Downtown Playhouse co-founder Kelly Grooms was readying himself with the tasks that come with running a local live theater when in March of 2020 the pandemic began. At the time, no one knew how long it would last, but as days of lockdowns turned into weeks and then months it became clear the season would not happen.
Lost revenue became more of an issue when weeks into the pandemic, the Playhouse, located in downtown Pocahontas lost part of its roof and the damage price tag was $12,500.
Despite the struggles, the Playhouse did produce “Always Patsy Cline” this summer starring Vicki Lynn Bishop and Carol Belford-Lewallen. Another play, “Tuesdays with Morrie,” started Oct. 30 and will run through November. Grooms told Talk Business & Politics he and his crew are ready to get back to normal and produce three plays per year. “It’s time to get this place lit back up,” Grooms said with a laugh.
Grooms, a technical director, actor, director, and jack-of-all-theater trades, opened the theater with the help of two investors more than six years ago. It was built in the former Imperial Dinner Theatre building. Each year, the Playhouse attracts about 3,600 theater goers and many are not locals. It draws from towns and cities throughout the Arkansas Delta region including Jonesboro, Paragould, West Memphis and others.
Grooms 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 like 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 is 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, and 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.
The Downtown Playhouse has raised all of its money through private donations and is an all volunteer organization. Two other founding members, 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.
When “Always Patsy Cline” opened the goal was to honor the season passes that were paid for in 2020. The first few crowds were at or near capacity, but as the run continued the crowds began to drop into the 50 or so guest range. The main reason was the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus that began to rage throughout Pocahontas.
The virus got so bad in September that more than 500 students in the Pocahontas School District were in quarantine at one time and the high school football team had to cancel a game. Proliferation of the disease forced the Playhouse to push “Tuesdays with Morrie” from its end of September opening to the end of October. It also stopped them from having a third play before the end of the year, Grooms added.
Fundraising efforts have gone well, and the plan is to honor any and all tickets that have been sold since before the pandemic hit, he said. The goal now is to prepare for a full and regular season starting in 2022.
“Our Town” is slated to open in late February, and it will be followed by “Crimes of the Heart.” A third play, “The Mousetrap” by Agatha Christie is in the planning stages right now, he said.
Live theater is a habit forming activity, and Grooms said he wants the audience they’ve established to get back into the habit of coming to the Playhouse.
“We’re trying to oblige all of our customers. We want to get back into our normal routine,” he said.