Theatre Thursday: Arkansas and Arizona

I’m so terribly sorry I missed last week’s Theatre Thursday. I got busy at work and that’s when I usually make the posts (like now) and time escaped me. So to make up for it, I’m giving you two theatres this week.


Saenger_Theatre,_Pine_Bluff,_ARForty-five minutes southeast of Little Rock, Arkansas sits the town of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, home to one of the Saenger brothers’ many theatres spread throughout the South.

The theatre opened November, 17, 1924 and quickly became the entertainment place to be for people living in Southeast Arkansas. The existing building that the Saengers bought burned down after an incident with an open gas line and a lit candle. A new $200,000 building replaced the old and offered seating for 1,500 patrons and had marble flooring, a crystal prism chandelier and a full-size Broadway stage. During the week long celebration of its opening, stars of the day made appearances at the theatre including Gloria Swanson, Norma Talmadge and famed producer D. W. Griffith.

Harry Houdini was one of its later performers, as well as Roy Rogers with his horse Trigger. These performances were aimed mainly at local children where admission to these and other shows for children was an empty Coke bottle.

During the years of World War II, the theatre hosted events in an effort to raise money for War Bonds and when films were shown, the Movietone Newsreels served to inform the general public of the War’s progress.

The Saenger’s doors were closed around 1975 because fewer people were venturing into the downtown area. Ownership of the theatre then transferred to a non-profit organisation called the Heckatoo Heritage, whose aim was to preserve old homes and buildings. In 1996 it was turned over to another non-profit group, Friends of Saenger, who then restored the theatre to is original condition.

The theatre was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995 and is today owned by the City of Pine Bluff and is not in use, though there seems to be an on-going effort to restore the building.


The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture
The Saenger Theatre

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rialtooldinside2reConceived of in the early 1910s, the theatre opened its doors in 1920 as part of an extensive theatre chain, much like the Saenger Theatres. It was one of Tucson’s first movie theatres, showing the silent films of the day, but also hosting vaudeville acts as well. By the 30s, talking pictures had replaced the silent films while vaudeville acts were still popular.

The theatre was designed and built by California-based William Curlett & Son and the name given the theatre “rialto” refers to the medieval plazas where the common man could find entertainment, as the operas and theatre were for the nobility and wealthy.

At the time of its opening, the theatre possessed a Kilgen pipe organ which would accompany the silent films. The organ was moved to the Yuma theatre when the Rialto was under the ownership of theatre giant Paramount-Publix and thereafter, a small orchestra would provide all of the music for accompanying the silent films.

In 1963 when downtown Tucson suffered a recession, the theatre closed its doors, citing among its reasons, a general move away from the downtown area. From then until 1971, the building served as a storage unit for a local furniture store.

Beginning in 1971, the theatre served briefly as a strictly Spanish movie house before moving into its seedier history as a porn movie palace. Although the city of Tucson failed in its initial attempts to block the porn movie house from existing, it eventually succeeded. It was during this time that the theatre came closest to date to burning down as an anonymous woman offended by the theatre’s function as a porn house attempted to burn the place down. Fortunately she didn’t succeed; unfortunately she was never caught.

From 1978 to 1984 the theatre went back to showing Spanish language films until a boiler explosion condemned the building. It remained closed until 1995 when it was (presumably) renovated and reopened as a concert venue, which is what it exists as today.

The theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004 and is also alleged to be haunted.


Rialto Theatre (Arizona)
The Historic Rialto Theatre