The Royal Theatre on South Market Street in downtown Benton (Saline County) dates back to the early 1920s, making it one of the oldest theaters of its kind in the state. Although it no longer shows Hollywood films, the Royal remains a beloved landmark for the people of Saline County. It has been owned by a local family, a corporation, a celebrity, and, finally, a group of locals who took their name, the Royal Players, from the theater’s marquee.
What is now the Royal Theatre began its life when Wallace Kauffman, a native of Princeton (Dallas County), moved to Benton in 1917. Kauffman, who had worked at a similar establishment in Fordyce (Dallas County), started working for Alice Wooten, owner of the Independent Motion Pictures (IMP) Theater. The IMP theater had been built in 1920 on the site of what is now the Royal Theatre, opening on January 14, 1922. Kauffman ran the film projectors at the IMP. There were two separate screens, one upstairs and one downstairs, allowing two films to be shown at one time. The IMP was an independent establishment until 1936, when the business was sold to the forerunners of today’s United Artists Communications.
Wallace Kauffman ran the business alone until 1949, when a new deal with the parent company allowed United Artists to handle all bookings and record keeping. Their own trained projection engineers ran the machines. Kauffman remained the theater manager. Theaters in Malvern (Hot Spring County), Arkadelphia (Clark County), and Magnolia (Columbia County) signed similar deals with United Artists. After the marquee and large electronic “Royal” sign were added, the IMP became known as the Royal Theatre.
Kauffman closed the renamed theater for extensive remodeling on February 22, 1949. The building was extended by forty-three feet, increasing its seating from 590 to 800. Other modern accoutrements were added, including a Westinghouse air-conditioning and heating system, enlarged screens, and new restrooms. The theater’s lounge and foyer were doubled in size. The front façade was designed by architects Frank Ginocchio and Edwin Cromwell, who also designed the Royal in Little Rock (Pulaski County). The Royal Theatre had its grand re-opening on May 12, 1949, with showings of the Jimmy Stewart classic You Gotta Stay Happy.
The Kauffman family continued to run the Royal Theatre for generations. In 1974, Wallace Kauffman died, leaving the Royal to his son, Warren. Warren Kauffman managed it until his retirement in 1986, when his son, Randy Kauffman, took over. Randy managed the family business for ten years before he sold it to actor and comedian Jerry Van Dyke in the late 1990s. Van Dyke also purchased a couple of shops around the theater, creating a candy shop on one side of the Royal and a restaurant called Jerry Van Dyke’s Soda Shop on the other.
In 2000, Van Dyke turned control of the Royal Theatre over to a local group of thespians known then as the Central Arkansas Community Players, which changed its name to the Royal Players. The Royal Players began running and maintaining the Royal Theatre, repurposing it for live theater. The Royal was added to the National Register of Historic Places on September 27, 2003.
For additional information:
Andrews, Teresa. “Family Owned Theater Defies All Odds.” Arkansas Democrat, July 27, 1986, p. 122.
Nichols, Cheryl Griffith. “Royal Theatre.” National Register of Historic Places nomination form. On file at Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas. Online at http://www.arkansaspreservation.com/National-Register-Listings/PDF/SA0129.nr.pdf (accessed September 15, 2020).
The Royal Players. http://www.theroyalplayers.com/wp/ (accessed September 15, 2020).
Cody Lynn Berry
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
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