In the 1960s and ’70s one of the coolest things we could do downtown – at 407 Main Street and 516 Louisiana – was go to the movies in style. I’d give, well, not anything, but a lot to have photos of those theaters, but, alas, the only pictures I have of them are in my mind’s eye.
The Center Theater on Main and the Arkansas Theater on Louisiana were old-school movie houses, with red velvet curtains that opened before the show; large, lingering-friendly lobbies; and ushers with flashlights.
I’m not sure if I ever saw anything in the Capitol Theater on the corner of Capitol and Spring or if I just remember seeing the sign after it was closed, but I have vague memories of that, too.
If you’ve never seen a movie in such a theater, you don’t know what you’ve missed. Going to the movies was something of an event back then, similar, in the smallest of ways, to going to “the theatre” in a larger town, or maybe to Robinson Auditorium in Little Rock to see a play or recital – minus the fancy-dress clothes.
Of course we also had the Park Theater in North Little Rock, the Heights Theater on Kavanaugh, three drive-ins, and, in the late 1960s, the “futuristic” Cinema 150 on the corner of Asher and University.
But the downtown theaters were the coolest for junior highers. We could ride the bus to town, hang out for the day shopping (mainly window shopping), grab a bite, then see a movie. If it let out too late, an accommodating parent would pick us up.
For daytime movies, we could take the bus home.
My first somewhat vivid memory of the Center predates junior high by several years, though. When Spencer’s Mountain debuted in 1963, the entire family dressed up to go, even little Cathy, who was 4.
We should have left her at home, as it turned out, because she was traumatized by the movie and ruined the experience for whichever parent had to take her screaming to the lobby. (Spoiler alert!!!)
Though it was billed as family fare and later spawned the long-running hit TV series The Waltons, seeing Grandfather Spencer crushed by a felled tree was too much for my little sister, who started crying and yelling, “I hate this movie! I want to leave!” My mortified parents tried to hush her, then one of them scooped her up and ran to the lobby.
It was a full house that night, as I remember. I think Daddy wore a suit.
Another major Center Theater memory is of the time Mother had some kind of daytime party for her friends, who brought their kids for me to watch. I must have been 11 or 12 and the children ranged in age from 4ish to 9ish. The moms didn’t want the kids in their hair (Wonder what kind of party that was?? Or maybe they went golfing. Hmmm …), so my job was to take them to see Walt Disney’s Snow White.
I don’t remember exactly how many kids were in tow, but I know they outnumbered the dwarves. Things went well; remember, these were kindler, gentler times. I’m reasonably sure Pam agreed to help me herd munchkins.
I know Pam was part of my next important Center memory. Mother took us at 12 to see a special presentation of Gone With the Wind. I had just read the book for the first time (of at least six readings so far), and Vivien Leigh had just died, tragically young at 53 and still beautiful.
The curtains opened before the show, closed for intermission, then reopened for the second half. For Pam and me, the experience was a heavenly glimpse of the heyday of Hollywood blockbusters.
But my memories of seeing movies with friends downtown are mostly from the Arkansas Theater, which was on Louisiana. That’s where Gina McDonald and I saw Little Big Man in the ninth grade. At night. One of our parents picked us up.
I was moved and shocked by the movie’s intensity, and it’s still one of my all-time favorites. And the book by Thomas Berger is one that you must read, if you haven’t already. You owe it to yourself. Trust me. You’ll forget that Jack Crabbe is fictional.
But I digress.
As always, forgive me (and correct me!) if I’m wrong – this is all from memory, though I did look up street numbers of the theaters.
One thing I know I remember perfectly is seeing the press sneak preview of The Exorcist at the Center Theater. I had just turned 18 and working part-time in the Arkansas Gazette library, so I scored a pass.
People were screaming and jumping, but, having read the book at 16 (straight through – I stayed up all night reading in our downstairs den on Blackhawk Road), I was able to stay cooler than some.
I still jumped and squirmed, of course. Scary stuff, demons and spirits.
That glorious theater was still filled with a spirit of its own, even in its waning days of life. They both died in the late 1970s. I still miss them.