Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Theaters in White County

I'm not sure if I've before mentioned my love for the Rialto theater in Searcy.

I loved this place from the very onset of arriving at Harding for its simple charm, marvelous art-deco stucco style and reasonable $1 ticket fee. I cherish it more now for its status as one of the last of its kind.

The Rialto opened sometime in the 20s as the Grand theater, burned, and was later reopened as its present identity. The current owner is a man named Victor Weber, who has owned theaters all over White County and is proud never to have shown an R-rated film (with the exception of The Passion of the Christ). Once when we were in line to see Twilight (mainly to laugh at it), Victor came out and expressed his joy and surprise at having his theater featured on the covered of the new edition of the White County phone book.

But wait. Did I say theaters all over white county? Yes, I did. Currently, if somebody wants to see up-to-date films, they have to go to Cinema 8 in Searcy, which is not much more than a brick shoebox sitting at the back of a moonscape-esque parking lot. The next closest theater is in Cabot. Both theaters are owned by a man named Slick, about whom the less said, the better.

It hasn't always been so. Fifty years ago, most of the small towns around here had their own theater.

The above is Judd theater, Judsonia, sometime in the 1940s. The girl pictured worked in the ticket booth during that time period. I might have been able to see Arsenic and Old Lace here.

Here it is now. The only way I know this is the theater is because of the stamp in the concrete by the door ("Judd Theater 1944," and the same raised area the girl is standing in front of). I have no idea if anything remains of the actual building behind that corrugated steel. Someday I plan to find out.

A theater in Bald Knob. I don't know anything about this theater except that it lines the street opposite the Missouri-Pacific Depot.

What's left of the theater in Kensett. It was owned at some point by Victor Weber. What you see in this picture is essentially all that remains. There is no building beyond the front facade. Weirdly, there was a hospital stretcher in the ticket booth. Note the door on the left. It leads to stairs which would have gone up to the balcony, which is where folks who weren't white had to sit. The Rialto has a similar door, but the balcony isn't in use these days.

The theater in Beebe (known variously as the Pioneer Theater, Radio Theater and Palace Theater). Note the same kind of balcony door. Apparently they do karaoke in there now which somehow involves a gorilla (read the sign). Here is what the authors of Remembering Our Past have to say about this theater:

"In the 1950s you could go to the Saturday afternoon Matinee and see a cartoon, serial and the movie. For 20 cents you got in the show and had enough money for a coke and a bag of popcorn. We usually did not get first run movies but we did get quite a variety. One movie would be shown on Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday afternoon and Saturday night. Another movie would be shown on Sunday afternoon, Sunday night and Monday night. Many of us young boys saw our first female naked breast at a movie sometime in the late 50s or early 60s. The movie was And God Created Woman with Bridgett Bardot. It was quite a thrill for us but created a real controversy in town."

The lives of these small theaters were mostly ended by the advent of multi-screen theaters. Unfortunately many of the new theaters left behind any semblance of architectural creativity, figuring as long as they had a lot of screens it didn't matter. A few of the small ones, like the Rialto, have managed to hold on. That's why I treasure them so.

Look forward to more theatrical entries.


Thursday, April 23, 2009


I have quite a few things I've got on the front burners, but today I'm just going to share some pictures that don't really fit in anywhere else. I have a feeling this theme will be revisited again in the future as well. As always, click to enlarge.

Train bridge (formerly a swinging bridge), Judsonia

Gutted building, McRae

Texas Illinois Motel, Highway 367 near Bald Knob

Burgler Alarm, former First National Bank, Newport

Mural, former train bridge, Crossville IL

Courthouse, Newport

Jeep, Tuckerman

Pile of train track crossbeams, Conway

University of Arkansas, Batesville

Foamhenge, Natural Bridge VA.

Also let this serve as a note that yes, I am documenting things that come from places other than Arkansas. Because come on folks, Arkansas isn't the center of the universe.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Historic Houses in Searcy

I admit, most of my interest in historic structures lies in industrial or commercial architecture, but I still have a great appreciation for beautiful residential buildings. And one might think that Searcy is sparse in that area. Actually, one would be more or less right, at least in comparison to the rest of the populated world. So appreciating the architecture in Searcy takes a bit more patience with the ruinous nature of its old buildings.

To start off, this is the original Yarnell family home. They currently have a not-too-modest mansion up in the Golf Course district. This home is apparently located on 200 East Center Street, but I am not sure if it still stands. That's a project still to be undertaken.

This is labeled as the "T.J. Trawick Home," but I'm not sure who that is. Observant walkers on Center Street may have seen this house. This picture was taken in 1955; the building still stands today (I will probably take a picture of it later).

The main thing I wanted to talk about today goes back to our old friend the Historical Register. When I printed out that document for White County, I found a huge number of houses listed in Searcy. Jenna and I set out to find as many as we can, and we got burned out pretty quickly. Here's just a sampling of what's on the list.

Unfortunately I have no juicy details about any of the history of these houses, I just know they are registered for whatever reason (most of them under the vague category of "architecture"). But the saddest thing is the inevitable mortality of buildings; even the Register is unable to keep many from being obliterated.

The above are two vacant lots which, according to the Register, once contained houses of some value. Most of the entries on the list were made in the early 90s, which leaves almost 20 years of time for contractors to fold their bills and nod at the bulldozers.

Even Harding isn't innocent of the destruction of historic property. In fact, Harding bulldozed one of their own historic buildings not too long ago. Many of you might remember the old Sears Honors House, which was located more or less where the new Thornton education palace stands. The house was on the register, along with Pattie Cobb Hall and one or two other Harding buildings which thankfully still stand.

Out with the old, in with the new, that's what they say...


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Combo Car No. 57

Didn't mean for a week's gap between posts, but oh well. It's bound to happen sometimes.

The mid-to-late 19th century is about as old as you get here in Arkansas, at least when you're talking about the country as we know it. And in the late 1800s the railroads were still going strong. Passenger cars were wood-and-iron boxes which could carry a few dozen folks and sometimes even included a toilet or a stove.

The Missouri/North Arkansas line went right through Searcy, right past that dismal white building which I featured a couple of posts ago. Combo car no. 57 (a brother of no. 55, pictured above), built in 1894, was one of those wooden carriers and probably spent a lot of time yukking it up with no. 58 and no. 60 (I don't know anything about no. 59) during its long life.

Here's our no. 57 bringing up the rear of his family, adjacent to car no. 55 who is receiving some mail. No. 57 was also a mail car. At some point, partitions were placed in no. 57, adjusting its passenger capacity to "20W 14C." That's 34 folks total; I'll let you figure out what "W" and "C" stood for.

By 1949, no. 57 was retired and the Missouri/North Arkansas line was beginning to disintegrate. The old car sat and watched as the tracks were swept away like leaves, and time finally robbed no. 57 of its trucks (its iron wheel housings), deserting the car on Oak street in Searcy. Somewhere down the road the car was converted into a residence, but eventually that too fell away. In the end, car no. 57 was in a salvage yard and was scheduled for destruction.

But in 2007 the White County Historical Society came to its rescue.

The first time I saw this car sitting next to the restored depot in Bald Knob, I was like "wow, that's a really moldy old train car!" I later came to find out out that not only is it very old and very moldy, it's also one of the last of its kind. It's the only known surviving car of the Missouri/North Arkansas line. The Historical Society is currently working on restoring the car, and they have a lot more data on it at their website, from which I also borrowed the above historical photos.

There are a couple images of the interior of car no. 57. Now I'm just going to have to see if I can get old 57 to get together with the caboose at Riverside on the other end of town...


Sunday, April 5, 2009

Trains and Rumors of Trains

I have to admit I'm becoming mildly obsessed with the life and death of the passenger train culture in the United States. Sometimes I feel the only thing I want more than a complete collection of 1980s Transformers is the ability to put on a pin-striped suit and take a Streamliner all the way across the state of Arkansas. Of course even the futuristic Streamliners failed to save the railroad industry, despite the fact that they made the 1950s look a hundred times cooler than they actually were.

The partially decomposed remains of a motel sit along the ghostly tracks less than a mile from the old Searcy depot (discussed last time). Although I'm not sure about this one, inns and hotels would often be situated near railroads for ease of access. Looks like one of the buildings is now used for some kind of counseling group, though the white plywood over the windows is shudder-worthy. As these little motor pools died slowly, the big hotels popped up on the other side of town. Evidently Searcy is one of the few towns in White County which actually flourished after the big freeways came in.

Click to see the picture of the last passenger train leaving Batesville in 1960. We found this in the Independence County Museum of Batesville, a friendly little place housed in a former armory. The back room contains a generous archive of Arkansas history which may come in handy in the future.

But after seeing that picture I couldn't leave Batesville without trying to find the site upon which those folks stood 49 years ago. With the help of the museum's curator, we did find it.

The Batesville Depot. The right side of it has been added on to, and there was a chain fence stopping me from taking a picture of the less altered left side. There seems to be a business in the added-on-to section, but we didn't really want to go in to find out (the windows were covered with U.S. flags so we couldn't see in...). You can see from the second picture that the rear of the building has been covered with corrugated steel with some of the original (beautiful) structure peeking out over it.

There are still tracks all over the place near the old depot, with freight cars sitting on tracks and a few abandoned old buildings rising over barbed-wire fences. The whole place smells like chemicals from the chicken plant a short distance from the depot.

Next time we'll finish out this train series for a while with a look at what may be the last remaining wooden passenger car in the state of Arkansas.