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Thanks to Bill, Hot Springs is hot once again : Clinton's Arkansas hometown, once wide open, is enjoying a resurgence of interest and tourism.

April 19, 1993|MARK I. PINSKY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HOT SPRINGS, ARK. — Once known for its gambling casinos, speakeasies, bordellos and elegant hotels, this historic health resort has a new, gilt-edged draw for tourists: President Clinton.

Clinton's family moved here from "a place called Hope" when he was 7, and he stayed until he left to attend Georgetown University in 1964, when he was 18.

His mother, Virginia Kelley, still lives here, and the town has been quick to capitalize on its local boy who made good.

The masthead of the local newspaper and billboards not far from the Little Rock, Ark., airport, proclaim Hot Springs as the "Boyhood home of President Bill Clinton."

Brochures for Hot Springs National Park, which covers much of this town of 35,000 people, carry Clinton's picture and the same message.

Souvenir shops along Central Avenue feature Clinton T-shirts, mugs, plates and gold saxophone pins. One entire establishment--the "Clinton/Gore Store"--is devoted to inaugural memorabilia.

There are already at least two "official" Clinton hometown tours, both covering the same territory. One is self-guided. The other, an $8.50, 90-minute van excursion conducted by Cyndy and Punch Anderson, relies for much of its chronological commentary on an interview with Clinton's mother.

The brochure for the self-guided tour--complete with the future President's entry in the 1964 Hot Springs High School yearbook--features 16 stops, among them the schools Clinton attended, his church, two of his boyhood homes and what is listed as Clinton's favorite view of the city from a sheltered overlook above town--a location the guided tour calls a "favorite makeout spot and parking place" for teen-agers.

Also noted in the brochure are the sites of Clinton's high school proms, senior banquet and senior party, where "he remarked . . . he had lost his wallet and recalled his mother was 'pretty upset about it."'

Culinary stops include the Polar Bar and McClard's Bar-B-Q. An old photo of McClard's is featured in the opening credits of the CBS-TV program "Evening Shade," which is set in Arkansas and produced by Clinton friends Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason.

"Even when he was kid, I thought he was going to be big one day," said J. D. McClard, pointing to the framed inaugural invitation above one of the restaurant's booths, "and here he is, President of the United States."

"We watched him grow up," said Dr. W. Martin Eisele, a retired surgeon who employed Clinton's mother as nurse-anesthetist. He recalled thinking that "some day this guy is going to go somewhere and do something . " Eisele said he was so certain of Clinton's potential that, like other residents, he saved the letters he exchanged with Clinton while the future President was at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar.

Civic officials, already anxious that a highway bypass being built around the town will hurt business, have embraced the "Clinton Connection" as a marketing lifeline. Copies of a new four-color Clinton/Hot Springs brochure--250,000 of them--are about to be mailed to travel agents.

Well before Clinton became President, Hot Springs had a vivid history and independent identity, based on its healing waters for arthritis and painful joints.

Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman liked to play poker here. The resort also had its share of tougher customers. Desperadoes in the 19th Century, who sometimes shot it out on Central Avenue, were followed by gangsters like Al Capone.

Cortisone shots, Las Vegas and reform politicians sent the city into a steep decline in the 1960s and 1970s.

Since "The Mansion," Hot Springs' best-known bordello, burned down a few months back, the Oaklawn Park Race Track is one of the few surviving vestiges of the town's wide open, notorious past.

Today, Hot Springs is a mixture of the authentic and the tacky, its citizens a melange of rubes and rustics, sharpies and sophisticates.

The Clinton van tour wends it way around some of the town's more kitschy roadside attractions: the "Educated Animal Zoo," where a raccoon plays basketball; Tiny Town USA, a miniature metropolis, and the Arkansas Alligator Farm.

Hot Springs will probably have an independent identity after Clinton leaves the White House--unless, of course, it strikes the mother lode: a presidential library, now the object of furious backstage competition in the state.

Presidents sometimes affiliate their libraries with large universities, and Clinton has close ties to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where he taught, and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where he spent 12 years as governor.

Still, as tour operator Cyndy Anderson points out, the lovely red-brick building that used to be Hot Springs High School has been vacant for some time now.

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