Vandals don’t slow restoration process at long-standing theater

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published November 15, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated November 14, 2012 at 10:04 a.m.
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Wayne Bryan

Theater manager Shannon Moss shows where someone used a short hose to send water through the entrance and down an aisle of the Royal Theater. There was no real damage, and the old theater was back to normal in a couple

— Someone got into the Royal Theater during the early hours of Oct. 28 and tried to flood the building, but after a few hours of cleanup, the attack may have done more good than harm for the 92-year-old theater.

“It looks like the incident had a positive impact, attracting more volunteers and more interest in the theater and the Royal Players. We got things back to normal by that Monday evening,” said Shannon Moss, theater manager.

“They got into the housekeeping room, attached a short hose to the faucet of a sink, and the water ran along the floor, through the entryway and down an aisle to a low part of the theater floor,” Moss said. “The water pooled under some seats.”

The theater manager, who has been associated with the Royal for 31 years, said it took six volunteers, including members of the Players’ board of directors, about six hours to take care of the water. The next day, a professional service cleaned the carpets and flooring.

Moss said work continues on the restoration of the theater, which opened in 1920, is on the National Historic Register and is the home to local performers known as The Royal Players.

Having the theater listed on the national register places some rules and restrictions on what kinds of changes can be made in the building, but work on the interior offers greater leeway as the building is adapted for a better live-theater experience for its patrons.

“We have been trying to do things that would be more audience-friendly,” Moss said. “We have upgraded the lights and sound equipment.”

The biggest change in the building’s latest incarnation, as home of the Royal Players, was in 2010, when the drapes were taken down, and sound-proofing panels were removed.

“Those panels dated from the 1940s and were made from gypsum and cornhusks, just like they used in the ceiling, said Karen Ray, a volunteer who was overseeing a series of repairs when the cornhusk panels were exposed.

At the time, she said, the goal was to expose the panels, but they had been damaged by termites and by mildew, caused by a leaking roof. Removal of the panels revealed a series of painted scenes on the plaster walls.

“They are in a Spanish style and may date from the 1930s, but they will have to come down,” Moss said. “We love them, but they are crumbling and disintegrating.”

The plan now is to clear the walls down to the bare brick. Exposing the walls, even with the crumbling plaster, has improved the acoustics in the building, Moss said.

Outside the theater, the bright light panels and multicolored neon of the Royal Theater sign have been restored, funded by the Advertising and Promotion Commission in Benton. Moss said some of the fixtures had to be replaced, and the neon gasses were restored.

“It looks as good as when it first arrived in 1949,” Moss said. “When they renamed the Royal Theater in Little Rock to the Center Theater, the marquee was sold and was trucked here.”

Moss started helping out at the theater in 1981, working with the Kauffman family, who owned the Benton movie house.

“I wasn’t paid at first. I just worked there to get into the movies for free,” he said. “I did everything from pop popcorn to clean up the theater after a show.”

When Warren Lee Kauffman took over the theater in 1986, Moss was placed on the payroll, and what he made depended on the size of the house that night.

“I always loved to see a lot of people getting tickets,” Moss said. “I knew the pay would be good that night.”

In 1994, a group of local people formed the Central Arkansas Community Players and began to offer live theater at the Royal with volunteer players.

In 2000, television comedian Jerry Van Dyke, an Arkansas resident, who had purchased the theater in 1996, gave it to the theater company, which was renamed the Royal Players.

The latest production of the Royal Players will begin at 7 p.m. Dec. 6 with the opening night of Annie, one of the most popular musicals in American theater. The play, by Thomas

Meehan, with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin, is based on the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” by Harold Gray.

The original Broadway production opened in 1977 and ran for nearly six years. The work has inspired decades of world tours, two films, two sequels and two Broadway revivals, including a new one this year, producer Susan Dill said.

“This is our third production of Annie,” Dill said. “The last one was in 2004. The voices are really great, both the orphans and the adults.”

The Royal Players’ latest rendition of the show will feature Makayla Shipe, 9, of Bryant as Annie. Shawn O’Brien plays Daddy Warbucks, the powerful robber baron who falls for the little orphan and gives her a family of her own. In a role vital to the story, Annie’s loyal stray dog, Sandy, will be portrayed by Stuart.

Annie runs through Dec. 9, then again Dec. 13-16. Thursday through Saturday performances start at 7 p.m., and the Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m.

Tickets are available online at www.theroyalplayers.com, and reservations will be available over the phone starting Nov. 30 by calling (501) 315-5483.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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