Laughter ripples through the crowd at the Royal Theater in Archer City, Texas (pop. 1,848), as singer Rodney Hayden tells a witty tale. But as he begins strumming his guitar, the laughter subsides, Hayden begins to sing and the audience absorbs every note.
“Singer-songwriters love nothing more than you listening to what they have to say,” says Tesha Thomas, producer of the Late Week Lazy Boy Supper Club at the Royal, a recurring showcase for performers to sing their songs and tell their stories.
The Royal Theater has a long tradition of inspiring storytelling, first as a movie house, then as the basis of a famous novel and film, now as host to the supper club, theatrical productions and the Texasville Opry, which presents six performances each year.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry, 71, grew up in Archer City and well remembers going to the Royal as a child. “Most of the movies I saw were at the Royal,” he recalls. “We had to drive in from the ranch. It was the only culture there was, so to speak.”
In 1965, the town’s shred of culture was lost when the theater burned; although a cause was never determined, locals always believed it was because someone was smoking in the balcony. Despite its destruction, the Royal became a risen “star” when McMurtry spotlighted it in his novel The Last Picture Show the following year. It was memorialized again in the award-winning 1971 movie based on McMurtry’s book and filmed partially on location in Archer City.
In 1986, McMurtry opened Booked Up in Archer City, a bookstore comprising four buildings and hundreds of thousands of books. The store proved to be a haven for book dealers, readers, movie buffs and autograph seekers in search of the author whose works also include Lonesome Dove and Terms of Endearment. But despite the literary and cinematic attention brought to the town, the Royal continued to lay in ruins until a local theatrical group, the Picture Show Players, decided to rebuild it as a multiuse performing arts center.
“A group of people wanted to perform and wanted to see it rebuilt and have an economic impact,” says Archer County Judge Gary Beesinger, 54, producer of the Texasville Opry and himself a member of Picture Show Players. “It was an ‘If we build it, they will come’ mentality.”
In August 2000, on the 35th anniversary of the day it burned, the Royal Theater reopened. Since its rebirth, the Royal has regularly hosted a variety of theatrical and musical productions and various other events.
Another Archer City native, actress Angela Kinsey, who plays Angela Martin on NBC’s hit series The Office, held her rehearsal dinner and wedding reception at the Royal in 2001. Although the dinner was planned for the theater, the reception was to be outdoors until a violent storm necessitated an emergency move inside.
“The winds picked up and everything went nutty,” says Kinsey, 36, who lives in Los Angeles but regularly visits family in Archer City. “People were running for cover and salad was flying through the air.”
Despite the storm, her wedding is just one of many fond memories Kinsey has of Archer City. She and a friend often did their high school homework at Booked Up, and she remembers always being curious about the ruins of the Royal Theater and excited to hear about its restoration.
“It’s important for every community to have a creative outlet,” Kinsey says.
Today, the Royal Theater’s bright blue ticket booth serves as a beacon to storytellers of all sorts, and to those who want to hear their tales. McMurtry, who splits his time between homes in Archer City and Tucson, Ariz., says the Royal is once again a place of cultural significance in an area where ranching and oil comprise much of the economic base.
“It’s always good,” he says, “to have a little something to bring the stimulation of art into a small town.”
Kristen Tribe is a writer in Decatur, Texas