On South St. in Benton Arkansas stands an old proud structure built in 1919 for the sum of $60,000 called The Palace Theater with over 1,000 opera seats looking over a large orchestra pit on a tastefully-decorated stage with lustrous curtains, potted plants, and appropriate scenery.
Why would C.H. Womack of Benton build such a grand theater, which was called by some, "The Show Place of The South"? Not only were silent movies to be shown but live vaudeville acts were booked at this new venue.
Why would it be closed in two years to never be used again for its original purpose? In 1919 Benton had an abundance of traffic going through the very heart of downtown. South Street was the I-30 of its day, bringing travelers from all over the southern United States with traffic flowing east and west. The Palace Theater was the equivalent of Tinseltown on I-30
In those days Benton had one theater, the IMP located at the present site of the Royal Theatre.
The IMP owned and operated by Mrs. Wooten, had been in operation since 1917 and about the same time as the Palace was constructed the IMP also moved into a new building.
Mr. Womack, like a lot of folks, opened a business that he knew absolutely nothing about. Womack was a colorful character, to say the least. He was always dressed to a tee as if he just stepped out of a "band box". By today's standards we would call him somewhat, "shady", but in his day he was a respectable odds maker, gambler and bookie. The upstairs at his house was where serious gambling took place, and his garage was a little casino.
BENTON COURIER February 26th, 1920: NEW THEATER WILL BE OPENED
"C.H. Womack announces this week that the Palace Theatre will open on March 5th ··· This new theater is one of the most up-to-date theater 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 ... 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."
This is a story the late Warren Lee Kaufman told me several years before his passing. Which was a story his father, Wallace Kaufman (Wallace ran the projector at the IMP and later became the owner and operator) had told his son.
There was suspect, by Mr. Kaufman that Mr. Womack tried to burn down his competition, the IMP. It was never proven, but Mr. Kaufman said the word around town was that Womack was the culprit.
BENTON COURIER May 13, 1920: FIRE DAMAGES MRS. WOOTEN'S
"Nightwatch, Will Ray discovered the New IMP Theater on fire at twelve-thirty Wednesday morning and immediately gave the alarm, and soon Fire Chief Louis Wolchansky and fire fighters were on the scene with the new fire fighting wagon and apparatus ... After the fire had been subdued and entrance made into the building, it was plain to be seen that the building had been set a fire, and that the perpetrators had failed to cover up part of their 'tools.' Numerous bottles were found on the stage, that
had evidently been filled with gasoline and the suit case in which the bottles were carried to the scene was at hand, also old sacks saturated with oil were found. From the indications the gasoline had been scattered over the seats, as all were practically ruined, even those in the gallery. The stage and practically all the interior furnishings were destroyed. The building was owned by James H. Glen and had only been completed a few months. It is thought that it will take $3.000 to repair the damages. The walls and roof are intact and only the interior work will have to be done over. Mrs. Wooten's friends will be glad to help her come back, especially on account of the circumstances surrounding the destruction of her beautiful little theater." Warren Lee told me that the community was outraged and it appeared Charley Womack held the smoking gun.
BENTON COURIER MAY 20th 1920: REWARD FOR THE FIEND!
"In a short time Thursday, over $600 was subscribed as a fund to furnish reward for the arrest and conviction of the party or parties who instigated and set afire the IMP Theater building on the night of May 1 i11• It is expected that this amount will be increased to $1,000 in a short time. Those who lead with subscriptions are: Jehu J. Crow, J.H. Glenn, Benton Courier and C.D. Hyten. Some few said they were in favor of the movement but were afraid to enroll themselves, that possibly the Fire Fiend would take revenge and burn them out."
Warren Lee told me that he could take me to the attic and show me the burnt rafters that are still in the old part of the IMP, which is now the Royal Theater. He never got around to showing me that, maybe one day I'll take a look.
BENTON COURIER MAY 7th 1920: RE-OPEN IMP FRIDAY NIGHT
" ... There are no developments regarding the parties who set the building afire .. State Fire Marshal was here last week making investigations, and it is thought that the insurance companies may have detectives making investigation as to who is responsible for the fire."
The arsonist was never found; whoever it was probably didn't sleep very well until the whole thing died down.
Mr. Womack's attempt to get the Palace off the ground failed and in just a few months the theater was sold.
BENTON COURIER JUNE lOrn 1920: NEW PALACE THEATER HAS CHANGED HANDS
"The Palace Theater building was sold last week to the Hefley-Skinner Amusement Company of Oklahoma, and will open under the management of the new owners Monday, June 14th, with a musical comedy company "Southern Daises," and the new Artcraft feature picture, "Mary's Ankle."
"It is the aim of the new management to conduct a high class picture show and vaudeville and during the season will present some good road shows. They are experienced in the theatrical business and are in touch all the time with first class people. This gives them an opportunity to offer some high class attractions. Both Mr. Hefley and Mr. Skinner are married and will move their families here as soon as suitable homes can be secured."
Trouble was back again after the announcement of their first movie. To Mr. Hefley's surprise his first movie was labeled 'Immoral' by a Baptist Revivalist at FBC in Benton.
BENTON COURIER JUNE 17 TH 1920: BAPTIST EVANGELISTS' STATEMENT RESENTED
"Revivalist Barton at the First Baptist church Sunday night strongly criticized the advertising of the moving picture play, 'Mary's Ankle' and insinuated that it was
'immoral'; he did not know that Manager Hefley of the New Palace Theater was in the audience."
"Mr. Hefley promptly Monday morning offered to have the picture censored by the evangelist, mayor, and a committee of women, supplementing his statement that he would give the church $1,000 if the picture was not acceptable; and if not, apology was to be made."
"Monday afternoon was set for the rehearsal and about twenty-five invited guests were present. After the showing of the movie all agreed that there was nothing immodest about the picture. That it was a nice play throughout and all were unanimous in giving their approval."
"Mr. Hefley explained his reason for having the review. He went to church Sunday night with the expectation of presenting the letters of himself and wife for membership in the First Baptist Church, but the remarks of the evangelist were so directed to him that he could not do so, and held the matter in abeyance until he was cleared of the charges preferred by the speaker."
"This was clearly done Monday afternoon, and the Rev. Mr. Barton was prompt in saying that there was nothing objectionable in the picture ... The First Baptist pastor, Rev. G.C. Taylor also had no criticism. Mrs. W.D. Brouse on behalf of the women present also gave approval to Mr. and Mrs. Hefley and Mr. and Mrs. Skinner." Events in the next few years changed quickly and the future of the Palace as a theater was short lived.
In 1919 two new theatres were built. The IMP, which had been in operation for some time ( 1914) by Alice Wooten, relocated to its new location, where the Royal Theatre stands today. The Palace Theatre was built in 1919 by C.H. Womack, at 224 W. South Street, in downtown Benton.
The Palace Theatre was a grand theatre, and was known as, "The Show Place of The South." Today, 95 years later, this old proud structure is in immediate danger of disappearing from our community.
The Palace opened on March 5th 1920 showing silent movies and live road shows. Almost immediately things started going south for Mr. Womack and his new theatre. By June of 1920 Womack sold the Palace to Hefley-Skinner Amusements Company, of Oklahoma. In about six months the new owners began to have financial difficulties and leased the Palace to Mrs. Wooten, the owner of the IMP.
BENTON COURIER December 16th 1920:
"Mrs. Alice M. Wooten has leased the Palace Theatre building and will open it during Christmas week .. .It is the intention of Mrs. Wooten to book high class road shows to this theatre ... This building, which is one of the best and most modem theatres in the state, has been closed since the first of December, during which time arrangements have been made that will insure patrons that it will be comfortably heated."
BENTON COURIER December 30th 1920:
"Beginning Saturday night Mrs. Alice Wooten will operate the Palace Theatre. She will also continue the IMP Theatre, which will be opened on Saturdays with feature pictures and when a road show is booked at the Palace, the IMP will run a picture program ... If Benton really wants something good in the show line, this will be the opportunity to show their appreciation by attending ... We have a theatre, as good as there is in the state and if we want to keep them coming one night every week, let us all tum out ... The heating plant has been repaired now, and the building is comfortably heated throughout so that all who attend are assured of a comfortable place in which to enjoy the best there is in pictures and road shows."
By all indications, (looking through old couriers) Mrs. Wooten tried to operate both theaters in 1921, but both theaters fell on hard times. The IMP closed while the Palace struggled and eventually became a place for community programs.
BENTON COURIER February 10th 1921:
"First Community Singing A Success; Five Hundred Were Present at the Palace Theatre Sunday Afternoon: PROGRAM NEXT SUNDAY; it was unanimously decided to continue the exercise each Sunday afternoon, and a committee was selected to conduct and arrange the program. The committee; Rev. H Heinecke (chairman) Mrs. Earl Donahue, Ralph Walton, A. B. Henley, Mrs. K.E. Gilbert, C.D. Hyten, M.F. Scott, and L.B. White (secretary) ... Program for next Sunday has been arranged, and the public is invited to be present and assist with their presence and singing. We are sure that all will be pleased and happier for the hour given to this kind of recreation. Charley McClue will be the leader."
Wallace Kaufman, who had worked for Mrs. Wooten at both theaters, reopened the IMP on January 14th 1922. The Palace never regained its status as an entertainment center and eventually shut its doors. In 1929 the city of Benton purchased the building, for a city auditorium.
BENTON COURIER August 15, 1929:
"The Place Theatre property on South Street has been purchased by the Board of Commissioners ... The buildings and lots originally cost $60,000, and were purchased for less than one-fourth this sum. There are two store rooms in addition to the theatre building, which has been allowed to get in bad condition ... Nothing definite has been done regarding the theatre building, but plans will soon be formulated for placing the auditorium in first class shape for the use of the public; conventions an large public gatherings. The auditorium is fitted with over a thousand opera seats, a standard stage and when erected was one of the most attractive theatre buildings in the state."
Gradually the building became less used for public gatherings, and eventually was closed, until 1944. The country had gone through the "Great Depression" and World War II was winding. It was time to play; and The Play Palace was born. A place the young folks of the community could gather and participate in wholesome and supervised activities.
BENTON COURIER May 18th 1944
"Recreation Hall To be Provided For Young People: After standing for many years unused except for possibly one or two meetings a year, the City Auditorium (Palace) is to be converted into a recreation hall for the use of the young people of Benton ... BENTON COURIER September 28th 1944:
"Recreational Center Opens Saturday Evening, Oct. 7; James W. Rainwater From Little Rock, To Serve As Full Time Leader ... Mr. Rainwater is the pastor of First Christian Church, and has organized youth groups for several years ... At last the long desired dream of hundreds of boys and girls of the Benton community will become a reality ... For the first time in the history of our town, the young people will have a beautiful, well equipped place where all teen-agers may go for wholesome recreation."
PANTHER TALES October 5th 1944:
"Recreation Center To Open Next Saturday: Yes, the Benton Recreational Center is opening this Saturday night ... There are several ping-pong tables, a pool table, quiet games, reading material, a juke box and a snack bar ... Lets support our Play Palace and prove to the people who did so much work to get it for us that we really appreciate our recreation center."
PANTHER TALES February 15, 1945:
"Valentine Dance A Big Success At Play Palace: The Play Palace was beautifully decorated ... June (Foddrill) Keenan and John Fred Walton seem to have a hangover from the party, for they were still together Monday afternoon in the Lab ... Lacy Landers and Bobby Tucker make such a lovely couple, especially on the dance floor. .. There's a new romance it seems, Patsy (Keene) Singleton and "Moe" Meyers really enjoyed the party, although Patsy says he's just a friend ... Bobbie Ruth Burns is quite the popular one these days with Troy Hudson, Paul Crow and "Goof' Alder following her everywhere she goes."
PANTHER TALES May 3, 1945:
"Saturday night the Play Palace closed and the members went to church for a prayer service when the news of the coming ofV-E Day was announced ... On Tuesday night from nine until ten, dancing classes, including folk dances, ballroom, and jitterbug will be offered. Lu Steed and Bernice Elliott will be youth helpers."
By Kathryn Walden;from memorabilia furnished by Jimmy Powers: Inside the front entrance was a concession stand. 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. Here young ''jitterbugs" perfected their skills, swinging to the beat of "String of Pearls, " "In the Mood, " "Jersey Bounce, " and other hits of the time blaring from their one jukebox, donated and delivered by Mr. IE. McCray, Sr. For special occasions, school orchestras might be asked to play, and Mrs. I H Houston, a music teacher, presented the center with a piano. Students began to meet there during their leisure time after school, after the football games, or before the preview at the Imp on Saturday nights. For some time, the Play Palace was the place to be ... The Palace Theatre building has worn many faces since 1919, but perhaps its happiest face dame with the Play Palace years, when it was filled with the shrieking, raucous sounds of the youth of Benton at play in their own palace.
After a year or so, Rev. Rainwater was transferred by his church to another town. Jimmy Powers of Benton became the new director. Jimmy already had two jobs at the time. He was employed by Alcoa, and he was the band director for the schools. He decided to leave Alcoa and become the director of the Play Palace, continuing his duties as band director. He was known to be good with the young people. Under Jimmy's direction the Play Palace was flocked with kids to sign up for the outside activities he promoted. For the first time, the youth of Benton would have swimming lessons on the Saline River. Seventeen baseball teams were organized in the summer of 1949, with just under three hundred boys playing. Jimmy Powers knew how to get things done.
BENTON COURIER May 22, 1947:
"Play Palace Reviews Work Of Past Year: The past summer we maintained a swimming pool on the Saline River for ten weeks ... The pool was equipped with a trolley, raft, diving boards and floats ... All Teen-agers may participate in this swimming program. Please contact Jimmy Powers the recreational director for more information."
The Board of Commissioners in 1952 offered Jimmy Powers a position a at the city water plant. In 1953 the Play Palace closed.
The Palace Theatre, built by C.H. Womack, in 1919 has had many different faces throughout its 95 year history. After its brief use as a theater it was closed, and in 1929 the city of Benton bought the property and converted the two offices spaces next to it for the city hall. Then in 1944 it was converted into the "Play Palace", a recreational hall for the youth of Saline County. During this period, Jimmy Powers the director, provided variety activities for the youth of Saline County. A boxing ring was quite popular with everyone. A boxing team from Bauxite fought often with the boys from Benton. Bauxites team was coached by J. P. Jones. They were divided by weight and boxed accordingly. Mrs. Johnnie Allen taught dance classes.
Shortly after Jimmy Powers took a job with the city the "Play Palace" closed again in 1953 to stand empty until 1957 when it was remodeled again to become another center for the youth: The "Panther Den".
BENTON COURIER November 29, 1955:
"The first Aluminum Bowl was so successful that the sponsoring Kiwanis Club is heavily encouraged toward sponsoring the game annually. T.H. Duke, chairman of the Aluminum Bowl Committee, reported. The net income of $1,500 is earmarked for the proposed
"Panther Den" recreational center."
BENTON COURIER September 26, 1957:
"Opening Planned For "Panther Den": The "Panther Den" recreational center, sought for Saline County's youth will be opened Wednesday ... The spacious "Play Palace" building is being converted with three sections: 1. A lounge area and concession stand in the front. 2. An area for games on the concrete floor comprising the center of the building. 3. A stage for parties and dancing in the rear."
When "Panther Den" was utilized by the teenagers of that time for dances, Sharon Daugherty remembers hanging out at the "Den" with her friends especially after home football games at C.W. Lewis Stadium. The Triangle Cafe also became another hot spot. The owner Chester Hankins had car hops in the beginning but Chester's patience slowly got the best of him and indoor dining was all that he offered.
I recall going to the Panther Den in the early 60's when I was in junior high. Friday night was a big night for a movie at the Royal and afterwards we headed to the "Panther Den". In those days it could have been call the "Bull Dog House" because most of the teenagers at Benton High School had cars and didn't wish to hang out with us kids. When The
"Play Palace" opened in 1944 very few kids had cars and were looking for somewhere to go, but as the mobility of teenagers changed the crowd at the "Den" also changed. Instead of boys playing pool at the "Panther Den" they would rather play pool at the various pool halls around town. By this time the pool halls had stopped selling beer, and the underage were welcome. Why would you want to set with your girl in a booth at the "Panther Den" when you could be with her in your car? This was the era of "Grease" and going to an adult supervised recreational hall was not cool. Everything was about being cool, and not being "square". Our parents had gone through the Great Depression and WWII and couldn't relate to this new form of socializing. Today it's hard for the older generation to relate to the social media of face book, texting, and twitter.
By the 1960's cruising and 'just hanging out" were the "in" things to do. "Just hanging out" was pulling your car into the Whopper Burger or Dairy Queen for a coke, and maybe a smoke. Tommie Adams, the owner of the local Dairy Queen, and Roy Bishop the owner of Whopper Burgers #1 (Military) and #2 (Edison), both told me that on many occasions they would have phone calls from adults stating they had come to their place of business, but couldn't get a parking space.
Often a group of kids parked their cars at a business that might be closed at night to socialize. This became such a problem that in 1969 the City of Benton passed an ordinance, and posted it at businesses on Military. Even today you can find a few of these
signs, which read: "NO LOITERY! Ord. #JO of 1969: Cruising in or
congregation on or lingering, inside or outside of a motor vehicle is
unlawful ... " When parents would ask, 'what did you do last night?' the familiar response was, "Oh, we just hung out on Military."
The "Panther Den" slowly faded away and the Palace building became unoccupied once more.
In 1967 the building underwent remodeling and became the home of the Saline County Library. On October 30th 2001 construction began on our present library. This new library was dedicated on August 19th 2003 and moved into its present location on Smithers Drive, leaving the Palace empty again. It doesn't seem real that the Palace was the home of the Saline County Library for 38 years! Today the building is used to store the costumes for the Royal Players community theatrical group, who provide live plays regularly at the Royal Theatre.
C.H. Womack had a dream. To build the "Palace Theater" that would be called, "The Show Place Of The South." Sadly his dream was short lived. It started in the era of silent movies and vaudeville acts, but never got to see the "boom" days of talking pictures. So what does the future hold for this Ole Girl?
In 2012 the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas listed 10 of the "Most Endangered Buildings" in our state. The Palace Theatre in downtown Benton made their list. Their report states: "The list highlights distinctive historic places throughout Arkansas that represent important aspects of Arkansas' history and heritage. In each instance, these places are integral to the communities where they are located, yet they are in immediate danger of disappearing
from the landscape. By calling attention to these sites now, we want to encourage local action while there's still time. It is our hope that inclusion on our list will provide those who wish to save these sites with the support and momentum to take their preservation efforts to the next level. .. The Palace Theatre building has a leaking roof that has caused extensive damage to the interior and has recently caused the City of Benton to consider demolishing the Palace ... Time is running out for this distinctive building that has served the city of Benton in so many important ways for almost a century."
We as a community are responsible for its present condition and for its future preservation. The Historic District of Downtown Benton is the very heart of our community. If the heart is ill the entire body is affected. Downtown Benton is a historical treasure and preserving it is vital to our community .
It's not as if the Palace is the oldest building in downtown Benton, and beyond repair. These are just a few that are older and being successfully used everyday: The Ashby Building built in 1908 (Dollar General). The Kelley Building, built in 1917 (Merle Norman). The Hughes Building, built in 1908, (renovated by James Posey). The Stinson Building, built 1913 (Republican Headquarters, Saline County Historical and Heritage). The front portion of the Royal Theatre, which housed the IMP, built in 1919. These are just a few, and some tell me there are older buildings in town being used everyday. Today this "Grande Ole Lady" is a symbol of days gone by, but when you think about it, as being only a few years younger than our Saline County Court House, surely we cant let "Her" be condemned, and lost forever?
Located on historic 224 West South Street ♦ Benton, Arkansas ♦
@2015 Friends of the Palace Theatre, Inc.