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The Murphy Arts District aims to make Arkansas's original boomtown boom again 

The planned El Dorado makeover launches with a series of big-name concerts beginning Sept. 28.

click to enlarge THE NEW AMPHITHEATER: Work is nearly complete on the outdoor performance space, which will seat 8,000. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • THE NEW AMPHITHEATER: Work is nearly complete on the outdoor performance space, which will seat 8,000.

In the last dying days of September, Brad Paisley, Ludacris, Train, Robert Randolph, Smokey Robinson, Migos, Natasha Bedingfield and ZZ Top will all be making a beeline for Union County, bypassing cultural and culinary hubs like Bentonville and Little Rock for South Arkansas, where a former oil boom town is undergoing a $100 million makeover.

MAD, as it's called, short for Murphy Arts District, is a two-phase creation of an entertainment district aimed at revitalizing downtown El Dorado. It involves turning the 1928 Griffin Auto Co. Building, once a fuel station and showroom for Model T Fords, into The Griffin, a farm-to-table restaurant flanked by a cabaret lounge and a 2,000-seat music hall with a stageside elevator, multiple bars, a VIP loft, a concession area, dressing rooms and a patio adorned with a 110-foot statue of an oil derrick, a bombastic homage to the black gold from which El Dorado sprang. The lawn outside The Griffin has been carved into an outdoor amphitheater that can accomodate 8,000 people, with an adjacent farmer's market and 2-acre, free-admission "destination playscape" for kids.

That's just the part MAD calls "Phase I." Phase II, set to begin in two years, involves renovating the 1920s-chic Rialto Theater (on the National Register of Historic Places, along with the Griffin Building) and turning the adjacent McWilliams building into a 10,000-square-foot art gallery with artist-in-residence quarters.

MAD's marketing campaign has caught some attention for its wholesome but savvy parodies — see the Macklemore-inspired "Downtown" video on YouTube from the spring of 2016, or this year's MGM-bright, one-take ensemble number "El Do Land," a parody of the opening sequence from "La La Land," the whimsical, not-quite-"Best Picture" of the 2017 Oscars.

The whole thing's in countdown mode, with organizers preparing for a massive five-day launch Sept. 28 with six major ticketed concerts, private donor events and over 25 free concerts on El Dorado's Union Square. Like its promotional videos, MAD is an ambitious operation, tightly choreographed, but nimble enough to turn on a dime when it needs to. I've been down Highway 167 to watch things take shape as the clock ticks.

click to enlarge MAD NOW, TOMORROW: The Griffin Building (top) has been transformed into a music hall, cabaret and restaurant as part of Phase I; in Phase II, the Rialto Theater will be renovated alongside a 10,000-square-foot art gallery and exhibit hall with artist-in-residence quarters. - MURPHY ARTS DISTRICT
  • Murphy Arts District
  • MAD NOW, TOMORROW: The Griffin Building (top) has been transformed into a music hall, cabaret and restaurant as part of Phase I; in Phase II, the Rialto Theater will be renovated alongside a 10,000-square-foot art gallery and exhibit hall with artist-in-residence quarters.

Location, location, location

MAD is an acronym, but it's also a pretty apt description of the ethos behind the project. To understand why, it helps to take a look at a map of the country. Put pushpins on the major markets in the lucrative and logistically complex world of big-budget music tours. We're talking about cities targeted by behemoth PR machines like, say, the one behind Brad Paisley's "Weekend Warrior World Tour," a 38-date affair complete with three opening acts, stops in Norway and Sweden and a concurrent partnership with Boot Barn on an exclusive line of jeans, hats, jewelry, belts and woven shirts called "Moonshine Spirit." Tours like Paisley's usually land on some clear frontrunner markets: New York, LA, Chicago. In the South, there's Nashville, Dallas, Austin, New Orleans, Atlanta. Because tour production companies like Live Nation and AEG Presents have built their fortunes along the infrastructure that links those cities, location matters — a lot. It's the reason why Little Rock is blessed with a bounty of last-minute shows from inventive up-and-comers the week preceding South by Southwest: they're all Austin-bound. As any show promoter will tell you, a market's proximity to its bigger neighbors, paired with a promoter's ability to catch talent traveling between markets, can make or break the success of a live music venue in its first year of operation.

Consider all that when you place the next pin on your theoretical map: directly above El Dorado, smack dab in the middle of Union County, about 16 miles north of the Louisiana border. Closest neighbors include Parkers Chapel, Quinn and Newell. Further out in the county, there are cities whose populations the U.S. Census Bureau actually bothers to count: Norphlet (population 844), Calion (494) and Smackover (1,865); not exactly thrilling territory for music promoters trying to engage new listeners (and their wallets). That is, El Dorado is not only in the middle of nowhere, it's not even on the way to anywhere.

Then again, relative geography didn't matter to El Dorado circa 1921, when the January discovery of an oil well spurred the creation of a town swimming pool, amusement park and auditorium. Nine hundred other oil wells followed, and the population of 4,000 — sustained mostly by a cotton and timber industry — ballooned to over 25,000. When there's Texas Tea involved, proximity of neighboring markets is of little concern. You get some tanker trains loaded and moving — boxcars trembling from the top to the ground, as Merle Haggard sang — and you export the stuff.

When it's a century later, and it's culture itself you want to tremble and shake, you get Terry Stewart.

Boom (again)

Stewart's office sits at the far end of a long, open workspace at the corner of Cedar and Washington streets in downtown El Dorado. On a visit in early August, the place buzzed with the energy of a young tech startup — open floor plan down the middle, lined with meeting rooms around the perimeter, the doors of most of them swung open. A color-coded map of concrete-pour plans stretched across a wall in the reception area. A young woman up front spoke into the reception phone receiver and made notes on a memo pad. "Yes, ma'am, we're really excited," she told her caller.

Stewart's office is scant and smartly decorated. What he says is only a tiny sampling of his record collection sits on a shelf above his desk, a John Raitt LP in full view. A tiny fidget spinner pin decorates the lapel of his jacket; Stewart self-identifies as a "culture vulture." On a scale of one to the Atacama Desert, Stewart's wit is upward of the 90th percentile, impeccably dry. When I asked him, for example, how the MAD project would sustain itself after launch, he deadpanned: "It's not. It's gonna fail miserably. I'll be back in Cleveland, and none of it will matter." A curl at the edge of his mouth telegraphed his mischief, but he committed to the routine anyway, insisting that I'd be able to get a whale of a deal on the MAD headquarters' office furniture after the whole thing folds.

Stewart was "born in LA," he told me: "Lower Alabama." As a kid, he collected comics. Later, he collected degrees — two from Rutgers University in education and engineering and two graduate degrees from Cornell University in business and law. He steered Marvel Comics through a financially turbulent decade in the '90s as the company's executive-turned-COO and was named CNBC's "Marketing Executive of The Year" in 1991, the year the company went public. In 1999, he signed on as CEO of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as its fifth director since the hall opened four years earlier. Stewart stayed on for 14 years. In that time, he oversaw a complete museum redesign, shepherded the company's checkbook safely away from chaos and negotiated to get the induction ceremony moved from Manhattan to Cleveland every few years.

So how'd the guy who ran Marvel and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame end up in El Dorado? "You have three publicly traded companies here — Murphy Oil, Murphy USA and Deltic Timber," Stewart said. "You have a number of chemical companies. You have a refinery here. And they have a bad time recruiting people to come work in their companies." Stewart first visited for the town's annual Musicfest El Dorado "six or seven years ago." He says that despite assets like a $50 million high school, the longest-running symphony in the state and Murphy Oil Foundation's ambitious college scholarship program — the "El Dorado Promise" — it turns out that people graduating from large colleges in major metropolitan areas, "the people they're trying to recruit," Stewart said, don't especially want to uproot their lives and set up shop south of someplace called Smackover for a job offer. When recruitment gets tough, big companies often jump ship and relocate their headquarters. "If they do," Stewart said, "it's going to undermine this town, which is a very bucolic, lovely town."

Bob Tarren, MAD's chief marketing officer, was the former marketing director for The Frick Pittsburgh and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. "There are white collar jobs as well as blue that are hard to fill because people come here with their families and say, 'What's there to do?' " he said.

Stewart concluded, "The idea was, how do you change that cultural situation?"

First, spend a lot of money. Stewart and his team say they've raised "something approaching $70 million," bankrolled by contributions from The Walton Foundation, Murphy Oil, Murphy USA and The Murphy Foundation. "The city has passed two levies that total $14 million," Stewart said, "and then there are other individuals who have given a million here, a million there."

I asked Stewart if he'd heard any concern from residents fearing downtown's disruption could lead to higher rents, gentrification or eventual displacement. He gestured toward the office door to the island along the center of the workspace, awash with blueprints, plans for developing MAD's donor base, hard hats with paint jobs courtesy of some local art students and a crew in steady motion. "All the people you see sitting out there," he said, "are from here. ... We brought in a core group of people from outside who we thought had the experience we needed. Austin [Barrow, MAD president and formerly a theater professor at Andrew College in Cuthbert, Ga.] is from here. Bob, myself, Dan [Dan Smith, MAD's vice president, who managed food and beverage for the Cleveland Indians and a handful of "House of Blues" venues] all came in from someplace else. Mark [Givens], our talent booker, is from here." Stewart estimates the project will create around 65 to 70 jobs and, he hopes, many more in neighboring businesses in years to come.

"This is not something that's gonna be cash-flow positive when we open up," Stewart said. "It's gonna take a long time until it's sustainable. And to make sure that we don't fail, we need the funding to continue to do something that looks like how we opened." Obviously, he noted, the likes of Migos and Brad Paisley won't be a nightly thing, but MAD will create 12 months a year of "weekly and monthly programming — a continuity that people can come to expect, like, 'Oh, wow, I wonder what they're doing in El Dorado tonight.' " Post-launch, MAD has programmed a dense fall lineup: Earls of Leicester, the El Dorado Film Festival, the acrobatic Shanghai Circus and an '80s tribute band called The Molly Ringwalds. As I spoke with Stewart on a Wednesday in August, cheers broke out and bells clanged in the main room. I asked what had happened.

"I don't know," Stewart said. "Mary, what was that about?" The Beach Boys had just been confirmed for a Nov. 1 concert.

There are genres Stewart feels strongly about representing in future months, he says, that are missing from the launch lineup — metal and the music of Latin American countries, for example.

click to enlarge HARDHAT ZONE: MAD's Tara Gathright stands in front of the Griffin Restaurant. - STEPHANIE SMITTLE
  • Stephanie Smittle
  • HARDHAT ZONE: MAD's Tara Gathright stands in front of the Griffin Restaurant.

Tara and Tinkerbell

One of the individuals cheering at the MAD offices that day was Tara Gathright, an El Dorado native and dance teacher who escorted me around the construction site. Shedding her heels in favor of closed-toed boots, Gathright donned a glitter-covered hard hat and crossed Cedar Street, passing through the ruddy construction mud southeast of Hill's Recreation Parlor. Since June, she's acted as MAD's membership manager, cultivating and finessing donor relationships. "I loved my dance studio," she said, "but I needed something else." Despite hesitation that her experience as a dancer in Vegas and on cruise ships didn't qualify her for the work, Dan Smith, the MAD vice president, recruited her for the job. "He said, 'You've been all over the world, and you know what good service is. I'll teach you everything else,' " Gathright recalled. Hill's, which Gathright says is also getting an update, boasts the title of the longest-running pool hall in the state, open since 1925 and undoubtedly the future gritty counterpoint to the nearby Griffin, which will serve craft beer, fine wine and custom cocktails.

"Every time I come in here it looks different," she said, strolling up to a VIP loft overlooking the amphitheater lawn. We wandered through a maze of dressing rooms, rooms for security staff, a service alley, a coat check room and a room dedicated solely to housing the leviathan air conditioning unit that will cool the music hall. A tiny dog bounced between the feet of several construction workers installing security equipment in a glass-encased anteroom. "That's Tinkerbell," Gathright said. The chihuahua mix, evidently a staple of the MAD construction scene, makes a cameo in a few of MAD's update videos on social media. Gathright and I exited behind the Rialto Theater, slated for revamp in Phase II. She thinks, if memory serves, she had her first kiss there. I asked her what movie was playing. "Oh, you know, probably "Teen Wolf II!" she said, and laughed.

click to enlarge BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson

A griffin is a mythological hybrid animal

U.S. Highway 167 from Little Rock to El Dorado is a corridor of uniform pine trees, farmed by logging companies like Deltic Timber Corp., a company that owns 530,000 acres of timber and that's listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Big rigs abound — the kind with their walls pulled out to reveal skeletal scaffolding, lined with clean yellow logs. Deer stands and signs announcing concealed carry classes and hunting clubs pop up irregularly, reminding passersby that this is gun country. Clearcuts along the highway have left wide dirt tracks amid the pines, with piles of burned brush alongside. Somewhere in those pines, just past the Calhoun County line where Hwy. 167 splits off from U.S. Highway 79, the signal for Little Rock's NPR affiliate gives out a little and Al Gore's admonitions on "Fresh Air" about climate change and "the marriage of the presidency to the television screen" get a sloppy mash-up with The Police's "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic."

It's difficult to imagine that road becoming a well-worn path for culture seekers, perhaps because what MAD is doing doesn't have a direct role model. It's a hybrid project — part festival, part urban renewal project, part amusement park for oil company families and visitors from Memphis, Dallas, Jackson and Shreveport. "There's nothing like us to compare us to," marketing director Tarren said. "And we're building it from the dirt up." Marfa, Texas, and Woodstock, N.Y., might be the closest analogies: destination art towns far from the big city lights. Notably, MAD's design comes from Paul Westlake, the architect behind Woodstock's Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, which opened in 2006. "What we're doing is so dimensional," Tarren said. "And we know that not everything we think is going to work, will work. And so we're gonna adjust."

For tickets or for more information, visit eldomad.com.

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