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Barton's rock past preserved 

click to enlarge Barton Rock 'n' Roll Museum image

For decades, music fans in Central Arkansas knew Barton Coliseum as THE place for big name concerts. It certainly wasn't the most ideal venue, thanks to its poor acoustics. But it was pretty much the only choice in the region for shows too big for Robinson Auditorium but not big enough for War Memorial Stadium.

Fairgoers at this year's Arkansas State Fair who lived through those years got a flashback with the unveiling of the Barton Rock 'n' Roll Museum. It looks at a few especially noteworthy performances, as well as one show that didn't end up taking place. It also features artists like Heart, Styx, Journey, Boston and Foghat, who played there repeatedly over the years. 

The collection, featuring 31 performers, is mostly housed in a small area just off the coliseum's main hallway. Included are photos from shows, concert posters, ticket stubs and framed record albums. There are also legal contracts for a few of the performances, which are among the more interesting items featured.

"Last year we started going through [the Arkansas State Fair] archives and seeing what we had and getting them preserved because they were in one of our buildings here on the grounds that was not a good place for them," said Deb Crow, organizer of the museum. The efforts were initially for an exhibit that opened last year looking at the century-old history of the State Fair. Crow says she started coming across items related to the many huge rock shows featured at Barton and decided a look at that was warranted.

One of the museum's prime exhibits: a sold-out show by Elvis Presley on April 17, 1972. "We were able to have someone donate posters from the concert, had pictures donated, even a copy of the ticket," said Crow. The photos feature Elvis in a red, glittering rhinestone jumpsuit with cape, while the marquee along Roosevelt said "Welcome Elvis and thousands of out of state visitors. Sold out." A CD of the performance was eventually released and is also on display.

Another exhibit features a copy of a contract for a concert Lynyrd Skynyrd was to play at Barton Coliseum on Oct. 22, 1977. But two days before that, just a few shows into a new tour, a chartered plane crashed, killing several members of the band, including front man Ronnie Van Zant. The contract details how the group was guaranteed $12,500, plus 71.1 percent of the gross box office receipts over $36,887. But a handwritten notation says simply: "cancelled Van Zant killed in plane crash."

Other acts noted in the museum include Van Halen, the Jackson Five, Black Oak Arkansas, Jefferson Starship, the Allman Brothers and Grand Funk Railroad, which immortalized Little Rock and groupie "Sweet" Connie Hamzy in its 1973 anthem "We're an American Band." There's also an extensive display on Stevie Ray Vaughan, who played there in 1984, including a contract signed by him and photos from a special VIP show.

Like so many who grew up in Central Arkansas, my first concert was at Barton Coliseum. Looking at a display on the many performances there over the years by Rush, I was happy to see a ticket stub from the April 1, 1982, concert. It was a bewildering, mind-altering experience for a 10-year-old in fourth grade. My older brother had talked my parents into taking us. In the following years I'd see one concert after another there, including countless heavy metal bands, which for the most part aren't included in the museum.

Going to concerts at Barton was practically a right of passage for young people in the area. Walking into a show felt like walking into a rock 'n' roll fantasy. The place would be swarming with teens and young adults, all enjoying a massive party away from parental eyes. There was always a smoky haze inside, sometimes so thick it was hard to see through to the stage. 

It was a different era for concerts, when general admission was typical, prompting people to line up outside Barton beginning early on the day of a concert. When the doors would finally open up, once getting past the ticket-taker, people would often break into a hard sprint to secure a place near the front of the stage.

In addition to the rock shows, many long gone legends of country and R&B also played at Barton. Tickets to James Brown concerts cost only 99 cents at one time.

The museum feels a little hollow only noting the rock acts, but much of Barton's records were lost when a secondary storage location was destroyed. Much of what's in the museum was preserved by a local music fan.

Today Barton Coliseum is no longer used for concerts, with most large shows held at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock.

With consideration underway of new possible locations for the Arkansas State Fair, the clock could be ticking for Barton Coliseum. One possible site could be in North Little Rock, if voters there approve a sales tax increase on Tuesday, Nov. 8. While I haven't heard any specific talk of Barton being torn down, it's hard to imagine the coliseum, which was built in 1949, remaining if the fairgrounds are moved. This museum at least acknowledges some of its history.

The Barton Rock 'n' Roll Museum is open 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and during occasional special events.

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