In a May meeting of The Young Ladies Guild of Sparks Memorial Hospital, Mrs. James (Flo) Pattee proposes they sponsor an amateur theatrical production. It is to be a fundraiser for the Guild and will hopefully promote the formation of a local theatre group. Having previously been involved in theatre, Mrs. Pattee agrees to direct the proposed production.
During subsequent meetings during the year, a show is selected, committees are organized, and auditions are held. The Little Theatre of Fort Smith (later dba Fort Smith Little Theatre [FSLT]) is launched.
It is decided that the new theatre organization will have a separate Board of Directors. Mrs. Thomas (Babe) Foltz is elected as Founding President. The group will be sponsored by the Guild who is to receive 75% of show proceeds to fund surgical equipment for Sparks Hospital.
February 11 and 12 – the first production, Mr. and Mrs. North, is presented at the Junior High School. Total attendance is reported at over 1,500.
FSLT continues to be sponsored by the Sparks Young Ladies Guild. The second production, John Loves Mary, was presented in November.
Season Tickets go on sale for the next season, priced at $3 and $5 per person.
Young Ladies Guild members had conceived, organized, promoted, and helped staff the burgeoning theatrical troupe. As a result, thousands of dollars had been raised for Sparks Hospital. The Guild’s goal had been achieved, and FSLT was gaining traction. In June, the Fort Smith Junior Chamber of Commerce assumed sponsorship of the fast growing group whereby FSLT would receive 60% of the net profits.
November 6 – FSLT presents its first 5-day run, Southern Exposure, at the Goldman Hotel Ballroom. It is the first FSLT production “in the round”.
FSLT becomes independent, relinquishing all sponsorship and partnership agreements.
The group raises a down payment of $3,525 to buy The Baby Grand Grocery Store at 3800 North “O” Street.
In that fund drive, the only substantial individual donation is $2,000 from Ed Louise Ballman. FSLT would continue to benefit from her generosity throughout her life, and long after her death through gifts from the Ballman Foundation.
The purchase price of the building is $15,000. Obtaining a mortgage for the balance is the next challenge. Local lending institutions view the young theatrical group a poor risk. But a theatre patron who sat on the Board of Directors of a local Savings & Loan persuades them to make the loan. Records show there was is never a missed or late payment.
Renovation begins to convert the building into a theatre-in-the-round. With the exception of electrical wiring, all the work is done by volunteers whose only qualification was enthusiasm. Seating capacity is 164, and performances will have to work around support poles rising from the stage floor.
Sets are built around support poles on the No. O St. stage
One Foot in Heaven, presented in the Ward Hotel and directed by Mrs. James Pattee, has the double distinction of being the first independent production of the Fort Smith Little Theatre and the last to be presented on any stage other than our own.
The frenzy of renovation continues into October, with work going on all through the night of dress rehearsal for Skylark. But the goal is met, and the doors open on time for the first production on O Street. It is also the last to be directed by Flo Pattee who is moving out of state. She had first presented the idea of local theatre to the Sparks Young Ladies Guild, and had since directed all productions but one.
At cost of $3,000, two Dressing Rooms and a small storage area are added to the building.
A payphone was added to the lobby which would cost FSLT 29 cents per day.
Air-conditioning is added to the building. This allows for summer productions and a schedule of at least six productions per year.
August – FSLT presents its first Melodrama – Only An Orphan Girl
1962 – Outside Entrance to North O Theatre Building
At a cost of $10,000, the lobby was remodeled, public restrooms increased, and additional storage was added.
As part of the renovation, stained glass was added to the lobby windows, and light fixtures designed by Ron Watson as comedy and tragedy masks illuminated the exterior. Also, Al Reis, owner of Reis Art Gallery and School and Jay Anderson, one of his instructors, created a unique piece of stained glass sculpture to stand outside the theatre entrance. Through the years, the sculpture known as the Harlequin Man would become a well-recognized symbol for FSLT.
Twentieth Anniversary Production: FSLT presents Mr. and Mrs. North, in honor of the first production of the group. Present members of the Sparks Guild and Mr. and Mrs. Pattee were guests.
An Apple Tree is painted on the lobby wall by Sammie Brown, showing every production and the year the show was performed at FSLT.
Two new air conditioners are added to the O Street Building.
A special production of The Magic of Musical Broadway was presented at the Fort Smith Civic Center, directed by Jay Burk and Sondra Foti, as the first step in raising funds for a new theatre.
The Fort Smith Little Theatre joined with the Fort Smith Art Center to raise money to buy land and build a facility to house both organizations, under the name “The Center, Inc.”
Fundraising was insufficient to build the one structure that was planned. It was decided to use the funds raised through The Center, Inc. and money from the sale of the FSLT “O” Street property to renovate the existing art center and build a new theatre which would seat just under two hundred people.
Due to limited funds, backstage costume and set storage would be cut from theatre construction. It would be more than 20 years before the rest of the facility as originally planned would be built.
The cornerstone was set as construction progressed on the new FSLT facility located in the Belle Grove Historic District.
April – Brad Kidder, an active thespian since 1958, delivered the last lines spoken on the “O” Street stage in the play Born Yesterday. Brad had also been a cast member in the 1959 production of the same play.
June – The new location for the Fort Smith Little Theatre at 401 North Sixth Street resounded with song and dance as a large cast presented The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas with Jay Burk at the helm. This tremendously successful show was presented with appreciation for the past, and excitement for the future of FSLT.
FSLT graded and graveled two lots owned by the Fort Smith Art Center for parking to be used by patrons of both organizations.
A FSLT fundraising campaign provided paving and lighting of 5 lots—2 owned by the Art Center and 3 owned by the Fort Smith Art Center.
Auditorium receives facelift including new carpet, paint, and aisle railings.
A major capital campaign financed expansion of the 6th Street theatre, adding restrooms, green room kitchen, and set/costume/prop storage. This addition completed the plan originally drafted for the building.
Generous patrons and extra performances funded the FSLT purchase of 5 lots (3 paved and 2 unpaved) from the Fort Smith Art Center.
With support from patrons and local vendors, FSLT completed a renovation campaign entitled Back To The Future. The project included expansion of mezzanine storage, installation of new HVAC, and remodeling of lobby, restrooms, box office, business office, kitchen, and lightbooth. The stained glass Harlequin Man, the symbol of FSLT, was moved to a place of prominence in the center window. The project also involved archiving and showcasing the history of FSLT. Cast photos and show programs dating back to 1947 were digitally preserved and posted online. In addition, all cast photos are now shown on lobby TVs.
Significant HVAC and drainage improvements were made in conjunction with a complete re-roofing of the 29-year-old facility.
In compliance with government directives regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, FSLT was forced to close in mid-March after performing The Glitter Girls and an off-season show, The Radium Girls. The forced closure continued through the remainder of 2020.
With vaccinations available and government restrictions being lifted, FSLT reopened using appropriate protocols in September 2021 with Clue followed by two additional productions before the end of the year.
Happy Anniversary! FSLT celebrated its 75th season — a major milestone for the oldest community theatre in Arkansas.