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TIME TOUR: Hot Springs at the Movies

by Elizabeth Robbins | April 1, 2021 at 12:00 a.m.
The Central, the Paramount, and The Victory theaters in a 1946 advertisement. The Spa Theater at 314-316 Ouachita was opened before 1929. It was renamed Victory Theater in the late 1930s and reverted to the name “Spa Theater” in the early 1950s. The site is now part of Lindell Square.

Hot Springs has enjoyed going to the movies since 1907, when residents saw silent movies at the Whittington Amusement Park Theater. Several theaters soon appeared in the city—including the Princess, the Lyceum, the Hobson, and the Best, and the Royal.

If you were here in the 1950s and 1960s, you might have headed to the Central Theater at 1008 Central Ave. For 15 cents, you got a double feature, a serial, a selected short subject, a cartoon or two, a Movietone newsreel, and coming attractions. On one unforgettable day in the early 1950s, cowboy hero Lash LaRue (“King of the Bullwhip”) thrilled young buckeroos by appearing live on stage at the Central, performing whip stunts and signing autographs. You could also have gone to the Strand or the Victory on Ouachita Avenue or to the Roxy on Hobson. For first-run movies, though, you usually headed downtown to the Paramount or the Malco.

The Paramount Theater opened at 616 Central Ave. in 1936. Its distinctive vertical sign above a black-tile front brought a touch of Hollywood glamour to downtown Hot Springs. The opening night crowd in the 1,000-seat theater, after being presented with carnations, enjoyed “fully upholstered seats, both backs and bottoms” as they watched "Two for Tonight" with Bing Crosby and Joan Bennett. For decades patrons (welcomed by long-time cashier Ann Logan and ushers in grey trousers, white shirts, and maroon vests) enjoyed first-run movies and special events, like the presentation of Mrs. Miniver awards during World War II to Hot Springs ladies who exemplified the “courageous American woman fighting this war on the home front.” (These awards, of course, were named for the heroine of an MGM film.)

In 1946, the Malco Theater opened at 817 Central, charging 55 cents for an adult, 14 cents for a child, and 35 cents for a Black patron. Black patrons were required to use the back entrance facing Broadway Avenue before climbing the stairs to the Black section of the partitioned balcony. (They were not admitted into the Paramount at all.) After renovation in 1962, the Malco featured blue mosaic tile, turquoise blue walls, and new carpeting that ran the full length of the block-long lobby from Central to Broadway. Through new solid glass doors, passers-by glimpsed the refreshment stand with its colorful rows of Milk Duds, Sugar Babies, Black Cow suckers, Valomilk Candy Cups, and other delights. “Meet me at the Malco” was a familiar refrain for decades.

For families, for dating couples, and for friends, Hot Springs’ movie theaters were the “cool” places to be — and not just because of the films. On a sweltering summer afternoon or evening before universal air-conditioning, it was such a treat to walk into a theater lobby and be embraced by blessedly cold air and the smell of buttery popcorn. Who cared what movie was playing?

For more information, GCHS may be contacted by email at [email protected] or phone at 501-321-2159.

Gallery: Time Tour -- Hot Springs at the Movies

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