story and photos by Jeremy Donnell, special to The City Wire
FORT SMITH — It is time for renovation at the Fort Smith Little Theatre, and officials welcome any help they can get.
Imagine a rainy evening — an excellent time to go see an indoor play. Patrons file in, admiring the Harlequin Man sculpture (a symbol of sorts for the theater) as they make their way to their seats. As they flip through the show programs, they notice the seats are really filling up. There are well over 100 people in the theater now.
They can hear the storm picking up outside, which makes them glad their inside.
Suddenly all the power goes out.
Everyone waits for it to come back on, and when it doesn’t, members of the theater come out to apologize and offer a refund on tickets. The crowd declines, many wanting to stick it out. Suddenly, the actors and crew are inspired to do whatever it takes for the show to continue. They round up all the candles and flashlights they can, and they begin the show, a giant flashlight being used as a spotlight in the middle of the aisle. During intermission, a gentleman offers to pull his car up and shine the headlights in the windows so they could see to get around.
By the time the show is over, there is wax all over the set and the crew is tired from holding the large flashlights, but everyone, especially the audience, has had an excellent time.
This did happen at the Fort Smith Little Theatre, and it serves as an example of the dedication the theater has for its community and vice versa.
“That night, members of the audience told me that was the most romantic night they had spent with their loved ones in quite a while,” said Angela Covey, president of FSLT.
It was a memorable experience that endeared them to FSLT, which is believed to be the oldest continually operated community theater in the state.
The Fort Smith Little Theatre was founded in 1947 by The Young Ladies Guild of Sparks Memorial Hospital. From the actors to the stage hands, everything about this theater has always been volunteer.
“When we started, we had absolutely no money, I am very proud of how far we have come,” said Covey. By 1952, the group had raised enough money to make a down payment on its first building, an old grocery store on North O Street. This summer, renovations will begin at the theater’s existing home of 25 years at 401 N. Sixth St.
Nancy Blochberger, funding chairman, said needed improvements will cost about $200,000, most of which has been raised. The renovation includes repairs to the theater’s heat and air system, restoration of the aforementioned Harlequin Man and preservation of the many photos and programs accumulated since 1947. The Harlequin Man statue was built by Al Reis and Jay Anderson of the Reis Art Gallery and School in the early 1960s and previously restored by Mickey Suggs in 1994. It became a symbol for the theater.
Photos, newspaper clippings, programs and posters will be scanned so that they can be maintained in digital form and used on the theater’s website and on monitors in the theater lobby. Preserving this memorabilia is a bigger project than most people realize, said Rham Cunningham, director of a recent FSLT play.
“Being a community theatre in this area for 65 years now, there's certainly a story to tell, both on and off the stage,” Cunningham said. “This is such a treasured part of our existence, and we wanted to really do something that will preserve it.”
“You can read the 1950s programs and see names from advertising and the cast that you recognize. It is like a documentary of Fort Smith,” Blochberger added.
Officials also plan to expand overhead storage and reconfigure the box office, allowing better access to supplies.
Blochberger said it’s always a challenge to keep the all-volunteer theater going, but the rewards are more than worth it. The low-cost operation helps keep ticket prices down, and an enthusiastic volunteer base helps spread the word about FSLT out in the community.
There’s always a need for actors, directors and craftsmen who can help build sets and design costumes. It’s a “true” community theater, Blochberger said, because it brings people together who may not have met otherwise. Many couples have met and married after volunteering together at FSLT.
Said Covey: “Once you catch the theater bug, it stays with you.”
FSLT's next production is Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy. A gala performance is set for May 31, followed by shows June 1-3 and June 6-9. Auditions for the upcoming Titanic/The Musical will be May 14 and 15 at Central Presbyterian Church. More information about shows, showtimes and auditions can be found here.