Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area

Rock the Oscars: Carol Channing

On January 31, 1921, future “Little Girl from Little Rock” and Oscar nominee Carol Channing was born. Alas it was in Seattle.

After gaining the notice of New York critics and audiences in the musical revue, Lend an Ear, Channing achieved Broadway stardom playing fictional Little Rock native Lorelei Lee (the creation of Anita Loos) in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  In this show, which opened in December 1949, she introduced the Leo Robin-Jule Styne songs “Little Girl from Little Rock” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”   In 1964, she won the Actress in a Musical Tony for her second signature role playing the title character in Hello, Dolly!  Channing also earned a special Tony in 1968 for Dolly when it became the longest-running Broadway musical.

On November 15, 1966, Carol Channing opened a six day stint in HELLO, DOLLY! at Robinson Auditorium.  She would play 8 sold out shows over those six days.  She had just wrapped filming THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (for which she would receive an Oscar nomination). She had specifically requested that Little Rock be added to the tour.

While in Little Rock, Channing was entertained at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion and feted at parties.  She was made an honorary citizen of Little Rock, as well.  But she was here to perform. And perform she did. She was rarely known to miss a performance and always gave her utmost.  Bill Lewis, in his review in the ARKANSAS GAZETTE, stated “To hear Channing sing ‘Hello, Dolly!’ Is one of the great experiences of all musical theater to date…”

In 1993, she spent her birthday in Washington DC at a White House dinner for the National Governors’ Association.  This was the Clintons’ first official White House dinner after moving in to the residence eleven days prior.  President Bill Clinton led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to her.  She remarked to the President that she was Christian Scientist and didn’t celebrate birthdays, which meant she didn’t get any older.  He replied that it meant the night was her first birthday (it was her 72nd in actuality).



Dr WassellFrom April 24 to 26, 1944, future Oscar winner 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.  It would be nominated for the Oscar for Best Special Effects.

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.

Rock the Oscars: Marjorie Lawrence

Opera star Marjorie Lawrence, CBE, was born in Australia, but spent the last two decades of her life in Arkansas.   Her triumph over polio to return to the opera stage was the subject of the Oscar winning film Interrupted Melody.

First singing in her native country, she rose to star in the opera halls of Europe before conquering the Metropolitan Opera.  Lawrence had contracted polio as an adult while on a trip to Mexico.  She eventually returned to the stage, usually singing while seated or reclining.  She also had an extensive recital career.  She performed at the White House at the invitation of Franklin Roosevelt and later Lyndon Johnson. During World War II, she performed at Buckingham Palace.  When Queen Elizabeth II made her a Commander of the British Empire in 1977, the Queen fondly remembered that wartime concert.

In 1949, she wrote her autobiography Interrupted Melody. The next year, Hollywood was interested in making it into a film.  Lawrence only wanted to agree to that if she herself did the singing.  In 1955, MGM released the film starring Eleanor Parker as Lawrence and Glenn Ford as her husband. Lawrence did not provide the singing voice; Eileen Farrell did.  Lawrence was openly critical of the film, though some suspected it was because she did not get to sing for it.  By the time of the filming, her vocal range was not what it had been, which is apparently what led MGM to make the decision not to use her.

Despite Lawrence’s disdain for the film, the film was financially successful.  It was nominated for three Oscars: Original Screenplay (though it was actually based on a book), Eleanor Parker as Best Actress, and Costume Design for Color motion pictures.  Sonya Levien and William Ludwig won the statuette for their screenplay.

Lawrence and her husband bought a ranch near Hot Springs in 1952.  She spent most of her life there afterward though she was a vocal coach at Southern Illinois University and Tulane. She also welcomed international students to her home for coaching.  In 1975, she started working with students from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.  She was also an early member of the Arkansas Arts Council.

Lawrence died in January 1979 and is buried in Hot Springs.


CALS Branch Up for Best Public Library

Hillary Clinton Children’ s Library and Learning Center (photo courtesy of Polk Stanley Wilcox)

And then there were 32!

The Central Arkansas Library System’s Hillary Clinton Children’s Library and Learning Center is advancing in a national competition for the Best Public Library.  The search is sponsored by Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL).

The competition started with 116 libraries spread throughout all 50 states.  CALS was the only library system with three nominees. They were the Main Branch, the Roosevelt Thompson Branch, and the Hillary Clinton Children’s Library and Learning Center.  After over 11,000 votes were cast, the top 32 were announced on Saturday.

The next round features 32 libraries from 25 states.  You can vote for Little Rock, here!  Voting runs through February 2!  You can only vote once, so encourage others to do so, too!

The award is named for fictional city government employee extraordinaire Leslie Knope.


Rock the Oscars: THE WAR ROOM showcases Little Rock’s role in national political scene

This Oscar-nominated 1993 American documentary film follows Bill Clinton’s campaign for President of the United States, during the 1992 presidential election.  At the start of the 1992 Democratic primaries, husband and wife filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus requested permission from the Campaign to film its progression. The Clinton Campaign agreed, and Pennebaker and Hegedus were allowed to film Communications Director George Stephanopoulos as well as Lead Strategist James Carville; they were given limited access to Bill Clinton.

At the start of filming, the film team was embedded with the Clinton Campaign in New Hampshire for that state’s Democratic primary. During the onset of the campaign, the film crew traveled around the state with the Clinton campaign.

After the surprise Clinton second place finish in the New Hampshire primary, the crew filmed mostly in Little Rock, home to the Clinton campaign’s national headquarters. As the film focused in on Carville and Stephanopoulos, the film crew saw no need to travel outside of Little Rock as both were present in the city for much if not all of the primary and general election campaigns.

Because of the time spent in Little Rock, numerous buildings and backgrounds familiar to the capital city residents appear throughout the film. Jason D. Williams’ song “Get Back to Little Rock” is featured in the film’s soundtrack.

Though Stephanopoulos and Carville were the film’s main figures, many other prominent figures in the campaign were featured, including Paul Begala, Dee Dee Myers, Mandy Grunwald, Bob Boorstin, Stan Greenberg, Mickey Kantor, Harold Ickes, and Bush deputy campaign manager Mary Matalin, who later married Carville.  Also featured in footage are rivals George H. W. Bush, Ross Perot and Jerry Brown.

Though the film did not win the Oscar for Feature Documentary, Pennebaker would receive an Honorary Oscar in 2013. (Another winner that night was Arkansan Hal Needham.)


Rock the Oscars: Mikhail Baryshnikov

On July 24, 1983, Mikhail Baryshnikov dance on the stage of Robinson Center under the auspices of Ballet Arkansas.   Nearing the end of his dancing career with American Ballet Theatre, he was leading a summer tour of the Southeast and Midwest US.

In the early spring of 1983, Ballet Arkansas was contacted to see if they would be interested in having him perform in Little Rock.  (The $60,000 sponsorship was paid completely by the ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT.) The performance was announced in April with tickets going on sale shortly thereafter.

Following Baryshnikov’s performance, he and his fellow dancers attended a reception at the Old State House Museum which was hosted by Governor and Mrs. Bill Clinton.

After dancing with the Mariinsky Ballet for several years, he defected to Canada while the ballet was performing there in 1974. He later came to the US to dance with American Ballet Theatre and later New York City Ballet. He returned to ABT in 1980 to take on the role of Artistic Director and continue dancing.  It was in this capacity that he visited Little Rock.

He received a 1977 Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the ballet-themed film The Turning Point.

Baryshnikov would later be welcomed by the Clintons to the White House when he received a 2000 Kennedy Center Honors.


Rock the Oscars: Gregory Peck

In August 1977, Oscar winner Gregory Peck appeared in Little Rock for the premiere of the film MacARTHUR.  He played the general who had been born in Little Rock but who spent most of his life downplaying (or even denying) that fact.

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.

Told entirely in flashback, it starred 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 premiere was a fundraiser for the Museum of Science and History (now the Museum of Discovery).  At the time it was located in the Arsenal Building, in which MacArthur had been born.  Since 1999, that has been home to the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History.  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.

The evening of August 5, 1977, started with an exclusive reception for 100 people with Gregory and Veronique Peck.  The movie itself was shown at the Cinema 150, where its general run would start on Saturday, August 6.  Following the film, a reception and silent auction brought people back to the museum.  Tickets ran $250 a person for all events, $100 a person for the film and post-show reception, and $25 for the movie.  It sold out.

Governor and Mrs. David Pryor escorted the Pecks into the theatre.  Former Governor (and World War II hero) Sid McMath introduced Mr. Peck to the crowd.  He extolled the virtues of Peck and MacArthur.  (It is interesting that he should admire MacArthur so much, since the General and President Truman had a well-publicized tiff, and McMath and Truman had enjoyed a warm relationship.)  Little Rock City Director Jim Dailey presented Peck with a Key to the City.

MacArthur did not lead to an Oscar nomination for Peck (though he did earn a Golden Globe nomination for the role).  But the actor had enjoyed four nominations prior to his win for To Kill a Mockingbird.  He also received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy.  He served as president of the Academy for several years.