Seasons have come and gone, buildings have fallen, people have moved and others have made their way into town – a lot has changed since 1947, but Fort Smith’s Little Theatre remains steadfast.
Started in the fall of 1947 by members of the Young Ladies Guild of Sparks Hospital, Arkansas’ very first Little Theatre is small in size but big in heart.
“I don’t know what it is about this place, it makes you feel comfortable in your own skin and confident enough to go out and try things that are different,” said Joanne Peterson, vice president of the Fort Smith Little Theater board of directors.
Peterson, 47, had never stepped on a stage or worked on a set before volunteering at the theater. After moving to Fort Smith from Oklahoma City in 2018, her husband shared the FSLT website with her because he knew she enjoyed shows.
After seeing the auditions tab and that no experience was necessary, she knew she had to try.
“I think he was hoping I was just going to go see some plays,” Peterson said.
Peterson has done a little more than that over the years. From working on sets to acting, filling in as stage manager and soon directing her own show – she has done a little bit of it all.
“This is my first experience with a community theater,” Peterson said. “And man, once you get here you just fall in love with everybody here.”
It is those types of experiences that still ring true after so many years and make the theater special, said Nancy Blochberger, a volunteer of 30 years and assistant chair of the anniversary committee.
The theater has been a little piece of history in the lives of many River Valley residents over the years. A non-profit from the very beginning it remains one today.
Hundreds of volunteers work year-round to make the shows that so many love happen at 401 N. 6th Street in Fort Smith.
While it is has moved locations and undergone a facelift or two, there are homages to the history of theater throughout its current home.
The Little Theatre found its very first home in 1952 at an empty grocery store known as The Baby Grand at 3800 North O Street as it transitioned from being a part of the Sparks Young Ladies Guild and became its own entity.
After years of laughter and tears on its O Street stage, the theater found its home on North 6th Street in the Belle Grove Historic District in 1986.
Despite the changes over the years, what makes the theater special remains.
"A lot of the stories that were true then in the early years are still true today,” Blochberger said. “There’s people who find new friends and often lifelong romances by volunteering and spending a lot of close time together. We have that here every day. There’s just a sense of comradery because everyone has to pull their weight.”
That was the case for Brandon Bolin, 33, and his wife Jamie Lambdin-Bolin, 24, who met in the fall of 2016 at a show before working in “Sense and Sensibility” the next January where they played Edward Ferrars and Lucy Steele.
“We antagonized each other and everyone around us enough that we decided maybe we should get together and give everyone else a break,” Lambdin-Bolin said.
Bolin said that while his future wife knew she liked him, he was not quite as self-aware about the situation.
“We kind of had this flirty relationship where we argued all the time, fought all the time,” Bolin said. “Everyone knew it was because we liked each other.”
The theater has remained an important part of the couple's life. Lambdin-Bolin will debut her own show later this year and Bolin is currently directing the theater's upcoming show.
“It’s just really special, especially with all the circumstances that our community and our world are facing right now, to be able to celebrate our 75th anniversary,” Lambdin-Bolin said.
Closing down because of the pandemic was a real blow, Blochberger said.
The Little Theatre operates on a year-round basis, with auditions for the next show starting the night after one closes. There is only about one week in the spring and two weeks at Christmas that the building does not have people in it.
After shutting its doors in the spring of 2020 and reopening in September, the theater is back and better than ever.
“When we reopened patrons came back in full force and the volunteers came back in full force,” Blochberger said.
For many, the theater is a place to escape and be with those they love.
“Especially over the events of the last couple of years, not only for myself but for everybody, and the toll that took – the very first place that I want to run to is home and in Fort Smith, this theater is my home and my family,” Meredith Rice, 35, said. “And I’m just excited to welcome everybody back to it for its big 75th-anniversary celebration.”
Looking for more friends after moving to the area, Rice saw the theater was putting on “Beauty and the Beast” and as a huge Disney fan, she knew she could not pass the opportunity up.
“So, I plucked my courage and auditioned, not expecting anything,” Rice said. “Not only was I part of that show, I did gain those friends that I was looking for – but more than that I gained (a) family.”
Carole Rogers, 79, has been a part of the Fort Smith Little Theatre family for 30 years and she has no plans to leave it any time soon.
“They can’t get rid of me,” Rogers said. “I’m here to stay.”
As they kick off 2022 and a year of celebrations for their 75th anniversary, the Fort Smith Little Theatre has no plans of getting rid of people any time soon.
It has come a long way since the first production, "Mr. And Mrs. North", directed by Flo Pattee in 1947. The theater usually sees around 10,000 patrons a year and hopes to reach those numbers again since reopening.
While the location has changed, and people have come and gone over the years, the mission of providing quality, affordable theater remains the same. As does creating a space for volunteers to find their place.
After pouring over hundreds of articles, photographs and more in preparation for the anniversary there is one thing they found that best describes the Fort Smith Little Theatre’s goal.
Blochberger said a 1960 newspaper article says it best— “The Little Theatre has but two purposes: To provide entertainment to Fort Smith and to have a good time doing it.”
Abbi Ross is the business and features reporter at the Southwest Times Record. She can be reached at aross@swtimes or on Twitter at @__AbbiRoss
This article originally appeared on Fort Smith Times Record: Fort Smith's Little Theatre Celebrates 75 years