Ken Goodman: Theater owner wants people to relax, be entertained and inspired

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published October 7, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated October 12, 2012 at 10:29 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Ken Goodman is the owner of the 75-seat Vienna Theatre, located in the Simon Mendel building in the Historic District of Hot Springs. Mendel used the building to house a women’s clothing store in 1910. It is one of only a few buildings in the 400 block to survive the fire of 1928. Goodman has refurbished the building as a performance hall. He is also a singer.

— Ken Goodman is having a very good time providing local residents and many visitors in Hot Springs an entertaining evening of music, memories and laughter.

Through October, Goodman will perform once a week at the Vienna Theatre on Central Avenue, across the street from Bathhouse Row in downtown Hot Springs. The singer knows the Vienna will always be a steady gig for him because Goodman owns and operates the theater.

Inside the 102-year-old building, he and his wife, Stephanie, have created an intimate music hall that was selected as the city’s top entertainment venue in Hot Springs by the Best of Hot Springs, published by The Sentinel-Record in Hot Springs.

“We didn’t need a 500-seat auditorium,” Goodman said. “I wanted a smaller place because of the type of entertainment we do here.”

The type of entertainment, he said, is something being lost to many in these days of cable TV and DVDs.

“This is live entertainment, happening right in front of people. It’s not a movie; it’s not TV. In a live performance, there is some magic in the air,” Goodman said. “In this age of technology, I want to raise the hair on the necks of the audience.”

“His singing and his talk were inspiring,” said Nikki Launius of Malvern, who recently saw Goodman perform and speak to the Malvern Rotary Club. “He thoroughly entertained us. He sang, and it brought tears to my eyes.”

Goodman said he knows his audience: older local residents and tourists who have come to Hot Springs to relax and enjoy themselves. That knowledge shapes his performance and the theater, from its crystal chandeliers to its 75 chairs from Office Depot.

“We looked at some regular theater seating. It was old and used and had to be connected to the floor. I told my wife we needed something different,” Goodman said. “I got chairs with arms so older members of the audience have something to hold as they get up, and we can arrange then any way we need to match the show.”

Goodman’s act and the others he books into the Vienna play to that audience. He currently does a show that opens with the popular pre-rock music of the 1950s, with songs made famous by Dean Martin, Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole. The second part of his act features songs from hit Broadway shows.

However, he is quick to point out that he isn’t looking for music that’s popular for older people, but music that is smart and cool, making the atmosphere of the theater cozy and friendly.

Younger audience members are encouraged by Goodman. Students under 18 years old pay only $5 for a ticket, while the adults get in for usually around $16.50.

“If I was in Branson [Mo.], it would have to be $35, but here in Hot Springs, I can make our entertainment more accessible,” he said.

His career as a crooner, master of ceremonies and theater owner could have been very different because of a slip of the tongue years ago, and that isn’t a metaphor, but a scary story Goodman often tells his audience.

“When I was 4 1/2 years old, seat belts were more a suggestion than mandatory, and when I was in an auto accident, I flew forward, hitting my mouth against the dashboard and almost bit half of my tongue off,” Goodman said. “The accident happened outside Malvern, and the ambulance took me to three hospitals before they found one in Little Rock that could stitch my tongue back together.”

Goodman said he lay in his hospital bed, knowing that his parents were standing over him wondering if he would ever speak again.

“I have always been glad that God and the doctors got my tongue back together so I could share my songs and my story with others,” he said.

When Goodman was 6 years old, his father, John, a Baptist minister in Arkansas and Louisiana, joined the Air Force as a chaplain.

“We moved to California, which was a culture shock,” Goodman said, remembering his father’s first duty post. “The locals had a hard time understanding my accent, and the first time I ordered an orange coke, the man at the store just stared at me.”

The family traveled around the world, including spending time in Washington, D.C., and Goodman finished high school in the Philippines.

“It gave me so many opportunities,” he said. “I sang at Disneyland Tokyo. I played baseball in Japan and studied drama in Korea.”

However, even with so many experiences, Goodman was completely undecided about what he wanted to do with his life.

“I attended Henderson State University just because my older brother had gone there,” Goodman said.

As a student without a major in mind, he met with an academic adviser.

“Dr. Charles Rye asked me what I enjoyed doing, and I said, ‘Singing and acting,’” Goodman said. “He said I should concentrate on just one, and since he was head of the HSU music department, he suggested I study singing.”

While Goodman’s degree was in communications, he did study music for three years, was a member of several performing groups and took voice lessons with Lydia Evanson, a voice teacher at Henderson State.

While in college, Goodman met Stephanie in a student Bible study, and they married after graduation.

After college, Goodman used both his musical training and communication skills as a staff member of Baptist churches, working with music programs and teen groups. His wife became a teacher.

After being involved with church as he and his wife raised their family, Goodman said he started thinking about that he wanted to do with his life, as he was getting closer to 40 years old.

“I realized life was going by fast, and I decided I really wanted to sing on stage,” Goodman said. “My oldest daughter is in college, and the other kids are in Hot Springs High School, so I thought this was the time to make a change.”

At first Goodman explored getting a performance venue in the theater district of Branson.

“I thought the best way to do that was to have my own theater like entertainers do in Branson,” he said. “It was more expensive, and there was just some things about doing shows there that I didn’t like. I looked at Hot Springs, which is home for the family, and it is amazing.”

Goodman looked at the building what was to become the Vienna Theatre. Built in 1910 by Samuel Mendel, it housed the city’s most expensive dress shop in the Spa City that drew the rich, famous and sometimes the infamous from all across the nation.

“It was in the national park in historic downtown, where the tourists all walk by, and there was plenty of parking. It was a perfect place,” Goodman said.

“The place took two solid months of work, often way into the night. It opened in 2010, and I like to think Mr. Mendel would be proud that we have brought people back into his building to have a good time.

Inside, a small stage with red-velvet curtains is where Goodman and others perform. No member of the audience is more than about 20 feet from the stage.

During the summer tourist season, Goodman has performances six nights a week, and often, two performances a day are scheduled. Now that school is back in session, performances are on Friday and Saturday evenings. Goodman offers his crooners show on Saturday nights. He also serves as the master of ceremonies for many of the other performances.

“That is when I welcome the audiences and warm them up a bit,” he said. “I want the audience to feel like friends and family. If someone just came out and started singing, the audience would sit there and think, ‘OK, entertain me,’ but by the time we start, we have built a rapport with the audience, and we are already friends.”

Away from the theater, Goodman recently joined a home hospital care company as a chaplain.

“It is part spiritual, but I also bring my music into their home,” he said. “It is amazing that an Alzheimer’s patient can remember the lyrics of a song they haven’t heard in a long time. Singing for the patients and helping brighten their day is one of the best blessings for me.”

When it comes to performing anywhere, Goodman said, he wants to inspire people.

“I want to be inspired and to inspire people every time I walk out on the stage,” he said. “It is like that Bing Crosby song, ‘Swinging on a Star.’ You can ‘be better off than you are.’”

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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