Chris Calkins, ‘heart’ of Aztec Theater and downtown Shawnee resurgence, has died

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Chris Calkins — a local figure known for putting a heartbeat into the Aztec Theater reopening and other downtown Shawnee redevelopment efforts — passed away on Friday, May 26.

“The theater itself will be associated with him the most, in my opinion, for a long time, just because of how iconic he is to it,” his brother and neighbor Jeff Calkins said. “Chris was just instrumental in getting the Aztec going.”

He was a lifelong Shawnee resident

Calkins, who would have turned 61 this year, lived his whole life in Shawnee and maintained long-lasting friendships in the community.

“He was a lifelong Shawnee resident and business owner who truly epitomized the heart of our community, our hometown with heart,” Mayor Michelle Distler said in a written statement. “He was truly one of the kindest individuals Shawnee has known and he gave so much to Shawnee. He was a friend to all.”

Chris, Jeff and their older sister, Wendi, grew up around 52nd and Bond streets close to downtown Shawnee. They all attended Bluejacket Elementary, then Hocker Grove for junior high and eventually Shawnee Mission Northwest.

Chris Calkins worked at the family business Calkins Electric Supply Co. Inc. in downtown Shawnee as a kid, and when he graduated high school in 1980, went to work full-time. Calkins worked for the family business until he retired in 2013.

Chris Calkins was in charge of booking live music and concerts for the Aztec Theater in downtown Shawnee. With the help of his brother, a life-long friend and the community, he brought the theater back.
Chris Calkins was in charge of booking live music and concerts for the Aztec Theater in downtown Shawnee. With the help of his brother, a life-long friend and the community, he brought the theater back. Photo via Facebook.

Bringing back the Aztec

In 2017, the Calkins brothers heard about a new effort to reopen the downtown gem The Aztec Theater, long seen as a key piece in bringing life back to the area. The theater itself had sat mostly dormant at 11119 Johnson Drive for well-over four decades at that point.

This new effort to restore it, like others before it, turned out to be unsuccessful. Jeff Calkins said the person behind it in 2017 had failed to buy the building before making plans, which ultimately became a pitfall.

But the momentum was there.

“Chris, he thought it would be a good idea, be kind of a neat project if I wanted to join him,” Jeff Calkins said. “That’s kind of where it all began.”

Before too long, they were really doing it. The two Calkins brothers and their friend Bruce Young were setting out to bring back the Aztec.

They built a business plan and a course of action, getting support from the community and the Shawnee City Council to make it happen.

“Our big thing was that it was a big deal for the community,” Jeff Calkins said. “Once you have the theater going, everything else will start flourishing around it, so that was our goal. It was the anchor, it was going to be the start of something bigger.”

Initially, they planned to reopen the theater in June 2020 as a venue to run old films, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed that and cast doubt on whether a movie theater could survive in the changing economy.

Work got underway to make it a place that could show movies, but that really emphasized concerts and live events.

It was six months later, in December 2020, that people returned to the Aztec — albeit masked and distanced — for a fundraising gala. Then, a few days later, the theater hosted its first of many concerts.

“My brother was the one booking bands, and he was going out and searching for people to come in and play. Really by February, March, he kind of paved the way,” Jeff Calkins said. “We were just building a building, he gave its heart, and that’s the best part.”

Calkins was also a ‘car guy’

His first car, a ‘56 Chevy, was “iconic to him,” Jeff Calkins said of his brother.

“Everybody knew who it was because they knew his car,” he said.

Later on, he built a T-Bucket Roadster with their father. However, Jeff Calkins said his most “prized car” was a ‘32 Ford Roadster, styled after his favorite movie “American Graffiti.” He would take that out to drive regularly.

Calkins was also an integral part in planning the annual downtown Shawnee car show as a member of the Shawnee Downtown Business Association.

Calkins’ passing was unexpected

Around the time their father Carl “Ed” Calkins passed in April, Chris Calkins was sick, but no one knew to what extent.

A few days after their father’s April 30 funeral, Chris Calkins went to the doctor, who immediately sent him to the hospital. Within a few days, there was testing and scans conducted, which indicated he had late-stage pancreatic cancer.

Calkins remained in the hospital throughout May and went through some treatments, but ultimately, they were putting him in more pain, Jeff Calkins said. He returned home last Tuesday and entered hospice care, surrounded by family.

He passed away on May 26, just three days later.

“I never would have expected that he would be taken from us so, so early and so quickly,” Jeff Calkins said. “It’s sad that he’s gone, but I know that he’s going to live in everybody’s hearts for so long.”

Chris Calkins obit aztec theater
Chris Calkins (second from right) pictured here with his family inside the Aztec Theater. Photo via Facebook.

Calkins is survived by family and friends

In addition to his contributions to the downtown Shawnee redevelopment efforts, Chris Calkins will also be remembered for his deep, lasting impact on individuals, Jeff Calkins said.

“We will miss his smile and his laugh at all of our events. We will miss his presence. We will miss his kindness. We will miss his heart,” Mayor Distler said.

He is survived by his wife of more than 40 years Tammie, as well as his children Kaleigh and Shane and his grandson Allister.

A community celebration of life is planned next week

A celebration of Chris Calkins’ life is set for the evening of June 8, at the Aztec Theatre. It will run from 5 to 9 p.m.

In the meantime, members of the community are invited to share photos and memories of Chris Calkins on social media. Many have been reposted to the Aztec Theater Facebook page as a digital memorial.

“It’s just so rewarding to know that he touched that many lives, and makes that much of a difference,” he said. “For all the lives he’s touched, from the band’s to the events to the city people to the surrounding businesses, it’s just a good feeling.”

More of Calkins’ story: These Shawnee natives are teaming up to reopen historic Aztec Theater for first time in 46 years

About the author

Kaylie McLaughlin
Kaylie McLaughlin

👋 Hi! I’m Kaylie McLaughlin, and I cover Overland Park and Olathe for the Johnson County Post.

I grew up in Shawnee and graduated from Mill Valley in 2017. I attended Kansas State University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2021. While there, I worked for the K-State Collegian, serving as the editor-in-chief. As a student, I interned for the Wichita Eagle, the Shawnee Mission Post and KSNT in Topeka. I also contributed to the KLC Journal and the Kansas Reflector. Before joining the Post in 2023 as a full-time reporter, I worked for the Olathe Reporter.