Nov 20, 2011

Hot Springs: Gangsters, Spas and Nature

Today Hot Springs is a beautiful, serene place making it hard to imagine that one time it was a hotbed of organized crime and gambling. Gangsters liked Hot Springs because it was a “happenin’ place” and it became a safe haven for outlaws with the police making sure there were “no problems.” Between 1926 and 1967 it was the largest gambling operation in the US. While gambling was never legal it was basically ignored because locals saw gambling as “wealth redistribution” and liked the money it generated. All that changed in 1967 when Winthrop Rockefeller was elected governor and put an end to the gambling. John and I learned about those early days at the Gangster Museum where the guide detailed the those early days and the exploits of Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and other villains who made Hot Springs was their home-away-from-home. Someone quipped that there were never bank robberies in Hot Springs because “…all the robbers were there to relax.” The stories are colorful with one Madame claiming she “…preferred a hit man over a politician. You know what a hit man is going to do.” Gangsters are not be good role models but they lived interesting lives. Today both the gambling and gangsters are just part of the city’s fascinating past.

The city is now known as a spa location but there are also wonderful unique shops. I was especially impressed with Tillman’s Antiques and Collectibles, which is museum-like with beautiful Faberge eggs, a Louis XV leather portfolio where petitioners placed their requests to be submitted to the king, porcelain items from the Chinese Han Dynasty and beautiful estate jewelry.

There are many facets to Hot Springs. Besides the new Museum of Contemporary Art there are several boutique galleries. The Blue Moon Art Gallery calls Hot Springs the “City of the Arts.” The family-owned gallery seeks to discover original and affordable artwork that represents artists, sculptors, and photographers. The first Friday of the month they feature an artist at an Open Reception. Gallery Central and Taylor’s Contemporanea are two other art galleries also offering amazing art. The performing arts have found a home in the Vienna Theater. Ken Goodman, who gave up his day job to follow his dream, takes theatergoers on a trip down memory lane. From the glittering crystal chandelier in the storefront window to the fainting couch in the Ladies’ Room, Goodman offers great entertainment. The night we were there a couple from Canada returned to Hot Springs and brought a couple of friends with them to enjoy the music of the 50s and 60s, a tribute to Broadway, and free homemade treats during intermission. Hopefully the theater survives as Goodman entire family is committed to seeing his dream succeed.

One of the storefronts on Central Avenue offers teaser-displays designed to entice people to visit the Mid-America Science Museum in a bucolic setting just a short distance from the city center. It is the largest science center in Arkansas and was the first of only two Smithsonian Affiliate museums. It offers hours of fun and learning for the entire family. Especially popular are the thrilling roller coaster-type trip on the Virtual Reality Simulator Ride and the gigantic indoor cave with swinging bridges and rope ladders. The Tesla Coil is always good for a hair-raising experience. We were impressed with the way Hot Springs has been reinvented to become a first-class destination.