Historic Theaters Conference to include discussion on downtown revitalization impact

by Jennifer Joyner (JJoyner@nwabj.com) 295 views 

Historic theaters as anchors for cultural hubs and downtown arts districts will be a topic of conversation at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Historic Theaters Conference this week, Thursday (Aug. 10) through Friday (Aug. 11) at the institute, located on Petit Jean Mountain.

Ken Stein, president and CEO of the Maryland-based League of Historic American Theaters, will present Thursday’s keynote, “The Power of Historic Theaters.” A panel on arts and live music programming will feature Austin Burrow, executive director of El Dorado Events and the Murphy Arts District (MAD); Mandi Curtwright, executive director of the Melba Theater in Batesville; and David Lyttle, executive director of the Mississippi County Arts Council and Ritz Civic Center in Blytheville.

“I’m hoping to create some possibilities of networking with other people in similar facilities,” Lyttle said.

Although the Ritz has transitioned to primarily show live performances and host events, Lyttle said he’s looking at reviving the 1920s-era venue as a first-run movie theater. The Blytheville Malco Cinema 3 closed several months ago and reopened as an Anytime Fitness location in June, so now the closest movie theater is about 45 minutes away. In recent years, the theater has shown only public domain films, he said. The Ritz has an “adequate screen,” but he is looking for better projection equipment.

“We feel a sense of respect to maintain the integrity of the history of this building, and we take a lot of pride in taking good care of it,” said Lyttle, whose organization has a contract to operate out of the city-owned property.

He said tapping into a coalition of likeminded business owners would be beneficial.

In El Dorado, the nonprofit behind MAD has spent $54 million so far on the creation of a downtown arts district in the city and in September will open an outdoor amphitheater that has a capacity for about 8,000, a 2,000-seat music hall and restaurant with a 200-seat cabaret theater, along with 2-acre children’s play scape.

The second phase of the project will include a $32 million renovation of the city’s downtown historic theater, the 1920s-era Rialto, in addition to the construction of a 10,000-square-foot art museum and artist housing. It is in the planning stages, with no start-date set, said Bob Tarren, chief marketing officer for MAD.

In Batesville, the Melba Theater opened as a cinema in 1940 and in the time since has had several owners, renovations and closures, before Curtwright, her husband Adam, with Joe and Janelle Shell, purchased the Melba in 2015 for $500,000. The group has invested about $600,000 in renovating the 410-seat theater with movie screen and stage. Construction will start soon on Phase III, the balcony, Curtwright said.

Curtwright said she turns to theater owners out of state for questions, and she would like to get to know more Arkansas theater owners by attending the conference.

“My husband and I, and our business partners, are kind of new to the theater business, so we’re hoping to make connections to other theater owners, ones that have done it for a long time, and really learn from them,” Curtwright said.

Also at the Historic Theaters Conference on Thursday, Kennedy Smith, co-founder of the Clue Group in Arlington, Va., will give the dinner keynote, “Historic Theaters & Their Power to Revitalize Downtowns & the Local Arts Scene.”

Curtwright said the Melba, which re-opened in August 2016, has played a part in reviving the surrounding area on Main Street, helping to attract other businesses like coffee shops and restaurants. More than anything, the Melba’s programming has brought new faces downtown, she said.

“Our regular ticket price is $4, so we really filled a need in Batesville for affordable things for families to do,” Curtwright said.

As a result, the Melba has “brought families downtown.” In its first year since re-opening, the theater has sold almost 50,000 tickets, Curtwright said, and that doesn’t include the traffic driven to the neighborhood by the venue’s most popular programs, including last year’s A Very Melba Christmas, a free community event.

Friday morning will begin with “Department of Arkansas Heritage Behind the Scenes: A panel discussion on available tools and resources.”

The panel will feature staff from the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program.
• Tom Marr, who will speak on federal historic preservation tax credits.
• Joia Burton on historic preservation restoration grants.
• Brian Driscoll, who will speak on options for technical assistance.
• Ralph Wilcox, who will speak about the National Register of Historic Places.

It will also feature input from Arkansas Arts Council staff.
• Jess Anthony, who will speak on Arts on Tour, arts in education partnerships and general operating support grants.
• Janet Perkins will speak on accessibility.
• Cheri Leffew on Small Works on Paper partnerships.

Friday’s schedule also includes a presentation on the history and future of the Morrilton Rialto Theatre, built in 1911. The talk will include information on historic building maintenance, resource gathering and diverse programming, according to the website. The conference is open to anyone who is interested in historic theaters, community arts programs and/or historic preservation, according to the event organizers.

“There are still a lot of underutilized historic theaters in downtowns across the state,” said Patrick Ralston, director of the Arkansas Arts Council. “They are a natural habitat for local visual and performing arts organizations and serve as anchors in arts and cultural districts.

“We are working to create a network of theater owner/operators/occupants to provide technical services and possibly grant funds that will allow these theaters to survive and flourish,” he said. “We hope to strengthen the bond between preservationists, artists, arts organizations and city officials working to save these structures and keep them in use.”

The Historic Theaters Conference is a partnership of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program and the Arkansas Arts Council, two agencies of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, and the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute.