The Melba In Batesville

A Century of Movies

Within a decade of Edison's 1903 eight-minute movie, "The Great Train Robbery," silent motion pictures were playing in almost every Arkansas town. In larger cities, opera houses were quickly converted to movie theaters and Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore, Charlie Chaplin and Lillian Gish became household names.

Smaller communities were thrilled when "tent movies" stopped and ran one-reelers for a few days. Operating on a circuit schedule, the "traveling picture shows" were shown after dark, inside a tent that might seat up to 100 people. A hand-cranked projector could churn out an entire movie in about 15 minutes, so it was often repeated to the same audience for the admission price of ten cents.

If movies killed vaudeville, it was a slow death in Arkansas. Live stage shows often shared the billing with silent movies throughout the Roaring '20s and well into the 1930s. In fact, the first silent movies were played in theaters as "fillers" between live acts. As films improved and grew in length and quality, they received top billing and live stage acts became the sideshow entertainment.

Movies Take Over the House

The Landers Theater in Batesville is a prime example of how the movie industry started in Arkansas. Built about 1906 on upper Main Street, the three-story, stone-and-brick building was designed with a stage for traveling thespians. Originally named the Gem Opera House, by 1923 it was a full-fledged movie theater, with stage acts appearing only several times each year. Humorist-actor Will Rogers and several other cowboy actors made personal appearances at the Landers, along with scheduled beauty pageants and benefit shows. The first "talking picture" to appear in the region premiered at the Landers in April of 1931.

To many movie fans, the first "talkies" were a nuisance - with unsynchronized sound and constant interruptions from the projection room. It would take Arkansas-native Freeman Harry Owens (1890-1979) to perfect a sound-on-film system that revolutionized the movie business. Born in Pine Bluff in 1890, Owens was a boyhood friend of Max Aaronson, who became the first starring cowboy in Westerns. Aaronson changed his name to Gilbert Anderson, but the nation knew him as "Bronco Billy." By 1926, he had starred in more than 400 movies. Anderson gave Owens his first job in movies - operating a silent movie camera. By the time he retired, Owens held patents to some 2,000 improvements in photography and cinematography.

From just after the Batesville theater opened until it closed in the 1990s, three generations of the Landers family operated it. The stately old building, with its trademark nude lighting fixtures on the interior walls and colorful neon marquee, was remodeled numerous times. Since closing, the Landers has been used on several occasions to host live music performances. Although the theater has deteriorated much since the movies quit showing, a new owner is working to restore the building.

Other proposed restorations in Arkansas include The New Theatre in Fort Smith. Built as a playhouse for the performing arts in 1911, the handsome 1200-seat opera house may have been the most impressive ever constructed in the state. Designed by the Boller Brothers of Kansas City, the New Theatre was styled after the famous New Amsterdam Theater in New York. During its early years, the Fort Smith theater hosted acts such as magician Harry Houdini and child actress Shirley Temple. It also hosted silent movie showings and eventually became aYour Sport Gear Carriers are Here part of the Malco Theatre chain by the 1930s. The majestic old opera and movie house, with its double balcony and ornate decorations, closed in the 1970s and has remained vacant. In 1995, a citizens group called "Music Fort Smith" purchased the property with plans to restore the facility for public use.

Stephens Inc. President and CEO Warren Stephens recently purchased the Center Theater in downtown Little Rock and reportedly plans to turn property - closed for more than 25 years - into a combination cabaret and vintage movie theater.

Gone With the Wind

Movie theater chains were in place by the 1930s, and one of the South's largest was the Malco group. In 1936, Hot Springs and Fort Smith each had four Malco Theatres; Fayetteville and Pine Bluff had three; North Little Rock, Stuttgart, Clarksville, Camden, Hope, Helena, Newport, Jonesboro, Paragould and Morrilton, two; and Bentonville, Springdale, Conway and Smackover each had one. The number of movie houses in Arkansas peaked after World War II, when communities with less than 200 citizens often had a theater, usually open on weekends only.

Television and better roads arrived in the 1950s, contributing to the closing of many small community movie theaters. But most Arkansans could tune in to only two or three TV stations, so the movie business in small towns remained strong until cable and video cassette players arrived. Multi-screen cinemas in shopping malls also took a toll on old downtown theaters, but more than 20 have survived as live stage playhouses, dinner theaters and movie venues.

Standing the Test of Time

Surviving Arkansas theaters - listed alphabetically by town:

Batesville - The Melba - built in 1940 at 115 W. Main, closed in the early 1990s and stood vacant until 2000 when it was refurbished and opened for weekend movies and musical concerts. It has been used during Ozark Foothills Film Festival events.

Benton - The Royal Theatre - a vintage property at 111 S. Market St., was renovated by actor Jerry Van Dyke in the 1990s following the end of his television show, "Coach." Today, the Central Arkansas Community Players own the theater, and live productions are presented throughout the season.

Berryville - Main Theatre - at 207 S. Main St., has been in continuous operation since it was built in the 1950s. Live entertainment was presented on the theater's large stage during its early years. The current owner purchased the 200-seat theatre in 1974 and schedules most film showings on weekends only.

Blytheville - The Ritz - an early-1900s Main Street opera house, was restored to its 1951 art deco appearance in the 1990s. Movies and stage productions are scheduled throughout the year. It is the home of the local Arts Council, and exhibits are debuted monthly in the large lobby.

Booneville - Savage Theatre - at 20 N. Broadway, was built about 1947 and continues to screen movies on weekends.

El Dorado - The Rialto Theatre - was built in 1929 at 117 E. Cedar St. at a cost of $250,000. The Classical Revival structure seated 1400 persons and featured stage productions and performances and motion pictures in its early years. First owned by the Clark and McWilliams families, the Rialto continued in operation until 1980. New owners, Richard and Vertis Mason, restored and reopened the theatre in 1987. It again maintains a regular schedule of movies.

Harrison - The Lyric Theatre - built in 1929 on the north side of the Boone County Courthouse Square, operated until 1977. It remained closed until purchased by the Ozark Arts Council in 1999. Renovation is almost complete and live productions have been staged during the ongoing construction. A schedule of classic movies are slated to start soon, with new projection equipment. Colorful wall murals painted by a traveling artist in 1931 are unique features of the 409-seat art deco theatre.

Harrisburg - The Radio Theatre - at 100 Center St., no longer shows movies, but gospel music is staged in the building on Saturday nights and for special events.

Heber Springs - The Gem Theater - was built in 1942 on East Main St. in the popular art deco style. The 250-seat building closed in the late 1970s, but remained in use as a music hall from time to time. Purchased by the Cleburne County Arts Council in 1995, the theater was restored for live stage productions. An art gallery occupies a part of the expanded lobby area.

Helena - The Malco - at 424 Cherry St., has been remodeled to host special events and gospel programs. It serves as a gospel stage during the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival in October that features nationally known singers, groups and musicians.

Hot Springs - The Malco - at 817 Central Ave., was constructed in 1935 to replace the Princess Theatre (built in 1910), that was partially destroyed by fire in 1935. The Malco was renovated in 1962 and again in 1995. It is also known as the Maxwell Blade Theatre of Magic since the live show started in 1996. In addition, the theater hosts events sponsored by the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute, including film festivals.

Jonesboro - The Forum - At 115 E. Monroe was opened in 1926 as the Strand Theatre. With some 700 seats, it was the region's largest theater for more than 40 years. Restored in the late 1970s, the Forum is city-owned and operates under an independent commission. It is used for live stage productions and musical concerts.

Malvern - The Ritz Theatre - at 213 S. Main St., opened in the 1930s and continues a daily schedule during most of the year.

Mena - The Lyric - at 610 Mena St., opened in 1923. At the time, it was Mena's only auditorium and the brick building was used for public events including school assemblies. Price McCall was the original owner of the Lyric, which had more than 400 seats. The theater closed in the spring of 1982. The Ouachita Little Theatre purchased and was restoring it when a tornado almost destroyed the building in 1993. The Lyric was rebuilt, but is smaller, with 225 seats. It continues to serve the local community theater and is a popular spot for musical programs throughout the year.

Morrilton - The Rialto - is a restored 1911 theater that has undergone extensive renovation and reopened in 2000. Live stage performances and musical shows are currently offered, and plans call for a return of classic movies.

Paragould - The Collins Theatre - at Second and W. Emerson, was first known as the "Capital Theater." Built in 1925, it originally scheduled touring vaudeville acts and motion pictures. The refurbished brick building, under the direction of the Greene County Fine Arts Council, is home of the Eastern Arkansas Ballet and hosts musicals and live stage productions.

Pine Bluff - The Saenger Theatre - opened in 1924 on West. Second St., is now part of the Old Town Theatre Centre, which also includes the Community Theatre located across the street from the Saenger. The Community opened in 1922 in a building constructed in 1889. For a brief time it was called the Berbig Theater. Today, the Community Theatre Museum shows vintage films, hosts lecture series and special events. The Saenger was designed by architect Emile Weil to seat 1500 people. The Saenger is the home of the annual Pine Bluff Film Festival in early October, and efforts continue to restore and preserve the unique structure.

Click for Outdoor GearPocahontas - The Imperial Theatre - at 302 N. Marr, was built in 1940 and served the region more than three decades. It was transformed into a dinner theatre in the 1990s with live stage plays scheduled throughout the year as well.

Searcy - The Rialto Theater - at 100 W. Race St., opened in 1923 and was remodeled with splashy neon lighting in the 1940s. It is one of only a few historic theaters that maintains a daily schedule, with matinees on weekends. The property, owned by the City of Searcy, is operated under a lease agreement.

Van Buren - King Opera House - at 427 Main St., is perhaps the only original opera house in the state that still stages live dramas and musical productions. Built in the 1880s, the King once hosted Jenny Lind and sponsored a speech by William Jennings Bryan.

Waldron - Scott Theatre - at 455 S. Main, opened in October 1930 and has been refurbished and maintained throughout the years. Today the Scott seats 340 and is open Friday through Monday.

Rogers - The Victory Theater - a two-story masonry structure, opened in December 1927 at 114 S. Second St. After closing in the early 1970s, the Victory served as a commercial business, then stood vacant until the Rogers Little Theater purchased it and started restoration efforts. It re-opened for live stage performances in December 2000. The Mediterranean-style theater was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Note: Most of the theaters mentioned in the above article are listed on the National Register of Historic Places in America. - By Craig Ogilvie, Arkansas Travel Writer.

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