The Gem Theater in my hometown of Heber Springs, Arkansas, has been the center of my social life since I was a child. I cannot remember the first time I saw a movie. But before I started first grade, a neighborhood friend and I could walk down Main Street and pay five cents to see a double feature on Saturday afternoon. And we did! Times change; traffic increases, and we no longer know every person living in Heber Springs. My children, who grew up in the 1960s and ‘70s in a house only two blocks from my childhood home, could not walk to the movies. And certainly my granddaughter, who lived as a child in my old home, could not even walk the two blocks to my house.
The Gem has gone through transformation, as well. In my girlhood, my Great- Aunt Lucy Dial sat every Saturday afternoon and all evenings in the ticket booth, monitoring who came and went and how one behaved during the movie. An old-fashioned popcorn popper rolled outside the theater each evening. Different people who worked at the theater over the years started the corn popping at least a half hour before movie time. Golden, light kernels fell from the popper with a mouthwatering smell that wafted up and down Main Street. Residents not attending the movie stopped their cars in front of the Gem long enough to spend ten cents for a bag of the warm buttery treat to munch on their evening drives. That was something else we did in Heber Springs: “drive around” for entertainment.
Mr. Walter R. Lee, a cotton buyer from Batesville, Arkansas, opened the Gem Theater in 1939 in a former feed store on Main Street. In a tragic fire that shocked the entire county, the Gem, and four other buildings on the block, burned on December 7, 1941, the same day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The father of two brothers among my childhood friends died when a wall collapsed as he fought the fire alongside other volunteer firemen. From a heap of ashes, Lee rebuilt the movie house and reopened for a second time.
Alongside Lucy Dial, young girls started working at the theater as teenagers, one of them having a 51-year career in the movie houses of Heber Springs. They remembered Mrs. Dial kept order in the theater, often charging like a little bulldog into the auditorium to escort those with offensive behavior outside. In the 1940s, ‘50s, and ’60, movies were typically big production musicals, westerns, and wholesome love stories. No one checked for ratings. There were none. In the theater’s early days, townspeople did not go home early on Saturday nights. Stores stayed open and romances budded and blossomed in front of the silver screen. Saturday matinees and early evenings showed a western movie, a serial, newsreels, a cartoon, and then a feature movie—a lot for five or ten cents, the charge for anyone over twelve years of age. On Saturday nights, the theater offered an “Owl” show, starting at 11:00 p.m., featuring a mainstream movie that replayed at a Sunday matinee and on Monday evening. As a teenager, my curfew was 10:00, but my mother permitted me to go to the “Owl” movie and then straight home. I always opted for that choice, not necessarily because I wanted to see the movie. But it gave me an extra hour with the boy who became my first husband—and then an extra two hours of hand holding in the dark of the movie theater.
Concessions were limited to the fresh popcorn and a water fountain. But Whitaker’s Drug Store on the corner stayed open to provide fountain service to movie patrons. If anyone had an extra nickel, he or she could buy a slushy fruit ice—or a chocolate-covered ice cream bar with a cherry buried inside. A cherry lime fountain drink cost a dime. Kids walked back and forth to Whitaker’s for a drink or ice cream throughout the movie—or as long as their nickels and dimes lasted. (Aunt Lucy Dial knew exactly who went in and out and who had bought a ticket and who had not!) Then just before 11:00 p.m. on Saturday, Mr. Tom Whitaker closed his drug store and hurried down the sidewalk to sit on the theater’s back row for the “Owl” show.
All 12-year-olds tried to fool Aunt Lucy at the ticket counter when the time came for them to pay a dime for admission. But in our small town, she knew every kid’s birth date—especially mine because she was married to my Great-Uncle Sam.
For 32 years, Mr. James Combs, the projectionist, climbed a rickety ladder to his booth. However, his duties often went beyond running the machines that projected characters, scenes, and sound into the auditorium. He once recalled that a local boy, who regularly came to the movies, got his finger stuck in a hole in the seat. Mr. Combs completely dismantled the seat and sent the boy home with the bottom still stuck to his finger. His dad took a hack saw and released the finger from the hole, and then sent his son back to the Gem to return the seat.
Before air-conditioning, a big fan blew hot air to the back on summer afternoons and evenings. In the late 1940s, the Gem became one of the first air-conditioned buildings in town. I remember my family going to the movie on sultry August nights to have a couple of hours of cool air.
Mr. Lee sold the movie house in 1969 to Victor Webb, who operated the theater until 1984. By that time, the town had a new two-screen movie theater. After the Gem closed, a new owner produced the Sugar Loaf Opry in the old building for four years. However, the Gem fell into disrepair. Rubble littered the floor. Old theater seats sagged. Cobwebs draped the silent screen. Coffee-colored stains on the ceiling gave evidence of roof leaks. In an unoccupied state, mildew covered everything and mice played in the aisles.
It had taken generations for an Arkansas county to create the romance, the history, and the legacy of the Gem Theater. But in the 1990s, a united citizenry renovated and polished the old landmark into a unique Gem. The Cleburne County Arts Council and dozens of donors and volunteers revitalized the old movie house into a community theater where patrons could produce and experience live theatre. For over a decade residents and guests clapped, laughed, or even shed a tear in plays, musicals, and other presentations on the renewed stage. The Council bought the next-door building and turned it into an art gallery, dressing rooms, and restrooms. A new generation started to build on the Gem’s legacy.
However, the Community Theatre could not financially sustain its programs. Once more the doors of the Gem closed. The two-screen cinema across town burned and Heber Springs had no movie house or a community theater. Within a short time, a veteran movie theater owner in a neighboring town bought the property and reinstated the silver screen. The Gem—still gleaming from its 1990’s facelift—once again became the Heber Springs movie house. The annexed building now holds a concession area; no more walking half a block to the old fashioned drug store soda fountain. The smell of buttery hot popcorn tantalizes the nose—maybe not quite the same as when the old popper stood outside the theater with yellow kernels tumbling into its glass case. Still, one’s mouth waters when stepping inside the theater’s foyer.
New reclining seats fill the auditorium, accommodating approximately 240 movie-goers. The rickety ladder to the projection room is gone, replaced by digital projectors. First-run movies light up the screen. Aunt Lucy Dial no longer sits in the ticket booth—and no one checks tickets going into the auditorium. Yet, some things never change. Romances still bud and blossom. Couples—even older ones like Lee and me—still hold hands inside the darkened theater. And magic, although often more violent and racier than when I was a Saturday-afternoon patron, still flashes across the screen, bigger than life outside the theater’s doors.