Rock the Oscars: Maureen O’Hara

Mayor J V Satterfield escorting actress Maureen O’Hara at the Movie Ball (photo from Arkansas Democrat)

Oscar winner Maureen O’Hara lived until she was 95.  In February 1940, a nineteen year old Miss O’Hara turned many heads and set off a frenzy of autograph seekers when she came to Little Rock to attend a series of events.

In conjunction with a meeting of film executives and movie theatre owners sponsored by Robb and Rowley Theaters (which later became the United Artists theatre chain), several Hollywood actors were in Little Rock and headlined a Movie Ball. While in Little Rock, Maureen O’Hara, Phyllis Brooks, Arleen Whelan, Tim Holt and Gene Autry had also made a variety of public appearances.

At the time of the event, Miss O’Hara had recently completed her starring turn as Esmerald opposite Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  She had already filmed A Bill of Divorcement (which was the first movie for which she received star billing) but it was not released until May 1940.

On the evening of February 1, 1940, Robb and Rowley hosted the Movie Ball in the lower level of Robinson Auditorium. So many of the attendees crowded around for autographs that the evening’s grand march could not take place (a newspaper headline in the Democrat innocently used the word “orgy” to describe the crowd). After two attempts, Little Rock Mayor J. V. Satterfield (who was escorting Miss O’Hara) and the other members of the Little Rock host delegation led the Hollywood stars to their reserved table. For quite a while that evening, the table was besieged by autograph seekers.

Though it is unknown as to whether he sought an autograph, photos from the evening showed a very satisfied Mayor Satterfield with Miss O’Hara on his arm. Satterfield family lore joked that Mrs. Satterfield (who had stayed home that night to tend to a sick son) was not a fan of Miss O’Hara’s films after that evening.

The Movie Ball showed Little Rock citizens the value of Robinson Auditorium even before it had been officially dedicated. The film industry meetings had taken place at the Albert Pike Hotel which did not feature a ballroom large enough to host the ball. Without the auditorium’s availability for the gala, organizers might not have chosen Little Rock for the meeting.