New Theatre

9 N. Tenth Street,
Fort Smith, AR 72901

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This information is condensed from a paper ‘The New Theatre Evolution of a Playhouse to a Movie Theatre’ by Stephen Husarik, and by personal memories:–

George Sparks was a wealthy Fort Smith businessman. He died in a shipwreck off the California coast in 1907. He left to his hometown a theatre and hospital in his will, and his estate built both.

Sparks had been impressed by a 1903 performance at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York City. The architectural firm Boller Brothers of Kansas City designed the New Theatre in 1911, clearly influenced by the style of the New Amsterdam Theatre. It was conceived as a theatrical playhouse with a large stage and fly space. Dressing rooms were under the stage. The orchestra pit would have seated up to twenty musicians. Interior decorations were by the Chicago firm of Mitchell and Halbach in a mix of Beaux-Arts and Art Nouveau styles. As built the New Theatre seated 1,200 people on the main floor, two balconies, and two sets of boxes.

The original main entrance and lobby were at 9 N. 10th Street. In 1922, a second entrance was built from Garrison Avenue, Fort Smith’s main street, to the theatre lobby. This entrance was lined with show windows that were rented to local firms to display merchandise. The New Theatre was across the street from the Fort Smith station of the Fort Smith and Western Railroad. This provided easy access for shows that toured by train.

From July to September 1917, and again in 1920, the theatre was closed because of a flu epidemic. A new ventilation system was installed to reduce the possibility of future outbreaks of the disease. Originally air circulation was supplied by ceiling fans under and extended from the front of the lower balcony. In April, 1927, a Wurlitzer Hope-Jones organ was installed. Apparently this was a second-hand organ because records preserved by the American Theatre Organ Society do not show an original installation. I never saw or heard this organ in the 1940’s. It may have been removed in an earlier remodeling of the theatre.

In 1929, the New Theatre spent $20,000 to purchase equipment to show ‘talking movies’. In 1935 the New Theatre proudly announced the ‘air conditioning’ (actually water cooling) had been installed.

In the late-1930’s, the Malco Theatres group leased the theatre and remodeled the interior in an Art Moderne style. There was an understanding that the theatre would be returned to its original state at the end of the lease, but that never happened. The upper balcony was reserved for African American patrons in the days of racial segregation in Arkansas. The New Theatre was the only theatre in Fort Smith that would admit African Americans. Malco built a separate entrance from 10th Street and an enclosed stairway to the upper balcony. The box office had two separate ticket windows in the front and in the back to serve the two races.

During World War II, the theatre was extremely crowded because of all of the soldiers stationed at Camp Chaffee and their families. The theatre was closed for about a week in 1944 while the orchestra pit was covered and the stage front moved back to allow the installation of about 200 more seats. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, the New Theatre was a B movie grind house. All live performances had ended years earlier. The program included a double feature, cartoon, newsreel, and a serial. The second feature was usually a western movie. At the end of its cinematic life, it was screening mainly X-rated movies.

In 1992, a non-profit organization, Music Fort Smith, purchased the theatre. Volunteers cleared the building of debris and standing water. Funds from grants were used to repair the roof and truck-point the exterior brick preserving structural integrity.

In 2004, Richard Griffin purchased the theatre and announced plans to restore it as a performing arts theatre. Some additional restoration was started but apparently ended before long. In 2010, the lobby had been stripped to the structural brick walls. Scaffolding was in place, with much debris on the floor. I was told by local residents that no work had been done for several years and the theatre web site has now disappeared.

The New Theatre was added to the Register of Historic Places in 1999.

Contributed by Fred Krock

Recent comments (view all 9 comments)

NewTheater
NewTheater on April 2, 2004 at 12:35 pm

Warren, 1911 was the year the theater was built. It was built with money from the will of George Sparks who had drowned in a ship wreck off the coast of California in 1907. The theater was known as the New Theatre from 1911 until after WWII when it was taken over by the Malco chain. A new entrance was added in 1922 to the South and over that door it says Sparks 1922, but Sparks was never the name of the theater. I’m sure they did squeeze 1100 in it originally, but today you could only safely handle about 800 people. The theater was designed by the Boller brothers, early in their career.

“A photo at the website of the original
entrance shows the date 1911 and "Sparks” engraved in the top of the wall. Was that the original name of the theatre? The 1932 Film Daily Year Book reports the New Theatre’s seating capacity as 1,100. "

kjones
kjones on February 3, 2005 at 10:12 am

To whom it may concern, Mr. VanBibber, or Griffin Properties, et. al.:Whomever:

I am VERY interested in helping with the opening of this space for local performances and perhaps the owners working with Roland High School in Roland, OK to bring our performances and other groups from Fort Smith and Roland to perform and help preserve the space.
I have an idea to bring over my speech students and anyone else to help with maintenence, construction, clean-up, etc…because I have a great interest in old spaces like this one and also the kids in Roland need a space to present our band concerts, plays and such, as our stage is too small and also technology is inadequate for our needs. As we are just over the river, this would help us and the theatre also…
Please contact me with where to help with this restoration! My Master’s Thesis was about old theaters in Springfield, Missouri and this is very cool, so I want to help open the “New Theatre”!
Thank you,
Kevin L. Jones

479-649-2638
Roland High School
Route 1 Box 1
Roland, OK 74954

fkrock
fkrock on June 23, 2011 at 2:12 pm

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.

fkrock
fkrock on May 22, 2012 at 1:30 pm

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.

rfnaz
rfnaz on February 26, 2013 at 1:04 am

It has been fun to stumble onto this website, read the published accounts, and especially to read those of the locals who actually remember them. I grew up in Fort Smith attending the New Theatre (which we all knew as the “Malco”) and the Temple during the late 50s and throughout the 60s.

All the major movies of those years passed through these two theaters (and the two drive-ins). I don’t recall a perceived preference between the Malco/New and Temple, but I know I saw more movies at the Malco. It seems that during the 60s, the Malco would have been the first run house in town. I particularly remember seeing my first movie there; 101 Dalmatians in its initial release. In grade school and junior high throughout the 60s, I can’t remember all the titles, but ones that made a particular impression were the Bond movies. I actually have more memory of the ones seen at the Temple, which I can post on that page.

I seem to recall the long hallway walk to the lobby being neon lit, and lined with one-sheets of upcoming movies. Seems like I remember the walk from the ticket lobby to the theater having a significant ramp upwards. I never sat in the balcony at the Malco, but I remember sitting under it in the back rows of the theater. I remember always being fascinated by the box on each side wall. “How do I get to those seats?!” It seems there was concealed indirect neon light along the side walls that sort of framed the screen (magenta in color?). I don’t have any significant memory of the way the interior looked with house lights up. I remember an operative curtain, but I don’t recall its detail.

We didn’t go to the movies a lot when I was in those younger years, but the times I went made a lasting and magical impression. I also have memories of the Phoenix (AMC?) Twin, the first Central Mall theaters, and the twin theaters that were on the south side of U just above Towson, but the old houses made the first impressions.

As a funny reference to the linked photo showing the Garrison marquis from the early 80s with a plug for a mayoral candidate. I remember that guy, vaguely.

Cheers.

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