Everything in Pine Bluff’s historic Community Theatre from the marquee in the front, to the fire escape in the back, and from ceiling to floor was renovated. With the exception of the entrance, offices and stage area in the front of the building, gutted was the operative word. The all-encompassing renovation was no small task, particularly when one intends to return the old theater to “how it was.”
“How it was” is the concept, “How it probably was” is closer to reality according to Jack Stradley and his wife Kathy Majewska, the angel investors who instigated the restoration. “In some areas, we were simply not certain exactly ‘how it was.’ In those cases, we got as close to ‘how it probably was’ as we could,” Stradley says. The theater ceiling is a good example. The ceiling was rotting bead-board which was replaced with a pressed metal ceiling reminiscent of the popular late 19th and 20th century architectural style.
The building was completed in 1889 for a local congressman, Clifton Rodes Breckinridge, by contractor William I. Hilliard, who also built the Jefferson County Courthouse, completed in 1890. The building was first occupied by the legendary five and dime store, S. H. Kress Company. Kress closed their doors in 1918 and the next record of occupancy was as a theater in 1922. The property changed hands a few times and finally wound up with Victor Elbert Bonner who started managing the theater in 1929, and his son Charles, as owners. The Bonners bought The Community in 1942 and operated it until 1963 when they closed its doors.
The Community sat vacant until 1986 when retired American Airlines pilot, good-hearted philanthropist, and real estate investor, Bill Bettwy bought it. He did some restoration on the building including making the old projector operable.
He also created events to draw traffic. His efforts, though inspired by good intentions and funded with serious money, did not spur enough interest to keep the building open and he was forced to close the theater.
In 1994, The Community became home to the Pine Bluff Film Festival which featured classic films, the showings of which were attended by the stars of the production. Visiting luminaries of yesteryear included Sir and Mrs. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.; Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of Charlie Chaplin; Fay Wray, Ruth Warrick, Cameron Mathison, Farley Granger, Celeste Holm, Gloria DeHaven, Tippi Hedren, Carol Channing, Shirley Jones, Jane Russell, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Juanita Moore, Patricia Neal, and Van Johnson.
In 1996, Bettwy donated the building to Old Towne Theatre Centre, a local non-profit which also owned the distressed Saenger Theater across the street from the Community
The restoration was not without complications. “When a building has been around as long as this one has, everyone and his brother has patched it, fixed it, and attempted renovation,” says Stradley. “Not everything they did was right, so we had to stop and remedy past mistakes before we can move forward.” Master craftsman Jerry Minton, a member of the renovation crew, agrees. “We uncovered dozens of fixes and patches from the past, which continued up to the last tasks of the job."
Old Town Theatres, the owner and operator of the Community Theatre is a 501c3 organization and is appreciative of support in its efforts to restore and operate the theatre.
"Our vision is to provide visitors to this facility with the experience of a classic early to mid-twentieth century theater sweetened with some contemporary state-of –the-art twists, Stradley said. “The twists are comfortable seating, plus state-of –the-art lighting and digital audio-visual amenities," Stradley says. The experience is live variety theater, as in real performers on a real stage — in a real theater. See the 2014 Community Theater Show Schedule. Break a leg!
See a comprehensive history article about The Community Theater.
Learn more about Clifton Rodes Breckinridge.