Entrepreneurs bring old Melba Theater back to life in downtown Batesville

by George Jared (gjared@talkbusiness.net) 1,108 views 

(Photo courtesy of Arkansas Parks & Tourism.)

Adam Curtwright’s first job was at the Melba Theater in downtown Batesville. In elementary school, he’d watched many movies on the theater’s lone screen. After he graduated from high school, Curtwright moved onto other jobs and ultimately became a banker.

But he yearned to return to the Melba, and when the building became available he, his wife, Mandy, and another couple, Joe and Janelle Shell, made a daring move.

The group pulled together about $500,000 to buy the building and perform an exhaustive renovation. It took more than a year to complete the project, but the remodeled Melba opened in August. From its open to the end of 2016, at least 18,890 tickets were sold, Curtwright told Talk Business & Politics.

“Our hearts are really into this,” Curtwright said. “This is not a money deal for us. We love this theater, and we want it to be a part of our community for a really long time.”

The Melba was originally built in 1870 as an opera house. It was later converted into a general store. In the early 1940s it was transformed into one of the first Cinemascope theaters in Arkansas. Generations had their first dates, watched their first movies, or worked their first jobs in the Melba, Curtwright said.

Single screen theaters are becoming relics. There are an estimated 39,579 indoor movie screens in the U.S., according to the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO). How many of these screens are in single screen theaters are difficult to quantify, but various published reports suggest more than 90% of screens are in multi-screen theaters, according to research by Talk Business & Politics. The remainder is divided between indoor and outdoor single screen venues.

U.S. and Canadian moviegoers spent $11.372 billion in 2016, according to the NATO, the most ever spent in a single year in history. Ticket prices have more than doubled in the last 25 years. In 1989, the average ticket sold for $3.99. Today the average is $8.68.

Melba tickets are $4 each. The theater needs to sell an average of at least 70 tickets each show to make ends meet, Curtwright said. Movies are played Thursday through Sunday, and sometimes there are two show times. Each Monday, the theater receives a list of movies that have come off first runs at larger theaters. Picking the right movies can be a difficult task. The owners try to find movies that are family-friendly, he said.

Next week, the theater will have the movie “La La Land.” The Melba plans to host several special events throughout the year. During Christmas, it had nine special Christmas movie showings. The movies were sponsored by different businesses in the community and were free to the public. “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “How the Grinch stole Christmas,” “White Christmas,” and others were played.

The most popular was “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” An old R.V. was parked in front of the theater, and an actor dressed as “Cousin Eddie,” one of the signature characters in the film greeted guests. Local bands played Christmas songs before the show.

“It was a great experience,” Curtwright said.

They plan to have other themed holidays and special weekends. Curtwright said his theater might have a “Jaws” movie marathon during the Memorial Day weekend, and could show the movie “Sandlot” during the Fourth of July.

Before the renovation work could begin, several engineering studies had to be done. The principals each have full-time jobs, and there were significant risks, Curtwright said. They developed a plan that involved acquiring the property, renovating it, and the last phase is the restoration of the balcony. A new partition wall has to be built and the seats have to be redone, he said.

The space could have been divided into two screen spaces. The problem was the screens would have to be smaller, and there would be a noise issue. They decided to keep it to one screen. The ticket booth was also placed outside in the front – homage to a bygone time.

“We wanted people to have that grand experience,” he said.

The couples spent many long nights cleaning, painting, and other jobs. One night, Curtwright’s 8-year-old Eli was in the lobby. He decided it was time for him to contribute.

“You know, I better start helping,” the boy said to his father. “This will be mine one day.”

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