When considering the top visitation months for Hot Springs, I think of April when the Arkansas Derby is run at Oaklawn Park. I also think of the summer months when tourists flock to area lakes and make their way to Magic Springs. But March, a month when Arkansas can have winter weather at the start and hot days at the end, has become one of the Spa City's most important periods for tourism. You can thank Oaklawn, the Arkansas Activities Association and, most of all, Steve Arrison for this March madness.
Arrison is a modern-day combination of P.T. Barnum, the showman who founded Barnum & Bailey Circus; Bill Veeck, who at various times owned the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox; and Bill Valentine, the former American League umpire who brought Veeck's promotions to his role as the general manager of the Arkansas Travelers baseball team.
After moving to New York in 1834, Barnum had a variety troupe called Barnum's Grand Scientific and Musical Theater. He bought Scudder's American Museum (which was more of a carnival-style attraction than a real museum) and renamed it after himself. He even created America's first aquarium. What became Barnum & Bailey began as P.T. Barnum's Travelling World's Fair, Great Roman Hippodrome and Greatest Show on Earth.
Veeck no doubt studied Barnum's career. As owner of the Indians, Veeck hired Max Patkin, who promoted himself as the Clown Prince of Baseball, as a coach. Staid American League officials were incensed when Patkin appeared in the coaching box. As owner of the Browns, Veeck brought in colorful native Arkansan Dizzy Dean as an announcer, decorated Sportsman's Park and sent Eddie Gaedel, who stood 3 feet, 7 inches, to the plate as a pinch hitter on Aug. 19, 1951. Gaedel took four consecutive pitches for a walk and was pulled for a pinch runner.
Valentine, who died in 2015 at age 82, took over the Travelers in 1976 when Carl Sawatski left his post as general manager to become president of the Texas League. Valentine later recalled the advice given to him by the team's president, Max Moses: "He told me there were two rules--break even or make a profit." On opening night in 1976, Valentine sent Roscoe Stidman, who stood less than 4 feet tall, to the plate. Valentine soon was promoting Travelers baseball as the Greatest Show on Dirt. He obviously had learned from Barnum and Veeck.
Arrison heads Visit Hot Springs, the city's convention and visitors bureau. During his years at Pine Bluff, in a city that otherwise was viewed as a place in decline, Arrison brought everything from high school basketball title games to the permanent home of the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame to the Pine Bluff Convention Center. With much more to work with in Hot Springs, he has taken his efforts to the next level. March will feature special events on three consecutive weekends.
It starts when the AAA brings 14 state championship basketball games--seven boys' games and seven girls' games--to the Bank of the Ozarks Arena March 8-10. There will be four games Thursday, four games Friday and six games Saturday as players and fans converge on Hot Springs. The thousands of high school students bring a youthful energy to downtown. I try to attend most of the Friday and Saturday games, spending Friday night downtown and checking out various restaurants while there. I attended past championship weekends at Barton Coliseum in Little Rock, Verizon Arena in North Little Rock and the Pine Bluff Convention Center, but Hot Springs has a huge advantage. You can park your car and not move it again until you're ready to leave town since there are numerous restaurants and hotels within walking distance of the arena.
As big as the basketball weekend will be, it won't compare to the following weekend. St. Patrick's Day falls on a Saturday this year. And it's not just any Saturday. It's the same Saturday as the Rebel Stakes, a $900,000 race that has become almost as big a Kentucky Derby prep race as the Arkansas Derby. Because it's Rebel Day, Arrison has scheduled a late start for downtown's St. Patrick's Day Parade. The parade will begin at 7:30 p.m. and be followed by a free outdoor concert at 9 p.m. by Morris Day & The Time. Downtown activities will begin Friday, March 16, with a free outdoor concert at 8 p.m. by Grand Funk Railroad.
Arrison has made Hot Springs one of the leading cities in the country for St. Patrick's Day celebrations. Through the years, his World's Shortest St. Patrick's Day Parade on 98-foot Bridge Street has hosted celebrities ranging from Bo Derek to Kevin Bacon to Pauley Shore. This will be the 15th year for the parade. Napoleon Dynamite will fire the starter's pistol, and Joey Fatone, who was a member of the band NSYNC, will be the celebrity grand marshal. The Budweiser Clydesdales will take part in the parade.
With the Rebel Stakes and the parade falling on the same Saturday, March 17 could be among the biggest days in Hot Springs history if the weather is good.
March 23-24 will mark the first Hot Springs Baseball Weekend, a celebration of the fact that baseball spring training began in Hot Springs. Descendants of Babe Ruth, who once came to Hot Springs on a regular basis, will be joined by the likes of former big-league players Ferguson Jenkins and Al "The Mad Hungarian" Hrabosky for a series of events. Were they still around, P.T. Barnum, Bill Veeck and Bill Valentine would be proud of what Arrison has planned for March.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 02/28/2018
Print Headline: Hot Springs' big month