Municipal (Muny) Hall
Camden, AR

Originating from an 18th century settlement on a bluff above the Ouachita River called Écore Fabre (Faber’s Bluff), the city of Camden, Arkansas was incorporated and officially named “Camden” in 1844. Opinion is that it was named for Camden, Alabama, the hometown of General Thomas Woodward an early city founder.1

The City of Camden Steamboat on the Ouchita River in Camden, AR - ca.1890
Photo courtesy Ricky Dunn

Prior to the Civil War, Camden was a bustling river port and remained an important cotton shipping depot through the early decades of the twentieth century. Later, as a railroad town it was served by the mainline of the Texas and St. Louis (Cotton Belt) and by branch lines of the Missouri Pacific and the Rock Island railroads. A major economic infusion accompanied the South Arkansas oil boom of the 1920s. In 1927 the International Paper Company built a processing mill at Camden, following development of south Arkansas' lumber industry.1

Municipal Hall on Van Buren Street in Camden, AR

For several decades, Camden was the headquarters of the Clyde E. Palmer newspaper chain, which included The Camden News, the Texarkana Gazette, the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record, and the Magnolia Banner News.1

In 1944 construction of a Naval Ammunition Depot across the Ouachita created thousands of new jobs which lasted until after the Korean War when the city and county redeveloped its facilities and grounds into an extensive industrial area. This was the site of some major defense establishments and multiple smaller industries. A technical campus of Southern Arkansas University also located there.1

Kathy (Beaumont), and Margie (Duncan) Walker on the Muny's stage - ca. 1955
Photo courtesy Kathy Beaumont

The City's auditorium and stage was on the second floor of the Municipal Hall building,  called "Muny Hall" by the locals, on Van Buren Street across Madison Avenue from the Gulf service station owned and operated by R. P. Burnham. It was located only a few blocks from the river and in an area of the city where most of the surrounding streets were named for U.S. Presidents.

According Billboard magazine, it was built in the '30s with a bond issue and Public Works Administration (PWA) aid.  In December of 1945 it was leased for six months by Malco Theaters, Inc. that also operated the other three theaters in the city.  It was used for road shows and motion pictures every night except two each month, which were reserved by the city for bond sales, benefits and similar events.  The rental fee was 12% of the gross receipts or a minimum of $300 per month.2

Feb. 21, 1955
courtesy Ouchita County Library

On February 21, 1955, Elvis, Scotty and Bill made their first of three appearances at the City/Municpal Auditorium in Camden. Billed as a "Grand Ole Opry" show, it featured the Duke of Paducah (Whitey Ford), Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, along with Jimmie Rodgers Snow and Charley Stewart. The same lineup had performed the night before in Little Rock and this was only the boys' second week touring on dates acquired from the Colonel and Hank Snow's bookings through Jamboree Attractions.

poster advertising the Feb 21st show in Camden, with Becky as a Carter sister
courtesy web

The "Carter Sisters" normally consisted of Helen, Anita and June but since 1952 June and Helen each would sometimes be replaced during pregnancies. Normally either Rebecca (Becky) Bowman would fill in for Helen and Robbie Harden would for June.3 Becky Bowman evidently filled in for June on this tour.

Born and raised in Kansas City, Bowman had grown up with Carter Family music and during the war had even performed on the same bill with the Carter sisters and Mother Maybelle at Kansas City's Play-Mor Arena. In February of 1952 steel guitarist Frankie Kay recommended her to sit in for Helen on accordion and when approached by June Carter she readily agreed, in spite of having a steady gig playing bass with a western swing trio on station KRES in St. Joseph, Missouri, and not ever having played accordion. Her self taught abilities allowed her to manage and she was an immediate hit, personally and professionally. She lived and traveled with the Carters most of the next four years.4

On August 4, 1955, the boys returned to Camden for their second appearance. Again, this date followed an appearance in Little Rock. The stop was during a short tour billed as Bob Neal's "eighth anniversary tour" and featured Webb Pierce, Red Sovine, Wanda Jackson, Bud Deckleman and Charlie Feathers. It had started in Tupelo on the 1st and would complete the next night in Memphis at the Overton Park Shell.

Camden News Aug. 4, 1955
Ouchita County Library

Young and handsome Elvis Presley will be among the top country stars coming to Camden Thursday for two shows at the Municipal Auditorium. The All-star Jamboree of country entertainers, featuring two of the top names in the rural rhythm department, is coming to Camden for two shows shows at the Municipal Auditorium, tomorrow night at 7 and 9:30 p.m.
Webb Pierce, consistently voted the nations' number one star of Country music, will highlight the big attraction. Pierce, who one appeared on the Louisiana Hayride and later of the Grand Ol' Opry, had a great string on consecutive record hits with, "In the Jailhouse Now" and "I Don't Care" his latest top hits. Pierce and the Wandering Boys are coming in from a TV appearance in New York.
Elvis Presley voted the year's number one star by Cash Box magazine will feature his Western Bop type of singing, including his new record release "Mystery Train."
Other stars marked for the appearance include Red Sovine, a Decca Record artist, formerly of KWKH in Shreveport, Bud Deckleman, MGM recording star, Charlie Feathers, and Miss Wanda Jackson Oklahoma City's contribution to Folk Music.
Advance sale tickets are now at south Arkansas Music Company.

from the Camden News, August, 1955 courtesy Francesc Lopez

Quoting locals, Bill E. Burk wrote, "Me and Tommy Ratliff and a deejay named Charlie Horse sponsored the August shows," said Cliff Davis. "Elvis used to drop by the radio station and hang around a lot on his way to and from his Louisiana Hayride performances. Sometimes he’d hang around until five in the morning. "To promote our shows, we had one of those speakers on top of our car, with a microphone inside, and we drove all around Camden and even as far away as Monroe, Louisiana, promoting the show, talking about it, playing Elvis’ music, trying to get people to come."5

“When Elvis arrived that night, he was wearing a pretty belt buckle and a pink baseball cap. I told him, ‘I’d sure like to have that belt buckle.' And he told me, ‘I can’t give it to you. If I did, my pants would fall off.’ So he took off that pink baseball cap and gave it to me. He was eating a hot dog at the time and some mustard from that hot dog came off on the cap. I’ve got that cap in a frame now and it still has the mustard stains on it.” 5

Webb Pierce and his Wondering Boys
Photo courtesy TheHoundBlog

Jamboree Draws Record Crowd

Over 2100 people attended the all star Western Jamboree which lasted well after midnight Thursday evening at the municipal auditorium. This was the largest group to gather in Camden for any single event this year. The show drew people from all over Ouachita county and miles around including El Dorado, Magnolia, Warren, Hope, Arkadelphia and Fordyce. special police were assigned to direct the heavy traffic between the two performances.
The first show at 7 p.m. was a sell-out with around 1200. It took around an hour to clear the auditorium and seat the second crowd with the second performance starting around 10 o'clock, lasting until around 12:30. A number were turned away at the first performance.
The show was highlighted by Webb Pierce who has consistently been voted the nation's number one star of country music. His renditions of such pop hits as "In The Jail House Now" and "I don't Care" drew a roaring round of applause from the audience.
17-year-old Wanda Jackson and 19-year-old Elvis Presley stole the show. Each received encore after encore. Miss Jackson of Oklahoma was the only girl on the show of around 16 top hillbilly performers. she thrilled the audience with the record hit of "You Can't Have my Love," along with others. Elvis who was saved until the very last of the show was at his best featuring his "Bop" type of western singing.
Red Sovine, an old timer in the Western Music world, directed the first portion of the performance. The loud shouts and applause after each of his numbers showed he still hold s his place as a popular favorite. other stars who appeared on the show were: Charlie Feathers, Bud Deckleman, and Scotty and Bill. The Wondering Boys gave wonderful instrumentals and accompanying. Pierce and the Wondering boys came here from a TV appearance in New York.
The group put on a short program over at Radio Station KAMD Thursday afternoon at 6:45. They arrived in Camden yesterday afternoon and spent the night at the Hotel Camden. They left early today for Memphis, Tenn.

from the Camden News, August 5, 1955 courtesy Francesc Lopez

Lucille Huneycutt was at that August concert. She said before the concert, Elvis had driven up and down the streets of Camden in his pink Cadillac, waving at the girls and inviting them to come and hear him sing that night. "I took my kids, who were then in high school," she said. "The teens all liked to sit in the balcony. One by one, the other entertainers performed, then they brought out Elvis and he sang Only You and I sat there thinking to myself ‘My god! That kid, all he needs is a break!’ When he began singing that song, a hush fell over the place. After the show, all the kids were trying to touch him. When he talked to me, he called me ‘ma’am.’” 5

Camden News - Nov. 14, 1955
Ouchita County Library

Elvis Presley Here Next Wednesday Night

Elvis Presley, "the king of Western bop," as many of his fans call him, is a 20-year-old youngster who has set the field of country music to talking with his unusual combination of folk music spiced with a 'rock-and-roll' beat. His sun Records are in demand by folk music fans from coast to coast. He will be at muny hall on Wednesday night November, 16 at 7 and 9:15 p.m.

Presley was born in Tupelo, Miss. and moved to Memphis at the age of 12. A natural sense of rhythm along with a unique voice quality benefited from his childhood surroundings in which country music and negro blues were everyday music to him. But aside from a few non-professional efforts while in high school in Memphis, his first real work was done when the Sun Record Company of Memphis heard his voice on a personal record and encouraged him to make his first release, "That's All Right" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky."

Since he started his career with the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, Presley's career has come along by leaps and bounds. He has drawn record crowds in Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida, Virginia, -- as a matter of fact, all through the South.

from the Camden News, November 12, 1955 courtesy Francesc Lopez

On November 16, less than a week before Elvis signed with RCA, they made their final appearance in Camden. The tour that week featured Hank Thompson, Charlene Arthur and Carl Perkins and on the day of the show Elvis was reputed to have made an appearance at KAMD.  Richard Moore, of KAMD Radio-Camden, AR recalls hearing that he was only interviewed once on the old KAMD-1450 AM at some point during the late 50s.  The Camden News at the time actually listed him in the broadcast line-up scheduled for 5:30 on the day of the show, no doubt as a plug for that evening's performance.

According to Lee Cotten, Johnny Cash replaced Carl in the lineup for shows in Texarkana the following night.6

Mr. Burnham worked at his service station across the street on at least one of the nights of Elvis' appearances and remembered hearing many women screaming during Elvis' part of the show. According to several stories quoting him, Elvis also was reputed to have visited his station while in Camden several times, the last being in December, 1956 enroot to/from his final Hayride performance in Shreveport. The stories vary though in account in that one includes Carl Perkins with them but always involve replacing mirrors on his Cadillac.7&8  In actuality, they would not be touring with Carl by December of 1956 and for that appearance Elvis was driving the 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II that he bought in Miami in August.

Jim's Lock & Key, formerly Burnham's Gulf service station on Van Buren St. NE - 2010
Photo courtesy Google Streetview

Earlier, in September of 1955, June Carter gave birth to a daughter, Rebecca Carlene (Carter) Smith, which she named after Becky and June's husband Carl. In 1956, Becky retired and married Ed Swearinger, though she remained close to the girls for the rest of their lives. Rebecca L. "Becky" (Bowman) Swearinger, 80, of St. Joseph, Missouri, passed away on April 4, 2008, at her home surrounded by her family.2

Sometime in the early to mid 1960s the Municipal Hall building burned and the auditorium above was lost.  The City Hall was rebuilt and is today in the same spot, across the street from the Camden News.

Camden Municipal Building at 206 Van Buren St. NE - Aug. 10, 2009
Photo by Billy Hathorn

The Palmer companies shifted its operations to Little Rock, when it acquired the Arkansas Democrat in 1974. It merged its acquired assets from the Arkansas Gazette to establish the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.1

Camden Municipal Building at 206 Van Buren St. NE - 2010
Photo courtesy Google Streetview

In the 1990s, post Cold-War downsizing of the defense industry brought severe job losses—and resulting population decline—to the Camden area. This was followed by the closing of the International Paper Co. mill a few years later. But in recent years a partial resurgence of defense contracts and a diversified mixture of small business and professional activity have stabilized the town's economy. As one of Arkansas' most historic towns, the city attracts considerable heritage tourism.1

Page added November 17, 2011

Special thanks to Robert Moore of K97FM and Kathy Beaumont, nee Walker, for their assistance with this page.

1 according to wikipedia: Camden, AR
2 according to Billboard Magazine - January 6, 1945
3 according to Carter Sisters: June Carter Cash Remembered
4 according to "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music" by
Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg
5 excerpt from or according to "Early Elvis: The Sun Years" by Bill E. Burk
6 excerpt from or according to "Did Elvis Sing in your Hometown?" by Lee Cotten
7 according to The Sandyland Chronicle vol. 10 - No. 2 (February, 2010)
8 according to "Elvis, When the King came to the Queen City" by Mr. R. P. Burnham in the Spring 1977 Ouachita County Historical Quarterly courtesy Ouachita County Fun Facts and Trivia


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