Pocahontas has become a Mecca for live theater enthusiasts

by George Jared ([email protected]) 1,369 views 

When Kelly Grooms stepped on to the stage of the newly established Downtown Playhouse in Pocahontas, it was a place he knew well.

More than a quarter century earlier, he built that stage with his own hands when the building, located near the town’s courthouse square, was The Imperial Dinner Theatre. The Imperial opened a much larger facility and Grooms, a technical director, actor, director, and jack-of-all-theater trades moved with it. A little over three years ago, he and two investors decided to open a new theater in their old stomping grounds. Since the Downtown Playhouse opened, they’ve attracted about 6,000 theater goers and most of them are from out of town, Grooms told Talk Business & Politics.

“I think our audience really likes the work we do,” Grooms said. “There is no better sound in the world than hearing the lobby doors open and listening to the people walk in. The room fills with anticipation just before the show begins. There’s nothing better than that.”

Grooms, 53, has been connected to the arts scene in Northeast Arkansas for decades. He’s the director and an instructor with the fine arts program at Black River Technical College. He has directed plays at The Forum in Jonesboro. He’s acted, directed, and built sets for many plays through the years, but nothing prepared him for the task of renovating the old building. Local investors Mike Dunn and Jake Foster approached him about the project. Dunn and Foster wanted it restored to its former glory when it first opened as a movie theater in 1941.

He understood their sentiments, but he had other ideas. He wanted the interior of the theater to look urban grunge, similar to the hollowed store front on Beale Street in Memphis. This theme is popular with younger generations and he wanted to appeal to them. The walls were covered with dramatic artworks of some of the most famous plays ever, including “Death of a Salesman,” “Les Miserables,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” and others. His son, Walter, did the artwork. Audience members sit at candle lit tables and enjoy a beverage and dessert before the show begins. There are several downtown restaurants within walking distance, and the inside of the theater has a Memphis-style blues club feel to it.

The room seats 100 people and it’s arranged in tiers so that before and after the performance and during breaks audience members can easily converse with each other. About $156,000 was raised to buy and renovate the building, but Grooms and many volunteers did virtually all the reconstruction work on their own time, saving an untold amount of money, he said. Almost a third of the costs were tied to a new lighting system. The renovation took more than a year, but the theater opened in July, 2015. In homage to Dunn and Foster, two lighted sconces from the original movie theater were placed at the entrance.

One problem with the building was the actual stage area. It’s a relatively small space and the intricate pulley system he had grown accustomed to at the Imperial would never fit above or behind the stage. It limits what they can do in terms of technical operations, but it has made them more creative, he said. The stage is built like a television studio, and is lighted much the same way.

Grooms’ odyssey into the theater world began at an early age. He visited the set of “Sanford and Sons,” and “Hollywood Squares” in his youth. He was mesmerized when his class went to the play, “Willie Wonka and the chocolate factory.” The production, on the University of Southern California campus, had many technical aspects that appealed to him. When he got to college, he took classes on set design and lighting, while many of his classmates took acting courses. The acting and directing opportunities came, and when they did he had the technical expertise to help build a community theater, he said. One of his favorite pastimes is to read a script.

“I love reading the script, taking in the color and watching a character jump off a page,” he said.

The Downtown Playhouse has raised all of its money through private donations and is an all volunteer organization. Two other members, Marketing Director C.J. Johnson and Carol Belford-Lewallen have been critical to the theater’s success, Grooms said. The two constantly drive to promote the theater across the region, he said.

“They have been wonderful for the arts in Pocahontas,” he said.

The theater will open “Steel Magnolias” in July and the Gothic thriller, “The Woman in Black” will open in October. Grooms tries to have three shows per season, and in the future he hopes to direct at least one play a year at The Forum. Each year, he tries to incorporate two comedies/musicals with one drama or a serious play.

Many of his friends ask him why he spends so much time late at night at the theater building sets with his children or rehearsing for plays. His answer is simple.

“This is my duck hunting. This is what I love to do,” he said.

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