Palace Theatre

 City: Benton, County: Saline
 Location: 224 West South Street

1919 theater building.
Listed in Arkansas Register of Historic Places on 8/6/14

SUMMARY

The Palace Theatre is historically significant for its associations with the entertainment and recreational development of Benton, Arkansas, in the early twentieth century. Since its construction in 1919, the building has served as a theatre where the community could gather and watch popular motion pictures of the era or theatrical productions. The Palace Theatre building has also been a place in which the youth of the city could congregate socially or participate in a variety of sports and recreational activities. In the late 1960s, the building became home to the public library, in which it served the community in this capacity until the early 2000s. Due to its importance in the entertainment and recreational history of Benton, the Palace Theatre is being nominated to the Arkansas Register of Historic Places under Criterion A with local significance. Although the numerous alterations to the front façade preclude the building from being eligible for inclusion in the National Register, the building still reflects the entertainment and recreational history of Benton and is eligible for listing in the Arkansas Register.

ELABORATION

Settlement in Saline County began in early 1815 with the arrival of William Lockert and his family, who settled about four miles southwest of Benton where the Military Road crossed the Saline River. Other settlers soon followed into the area, most notably Ezra M. Owen who began the settlement of Collegeville c.1823. Owen had plans for a school that he hoped would become the state university, which was the reason for the community’s name. (The prominence of the community almost made it the state capital in 1836, losing the title by only a few votes.) By 1835, enough people had settled in the area that Saline County was formed from Pulaski County, and included large portions of current Grant, Perry and Garland counties.[1]

Benton had been an established community from Saline County’s earliest days. Joshua Smith opened a store in the area in 1834, and he began a partnership with William Calvert in 1837. Additional businesses, including other general merchants and a hotel, also opened in the area, and Benton was incorporated in April 1839. When a board of commissioners, consisting of Rezin Davis, Green B. Hughes, and David Dodd was elected to select the seat of government, they chose Benton because of its central location, and being in the most thickly settled part of the county. The community continued to grow and had 900 residents by the late 1880s.[2]

As Benton continued to grow and develop, the city was able to provide more goods and services to its citizens, which continued up through the first part of the twentieth century. By the late 1910s and early 1920s, more opportunities for entertainment began to develop in Benton, specifically theaters.

The development of theaters in Benton apparently began in the middle of the 1910s with the work of Mrs. Alice Wooten. The oldest part of what now is the Royal Theatre (NR-listed September 27, 2003) was built in 1920 as the Imp Theatre. (“Imp” reportedly stood for “Independent Motion Pictures.”[3]) The theater was initially operated by Mrs. Alice Wooten, who came to Benton in 1916, and, for a few years, operated a movie theater in a downtown storefront. In 1920, she moved her business into a newly-constructed building on Market Street designed specifically for showing “motion pictures.” Two years later, Wallace Kauffman, who earlier had worked for Mrs. Wooten, took over the Imp Theatre.[4] Mr. Kauffman, according to the Benton Courier, proceeded to give “to the citizens of Benton the cleanest and best shows he could procure.” [5]

Shortly after Wooten had opened her theater, a second theater, the Palace Theater opened. In the early twentieth century local businessman, C. H. “Charley” Womack, noticed the public’s increasing enjoyment of recreational activities such as movies and plays. With a dream and $60,000, Womack was successful in constructing a “two-story brick theatre with a generous marquee extending over the sidewalks to protect the brightly-lighted [sic] entrance.” [6] The tract measuring 110 by 150 feet included a glass-enclosed box office, an intricately decorated stage, and reportedly one-thousand seats. The new Palace Theatre, which was located less than half a mile from another theatre known as the Imp, opened its doors to a sell-out crowd on Friday, March 5, 1920. The Benton Courier described the theater as follows:

C. H. Womack announces this week that the Palace Theatre will open on Friday, March 5th, with a feature picture entitled “In Walked Mary,” which has never been shown in any theatre, and which promises to be one of the most popular features yet issued by the Pathe people.

This new theatre is one of the most up-to-date theatre buildings in the state, and there are but few towns of many times the size of Benton that have such an elaborate place for entertainment. It is the intention of Mr. Womack to run high class pictures here and he expects later to secure good road attractions. He intends to show only the best, both in pictures and other attractions, and keep the class of entertainment up to the standard of the building.” [7]

The movie shown that night was called “In Walked Mary,” starring June Caprice, and the newspaper ad stated that “For the opening attraction of this splendid new theatre we are presenting this charming picture of Dixie, which will be shown one night only Friday, March 5. Show starts 7:30 P.M. Admission 25¢ and 55¢, including war tax. Children under 6 years admitted free.” The following day the Theatre presented “My Husband’s Other Wife” with two shows, a 2:00 P.M. matinee and a 7:30 P.M. showing.[8]

However, the dream that Womack had only lasted a few months, when he sold the building to the Hefley-Skinner Amusement Company from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Under the new owners, the theatre reopened with a musical comedy called, “Southern Daisies.” In December 1920, it was reported that Hefley-Skinner Amusement Company was experiencing financial trouble, and began leasing the building to the owner of the Imp Theatre, Alice Wooten. Mrs. Wooten was the only female business owner in Benton at this time. But, due to the lack of support from the local community the Palace Theatre closed in 1921. For the remainder of the decade the building changed hands several times, but remained a movie and play theater through most of its many incarnations. [9]

By July 1930, the Sanborn map for Benton noted that the building was the Municipal Auditorium, a use it would maintain up through the issuance of the next Sanborn map in 1948. The map also noted that it had pilastered walls on the east and west sides, a balcony, and the raised stage. The building also maintained the raised catwalk area in the rear third of the building. The map also noted the building’s steam heat, electric lights, and steel truss roof and concrete floor.[10]

After the end of World War II the parents of Benton’s youth were concerned that their children had no place to go and socialize with others their age. A group of the town’s people collectively decided to use the old Palace Theatre building as Benton’s youth recreation center. A contest was held to choose a name for the new center. The name the kids decided on was the Play Palace, which is a takeoff of the original name. The Play Palace became the most popular place in town, with children from around the county coming to play games such as basketball, volleyball, ping pong, and pool. The old stage was also converted into a dance floor. Some of the kids at the Play Palace were also taught to swim in the Saline River during the summer, with many earning their lifeguard certification. During the summer of 1949, the Play Palace even began a summer baseball league, in which many boys participated.[11]

The inside of the Play Palace was described as follows:

Inside the front entrance was a concession stand where snacks and soft drinks could be sold. Pool and ping pong tables were brought in. Furniture was arranged to be used for playing games, reading, and visiting. Where hundreds of opera seats had once stood, a court was set up for basketball and volleyball, with shuffleboard on the side.

One of the most popular areas was the dance floor, located where once the stage of the old theatre had been.[12]

By the mid-1950s, interest in the Play Palace began to wane. The youth center was closed in 1953. For the rest of the decade the building was used as a gathering place for the citizens of Benton. In 1960, the building again became a youth center which was known as The Panther Den (named for Benton High School’s mascot). In 1964, the city began remodeling the building. All of the windows in the building were filled in with brick, and an arch was installed at the entrance to the building. A corrugated metal façade was added to the building, which masked its original appearance for nearly 50 years. It was also sometime after 1948 that the catwalk portion of the building was removed and the roof over the rear third of the building was lowered approximately 20 feet to line up with the roofline on the rest of the building. The 1948 Sanborn map indicates that the front wall of the building was 28 feet tall while the rear wall was 50 feet tall. [13]

In 1967, the old Palace Theatre building was again reborn to serve Benton. With a brand new look, the building became the Saline County Library. It served the city in this capacity until 2003, at which time the library moved to a new location across town. In 2005, Mayor Rick Holland decided to remove the façade from the front of the building. Currently, the building is vacant, but is used by the city government for county food drives and as a repository for toys to be given to needy children at Christmas.[14]Although the form, massing, and detailing of the Palace Theatre have been altered since it was built in 1919, the building still reflects the entertainment and recreational history of Benton.



[1] Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Pulaski, Jefferson, Lonoke, Faulkner, Grant, Saline, Perry, Garland, and Hot Spring Counties, Arkansas. Chicago: The Goodspeed Publishing Co., 1889, pp. 231, 233, and 237.

[2] Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Pulaski, Jefferson, Lonoke, Faulkner, Grant, Saline, Perry, Garland, and Hot Spring Counties, Arkansas. Chicago: The Goodspeed Publishing Co., 1889, pp. 236-237.

[3] Benton Courier, 12 May 1949 and 12 January 1972.

[4] Benton Courier, 12 January 1972.

[5] Benton Courier, 25 March 1937.

[6] Walden, Katheryn. “The Palace Theatre.” The Gann Legacy, Summer 2007, p. 1.

[7] “New Theatre Will Be Opened March 5.” Benton Courier, 26 February, 1920, p. 1. Pathe is the name of the company that, in the early 1900s, became the world’s largest film equipment and production company. Today, the company is still active in the production and distribution of films, and they are also involved in cinema chains and television networks.

[8] “Announcing the Opening of the Palace Theatre.” Benton Courier, 4 March 1920, pp. 4 and 6.

[9] Jordan, Brad. Interview with Dorcus Holicer, former Benton High School history teacher. 14 April 2009.

[10] Sanborn Maps for Benton, Arkansas, 1921, 1930, and 1948.

[11] Walden, Katheryn. “The Palace Theatre.” The Gann Legacy, Summer 2007, p. 1.

[12] Walden, Katheryn. “The Play Palace.” The Gann Legacy, Summer 2007, p. 3.

[13] Walden, Katheryn. “The Palace Theatre.” The Gann Legacy, Summer 2007, p. 1.

[14] Jordan, Brad. Interview with Steve Purdue, curator of the David O. Demuth Arkansas Room. 5 April 2009, and Sanborn Map for Benton, Arkansas, 1948.

SIGNIFICANCE

The Palace Theatre is historically significant for its associations with the entertainment and recreational development of Benton, Arkansas, in the early twentieth century. Although the Palace Theatre was only in business a few years, the other theaters that occupied the space along with the later Play Palace illustrate that having places for recreation and entertainment was an important part of life in Benton.

Since its construction in 1919, the building has served as a theater where the community could gather and watch popular motion pictures of the era or theatrical productions. The Palace Theatre building has also been a place in which the youth of the city could congregate socially or participate in a variety of sports and recreational activities. In the late 1960s, the building became home to the public library and it served the community in this capacity until the early 2000s.

Due to its importance in the entertainment and recreational history of Benton, the Palace Theatre is being nominated to the Arkansas Register of Historic Places under Criterion A with local significance. Although the numerous alterations to the front façade preclude the building from being eligible for inclusion in the National Register, the building still reflects the entertainment and recreational history of Benton and is eligible for listing in the Arkansas Register.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

“Announcing the Opening of the Palace Theatre.” Benton Courier, 4 March 1920, pp. 4 and 6.

Benton Courier, 12 May 1949, 25 March 1937, and 12 January 1972.

Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Pulaski, Jefferson, Lonoke, Faulkner, Grant, Saline, Perry, Garland, and Hot Spring Counties, Arkansas. Chicago: The Goodspeed Publishing Co., 1889

Jordan, Brad. Interview with Dorcus Holicer, former Benton High School history teacher. 14 April 2009.

Jordan, Brad. Interview with Steve Purdue, curator of the David O. Demuth Arkansas Room at the Saline County Library. 5 April 2009.

McAlester, Viginia and Lee McAlester. A Field Guide to American Houses. New York: Knopf, 1984.

“New Theatre Will Be Opened March 5.” Benton Courier, 26 February, 1920, p. 1.

Sanborn Maps for Benton, Arkansas, 1921, 1930, and 1948.

Walden, Katheryn. “The Palace Theatre.” The Gann Legacy, Summer 2007.

Walden, Katheryn. “The Play Palace.” The Gann Legacy, Summer 2007.


Go Back