The Community Theatre in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) is one of the oldest one-screen, nickelodeon-type theaters in Arkansas, complete with a soundproof room where mothers could take their crying children and continue to watch the movie. The renovated structure is now owned and operated by a local non-profit agency and was used for part of the Pine Bluff Film Festival.
Pine Bluff’s Community Theatre first opened its doors in 1922 in what was once known as the Breckinridge Building. The building was completed in 1889 and owned by local congressman and minister to Russia Clifton Rodes Breckinridge. Contractor William I. Hilliard built the Breckinridge Building, as well as the Jefferson County Courthouse (1890). S & H Kress & Co., a five-and-dime store, occupied the building in 1910 and stayed until about 1918. The Breckinridge Building became home to an unnamed theater that opened on May 19, 1922. A contest was held for a prize of $100 to give the theater a name. One hundred people shared the prize for naming it the Berbig Theatre Company, as it was managed by local pharmacist Frederick C. Berbig.
The theater was a community-owned business of the citizens of Pine Bluff, who bought stock in it. The theater is unique in that the movie screen is to the back as one enters the auditorium. Later in 1922, the Berbig Theatre Company was sold to Roland Segal, L. U. Kassinelli, and O. Prince from Little Rock (Pulaski County). Managed by Segal, it reopened as the Community Theatre on November 15, 1922. The Berbig Corporation was dissolved on August 23, 1924, and the theater was converted from a community-owned business to a family-owned business. Victor Elbert Bonner became the manager of the Community Theatre in 1929. Bonner and his son, Charles, bought the Community Theatre on February 18, 1942. Charles Bonner managed the Community Theatre until November 3, 1963, when it closed its doors for good.
The building sat vacant until it was sold on November 24, 1986, to Bill Bettwy, a local real estate agent. It sat idle until 1992, when the restoration of the building began. On February 7, 1995, it reopened as the Community Theatre Museum. For two years, every Wednesday, the public could attend “Wednesday Off Main,” where local talents performed on the stage while the audience members brought their own “brown bag lunch” and ate popcorn and drank sodas purchased from the theatre. The vintage atmosphere was complete with a 1950s original popcorn machine and black-and-white photographs of movie stars on the walls.
On December 31, 1996, Bettwy donated the theater to a local non-profit organization, Old Towne Theatre Centre, which also owned the Saenger Theatre across the street. The Saenger Theatre, which originally opened its doors in November 1924, was one of over 300 palace theaters built in the South by the Saenger and Ehrlich Brothers from Shreveport, Louisiana. There are fewer than 100 extant Saenger theaters. In March 1996, a Western dinner and movie fundraiser was held to keep the Community Theatre going. Attendees dressed up in cowboy costumes and had steak dinners. Afterwards, a black-and-white Western was shown on the wide screen.
The Pine Bluff Film Festival, an annual silent movie festival, began in the fall of 1994 in the Community and Saenger theaters; it had ceased operations by 2008. The Community Theatre was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in May 2004. A “Walk of Fame” is being accumulated where the guest stars have left their hand- and footprints. Renovations were completed by 2013 on the theater, which began calling itself "the New Community Theatre."
For additional information:
Hall, Brenda. “The Community Theatre.” Jefferson County Historical Quarterly 31 (March 2003): 32–34.
Harrison, Jean Blockson. “Community Theatre Comes to Life Again.” Pine Bluff Commercial, March 5, 1995, p. 1.
The New Community Theatre. http://www.pbcommunitytheatre.org/index.html (accessed April 25, 2017).
Brenda J. Hall
White Hall, Arkansas