Goin’ to the Movies: “Looking Back”

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.

In the 1960s, goin’ to the movies meant going to the Conway Theater on Front Street or going to the 65 Drive-in. The drive-in was south of town across from Ward Bus factory. The Conway Theater was located on Front Street between Clarence Day’s Store and Smith Ford.

The first movie I remember going to see at the Conway Theater with the family was the original “True Grit” with John Wayne. But what I remember the most were the afternoon summer matinees for children. A group of us would be dropped off each week at the front door. We would then pay our quarter to see “McHale’s Navy,” “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” and many other classics. Climbing up to the balcony with our concession-stand Milk Duds, we would settle in to enjoy the show.

There have been movie theaters in Conway for nearly a century now. Conway’s first movie theater was located at Front and Smith Street. It had a homemade wooden projection screen and wooden boards were set up camp-meeting style for seating. There were several other early theaters scattered about town that had such names as the Electric Theatre, Airdome, The Crystal, The Ideal Theatre, and Arkway Theatre.

Many area people talk about going to the Grand Theatre. It was located on the southwest corner of Oak and Chestnut. The Grand actually existed before the arrival of motion pictures and served as a venue for live performances. Troupes would come to town and perform for a couple of nights at a time. It was also the venue for the Conway Elks Club Talent Show.

When the Grand was converted to a movie theater, moviegoers would see a comedy followed by a serial (a chapter in an ongoing story) and the main attraction. The serials were not always deemed appropriate and there is at least one instance when the mayor actually censored a Fatty Arbuckle series. Coming attractions were shown last.

The Conway Theater opened on Front Street in 1924 in the location of the former Ideal Theatre. The first movie shown there was a Rin Tin Tin movie. A two-reel comedy was also shown to the standing-room only audience. Admission was 35 cents for adults and 10 cents for children.

The theater had a spacious lobby, a balcony, and richly upholstered seats. It had an orchestra pit and a red velvet stage curtain. Before the Vitaphone sound system was installed, a piano player provided accompaniment. On Saturdays, patrons could pay a dime for the matinee and watch the headliner, comedy, coming attractions and main feature over and over again.

One of the most memorable events that took place at the Conway Theater was the annual Christmas party. Buses would bring local children to the theater to watch a Christmas movie. After the show, as the children were leaving, a Santa Claus would give each child a paper sack with an orange, an apple and peppermint candy.

For many people who grew up outside of Conway, their greatest memories are of coming to the show in Conway. When my mother went with her friends to the Grand, she remembers her friend’s father waiting for them out in his parked truck. He would visit with passersby and watch all the activity downtown while the girls were in the movies.

When I was in my teens, a new multi-screen movie theater, Cinema I and II, opened in the Faulkner County Shopping Center between Wal-Mart and Kroger’s. The Conway Theatre soon closed. The building stood empty until the early 1990s when it was torn down. There is still a gap on Front Street where the movies used to be.