9 N. Tenth Street,
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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 North 10th Street. In 1922, a second entrance was built from Grimson 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 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.
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