According to Max Brantley (a great reporter, editor, and columnist/blogger) in the Arkansas Times (the Times is the last great hope for those of us from Arkansas who remember the wondrous, sorely missed Arkansas Gazette) the beleaguered Village Shopping Center at the intersection of Asher and University in Little Rock has been bought by new developers; they are going to redevelop the corner and raze the center—including the old UA Cinema 150.
Photo credit Arkansas Times
The UA Cinema 150 was a marvel of the 60’s. It was one of only 20 or 30 theaters worldwide to utilize the “Dimension 150” equipment. A round building, the 70mm (!!!) screen was curved. Patrons sat in plush velvet seats tiered in what we now call “Stadium Seating”. Sound was astonishing; 8-channel stereo from speakers hidden behind the curtains covering the walls, an approximation of “surround sound.” Consider the movie houses of the day—either dilapidated former palaces downtown or the hideous new suburban “box” theaters (multiplexes), featuring small theaters which had flat floors and an aisle down the middle. In most, you actually got a “crick” in your neck from craning to see the screen, which was usually mounted high above the floor.
By contrast, the 150 was STYLE. It looked vaguely like a spaceship (tres’ chic in 1966), had an amazing, state-of-the-art, huge (for the day) concession stand, and going there was “special”.
Only the finest movies played there. The Sound of Music. Patton. Star Wars. All in 8-channel stereophonic sound, on that curved 70mm widescreen, taken in from your plushy reclining seat with nary an obstacle between you and the screen. It was like being immersed in the movie.
We take these things for granted now, but then they were amazing.
Photo credit “Marysgrandaughter”, CinemaTreasures.org
In the shopping center across the parking lot was Central Arkansas’ favorite mexican restaurant (there were only 3…), Casa Bonita. Casa Bonita (immortalized by South Park) was a Little Rock company before the owner moved to Tulsa and sold the chain. It was huge and featured themed rooms, waterfalls, and audio-animatronics a la Disneyland (not as good as Disney, but pretty good for us!). You went through the buffet line, telling the nice serving people what you wanted; then, your tray was whisked away to your table, where you stuffed yourself till sick. When you wanted a refill, whether of food or drink, or even wanted something else entirely, you raised a small flag at the table; a waiter immediately appeared and almost as quickly returned with whatever you wanted. It was paradise, especially for kids.
So the thing to do was go to Casa Bonita for food, then head over to the 150 for the movie.
But, things change.
Asher and University is a poster child for urban blight now; it could be in inner-city Detroit, it looks that bad. This was not always the case. At one point, Interstate 30 stopped at Geyer Springs Road; it became US 67, which route was University Avenue up to the intersection with Asher, then right on Asher for its trek through downtown Little Rock, across the Broadway Bridge, and into North Little Rock on its way north. All the gleaming new car dealerships, the huge new Haverty’s Furniture, the beautiful Ethan Allen Showcase; all in that area. The apartments diagonally across the street (now crack houses or worse) were the “swinging singles” apartments of choice in Little Rock. The area thrived. It was building out like crazy; it was a popular middle class destination. (The people who lived there subsequently moved on to Alexander, Bryant, and Benton…).
Now, however, it is “bombed out and depleted” to quote Dave Chappelle. Now the neighborhood is "nothing but a breeding ground for trancs, lobos and zipheads..." (Officer Reese, commenting on the state of Hilldale ca. 2015, Back to the Future Part II…which played at the 150).
Casa Bonita folded and a series of restaurants (never as good) took its place; the theater fell on hard times. It was a single-screen, so when everyone had seen the movie, the theater was often playing empty. No one buying tickets, no one buying concessions, and the theater stuck with the movie for the length of the contract. The suburban multiplexes could run one theater with the “old” movie while having “fresh” movies in other theaters, as theater operators do today. Not so the 150. Accordingly, there was no extra money to renovate or even maintain the former “space-age” palace.
The last movie I saw at the 150 was Star Trek: Generations. The atmosphere was still festive, but the old theater was showing its age, with worn velvet seats, a tear in that big wonderful screen, the rear channels out on the stereo system.
Sometimes, historical preservation is the way to go; Little Rock certainly has it with the beautiful Quapaw Quarter. Sometimes, though, “old” is just “old”. It’s too small and outdated for today’s movie patrons, who watch their movies at the Colonel Glenn 30. Crime in the area at night is hideous. It’s just no longer viable. The theater hasn’t been a movie house since 2003; it was renovated for live shows. It has had its day.
So, farewell old friend. Fond memories (you too, Casa Bonita).
I wish the development company success in revitalizing the area.