Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


Little Rock Look Back: 1944 Launch of USS Little Rock

On August 27, 1944, the first USS Little Rock was launched in Philadelphia at the Cramp Shipbuilding Company shipyards.  A 10,000 ton light cruiser, it first touched water in the Delaware River.

The sponsor of the ship (who broke the champagne bottle on the hull) was Mrs. Ruth May Wassell, the wife of Little Rock alderman Sam Wassell.  The main address was delivered by Congressman Brooks Hays, whose district included Little Rock.  A crowd of 5,000 was gathered to witness the launch.

According to the Associated Press Congressman Hays called light cruisers, “the hottest item of naval combat.”

The congressman further elaborated:

The people of Little Rock are proud to have such a ship as this bear their city’s name.” said Mr. Hays. “Even those of us who know little about the classification of naval vessels know that the cruisers have distinguished themselves in the Pacific war and that this is the outstanding type of combat vessel for that area. The navy men tell us that the cruiser is the ‘work horse of the navy.’ big enough to go into any battle, fast enough to lead any task force.

Carrying, as it has, the heaviest load in the Pacific where the greatest battles have taken place, the cruisers have added luster to naval history. We hope that, in the time remaining before our enemies are put down, the Little Rock will take her place along side the Boise, the San Francisco, the Helena,and the Chicago, preserving the prestige of the cruisers.

We are glad to honor the workmen and the company for which they work.  I am sure we are all impressed with the spirit of teamwork which produced the results we observe today.  In March 1943, the keel was laid and for 18 months materials for the ship have come from everywhere. The taxes to pay for it will be assessed against men and women of great and little resources. Teamwork from beginning to end did the job.

So with the war.  A glorious victory lies ahead, but there is much remaining to be done. Only teamwork can supply the dynamic power yet needed to complete that victory. Every ship launching is a reminder of the power that comes to a people who work together to achieve.”

Other guests at the ceremony included United States Senator John L. McClellan and Congressman and senator-elect J. William Fulbright. Alderman Sam Wassell was also present.  He and his wife hosted a dinner for the Arkansas delegation and other dignitaries the night before the christening while they were in Philadelphia.

At the request of the Secretary of the Navy, Little Rock Mayor Charles Moyer designated Mrs. Wassell for the honor of sponsoring the USS Little Rock. There are not details as to why Mayor Moyer made the designation.  A first cousin of Alderman Wassell, Dr. Corydon Wassell had been an early World War II hero and was a favorite of President Franklin Roosevelt.  Paramount had released a movie about him earlier in 1944. That may have been a reason for the designation.

The Little Rock City Council sent a bouquet of roses to the ceremony, fitting since the city’s nickname at the time was “City of Roses.” After the launch, Mrs. Wassell sent a telegram to Mayor Moyer and the Council

Thanks a million for the beautiful bouquet of red roses. They made the christening of the cruiser Little Rock perfect. I wish it could have been possible for you to have been present.  The cruiser is 600 feet long and will have a crew of 1,200 men.  I was so proud of our city.  Little Rock has something to be proud of.

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Little Rock Look Back: Birth of Joseph Taylor Robinson

Future Senator Joseph Taylor Robinson was born in Lonoke in August 26, 1872.  In 1894 Robinson was elected to the Arkansas General Assembly for one term.  From 1903 until 1913, he served in the US House of Representatives as a Congressman from Arkansas’ then-Sixth District.

He chose not to seek another term in Congress and ran for Governor in 1912.  On January 3, 1913, sitting US Senator Jeff Davis died in office.  Robinson was sworn in as Governor on January 16, 1913. Twelve days later he was chosen by the Arkansas General Assembly to become the next US Senator. He became the final US Senator to be selected by a legislator instead of popular vote.  At the time, Senate terms started in March, so Robinson served as governor until March 8, 1913.

He rose through the ranks of the Senate and eventually became the first person to hold the title of Senate Majority Leader.  In 1928, he was the Vice Presidential nominee for the Democratic Party.  Four years later, he rode with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt to the inauguration ceremonies before FDR took the oath.  He would be President Roosevelt’s go-to man on legislative issues.

Senator Robinson died in Washington D.C. on July 14, 1937.  His wife was in Little Rock making preparations for a trip the couple was to take. Following his demise, Mrs. Robinson went to Washington to accompany her husband’s body back to Arkansas.

It was not until December 1937, that Senator Robinson’s name became attached to the municipal auditorium which Little Rock voters had approved in January 1937.  Mrs. Robinson participated in the December 24, 1937, groundbreaking for the auditorium.

Naming the auditorium after him was not Little Rock’s first attempt at honoring Senator Robinson.  In 1930, portions of Lincoln, Q, and Cantrell streets were renamed Robinson Drive in his honor. This was part of an effort to give Highway 10 (which had four different names as it wended through the City) a single name in Little Rock.  A few months later the Senator requested that the original names be returned.  Cantrell had been named in honor of a developer who was continuing to work in the area surrounding that street.  The Senator felt it should be named after Mr. Cantrell.  As part of that, the name Cantrell was extended to most of Highway 10 within the Little Rock city limits.

In 1935, on Senator Robinson’s ante-penultimate birthday, the Little Rock City Council coincidentally approved the plans for a municipal auditorium which would then be submitted to the Public Works Administration.  It was this project which would become Robinson Auditorium.

 


Little Rock Look Back: City of LR approves 1935 municipal auditorium plan

An August 25, 1935, rendering in the ARKANSAS GAZETTE of the proposed Little Rock auditorium at Capitol and Scott Streets.

On August 26, 1935, the City of Little Rock took its first significant step in a decade for the creation of a City auditorium..  Under the leadership of Mayor R. E. Overman, the City Council approved authorization for the City to apply for $1,000,000 from the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works (PWA) for the construction of an auditorium.  The PWA had issued a September 16, 1935, deadline for applications to be received as it sought to spend $4.8 billion in construction projects.

The auditorium plan was announced on Saturday, August 24, 1935.  Much preparation had already been undertaken before the project was publicly unveiled.  Private presentations hhad taken place, a team of architects had been chosen (Eugene Stern and the firm of Wittenberg & Delony), and a location had been selected.

The auditorium complex was slated for a block bounded by Capitol, Scott, Fourth and Cumberland Streets.  The Women’s City Club building on that block would remain with the new structure being built to wrap around two sides of the existing structure. The site was chosen because it was one block east of the Main Street business corridor and near existing meeting locations such as the Boys Club, Albert Pike Hotel, Albert Pike Masonic Lodge and several churches.

As planned by the architects, this structure’s front façade would have run the length of the Capitol Avenue side of the block.  The building was proposed to be constructed of concrete, stone and steel.  It would have a large hall with a proscenium stage and seating capacity of 4,000 with overflow of an additional 500.  The adjoining exhibition hall could seat 3,500 people.  The plan called for 150 cars to be parked in the building, and an additional 100 cars to be parked on a surface lot on the site.

Following an August 26 closed door meeting to discuss the project from which members of the public and press were excluded, in open session the City Council voted to pursue the funding for the million dollar auditorium.  If approved by the PWA, the funds would be provided in grants and loans, to be paid by over a 35 year period.

The auditorium proposal was filed with the PWA in Washington in September 1935.  Throughout the next several months, Mayor Overman and the city were engaged in a series of conversations and negotiations with the PWA for the expansion of both the water system and the sewer system. This diverted attention from pursuing the auditorium immediately.  This specific auditorium project stalled.  But because the plan had been filed by the September 16 deadline, it allowed the City to make use of PWA funds a few years later which would lead to the construction of Robinson Auditorium.


Little Rock Look Back: Hollywood in Little Rock

All right Mr. DeMille, Little Rock was ready for its close up.

From April 24 to 26, 1944, Cecil B. DeMille was in Little Rock for the world premiere screening of The Story of Dr. Wassell.  This 1944 Paramount Pictures Technicolor release told the story of wartime hero Dr. Corydon Wassell.

Why was Little Rock chosen?  It was the hometown of Dr. Wassell.  His paternal grandfather, John Wassell, was Little Rock’s 27th mayor.  His first cousin, Sam Wassell, was serving on the City Council at the time of the film’s release and would become Little Rock’s 51st mayor.

Based on a book by James Hilton, it was inspired by the heroic efforts of Dr. Wassell, a naval officer, as he led the evacuation of several sailors (and treated their wounds) in Java in February 1942.  President Roosevelt highlighted Dr. Wassell in his May 26, 1942, fireside chat.

Little Rock rolled out the red carpet (literally and figuratively) for DeMille and a contingency from Hollywood.  Dr. and Mrs. Wassell also returned to Little Rock for the festivities.  Unfortunately, Gary Cooper (who played Wassell in the film) was unable to attend due to illness.  His costar, Laraine Day, was making another film and could not attend either.    Those in attendance with DeMille (and Mrs. DeMille) included actresses Signe Hasso and Carol Thurston, and actor Melvin Francis.  The latter played himself; he had actually been one of the sailors saved by Dr. Wassell.

On April 24, 1944, DeMille and Dr. Wassell appeared on a radio program broadcast live from the music hall of Robinson Auditorium.  The next day, the troupe toured Camp Robinson and spoke to the soldiers there.  Later that day, Miss Hasso and Miss Thurston sold war bonds at Pfeiffers and M.M. Cohn’s.

April 26, 1944, was a full day for the DeMilles, the Wassells, and the others.  It started with a luncheon at the Hotel Marion, hosted by the Lions Club and Little Rock Chamber of Commerce.  Governor Homer Adkins presented DeMille with an Arkansas Traveler certificate.  DeMille, in return, presented Governor Adkins with a copy of the script.

When it was Dr. Wassell’s time to speak, he praised Little Rock’s efforts on the home front.  He also asked for a standing tribute to longtime Little Rock school superintendent R.C. Hall, who had died the day before.  Dr. Wassell had taught with Mr. Hall decades earlier.

Following the lunch, there was a parade on Main Street.  It started at 10th and Main and proceeded to Markham before ending at the War Memorial Building (now the Old State House Museum).  Newspaper accounts said that it was four miles long and featured many military units and marching bands.

Dinner that evening was at the Lafayette Hotel before screenings of the movie at the Capitol and Arkansas Theatres. Both screenings were sold out.  On April 27, 1944, a regular run of the movie started at the Capitol Theatre.  It would be released nationally on July 4, 1944, which also happened to be Dr. Wassell’s birthday.


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Little Rock Look Back: 199 Years of the Quapaw Line

Stones placed in Riverfront Park denote where there Quapaw Line started from La Petite Roche

Stones placed in Riverfront Park denote where there Quapaw Line started from La Petite Roche

On August 24, 1818, the Quapaw Line was drawn.  Starting at La Petite Roche and heading due south, this line formed the boundary between the Quapaw tribe lands and public lands available for settlement.  Though by 1824, the Quapaw were forced to give up all of their lands, the line continued serve as an important marker.  In the ensuing six years, the first permanent settlement of Little Rock took place and streets were planned.It is interesting to note that the 1818 treaty referred to La Petite Roche as the Little Rock.  Some have speculated that this is the first official use of “Little Rock” to designate the outcropping.  When the Post Office was established in March 1820, it was given the name Little Rock.

There is a marker commemorating the beginning of the Quapaw Line located at La Petite Roche in Riverfront Park.  The first segment of the line is also noted in the park.  There are also sunken markers place along the line at various points.  In MacArthur Park, at the corner of 9th and Commerce Streets, there is a marker noting that the line passed through at that location.

A good account of walking the Quapaw Line through downtown Little Rock can be found on this website.

Most of what is now called the Quapaw Quarter was located to the west of the Quapaw Line.  However, it did take its name from the fact that the tribe had once lived in that area and was later sequestered to lands near it.  The name for the area was chosen by a committee composed of David D. Terry, Peg Newton Smith, Mrs. Walter Riddick Sr., Dr. John L. Ferguson, and James Hatcher. They had been appointed to a Significant Structures Technical Advisory Committee to advocate for preservation of important structures as a component of the City of Little Rock’s urban renewal efforts.


Little Rock Look Back: War Memorial Stadium location approved

As was noted in a previous post, War Memorial Stadium was approved by the Arkansas General Assembly in March 1947.  The work then began on the finalization of the location.

Four cities were in the running:  Little Rock, North Little Rock, Hot Springs, and West Memphis.  Each of the cities was required to donate the land for the stadium, provide parking for it, and sell local subscriptions equivalent to $250,000 to raise money for it as well.

On May 19, 1947, the City Council approved Resolution 1747 to donate the land for the stadium in Fair Park if Little Rock was selected.  This was not the first mention of a stadium in City records.  In March of 1947, the City Council had set aside land in Fair Park to use for a playground — with the stipulation that if it was eventually needed for a stadium, it would be relinquished for that purpose.

On August 9, 1947, the War Memorial Stadium Commission met in the House Chambers of the Arkansas State Capitol to select the location for the stadium.  West Memphis dropped out prior to the meeting; they had not been able to raise the sufficient local funds.  That left the three remaining cities.  (Cities had until June 24 to file paperwork expressing their interest in applying and were to submit their proposals by August 1.)

The location for the meeting had been set because a large crowd was expected.  And the attendance did not disappoint.  City government and business leaders from all three cities turned out in full force.  The members of the Commission were Ed Keith, Chairman, Magnolia; Gordon Campbell, Secretary, Little Rock; Ed Gordon, Morrilton; Senator Lee Reaves, Hermitage; Senator Guy Jones, Conway; Dallas Dalton, Arkadelphia; Judge Maupin Cummings, Fayetteville; Dave Laney, Osceola; and Leslie Speck, Frenchman’s Bayou.

For several hours the nine heard proposals from the three cities.  Little Rock’s location was in Fair Park, North Little Rock’s was near its high school, and Hot Springs was on land next to Highway 70 approximately 2.5 miles from downtown.  Finally it was time to vote.  After two rounds of voting, Little Rock was declared the winner on a weighted ballot.

North Little Rock’s leadership was magnanimous in their defeat.  Hot Springs, however, was far from it.  In the coming days they filed suit against the Stadium Commission alleging flaws in Little Rock’s proposal as well as improprieties by members of the commission.  A preliminary decision sided with the state.  Ultimately, Hot Springs’ relatively new mayor Earl T. Ricks opted to drop the suit.  The Spa City’s business community was concerned that fighting the location might delay construction – and could negatively impact legislative and tourists’ feelings toward Hot Springs.  (And it was entirely possible that the State Police could have been used to “discover” that there was gambling going on in Hot Springs.)

Though ground was broken later in the year, by December 1947, the stadium was still $250,000 shy of funding for the construction.  This was after the state and Little Rock had previously both upped their commitments to $500,000 each.

The building did eventually open on schedule in conjunction with the 1948 Arkansas Razorback football games.

As for Mayor Ricks of Hot Springs, he moved to Little Rock to serve as Adjutant General of the Arkansas National Guard during the governorship of Sid McMath.  He later held leadership positions in the National Guard Bureau in Washington DC.  He died in 1954 at the age of 45.  Among the ways he was memorialized was a National Guard armory in Little Rock, which stood in the shadow of War Memorial Stadium.


Little Rock Look Back: Verdict rendered in 1906 City Hall-Jail-Auditorium case

The 1906 plans for City Hall with the Municipal Auditorium on the left portion.

Last week: Little Rock Mayor Warren E. Lenon had been advocating for a new City Hall a municipal auditorium since shortly after taking office in April 1903. After plans were approved in July 1906, a group of citizens, led by Arkansas Gazette publisher J. N. Heiskell, filed suit to stop the City.

The closing arguments in the trial against plans for a new City Hall and auditorium complex had been heard on Monday, July 30.  The case was heard by Chancery Judge J. C. Hart.  Serving as an advisor to Chancellor Hart throughout the trial (though with no official legal standing) was Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Robert J. Lea.  To accommodate the expected large attendance, the trial had been moved into his courtroom which was larger than Chancellor Hart’s.

On Friday, August 3, Pulaski County Chancery Judge J. C. Hart issued an injunction to keep the City from signing a contract for the construction of a city hall, jail and auditorium.  Chancellor Hart concurred with the plaintiffs that Arkansas’ constitution and laws dictated all taxation must be for public purposes.  He found there was nothing in Arkansas case law which defined an auditorium to be used for conventions as a public purpose.

As had been the case throughout the trial, the tone of the coverage of the decision differed greatly in the city’s two daily papers.  The subheading in the Democrat noted that the plaintiffs would be liable for any losses to the municipal government’s coffers due to a delay in commencing the construction if Little Rock eventually prevailed.  That fact is not mentioned by the Gazette.  Both papers did make note that Judge Lea agreed with the Chancellor’s decision.

For now, it looked as if the City of Little Rock would be stuck in the 1867 City Hall on Markham between Main and Louisiana.  Mr. Heiskell and his compatriots waited to see if the City would appeal the decision.

While August would be a quiet month publicly, work would go on behind the scenes.  More on that, in the future.