512 Garrison Avenue,
512 Garrison Avenue,Fort Smith, AR 72901
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Here is a history of building that contained the Fort Theater from city records. It was built in 1890 as a glassware store. Over the years it contained a number of different stores and offices. It was vacant 1939-1941. It was Fort Theater 1942-1948. It was vacant 1951-1958. It was Grand Rapids Furniture 1962. It was Tip Top Western Wear 1991 to present.
Business license records in Fort Smith show that the Fort Theater had a license from 1942 to 1948. In September, 2010, the former Fort Theater building still was a western wear store. It was one of the last stores on Garrison Avenue selling clothes.
Some signs of the theater were still obvious. The front facade has a small window near the roof that would have provided ventilation for the projection booth. Inside the front door are about five steps up to the level of the lobby. The building had been extended all the way to the alley behind Garrison Avenue, about 20 feet farther than buildings on both sides. A small stage house extends about 20 feet (estimated from ground) above the regular roof. This would have been high enough to fly an asbestos curtain. Since there was a stage, building codes would have required an asbestos curtain. From the size of the stage house I would estimate that the stage was less than 20 feet deep. It would have been deep enough to hold two Altec-Lansing Voice of the Theater loudspeakers but not much more. The emergency exit doors at the front of the theater were located about 3 feet below grade with steps up outside. This suggests that the raked auditorium floor would have extended below grade.
The Fort Theater was built about one block from the Camp Chaffee bus terminal. One of the first thing soldiers saw after getting off the bus was the Fort Theater marquee. Following the end of World War II Camp Chaffee was inactivated. The bus service ended. Attendance at the Fort Theater fell dramatically since the theater was located away from the central business district of town.
The Fort Theater was operated by Malco as were all other Fort Smith theaters until 1947.
By my recollection the Fort Theater opened in 1944. Camp Chaffee was built near Fort Smith. The soldiers and army families caused all the existing theaters to be overcrowded. Somehow the building owners managed to get enough building supplies to convert a store into a theater. Half of the original second story had been removed; the other half became a balcony with a steeply raked floor. The original third story had been removed to give space over the balcony. Somehow the owners had managed to find enough used theater seats. Everything was very cheaply built. The building had no interior decoration that I remember.
This theater had several different formats. None apparently were very successful. As I remember it wound up as a grind house.
By the late 1940’s it developed a bad reputation. Prostitutes were reported to set up shop in the balcony where they serviced all comers. People wanting to see the movie sat on the main floor that never was very crowded. I believe it closed as a theater in late 1950.