June/July 2016 Issue
Cities and towns across Arkansas
were once home to community movie theaters,
many of which have fallen into disrepair.
Several initiatives are working to revitalize these structures —
here are stories of five of those projects.
Top photo: The Rialto Theatre in Morrilton before its 1952 renovation, circa 1950. Photo courtesy of the venue.
When the last kernels of corn were popped and buttered, the reels ran out and the lights were turned off for the last time, so many once-glorious movie palaces started their descent into deterioration.
Some were demolished, some were repurposed and some have been restored to their previous glory.
The stories surrounding the efforts to move them into their next scenes involve asbestos abatement, old smoking pipes, theatrical power struggles and benign hauntings, a few of which might make Hollywood proud.
The Rialto Theatre
The Morrilton Rialto, built in 1911 and completely renovated in 1952, was vacant in the early 1990s when an evangelical preacher proposed tearing it down and turning it into a parking lot.
Plans for the theater building’s demise were put off, though, and on Jan. 2, 1995, on his first day in office, then-Mayor Stewart Nelson deemed it solid.
“There were some buildings in our town that needed to come down but that wasn’t one of them,” said Nelson.
Nelson crafted a 50-year lease agreement allowing the Rialto Community Arts Center, a sub-group of the Arts Council of Conway County, to occupy the building.
“There’s a clause in it that says you have to use it, and if you don’t use it, it comes back to the city,” Nelson said.
Use it they have.
“Instead of turning it into just a movie place, they built a stage with curtains and lights and the whole nine yards and a big drop-down screen and turned it into a performing arts theater,” said George Hoelzeman, executive director of the arts center.
The group bought the former Massey Hardware store next door to use as an art gallery.
“Last I heard, they had raised over three quarters of a million dollars to do the renovations,” Nelson said.
The gallery houses dressing rooms for theater performers and has a kitchen where dinners are prepared for murder mystery events that feature acting by those people.
Morrilton narrowly escaped a costly fine from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality. Project leaders weren’t aware of the requirement of having an asbestos assessment done before renovating an old building, and the assessment was completed late. Because no asbestos was found, ADEQ lowered the city’s fine from $1,500 to $500.
Nelson has seen attempts to bring about the kind of scene Morrilton has in other towns fail.
“I think the secret to our success is that we have a very active group,” he said. “You can’t just do it. You have to have a group that’s willing to organize renovations; you have to have people who are going to use it to do things in.”
Gem Movie Theatre
Then again, even when there is initial failure, there can be success.
In Heber Springs, the Cleburne County Arts Council undertook renovation challenges at the Gem Theatre and used it as a venue for a few years before selling it to Sid King, who now operates it as a movie theater. King found it an attractive investment because of all of the work that went into it.
The Gem was built in 1939 and though it stopped showing movies in 1985, it did a short stint as a country music stage, the Sugar Loaf Opry. The arts council took it over in 1995.
“I think they ended up raising like $300,000 or $400,000 and ended up doing all the in-kind labor,” said King, who also owns country radio station KHPQ-FM 92.1 and oldies station KGFL 94.7-FM/1110-AM.
The arts council was still in debt from the renovations, according to King, when they accepted his offer to buy the building about eight years ago.
King shows first-run movies at the Gem, Heber Springs’ only theater.
“If Hollywood is having a great year, you’re having a great year; if they’re not, you’re not,” King said. “But last year was one of the best years we have had in three or four years.”
Ellen Hobgood, a Heber Springs gallery owner, served on the arts council during the theater’s restoration.
“They stripped it from the ground up and built it back. They found some really interesting things — an old smoker’s pipe and some other things — in the walls of the building. Those were preserved in a frame and were hanging in the theater,” said Hobgood, who painted a mural in the theater lobby. “I think it’s haunted. You might feel a cold breeze at your back or the curtains would move. I felt some things when I was there painting. It was nothing bad, just different things that made it a little more intriguing to be there.”
There were art auctions, film festivals and more, but ultimately the group lost its steam.
“It just needed a little more drive to it,” Hobgood said. “If it had had the support, if it had had someone who wanted to put the work into it and put the money back into it, it would have been a really great thing.”
The Rialto Theater
Incidentally, former Gem owner — and King’s former brother-in-law — Victor Weber is making a go of running the Rialto in Searcy.
Weber has loved movie theaters since he was a little boy, when he started bugging his family about getting ready for a 7:30 p.m. show before 3:30.
“My dad said, ‘If you like theaters so much, you ought to get you one when you’re older,’” Weber said.
That was a light bulb moment for him. He started hanging out in the theater in Cuba, Missouri, where he lived at the time, so much that the owners began letting him in for free. When he was 12, they put him to work.
The first theater he bought, in 1954, was in Kensett. He bought the Gem in February 1969, and he bought the drive-in in that town the following year. He has owned or leased theaters and drive-ins in Russellville, Beebe, Lonoke, Des Arc, McCrory, Bald Knob and others over the years, and he struck a deal with the city government of Searcy to run the Rialto in 1994.
The theater, built in 1923 — three years before Weber was born — had been used briefly as a teen center. Weber bought new seats, converted the projector from 35 mm to digital and upgraded the sound equipment, to the tune of about $85,000.
He charges $2 admission every night except Tuesday, when everyone gets in for $1. His concessions are priced lower than new cinemas as well, but he still grosses enough to stay open.
“How do I do it? Cinemas pay 70 percent of their earnings when a movie opens. I pay 35 percent. That’ll work,” he said.
Amy Burton, director of Main Street Searcy, said the Rialto building is owned by the city, while the business is operated by Weber. Its restoration is part of the Downtown Beautification Project.
Right now, the target is the exterior of the theater — the facade and the V-shaped, lighted marquee — for an estimated $65,000.
“We have received private donations, and we have received some general improvement funds from Sen. Jonathan Dismang and that will go toward the front,” she said.
The next phase is to cover the building’s interior, according to Burton.
“A lot of older citizens remember it when it was the glamorous Hollywood-style movie theater to go to, and, at that time, it was one of the primary sources of entertainment in the county,” she said. “It was a big treat to come into Searcy and go to the Rialto for a movie.”
The Rialto — and Weber — seem to hold bragging rights for Searcy.
“A lot of people see the value of saving these historic theaters because they are somewhat fleeting, but a lot of them have had to go to alternative uses because there are so many multiplex theaters and that’s where it is now,” Burton said. “So to have somebody that has the passion and the love for the movie business to keep it open, it is a unique things for us.”
Sometimes an unconventional group can be the savior of an old theater.
The KIPP Delta Public Schools signed a 10-year lease for the Malco Theater in Helena in July 2011, with intentions of using it for school productions and meetings.
KIPP secured a $110,000 grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, another $20,000 from the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, and some private donations as well, to replace the theater’s roof and make minor interior repairs.
“The building was not in use, it was in disrepair and we could potentially use it,” said Chintan Desai, project manager at KIPP and also a member of the Main Street Helena board, “so it was kind of a win for us and then also a win for the city by us putting in the money and efforts to improve the building. We were paying $5,000 for 10 years to lease the building.”
KIPP has just returned the keys to the theater to the city of Helena, however, as more expensive repairs — like heating and air conditioning system replacement — are needed.
“We’re a school system, we’re in the business of educating students, and we had to make some decisions regarding ongoing costs and all that,” Desai said.
Helena Mayor Jay Hollowell said an Austin, Texas, investor is interested in the Malco building, along with four others in downtown Helena, and that the city has asked for an appraisal on the building before possibly moving forward in negotiations.
“We’ve been blessed that KIPP has had it for the last few years,” Hollowell, who grew up in Helena, said. “We’ve got a better building now than we had before they took over the use of it.”
Sentimentality aside, having the theater restored to its former glory would be a coup for all.
“We don’t have a movie theater now — you have to travel 25-30 miles to Clarksdale or 45 miles to Forrest City or 45-50 miles to Southaven, Mississippi,” Hollowell said. “We would love to have a theater back in there so we would have something in there for our citizens.”
For each of the theaters that have been successfully reborn, there are several others in danger of going dark for good.
Come June 21, Benton Mayor David Mattingly expects an order to sell the Palace Theatre or tear it down.
The controversy over the Palace has been broiling since public backlash over its proposed demolition resulted in a six-month extension granted by the city council in September 2015, followed by another 90-day one that expires this summer.
Mattingly said an engineering firm has notified the city that the theater is a public hazard, with walls in danger of collapse, and the city council wants to be rid of the liability.
Businessman Curtis Ferguson has submitted a plan to convert the building into a cultural center. He wants the city to chip in $175,000 to stabilize the building — replacing the roof, mitigating asbestos, securing the facade — and give him the chance to raise more to support the project. Demolition would cost an estimated $324,000.
Larry Bueche, president of Friends of the Palace, wants the city to accept a similar proposal from his group to use the building as an arts and social event venue.
“People have told us that if we get the code work done they’ll donate more money,” said Bueche. “You know, ‘We don’t want to donate to something that we don’t have a guarantee on.’ Same thing with tax credits. Once we get hold of the building, people who donate toward saving it will get a 20 percent tax credit. So there is some incentive for people to do it. But, you can’t do that until you have the building.”
But Mattingly said the city council is not likely to accept anything less than outright purchase of the building.
“I’m sure Mr. Ferguson and the Save the Palace group have the best of intentions, but you don’t go to foundations and apply for grants and things and all of a sudden three days later walk out and say we’ve raised $400,000,” he said. “These things take time. So during the two years or three years or however long that goes on they want us to continue to hold the liability.”
Mattingly said he is also entertaining interest from a private investor who is considering the theater building for office space but is concerned with a lack of off-street parking.
“I understand the importance of historic memorabilia and what it means,” he said, “but also being a practical person and being aware of whatever else the city needs, I have to honor what my council, elected by their constituents, believes is prudent use of funds.”