Walking into the Malco Theater on Central Avenue could be compared to a trip down the tunnel of time for new owner Rick Williams.
“I can only imagine this in the 1880s, where they would do their acts in the old Vaudeville house or the Malco,” he said, standing atop the balcony overlooking what once was the building-wide stage.
The structure itself is more than 100 years old, surviving some of the nation’s most defining areas.
“This building dates back to segregation,” Williams said, referring to the building’s back entrance. “This area would be for that, a separate ticketing area and lobby.”
Williams has plans to preserve the Malco Theater as a piece of the city’s heritage.
“I believe the Malco is a treasure. I’d hate to see it get into the wrong hands and not be preserved,” he said. “The challenge we’re seeing is that Hot Springs was a boom town. When the gambling left and the gangsters left, we were left with all of this historic infrastructure. What do you do with that now is the question. How do we use, but preserve, the historic infrastructure of the city.”
Faded wall paper and broken boards only serve to reveal the site’s history for Williams by peeling back the layers top to bottom as he walks through.
“This is what you’re seeing when you drive up and down the road and wonder, ‘Wow what’s up there?’,” he said. “It’s like it was left, you know, 80 years ago. I can just picture a boutique hotel or upstairs office spaces. These could become part of the downtown scene again.”
The Spa City’s historic past is a key to its tourism and economic base, according to those who sell the city to the public.
“All that tells the Hot Springs story. People come here and see that,” said Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs. “That’s where everything happened here. It’s where the gangsters were, where Al Capone stayed at the Arlington. Downtown was the hub, and there’s been a lot of attention here recently. The area goes through ebb and flow. Now, we have a brewery coming into historic bathhouse row, we have the Malco getting renovated.”
Williams not only wants to bring the Malco theater back to brilliance in living color, but he also has plans for every nook and cranny.
“Hot Springs needs to believe in Hot Springs We need to just do it right. It’s time the downtown be developed,” he said.”I’ve worked in many cities that only wish they had the raw potential that hot springs has.”
And Williams believes the first step to the future is seeing the value in its past.