Going to the movies has long been an American pastime. As a child, I loved going to the theater and watching a show. The very first show I can recall watching in a theater with my Grandparents and family was the Fox and the Hound, and even the adults shed a tear or two.
After moving back to Arkansas, one of the first theaters we visited was the Melba Theater. It was showing its age, as it had been opened originally in 1940 but was still a fun family outing. After visiting the Melba Theater in Batesville this past week, I was truly taken aback at how beautifully restored the theater is now.
The building was constructed in 1875 as an Opera House and was later converted into a mercantile store. It opened as the Melba Theater in 1940 as one of the first CinemaScope theaters in Arkansas. You couldn’t miss the large lighted vertical Melba sign announcing the cinema, and the marquee below lined with tiny blinking light bulbs. As part of Batesville’s Historic Main Street, it is included in the National Register of Historic Places.
Back in the 1940s, you might have had the pleasure of watching Dumbo, Casablanca, Bambi, State Fair, It’s a Wonderful Life or Little Women to name a few. A visit to the theater was quite different than it is today, it was a special event. An usher would seat you and be available for assistance. You might watch a double feature, or visit the concessions during the intermission.
Purchased in March of 2015, the new owners Mandi and Adam Curtwright and Janelle and Joe Shell had the vision of restoring the Melba Theater to its original glory days. One of the current co-owners was strongly tied to the Melba in many ways long before purchasing it. He visited the Melba as a child for school field trips. His first job was in concessions at the Melba as a teenager. Back in the day, the Melba was a venue used to host events, including high school graduations. His grandmother, along with many others, walked across that very same stage is to collect her high school diploma.
The Melba Theater has strong connections to so many in the community. There was much time, energy and thought put into the restoration. The community came through to support the restoration project in many ways.
The building’s electrical systems had to be completely replaced. The original center wood floors were refinished after countless hours to shine once again. Restoring the theater seats were also a labor of love that the community came out in full force to support. The seats were taken apart and four local businesses were involved in the restoration process, along with the owners to bring the seats back to life. Along the backside of the seats are name plaques that those in the community purchased to help offset the cost of the seating restoration.
The multi-colored wall sconces are the original theater lights that had once been dismantled and scattered. With the help of a local company, they were collected, salvaged and restored to once again light up the walls of the Melba Theater.
Walking into the foyer, you are greeted with a beautiful mural on the ceiling. During the restoration work, a tray ceiling was discovered. It had been covered up for over 60 years, so the owners decided it would be a perfect place for a mural. A four-person team from Lyon College worked for four weeks to transform the space into a beautiful dream. The mural combines a cloudy Baroque-inspired sky with the historic colors of the Melba.
The newly renovated Melba Theater opened for business in August of 2016. The owners wanted to ensure they could offer affordable prices so everyone could experience the thrill of watching a movie on the big screen. There are often lines outside waiting for the ticket booth to open. Arkansas families are once again making it an event to visit the theater. The Melba Theater is a historic treasure that can be enjoyed by those who have lifelong memories and also shared with a new generation of Arkansans.
Be sure to visit the Melba Theater’s website to learn how you can still be involved in stage three of the renovations and to see what movie is showing this weekend.