September 5, 1961 – the Duke Ellington concert in Little Rock that wasn’t

Newspaper ad for the concert that was not to be

In August 1961, it was announced that Duke Ellington would perform in concert at Robinson Center.  He had previously played there in the 1940s and early 1950s.  His concert was set to be at 8:30 pm on Tuesday, September 5.

Due to the changes of times, the NAACP had a relatively new rule that they would boycott performers who played at segregated venues.  When it became apparent that Robinson would remain segregated (African Americans restricted to the balcony), the NAACP announced they would boycott any future Ellington performances if he went ahead and played Robinson.

The music promoters in Little Rock (who were white) petitioned the Robinson Auditorium Commission asking them to desegregate Robinson – even if for only that concert.  The Commission refused to do so.  Though the auditorium was finding it harder to book acts into a segregated house, they felt that if it were integrated, fewer tickets would be sold.

On September 1, 1961, Ellington cancelled the concert.

Robinson remained segregated until a 1963 judge’s decision which integrated all public City of Little Rock facilities (except for swimming pools).

Little Rock Look Back: Suit filed calling to integrate LR public facilities

Attorney Wiley Branton, who filed the law suit

Attorney Wiley Branton, who filed the law suit

On March 8, 1962, 22 members of the Council on Community Affairs filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the city Board of Directors for the desegregation of “public parks, recreational facilities, Joseph T. Robinson Auditorium and all other public facilities.”  The members included journalists, dentists, attorneys, school teachers and other members of Little Rock’s African American professional class.  Attorney Wiley Branton, Sr., filed the suit.

Though the City’s Auditorium Commission was mentioned in the suit, they were not served with papers. So when media contacted them, they made no comment.

Historian John A. Kirk has written, “Members of the City Board were willing to admit that the desegregation of public facilities was ‘a foregone conclusion’ if the case went to court, but they remained committed to fighting the lawsuit if only to buy time to devise other methods to avoid desegregation.”

The decision was rendered in February 1963 that the City must integrate its public facilities.

In 1951, the City’s library facilities had been integrated followed by the bus system in 1956. Both of these had been accomplished without incident.  Of course the same was not said for the integration of the public schools in 1957.

In 1961, there had been attempts to have Robinson Auditorium integrated after Duke Ellington threatened to cancel a concert rather than play to a segregated crowd.  The Auditorium Commission refused to change its policy, and Ellington did not play the concert.

Based on efforts of the Council of Community Affairs working with white business leaders, downtown lunch counters and businesses were integrated starting in January 1963.  The efforts of the Council of Community Affairs and the white business leaders are commemorated in the Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail with medallions in front of the Little Rock Regional Chamber building.

Little Rock Look Back: OKLAHOMA! comes to Little Rock for the first time

Program cover from OKLAHOMA!’s February 1948 visit to Little Rock. From the collection of Mary and Booker Worthen.

On February 9, 1948, as the original Broadway run was about to mark five years on Broadway, the national tour of Oklahoma! made its way to Little Rock for eight performances. The week-long stay it had in Little Rock at Robinson Center was a record for that building that would last until Wicked came in 2010.  (Hello, Dolly! in 1966 and Beauty and the Beastin 2002 had both equalled the record.)

By the time Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s first show made it to Little Rock, they were working on their fourth stage show, South Pacific, which had a leading character from Little Rock.

To get Robinson Auditorium ready for Oklahoma!, the Auditorium Commission had to spend $2,000 on upgrades.  That would be the equivalent of just under $21,000 today.

Oklahoma! opened at Robinson on Monday, February 9, 1948.  With eight performances, approximately 24,000 tickets were on sale during the run of the show.  There was a cast of 67 actors and 28 musicians.  The cast was led by Ridge Bond, Carolyn Adair, Alfred Cibelli Jr., Patricia Englund, and David Morris.  Mr. Bond had relatives who lived in Little Rock.  He was a native of Claremore, Oklahoma, which was the town in which the story took place.

OkAdLR

Ad in ARKANSAS GAZETTE on February 8, 1948.

While they were in Little Rock, the stars of the show made an appearance at Reed Music on February 10.  The music store (located at 112 and 114 East 7th Street–across the street from the Donaghey Building) was promoting the sale of the Oklahoma! cast albums, sheet music, and recordings of songs from Oklahoma! by other singers.

Both the Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat carried reviews of the show.  Another item, which appeared in the paper that week was a syndicated column which noted that the film rights for the show had been sold. It was speculated that the star would be Bing Crosby.  It would actually be 1955 before the film was made, and Mr. Crosby had no connection to that movie.  By the time it was made, the stars were Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones.  Mr. MacRae would appear in Little Rock for the 1963 opening of the Arkansas Arts Center.  Ms. Jones has made several concert appearances in Little Rock over the years.

Little Rock had seen its fair share of top Broadway shows on tour.  Prior to Robinson’s opening and since then, many well-known actors and popular shows had played Little Rock.  But just as it had been on Broadway, Oklahoma! in Little Rock was more than a show — it was an event!

Over the years, Oklahoma! has been performed by schools, churches, community theatres, dinner theatres, and colleges.  National tours have come through Arkansas again.  People have become jaded or dismissive of it, because they have seen it performed so often — and sometimes badly.  So it is hard to understand the excitement that was felt by Little Rock audiences in 1948 when they first saw it on the stage of Robinson Center.

This weekend, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra is bringing Oscar “Andy” Hammerstein III, grandson of the beloved librettist and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, to host a celebration of some of America’s most cherished music from the stage.

Little Rock Look Back: HAIR brings Age of Aquarius to Robinson Center

Ad for the original production of HAIR in Little Rock. Note the ticket prices. And that they could be purchased at Moses Music Shops.

Forty-seven years ago today, on January 18, 1972, the musical Hair settled in for a week-long run at Robinson Auditorium.  The saga to bring the national tour to Little Rock had actually begun eleven months earlier.

In February 1971, a young Little Rock attorney named Phil Kaplan petitioned the Little Rock Board of Censors to see if it would allow a production of Hair to play in the city. He was asking on behalf of a client who was interested in bringing a national tour to Arkansas’ capital city. The show, which had opened on Broadway to great acclaim in April 1968 after an Off Broadway run in 1967, was known for containing a nude scene as well for a script which was fairly liberally sprinkled with four-letter words. The Censors stated they could not offer an opinion without having seen a production.

By July 1971, Kaplan and his client (who by then had been identified as Southwest Productions) were seeking permission for a January 1972 booking of Hair from the City’s Auditorium Commission which was charged with overseeing operations at Robinson Auditorium. At its July meeting, the Commissioners voted against allowing Hair because of its “brief nude scene” and “bawdy language.”

Kaplan decried the decision. He stated that the body couldn’t “sit in censorship of legitimate theatrical productions.” He noted courts had held that Hair  could be produced and that the Auditorium Commission, as an agent for the State, “clearly can’t exercise prior censorship.” He proffered that if the production was obscene it would be a matter for law enforcement not the Auditorium Commission.

The Commission countered that they had an opinion from City Attorney Joseph Kemp stating they had the authority. One of the Commissioners, Mrs. Grady Miller (sister-in-law of the building’s namesake the late Senator Robinson, she had served on the Commission since 1940), expressed her concern that allowing Hair would open the door to other productions such as Oh! Calcutta!

On July 26, 1971, Southwest Productions filed suit against the Auditorium Commission. Four days later there was a hearing before federal Judge G. Thomas Eisele. Judge Eisele offered a ruling on August 11 which compelled the Auditorium Commission to allow Hair to be performed. Prior to the ruling, some of the Auditorium Commissioners had publicly stated that if they had to allow Hair, they would close it after the first performance on the grounds of obscenity. To combat this, Judge Eisele stated that the Commission had to allow Hair to perform the entire six day engagement it sought.

Upon hearing of the Judge’s ruling, Commissioner Emily Miller offered a succinct, two word response. “Oh, Dear!”

In the end, the production of Hair at Robinson would not be the first performance in the state.  The tour came through Fayetteville for two performances in October 1971 at Barnhill Arena.

On January 18, 1972, Hair played the first of its 8 performances over 6 days at Robinson Auditorium.  In his review the next day, the Arkansas Gazette’s Bill Lewis noted that Hair “threw out all it had to offer” and that Little Rock had survived.

The ads promoting the production carried the tagline “Arkansas will never be the same.”  Tickets (from $2 all the way up to $8.50–the equivalent of $12 to $51 in 2019 dollars) could be purchased at Moses Melody Shops both downtown and in “The Mall” (meaning Park Plaza). That business is gone from downtown, but the scion of that family, Jimmy Moses, is actively involved in building downtown through countless projects. His sons are carrying on the family tradition too.

Little Rock was by no means unique in trying to stop productions of Hair.  St. Louis, Birmingham, Los Angeles, Tallahassee, Boston, Atlanta, Charlotte NC, West Palm Beach, Oklahoma City, Mobile and Chattanooga all tried unsuccessfully to stop performances in their public auditoriums.  Despite Judge Eisele’s ruling against the City of Little Rock, members of the Fort Smith City Council also tried to stop a production later in 1972 in that city. This was despite warnings from City staff that there was not legal standing.

Within a few years, the Board of Censors of the City of Little Rock would be dissolved (as similar bodies also were disappearing across the US). Likewise, the Auditorium Commission was discontinued before Hair even opened with its duties being taken over by the Advertising and Promotion Commission and the Convention & Visitors Bureau staff.  This was not connected to the Hair decision; it was, instead, related to expanding convention facilities in Robinson and the new adjacent hotel.  Regardless of the reasons for their demise, both bygone bodies were vestiges of earlier, simpler and differently focused days in Little Rock.

Little Rock Look Back: Robinson Auditorium Commission abolished; Duties transferred to LRCVB

aud-com-abol

On November 16, 1971, the City of Little Rock Board of Directors abolished the Auditorium Commission which oversaw Robinson Auditorium and transferred duties to the Advertising and Promotion Commission.

This was done with the full support of both commissions.  The transfer took place immediately, with all assets and loose ends to be wrapped up by December 15, 1971.

With the adoption of a hospitality sales tax, by state statute, Little Rock had to have an A&P Commission.  By 1971 plans were afoot to use the A&P tax to build a conference center using some of the existing space in Robinson and adding space.  It did not make sense to have two separate commissions overseeing the same building.

For the Auditorium Commission members, it was possibly a relief.  For years, overseeing the building had been a quiet duty.  But with the social changes of the 1960s, they had been confronted ending the policy of segregation as well as changes in content and subject matter of acts booked at Robinson.  Being agents of social change was doubtful what any of them had envisioned when they joined the commission.  Emily Miller had been a member of the body since January 1940 and others had been on it for many years.

Transferring Robinson to the A&P Commission ushered in a new era for the building. It saw increased booking of meetings which led to a better revenue stream.  The use of the A&P tax would mean the opportunity to give the building an upgrade from 1972 to 1974.

Robinson would eventually prove to be inadequate for all of Little Rock’s needs, which led to the creation and subsequent expansion of Statehouse Convention Center.  But the action 45 years ago today set the stage for the transformation Robinson has undergone as it reopened in November 2016.

Little Rock Look Back: Suit filed calling for integration of LR public facilities

Attorney Wiley Branton, who filed the law suit.

On March 8, 1962, 22 members of the Council on Community Affairs filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the city Board of Directors for the desegregation of “public parks, recreational facilities, Joseph T. Robinson Auditorium and all other public facilities.”  The members included journalists, dentists, attorneys, school teachers and other members of Little Rock’s African American professional class.  Attorney Wiley Branton, Sr., filed the suit.

Though the City’s Auditorium Commission was mentioned in the suit, they were not served with papers. So when media contacted them, they made no comment.

Historian John A. Kirk has written, “Members of the City Board were willing to admit that the desegregation of public facilities was ‘a foregone conclusion’ if the case went to court, but they remained committed to fighting the lawsuit if only to buy time to devise other methods to avoid desegregation.”

The decision was rendered in February 1963 that the City must integrate its public facilities.

In 1951, the City’s library facilities had been integrated followed by the bus system in 1956. Both of these had been accomplished without incident.  Of course the same was not said for the integration of the public schools in 1957.

In 1961, there had been attempts to have Robinson Auditorium integrated after Duke Ellington threatened to cancel a concert rather than play to a segregated crowd.  The Auditorium Commission refused to change its policy, and Ellington did not play the concert.

Based on efforts of the Council of Community Affairs working with white business leaders, downtown lunch counters and businesses were integrated starting in January 1963.  The efforts of the Council of Community Affairs and the white business leaders are commemorated in the Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail with medallions in front of the Little Rock Regional Chamber building.

Little Rock Look Back: HAIR’s Sun Shines In to Robinson Auditorium

Ad for the original production of HAIR in Little Rock. Note the ticket prices. And that they could be purchased at Moses Music Shops.

Ad for the original production of HAIR in Little Rock. Note the ticket prices. And that they could be purchased at Moses Music Shops.

Forty-six years ago today, on January 18, 1972, the musical Hair settled in for a week-long run at Robinson Auditorium.  The saga to bring the national tour to Little Rock had actually begun eleven months earlier.

In February 1971, a young Little Rock attorney named Phil Kaplan petitioned the Little Rock Board of Censors to see if it would allow a production of Hair to play in the city. He was asking on behalf of a client who was interested in bringing a national tour to Arkansas’ capital city. The show, which had opened on Broadway to great acclaim in April 1968 after an Off Broadway run in 1967, was known for containing a nude scene as well for a script which was fairly liberally sprinkled with four-letter words. The Censors stated they could not offer an opinion without having seen a production.

By July 1971, Kaplan and his client (who by then had been identified as Southwest Productions) were seeking permission for a January 1972 booking of Hair from the City’s Auditorium Commission which was charged with overseeing operations at Robinson Auditorium. At its July meeting, the Commissioners voted against allowing Hair because of its “brief nude scene” and “bawdy language.”

Kaplan decried the decision. He stated that the body couldn’t “sit in censorship of legitimate theatrical productions.” He noted courts had held that Hair  could be produced and that the Auditorium Commission, as an agent for the State, “clearly can’t exercise prior censorship.” He proffered that if the production was obscene it would be a matter for law enforcement not the Auditorium Commission.

The Commission countered that they had an opinion from City Attorney Joseph Kemp stating they had the authority. One of the Commissioners, Mrs. Grady Miller (sister-in-law of the building’s namesake the late Senator Robinson, she had served on the Commission since 1940), expressed her concern that allowing Hair would open the door to other productions such as Oh! Calcutta!

On July 26, 1971, Southwest Productions filed suit against the Auditorium Commission. Four days later there was a hearing before federal Judge G. Thomas Eisele. At that hearing, Auditorium Commission member Lee Rogers read aloud excerpts from the script he found objectionable. Under questioning from Kaplan, a recent touring production of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite was discussed. That play has adultery as a central theme of one of its acts. Rogers admitted he found the play funny, and that since the adultery did not take place on stage, he did not object to it. Among those testifying in favor of it was Robert Reddington, who was director of performing arts at the Arkansas Arts Center.

Judge Eisele offered a ruling on August 11 which compelled the Auditorium Commission to allow Hair to be performed. Prior to the ruling, some of the Auditorium Commissioners had publicly stated that if they had to allow Hair, they would close it after the first performance on the grounds of obscenity. To combat this, Judge Eisele stated that the Commission had to allow Hair to perform the entire six day engagement it sought.

Upon hearing of the Judge’s ruling, Commissioner Miller offered a succinct, two word response. “Oh, Dear!”

In the end, the production of Hair at Robinson would not be the first performance in the state.  The tour came through Fayetteville for two performances in October 1971 at Barnhill Arena.

On January 18, 1972, Hair played the first of its 8 performances over 6 days at Robinson Auditorium.  In his review the next day, the Arkansas Gazette’s Bill Lewis noted that Hair “threw out all it had to offer” and that Little Rock had survived.

The ads promoting the production carried the tagline “Arkansas will never be the same.”  Tickets (from $2 all the way up to $8.50) could be purchased at Moses Melody Shops both downtown and in “The Mall” (meaning Park Plaza). That business is gone from downtown, but the scion of that family, Jimmy Moses, is actively involved in building downtown through countless projects. His sons are carrying on the family tradition too.

Little Rock was by no means unique in trying to stop productions of Hair.  St. Louis, Birmingham, Los Angeles, Tallahassee, Boston, Atlanta, Charlotte NC, West Palm Beach, Oklahoma City, Mobile and Chattanooga all tried unsuccessfully to stop performances in their public auditoriums.  Despite Judge Eisele’s ruling against the City of Little Rock, members of the Fort Smith City Council also tried to stop a production later in 1972 in that city. This was despite warnings from City staff that there was not legal standing.

Within a few years, the Board of Censors of the City of Little Rock would be dissolved (as similar bodies also were disappearing across the US). Likewise, the Auditorium Commission was discontinued before Hair even opened with its duties being taken over by the Advertising and Promotion Commission and the Convention & Visitors Bureau staff.  This was not connected to the Hair decision; it was, instead, related to expanding convention facilities in Robinson and the new adjacent hotel.  Regardless of the reasons for their demise, both bygone bodies were vestiges of earlier, simpler and differently focused days in Little Rock.