Raising the Curtain

These days, life’s returning to abandoned “movie palaces,” proving that, yes, the show must go on

NOWADAYS, it’s not so easy to picture. Bleached by the sun, their colors faded, the people gone, the places once appropriately dubbed movie palaces are now largely lost, casualties several times over of the Great Depression, television, drive-in theaters, white flight and desegregation. Nowadays, in long-languishing downtowns, there’s not much to speak of worth anchoring. For a number of years, however, not long after the turn of the 20th century, movie palaces were all the rage, their rise paired with the advent of moving pictures and the decline of vaudeville.

Between 1914 and 1920, for example, some 4,000 theaters were raised all across the country, their facades adorned heavy with overdone, cake-batter decor specifically directed toward the lower class. As Janna Jones writes in The Southern Movie Palace: Rise, Fall and Resurrection, “The 1920s movie palace design was regarded by critics as clownish; just garish enough to wow the aesthetically uneducated.” However, as Jones goes on to say, with renewed interest from preservationists in recent years—especially since the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed “Historic American Movie Theaters, Nationwide” as the most endangered historic place for the year 2001—this has changed.

What’s more, as developers all across the country have increasingly turned their sights on downtowns—something discussed at length at a two-day summit hosted at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute on Petit Jean Mountain in August—the once faded movie palace has again become the anchor and measure of local development, giving life again as the show goes on.

Rialto Theatre | El Dorado

Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, the Rialto is set to become one of the principal anchors of downtown El Dorado’s new Murphy Arts District. Although the theater will be part of “Phase II,” the prospect of a $32 million renovation and programming that includes film festivals, traveling Broadway shows and the South Arkansas Symphony ought to be well worth the wait.

The Malco Theatre | Hot Springs

As of this writing, the theater is nearly ready to reopen, having undergone renovations for the better part of the past year. The effort is being led by magician Maxwell Blade, who purchased the theater in August 2016. (He’d previously shared the building with the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival from 1996 until 2008.) The theater, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010, will now be used for film screenings and Blade’s magic act.

The Apollo on Emma | Springdale

After declining through the 1970s as the then-owner turned to X-rated films to stay afloat, the theater was closed in 1975 (obscenity charges followed as well). Efforts to use the space in the ’80s and ’90s were short-lived. The theater closed in 1995. Threatened with demolition in 2014, the theater was saved when Springdale natives Tom Lundstrum and Brian Moore purchased the building. After years of renovation, the space reopened as an events venue in August.

Rialto Community Arts Center | Morrilton

A full renovation was completed in 2000, and the Rialto reopened as a community arts center. For the past 17 years, the Rialto has hosted live events, becoming a central hub for the community.