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OPINION | REX NELSON: Barton Coliseum memories

by Rex Nelson | June 5, 2021 at 8:52 a.m.

An exhibit titled "Play It Loud: Concerts at Barton Coliseum" is proving to be one of the most popular in the history of the Old State House at Little Rock. The exhibit, which will be open until the fall of 2022, showcases concert memorabilia donated by the Arkansas State Fair and private donors.

Thousands of Arkansans have fond memories of events at Barton. For those of a certain age, the old barn is a special place.

Robert Cochran, an English professor at the University of Arkansas and an expert on Arkansas music, curated the exhibit.

"There were more than 13,000 artifacts that were generously donated by the Arkansas State Fair," says Bill Gatewood, the Old State House director. "They had to be catalogued and archived before our curator could select exhibit items."

Gatewood says the pandemic caused "unique challenges to creating an exhibit, from contractor delays to staff working offsite. But we're so proud of the end result."

"The staff did an amazing job pulling together the vision for this exhibit," says museum curator Jo Ellen Maack. "For me, it was a personal walk down memory lane. I grew up going to concerts at Barton in the 1970s and 1980s. As I visit with people about 'Play It Loud,' it seems that everyone has a concert story to share. Even though we couldn't put in every artifact, I feel like we've represented the genres and decades well and hope this event brings about a nostalgic feeling for music fans."

My family was more about sports than music, so most of my Barton memories are of sports events. I remember how excited I was when the high school basketball championship returned there for one year in March 2013 due to a conflict in Hot Springs. I wondered if the "dirty oatmeal" still hung from the ceiling. Would the narrow corridors be crowded? Would the same troughs still be in the men's room? Would Barton be just as I remembered it?

The memories flowed as I pulled off Roosevelt Road, parked my car and walked into the building for the first time in years. I recalled having been there with my father to watch the most hyped high school basketball game in the state's history. A Fort Smith Northside team led by Ron Brewer played a Conway team led by Marvin Delph in the finals of the Overall Tournament in 1974.

Northside, coached by the great Gayle Kaundart, won in front of a packed house. I was 14 years old and in love with high school sports.

Kaundart, who was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1984, coached at Green Forest from 1950-53, Conway from 1953-55, Northside from 1955-74 and then at the junior college level at Westark Community College (now the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith).

The Alma native had played in 1949 on the first Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference championship basketball team at what's now the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville.

Kaundart won five state championships at Northside and then captured the 1981 national junior college championship at Westark. I looked in awe at the coach known as the "Silver Fox" during that game. My father was in the sporting goods business, selling athletic supplies to high schools and colleges across the state. Because of that, some of my childhood heroes were high school football and basketball coaches.

I also remembered those hot, humid weeks in early August that were spent with Dad at the annual coaches' clinic, where his company, Southwest Sporting Goods, always had a display. The Magnolia Inn on Roosevelt was still a nice place to stay back then. We would conclude the week on Saturday by attending the high school all-star basketball game (there was only a boys' game in those days) in the afternoon at Barton and the high school all-star football game in the evening at War Memorial Stadium.

My parents' anniversary fell on Aug. 11, and they would celebrate (while allowing me to tag along) by dining between the two games at Hank's Dog House on Roosevelt. It didn't take much to impress a boy from Arkadelphia, and I can assure you that I was impressed by the live lobsters in the tank in the restaurant's waiting area.

I recalled attending the NAIA District 17 Tournament at Barton each March as the AIC schools (and the occasional non-AIC team such as John Brown University) battled to see who would represent the state at the NAIA's national tournament in Kansas City. By the time I was a college student, I was broadcasting Ouachita Baptist University games on the radio from courtside, making me feel as if I had reached the big time.

The Razorbacks would play a couple of basketball games each December at Barton. As sports editor of the Arkadelphia newspaper, my primary responsibility was covering the city's two AIC teams. I rarely made it to a Hog game in Fayetteville, usually only seeing the Razorbacks when they played at Barton or the Pine Bluff Convention Center.

After moving back to Little Rock in 1989 following a four-year stint in Washington, D.C., I began attending University of Arkansas at Little Rock games at Barton. Though I was the political editor of this newspaper by then rather than a sportswriter, I managed to secure a media pass to sit courtside on March 7, 1995, for a nationally televised heartbreaker. Wimp Sanderson's Trojans lost in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament finals by three points to No. 23 Western Kentucky before a full house and an ESPN audience.

I'm glad that Barton, which seats about 7,000 people and was dedicated in September 1952, is still there. It holds music and sports memories for a lot of us.

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at


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