Before the age of television, movie theaters thrived in small-town Arkansas and America.
In Lawrence County, for example, there were no fewer than nine venues: three in Walnut Ridge, two in Black Rock, two in Imboden, one in Alicia and one in Ravenden.
Today only the stark shell of the Sharum Theatre in Walnut Ridge remains, a dark sentinel on a stagnant Main Street corner.
Lawrence is one of 36 Arkansas counties that saw its population shrink after the last census, and in many of those counties are old movie theaters in assorted conditions.
Some stand empty, like the Sharum; some have been transformed for other business purposes. Still others have undergone attempted or limited renovations with varying degrees of success.
A precious few have been gloriously restored to a state of like-new—or even better-than-new—luster.
I saw one such example on a recent trip to Tyler, Texas, where the downtown Liberty Theater had been purchased by the city, which then partnered with a local arts group to raise $1 million for its restoration.
The renamed Liberty Hall is state-of-the-art functional, with digital sound and lighting and a high-definition screen, and eye-popping beautiful, with its sparkling marquee, freshly painted façade and spic-and-span, architecturally appealing interior.
It’s used for live performances (like the East Texas Symphony), for showing old movies (It’s A Wonderful Life runs in December), for class reunions, for birthday parties (think of Sixteen Candles onscreen as a backdrop), and for corporate and community gatherings and presentations.
Tyler is a prosperous town of 100,000 souls with sufficient affluence to not only have a master plan, which named the theater renovation as a priority, but to execute it. Most Arkansas Delta counties are neither prosperous nor populous (more than half of the counties that lost population are in that region), and in fact are struggling against threatening demographic trends.
The slow spiral of decline is self-consuming: Local economies suffer as jobs are lost and amenities get stripped away; residents who have to travel to other towns for entertainment also wind up eating there, perhaps working there, and eventually moving there.
Returning from the visual smorgasbord of Liberty Hall to drive by the boarded-up Sharum Theatre, it occurred to me that one way the state might help counties losing population is to establish a theater-preservation fund.
There are incentives available for new city parks—but in the mosquito-infested Delta summers, toting kids to playgrounds or picnic areas is often more torture than recreation. Why not incentivize local theater-going?
The single biggest barrier to any preservation project, particularly theaters (because of equipment costs on top of restoration), is the upfront construction cost. With small audiences, it’s impossible to get enough return on that initial investment.
But what return does the state or taxpayers receive on parks that get little use? Parks and outdoor recreation facilities aren’t expected to earn a financial return because they’re considered to improve quality of life and community.
For counties and small towns in the Delta, restored movie theaters would provide greater improvement in those areas than parks. To begin with, in most instances they would convert eyesores into something appealing—and possibly spark revitalization and redevelopment.
And just as theaters were originally popular because they often offered air-conditioning when many homes didn’t, they would still provide sanctuary from the bugs and heat/humidity that reduce the summertime popularity of parks.
Royalty costs for retrospective films are small; even the venerable Orpheum Theatre in Memphis only charges $7 to watch Casablanca.
The cultural advantage of coupling classic movies with big screens, popcorn and other concessions in historic settings is far superior to what most parks in economically depressed counties deliver. After funding the purchase and restoration (and accessing whatever additional historical- or arts-related monies might apply from other sources), the state would require local leased operation either by a nonprofit group or investors. Applicants/recipients would have to submit a valid business plan demonstrating a path to successful utilization.
Local arts groups are famous for tenacity; their “show must go on” mentality shines in run-down facilities. Caretaking of (and performing in) newly restored settings would multiply their minions and energies.
Right off the bat, a number of good candidates come to mind:
Mississippi County lost more than 10 percent of its population in the 2010 census, and is home to both the Melody Theater in Leachville and the Ritz in Blytheville.
Lawrence County has lost 1,500 manufacturing jobs in the past decade; with no golf course, no bowling alley and no theater, restoration of the Sharum would have a transformative effect on “things to do” in town.
Woodruff County’s population dropped 17 percent. Who knows what restoring Augusta’s dilapidated Lura Theatre to its storied magnificence for Saturday matinees might do for local economic development?
There’s the Maxie Theatre in Poinsett County (Trumann), the State Theatre in Clay County (Corning), the Siegel/Ritz Theater in Desha County (McGehee) and many, many more (see cinematour.com).
Unlike parks (who rents a park?), restored theaters would have revenue streams, and most importantly, local champions looking to improve their own community. That makes it at least worth exploring.