw Massacre charity dinner, for example, the barbecue was served by local roller derby team members on skates; the aforementioned Emerald Spectre will guest-host Madame Mae’s August showing of Suspiria; and the fall fundraiser screening of Carrie will feature an all-woman guest panel discussing their experiences with menstruation. 

Kevin Wildt, founder of the brick-and-mortar gift shop Vortex Souvenir, is another Wichita cineaste helping to reimagine the possibilities of local film culture. After hosting a pop-up VHS video store in the Vortex space during Christmas, Wildt, a film school graduate and Los Angeles transplant, was overwhelmed by the community response. “When we did the pop-up shop there’d be parents telling their kids about how it used to be,” Wildt says. “People kept telling me, ‘We miss rentals.’” 

While searching for a sustainable way to provide rentals to the community, Wildt came across Beyond Video in Baltimore and decided to launch his own video library out of Vortex’s back room. Six months later, after sourcing hundreds of films through a mixture of donations, thrift-store purchases and new purchases, Wildt opened Cine-Genic, a members-only rental library. Cine-Genic offers a collection of more than 3,000 physical titles, which can be checked out two at a time for a monthly membership fee of $12. 

Although he started the library with “modest expectations,” Wildt has assembled his own motley crew of, so far, 70 members. He screens selections from the library’s collection at monthly members-only screenings at Tallgrass and says that the events are crucial drivers for Cine-Genic’s membership program. “Melanie was a member at Cine-Genic,” Wildt says, “and our collaboration grew out of a conversation of how we can mutually grow my membership but also promote the microcinema.”

Apart from supporting local programmers and entrepreneurs like Mae and Wildt, the Film Center plays an integral role within the Tallgrass Film Association’s broader mission. Addington built out the Film Center in 2022 alongside her former coworker, Thane Chastain, who has since passed away, with “a PC, a cheap screen and projector, and sound from his garage.” Over the intervening years, the center has slowly upgraded to widescreen and Dolby sound capabilities, and it now serves as a vital Tallgrass outreach tool. Many locals are intimidated by the geographically diffuse and jam-packed nature of festivals, says Addington, but “a microcinema lets people check us out on a smaller scale with a more traditional go-see-one-film experience. They can get to know us and become more engaged with the festival.”

The microcinema also helps Tallgrass sideline the scheduling or eligibility constraints of a traditional festival and implement a more agile response to audience demands. “Last week, someone requested Problemista as a larger chain canceled their screenings, so we are adding it in June,” Addington says. “And now we get to show indie films that get released before our festival.”

Thanks to Addington’s dogged advocacy, the theater offers a unique and irreplaceable cultural resource for Wichitans—a veritable salon of film, with all the trial and error, eclecticism and idiosyncratic flavor entailed in any earnest grassroots cultural effort. Though the film center still faces limitations, both technical and spatial, which the slow trickle of donations dents only slightly, Addington is committed to the film center’s role in Tallgrass’s mission. 

“We hope to get to do this for as long as someone is making a movie,” Addington says. 

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