Little Rock Look Back: OKLAHOMA! first comes to LR

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

On March 31, 1943, Alfred Drake sauntered on the stage of Broadway’s St. James Theatre and sang “Oh, what a beautiful mornin'” to launch OKLAHOMA! into not only theatrical history but popular culture as well.

In February 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 Beast in 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.

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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.

But 75 years later (and 25 years after it was commemorated by the US Postal Service with its own stamp), Oklahoma! is still doing fine.  Countless new generations sing the songs and say the lines.

Two upcoming cultural events in Little Rock are a testament to the genius that helped create Oklahoma!  In May, Ballet Arkansas will present a dance piece which was the final dance created by Agnes de Mille.  Before choreographing Oklahoma!, Miss de Mille was already making her mark in the world of ballet.  She alternated between the two for decades.  At the 1993 Tony Awards, Miss de Mille accepted a special Tony upon the show’s 50th anniversary milestone.

The second connection to Oklahoma! will take place in February 2019.  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.

12 Days of Christmas Movies: HOLIDAY INN & WHITE CHRISTMAS

Holiday WhiteToday’s Christmas movie(s) are combined because they share a star, a composer and a song.  The latter is often erroneously referred to as a remake of the former.

Irving Berlin’s 1924 black & white Holiday Inn tells the tale of a crooner (Bing Crosby) who retires from show business to start an inn which would only be open on holidays.  Fred Astaire plays his former song and dance partner who has a knack for stealing all of Bing’s girlfriends. The rest of the cast is largely forgettable, indeed most did not have extensive careers before or after this movie.  One exception is the underused Louise Beavers stuck in the role of Crosby’s domestic at the Inn.  She had leading roles in several movies, but due to her race and the time, would still find herself playing maids and cooks with little onscreen time too much of her career.

The real gem here is the score. Though there are some forgettable (“I Can’t Tell a Lie”) and embarrassing (“Abraham”) but this also features “Happy Holidays,” “Be Careful It’s My Heart,” and “Easter Parade” (which Berlin had written for a musical revue in the 1930s).  The knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark breakaway hit was “White Christmas,” which went on to win the Oscar for Best Song.

(As a side note, this movie was the inspiration for the name of the hotel chain when it started in the 1950s.)

Twelve years later, Crosby, Berlin and “White Christmas” reunited for the film White Christmas.  By now color movies were more common, and the powers that be wanted Crosby singing the song in a color movie.  This time Crosby is joined by Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen.  Oscar winner Dean Jagger and character actress Mary Wickes round out the leading roles.

For this film, Berlin supplied a new score, only repeating “White Christmas.” Though several of the songs were already popular in the Berlin songbook.  The main joy in this movie is to see Crosby, Clooney, Kaye and Vera-Ellen at the peak of their careers.

Though most of the songs work in this movie, there is one which doesn’t seem to fit. “Choreography” is a spoof of modern dance. It falls flat and drags the movie down. Though if you look at the chorus, you can see future Oscar winner George Chakiris of West Side Story fame.

It may be surprising that Michael Curtiz directed this film. He is often remembered today as the Oscar winning director of Casablanca (and justifiably so). But in his career he often bounded between light fare (Yankee Doodle Dandy, Life with Father) and heavier (Mildred Pierce, Angels with Dirty Faces) with some adventure films (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood) thrown in.

Separately or together, Holiday Inn and White Christmas are fun Christmas movies.  White Christmas is the stronger of the two, partly because all of the characters are likeable.