The World Famous Sultana: 60 years of ale and entertainment
WILLIAMS, Ariz. — At the intersection of Third Street and Bill Williams Avenue, a pressed concrete structure was erected in 1912 and has held its place as cornerstone of Williams, Arizona.
The World Famous Sultana bar and former theater spins a tale of the towns rough and tumble past and provides a window into the saga of a community striving to find its way.
The theatre doors open your imagination to a time of live shows and silent movies, while the creaking floors of the saloon painfully echo the footsteps of a thousand patrons of yesteryear. The stories that leak from the lips of the locals who know it well are painted with sincerity, joy, sadness and pain, and though some may seem unbelievable, there’s a good chance they are true. If the silent mirror behind the bar was given a voice, one wonders what it would say.
Early beginnings of The World Famous Sultana
Arthur Boling was first to initiate work on the structure in the spring of 1912. Boling began by digging a pit for the foundation and was utterly shocked when he realized his property was traversed by a perennial underground stream. Boling’s dream of an opera house, and his wallet, both drowned in that ditch as the water from below relentlessly filled the hole again and again.
In June 1912, Boling sold the property to Ben Sweetwood, who vowed that he “won’t stop until the building was complete.” Sweetwood combated the water problem by digging a cesspool 100 feet deep directly behind the property and constructing a trench from the soon to be Sultana to the pool in which the placid liquid could drain. Eventually, the cavity was emptied. Sweetwood covered the trench with railroad ties and a concrete foundation was poured; thus the birth of the Sultana began.
In the autumn of 1912, Sweetwood's project was completed. The massive building contained a 600-seat theatre, a billiard hall, four large storerooms and a large room west of the theatre, although the structure itself remained nameless.
It is rumored that a lady-friend of Sweetwood (possibly a prostitute) requested he name it after the famed Sultana ruby discovered in India; others believe it was named after the SS Sultana, a steamboat paddle wheeler destroyed while heading up the Mississippi in an explosion on April 27, 1865, resulting in one of the greatest maritime disasters in U.S. history.
At the time of its destruction, the SS Sultana was loaded with over 2,400 Union soldiers recently released from Confederate prison camps. It was reported that only 600 souls survived the tragedy. As most streets in Williams are stamped with the names of old Union generals, it seems likely that the latter opinion may carry more weight.
In November 1912, the theatre was packed for its first show — a Vaudeville act starring Pringle and Jordon. The act was soon followed by Sweetwood's first sponsored Christmas dance. According to Williams News accounts, the dance was “most successful.”
Thereafter, Sweetwood saturated his theatre with movies, live performances, plays, Vaudevillian troups, solo acts and hosed a dance every Saturday night, either after the show or in place of it.
Business leaders, cowpokes and sheepherders flocked to these community shindigs in droves — the billiard room next door, now labeled the “Sultana Amusement Hall” quickly became known as the “swellest pool and billiard resort in Northern Arizona.”
During this period, the Sultana building was utilized for much more than entertainment. It became the headquarters for the Williams police, the city magistrate, all local municipal operations and even a barber shop. The News called the Sultana “one of the largest and most substantial business blocks in Williams.”
The government offices remained in the Sultana building until 1958 when the current city building was completed.
Sweetwood's venture was thriving, and when Prohibition became law in January 1915, Sweetwood wasted no time in making the necessary adjustments. A not so secret flight of stairs was constructed leading customers directly from Bill Williams Avenue to the Sultana basement where patrons could sip some white lightening while throwing away a week’s pay playing poker. Ironically, the local law enforcement cache of confiscated alcohol and marijuana was stored just overhead and through the floorboards from Sweetwood's speak easy.
In February 1916, Ben Sweetwood sold the Sultana building to Raleigh Reese, who had no intentions on changing a thing. During the next six years, Reese continued to run the legitimate and illegitimate operations in the Sultana. It was during this time that the stairway leading to the basement was sealed off; however, the gambling and drinking never skipped a beat.
In early 1922, Reese sold the building and businesses to Charlie Proctor, a former Santa Fe Railroad worker and World War I veteran. Reese also insisted that Proctor bring in Charlie Wade, a former employee of Reese, as a partner to help run the business and manage the riff raff. Proctor agreed.
Little change was made when Wade and Proctor took hold of the reigns; the poker and booze was moved to a small back room instead of the basement and the two gentleman decided to enter the whole-sale tobacco business. The two men had the bull by the horns, until a blaze on January, 16, 1923, threatened to send it all up in smoke.
In the early morning a small house caught fire behind the bar and a strong southern wind spewed embers across the Sultana rooftop. The townspeople reacted; fire officials and loyal locals covered the building with sheets of water shielding it from the ravenous embers streaking through sky and the building was saved.
Christmas 1923, would deliver another unpleasant event to the Sultana and place it directly on the doorstep. On Dec. 25, an intoxicated cowpuncher by the name of Dink Smith entered the bar to settle a score with Charlie Wade. Wade had tossed out a young Gordon Smith and a companion earlier because they were underage and this didn’t sit well with Dink. Dink rapidly fired up a scalding conversation with Wade, who had finally reached his boiling point. Wade struck Smith and before it could go much further Harry Wade, Charlie’s brother, grabbed Dink and hauled him outside with instructions to stay away, but Smith wasn’t having it. Dink quickly returned with a shotgun. Harry saw him coming back and blocked the entrance. Harry and Dink argued for a few minutes and when Wade would not give up his ground, Smith discharged both barrels sending one round through Harry’s chest and the other into his leg. Charlie, witnessing what had just happened, jumped the bar, snatched up Dink and drug him into the street where a violent thrashing ensued. Six days later the tumultuous year that was 1923 would come to an end.
In 1926, Proctor bought out Wade and continue his venture alone. The remainder of the twenties would see doctors and lawyers fill the building’s vacant spaces, while the barber shop switched hands once again. The Sultana finished the decade without any major incidents.
In March 1930, Proctor installed sound equipment in the Sultana Theatre, making it the first theatre in northern Arizona to present “talking pictures.”
Proctor eagerly secured first-run movies, showing a different film every night, and began a practice in December of sponsoring Christmas benefit shows for the needy of Williams; he charged the youngsters a toy as an admission price. These toys would then be distributed among the poor by local charity groups. This practice continued throughout the 1930s.
In 1932, Proctor erected the first neon sign in Williams reading “Sultana Theatre.”
With the end of Prohibition in December 1933, Proctor swiftly filed for a liquor license and received one on Jan. 23, 1934. It was the third license granted in Arizona, the second in Coconino County and the first in Williams. That same year Proctor revamped the then “Sultana pool and Billiard Hall” and created the Sultana Buffet while simultaneously adding a Third Street entrance. Proctor then built an additional building on the Third Street side of the Sultana. A few months later, the theatre was leased out to the Harry Nace Company of Phoenix. The Nace Company immediately fired up a remodel; the balconies were removed, new seats were added and more advanced film equipment was purchased.
The arrangement with the Nace organization would span more than 30 years.
In 1940, Myrtle Payne was brought in, to help manage the bar in Proctors absence. She would become a solid fixture at the Sultana for the next 30 years.
In 1943, Proctor remodeled the Sultana Buffet, installing new lights, booths and refinishing the floor.
On April 15, 1947, the only murder to take place within the Sultanas walls occurred.
Williams’ Police Chief Joe McDaniel, 57, was shot five times by a very intoxicated 22-year-old Lee Skinner. Skinner had been drinking heavily all night and began abusing another patron when Proctor asked him to leave. Skinner adamantly refused. Proctor applied his best judgment and called local law enforcement. Officers J.R. Sample and Vance Keys arrived on the scene and found Skinner had already vacated the Sultana, but had relocated to the Sycamore Café, where his drinking continued. When the two law men attempted to arrest Skinner, he pulled a small-caliber handgun causing the officers to call Chief McDaniel for backup. Around midnight, Skinner returned to the Sultana with police officers hot on his heels. McDaniel calmly tried to persuade Skinner to give up the gun and allow the police to arrest him, but the inebriated young man viciously refused. When the chief attempted to take the pistol from Skinner a strenuous struggle erupted and five shots were fired, all striking McDaniel with one passing through the chief and striking officer Sample. Proctor swiftly crossed the bar thumping Skinner on the head knocking him unconscious, but it was too late, the damage had been done. McDaniel was immediately rushed to the hospital where he died half an hour later. Skinner was detained and shortly thereafter was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. The bullet holes from this event are said to be seen in the ceiling of the Sultana to this day.
It was during the 1940’s that Proctor took a trip to St. Louis, where he came upon a bar that held the descriptive prefix famous. Proctor relished the description so much that upon his return to Williams he hastily renamed his buffet the “Famous Sultana” and thus began a new period for the local watering hole.
1950s to today
Over the next 20 years, various renters came and went and the theatre underwent several changes, struggling to turn a profit. Eventually, the theatre would slowly slip into the abyss with the unstoppable popularity of television. It was during this time that Pressie Corona took charge of the barber shop with his wife Reyna relocating her beauty salon next door.
In 1967, the theatre marquee collapsed under the weight of 60 inches of snow, never to be replaced.
In 1970, Proctor retired and leased the bar to Frank Satrustegui who eventually purchased the entire building in 1972. Satrustegui would gradually remodel the buffet by bricking in the windows, adding pool tables and extending the bar. Satrustegui also discontinued the wholesale tobacco business that Proctor had established decades before.
Today, the Sultana building stands strong and is a transformative piece of Williams culture. During the last 60 years the Sultana has continued to morph with promise for the future.