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97-year-old Royal Theatre remains a gem

If only the brick walls of the Royal Theatre in downtown Benton could talk, I imagine the conversation would be full of amusing, awe-inspiring tales of the different types of people who have graced the interior of the two-story historic structure. From early movie days in the 1920s to the ’50s when concessions were sold to passersby on the street, and later in the ’90s when actor Jerry Van Dyke owned the theater and adjacent Soda Shoppe, the Royal Theatre has touched many lives throughout the past century.

In 2004 when I joined the staff at the Benton Courier (now the Saline Courier), I quickly learned from seasoned reporter and editor Lynda Hollenbeck – a Royal Players board member and veteran cast and crew participant – the important role the theater plays in the community. During my newspaper tenure I would go on to know other key players of the Royal, such as theatre manager Shannon Moss and founding members the late Gayla McCoy, Louann Cameron and Selena Ellis.

The Royal Players (formerly the Central Arkansas Community Players) has called the Royal Theatre home since 2000 when Van Dyke deeded the building to the performance group. Established in 1994, for the first few years the theatre group put on plays at Benton High School’s Butler Auditorium. The Royal Players and the Young Players for youth have produced more than 100 plays.

The original section of the Royal Theatre was built in 1920 when it was known as the IMP, an acronym for Independent Motion Pictures, according to the history section of the theater’s website. The theater was remodeled and the name changed to the Royal in 1949. In 1974, Wallace Kauffman relinquished control of the Royal to his son Warren Lee and his wife, Mildred. In 1986, Warren Lee passed ownership to his son Randy Kauffman, who continued to manage it until 1996 when he sold it to Van Dyke.

Because the Royal Theatre is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Royal Players is able to apply for preservation grants and low-interest loans to help maintain the structure for all to enjoy for years to come.

Susan Dill, president of the Royal Players Board of Directors, gives Van Dyke credit for cleaning up downtown. The area has been on the upswing ever since.

“The area continues to improve, and we attract people from all of central Arkansas,” Dill says, adding that the theater “improves the quality of life for all who experience it, from the actors to the people who come to watch.”

The Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s very own Jeff LeMaster, director of communications and marketing, grew up in Benton, calling the Royal “our movie theater.” Until Tinseltown theater was built in 1997, LeMaster says the Royal was the only option for seeing movies locally.

“One of my most vivid memories of the Royal was when we went to see The Rescuers Down Under with my family. About halfway through the movie, they stopped the projector and the manager came in and told the audience that it was snowing pretty hard outside and that he would give us a rain check ticket if we wanted to leave. My parents opted to stay and finish the movie even though most people left, and by the time we got out of the theater, there was about six inches of snow on the ground. It took us a while to get home, but I remember thinking how cool it was to have the theater almost all to ourselves.”

LeMaster echoes Dill’s sentiments about downtown’s improvement during the Van Dyke days.

“Back in the ’90s, Benton’s downtown was struggling. Businesses were having a hard time staying open, and there were lots of vacant buildings. The one little glimmer of life was the Royal. That became especially true when Jerry Van Dyke installed the soda shop next door and the Royal installed a stage and began producing live local theater. The soda shop venture didn’t last, but I remember being amazed at how many more people I saw on Market Street during that time.”

With the increased foot traffic came a renewed interest from investors to revive vacant buildings near the Royal that remain occupied.  

Since the Royal Players took control of the building, the Royal Theatre is not only a stellar downtown asset, but also a safe haven for youth and adults to come together to be themselves, establish bonds and gain valuable life lessons.

Payton Christenberry, a program officer at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute in charge of arts and humanities programs, also grew up in Benton and recalls fondly his time as part of the Royal Players.

The Royal was a big part of my teenage and early adult years, performing on stage and working behind the scenes,” Christenberry says. “I didn’t appreciate its history at the time, but there was no way to miss the presence the building has. From the classic theater marquee to the towering ceiling inside to the creak of the chairs, everything pulls you into another world.

“What sticks out most, though, is how many people the Royal brings together. I got to meet and work with people from my community on something we all shared a passion for. On top of that, we got to perform for our friends and neighbors. I can’t think of a time I felt more connected to my hometown than standing on stage to take a final bow beside my fellow cast and crew in front of a packed house. I wouldn’t have those memories without the Royal.”

That intrinsic link to the artistic and commercial health of a community will be a key theme at the Rockefeller Institute’s upcoming Historic Theaters Conference, which will be held at the Institute on Petit Jean Mountain Thursday, Aug. 10, through Friday, Aug. 11.

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