Downtown Playhouse co-founder Kelly Grooms was preparing for the duties of running a local live theater when in March 2020 the pandemic began. At the time, no one knew how long that would last, but as the lockdown days turned into weeks and then months, it became clear that the season was not going to happen.
The loss of income became more of a problem when weeks after the start of the pandemic, the Playhouse, located in downtown Pocahontas, lost part of its roof and the damage price was $ 12,500.
Despite the struggles, the Playhouse produced “Always Patsy Cline” this summer with Vicki Lynn Bishop and Carol Belford-Lewallen. Another play, “Tuesdays with Morrie”, began on October 30 and will run until November. Grooms told Talk Business & Politics that he and his team are ready to get back to normal and produce three plays per year. “It’s time to rekindle this place,” Grooms said with a laugh.
Grooms, technical director, actor, director and jack of all trades, opened the theater with the help of two investors more than six years ago. It was built in the old Imperial Dinner Theater building. Each year the Playhouse attracts around 3,600 spectators and many are not locals. It draws on towns and villages in the Arkansas Delta region including Jonesboro, Paragould, West Memphis, and others.
Grooms has been connected to the Northeast Arkansas arts scene for decades. He is the Director and Instructor of the Fine Arts Program at Black River Technical College. He has directed plays at the Jonesboro Forum. He has performed, directed and built sets for many plays over the years, but nothing has prepared him for the task of renovating the old building. Local investors Mike Dunn and Jake Foster approached him about the project. Dunn and Foster wanted it to return to its former glory when it opened as a cinema in 1941.
He understood their feelings, but he had other ideas. He wanted the interior of the theater to look like urban grunge, similar to the hollowed-out storefront on Beale Street in Memphis. This theme is popular with the younger generations and he wanted to seduce them. The walls were covered with dramatic artwork from some of the most famous plays of all time, including “The Death of a Salesman”, “Les Misérables”, “The Phantom of the Opera” and others. . His son, Walter, made the art. Spectators sit at candlelit tables and enjoy a drink and dessert before the show begins. There are several downtown restaurants within walking distance, and the interior of the theater has a Memphis-style blues club feel.
The hall can accommodate 100 people and is arranged in tiers so that before and after the show and during breaks, spectators can easily converse with each other. About $ 156,000 was raised to purchase and renovate the building, but Grooms and many volunteers carried out virtually all of the reconstruction work on their own time, saving untold amounts of money, he said. Almost a third of the costs were related to a new lighting system. The renovation took over a year and the theater opened in July 2015. As a tribute to Dunn and Foster, two light sconces from the original cinema hall were placed at the entrance.
The Downtown Playhouse has raised all of its money through private donations and is a completely voluntary organization. Two other founding members, CJ Johnson and Carol Belford-Lewallen, were instrumental in the theatre’s success, Grooms said. The two are constantly striving to promote the theater throughout the region, he said.
When “Always Patsy Cline” opened, the goal was to honor the season passes that were paid for in 2020. The first crowds were at or near capacity, but as the race went on , the crowd began to fall into the fifty or so guests. The main reason was the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus that started raging in Pocahontas.
The virus became so severe in September that more than 500 students in the Pocahontas school district were in quarantine at one point and the high school football team had to cancel a game. The proliferation of the disease has forced the Playhouse to postpone “Tuesdays with Morrie” from its opening from late September to late October. It also prevented them from having a third room before the end of the year, Grooms added.
Fundraising efforts have gone well and the plan is to honor all tickets sold since before the pandemic, he said. The goal is now to prepare for a full and regular season from 2022.
“Our Town” is scheduled to open at the end of February, and will be followed by “Crimes of the Heart”. A third play, “The Mousetrap” by Agatha Christie, is currently in the works, he said.
Live theater is a habit-building activity, and Grooms said he wants the audience they’ve established to get back into the habit of coming to the Playhouse.
“We try to oblige all of our customers. We want to get back to our normal routine, ”he said.