By Deborah Reinhardt Palmer

They stand as monuments to our memories. Grand, historical theaters that once welcomed famous vaudevillians or screened the movies we fell in love with perhaps a generation ago. Some, tragically, succumbed to decay or the wrecking ball, but many have been saved and given another chance.


Above: The Malco Theater, a meeting point in Hot Springs for generations, now is home to the city’s documentary film institute and festival. HSDFI photo

Below: The Strand was the flagship for the Saenger theater chain, a thriving enterprise during the 1920s. Shreveport-Bossier City CVB photo


The League of Historic American Theaters lists hundreds of these entertainment palaces in the United States and Canada. Dozens are dotted throughout the South, and this is but a sampling of wonderful buildings that have been renovated and repurposed. To learn about more historical theaters, visit the league’s Web site,

The Malco in Hot Springs

For generations, the Malco Theater has been the meeting point along Central Avenue in Hot Springs, Ark. When friends say “meet me at the Malco,” you can bet there will be good times to follow. Since 1992, the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute has given the theater a renewed purpose as an educational and cultural center. It is the home of the institute’s annual documentary film festival.

“Everyone has a story about the Malco,” said Malinda Herr-Chambliss, director of the film institute. “Someone may remember seeing ‘Star Wars’ with their parents or coming to the Malco after prom. We’re collecting those stories now, one by one.”

Soon, the 900-seat theater will begin a new chapter in its continuing story as the institute prepares to launch a $5 million capital campaign in January 2009. As part of the project, the 17,000-square-foot two-screen theater will have various technical upgrades, as well as some significant historical restoration, including the area once used as the rear entrance for blacks during the era of segregation. Herr-Chambliss said it already is one of the best-preserved segregated entrances in any theater in the country, and will be the first renovation project at the Malco. An event in July will announce details of the renovation project.

The old carpeting, some of which is held together with tape, will be replaced. Fortunately, an original piece of the burgundy carpet has been found and will be used to replicate the once-new flooring that was enjoyed when the theater opened in 1939.

Some repairs to plaster ceilings already have begun, and that work, along with a new roof for the theater, will be finished before the fall festival dates.

The Malco is on a site that its predecessor, the Princess Theater, occupied. That old vaudeville house dated to the 1880s, but burned down. The Malco itself was damaged by a fire and remodeled in 1962.

The project will also include renovating the 36,000-square-foot building next to the Malco, space used by the film institute for its offices. Part of the new space will be used for residency apartments to be used by visiting filmmakers.

The film institute and its festival have gained an international following over 17 years. Last year, more than 26,000 people attended the October festival, according to Herr-Chambliss. The festival brings in about $4 million to the Hot Springs’ economy and more than 600 volunteers work to make the event a success during the week of screenings.

The festival “gives people a passport to an open mind,” Herr-Chambliss said, adding the selection committee screens about 1,000 films over a six-month period before deciding what documentaries to showcase at the Malco.

This year, the festival will be Oct. 17–26 and feature filmmaker and author Chris Gore. There also will be a fundraising event on Oct. 17 that will include the premiere of “Brew Day,” a documentary about Arkansas home brewers. In addition, a week of events starting Oct. 10 will set the stage for the film festival.

The Malco Theater is at 817 Central Ave. For details about the institute, film festival or the theater, call (501) 321-4747 or visit online at

The Strand in Shreveport

Brothers Abe and Julian Saenger owned hundreds of movie palaces throughout the South by the 1920s. The first opened in Shreveport in 1913, but the 2,500-seat flagship theater, The Strand, opened in July 1925 to the tune of $750,000. It is Louisiana’s official state theater and hosts a variety of musical, dance and theatrical performances.

The Saengers lived in Shreveport and were pharmacists. Their drug store had a penny kinetograph, also known as a “movieolla,” and this machine sparked the brothers’ interest in moving pictures. Together with the Ehrlich brothers, who already owned the Majestic Theater, they opened the first Saenger Theater, with The Strand to follow 12 years later.

Through the years, the theater transitioned from a live performance venue to a movie house. In the 1950s, John Wayne and William Holden were guests of The Strand during the premier of “The Horse Soldier.” By 1977, it seemed The Strand had run its course as a movie theater and it was shuttered. The community’s efforts to save the theater got underway and restoration work began in 1978. A state grant of $1.8 million came with the official designation for The Strand as Louisiana’s theater in 1980. Four years and $4.5 million later, the historical theater reopened and now hosts Broadway shows and other live performances.

The premier of “Angels,” a musical by Ken Lai and Marcus Cheong, will be presented at The Strand prior to a Broadway engagement. The story is about good versus evil with uplifting music and great special effects. “Angels,” performed Aug. 29–Sept. 13, kicks off The Strand’s 2008-09 season.
The Strand Theater is located at 619 Louisiana Ave. For ticket and performance information, call (318) 226-1481 or visit online at

Deborah Reinhardt Palmer is managing editor of AAA Southern Traveler.

Jul/Aug 2008 Issue




New Life for an Old Favorite
By Don Redman

For nearly 50 years, the Straub Theater in Wiggins, Miss. entertained moviegoers, but by the early 1980s, the last roll of Hollywood celluloid looped lazily around the projector reel to its end and the lights went forever black. The old movie house, which first opened in the 1930s as the Palace Theater and later the Frontier Theater, was unceremoniously closed and sat idle until it was later reopened as a church charity center. The sloped floors were leveled and the projector room and adjoining balcony were boarded up. Only the giant screen, hanging silently along the back wall, remained as a reminder of the theater’s former glory.

By 1990, the building underwent another transformation when Karen Wallsmith converted the building into an antique furniture restoration business. Serendipity Antiques specialized in stripping old finishes from antique furniture and restoring the pieces to their original elegance. But six years into the business,

Wallsmith lost her enthusiasm for furniture restoration.

“I asked myself, do I want to strip furniture for the rest of my life?” she said.

The answer was a resounding no, but she wasn’t about to abandon her passion for antiques altogether, she’d just sell refinished pieces. She also wanted more than an average antique shop, and being located in a community where they’re glad to tell you “unique is normal,” she decided to include a sandwich shop and thus was born Serendipity Antiques and Deli.

At first, she set antique pieces throughout the dining area where shoppers could mingle with dining patrons, but the lunch crowd had gotten so big that she had to move most pieces to a second floor addition. With space at a premium, many large pieces are downstairs in the dining area. The second floor is smothered in more antiques, from dressers to chairs to lamps to iron skillets. On the far wall, barely visible behind armoires and a rail of hanging chairs is the last screen to capture the projector’s moving images. Wallsmith contemplated taking it down during the remodel, but she was talked out of doing so by friends and family.

The projection room is tucked away in a corner of the balcony. Two film projectors, which are believed to be original to the theater, sit side-by-side, forever idle. Back downstairs, Wallsmith said that during the remodeling of the bathrooms, they had to break through “layers and layers” of previous remodeling attempts until they came across a layer containing names handwritten by kids from a bygone era.

“They used to have college night here, I think on Tuesdays,” said Wallsmith. “They would bus them here (from the local community college) and some of the kids wrote their names and stuff on the bathroom walls.”

She notes with a smile that some of the erstwhile graffitists are today parents and prominent members of the community.

Wallsmith’s efforts to bring new vitality to old town Wiggins have not gone unnoticed or unappreciated. She was recently named Stone County Small Businesswoman of the Year.

The deli specializes in so-called designer sandwiches and two standouts are the original “Bird ‘n a Wrap” (grilled chicken in a pita wrap and an authentic New Orleans style Muffuletta). The menu offers vastly more than sandwiches and includes soups and salads, pasta dishes, steaks, ribs and seafood platters. Serendipity is located at 203 E. Pine St. in the heart of the revitalization effort underway in old town Wiggins. Call (601) 928-5020 for information.

Don Redman is associate editor of AAA Southern Traveler.



^ to top | previous page