Improvements are on the drawing board at the old Community Theatre at 207 West Second Avenue, and the repairs will likely include removal of a Grider Field/World War II aviation mural along Pine Street.
The Pine Bluff Historic District Commission on Dec. 21 gave its approval on a certificate of appropriateness application on the historic building, which is now owned by the local Ole Towne Theatre Centre organization, represented by Commissioner Jack Stradley. The application includes Stradley’s responses on the proposed actions’ impacts on matters outlined within the U.S. secretary of the interior’s standards for rehabilitation.
“The deteriorated mural poses a threat to the public’s health and safety due to the hazard posed by large sheets of stucco falling from the eastern facade,” the application states. The proposed removal of the decaying, 1995 mural “will have no effect on the future use” of the building “as a theater and performance space,” the application continues. The marquee — damaged when struck by a truck — will be removed as well, but then reinstalled after repairs.
The building was completed in 1889 by contractor William I. Hillard, who had constructed the Jefferson County Courthouse in 1890, according to White Hall historian Brenda J. Hall in an Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture article. Originally known as the Breckinridge Building, it was owned by Clifton R. Breckinridge, a son of former Vice President Gen. John Breckinridge.
It first functioned as a theater in 1922. Victor E. Bonner, after managing the facility for several years, purchased the business with his son, Charles, in 1942. The younger Bonner managed the movie house until it folded in 1963.
Twenty-three years later — in 1986 — it was purchased and revived by local real estate agent Bill Bettwy, who reopened it as the Community Theatre Museum in 1995 following several years of restoration. Bettwy donated the theater to Ole Towne on Dec. 31, 1996. Ole Towne also owns another nearby theater, The Saenger.
The Community Theatre was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004. Stradley said plans for its marquee, which extends above the front sidewalk of the building, are to have it “restored as closely as possible to its original appearance.”
Robert Tucker, head of the city’s inspection and zoning department and an adviser to the historic district commission, noted in a panel meeting last month that that the wall on which the mural is painted was actually never intended as an outside wall, but rather as interior support. He described the wall — exposed since destruction of an adjacent, corner building about 20 years ago — as “soft.” In order to provide adequate strength in its current role, the wall “will have to be redone,” Tucker said.
“There have been no findings by staff that would indicate any violations” of the federal “standards occurring in the proposed work,” the inspection and zoning department’s recommendation on the application stated in recommending granting of a certificate and permission for Stradley “to proceed” after obtaining “necessary demolition and building permits.” Stradley wants to employ the remodeled theater for stage shows and other entertainment venues, which he believes will bring tourists and favorable state and national publicity to the city.
In other business at the commission’s meeting, the panel discussed possibly having a grand opening at the updated Boone-Murphy House in January or February, received an update on The Saenger Theatre from Tucker, and was advised that the proposed downtown design guidelines for oversight on historic downtown projects is to be presented for council consideration next month.