Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


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Little Rock Look Back: Death of Joseph Taylor Robinson

Eighty years ago today, on July 14, 1937, U.S. Senator Joseph Taylor Robinson died in his apartment in Washington D.C.

The Senator’s wife, Ewilda, was in Little Rock making preparations for a trip the couple was to take. (She was informed of her husband’s death when her sister-in-law called to express condolences. No one had yet notified her in Little Rock.) Following his demise, Mrs. Robinson went to Washington to accompany her husband’s body back to Arkansas.

As the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Robinson was usually President Franklin Roosevelt’s point person to shepherd legislation on Capitol Hill.  The Democrat’s 1928 Vice Presidential nominee, Senator Robinson was particularly close to FDR. He had successfully steered numerous pieces of New Deal legislation through Congress.  However, at the time of his death, the Senator was facing an uphill climb trying to build consensus on the President’s unpopular Court Packing scheme.

The Senator was honored with a memorial service in the Senate chambers on Friday, July 17.  President Roosevelt and the cabinet joined members of the senate on the floor in what was described as a state funeral without pomp.  Mrs. Robinson sat with her brothers and two nephews as well as Bernard Baruch and Arkansas Power & Light’s Harvey Couch, who were Senator Robinson’s closest friends.  Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the many crowded in the senate galleries observing the service.  Following the service his body remained in the chambers until it was transferred to a train to make the journey to Little Rock.

The funeral train bore his body, his family, 50 senators and over twenty congressmen. It reached Little Rock around 8am on Sunday the 19th.  From there, Senator Robinson’s body was taken to his house on Broadway Street until noon.  It subsequently lay in state at the Arkansas State Capitol until being escorted by military to First Methodist Church.

1,500 people packed the church a half hour before the service began. The sun shone through the windows onto the flag-draped coffin as Rev. H. Bascom Watts led the service. Among the pallbearers was former Vice President Charles G. Dawes. Governor Carl Bailey of Arkansas was joined by Governors Richard Leche of Louisiana and E.W. Marland of Oklahoma.

As the funeral procession reached Roselawn Cemetery, thunder echoed. The skies which had alternated between sun and rain that day, returned to rain. A deluge greeted the end of the service and sent visitors hurrying for shelter at the end.

Five months after her husband’s death, Mrs. Robinson participated in the groundbreaking of the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium.  The groundbreaking ceremony was the first time it was announced that building would be named in his memory.   On a plaque inside that building today, a quote from President Roosevelt stands as a further testament of the importance of Senator Robinson to the US.  Taken from President Roosevelt’s remarks upon learning of the Senator’s death, the plaque reads, in part, “A pillar of strength is gone.”

Seventy-eight and a half years later, the church was the site of the funeral of longtime US Senator Dale Bumpers in January 2016.

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Little Rock Look Back: Opening of Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium

Robinson Auditorium

Robinson Auditorium

On February 16, 1940, after three years of planning and construction including several delays due to lack of funding, the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium officially opened. It was a cold, rainy night, but those in attendance did not care.

Searchlights painting arcs in the sky greeted attendees. They were borrowed from the Arkansas National Guard. Newspaper accounts noted that only a few of the men who attended were in tuxedos, most were simply in suits. The work to get the building opened had been so harried, that it was discovered there was not an Arkansas Flag to fly in front of the building. Mayor Satterfield found one at the last minute courtesy of the Arkansas Department of the Spanish War Veterans.

The weather delayed arrivals, so the program started fifteen minutes late. Following a performance of Sibelius’ Finlandia by the fledgling Arkansas State Symphony Orchestra, Mayor J. V. Satterfield, Ewilda Robinson (the Senator’s widow), Emily Miller (the Senator’s sister-in-law and a member of the Auditorium Commission) and D. Hodson Lewis of the Chamber of Commerce participated in a brief ribbon cutting ceremony. Mrs Robinson cut the ribbon on her second attempt (once again proving that nothing connected with getting the building open was easy).

The ceremony was originally set to be outside of the building but was moved indoors due to the inclement weather. The ribbon cutting took place on the stage with the ribbon stretched out in front of the curtain. The opening remarks were broadcast on radio station KGHI.

Mr. Lewis, Mrs. Miller and Mayor Satterfield look on as Mrs. Robinson cuts the ribbon

Mr. Lewis, Mrs. Miller and Mayor Satterfield look on as Mrs. Robinson cuts the ribbon

Though he had previously discussed how he had voted against the auditorium in 1937 before entering public life, the mayor’s remarks that evening were appropriately gracious, statesmanlike and a testament to the effort he had invested to get it open upon becoming mayor. “We hope you have a very pleasant evening and hope further that it will be the first in a long series which you will enjoy in this, your auditorium.”

Tickets for the event, advertised as being tax exempt, were at four different pricing levels: $2.50, $2.00, $1.50 and $1.00.

The estimated attendance was 1700. Following the ribbon cutting, the main performance took place. The headliner for the grand opening was the San Francisco Opera Ballet accompanied by the new Arkansas State Symphony Orchestra (not related to the current Arkansas Symphony Orchestra). The featured soloist with the ballet was Zoe Dell Lantis who was billed as “The Most Photographed Miss at the San Francisco World’s Fair.”

At the same time that the gala was going on upstairs in the music hall, a high school basketball double-header was taking place in the downstairs convention hall. North Little Rock lost to Beebe in the first game, while the Little Rock High School Tigers upset Pine Bluff in the marquee game.


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Little Rock Look Back: The Sun shines in as HAIR plays 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.

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-five 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.


RobinsoNovember: Emily Miller

emilyFrom January 1940 until December 1971, Emily Miller served on the Robinson Auditorium Commission.  She was the longest serving member of that body and had one of the longest tenures of any person on any City of Little Rock commission.  In keeping with the times, she was always referred to publicly as Mrs. Grady Miller. Probably the only time she was ever listed in a newspaper as Emily Sturges Miller was her obituary in 1993.

Born in Ohio in 1903, she studied at Smith College in Massachusetts. In 1925, she visited Washington DC for the presidential inauguration of Calvin Coolidge. While there she met Grady Miller, who was the brother-in-law of Senator Joseph T. Robinson.  After marrying Mr. Miller, she moved to Arkansas and made it her home for the next seven decades.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, she was active in the PTA, Junior League of Little Rock, and Colonial Dames.  Mrs. Miller was also active in Second Presbyterian Church.  As her two children became older, she and her husband traveled extensively.

Because she was related to Senator Robinson’s widow, Mayor J. V. Satterfield asked Mrs. Miller to serve on the Auditorium Commission.  She was subsequently reappointed every time her term came up.  For the 1940 ribbon cutting, Mrs. Miller joined her sister-in-law and Mayor Satterfield on the stage.  They were the only participants.  (It had been Mrs. Miller who informed Mrs. Robinson of her husband’s death.  Mr. Miller had called Mrs. Miller, who was visiting family in Ohio at the time, to inform her.  She then called her sister-in-law to extend her sympathies, not realizing that no one had yet informed Mrs. Robinson who was in Little Rock preparing for a trip.)

Several decades later as a Sunday School teacher in her late 60s, Mrs. Miller was not in favor of the musical HAIR being performed at Robinson.  When a federal judge ruled that it had to be allowed, Mrs. Miller was the only member of the Auditorium Commission who would speak to the press. Her response is one of the Culture Vulture’s favorite statements ever made to a member of the media.  “Oh dear,” was her only reply. She refused further elaboration.  While the Commission was wrong in opposing the show, the fact that none of her fellow commissioners (all men) would speak to the press, shows a lot of moxie on her behalf.


RobinsoNovember: Auditorium Commission Abolished

aud-com-abolOn November 16, 1971, the City of Little Rock Board of Directors abolished the Auditorium Commission which oversaw Robinson 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 last week.


RobinsoNovember: Ribbon Cuttings at Robinson Center

j-v-and-ewilda

In this ARKANSAS GAZETTE photo, Mayor Satterfield looks on as Mrs. Robinson cuts the ribbon to open Robinson Auditorium.

Today (Thursday, November 10) at 10am, the ribbon will be cut on the newly restored Robinson Center.  It seems like a good chance to look back at two prior ribbon cuttings for the building.

The original ribbon cutting was supposed to be outside on the evening of Friday, February 16, 1940.  It was moved indoors due to rain and cold temperatures.  The ribbon was originally to be stretched across the front columns, but instead was stretched across the front curtain.  The white satin ribbon stood out against the royal blue velvet curtains.

Four people participated in the ribbon cutting:  Little Rock Mayor J. V. Satterfield, Mrs. Ewilda Robinson – widow of Senator Robinson, Mrs. Emily Miller – sister-in-law of Senator Robinson and a member of the auditorium commission, and a D. Hodson Lewis of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce.  Mr. Lewis emceed the brief program, which was was broadcast live on a Little Rock radio station.  It consisted of Mr. Lewis introducing Mayor Satterfield, Mrs. Robinson and Mrs. Miller.  Mrs. Robinson chose not to make remarks.  Mayor Satterfield spoke briefly (a whopping twenty-nine words).  Then Mrs. Robinson cut the ribbon.  It took a couple of tries for her to get the scissors through the fabric on the ribbon.

Following that the building was officially opened.

In the late 1960s, City leaders started making plans for a renovation and expansion of Robinson Auditorium into a convention center.  In September 1973, a second ribbon cutting was held to celebrate the opening of the renovated space.  That ribbon was bright red and stretched from Ashley Street along Markham, wrapped into the side doors, and then back outside across the front of the building.  At the ceremony, Advertising and Promotion Commission Chairman Warren “Bud” Baldwin joked that they were having the longest ribbon and the shortest ceremony.

While the ribbon may have been long, the ceremony was not short.  Well, perhaps by ribbon cutting standards it was short, but it was certainly longer than the 1940 edition.  Among those participating in the ribbon cutting were Governor Dale Bumpers, Little Rock Mayor Bill Walters, and Miss Little Rock Risa McLemore.  The ribbon was cut by Miss McLemore and Ken Johnson of the Central States Shrine Association.  Over 14,000 Shriners were the first large convention in the new space.


RobinsoNovember: Mayor J. V. Satterfield Jr.

Satterfield AuditUpon taking office as mayor in April 1939, J. V. Satterfield felt he was getting a handle on Little Rock’s precarious financial situation. He would soon discover that it was more unstable than he had imagined.  Included in this was Robinson Auditorium, currently under construction across the street from his office in City Hall.  Mayor Satterfield disclosed that he had voted against the auditorium in 1937 because he felt the finances were not sufficient. But as the mayor, he promised to open the building.

By the summer of 1939, it was becoming apparent that there would not sufficient money to finish the construction.  Even with the issuance of the final round of approved bonds (which had been held back as a reserve), there would not be enough money.  The Mayor and Harvey Couch made plans to go to Washington DC to try to get more money from the federal government.  Mr. Couch was a personal friend of President Roosevelt as well as head of Arkansas Power & Light.  The pair made the trip but returned with no additional money.

At the same time, the Auditorium Commission, which had been appointed by Mayor Overman to oversee the governance of the building, resigned as a group. They said they had been appointed to administer a building, not a construction site. Since it was uncertain as to when the building would open, they stepped down.

Mayor Satterfield was able to negotiate a series of deals to get the necessary work completed for construction of the building to be completed. Part of it involved issuing another round of bonds after the building had been officially opened to finish furnishing the building as well as complete the landscaping.  In January 1940, with a new opening date becoming a stronger possibility, the mayor appointed a new Auditorium Commission.

At the same time, regular events started to take place in the lower level exhibition hall.  There had been a few in November and December, but with a lack of utilities and ongoing construction upstairs in the music hall, those were curtailed.

On February 16, 1940, Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium officially opened. Mayor Satterfield was joined onstage for the ribbon cutting with Senator Robinson’s widow and her sister-in-law, who was a member of the Auditorium Commission.

In April 1940, Little Rock voters approved the final round of bonds which allowed for the building to be finished.

After only two years in office, Mayor Satterfield chose not to seek another term. He left City Hall in April 1941 with finances in order and a new municipal auditorium across the street.