The World Comes to Alma

WORDS Marla Cantrell
IMAGES courtesy Skokos Performing Arts Center

On a Monday morning, when the biggest news in this small town is the recent heat wave, something immensely cool is going on inside the Shannon and Ted Skokos Performing Arts Center in downtown Alma, Arkansas. Executive Director Chuck King is sitting in his office on the high school campus, reviewing the upcoming Season of Entertainment, and he is aglow with anticipation.

Mention this town of approximately 6,000, and you’ll likely hear stories of its strong school system and its sports teams that draw crowds. Many start going to games as students, continue when their children are in school, and keep showing up long after their nest is empty. It’s not unusual to see generations of one family sitting together in the stands.

Less known, but just as impressive, is the number of students in theater and dance. Chuck estimates more than two hundred students took dance in the last school year. The Alma Airedale Theatre Group has won national awards. In fact, they’re so popular they show up on the professional schedule. This year, they’ll be part of the Season of Entertainment, performing Fiddler on the Roof from November 30 to December 3.

The show doesn’t only benefit those involved in Fiddler on the Roof. Thousands of students from regional schools will be bussed in to see the musical, and it won’t cost them a penny to attend.

It is hard to qualify the value the arts have on a community or how many people have their worldview widened by seeing live performances that debuted in places like New York or Austria. But Chuck knows it’s immense. There’s nothing like hearing a musical for the first time. There’s nothing like being with a group of people watching a play, feeling the same thing, caught up in the talent on stage.

Former Alma High students have proven Chuck’s point. Like Chad Burris, a Broadway actor who’s been in shows like Mean Girls, Frozen, Almost Famous, and the national tour of The Book of Mormon. You might think Chad’s gotten a little too famous to remember his roots. But as they say in Alma, once an Airedale, always an Airedale. Chad will be home on September 16, for a twist on this season.

On that day, Chuck is taking the show on the road, specifically to the historic King Opera House in Van Buren, where the world’s only year-round professional ensemble, The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, is making something old new again. On that evening, silent films featuring Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton will be shown in two time slots. But they won’t really be silent. The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra will play the original scores for those movies. Charlie Chaplin started his career in 1914, with Keystone Pictures. Buster Keaton was not far behind. His first film was in 1917.

The King Opera House began offering performances in 1901. It has been restored to its original glory and is now managed by Arts on Main, where the silent film fest’s gala will be held. Chad will be performing and may even dress like they did in the Roaring Twenties. In fact, everyone attending has the chance to come in costume. What better way to watch a silent movie than in a flapper dress or a gangster-inspired three-piece suit?

While the town of Alma is aware of the Skokos Performing Arts Center’s appeal—it’s been around for more than twenty years—the greater River Valley may not have it on its radar. “It is a surprise,” Chuck says. “You visit Alma, and you step into this state-of-the-art building. It’s on a high school campus, for one thing. Technically and acoustically, it can handle any professional touring show. I think the important thing is that it came about with the vision and foresight of community leaders twenty-five years ago, who had this in mind for the next generation, and we’re reaping the benefits of that.”

The 2023/24 season has talent coming from as far away as Austria. On November 4, the Vienna Boys Choir will perform Austrian folk songs and classical masterpieces. The boys’ choir, which started six generations ago, is known worldwide. Having them in Alma seems like a dream.

Chuck has a way of making dreams come true. Sitting in his office are two Emmy Awards he won before taking his current job. One is from 2015, for the short film, Step Into: The King Opera House, that he produced with the local rising filmmaker Devon Parks.

Chuck is an actor, director, producer, screenwriter, accomplished singer, and lately a visual artist. He took up watercolors just to see what would happen. His work was so good, he earned a spot in the juried art show Art on the Border.

He also lived and worked in Israel for years, so it’s not surprising that on August 20, Israeli singer/songwriter Joshua Aaron will be at Skokos with his show, Worship from Israel. He sings in both English and Hebrew and is one of the Jewish Global 100 influencers.

Patrons will also get a whirlwind lesson on Shakespeare. On October 6 through 8, the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre is showing up for an irreverent, fast-paced romp through the playwright’s complete works.

Mike Super’s See Through Reality Show is on October 28, just in time for Halloween. You may have seen him perform magic on America’s Got Talent or when he won the competition on NBC’s show, Phenomenon.

The year rounds out with a holiday show on December 16, Classic Christmas with David Phelps. For nearly twenty years, David was a member of the Southern gospel group, the Gaither Vocal Band. He’s earned two Grammys and a number of Dove Awards. Chuck calls David one of the best tenors in the world.

In 2024, there will be three shows. The first, Ryan and Ryan: Father and Son Piano Duo, is on February 4. Donald and Barron Ryan are a piano duo, playing everything from Gershwin to Billy Joel. On February 17, there will be two performances of Dinosaur World Live that kids should love. This interactive stage show, with realistic, giant puppets, features a Tyrannosaurus Rex, a Triceratops, a Giraffatitan, a Microraptor, and even a Segnosaurus.

“This is a show that right now is touring in England, Ireland, and Scotland,” Chuck says, smiling. The thought that the world coming to Alma is a heady one and the power of that is not lost on Chuck.

The season ends on March 2, with Portrait of Aretha. Chuck says he fell in love with the star Cece Teneal when he saw her perform. She uses her powerful voice to sing Aretha Franklin songs, like “A Natural Woman,” and “Until You Come Back to Me.”

Over the last five years, Chuck has seen a revival of quality arts experiences in the River Valley. Once, when there were only a few live show venues, it was easier to stand out. Now, with so many options, Chuck is careful to find his niche, not competing with anyone but complementing what else is going on.

For him, it means offering affordable experiences that always have the family in mind. He thinks of young families with more than one child and the cost for them to introduce their children to the arts. Chuck keeps that in mind, and this season there will be discounted family packs on certain shows.

He also wondered how to embrace the abundance of local talent, and he’s come up with a plan. Next August, the Skokos Performing Arts Center will offer a production of Bonnie and Clyde. Already, he’s secured rights to the production. His next step is gathering locals to play the parts.

There is a strong local connection. In June 1933, Alma’s town marshal, Henry Humphrey, died in an altercation with two members of the infamous Bonnie and Clyde gang. Shot in the chest, he lingered for three days before he drew his last breath. The Alma Police Department, just around the corner from the art center, has a memorial to Marshal Humphrey, and many familiar with Alma have heard the story.

Next year, when art meets history at the Skokos Performing Arts Center, Chuck will be front and center. When the curtain rises, he will introduce the audience to the cast, many of whom will be our neighbors.

As he describes his vision for the future, the heat of the day rises. Outside, a groundskeeper is trimming hedges. A stone’s throw away sits the school’s massive football stadium, quiet now but ready for the coming rumble. Beyond that, a road winds through Kibler and pauses in Van Buren, connecting this part of Crawford County like a series of Lego blocks.

Chuck sits back in his chair. He is a little like a winding road, connecting people to the arts, and local audiences to international acts. It’s not a bad job to have in this small town of Alma.

For show times and tickets, visit skokospac.org.

Do South Magazine

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