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Stage is set at the AMA

The RMHC will also celebrate great Texarkana musicians of the past that day with early rock-and-roller Pat Cupp and trumpeter Jimmie Allen. Their lifetime achievements will be honored. The festivities include rockabilly music, vintage cars, root beer floats and more ’50s-era revelry.

Before that and starting at midnight on Saturday, March 2, Texarkana native and musician John Tennison will present a 17-hour “Texarkanon” at the AMA. He subtitles this as “Symphony for a Single Unprepared Piano.” It’s a free performance, open to the public, and donations for AMA restoration will be accepted.

Once again, the AMA will be a cozy home to music and honor its fascinating past with new dreams, now that it’s been cleaned up inside.

Locals like Debbie Haak, Gloria Hogie, David Mallette, John Thomas, Carol Collins-Miles, Remica Gray and others in the AMA Commission appear excited and proud of the auditorium’s new life. Talking in the AMA mezzanine, where displays call attention to musicians who’ve performed here, their enthusiasm is infectious.

But this story is intrinsically connected to AMA backers’ longtime efforts to get the AMA restored to a proper condition.

The commission was started in 2002, Haak explained. When they began efforts, they believed the whole AMA building could be renovated, but in recent years they’ve committed to just what can be done now, she said.

“The city helped us. They came in and removed all the boxes and things. They were using it for storage,” Haak said. “We just started interpreting all of this in here we just started finding information and telling the story.”

That story started in 1928 when the auditorium opened. About 10,000 people lived in Texarkana, Ark., at the time, Haak said. Around her, furniture donated by the Texarkana Museums System showcases displays that picture a diverse array of performers.

“The earliest that I can tell you is Mae West,” Haak said, noting they don’t have an exact date that she graced the stage. Louis Armstrong was here May 2, 1942, probably the first black entertainer to perform at the AMA; then there’s Fats Domino, George Jones and others. Locals on stage were prominent, such as jazz musician Jay Franks or concert pianist Lois Towles.

Mallette claims Carl Perkins debuted “Blue Suede Shoes” at the AMA, which he says is verified by a French music historian. “It was a great event, they weren’t expecting him,” Haak said.

Then there’s the “King of Rock and Roll” himself, who came here before he earned that moniker. Confirmed dates noted in this mezzanine display mention Elvis Presley’s AMA performances: Nov. 24, 1954 to Nov. 17, 1955, totaling seven dates in a year.

“What made this story good is he got engaged with people that were here,” Haak said. That is to say, Elvis formed friendships and relationships in Texarkana. His pink Cadillac reportedly burned up between Hope and Texarkana. He was friends with Carl “Cheesy” Nelson. “He always stayed at the Park Plaza Motel,” Haak said.

Eventually, entertainment at the AMA became more locally focused. “It went to high school plays, baby pageants, beauty pageants—completely sort of redefined,” Haak said.

Walking into the auditorium itself, she explains more of the ongoing story, which includes the new tile roof, repointed limestone and other improvements during the years.

Walk inside now and you will find 90 chairs arrayed across the lower seating area. Wooden seats were removed. “They were so small they wouldn’t meet code,” Haak said. Regulations now mean the venue has limited seating, so these upcoming events will be seen by a select few.

At the walls, spots for wall sconces and oscillating fan fixtures are at the ready. And way up near the ceiling, light streams through gorgeous windows. “The stained glass windows are original. They were redone by Trent Hanna,” Haak said. Thomas explained that some had cracks. “There were some that just needed a little tweak here and there, so he refurbished all of the stained glass,” he said.

Original chandeliers with LED lighting and new wiring hover above.

And where the stage is situated, all is clear for the music to be unleashed. “So we have enough room for everyone to dance to the music,” Collins-Miles said.

Looking around, it’s also clear that much still needs to be done to fully refurbish the space. But it’s in a condition where it can be used, providing a unique space with rustic charm where Texarkana’s past, present and future can merge.

AMAC members have worked to get this beloved Art Deco space ready, including cleaning up the dust and, courtesy of SoundTowne technicians, they installation of Klipsch PA speakers. They’ve got sound, they say.

“We’ve got a new screen to project on back here that’s really big,” Haak said. They’ve improved plugs so they’re up to code. They even gave a tour to Fort Worth, Texas, Elvis fan club members traveling on their way to Memphis, Tenn.

Soon, the AMA will be ready for more visitors, who will enjoy the sort of entertainments shared during its illustrious past.

“We have a few things left that the fire marshal is working because we can only have 100 people in this room at a time,” Haak said, “because we don’t have a sprinkler system. If we had a sprinkler system, then it would go up quite a bit.” They’ll close access to areas people can’t enter, finish plugs and do more cleaning. They’ll add wireless access, too.

She’s looking forward to that first use. “John’s performance is going to be something that no one in Texarkana has ever seen,” she said. “No one in the world,” added Mallette.

The AMA is not restored, Haak admits, and she even cautions that it hasn’t been renovated. It’s a work in progress, though, and looks better than it has in a long, long time. Mallette puts it this way about the plan: “Getting it back online.”

In a way, then, these new concert events give a “peak in the window,” Haak said. There’s history in this building that must be told, no matter how much renovation work is done or not done at the AMA. “We may never have $20 million to renovate it,” Haak said. That’s the estimate she quotes to do the entire job. They’d have to acquire the whole AMA, too. The plans are there to do the job.

But she says other folks have shown interest in using the space as it is, including an event to honor Jewell House, a songwriter who at one time scheduled auditorium events. Haak also fielded a phone call from a teacher who wants to bring her theater students to see the space.

Because of its in-between size, groups may be interested in this smaller performance venue, too, AMA backers say.

“You know there’s a lot to be said for wonderful theaters all over our country that are completely finished and maxed-out, all the elaborate things you can put in it,” Haak said.

But she added, “I think there’s value in history, of our history in Texarkana. That if it never gets past this right here, there’s a market for it.” That value has local resonance, too.

For Gray, seeing the AMA in use again has a personal connection.

“My senior high school class was the last one, I think, to actually perform on this stage. We did our senior play back in 1969. I have pictures of that. As a child, the civic music things were here and my mother had the Girl Scout troop usher for those a lot,” she recalled.

Now, perhaps, new history can be made at the AMA.

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