Created when an older theater was extensively remodeled and enlarged, the Royal Theatre opened in the spring of 1949. At the time, it was one of three movie theaters in downtown Benton--and it was to be the longest-lived. The Royal continued showing movies until 2000, when it was converted to use as a community playhouse. Except for a change in color scheme, the design of the Royal's façade has survived intact since the theater opened, and several important original interior features also remain. With its distinctive neon-trimmed marquee and "Royal" sign, the building has been a landmark in downtown Benton for more than fifty years. It is eligible for listing in the National Register under Criterion C with local significance.
The oldest part of what now is the Royal Theatre was built in 1920 as the Imp Theatre. ("Imp" reportedly stood for "Independent Motion Pictures.") 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. Mr. Kauffman, according to the Benton Courier, proceeded to give "to the citizens of Benton the cleanest and best shows he could procure."
After operating the theater with his wife, Lena, for twenty-seven years, Wallace Kauffman closed the Imp for remodeling on February 22, 1949. Work had begun in December of 1948 on a rear extension of forty-three feet, but closing the theater was necessary for completion of the interior and remodeling of the main façade. The Benton Courier reported that the remodeled theater, to be called the Royal Theatre, would feature many improvements: "Seating capacity increased from 590 to 800, with seat rows four inches further apart; Westinghouse refrigeration system, adequate for cooling the theatre regardless of size of crowd; an automatic heating system; enlarged projection screen; foyer size doubled, and ladies rest room and lounge greatly enlarged and modernized."
The newspaper also stated that the "marquee and speller boxes are to be the latest design with neon lighting decorating the whole"--without mentioning that the marquee and "Royal" sign were coming from the recently-dismantled Royal Theater in Little Rock. Little Rock's Royal Theater closed in September of 1948 and was replaced by the Center Theater, which was designed by Little Rock architects Frank Ginocchio and Edwin Cromwell. Ginocchio and Cromwell also designed the remodeling that turned Benton's Imp Theatre into the Royal Theatre. The old sign and marquee from the firm's Little Rock project are believed to have been incorporated into the design of the project in Benton.
The new Royal Theatre opened on May 12, 1949, with the showing of a Jimmy Stewart movie, "You Gotta Stay Happy." It was the beginning of a forty-seven year run for the Royal Theatre under the management of successive generations of the Kauffman family. When Wallace Kauffman died in 1974, his son, Warren, took over the business. In turn, Warren Kauffman's son, Randy, assumed control when Warren retired in 1986. Ten years later the run ended when Randy Kauffman sold the theater to Jerry Van Dyke. In 2000, Van Dyke turned the theater over to the nonprofit Central Arkansas Community Players, now known as the Royal Players. Since then, the Royal has been operated as a community theater.
Fifty-four years after it originally opened, the Royal Theatre remains very much intact. Its distinctive marquee and "Royal" sign have made it a local landmark in the truest sense, and it is the last historic movie theater building that survives in Benton in recognizable form. For these reasons, it is eligible for the National Register under Criterion C with local significance.
Benton, Saline County, Arkansas. New York: Sanborn Map Company, March 1915.
Benton, Saline County, Arkansas. New York: Sanborn Map Company, May 1921.
Benton, Saline County, Arkansas. New York: Sanborn Map Company, July 1930.
Benton, Saline County, Arkansas. New York: Sanborn Map Company, July 1930-updated June 1948.
Benton Courier, 27 January 1916; 25 March 1937; 17 February 1949; 12 May 1949; 19 May 1949; 12 January 1972.
Moss, Shannon. Former Royal Theatre employee, Benton, Arkansas. Interview, 15 April 2003.