Earlier this year, I had the chance to interview author David Hill about his book "The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America's Forgotten Capital of Vice." Hundreds of people joined us online for the event, sponsored by the Central Arkansas Library System.
I asked Hill, who was raised in Hot Springs, if he had already been approached about film rights to the book. As one might expect, he played it coy. But he acknowledged there have been several people reach out to him. The book--which blends the true stories of gangster Owney Madden, Vapors casino operator Dane Harris and Hill's grandmother--seems perfect for a series on an outlet such as HBO or Netflix.
There's a glut of streaming services hungry for content. This book could be the basis for a new version of "Boardwalk Empire," which was first on HBO in September 2010 and aired for five seasons. Call it "Spa City Empire."
"Boardwalk Empire," a crime drama, was set in Atlantic City during Prohibition. The show was inspired by Nelson Johnson's 2002 nonfiction book "Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City."
The pilot episode was directed by Martin Scorsese and produced at a cost of $18 million. HBO then picked up the series for an additional 11 episodes. There ended up being 56 episodes of a drama that received 57 Emmy nominations, winning 20. In 2011, the series won the Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series-Drama.
Even before the release of "The Vapors," actor, director and producer Kevin Costner spent time in downtown Hot Springs, scouting the area as a potential site for a dramatic series. Prior to the onset of the pandemic, there's no doubt that Hot Springs was becoming hot again as a tourist destination.
Fresh attractions such as The Waters boutique hotel's rooftop bar, The Hotel Hale and its restaurants, and upscale dining venues such as the Vault at 723 and 501 Prime were bringing a higher-spending crowd downtown. With additional capital investments planned, there's little doubt that growth will continue once the pandemic ends.
To say I'm bullish on the future of Hot Springs would be an understatement. The national attention "The Vapors" is receiving helps get word of the city's renaissance out. A movie or dramatic series based on the book would take things to the next level.
Hill's book is receiving good reviews. Dave Shiflett, writing in The Wall Street Journal, said Hot Springs was "a hotbed of gambling and related vice, according to Mr. Hill, a Hot Springs native and journalist. J. Edgar Hoover, who knew vice inside out, believed that 'Chicago in its Capone era didn't have a thing on Hot Springs.' Mr. Hill's fascinating portrait of Hot Springs in its heyday covers 1931 through 1968 and includes many of that era's rogues and A-listers: Meyer Lansky, Liberace, Babe Ruth, Fidel Castro and even Bill Clinton and his mother Virginia."
The Wall Street Journal headlined Shiflett's review "High Rollers In Hot Springs." Shiflett described the Vapors, which was going strong in the early 1960s, as a place that "boasted 80 slot machines and an array of gaming tables, plus an entertainment lineup that included Mickey Rooney, Phyllis Diller and the Smothers Brothers. Bill Clinton's mother loved the Vapors vibe, but Bill (then a teenager) didn't feel 'comfortable' the night she brought him along and went home early."
Jonathan Miles, the author of three novels, wrote the review of "The Vapors" for The New York Times Book Review. His review was headlined "Sleaze City: A history of Hot Springs, Ark., during its sin-soaked heyday."
Here's how Miles began the review: "'The only rule in Hot Springs,' Virginia Clinton Kelley once wrote, 'was to enjoy yourself.' Kelley raised two boys in Hot Springs--one of them, Bill, went on to become our 42nd president--while scrupulously obeying that rule. Gambling, smoking, dancing, drinking, flirting and 'laughing and cutting up' were the favored enjoyments, and Kelley's preferred venue, 'by far,' was the Vapors. When it opened in 1960, the Vapors--a nightclub with an (officially illegal) backroom casino--was 'as plush and glittery and showy as anything Las Vegas ever dreamed of,' Kelley wrote, with red velvet everywhere and 'these imported chandeliers like nothing I had ever seen in my life.'
"Liberace would play the front room while oil tycoons threw dice out back. The Vapors was the perfect epitome of mid-century Hot Springs: steamy, sumptuous, flashy, vaguely illicit and supremely indulgent. 'Hot Springs,' Kelley wrote, 'let me be me with a vengeance.' Hot Springs, as David Hill writes in 'The Vapors,' a history of the town during its sin-soaked heyday, let a lot of people be--with varying degrees of vengeance. Among them were workaday gamblers and good-timers like Kelley, but also bookmakers, con artists, prostitutes, shills, crooked auctioneers, outlandishly corrupt politicians and boldface-named mobsters."
Miles noted how the authorities in Hot Springs and even at the state level in Little Rock simply pretended for decades that the vice didn't exist.
"From about 1870 until 1967, when the reformist Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller shut off the vice spigot, the town's chief municipal expression was a wink," he wrote. "The mayors winked. The cops winked. The preachers winked, or at least averted their gaze. Winking was how a Bible Belt town of 28,000 (circa 1960) attracted upward of 5 million visitors per year and why, as Hill writes, on any given Saturday night, there may have been 'no more exhilarating place to be in the entire country.'"
Hot Springs must move quickly to take advantage of all this national attention. It's time to attract outside capital--serious capital. Hopefully, once the pandemic ends, financing can be secured for the long-awaited renovation of the Arlington Hotel, which remains a centerpiece of downtown.
Business and civic leaders also must focus on attracting developers who will put apartments and condominiums in the hulking empty structures that dot downtown--Medical Arts Building, Dugan-Stuart Building, former Howe Hotel, former Velda Rose Hotel. And it's imperative that city officials find the right developer for the Majestic Hotel site, one of the most high-profile locations in the state.
The good news is that the Majestic site has attracted the attention of heavy hitters such as Cienda Partners of Dallas. For too many years, Hot Springs fell prey to people who promised big things for downtown but couldn't deliver. A group like Cienda can put its money where its mouth is. It recently partnered with KDC Real Estate Development & Investments, for example, to develop 64 acres in Santa Fe, N.M. The project will include everything from housing to film studios.
Cienda specializes in urban redevelopment, public-private partnerships and historic preservation. During the past 16 years, it has developed or acquired more than $1.2 billion in real estate assets. That's the kind of nationally known player Hot Springs needs.
In Santa Fe, Cienda has redeveloped the La Fonda Hotel and the El Rey Inn. In Dallas, the company bought up tracts of land on the southwestern side of the Trinity River near downtown to build a walkable, mixed-use community. Cienda already had been involved in dozens of projects in west and south Dallas such as the Habitat for Humanity headquarters and Greenleaf Village.
Having grown up near Hot Springs, I watched its downtown deteriorate for 50 years, beginning with the Rockefeller shutdown of gambling in 1967. In recent years, the city's leaders have finally started to do things the right way.
There's momentum there. Let's hope the Spa City's leadership makes the right decisions in the crucial months that lie ahead. This window of opportunity may never open again.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.