Old State House exhibit celebrates legacy of concerts at Barton Coliseum

Story and Photos by  Stefanie Brazile

Think back to the first live concert you attended — do you remember your excitement and the friends you went with? When you left, your heart was pumping, your ears rang for days and you probably couldn’t wait to buy your next ticket.

If you’re from Arkansas or neighboring states, there’s a good chance that you were fortunate to see a mega star at the T.H. Barton Coliseum located at the Arkansas State Fair Complex. You now have the opportunity to relive those memories for free at the Old State House Museum in Little Rock. The wise folks at the Arkansas State Fair recognized that their collection of posters, signed guitars, clothing worn by stars and other memorabilia had outgrown its space and contacted Bill Gatewood, director of the Old State House Museum. His team catalogued more than 13,000 individual artifacts and chose favorites for the temporary exhibit called Play it Loud: Concerts at Barton Coliseum.

“This exhibit has been a labor of love for me personally,” said Jo Ellen Maack, curator. “Growing up in Little Rock, I remember going to Discount Records and buying my $4 or $6 concert ticket, getting dropped off at the gate to see a show with my friends before we could drive, and being in awe of the concert-going experience. It was truly a time to see and be seen.”

For decades, part of the musical “score” of the 501 was the Barton Coliseum. It hosted the largest acts of the day and was one of the crown jewels of the south because it could handle 10,195 screaming fans at standing room only. Built as a rodeo arena for $1 million, it was dedicated in 1952 and hosted stars such as Dale Evans and Roy Rogers, Fats Domino, Chuck Jackson and Paul Williams during the 50s. As rock and country grew, the Coliseum welcomed Chuck Berry, Elvis, Merle Haggard, The Jackson Five, Lawrence Welk and Tammy Wynette. During the 1980s, the walls shook to the hottest hair bands like Bon Jovi, Cinderella, Def Leppard, Poison, AC/DC and ZZ Top. Each band left behind mementos which are now creatively displayed on walls and in large cases inside the state’s original capitol building until the fall of 2022.

Staff members are proud of the exhibit. They include Education Director Georganne Sisco (from left), Youth Education Coordinator Amanda Colclasure and Marge Jackson, head security guard.

“When the [Old State House] team approached me about putting this exhibit together and when I saw the wide array of amazing artifacts that had been uncovered at Barton, I knew we had a hit on our hands,” Gatewood said.

“Jo [Maack] and the team have done a great job making this a sensory experience,” he continued. “Usually we are telling you, the guest, information but this time it’s the guests who are in the driver’s seat reliving their history.”

Gatewood says that the colorful exhibit will appeal to anyone who has enjoyed music since the 50s. “And we all get a kick out of seeing a kid who’s really into music to be thrilled over the guitars and other memorabilia,” he said.

“Play it Loud: Concerts at Barton Coliseum” is an exhibit that grandparents can share with grandchildren and groups of friends will enjoy. There is no cost to enter and the Old State House is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Visit arkansasheritage.com for updates.