Lost Hillcrest Theater Leaves Surprising Legacy

This story is true.

It’s now a parking lot for the Kroger store on Beechwood, but from the 1920s to the 1950s, it was the Prospect Theater; a 600 seat movie theater that was THE place to go.

“In 1951, The Thing showed there. I was nine, and that movie scared the hell out of me. I saw it in the evening when it was dark out, when it was over I ran the entire mile to 700 N. Taylor flat out.” – Raymond Merritt

But in 1953, the theater closed and became the broadcast studio of Arkansas’ first television station, KRTV-channel 17. Later that year, it was bought by a Pine Bluff station called KATV-channel 7, which continued to operate from the building until it burned on Halloween night, 1957.

After the fire, KATV moved downtown and grew into the behemoth it is today, hence providing this gratuitous newsgirl picture:

As for the extinct Prospect Theater site, Safeway bought it for their new store. Today, it’s the Beechwood Kroger parking lot.

I had never heard of this theater until I found the old picture a week ago, then started asking questions. I didn’t suspect it would lead to Channel 7 and the Kroger parking lot. But then again, what doesn’t?

Conversation.

(Thanks Jim Halsell and Ramond Merritt for the leads.)

Comments

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Posted in History & Architecture, Urban Exploration Tagged with: , , , , ,
10 comments on “Lost Hillcrest Theater Leaves Surprising Legacy
  1. We held hands there.Exciting.

  2. Jerry Dean says:

    I was reared at Hillcrest, and the Prospect was OUR community theatre, early 1950s. With mt elder sister Joana Dean I saw movies such as The Red Shoes, Headhunters and Bombardier, plus matinee features such as the action serial, Blackhawks. That serial was similar to The A Team, later on TV. The Prospect had drawings from a huge drum, rolled onto the stage for ticket stubs. The Prospect was adjacent then to Troy Churchman's Oharmacy on the north and Mrs. Treet's excellent blue-plate Cafe, just south. The rest of the block was residenctial. The OLD Pulaski Hts. Methodist Church (before it merged with the United Ecumentical Brethern to become "united") was just south across Woodlawn, which had once been Fifth Avenue for the old City of Pulaski Heights. Imagine our surprise when the Prospect closed and, in April 1953, the theatre became studios for KRTV, Ch. 17, the state's first UHF TV station! At first, it broadcast only a few hours in the afternoon, but I recall seeing "Crusader Rabbit" cartoons, "Cisco Kid" and "Western Thrills Theater" on friends' TVs. Later, my family walked a mile in the moonlight nights, just to watch "Dragnet" and wrestling on an uncle's new TV. KRTV built an 875-foot tower adjacent, and Spruce St. neighbors feared it;d topple onto their homes in a windstorm. They threatened to sure. But Pine Bluff VHF station KATV replaced KRTV in 1954, and the tower came down. KATV folks such as Les Bolton, Jim Pitcock, Osacar Alagood, Benny Craig and Betty Fowler became instant local celebrities. We crowded in to appear afternoons on "Betty's Little Rascals" TV show. Then on Hallowe'en night 1957, the Magic all ended as studios burned. KATV moved its studio downtown to the former W.B. Worthen Bank building at Fourth & Main. The new studio had a lighted sign that "crawled" TV news headlines around the NW corner of the building. The entire block where the Prospect had stood was razed for a new Safeway that replaced an older near at Kavanaugh and Beech. That market since has been remodeled several times as a Harvest Foods and Kroger.

  3. Don Nixon says:

    There was also a Kroger store on the corner across from Churchma-Rhea Drug store

  4. Jerry Dean says:

    Right, Don! I went to school with Chuchman's son, Troy, who played clarinet in band at Hall. There was ALSO a Gannaway's Drug Store on the SE corner of Kavanaugh and Beech. Carroll Stegall moved his variety store from just west of that OLD Kroger to where the Afterthought is now. A major fire destroyed the upper story of that building, and Stegall moved Hillcrest Gift & Variety to where USPO is now, the former Safeway store. Safeway gave Gold Bond stamps and Kroger gave Top Value. ALSO was a Black & White food market further west where a drive now cuts thru from Kav Blvd. to the new Kroger. Almost no one remembers it. Was near Hillcrest Hardware, Bush's Barber Shop, Spatz's Bakery and D&D (DeClue's) Laundry & Cleaners. Ortiz famliy had a Mexican deli at the corner of Palm & Kav and Dan Troilette had his shoe repair shop next door. Later, Swift's opened up a Dipper Dan's ice cream parlor there to compete with Leo's, and that later became Ark. Philharmonic Theatre, now the Rep….

  5. Don Nixon says:

    Jerry, the Hillcrest area was my "stomping Grounds" Merle DeClue was a friend of Herb Meuwly who operated Herb's Barbeque, and Merle would sell us Manhatten shirts for next to nothing. He used them for replacements for lost laundry. Also, Marlene Schulte worked at Spatz and she would give us cream horns every now and then. Don't forget Dan's Shoe Shop. I spent hours there watching Dan, Clarance and Raymond Troilett repare shoes. Mom always knew where I was because she could call any store in Hillcrest and ask for "Donny", they all knew me and would get the message to me when I came by, lol. Raymond's daughter grew up and became president of Mt. St. Mary until recently when she became superior of her religious order.

  6. Jerry Dean says:

    You and I could swap some yarns, Donnie. I worked briefly at the Gulf Stn. on Kav. when there were 5 svc. stns., Mobil, Lion, Gulf, Amoco and Esso. Was friends with Jessie, the delivery man who drove a Ford Falcon for Troy Churchman and Roy Rhea. Used to 'loberate' cardboard boxes, displays from the old Safeway dock for use in erecting clubhouses, sci. projects. Ate at Island X. Got haircut at John Bush's before Merle took it over. Used to play trumpet with friends on Betty's Lil Rascals. One friend since has become Freddy Tackett of the Calif. touring rock band Little Feat. Threw a Democrat pape route up in Allsopp Park area. Spooky woods on Sun. morns!

  7. Don Nixon says:

    Yep, Jessie always had his girlfriend riding in the car with him. Do you remember the shoeshine guy at Bushes Barber Shop who had the limp?
    Also, the Hilcrest Cleaners delivery man Mr. Carroll was a neighbor of ours.
    Give me a little time and I will remember the name of the guy who operated the gulf station.

  8. Don Nixon says:

    We must have crossed somewhere, particularly at Betty's Little Rascals as I did live commercials for her show for almost 3 years.

  9. Jerry Dean says:

    Yep, Don. I lived on Spruce, attended Fair Park, Forest Heights and then Hall, 1960-63. All my haunts – Safeway, Joe's Hobby Shop, Hillcrest Gift & Variety, Spatz's, Bush's, Troilette's, Leo's — were along what my Dad called The Carline — Kavanaugh Blvs., formerly Prospect Ave. in the old city of Pulaski Heights. I recall Leo's from when it was Taft Moody's — later a tastee-freeze franchise! Leo Whisenant was good friend to all us neighborhood urchins! Let us sip dime Cokes at his counter and watch Howdy-Doody, Clarabel, Buffalo Bob and Mr. Bluster! Halcyon times!

  10. Jerry Dean says:

    Don, a Mr. Richardson, my next-door neighbor on Spruce, ran Gulf when I was there. I recall two things from Troilette's. (1) The window had a Cat's Paw (heels & soles) display whose mechanical black cat raied and lowered its arm as if repairing a shoe. (2) It had the first BankAmericard sign I'd ever seen, the one that later morphed into Visa. Yes! I DO recall the limping shineman at Bush's. Took great pride in his work, displayed shined shoes overnight in a front window where Bush kept the comics! DeClues, who ran D&D, gave away copies of Twaddle, a newspaper with funny, corny jokes. Walked past D&D's basement window to feel hot steam exhausted from pressing irons there! Around the corner was Blue Bird Beauty Shop, which I recall because my folks had run a Blue Bird Tourist Court in Rose City. Black & White supermkt was replaced by a coin-op laundromat where we bought 6-cent Cokes. Between Churchman's/Safeway was Willingham's Bi-Rite Furniture. Frank Stroud ran a competing barber shop further east near the first Joe's Hobby Shop. "Wild Bill" Rogers ran Island X appliances and restaurant. Four other svc stns then — Amoco, Lion, Esso and Mobil.

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