Maxwell Blade knew he would come back one day.
Blade, who has starred in a magic show in downtown Hot Springs since 1996, called the Malco Theatre home from that first Spa City performance until 2008 when the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival decided to go it alone in the building at 817 Central Ave.
Blade moved north to 121 Central Ave. and leased a former antiques store from the Wheatley family. He then transformed the space into a 100-seat theater. Now he’s back at the Malco following a major renovation.
A recent tour of the theater brought back memories of the time I spent watching movies there when I was a student at Arkadelphia High School and Ouachita Baptist University. One of the best things about getting a driver’s license was being able to visit Hot Springs for movies downtown at the Malco and Central theaters.
Nancy Hendricks writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture that the Malco is “on a site that has housed vaudeville shows, silent movies, modern films and specialty productions. … The economy of Hot Springs depended on lodging, dining and entertainment to support its burgeoning tourism industry. In the late 1800s, Hot Springs attracted visitors from across the country to ‘take the waters.’ After their therapeutic bathing, visitors sought amusements and recreation. At first, this was limited to hunting, fishing and horseback riding, activities they usually did closer to home as well. But the demand increased for diversions such as gambling and entertainment. In 1882, the Opera House on Hot Springs’ Central Avenue was opened to present theatrical productions, including hosting traveling companies from New York.
“In the early 1900s, motion pictures became a leading form of entertainment across the country. Frank Head, manager of the Hot Springs Opera House, commissioned the construction of the Princess Theatre in 1910 for viewing silent movies as well as attending vaudeville shows. It was built where Bridge Street connects Broadway to Central Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare. Hot Springs resident Sidney Nutt Sr. bought the Princess Theatre in 1927, converting it to sound in 1929 as talking pictures began to replace silent films.
“Hot Springs’ downtown business district along Central Avenue suffered a number of catastrophic fires in the early 1900s. The Princess Theatre survived until Christmas Eve in 1935 when a blaze destroyed all but its foundation and its masonry entrance on Broadway Street. Those elements would become the cornerstone of the Malco Theatre.”
Nutt worked with the architectural firm Brueggeman & Swaim to utilize the shell of the Princess for a new building that would face Central Avenue. He sold his interest in the Princess to M.A. Lightman, who had founded the Malco Theatre Group and owned theaters across the South. The Great Depression and then World War II delayed the many improvements that Lightman wanted to make.
A November 1939 story in The Sentinel-Record at Hot Springs noted: “Definite announcement that Malco Theatres Inc. will proceed with construction of a modern new theater and music hall on the former site of the Princess, which was destroyed by fire several years ago, was made yesterday by M.S. McCord of North Little Rock, secretary and treasurer of the amusement company, which also operates the Paramount, Central, Spa and Roxy theaters in Hot Springs. Preliminary work on the first three units comprising the project was begun several week ago, but Malco officials made no announcement of their plans at that time. They revealed two years ago that a handsome new theater was planned to replace the Princess, but construction had been delayed pending improved business conditions.
“The new amusement enterprise will be known as the Malco Music Hall. Cost of the project was not announced, but Malco officials have indicated that expenses will not be spared in providing Hot Springs an amusement house with all equipment and accommodations to meet the needs of the city for many years to come. The first unit will be built on the Central Avenue frontage and will be three stories high with a basement. … The front of the building will be of modernistic design. It will be constructed of white marble with panels of black and red terrazzo, glass and stainless steel extending the height of the building. Over the entrance lobby will be a triangular marquee of artistic design. The entire front will be beautifully illuminated.
“Construction of the second unit, which will be the auditorium proper, will start immediately after completion of the Central Avenue unit. The auditorium will seat 1,400 people and will have stage facilities for vaudeville or road productions. The stage will be on the south side of the building instead of on the east or Broadway side where the stage of the old Princess was located.”
World War II delayed complete renovation of the building for several more years.
When the fully renovated Malco Music Hall opened in February 1946, it declared itself to be the “Showplace of the South.” It had 1,140 seats and the most advanced projection and sound equipment in the region. There was an entrance on Central Avenue along with two separate entrances on Broadway for blacks and whites. Blacks were relegated to the balcony until the 1960s.
Hendricks writes: “The Broadway entrance allowed African-Americans to enter the building and go directly to their segregated seating area in the balcony. With advances in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, segregation of entrances and seating arrangements ended. The Arkansas Historic Preservation Program has stated that the Broadway entrance to the theater may be one of only two such formerly segregated entrances still in existence in the United States. … Management of the building mandated its preservation as a reminder of America’s civil rights victories.”
The theater was remodeled again in 1962 and was divided into twin theaters in the 1980s before finally closing. Downtown Hot Springs declined as development moved south toward Lake Hamilton.
The official 2010 nomination form for the Malco to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places noted: “As the film industry was soundly established, its cultural influence developed a new appearance for the buildings that housed them. The theaters would become larger as bright marquees advertised to the street and enough seating was installed to house thousands of audience members. They would not only entertain audiences but also inform them on current events through newsreels. The theaters became the place to be.
“Sidney Nutt, the owner of the former Princess site, ordered the construction of the Malco Theatre in 1935. Brueggeman & Swaim, the contracted architects, designed the building to utilize the remains of the Princess. The completed structure consisted of a single, large auditorium with a balcony, a lobby and a structure for offices that faced Central Avenue. The front facade was in the spirit of the modern movement with its Art Deco features. Vertical stucco piers framed windows and multicolored tiles, and a bright marquee attracted customers from the street. It had an occupational limit of 1,000 seats, which helped to continue the recreational value of Hot Springs tourism.”
When the current revitalization of downtown Hot Springs began to take off, developer Rick Williams of Summit Properties bought several buildings, including the Malco. Blade shared Williams’ vision for the theater.
Blade and a group of dedicated preservationists spent the next 15 months working on the building. During a recent visit to Hot Springs, he proudly showed me the lobby mural that was painted in the 1940s by John Antonio, who was a Hot Springs High School student at the time. The mural was discovered when wallpaper was removed adjacent to the spiral staircase that leads to the balcony. The mural was sealed to protect it from additional damage.
“We had to install new air conditioning and heating systems, and we put in carpets that I found in Las Vegas,” Blade says. “We would spend 15 hours here some days working on this place. I wanted to make sure that everything from the restrooms to the dressing rooms was perfect. We took the wall out that had divided this into two theaters. Now it looks much like it did in the 1940s.”
Blade’s choice of carpeting, lights and furniture indeed gives the Malco a 1940s feel. He reduced the number of seats downstairs to 310 so there would be more room for people to spread out. A small bar has been added to sell beer and wine. When there are no magic shows scheduled, Blade hopes to offer the Malco for musical performances, comedy shows and the like. Blade often had several shows a day at the smaller theater. Because he now has three times the number of seats, he will perform just one show a day at the Malco.
“The pace of development in downtown Hot Springs right now is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Blade says. “I wanted to be a part of that. I was determined to make the Malco a gem again, and I think I’ve achieved that. I spent more than $100,000 just on the lighting and the sound systems. When this project was finished, I went home and slept for 20 hours straight one Saturday.”
Blade was born in January 1962 at Fort Smith.
“As a child in the 1970s, he became interested in magic after watching magician and comedian Mark Wilson’s ‘Funny Face Magic Show’ and ‘Magic Circus’ on television,” Cody Lynn Berry writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “He began learning and practicing simple magic tricks as a hobby in addition to teaching himself to play drums and piano. When he was eight years old, he began playing music at a local church. He graduated from Greenwood High School in 1980. When he was 21, he auditioned for a rock band called Exit Five, which later changed its name to Shark Avenue. The group recorded an album and toured for several years.
“Blade began a career as a full-time magician in 1991. Drawing inspiration from Mark Wilson, Harry Houdini and David Copperfield, he performed in clubs in northwest Arkansas and as an opening act for local bands under the direction of his manager at the time, Dick Renko. On Aug. 4, 1994, Blade’s first large-scale production debuted at the King Opera House in Van Buren. That show was dedicated to his mother; she died from Lou Gehrig’s disease on Aug. 11. The King Opera House show was followed by a two-year tour.”
“I was a rocker in the 1980s,” Blade says. “I later decided to do magic shows instead.”
In 1995, Blade and his family came to Hot Springs on vacation and fell in love with the place. He decided that people visiting downtown Hot Springs needed additional entertainment options.
“This building was in bad shape, but I decided to clean it up,” Blade says of the Malco. “I did that first show on Aug. 28, 1996. For the longest, it seemed as if I couldn’t sell more than 33 tickets a night. I was a painting contractor during the day to pay the bills. I did whatever I had to do to sustain the show. The show finally became popular, and it remains so.”
In 2015, Blade added the Maxwell Blade Museum of Curiosities.
Berry writes that Blade wanted a place to “house his large collection of magic-related artifacts and medical curiosities. Local antiques dealer Davis Tillman also put artifacts on display there. Among the many items on display was a model ship built by prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars; the ship’s rigging is said to be made completely out of human hair. Other pieces included a mummified cat named Felix, medical tools, a child-sized coffin, an electric chair, wooden dolls, Houdini handcuffs and promotional posters, circus photographs and a re-creation of a mortuary drive-through viewing window.”
Blade plans to move the museum from the 100 block of Central Avenue into a space adjacent to the Malco.
While the current renovation was taking place, Kathryn Phillips Sanders contacted those at the Malco to say she remembered the 1946 opening since her boyfriend, Billy Ray Sanders, was working at the theater. He later became her husband.
“He was about 17, and I think he was the doorman,” Sanders recently told writer Deborah Carroll of Hot Springs. “He had been ushering at various movie theaters since he was about 10. … A little later he got the title of assistant manager, which just meant he had to be there seven days a week from opening to closing.”
Last month, Blade gave Sanders a tour of the theater. It was her first time to be in the theater since 1980.
Eric Manuel of Bryant has produced a 24-minute documentary titled “The Malco, A Personal Journey.” It was screened during the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in October. It’s a fitting tribute to one of the state’s most famous theaters, which has now been fully restored.
The revitalization of downtown Hot Springs rolls on.