During the last world war, there was an army base two counties over from Eureka Springs that covered more than a hundred square miles and housed 45,000 soldiers at any given time, including the largest WAC contingent in the United States. This post, Fort Crowder, was also the inspiration of the Beetle Bailey comic strip. After the war, it was drawn down and vast portions of it no longer used. Around 1950, surplus gear was being sold, including the equipment out of the post movie theater.
That’s where Eureka Springs comes into the picture. Cecil Maberry operated the movie theater at 95 Spring St. and needed to update his equipment. The antiquated projector system he used often broke the film being shown, resulting in anger-causing delays as the film was spliced together. Mr. Maberry purchased the equipment from the US Army and hired McKinley Weems to haul it. McKinley borrowed Cleo Hull’s new truck and drove the 70 miles to Fort Crowder, and helped install the upgraded system upon returning.
McKinley Weems also installed the first air conditioner in the theater – a 20 horsepower unit that during the hottest part of summer kept the movie crowd temperature down to 90° instead of 110°. The old fan system he tore out of the theater had been built by a blacksmith in eastern Arkansas.
Some find it hard to imagine that Eureka Springs ever even had a movie theater, but, especially before television, it was an integral part of the town. For nearly 60 years the movie theater was open for business under various names. It opened as “The Commodore” and McKinley Weems remembers seeing silent films there before he was in the first grade. For the longest time the movie tickets were only 10 cents each and the line waiting to get in would sometimes stretch down to Pendergrass Drug Store.
I’ve asked people what they remember seeing there. My wife saw Bambi when she was four years old. My brother saw Bonnie and Clyde there with my mother and Brenda Evans. Aunt Terri saw Sandpiper starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The night of the attack on Pearl Harbor, my grandparents attended a movie there. I saw movies there but have no recollection of it, though my mother remembers because I wouldn’t stop crying.
For many years it was the “New Basin Theatre” and when the last movies were shown in late 1976 it was called “The Gaslight.” When it was sold, the new buyers were supposed to keep operating it as a movie theater so the kids in town would have something to do, but instead it was turned into even more retail space.