Victor Weber of Judsonia learned early in life that he wanted to own his own movie theater.
“I’ve been in the theater business all my life,” said Weber, who recently retired as the operator of the Rialto Theater in Searcy. “I started thinking about this. Best I can recall, I was 6 years old. I would start bugging my mom and dad because we’d go to the show every Saturday night. It might be 4 o’clock, and the show didn’t start until 7:30.
“My dad said, ‘You should get you one of those theaters whenever you grow up.’ That hit me right between the eyes. I lived this until I was 12, when I started working in a theater in Missouri.”
Weber, 87, has operated theaters all across Arkansas, including running the Rialto for the city of Searcy since 1994. He was honored with a key to the city and a proclamation on Dec. 29 declaring the day Victor Weber Day. The ceremony was held in the City Council chambers of the Searcy City Hall.
“[Weber ran the theater], thanks to former Mayor David Evans, who thought about Victor when the Rialto was given to the city of Searcy years ago,” Searcy Mayor David Morris said. “David Evans had the vision to know he knew a guy who had operated [theaters] all his life, been around movie theaters. He had contacted Victor.”
Morris said, during the ceremony, that Weber had told him for several years that he was contemplating retirement.
“We’d say, ‘Come on Victor, go a while longer,’” Morris said. “We couldn’t talk him out of it this time. He told us back in the fall that he was going to operate [the Rialto] through the end of the year; then he was going to retire.”
The city will take over operation of the Rialto and operate it as a “park,” like the city does the new aquatic center or the ice-skating rink during the Christmas holidays, Morris said.
“Victor has been the glue that has held that theater together,” Morris said. “If you’ve ever driven by at 6:30 or 7 o’clock, looked into the ticket window, you’ll see a little man sitting behind the window with his khaki cap on. Victor is always there.”
Weber said he has owned theaters in Kensett, McCrory, Des Arc, Heber Springs, Clinton and Russellville, just to name a few.
Weber took over running the Rialto in Searcy on Feb. 7, 1994.
“I was reminded that when I first opened it up 23 years ago, that was the last of April ,” Weber said. “Around the last of June or the first of July, I got a [Disney] movie. Disney was having a fight with Cinema 8 in Searcy. They took the movies away from them.”
That movie that was shown at the Rialto was the first run of The Lion King.
Weber recalled a funny incident about the opening weekend of The Lion King.
“We opened that movie on a Friday. … We filled every seat,” he said. “There was a lady and her two children. They were in line. I said, ‘Sorry, we’re full.’”
The same thing happened again at the Saturday afternoon and evening showings, and the same family was turned away.
“Sunday afternoon, we didn’t fill up. … I had seats,” Weber said. “She was the first in line. … I looked at her and said, ‘Ma’am, we’re filled up.’ She didn’t think that was a darn bit funny. I let and her kids in, and I got the biggest kick out of that.
“When I opened up The Lion King first run at a dollar, I had people lined up all the way down Spring Street. People came around and said, ‘You’ve got people backed up to the other street over to the county jail.’ I don’t know if that was true or not. I have 460 seats, and we filled up every seat.”
Weber was born in Missouri but made his way to Arkansas. He purchased his first movie theater over 50 years ago in Kensett.
“I will say this: From the very beginning, I knew what I wanted to do,” Weber said. “I knew come hell or high water that I was going to do it. I had a hard time getting money to get my first theater over at Kensett, but I have lived a love. I look back on it. … I do not have any regrets whatsoever. I’m proud of what I have done. In the meantime, I have amassed what I will call a small fortune.”
During his first year owning a theater, Weber said, television was starting to become popular.
“It didn’t hurt me much that year,” he said. “The next year, it did.
“I’ve had one hell of a life. I wouldn’t trade a minute of it. I love what I’m doing. I guess that’s why I’ve been a success. I’ve looked disaster in the face seven times. I said, ‘Whatever I do, it’s going to be theater. It’s that or nothing for me,’ and I’ve stuck with it.”
When he took over the Rialto in Searcy, Weber said, he thought the theater was fully equipped.
“When I agreed to take it, I thought the equipment was still in there,” he said. “The only thing that was in there was a ticket machine and the screen. I spent $26,000 just equipping that thing — air conditioning, heating. I spent it all.”
Weber said he had a previous employee from his theater in Russellville help him install equipment at the Rialto, but things did not go as planned.
“I had to redo it,” he said. “I had to ad another $20,000 to it. We finally got everything going.
“There were still things wrong with it. It was in really bad shape.”
Weber said there were holes in the back wall of the theater, especially around some pipes, that allowed light to get into the theater. He hired someone to fix that.
“I told the guy, ‘When you finish that, I want this to be pitch dark back here,’ and he did a good job,” Weber said. “I literally had to close up the back end of that theater. We had birds coming in.”
The first movie that Weber showed at the Rialto was 8 Seconds.
“Probably the best rodeo picture ever,” he said. “I can even tell you what the second one was: Angels in the Outfield — a wonderful Disney movie.”
Weber has also operated drive-in theaters, including one in Russellville.
“I had the big drive-in over at Russellville,” he said. “I also had three cinemas there. I played Star Wars. I still had it for a first run for a drive-in. I remember I grossed $18,000 on that movie.”
One time Weber was showing Blazing Saddles, a Warner Bros. picture.
“I went to Memphis and went in to Warner Bros.,” he said. “I don’t ordinarily go talk to the manager of Warner Bros., but he hollered at me and said, ‘Hey Weber, come over here.’”
That executive at Warner Bros. told Weber that Blazing Saddles at his theater was the highest-grossing showing of the film in Arkansas.
Weber also drove all over the state on weekends to check on his theaters.
“[They were] making a ton of money for me,” Weber said of his Russellville theaters. “I was going over there from Judsonia every Friday night and worked. First, I went through Heber Springs, which I owned. Then I went through Clinton, which I owned, and worked the night show on Fridays.
“There is not a lonelier place on the planet than an empty motel room. I hated them.”
At some point, he decided to make the drive back and forth from Judsonia, checking on his theaters, which he eventually sold, except for the Heber Springs theater, which Weber said burned down, and he didn’t rebuild it.
“I would drive home, 98 miles from my theater to home in Judsonia,” he said. “The next night, I hop in my car and take off back over there. I did that Friday, Saturday and Sunday. And I had to take care of the Clinton theater, and I also owned a radio station over there.
“Through hook or crook, I got rid of all those. The theater in Heber Springs burned. The contractor asked if I was going to rebuild it, and I said ‘no.’ I said, ‘I’ve got to have a break.’”
Weber said the Rialto is a one-of-a-kind theater these days, especially in the western half of the United States.
“In all the time that I’ve been going by that theater there looking at it, I think of [the theater] in terms of a person,” he said. “I think, ‘The old girl is dying, and no one cares.’ So when my theater [in Heber Springs] burned, I didn’t have anything connecting me to the west. I thought, I’m going to open [the Rialto] up. I’m going to bring that theater back to life.”
Staff writer Mark Buffalo can be reached at (501) 399-3676 or email@example.com.