Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


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War Hero Cinema: Gary Cooper and Gregory Peck as LR natives

Dr. WassellThe exploits of two Little Rock natives during World War II have both been turned into Hollywood movies.  One was released during World War II and starred Gary Cooper as Dr. Corydon Wassell. The other was released in the 1970s and starred Gregory Peck as General Douglas MacArthur.

Born in Little Rock on July 4, 1884, Corydon McAlmont Wassell (called “Cory”) was born to Albert and Leona Wassell. A grandson of Little Rock Mayor John Wassell, he graduated from what is now UAMS in 1909. In 1911, he married Mary Irene Yarnell, with whom he would have four children.  In 1914, the couple volunteered to be Episcopal missionaries in China.  He served there until 1927. Following Mary’s death and his remarriage, he and new wife Madeline Edith Day Wassell returned to Arkansas in 1927.

Dr. Wassell resumed his medical practice. Given his experience with malaria in China, he proved to be an asset fighting malaria among Civilian Conservation Corps members in Arkansas. He was subsequently called to active duty in the Navy in 1936 and stationed in Key West.

After the outbreak of World War II, he was stationed in Indonesia. In early 1942, he refused to abandon his patients after the Japanese started invading Indonesia. Instead, he was able to evacuate a dozen severely wounded men over 150 miles to get to a ship. It took ten days for the ship to get to Australia, during which time it was attacked numerous times.  His official Navy Cross citation notes that he disregarded personal safety while caring for others.

He became an instant international hero. During the early days of the war, his heroism was one of the few bright spots. James Hilton wrote a biography of him; President Roosevelt praised him in a fireside chat. James Hilton wrote of Dr. Wassell in a book which was then adapted by Cecil B. DeMille into the 1944 movie starring Cooper.  Originally Arkansan Alan Ladd was wanted to play Cooper’s sidekick, but Ladd was pressed into military service and unavailable.

Thirty-three years after The Story of Dr. Wassell was released, MacArthur was brought to the screen by Universal Pictures.  It was their attempt to capitalize on the success of the movie Patton, including sharing some of the same members of the production team.

macarthur-gregory-peck-1977-everettTold entirely in flashback, it stars Gregory Peck as the fabled World War II general who was born in Little Rock. It focuses primarily on events in 1942 during the war, his dismissal by Truman in 1952, and his famous address to West Point in 1962.

Peck initially did not care for the subject or the script, but eventually stated that he grew to admire the challenges MacArthur faced.  Peck later called it one of his favorites roles, if not one of his favorite movies.

Producer Frank McCarthy, who worked on both Patton and MacArthur once said of Patton and MacArthur: “Both were complex men but General MacArthur was complex on a much broader scale. Patton had no ambition except to be a soldier and to command a field army. He was strictly command.”

Most of the film was shot on the backlot at the movie studio, which impacted the quality of the film.  The production budget simply would not allow for overseas location filming.

The film was released in July 1977.  One of the premieres was held in Little Rock. Peck attended a reception in the Arsenal Building where MacArthur was born. Now the home to the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History, in 1977 the building still housed the Museum of Science and Natural History (now the Museum of Discovery).  Since MacArthur only spent a few hours in Little Rock as an adult, it is possible that Peck spent more time in the building than the General did.


Remembering the Fallen on Memorial Day at Mount Holly Cemetery

MountHolly Memorial DayToday is Memorial Day – a time to pay tribute to the men and women in uniform who died in service to their country.

As a way to give this recognition, today would be a good day to visit a cemetery. One of Little Rock’s most storied cemeteries is Mount Holly Cemetery. There are numerous persons buried there who died while in service to their country.

One of them is 2Lt Carrick W. Heiskell, son of Arkansas Gazette editor J. N. Heiskell.  2Lt Heiskell died while flying for the Air Transport Command in the Himalayas during World War II.  He was posthumously the recipient of the Distinguished Unit Emblem, Purple Heart, and the Air Medal.

Founded in 1843, Mount Holly has been called “The Westminster Abbey of Arkansas.” Thousands of visitors come each year. Those interested in history come to see the resting places of the territorial citizens of the state, including governors, senators, generals, black artisans, and even a Cherokee princess. For others the cemetery is an open air museum of artistic eras: Classical, Victorian, Art Deco, Modern––expressed in gravestone styles from simple to elaborate. Some come to read the epitaphs that range from heartbreaking to humorous to mysterious.

Though a City of Little Rock facility, the cemetery is maintained by the Mount Holly Cemetery Association, a non-profit organization with a volunteer Board of Directors. The cemetery is located at 1200 South Broadway in Little Rock. Gates are open from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. in the summer and from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. in the winter.

Interred within the rock walls of Mount Holly are 11 state governors, 15 state Supreme Court justices, four Confederate generals, seven United States senators and 22 Little Rock mayors, two Pulitzer Prize recipients, as well as doctors, attorneys, prominent families and military heroes.


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Little Rock Look Back: JFK in ARK

JFK LRNinety-nine years ago today, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born.  After a too brief 1,000 days in the Presidency, he is memorialized by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts which was designed by Arkansas native Edward Durell Stone.

On October 3, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered remarks at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds.  Only a few weeks later, he would be felled by an assassins bullet in Texas.  In the speech, the President praised Arkansas’ congressional delegation including Senators John McClellan and J. William Fulbright and Congressmen Took Gathings, Bill Trimble, Wilbur Mills and Oren Harris.  Each of these men held senior leadership positions in key committees.  The main focus of the speech was to discuss President Kennedy’s vision for a new economy in the South.

The President was actually in the state to speak at the dedication of the Greers Ferry Dam. He agreed to make that appearance as a part of a negotiation with Congressman Mills as they were deadlocked over changes to the tax code.  He had previously visited Little Rock in 1957 when he came to the state to address the Arkansas Bar Association meeting in Hot Springs.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917, the second of nine children. Groomed for leadership by his father Joe and mother Rose, he was thrust even more into the path of political greatness following the World War II death of his elder brother Joe Jr.  A war hero himself, following his leadership after the attack of PT-109, he was first elected to Congress from Massachusetts in 1946. He would be re-elected in 1948 and 1950.  In 1952, he challenged incumbent Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and beat him.  He was re-elected to the Senate in 1958.

Kennedy had been seen as a strong potential Vice Presidential candidate for the Democrats in 1956. But his father discouraged this fearing that a loss to Eisenhower/Nixon would set him back in the future.  In 1960, the young, dashing Senator from the Bay State sought the Democratic nomination.  After a contentious primary season where he often ran against senate colleagues, Kennedy headed into the Democratic convention with the most delegates.  He added his chief rival, Texas Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson as his running mate.

After a close election, the Kennedy-Johnson ticket bested Vice President Richard Nixon and his running mate Henry Cabot Lodge (the selfsame former Senator who had been defeated by Kennedy 8 years earlier).

Following the oldest President (at the time), the young Kennedy administration seemed to captivate the country.  During his 1000 days in office, Kennedy faced many challenges both foreign (Bay of Pigs, Cuba missile crisis, start of Vietnam) and domestic (civil rights, organized crime). His ambitious “New Frontier” focused on education, additional services to rural areas and medical care for the elderly.  He also focused on getting the US to the moon.

On the personal front, in 1953 he married Jacqueline Bouvier. In addition to their daughter Caroline and son John Jr., who survived their father, the Kennedy’s had a miscarriage, a stillborn daughter, and son Patrick who died after two days.

Together with Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, JFK embodied not only his generation but the mood of the country.  And his quotes resonate today including:

My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

Ich bin ein Berliner


Arkansas Heritage Month – LR Mayor Satterfield oversees opening of Robinson Auditorium

Satterfield AuditUpon taking office as mayor in April 1939, J. V. Satterfield felt he was getting a handle on Little Rock’s precarious financial situation. He would soon discover that it was more unstable than he had imagined.  Included in this was Robinson Auditorium, currently under construction across the street from his office in City Hall.  Mayor Satterfield disclosed that he had voted against the auditorium in 1937 because he felt the finances were not sufficient. But as the mayor, he promised to open the building.

By the summer of 1939, it was becoming apparent that there would not sufficient money to finish the construction.  Even with the issuance of the final round of approved bonds (which had been held back as a reserve), there would not be enough money.  The Mayor and Harvey Couch made plans to go to Washington DC to try to get more money from the federal government.  Mr. Couch was a personal friend of President Roosevelt as well as head of Arkansas Power & Light.  The pair made the trip but returned with no additional money.

At the same time, the Auditorium Commission, which had been appointed by Mayor Overman to oversee the governance of the building, resigned as a group. They said they had been appointed to administer a building, not a construction site. Since it was uncertain as to when the building would open, they stepped down.

Mayor Satterfield was able to negotiate a series of deals to get the necessary work completed for construction of the building to be completed. Part of it involved issuing another round of bonds after the building had been officially opened to finish furnishing the building as well as complete the landscaping.  In January 1940, with a new opening date becoming a stronger possibility, the mayor appointed a new Auditorium Commission.

At the same time, regular events started to take place in the lower level exhibition hall.  There had been a few in November and December, but with a lack of utilities and ongoing construction upstairs in the music hall, those were curtailed.

On February 16, 1940, Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium officially opened. Mayor Satterfield was joined onstage for the ribbon cutting with Senator Robinson’s widow and her sister-in-law, who was a member of the Auditorium Commission.

In April 1940, Little Rock voters approved the final round of bonds which allowed for the building to be finished.

After only two years in office, Mayor Satterfield chose not to seek another term. He left City Hall in April 1941 with finances in order and a new municipal auditorium across the street.


Arkansas Heritage Month – LR Mayor Overman and a municipal auditorium

Overman AuditR. E. Overman assumed the office of Little Rock mayor in April 1935. Around that time, a new wave of New Deal programs were filtering down from Washington DC to cities.  It can be said of Mayor Overman that he did not meet a New Deal program he did not like.  From rebuilding the sewer system, to creating a public water utility, to constructing of structures for the Museum of Fine Arts, Little Rock Zoo, and Boyle Park, Mayor Overman signed the City up for program after program.

While the programs were all worthwhile, and in some cases absolute necessities, Mayor Overman did not seem to consider how these massive projects running concurrently would impact the City finances.  In November 1935, he submitted a proposal to the Public Works Administration for the construction of a new municipal auditorium to be located at the northeast corner of the intersection of Scott Street and Capitol Avenue. It would have taken up three/quarters of that block and wrapped around the Women’s City Club building (now the Junior League of Little Rock headquarters).  Because of other projects in the works, he did not pursue any further action on the auditorium project at the time.

In November 1936, Mayor Overman asked the City Council to place three bond issues on a special election ballot for January 1937, one of which was a municipal auditorium. Though a location had previously been identified in 1935, at this point in time supporters made a concerted effort to disclose that no location had been selected.  After the election was called, there was a concerted effort by supporters of the three separate bond issues to collaborate.  Voters overwhelmingly approved all three issues, and Little Rock’s journey to a municipal auditorium at last was underway. Perhaps.

Over the summer, architects and lawyers were selected. In the autumn, a consultant was hired to help with the selection for the site.  The month of October was consumed with City Council battles over the auditorium site.  Mayor Overman favored a location at Markham and Spring Streets (now site of the Cromwell Building and the Bankruptcy Courthouse). Because the Federal Government owned half the site and did not want to sell it, that location was deemed not feasible – though that did not stop Mayor Overman and others from repeatedly citing it as their first choice.  The only person who favored the location at Markham and Broadway did not have a vote: Planning Commission Chair J. N. Heiskell. Though he had no vote, he had the twin bully pulpits of Planning Commission and the Arkansas Gazette. As other sites fell by the wayside, he kept advocating for it.  Finally, the City Council approved of Heiskell’s choice, and the auditorium had a site.

The groundbreaking had to take place by January 1, 1938, or the money would be rescinded. After finalizing a location, planning could get underway.  With a week to spare, the ground was broken on December 24, 1937.  Mrs. Joseph T. Robinson, widow of the recently deceased US Senator from Arkansas, joined Mayor Overman in the groundbreaking. This ceremony was the first mention of the building being named in memory of the fallen senator, who had died in the summer of 1937.

Construction progressed throughout 1938 and into 1939.  Because of the precarious state of the City’s finances, Mayor Overman lost the support of the business community.  In November 1938, he lost his bid for the Democratic nomination for Mayor and was denied a third two-year term.  He left office in April 1939.


Arkansas Heritage Month – LR Mayor Pat L. Robinson and a municipal auditorium

PLR AuditIn April 1929, at the age of 29, Pat L. Robinson (no relation to Senator Joe T. Robinson) was inaugurated as Little Rock’s mayor.  Shortly after he took office, a variety of City Council committees and city interest groups started making proposals for projects to be funded by City bonds.  The decision was made to put a municipal bond issue before voters in August 1929.

The Young Business Men’s Association proposed a municipal auditorium be included.  In his 1929 inaugural address, Mayor Robinson had commented that an auditorium would be a worthwhile project for the city, should funding be available.  Another proposal, which seemed to have mayoral support, was the Civic Center plan (including land for an auditorium) which J. N. Heiskell had started shopping in the waning days of the Moyer administration.

The City Council approved the calling of the election and the submission of eleven different items.  Mayor Robinson then invoked the ire of the aldermen by noting he would only support four of the eleven proposals. Over the ensuing weeks, he and the aldermen traded charges and parliamentary ploys.  In July, the Council voted to cancel the election, which the mayor vetoed.  Though the Council had the votes to override the veto (and therefore not have the election), they let the veto stand.  The election proceeded as planned in August.

Hobbled by a lack of a cohesive campaign to begin with which was exacerbated by the City Hall infighting, it was probably no surprise that the few of the election proposals were approved by voters.  The marvel is probably that any were actually approved.  This appears to have been the first municipal bond election put forth after the 1926 approval of the new amendment to the Arkansas constitution.

Neither the Auditorium nor the Civic Center proposals were approved.  Throughout his term, the Hotel Marion continued to be the main site in Little Rock for conventions, while Little Rock High School’s auditorium was the showcase for performances.

No further proposals for an auditorium were put forth during the remainder of the Pat L. Robinson administration.  After continuing to alienate the Democratic power structure, he was challenged in the November 1930 primary, and failed to receive the nomination to be the Democratic nominee for mayor in 1931.


Arkansas Heritage Month – LR Mayor Moyer and a Municipal Auditorium

Moyer AuditIn anticipation of the November 2016 reopening of Robinson Center Music Hall, this week’s Arkansas Heritage Month entries look at seven Little Rock Mayors who worked on proposals for a municipal auditorium between 1904 and 1940.

After having served as Pulaski County Judge, Charles Moyer was elected Little Rock Mayor in April 1925.  He concluded his inaugural address later that month with a request that all Little Rock voters should support the auditorium district proposal in the May 1925 special election.  Voters approved the auditorium, but the concept of an auditorium district was thrown out by the Arkansas Supreme Court after a legal challenge.

Mayor Moyer then led a statewide effort to get a Constitutional amendment approved to allow for public bonds to be used on auditoriums and a host of other structures, as long as voters approved the issuance of bonds.  This was approved by voters in October 1926.  Though Mayor Moyer publicly advocated for an auditorium after that election, he did not lead a subsequent effort to create one.  During his tenure, conventions were largely centered around the Hotel Marion.  A new Little Rock High School was built (now Little Rock Central High) with that auditorium supplanting its predecessor as the location of choice for large-scale performances.

He left office in April 1929.  In the final weeks of Mayor Moyer’s second term, Planning Commission Chair J. N. Heiskell (editor of the Arkansas Gazette) started discussing the need for a civic center for Little Rock which would include space for a municipal auditorium.

Charles Moyer returned to the office of mayor for an additional two terms in the 1940s. By that time Robinson Auditorium had been opened.