The Old State House Museum is a historical icon of epic proportions. Everyone who has ever been there knows that. It was Arkansas’ first state capitol, the place where Bill Clinton announced his first presidential run and celebrated winning — twice. It has the distinction of being the oldest original statehouse west of the Mississippi River.
The museum’s permanent exhibits are compelling, and the rotating temporary exhibits bring in plenty of people, but likely never as many as the thousands who have already come to see “Play It Loud: Concerts at Barton Coliseum,” which opened April 27 and will be up until late 2022.
My first of three visits (so far) was a couple of days after the exhibit opened, and when I walked in, the first thing the kind gentleman at the desk said was, “Are you here for the Barton Coliseum exhibit?” Apparently almost everyone was. Music-loving Arkansans of a certain age have spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours at Barton. So, there are memories galore to relive by visiting this free exhibit, open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 9-5 and Sundays from 1-5.
The place to start is the video that features several people connected to “Play It Loud,” including Jo Ellen Maack, the curator at the Old State House Museum. But her contribution to the video goes well beyond her exhibit expertise. When she was a kid, Maack — like I — was at Barton Coliseum a lot.
“This exhibit is very personal to me. I was 11, it was 1966, and my brother took me to see the Dave Clark Five,” Maack remembered. “I really can’t even remember why I did it. I wasn’t a huge Dave Clark fan. I had two brothers, both gone now, and this brother, Billy, was very important to me music wise.
“He got a job at Gibson Department Store and would bring home records. One time he said, ‘You’ve got to sit down; you have to hear this.’ And he turned on our console stereo that was as big as a battleship. He said, ‘This is going to change your life.’ I sat down, and he played ‘White Rabbit’ by Jefferson Airplane. He said, ‘I wanted you to hear that one first.’ He had gotten his paycheck, and he’d bought two albums. Next, he put on Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced. I was almost 12, and my whole world just went kablooey. He and I just sat there and listened to that entire album. And I really wasn’t the same kid anymore.”
It’s important to realize that for many, like Maack, going to concerts at Barton Coliseum was about way more than the music. It was a social event. “Around eight of us would go, and we’d get seats. And then we’d take turns walking around,” she said. “The only times we’d get a chance to communicate with kids from other schools, kids from Parkview, Central or North Little Rock, was at a concert at Barton.” Things indeed were different for teenagers pre-cell phones, pre-internet, pre-social media and pre-text messaging.
Most people who know about and have been to the Old State House Museum likely don’t know its staff’s role as archivists and chroniclers of historic information. The Arkansas State Police and the Arkansas Department of Corrections are just two of the institutions that have turned to the Old State House Museum staff to preserve their historical documents and other artifacts.
“Bill Gatewood [Old State House Museum director] and Jo Maack reached out to me,” said Doug White, president and general manager of the Arkansas State Fair, which operates Barton Coliseum. White moved from Oklahoma to Arkansas to work for Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation and joined the State Fair board. He took over running the operation in December 2018.
“I got here in 1996, during the waning days of Barton Coliseum,” he said. “But as a lifelong music fan, particularly rock ’n’ roll, I knew about Barton. But we had nothing archived, nothing digital. Half of our stuff stayed in boxes in the catacombs of Barton. So, I already had a vested interest before we even discussed the exhibit or them taking over our archive. I had seen the guitar collection. I had seen some of the photos and the lists of the music acts. And I thought, ‘Oh my God! This is a gold mine.’ [The Arkansas Department of Parks, Tourism and Heritage] had a new facility to archive the state police items. I knew we needed to take action then so they could hermetically seal our older documents.”
There was a small museum in Barton Coliseum, but nothing like what is being displayed at the Old State House.
“We’ve been working on this since the spring of 2019,” White said. “I can still see the state cars coming down Howard Street, and the Old State House folks coming and grabbing whatever they could grab. There were months and months and months of them coming to get things and then recording them all.
“I remember jokingly telling Jo, ‘If you find the Lynyrd Skynyrd tickets, we will consider this a success.’”
Ahh … that band … those tickets. Lynyrd Skynyrd was arguably the top Southern rock band in the land, and the group had played twice at Barton, in 1975 and 1976. (I was at the latter show; the Charlie Daniels Band opened.) Skynyrd was set to play again the next year at Barton, Oct. 22, 1977, to be exact. But two days before the show, on the way to Baton Rouge, the band’s plane crashed and five people were killed, including lead singer Ronnie Van Zant. Obviously, the show did not go on.
Maack remembered: “Barton officials said, ‘We will refund your tickets.’ So, like an idiot, I got my $6 back; that was a tank of gas back then.” Decades later, “We’d heard the rumor that somewhere on the grounds are the Lynyrd Skynyrd tickets from 1977, but we don’t know where. For four months, Bill [Gatewood, her boss] would say, ‘Have y’all found those Lynyrd Skynyrd tickets yet?’ We looked everywhere; the last place we looked was under the bleachers. And I’ll be dad gummed if there wasn’t an old nasty box down there … and there they were. It was almost 9,000 tickets.”
As you work yourself through the “Play it Loud” exhibit, a sampling of those never-used Lynyrd Skynyrd tickets is there for all to gaze upon. Somber paper reminders of tragedy.
Visitors should plan to spend a few minutes staring intently at the collage of ticket stubs that, if you view them all, will lead you to a correct conclusion — ZZ Top played at Barton Coliseum more times than any other band, 12 concerts spanning 1973 to 1997. (The “little ol’ band from Texas” will play at the First Security Amphitheater in Riverfront Park on Aug. 3.)
Almost 700 artifacts are included, from guitar picks to T-shirts to instruments signed by the artists to photos and lots of album covers of the bands that have played at the coliseum, a compelling and colorful way to brighten up the exhibition.
“The posters were so wonderful because they mentioned Discount Records or Village Fox or Peaches or John’s Jeans [where concert tickets were sold] and still had pinholes in them,” Maack said. “They were the originals that were put up.”
One important thing to realize about “Play It Loud” is that it doesn’t share the same goals that are typical of other exhibits at the Old State House Museum.
“Normally our exhibits are about” certain aspects of Arkansas history, Maack said, “like tornadoes or about Arkansas politics in the 20th century. We’re trying to educate people about that particular topic, trying to teach you something. With “Pillars of Power,” a permanent exhibit, we’re trying to teach you everything you wanted to know about this building from when it was the state capitol.
“We’re trying to give you dates and bios. Forget that. Throw this out the window,” with the Barton exhibit. “We’re not trying to give you Johnny Cash’s biography or teach you anything. This is a sensory exhibit. We want the people to walk in and go, ‘Wow!’ This is a memory exhibit.’”
Despite the heyday of big-time mostly rock and country concerts at Barton Coliseum, those types of shows were not the reason the building was constructed. It was built to host concerts and the rodeo during the two weekends of the Arkansas State Fair and Livestock Show. That process began in 1947, but materials shortages and a crane falling through the unfinished roof caused delays. Named for Col. Thomas H. Barton, who led the effort to build the arena, Barton Coliseum was formally dedicated in September 1952. It cost $1 million to build and was hailed as “the finest arena in the South,” according to the exhibit’s promotional materials.
When you look at the list of concerts held there, realize that all the acts listed from the 1950s and 1960s were state fair acts. But through the 1970s and 1980s — definitely Barton’s glory days — the pace quickened, and the popularity of the acts increased. As many of us who’ve lived in Little Rock most of our lives have come to realize the fact our hometown sits at the confluence of Interstates 30 and 40 has its benefits (other than super heavy 18-wheeler traffic).
“Our good fortune was that 75 percent [of the concerts that came to Barton] were geographical; the routing was just so simple,” said Tom Wood, program director for the Arkansas Rocks network of stations and former head of programming for Magic 105, the popular FM rock radio station now off the air. “Because we are on a direct line from Chicago to New Orleans, Knoxville to Houston, the interstates make it very easy. Sometimes we just happened to be in the direction of travel. It worked out perfectly — if you’re playing one night in St. Louis and one night in Dallas, why not stop in Little Rock in between?”
Wood is also featured in the video that serves as the perfect jumping off place for “Play It Loud.” His inclusion makes perfect sense because Magic 105 was a huge factor in promoting the concerts that were coming to Barton Coliseum.
Magic 105 first hit the airwaves in August 1980, “a real fun time for the radio station, and we represented real ticket-selling potential for the promoter,” Wood remembered. “It’s one thing to hear fantastic concert spots that make the bands sound like the second coming of the Lord. The traffic director, who creates the log of commercials that would run that day, never took into consideration which one should come first. We always moved the concert spot to the first spot. Also, in order to get record label support, the promoter would give us some ad money. When the record label was on board, we’d get more free tickets from the label to give away and brainstorm with them about ideas. So, for instance, if Heart was coming to town, we’d put together a compilation of bits of five Heart songs, and the first person who could identify all five got front-row seats. The disc jockey talking about the concert between songs and commercials was incredibly important.”
Between the Arkansas State Fair’s desire to gets its vast archives whipped into shape, the Old State House Museum staff’s willingness, expertise and tireless devotion to doing so, the contributions of curator Bob Cochran, a University of Arkansas professor and noted music historian, and a radio icon like Tom Wood, “Play It Loud: Concerts at Barton Coliseum” was created even as the COVID-19 pandemic washed across Arkansas, and it’ll be there for more than another year for all to experience.
Everyone involved seems proud and happy with how the exhibit turned out.
“Seldom a day goes past without someone mentioning the exhibit to me,” said state fair boss White. “I couldn’t be happier. It’s also introducing us to a group of people who didn’t even know we existed. That excites me, too.”
Even its biggest fans can’t deny that Barton Coliseum is and always was a pretty humble place. It’s nothing fancy. But damn, did it not host an amazing array of concerts over more than 50 years?
A fun trivia question to ask your friends is: “How many members of the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Country Music Hall of Fame played at Barton?”
63 and 37, respectively. And the only three artists who played there and are in both halls of fame? Two are no-brainers: Elvis and Johnny Cash. The other, not so much … the Everly Brothers!