King Opera House

A Historic Performance Venue

Gracing Main Street for well over a hundred years, the beautifully restored King Opera House sets the stage with its vibrant theatrical offerings and whispers the presence of a once ernest and intrepid actor, now haunting the backstage and still looking for work. To see the King Opera House in person or the inquire a renting the facility contact Bill Ratcliff at Arts On Main: 479-474-7767 or bratcliff@artsonmainvb.com

The History of the King Opera House

The building was constructed in 1891, first appearing on the 1892 Sanford-Perris fire map. The ground floor housed the Willard Billiard Parlor on one side and the Wallace Saloon & Restaurant on the other. The second floor was home to the Van Buren Press newspaper. Known as the “Wallace Block” the property was purchased in 1898 by Col. Henry P. King.

The Van Buren Press announced on February 23rd, 1901, that Col. King intended to cover the property to an “up-to-date” opera house. Construction was completed quickly, though small storefronts remained in the front section of the building, and the Opera House opened on October 18th with a production of “Faust.” For almost two decades the theater hosted vaudeville acts, local performance groups, and Chautauquas that provided entertainment and culture for the Van Buren community with noted speakers, teachers, musicians, showmen and preachers. 

On March 14, 1914, a fire gutted the opera house, starting in a dry-cleaning business housed in the front section of the building. It was reported in the Van Buren Press on November 11, 1914, that the King Opera House would begin remodeling and open as a “moving picture” house. Even so, “High-Class” vaudeville acts would still be booked. And in February of 1919, after a much-needed remodeling, the King Opera House was re-opened as the Van Buren Theater.

On June 3rd, 1919, the property was sold to Joe Huff, who continued renting out the “cubbyhole” stores in the front of the building. In April of the next year Joe Huff announced that the building would again be remodeled and continue as a “moving picture” house.

In the 1930’s the building was renamed the “Bob Burns Theater” after a hometown celebrity of radio and films. The street front still housed small commercial shops, and the upstairs became an apartment for the projectionist and family.

In the 1960’s the property was purchased by Malco Theaters, retaining the name Bob Burns Theater. In 1974 Malco closed the theater. In 1979 it was purchased by the City of Van Buren Community Development Agency. A structural engineer and architect, engaged by the Agency, prepared plans for the rehabilitation of the building, after which work began to remove much of the deteriorated and fire damaged interior elements of the building, structurally enhance the exterior walls and roof, and construct the interior walls and architectural features that can be seen today.  

The King Opera House’s interior is not a replication of the original, though some original fabric of the building was retained and restored (such as the exterior brick walls and the theater’s wood flooring), but is a combination rehabilitation of the original Opera House and creation of what a small, live-performance theater of the early twentieth century might have looked like.  

All of the facility’s carpentry and finished woodwork was done by men and women enrolled in a federally funded, carpentry training program under the supervision of Larry Cole, and was based on architectural plans prepared by David Fitts.  Building materials come from what was funded by city and private sources and salvaged lumber from a demolished building that housed a casket manufacturer once located behind the Opera House.  

Rehabilitation of the Opera House was largely completed in 1991.  It has since been made available by the City of Van Buren for the community’s use on a reservation basis for stage performances, meetings, lectures, movies and various community gatherings.     

In 2022, the City turned over management and day-to-day oversight of the Opera House to Arts on Main (formerly known as Center for Art & Education), a non-profit arts education organization based in Van Buren.  With AOM’s recent opening of its new arts education and gallery facility next door the Opera House and its long track record for producing and managing art programs, the organization is ideal for the job and is eager to bring new life to the Opera House.  

Extensive upgrades and improvements are planned for the Opera House to make it a functional and attractive venue for the community’s use and enjoyment for many years to come.