Written by Richard Chamberlain
thinking of movie locations, Kansas is hardly the first name that
comes to anyone’s mind. There is no Walk of Fame in downtown
Wichita. Oh sure, thoughts may wander to the yellow brick road and
some little dog named Toto. Ask any Kansan what they think about Oz
and you’re likely to get a split vote. However, it may come as a
surprise that more than 80 movies have been filmed in Kansas. Some
are independent and low-budget films you’ve probably never heard of.
Others are westerns that have utilized such locations as the
historic Cowtown attraction located in downtown Wichita. Horror
movie fans are well aware of “Carnival of Souls” or “Darkness”. And
how can we forget about “The
Beast from the Beginning of Time”? However, one film that
is often misunderstood is “King Kung Fu”.
Never heard of the tale of a
talking gorilla trained in the ancient art of kung fu? Don’t feel
bad. It is another almost forgotten piece of cinematic lore.
The movie is full of locations still present in Wichita today. We have several scenes at the Sedgwick County Zoo, then only three years old. We witness a baseball game with the Wichita Aeros at the legendary Lawrence-Dumont Stadium and see several dinner scenes at the Rock Road Pizza Hut, the national pizza chain that was founded in Wichita. We spend some time at the Joyland amusement park including the death defying roller coaster (death defying because one wonders how it’s still standing). Sadly, this has been closed for years and, despite recent efforts to reopen it, time and Mother Nature have left the vandalized park crumbling and a local eyesore. We also get to see what was then the tallest building in Wichita: the downtown Holiday Inn. On a darker note, this was also the same location for a sniper shooting in 1976 when Michael Soles killed three people and wounded seven others. It has since been converted into an apartment building and continues to struggle to leave its’ dark history in the past. It overshadows the fun for those of us who remember the shooting.
The only two cast members of note are Jim Erickson and Tom Leahy. Jim Erickson, who played our sensei Alfunku, was a film professor at Wichita State University from 1966 until his retirement in 1997. Despite being a local movie host he is also a film critic who continues to provide review for a local public radio station. Tom Leahy is a name some may remember from “The Beast from the Beginning of Time”, that other Wichita film from 1965. While he did help with some of the costumes and makeup, his main contribution was that of the John Wayne inspired sheriff. Both performances are campy but highlights of the film. They had some talent while much of the rest of the cast are amateurish at best. It is sad that Tom Leahy is not listed on IMDB, a major oversight that will hopefully be corrected someday.
The movie never made millions but it did see the light of day unlike “The Beast”. Production was started in 1974 and producer Bob Walterscheid claims they were the first to use the new 16mm negative film. He also claims that had they finished on time they would have been out before “Airplane” hit the theaters and it may have been given more respect than it received. However, financial setbacks prevented the film from being released until 1987. The film was “blown up” for a 35mm theatrical release and received its’ theatrical debut at the long-gone Crest Theatre in Wichita. It reportedly played in 11 theaters across the country and was sold to Japan, Taiwan and Poland. It later saw a one-night film revival when it played as a fundraiser at the Wichita Orpheum Theatre. The audience loved the film and laughed throughout, pleasing Bob Walterscheid as they truly understood it as the comedy it was always meant to be.
Despite all of the best intentions from Bob Walterscheid and
director Lance Hayes, the movie never lives up to its’ potential. It
could have its own place alongside other parody films but it suffers
from some very poor acting and a very badly edited climax. The
helicopter sequence and confrontation atop the Holiday Inn are
clearly where the production ran out of movie. Quality of the film
stock also varies greatly. Even with our cheese hats firmly on, the
sequence comes across looking like a very bad student film and
causes what was an occasionally funny film to end very flat.
However, if you are a fan of such “disaster” films, then I would
recommend “King Kung Fu” if for no other reason than to see what is
essentially a forgotten local project. Unlike “The Beast from the
Beginning of Time”, “King Kung Fu” is easily available on DVD. I
doubt this cinematic classic will ever get the Blu-ray treatment, so
don’t hold your breath waiting for the high-definition, remastered,
extended director’s cut edition. The movie is far from a classic but
is an interesting glimpse back at a simpler time when a filmmaker
would dream of seeing his work on the big screen rather than a
direct-to-DVD release or a Saturday night SyFy original.