The B&Bs: Family, film and 'popcorn … front and center'
Their success is only the stuff of movies, you might think, particularly on this Oscar weekend 2017.
Picture a little Missouri town in 1924, five years before the first Academy Awards ceremony, and a slender young man named Elmer Bills. He launched what became a diehard family enterprise when he bought the Lyric movie house in Salisbury, Mo., then married the pretty teen who played piano to silent films.
That’s just Mom’s side — the Bills side — of today’s Bagby clan in Liberty, home to B&B Theatres. Remaining as family-run as any business can be, B&B is among the 10 largest movie chains in the nation with more than 400 screens.
We’ll get to the company’s growth, but first let’s turn to Dad’s side of B&B. Bob Bagby’s story begins with a spunky Sterling Bagby, who was only 10 when hired for the concession counter at one of Elmer Bills’ theaters.
Sterling married Pauline, a ticket seller, and the couple formed a traveling circuit of film showings to the rural Midwest. In the 1950s came son Bob, who then cycled back and married a Bills gal named Bridget, daughter of Elmer Bills Jr. and popcorn girl Amy.
Fasten your seat belts, as Bette Davis famously said. More B’s are coming:
Bob and Bridget Bagby raised Bobbie, Brittanie and Brock to work grunt jobs and learn the management ropes in the family’s theater holdings.
Through it all the kids would discuss their futures with Mom and Dad in the dining room. They’d sample other pursuits in college — only to become B&B vice presidents.
Millennials, all three.
At 27, Brock Bagby, vice president of programming and business development, is the youngest of the fourth generation of theater operators of one B or another.
“I do think we have a competitive edge being a multigenerational family,” said middle child Brittanie. “We’ll sit around a table in one of our homes and come up with all these new ideas.”
For those of you taking notes, her full married name as B&B’s vice president of business affairs is Brittanie Beth Bagby Baker.
In this crazy world of cinema a fixation on Bs, though cute, might strike some as not amounting to a hill of beans (Humphrey Bogart, “Casablanca,” best picture for 1943). But it matters when marketing this outfit as an inseparable collection of people who love each other as much as they love movies.
And what matters a bunch to B&B’s bottom line is Brittanie Beth Bagby Baker’s point about a “multigenerational family.”
Amid decades of dread about the fate of film — a word that no longer even applies to most movie houses, since these days it’s mostly about hard drives and satellite beams — America’s millennials are driving the customer experience to a higher level that’s actually turning profits.
B&B is at a leading edge of the wave: Supersized screens and sound. Leather seats that recline at the press of an electric button.
Cocktail bars. Cotton candy made fresh daily. Dinner at some places. And B&B boasts the widest seating aisles in the industry — 84-inch lanes, broader than most sidewalks — for stepping in front of the electric recliners without brushing against elevated shoes.
“Millennials are always seeking the ultimate. They want that premium experience,” said Brittanie.
It has been known for a while. Industry titan AMC Entertainment, based in Leawood, helped write the book on roomy recliners in the movie palace. AMC, like hard-charging B&B, has survived for decades in the face of skeptics’ pronouncements of a dying pastime, which now thrives in part because many theater owners made a night out more luxurious, not less.
For the last two years box office receipts nationwide have set records.
Past generations of the Bagbys and the Bills could not have imagined this, right? Or maybe they could.
In 2017, after all, the aim is the same: “It’s showtime!” (That line has been worked into more than 450 films, according to the movie-quote website Subzin.)
In the 93 years since Elmer Bills Sr. bought the Lyric in Salisbury, the family business has seen the coming of sound, color, widescreen, digital, 3-D, endless series of slasher flicks, stadium seating, high-back rocker chairs with cup holders and now leather electric recliners between 84-inch wide walkways.
B&B’s big breakout happened in 2014 when the company acquired Overland Park-based Dickinson Theatres, which operated 169 screens in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Florida and Texas. Until then, “we were all pretty low-key in the marketplace,” said B&B president and chief executive Bob Bagby.
When they were buying Dickinson, he and wife Bridget Bagby, co-owner of B&B, made sure to gather their three children around a family table again. “Now, are you sure this is the way you want to go?” Bob asked. “We can always sell if you’re not committed.”
Count us in, said Bobbie, Brittanie and Brock.
Over the generations the Bagby and Bills families used a variety of techniques to draw younger members into the operation.
The late patriarch Elmer Bills Sr. planted nickels in his theaters when assigning his children to cleaning duty. Uncovering just three nickels while sweeping under seats more than covered the price of a movie ticket.
“That’s when a loaf of bread was a nickel,” said Elmer Bills Jr., now in his 80s. As for planting money, “I held on to that trick for my own kids.”
The Bills’ line of theaters expanded by the mid-20th century to include venues mostly on the main drags of small Missouri communities.
About this time Sterling Bagby (he who was hired by the elder Bills) and wife Pauline revved up the Bagby Traveling Picture Show, screening movies in rural schools, barns and parks.
The Bagbys wound up in the western Kansas town of Stockton. A family of seven, including youngster Bob, resided in a one-bedroom home above the concessions of the Park Drive-In.
Through a big picture window they watched nighttime flicks.
Bob considered the swing sets beneath the screen his playground. Some of his earliest memories are cleaning toilets and washing the windshields of customers motoring in.
“I thought I had the best place to live in town,” Bob said.
The families Bills and Bagby maintained their friendship the whole time. A young Bridget Bills and Bob Bagby knew each other from such a young age, neither can recall a first date — nor a first movie they watched together.
Bridget began serving up concessions “soon as I was old enough to sell popcorn standing on top of a stool.” And Bob shares the same memory of his boyhood, stool included.
As a Kansas State University student, Bob toyed with other career options, maybe music or accounting. But movie magic and family interests would “pull me back in,” he said. (Al Pacino in “The Godfather Part III,” 1990.)
Upon their marriage, Bridget and Bob joined forces with their parents to formally launch B&B Theatres in 1980.
Think about 1980.
Cable TV was ready to catch fire. HBO already was a thing. Videocassette recorders and films on tape were coming out — all signs of the sure decline of movie theaters, the experts agreed.
B&B defied the commercial wisdom with every step — including the acquisition three years ago of two Kansas City area drive-ins, the Twin and the I-70, from Darryl Smith.
Drive-in proprietor Smith was 67, faced with pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace obsolete celluloid projectors with digital systems. “For an old geezer like me, I wasn’t sure about it,” Smith told The Star at the time.
The Bagbys made the investment partly out of a belief that drive-ins were not yet dead and “for me, a little out of nostalgia,” said Bob. “I’d grown up at a drive-in.”
Still showing: Magic
Last autumn, B&B Theatres upgraded 14 auditoriums of the former WestGlen 18 in Shawnee, which the family acquired in the Dickinson deal. Four more screens are under renovation.
To convert one ho-hum theater into the company’s patented “Grand Screen,” crewss dug six feet into the earth, replaced 550 tight seats with 210 cushy recliners, and piped in 100,000 watts of sound.
For some customers, the final years of the old WestGlen had brought to mind a film noir line: “What a dump” (Bette Davis, again, in “Beyond the Forest,” 1949).
“Yeah, it was a little dumpy,” said customer Debra Hill of Kansas City, Kan. “Now it’s terrific. My husband and I come here about three times a week.”
Besides the Shawnee multiplex, B&B’s local holdings include the Lee’s Summit 16, KC Northland 14, Overland Park 16, Grain Valley Marketplace 8, Harrisonville Cineplex and Extreme Screen Union Station. The company has temporary offices in Gladstone with plans to relocate to Liberty, where a new 12-screen complex is in the works at the Liberty Commons project.
Liberty Mayor Lyndell Brenton said: “The smallest screen in that new theater is supposed to be bigger than the biggest screen in the old theater.”
The Bagbys’ ascent into the movie-palace major leagues hasn’t changed them, Brenton said. “They’re still salt of the earth … the type of folks where a deal by handshake works.”
The oldest of the fourth generation — Bobbie Bagby, vice president of marketing — resides near Hollywood to be close to the studios. When she arrived a decade ago, “people here already knew about the family,” she said. “What’s probably changed is the weight we carry.
Important contacts “now might cross the street to greet you instead of just waving from the other side,” Bobbie said.
The sheer magic of it all, what matters to the viewing public, may never be lost on kid brother Brock. He was certain from his first days of sweeping under seats that he’d make this industry his career.
From those summer days of attending what the family called “film school” in Grandpa Elmer’s living room — where the showings ranged from “Citizen Kane” to “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” — to today’s VIP-style screenings delivered digitally with the push of a button, Brock Bagby thinks this story just gets better.
“The coolest thing for my sisters and me is to have gone through these transitions,” Brock said.
With sequels to follow.