Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area

Little Rock Look Back: Birth of Joseph Taylor Robinson

Future Senator Joseph Taylor Robinson was born in Lonoke in August 26, 1872.  In 1894 Robinson was elected to the Arkansas General Assembly for one term.  From 1903 until 1913, he served in the US House of Representatives as a Congressman from Arkansas’ then-Sixth District.

He chose not to seek another term in Congress and ran for Governor in 1912.  On January 3, 1913, sitting US Senator Jeff Davis died in office.  Robinson was sworn in as Governor on January 16, 1913. Twelve days later he was chosen by the Arkansas General Assembly to become the next US Senator. He became the final US Senator to be selected by a legislator instead of popular vote.  At the time, Senate terms started in March, so Robinson served as governor until March 8, 1913.

He rose through the ranks of the Senate and eventually became the first person to hold the title of Senate Majority Leader.  In 1928, he was the Vice Presidential nominee for the Democratic Party.  Four years later, he rode with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt to the inauguration ceremonies before FDR took the oath.  He would be President Roosevelt’s go-to man on legislative issues.

Senator Robinson died in Washington D.C. on July 14, 1937.  His wife was in Little Rock making preparations for a trip the couple was to take. Following his demise, Mrs. Robinson went to Washington to accompany her husband’s body back to Arkansas.

It was not until December 1937, that Senator Robinson’s name became attached to the municipal auditorium which Little Rock voters had approved in January 1937.  Mrs. Robinson participated in the December 24, 1937, groundbreaking for the auditorium.

Naming the auditorium after him was not Little Rock’s first attempt at honoring Senator Robinson.  In 1930, portions of Lincoln, Q, and Cantrell streets were renamed Robinson Drive in his honor. This was part of an effort to give Highway 10 (which had four different names as it wended through the City) a single name in Little Rock.  A few months later the Senator requested that the original names be returned.  Cantrell had been named in honor of a developer who was continuing to work in the area surrounding that street.  The Senator felt it should be named after Mr. Cantrell.  As part of that, the name Cantrell was extended to most of Highway 10 within the Little Rock city limits.

In 1935, on Senator Robinson’s ante-penultimate birthday, the Little Rock City Council coincidentally approved the plans for a municipal auditorium which would then be submitted to the Public Works Administration.  It was this project which would become Robinson Auditorium.



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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.

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.

RobinsoNovember: Ewilda Miller Robinson

mrs-jtr-in-1938In a hallway at Robinson Center, are portraits of Senator Robinson and his wife:  Ewilda “Billie” Miller Robinson.  It is fitting that she be recognized at the building in addition to her husband.

Mrs. Robinson first was connected to Robinson Center when she participated in the groundbreaking on December 24, 1937. That ceremony was the first mention that the building would be named in memory of her husband.  On February 16, 1940, she cut the ribbon to officially open the new building.  At neither ceremony did she make remarks.

From the time they were married in December 1896 until his death in July 1937, Mrs. Robinson was devoted to her husband. She rarely spent time away from him.  She traveled the world with the Senator.  Given his leadership positions within the Senate and the Democratic Party, she spent time with numerous national and world figures.  When he died in Washington DC, she was actually back in Little Rock to make preparations for them to take an extended trip.  It was said she was inconsolable upon learning of her husband’s death.

After the Senator died, Mrs. Robinson was appointed postmistress of Little Rock and served in that capacity for 15 years.  For someone who was not sure she could survive a day without her husband, she lived another 21 years after his death.  She died in August 1958 and was buried next to him in Roselawn Cemetery.

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: Ribbon Cuttings at Robinson Center


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 R. E. Overman

Overman AuditR. E. Overman assumed the office of Little Rock mayor in April 1935. Around that time, a new wave of New Deal programs were filtering down from Washington DC to cities.  It can be said of Mayor Overman that he did not meet a New Deal program he did not like.  From rebuilding the sewer system, to creating a public water utility, to constructing of structures for the Museum of Fine Arts, Little Rock Zoo, and Boyle Park, Mayor Overman signed the City up for program after program.

While the programs were all worthwhile, and in some cases absolute necessities, Mayor Overman did not seem to consider how these massive projects running concurrently would impact the City finances.  In November 1935, he submitted a proposal to the Public Works Administration for the construction of a new municipal auditorium to be located at the northeast corner of the intersection of Scott Street and Capitol Avenue. It would have taken up three/quarters of that block and wrapped around the Women’s City Club building (now the Junior League of Little Rock headquarters).  Because of other projects in the works, he did not pursue any further action on the auditorium project at the time.

In November 1936, Mayor Overman asked the City Council to place three bond issues on a special election ballot for January 1937, one of which was a municipal auditorium. Though a location had previously been identified in 1935, at this point in time supporters made a concerted effort to disclose that no location had been selected.  After the election was called, there was a concerted effort by supporters of the three separate bond issues to collaborate.  Voters overwhelmingly approved all three issues, and Little Rock’s journey to a municipal auditorium at last was underway. Perhaps.

Over the summer, architects and lawyers were selected. In the autumn, a consultant was hired to help with the selection for the site.  The month of October was consumed with City Council battles over the auditorium site.  Mayor Overman favored a location at Markham and Spring Streets (now site of the Cromwell Building and the Bankruptcy Courthouse). Because the Federal Government owned half the site and did not want to sell it, that location was deemed not feasible – though that did not stop Mayor Overman and others from repeatedly citing it as their first choice.  The only person who favored the location at Markham and Broadway did not have a vote: Planning Commission Chair J. N. Heiskell. Though he had no vote, he had the twin bully pulpits of Planning Commission and the Arkansas Gazette. As other sites fell by the wayside, he kept advocating for it.  Finally, the City Council approved of Heiskell’s choice, and the auditorium had a site.

The groundbreaking had to take place by January 1, 1938, or the money would be rescinded. After finalizing a location, planning could get underway.  With a week to spare, the ground was broken on December 24, 1937.  Mrs. Joseph T. Robinson, widow of the recently deceased US Senator from Arkansas, joined Mayor Overman in the groundbreaking. This ceremony was the first mention of the building being named in memory of the fallen senator, who had died in the summer of 1937.

Construction progressed throughout 1938 and into 1939.  Because of the precarious state of the City’s finances, Mayor Overman lost the support of the business community.  In November 1938, he lost his bid for the Democratic nomination for Mayor and was denied a third two-year term.  He left office in April 1939.