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Theater thrives in historic Missouri River town

Sunday, September 3, 2006

(Photo)
Tourists gathered on the boardwalk to talk in Arrow Rock, Mo. The historic Missouri River town of 69 residents draws many tourists with its community theater and 19th-century charm.
(Associated Press)
ARROW ROCK, Mo.

To get a sense of how far removed this historic town along the Lewis & Clark Trail is from the Great White Way, consider this.

Its entire population could easily fit on a single New York City subway train. With plenty of room to spare.

Middle of nowhere? Perhaps, at least compared to midtown Manhattan. Which is exactly why a spot on the Lyceum Theatre marquee in Arrow Rock -- population 69 and two hours from the nearest major airport -- is coveted by both rising stars and veteran talent alike in the professional theater world.

"When we bring actors in, for a few days they have a dizzy look in their eyes," said artistic director Quin Gresham, himself a displaced New Yorker. "Then they're just in love with it." From its immaculately preserved 19th century architecture to its too-big-for-its-britches theater, Arrow Rock exudes a charm that is at once both Old World and modern.

Forget about negotiating big-city traffic after leaving the Lyceum. Around here, you're just as likely to find folks walking down the middle of the street, savoring the sounds of crickets while exploring National Historic Landmarks such as the birthplace of pioneer artist George Caleb Bingham or the one-room calaboose where town drunkards and other ne'er-do-wells once slept.

Two centuries ago, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark noted the area's abundant salt springs, paving the way for local commerce that helped the town -- a key stop on the Santa Fe Trail -- grow to 1,000 residents at its peak. Even earlier, Osage Indians tapped the Missouri River's limestone bluffs for flint to make tools and arrow points. Hence, the name.

Arrow Rock's historic preservation efforts began in earnest in the 1920s, when the Daughters of the American Revolution persuaded the state of Missouri to buy the Arrow Rock Tavern, which continues to operate. The town earned a National Historic Landmark designation in 1964, three years after town boosters started the Lyceum series in a circa-1872 Baptist church.

More recently, Arrow Rock earned recognition as one of a Dozen Distinctive Designations for 2006 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Walking tours are offered weekends through October by Friends of Arrow Rock, and a Heritage Craft Festival, Oct. 15 and 16, will offer demonstrations of old-fashioned skills such as spinning, candle-dipping, blacksmithing and chair-caning.

For Larry and Paula Blevins, regular visits to Arrow Rock from their home in Wichita, Kan., culminated in a decision last year to purchase the Down Over Bed and Breakfast on the town's shady Main Street.

"We like the traffic patterns," said Larry Blevins, a retired school principal and state restaurant inspector. "We enjoy watching the squirrels run down the street instead of cars."

Arrow Rock, which at one time had a black population of nearly half, also maintains a strong link to black history, with an old church, schoolhouse and fraternal lodge among the historic attractions.

Six miles south and three miles west of Arrow Rock is Blackwater, a former railroad town with its own collection of antique stores as well as a community theater, one-room schoolhouse and the quirky Mid-Missouri Museum of Independent Telephone Pioneers. Lyceum theatergoers often stop at the Iron Horse restaurant for an early supper. The Iron Horse also offers a Sunday ragtime brunch as well as guest rooms.

With a seasonal cast and crew of 40 descending on town for parts of each year, the Lyceum community nonetheless blends in seamlessly with locals, said Gresham. Many rent out rooms in their homes while the theater constructs a dormitory of its own.

The small-town charm -- and the chance for regular work, not idle through another round of casting calls and temp jobs -- makes Arrow Rock a destination for working actors that far surpasses its size.

"When we hold New York auditions, the town of 79 has a reputation in a town of eight million," said Gresham. "There's not much selling required."

If You Go...

ARROW ROCK, MO.: http://www.arrowrock.org.

GETTING THERE: The nearest metro airports are in Kansas City and St. Louis, both about two hours away. If driving, take Interstate 70 to Exit 98, then continue north on state Highway 41 for another 15 miles.

LYCEUM THEATRE: http://www.lyceumtheatre.org or 660-837-3311. The season runs through October, with performances on Wednesday and Friday-Sunday. Upcoming shows include "Tuesdays With Morrie" (Sept. 27-Oct. 8), and Dracula (Oct. 8-29). Single tickets are $30, with discounts for students and seniors.

LOCAL HISTORY: http://www.friendsar.org or 660-837-3231. Tour schedule for September and October: Saturdays at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., and Sundays at 1:30 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. Tickets, $5.

CAMPING: Arrow Rock State Historic Site, http://www.mostateparks.com or 660-837-3330.

DOWN OVER: 602 Main St., Arrow Rock; http://www.virtualcities.com/ons/mo/a/mo... or 660-837-3268. Rooms are $85-$95; cottage is $100.

HERITAGE CRAFT FESTIVAL: Oct. 15-16.


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