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Ritz Theatre brings the movies to MalvernPublished December 29, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
One way to mark time through the decades of the 20th and 21st centuries is by the movies Americans were watching in any given year. For 75 years, moviegoers in Malvern has been doing their watching at the Ritz Theatre.
“The theater opened Dec. 8, 1938 at 7 p.m.,” said Marla Nix, who owns the theater with her husband, Marty Nix. “We celebrated by showing the same movie at the same time on Dec. 8, but the weather became a real problem.”
That night, icy rains hit Malvern, part of a storm that affected most of the state for several days.
The movie was The Mad Miss Manton, a murder mystery and screwball comedy starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, and featuring Catherine O’Quinn, a Malvern native.
The owners invited former movie house employees to attend and reminisce about their days at the Ritz, and the audience was encouraged to come in 1930s-style dress. With cold rain falling after dark in downtown Malvern, Marty said, only about 25 to 30 people came to see the movie.
“We were ready to run the movie on both screens,” he said. “We did have one family that came all decked out in 1930s attire, and we were proud to welcome those who did come for the event.”
Marla said she got a call from Farrell Richards, who told her that he was running the projector on June 6, 1944, the date known as D-Day, the invasion of Nazi-held France by American and other Allied armed forces.
History is a part of the Ritz. A picture of O’Quinn hangs on the wall of the lobby, along with photos of other locals who have become successful movie actors, such as Rick Dial and Billy Bob Thornton.
Marla pointed out a frame holding reproductions of a newspaper story about the theater’s opening in 1938. Next to it was a frame holding stories about a fire that burned the theater in 1948 and its renovation and reopening.
Those items were on display again Dec. 16, when the theater was the site of a Business After Hours meeting sponsored by the Malvern/Hot Spring County Chamber of Commerce.
Several business and civic leaders in the community said the Ritz is a place of special memories.
“I can remember when we walked everywhere in town, and coming downtown to the movies was a big deal,” said Nikki Launius, executive director of the chamber.
Hot Spring County Judge Bill Scrimshire said he remembered when it used to cost 16 cents to get into the Ritz.
“If you had an adult who would go in with you, you got in free,” he said. “Then you could stay until it closed. If you stayed for the previews before the midnight show, you had to leave, and if you wanted to come back in, you had to pay again.”
The county judge said the community is fortunate to have an active movie theater in the city.
“Many towns in Arkansas, this size or even bigger, don’t have their own theater,” he said.
Almost everyone at the Chamber of Commerce event remembered some details about the night a fight between two young women disrupted the theater and most of downtown.
Marla, Marty and almost everyone else at the chamber event remembered the night in 2000 when I fight erupted between two young women on a hot summer night.
No one seems to know what the fight was about, but it started outside the Ritz on the sidewalk.
“They were arguing when they came into the theater,” Marla said. “I asked them to leave, and the fight started just outside the door.”
As others added details, the story went that the argument continued, and the police were called. Soon the hubbub distracted those driving down Main Street, and there was an auto accident. That slowed traffic through downtown, and other law enforcement people arrived. Those telling the story said there was either an injury in the auto accident or someone in the traffic had an medical emergency, and soon a firetruck was added to the mix.
A deputy from the Hot Spring County Sheriff’s Office was brought in for crowd control after it was noticed that people were driving into town and parking along the city streets around the Ritz to see the new “attraction” outside the theater doors. Marty said the commotion continued for around 2 1/2 hours before the fighters were separated, and the spectators went on their way.
Brenda Weldon of Summit Bank in Malvern, who is one of the organizers of Brickfest, said she has a special memory of one night at the Ritz.
“I got my first kiss in the theater,” she said. “I was in the fifth grade, but I can’t remember what movie was playing. I guess a lot of young people didn’t come to watch the movie in those days.”
She said the kiss and the relationship didn’t last long. Weldon said she actually can’t remember who the young boy was, who planted the first peck on her lips.
The Ritz might have been the scene of a lot of first kisses, but audience members had to be careful about being amorous in the back row of seats. The theater has a rare feature that allows the Nixes to keep an eye on things.
“When the theater was rebuilt in 1948, they put in a crying room where mothers can take their unhappy children and still enjoy the movies. There is sound and glass where they can see,” Marla said. “It contains some of the original 1938 seats in their original condition and the 1948 seats. The room is a little bit of history in a lot of ways.”
Marla first started working at the Ritz as a teenager, and she soon learned to do all the jobs in the movie house. In those days, it was a United Artist theater. In time, she became a manager.
One day in 1988, Marty came in looking for a second job, and Marla hired him to run the concessions and the film projector.
“I liked movies, and she said she needed help,” he said. “That first evening at work was a trial by fire. “She showed me how to do one feature, and when it came time for the next one, she said, ‘Now you do one.’”
It worked out because the next year, the couple were married.
The theater was sold by United Artists in 1992, and the new owners planned to close the movie house in Malvern. So the Nixes stepped in with another partner and bought the theater to keep it going for the community.
They bought out their partner in 2004 and became the sole owners. The couple have invested in new movie technology and added a second screen to the Ritz. Today they sell tickets and popcorn as a good business, but they also believe the theater is something important for the community.
They said it was a gathering place and for 75 years has been part of the history of Malvern and Hot Spring County.
But while the building remains in the 1948 style from after the fire, the theater is state-of-the-art.
“The movies are at a different level now, and that demands a new way of viewing the pictures,” Marla said. “We have the best 3D operation in the state, if you ask me.”
The couple said it was a tough decision to make the investment to present 3D movies.
“So many things had to be redone,” Marla said. “It was not just the projection, but it required new sound and resolution technology that matched the visual.”
The couple said they even took special training to run the new digital equipment for high-resolution and 3D movies.
“You have got to get good hot bulbs in the projector,” Marty said. “To make the picture right, the secret is bright, hot bulbs.”
Marty also said that while a few films came out this year, the days of filming a movie and showing those miles of film through a projector are ending.
“I don’t think there will be any more film movies made,” he said. “Everything is digital. We say what we want to run, a hard drive is delivered, and it runs through the projector’s computer.”
The Nixes also want to make the experience affordable. Marla said a 3-D movie, with the special glasses, is $8.50.
An annual feature at the Ritz is now the film festival for movies made by local young people.
“We closed for a while in August 2008 for the renovations. and when we reopened in 2009, we decided to go in a different direction,” Marty said. “We wanted to use it as a tool for the community and see how we could help young people and see if there is any talent for filmmaking in town.”
Marty and Marla created the Arkansas Tri-Lakes Youth Film Festival, which began in 2011.
The celebration of 75 years of the Ritz led many to talk about its history, but those who run the theater are focused on its future.
Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or email@example.com.
Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or firstname.lastname@example.org.