Little Rock Look Back: The City says HELLO, DOLLY! to Carol Channing

52 years ago tonight, 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.

Channing, who had won the 1964 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her role in this show, had recently returned to the national tour.  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.

Her breakout role was in 1949’s GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDS. In that show she introduced the song “Little Girl from Little Rock.”  Since it had helped make her a star, she had long felt an affinity for the Arkansas capital.  Therefore when she rejoined the tour, she required that LR be one of her stops before she left 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 assessing the show’s run in Little Rock (which would be seen by more than 20,000 people), Lewis summed up what many felt at the time — and to hear the reminiscences from a half century later, it still is a heartfelt sentiment — “A week’s too little.”

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Little Rock Look Back: LR voters create Airport Commission

On November 7, 1950, Little Rock voters approved the creation of the Little Rock Airport Commission.  This was an extremely rare initiated ordinance.

Local business leaders had tried two times prior to get the City Council to create an Airport Commission.  At the time, the Airport was managed by the Council’s Airport Committee, composed of aldermen.  Both times, the Council rejected the measure.  This prompted an organization called the Private Flyers Association to begin the drive to collect the signatures to place the ordinance on the ballot.  Mayor Sam Wassell was in favor of the creation of the separate commission to oversee the airport and was a member of the Private Flyers Association.

At the general election on November 7, 1950, the ordinance was on the ballot.  It passed with an overwhelming majority: 13,025 voters approved of it, and only 3,206 opposed it.  The Arkansas Gazette had been a proponent of the switch, endorsing it with a front page editorial entitled “An Airport for the Air Age.”

In many ways this movement was a precursor to Little Rock’s switch to the City Manager form of government later in the decade.  Where once the business leadership and city council had been one and the same, over the 1940s the two diverged.  Business leaders were less interested in party politics (and at the time the city races were partisan affairs) and more interested in professionally run government.  The main argument for a separate commission was that it would allow the airport to be run more efficiently and removed from party politics.  These would be the same arguments used by the Good Government Committee in 1956.

Also on the ballot in 1950 was a GOP challenger to a Democrat for one of the aldermen positions.  George D. Kelley, Jr., ran against incumbent Lee H. Evans.  Kelley was the first GOP contestant for a city race since Pratt Remmel ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 1938.  Remmel would be back on the ballot in 1951, this time for the position of mayor in a successful effort.

Little Rock Look Back: Civic Leader Adolphine Fletcher Terry

Adolphine Fletcher Terry was born on November 3, 1882 to former Little Rock Mayor John Gould Fletcher and his wife Adolphine Krause Fletcher.

Raised in Little Rock, in 1889 she moved into the Albert Pike House on East 7th Street, when her aunt transferred the title to her father. That house would be her primary residence the rest of her life.  Her sister Mary Fletcher Drennan never lived in Arkansas as an adult after marriage. Her brother John Gould Fletcher spent much of his adulthood in Europe before returning to Little Rock and establishing his own house, Johnswood.

At age 15, Adolphine attended Vassar. She later credited that experience as broadening her views on many issues.  After graduating at age 19, she returned to Little Rock.  Her parents both died prior to her 1910 wedding to David D. Terry, which took place at what was then known as the Pike-Fletcher House (and today is known as the Pike-Fletcher-Terry House).

She is perhaps best known today for establishing the Women’s Emergency Committee in 1958 and for her subsequent deeding of the family house to the City for use by the Arkansas Arts Center.  But her entire life was based on civic engagement.

She was instrumental in establishing the first juvenile court system in Arkansas and helped form the first school improvement association in the state. She was long an advocate for libraries, serving 40 years on the Little Rock public library board.  Through her leadership, the library opened its doors to African Americans in the early 1950s. Today a branch of the Central Arkansas Library System (the successor the Little Rock public library) is named after her.  Another branch is named after her Pulitzer Prize winning brother.

Adolphine formed the Little Rock chapter of the American Association of University Women, the Pulaski County tuberculosis association and the Community Chest.

In 1958, when the Little Rock public high schools were closed instead of allowing them to be desegregated again, she called Harry Ashmore the editor of the Gazette and exclaimed, “the men have failed us…it’s time to call out the women.”  With this, she formed the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools. This group played a major role in getting the four high schools open the following year.

From 1933 to 1942, David Terry served in the U.S. Congress. During that time, Adolphine alternated her time between Washington DC and Little Rock. But she spent much time in Little Rock raising her five children.

After her husband’s death in 1963, she continued to remain active in civic affairs. In the 1960’s, she and her sister deeded the Pike-Fletcher-Terry House to the City of Little Rock for use by the Arkansas Arts Center upon both their deaths.  Following Adolphine Fletcher Terry’s death in 1976, Mary turned over the title to the City.

Adolphine Fletcher Terry is buried in Mount Holly Cemetery alongside her husband. Three of her children are also buried in that plot.  Her parents and brother are buried in a nearby plot.

Her granddaughters and their families carry on Adolphine Fletcher Terry’s commitment to making Little Rock better.

Little Rock Look Back: Mr. J. N. Heiskell

At the age of 87, J. N. Heiskell in 1960.

John Netherland (J. N.) Heiskell served as editor of the Arkansas Gazette for more than seventy years.  He was usually called “Mr. Heiskell” by all, but a very few confidantes felt confident to call him “Ned.”

Mr. Heiskell is the person most responsible for Robinson Center Music Hall being located at the corner of Markham and Broadway.  As Chair of the Planning Commission and editor of the Arkansas Gazette he had twin bully pulpits to promote this location when those on the City Council (who actually had the final say) were looking at other locations.  He felt the location would help create a cluster of public buildings with its proximity to the county courthouse and to City Hall.  Mr. Heiskell finally succeeded in winning over the mayor and aldermen to his viewpoint.

He was born on November 2, 1872, in Rogersville, Tennessee, to Carrick White Heiskell and Eliza Ayre Netherland Heiskell. He entered the University of Tennessee at Knoxville before his eighteenth birthday and graduated in three years at the head of his class on June 7, 1893.

His early journalism career included jobs with newspapers in Knoxville and Memphis and with the Associated Press in Chicago and Louisville. On June 17, 1902, Heiskell’s family bought controlling interest in the Arkansas Gazette. Heiskell became the editor, and his brother, Fred, became managing editor.

Governor George Donaghey appointed Heiskell to succeed Jeff Davis in the United States Senate after Davis’s death in office. Heiskell served from January 6, 1913, until January 29, 1913, when a successor was chosen by the Arkansas General Assembly.  His tenure is the shortest in the U. S. Senate history.  His first speech on the Senate floor was his farewell.  He was also only the second US Senator to live to be 100.

On June 28, 1910, Heiskell married Wilhelmina Mann, daughter of the nationally prominent architect, George R. Mann. The couple had four children: Elizabeth, Louise, John N. Jr., and Carrick.

In 1907, he joined a successful effort to build the city’s first public library. He served on the library board from that year until his death and was issued the first library card.  He also served on the City’s Planning Commission for decades.  In 1912, he was instrumental in bringing John Nolen to Little Rock to devise a park plan.

In the paper and in his own personal opinions, he crusaded on a variety of progressive causes.  Perhaps the most famous was the Gazette’s stance in the 1957 Central High desegregation crisis.  It was for this effort that the paper received two Pulitzer Prizes.

Although Heiskell stopped going to the office at age ninety-nine, he continued to take an active interest in the newspaper. He began by having a copy of the newspaper delivered to his home by messenger as soon as it came off the press each night. Eventually, he switched to having his secretary call him daily at his home and read the entire newspaper to him. He operated on the premise that “anyone who runs a newspaper needs to know what’s in it, even to the classified ads.”

A few weeks after turning 100, Heiskell died of congestive heart failure brought on by arteriosclerosis on December 28, 1972. He is buried in Little Rock’s Mount Holly Cemetery.  Interestingly, he is buried in the same cemetery as two of his most notable adversaries: Governor Jeff Davis, and segregationist Congressman Dale Alford.

Mr. Heiskell donated his vast papers to UALR. They are part of the Arkansas Studies Institute collection. These papers give insight into not only his career as a journalist, but also his political and civic affairs.  Thankfully he saved much of his paperwork. Without it, much insight into Little Rock in the 20th Century would be lost.

Little Rock Look Back: Tricks, Treats on Little Rock’s mid-century streets

A recent romp through an ARKANSAS GAZETTE gave insight into Halloween in Little Rock in the middle of the 20th Century.

Apparently by late afternoon on Halloween 1950, downtown Little Rock was filled with kids and teens in costumes. Much of the focus seemed to be on tricks as many of these revelers were utilizing water guns to soak people, throwing enough talcum powder to create an aroma downtown, shooting off firecrackers, and soaping store windows. Several industrious store owners had coated there windows with glycerine so that soap would not mark them.

The mayhem was enough to cause even more problems to traffic at rush hour. Police officers were helpless as they were directing traffic.  One city bus filled with passengers was attacked by a phalanx of waterguns, until the windows were all closed.

GAZETTE writer noted that two teen boys were dressed rather convincingly as girls. One was described as “rather pretty.” It was not until the teen let out an expletive (which the paper reported as “g— d—–”) that the reporter was certain it was a male.

Not everyone was focused on tricks.  Merchants in the Heights neighborhood created a block party with a carnival. It was deemed to be so successful that it would become an annual event.

Little Rock Look Back: Site (finally!) chosen for LR municipal auditorium

Potential rendering of new auditorium which appeared in October 30, 1937 ARKANSAS GAZETTE

On October 29, 1937, the Little Rock City Council finally selected the site for the Municipal Auditorium.  It had been approved by voters in January of that year, but no site had been identified during the campaign.

During the early autumn, the City had engaged a consultant to evaluate several downtown locations as potential sites for the municipal auditorium.  One stipulation was that it had to be an entire city block.

The six sites were:

  • Broadway, Markham, Spring and Garland Streets;
  • Center, Markham, Spring and Second Streets;
  • Center, Eighth, Louisiana and Ninth Streets;
  • Scott, Fourth, Cumberland and Capitol Streets;
  • Scott, Tenth, Cumberland and Ninth Streets; and
  • Third, State, Second and Gaines Streets

The top choice was the site bounded by Center, Markham, Spring and Second Streets. It was felt that location’s proximity to public buildings made it ideal for a civic auditorium. It was across the street from the former state capitol (then known as the Arkansas War Memorial) which was, at the time, housing state and federal offices.  The site was also adjacent to the county courthouse structures.

Half of the desired property was owned by the federal government.  Because it was being used for federal offices, it was uncertain as to the site’s availability.  Therefore a city committee recommended the site bounded by Center, Eighth, Louisiana and Ninth Streets be utilized as the auditorium location.

The City Council met on October 20 to make a decision. But were at a stalemate. They met again a few days later with still no resolution.

At an October 25 City Council meeting, Arkansas Gazette publisher (and chairman of the Planning Commission) J. N. Heiskell, advocated the site on Markham and Broadway Streets. The Council convened on October 29 to meet again.  The clock was ticking, a site had to be selected because ground had to be broken prior to January 1, 1938.

At the October 29th meeting, the discussion from previous meetings among the aldermen picked up where it had left off.  Again J. N. Heiskell spoke about the importance of employing city planning concepts in selecting the site.

“In the past, selection of a site for a public building has been merely a matter of who could sell the city some property.  I had hoped we were starting a new effort in starting selection of an auditorium site with the advice of Mr. Bartholomew.  Starting with the auditorium, we should be guided by competent advice and locate future buildings following a city plan.  Your vote today will determine the future of Little Rock so far as city building goes.”

After having engaged in discussions with various federal government agencies, Mayor Overman reported that the city could not obtain the recommended site.  It would not be possible for the federal government to relocate those agencies currently occupying half of that block within the time allowed.  The mayor also stated that he had been warned that if construction did not start by January 1, 1938, (which was just a few weeks away) then the money could be taken back and allocated to other projects.

Ultimately the City Council voted 16 to 1 with 1 absent to locate it at the corner of Markham and Broadway.  At last, Little Rock had a location for the new municipal auditorium!

Though it had not been anyone’s first choice (except Mr. Heiskell, who did not have a vote), in retrospect, the auditorium site finally chosen offered many advantages which were not identified during the marathon selection discussions.  The grade of the land sloped toward the Arkansas River from Markham Street down to Garland Street which allowed for a street level entrance to both the planned exhibition hall on a lower level and the music hall on an upper level.

Given the topography of the other sites under consideration, this was only possible at the chosen location.  By stacking the two major components the project did not take up an entire block, which had been the forecasted footprint.  Not using the entire block allowed for subsequent expansion of the complex’s footprint in the coming decades.  This would not have been possible at any of the other sites under consideration if the original structure had taken up the entire block.  In addition, both Markham and Broadway Streets are wider than normal city streets which allowed for better traffic flow and for easier access to a loading dock.

Interestingly, the Convention & Visitors Bureau, which oversees Robinson Center Music Hall, now has offices in the Cromwell Building. This building is located on the site which had been the first choice for the auditorium in 1937.

Little Rock Look Back: Final ARKANSAS GAZETTE Published

Twenty-seven years ago today, on October 18, 1991, the final edition of the Arkansas Gazette was delivered.

The front page featured a story on the demise of a Gazette employee effort to buy the paper.

Max Brantley’s column on the front page of the B section also addressed the then-eminent end of the paper. However, as a newspaper all of the sections spent most of their space on the news of the day. While Gazette staffers felt the end was likely near, few felt that the paper on October 18, 1991, would be the final edition.

The back page of the last section of the Gazette featured an ad for Premiere Pontiac Nissan Audi which was throwing a “Beat Texas” party featuring Craig O’Neill.  The Arkansas Razorbacks were scheduled to play the Texas Longhorns on Saturday, October 19.

Here are the top halves of the front pages of sections B, C, D, and E for the final Arkansas Gazette.  They tell the stories of trials, football games, corporate earnings, and cultural events.