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On February 11, 2013, the local Masons announced that the Temple building was for sale. Their smaller membership no longer could support maintaining the building. Asking price was reported around $775,000. The Masons hoped a new owner would allow them to use the building occasionbally for meetings. The newspaper report stated that the theater was still intact with seats and orchestra pit.
The building opened in 1929. Cost was $385,000 at that time.
I will report updates when published.
New Theater Update: In May, 2012, restoration was exactly the same as several years ago. Scafolding in the lobby is in the same plce and the same construction debris in on the floor. The lobby has been stripped to the structural brick walls.
A hail storm had caused severe damage to the theater roof. Fortunately an insurance company paid for a new roof.
Garrison Avenue is the main street of downtown Fort Smith. The New Theater was built behind a row of storefronts on Garrison Avenue. Three of these buildings have been torn down. Now the south wall of the theater is exposed to daylight for the first time in almost 100 years with empty lots between the Garrison Avenue sidewalks and the theater building.
Fortunately the theater Garrison Avenue entrance and storefronts on both sides are still intact. They were framed together to look like part of the theater.
I was told but unable to verify that the theater auditorium and seats are still in fairly good condition.
In the 1940’s the New Theater was a B-movie grindhouse always playing double features. The second feature usually was a western movie.
In 1944 the theater closed for one week for remodeling that added about 200 extra seats. The orchestra pit was covered and the front of the stage was moved upstage. Then additional seats were installed at the front of the auditorium.
In the days of racial segregation in Arkansas the New Theater was the only theater in Fort Smith that admitted African-Americans. The box office had windows on the back and front. A separate entrance on the north side of North 9th street allowed African-Americans to pass the back window of the box office. Then an enclosed passageway and stairway allowed these patrons to sit in the upper balcony of the auditorium.
Downtown Fort Smith died when the Central Mall opened about three miles from the theater. Many downtown businesses moved to the mall. Malco opened a three screen theater at the mall followed by a twelve screen theater next door to the mall. The New theater was the last movie theater operating in downtown Fort Smith. It ended it days showing porn.
After the Joie Theater burned arson was strongly suspected but not publicly stated because:
1. The theater had grown very shabby inside and badly need renovation. It was essentially original 1920 inside.
2. Downtown Fort Smith was on very limited time. It had severe parking problems. The new Central Mall was in final planning stage. Malco was planning a three screen theater in the Central Mall that would be located 3.3 miles from the Joie Theater. Malco later built a 12 screen theater next door to the Central Mall.
3. Many businesses in downtown Fort Smith were planning on moving to the Central Mall. (After the Central Mall opened, downtown Fort Smith died.)
4. The Joie theater building was very solidly built. Converting it to another use would have cost much money. Many other suitable buildings would become available at low cost in the near future after the Central Mall opened.
The Fort Smith Police Department and the Fire Department made extensive photos of the fire damage in the theater attempting to document arson. These photos still exist. They were unable to prove arson, so the official cause of the fire remained a natural gas leak.
Today the site of the Joie theater is a parking lot. The theater location is defined by the walls of adjoining buildingd on the south and east sides, by an alley on the north side, and by South 9th street on the west side.
The acoustical consulting firm for both Davies Symphony Hall and Avery Fisher Hall in New York was Bolt, Beranek, and Newman. At that time accoustical science for concert halls was very immature. Exactly why some halls had good acoustics and others were lousy was not known. Concert hall acoustics was a matter of luck. No art of acoustic design existed to be lost. Fortunately baroque decoration in 19th Century theaters often led to good acoustics but no one knew why. BB&N had made a number of studies of different concert halls to determine why some had good acoustics and others did not. BB&N probably knew more about concert hall acccoustics at that time than any other firm in the world. BB&N applied what they had learned to the design of Davies and Avery Fisher hall. Unfortunately the architects vetoed some BB&N design features with both concert halls and also made them larger than original plans. Both halls required remodeling to improve original acoustics.
In the case of San Francisco Fox and Oakland Paramount you could stand on the stage and clap your hands. The sound of the individual hand claps would echo back from the rear of the auditorium. You could stand near the side wall of the auditorium and clap once. Standing waves would cause that hand clap sound to riccochet back and forth between the two side walls. As I remember you could count six echos from one hand clap in the Paramount before the sound faded out. All these echos caused a muddy sound quality in the auditorium. They caused major problems in microphone placement to minimize them when recording or broadcasting from these auditoriums.
These sorts of problems were very common in theaters built in the 20th Century. The worst I ever heard were in the Berkeley Community Theater completed in 1950. When an orchetra was playing in the pit, microphones had to be put in the pit with loudspeakers on stage to prevent dancers from dancing to the beat of the echo reflected off the back wall of the theater.
The Fox Oakland survived for many years not because of civic planning but because it was built into an office building that was economically viable. For many years you could drive past it at night and see the ghost light lit on stage because the interior lobby doors had been left open and the outer doors were glass.
Over the years several attempts were made to use the Fox Oakland after it had closed as a movie theater. None were successful. A fire caused extensive damage to the interior.
The Oakland Paramount survived because the Oakland Symphony wanted a larger concert hall and the Paramount was available cheap. After the Oakland Symphony went bankrupt, the nicely restored Paramount went to the city of Oakland.
I have done sound pickup for broadcast and recording in the San Francisco Fox, Oakland Paramount, and San Francisco Davies SymphonyHall. Both the Fox and Paramount had accoustical problems. Davies even in its first incarnation was vastly superior.
The organ in the Paramount today is a 4-27 Wurlitzer that is larger than the original organ. The original organ was a Wurlitzer 4-20 Publix #1 organ, the last one built. The new organ has been very carefully voiced for the Paramount. It is maintained and occasionally played. Removing the existing organ to replace with the original would make no sense. The organ in the theater today is much superior to the original.
One additional comment. Although the stage had no machinery, the stage house did have a steel grid that would have been used with stage machinery. Grid installation probably was part of the contract to install the structural steel for the building. The grid also may have provided additional required seismic strength to the stage house.
Here is a history of building that contained the Fort Theater from city records. It was built in 1890 as a glassware store. Over the years it contained a number of different stores and offices. It was vacant 1939-1941. It was Fort Theater 1942-1948. It was vacant 1951-1958. It was Grand Rapids Furniture 1962. It was Tip Top Western Wear 1991 to present.
The Avenue Theater had a fairly large stage with a stage house. Stage machinery never had been installed. It did not have a pin rail. The information that I was given was that it was originally designed to be both a vaudeville and movie theater but after it was built the owners decided that vaudeville had no future so did not spend money to install stage machinery. The stage was a large empty area. Dressing rooms had not been finished. Two organ chambers were set on the stage behind the movie screen in the 1960’s. The original theater organ chambers remained empty. I recorded several organ concerts for broadcast and remember that the theater had fairly good accoustics.
Business license records in Fort Smith show that the Fort Theater had a license from 1942 to 1948. In September, 2010, the former Fort Theater building still was a western wear store. It was one of the last stores on Garrison Avenue selling clothes.
Some signs of the theater were still obvious. The front facade has a small window near the roof that would have provided ventilation for the projection booth. Inside the front door are about five steps up to the level of the lobby. The building had been extended all the way to the alley behind Garrison Avenue, about 20 feet farther than buildings on both sides. A small stage house extends about 20 feet (estimated from ground) above the regular roof. This would have been high enough to fly an asbestos curtain. Since there was a stage, building codes would have required an asbestos curtain. From the size of the stage house I would estimate that the stage was less than 20 feet deep. It would have been deep enough to hold two Altec-Lansing Voice of the Theater loudspeakers but not much more. The emergency exit doors at the front of the theater were located about 3 feet below grade with steps up outside. This suggests that the raked auditorium floor would have extended below grade.
In September, 2010, the building that originally housed the Plaza Theater, a barber shop, a bar, and several stores had been torn down to provide parking for a new Post Office branch that was built in 1994. I was wrong in my earlier comment. The given street number is correct.
In September, 2010, the site of Hoyt’s theater was a parking lot with a metal awning overhead. If one looks carefully, the top of the theater foundation is visible.
The theater had been remodeled outside probably in the 1930’s to look like a typical small theater of the times. It had a large marquee and a large vertical neon sign. I was never inside so I don’t know what may have been done to modernize it.
It was named for Bob Burns, a Van Buren native son, who had a national reputation as a comedian. He invented the bazooka, a musical instrument that gave its name to the weapon. He used Van Buren in his comedy routines unlike many performers who used fictional town names. Today Van Buren is doing its best to forget Bob Burns.
Malco ran it as a second-run A movie theater. I seem to remember that it did show double features occasionally.
All signs of the Bob Burns theater have been removed. It has been restored to what apparently was its original configuration. It is used for occasionaly live performances.
The street number given probably is wrong. A Google street view on September 10, 2010, shows that the former theater location and a number of adjacent stores and a bar is now a parking lot. The theater was only about two doors west of Towson Avenue.
The Plaza was named for the Fort Smith Plaza Park that was located across Garrison Avenue from the theater. By 1940 the park had been replaced by the local Greyhound bus depot and a DX gasoline station. The theater was a remodeled storefront. In the 1940’s it was a second-run B movie grindhouse. Adult ticket prices were 22 cents, five cents less than the New Theater, the first-run B movie theater, that was one block away.
The radio station where I worked broadcast Oakland Symphony concerts. After the symphony purchased the Paramount I was called to consult about facilities needed for broadcasts. I toured the theater before restoration began. Here are a few observations:
The theater was very much like Hollywood. It was all show. In public areas it was luxurious and glamorous. As soon as you left a public area you were in a world of unpainted concrete and naked light bulbs. Oakland Symphony did paint much of the concrete during restoration.
Everything was built as cheaply as possible. The structural steel parts were approximately one half the size of those used in the San Francisco Opera House that was about the same size as the Paramount.
Money had not been spent to apply finished concrete to the auditorium floor. It was rough and unfinished under the carpet.
The auditorium originally had accoustical problems. Horsehair mats had been glued to the back wall of the theater. Perforated canvas painted gold covered the horsehair. This was an early form of accoustical tiles. Since the auditorium did not have enough reverberation for a concert hall, this accoustical treatment was removed as part of the restoration.
Every movie theater has what is called a skylight that will provide a minimum amount of illumination so patrons will not fall if they have to enter or leave their seats while the movie is playing. The original skylight was provided by incandescant light fixtures focused on the building ceiling. A suspended ceiling was about 8 feet inder the true ceiling. Light came through extensive grill work in the suspended ceiling.
The original skylights in the Paramount used so much electricity that they had been replaced with neon tubes to save money. Many of these neon lights no longer worked. I believe today the Paramount uses the original incandescent skylights on the rare occasions that movies are shown.
The Fort Theater was built about one block from the Camp Chaffee bus terminal. One of the first thing soldiers saw after getting off the bus was the Fort Theater marquee. Following the end of World War II Camp Chaffee was inactivated. The bus service ended. Attendance at the Fort Theater fell dramatically since the theater was located away from the central business district of town.
The Fort Theater was operated by Malco as were all other Fort Smith theaters until 1947.
One more comment about the Joie Theater: It was one of only two theaters in town that had refrigerated air conditioning. Obviously it had been installed long after the theater was built. All the other theaters in town used evaporative coolers. When sitting on the main floor cool air blew in your face. Apparently the theater did not use the plenum system for cooling that was used for heat. I always wondered if the cool air blew though the former organ chamber grills.
More about the Joie Theater: The theater employed ushers in the balcony until quite late to keep the local teen agers from getting too passionate.
The first show of the day typically started at 1:00 PM. Show starts were timed so that the main evening show always began at 8:00 PM. The houselight would go down and the movie would begin projected on the curtain that would open promptly. This made the Joie different from the Malco New Theater several blocks away that was a B movie grind house.
I looked at the theater building after the fire. No major structural damage was obvious. You had to look closely to see any signs of the fire. I understand that it started backstage and most of the damage was in that area. The Joie was built long enough after the Chicago theater fire that resulted in major fire safety improvements. It would have had automatic fire shutters in the roof of the stage house. Ropes that held the asbestos curtain had fusible links that would have melted in heat and allowed the curtain to close
automatically. If the asbestos curtain had closed early in the fire, damage in the auditorium would have been limited.
The building was not boarded up. The glass entrance doors were intact. Looking into the lobby showed little smoke damage. A small store adjoining the main theater entrance had closed. No smoke damage was obvious. The metal stage doors were intact but showed signs of fire damage.
If the theater were economically viable after the fire, it probably would have been repaired and reopened.
I will add some details about the Joie Theater from memory. I believe it went dark about one year before it burned. It was operated by the Malco theater chain that had a monopoly in Fort Smith unil two drive-in theaters opened ca. 1947. Malco was a regional chain that operated theaters in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas.
I don’t know if the theater closed because Malco’s lease ran out or if it was losing too much money.
The Joie was built ca. 1920. It was the largest commercial theater in Fort Smith. The local Junior High School Auditorium held about 300 more people. It was the leading first-run theater in town. Residents complained that movies didn’t get to the Joie until months after they opened in big cities.
The Joie was built as a vaudeville and silent movie theater. It was reported to have a 20-rank theater organ. I never heard the organ play or saw the organ console. Openings for the organ chambers were very obvious on both sides of the stage. Apparently the organ was not maintained after it was no longer needed for silent pictures.
The Joie was very well built and decorated in the style of the times. As I remember it had a small staircase from the projection booth to the street so films could be moved in and out without going through the auditorium.
The stage was fairly large with a stagehouse and a lot of stage machinery. The orchestra pit looked as if it would have held up to
about 20 musicians.
Up into the late 1940’s touring road companies played two or three day engagements at the Joie. My parents took the family to a touring variety show that included a stripper. She did her thing under blue lights. My parents were very embarrassed although she didn’t show anything you wouldn’t have seen at the local swimming pool. Fort Smith was very much in the bible belt.
Shows were first run A feature movies with a newsreel and cartoon. I don’t remember a double feature ever playing at the Joie. The curtain closed and houselights came up between shows.
The Los Altos theater was a “family” theater in the early 1950’s. It was one of very few “family” theaters in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In those days almost 100% of theater projectionists were members of IATSE union. A member with higher union seniority could bump a person with lower seniority from a job.
In a theater classified as “family” by IATSE all theater employees in any capacity had to be part of the same family. The projectionist, usually the theater owner, was a member of IATSE but he could not be bumped by a higher seniority union member. A temporary projectionist could be hired to cover a vacation or illness of the family member who maintained rights to the job upon return.
The Rex Theater was the first new theater building to open in Fort Smith following World War #2. It was not operated by Malco as were all the rest of the Fort Smith theaters at that time. In those days of racial segregation only one Fort Smith movie theater would admit African-Americans. The New Theater admitted them to the second balcony through a separate entrance.
The Rex theater had a large seating area for African-Americans. It was located near African-American housing areas. The theory was that a large number of African-Americans would want to see second run quality movies that were not shown at the New Theater. That theory was wrong. Some local businessmen lost a lot of money.
After a very few years the Rex Theater was converted into a grocery store.
By my recollection the Fort Theater opened in 1944. Camp Chaffee was built near Fort Smith. The soldiers and army families caused all the existing theaters to be overcrowded. Somehow the building owners managed to get enough building supplies to convert a store into a theater. Half of the original second story had been removed; the other half became a balcony with a steeply raked floor. The original third story had been removed to give space over the balcony. Somehow the owners had managed to find enough used theater seats. Everything was very cheaply built. The building had no interior decoration that I remember.
This theater had several different formats. None apparently were very successful. As I remember it wound up as a grind house.
By the late 1940’s it developed a bad reputation. Prostitutes were reported to set up shop in the balcony where they serviced all comers. People wanting to see the movie sat on the main floor that never was very crowded. I believe it closed as a theater in late 1950.
Hoyt’s Theater was NOT on the corner of Garrison Avenue and North 7th Street. It actually was in the middle of the block on the east side of 7th Street. A large neon sign for the theater with a flashing arrow pointing down 7th street was on a utility pole on the corner of Garrison Avenue.
In the 1940’s Hoyt’s theater was operated by Malco Theaters as were all the rest of the movie theaters in Fort Smith. It showed second run A movies.
The building housing Hoyt’s Theater appeared to have been a storefront at one time. I always wondered if it had begun life as a nicklelodeon then became a silent movie theater. The movie screen was on the back wall of the building. It had a proscenium arch and stage only deep enough for a curtain. The theater loudspeakers stuck through the back wall into the alley behind the theater and looked as if they were a later addition.
The auditorium had been extensively remodeled at one time. A steeply raked auditorium floor extended seating over the lobby to increase
the number of seats. Entrance from the lobby was up one of two ramps
that gave access to the middle of the auditorium.
Unlike some other Fort Smith theaters Hoyt’s had a good reputation. In High School I took a date to Hoyt’s several times to see a movie she had missed during its first run.