Rock the Oscars 2019: THE STORY OF DR. WASSELL

From April 24 to 26, 1944, future Oscar winner Cecil B. DeMille was in Little Rock for the world premiere screening of The Story of Dr. Wassell.  This 1944 Paramount Pictures Technicolor release told the story of wartime hero Dr. Corydon Wassell.  It would be nominated for the Oscar for Best Special Effects.

Why was Little Rock chosen?  It was the hometown of Dr. Wassell.  His paternal grandfather, John Wassell, was Little Rock’s 27th mayor.  His first cousin, Sam Wassell, was serving on the City Council at the time of the film’s release and would become Little Rock’s 51st mayor.

Based on a book by James Hilton, it was inspired by the heroic efforts of Dr. Wassell, a naval officer, as he led the evacuation of several sailors (and treated their wounds) in Java in February 1942.  President Roosevelt highlighted Dr. Wassell in his May 26, 1942, fireside chat.

Little Rock rolled out the red carpet (literally and figuratively) for DeMille and a contingency from Hollywood.  Dr. and Mrs. Wassell also returned to Little Rock for the festivities.  Unfortunately, Gary Cooper (who played Wassell in the film) was unable to attend due to illness.  His costar, Laraine Day, was making another film and could not attend either.    Those in attendance with DeMille (and Mrs. DeMille) included actresses Signe Hasso and Carol Thurston, and actor Melvin Francis.  The latter played himself; he had actually been one of the sailors saved by Dr. Wassell.

On April 24, 1944, DeMille and Dr. Wassell appeared on a radio program broadcast live from the music hall of Robinson Auditorium.  The next day, the troupe toured Camp Robinson and spoke to the soldiers there.  Later that day, Miss Hasso and Miss Thurston sold war bonds at Pfeiffers and M.M. Cohn’s.

April 26, 1944, was a full day for the DeMilles, the Wassells, and the others.  It started with a luncheon at the Hotel Marion, hosted by the Lions Club and Little Rock Chamber of Commerce.  Governor Homer Adkins presented DeMille with an Arkansas Traveler certificate.  DeMille, in return, presented Governor Adkins with a copy of the script.

When it was Dr. Wassell’s time to speak, he praised Little Rock’s efforts on the home front.  He also asked for a standing tribute to longtime Little Rock school superintendent R.C. Hall, who had died the day before.  Dr. Wassell had taught with Mr. Hall decades earlier.

Following the lunch, there was a parade on Main Street.  It started at 10th and Main and proceeded to Markham before ending at the War Memorial Building (now the Old State House Museum).  Newspaper accounts said that it was four miles long and featured many military units and marching bands.

Dinner that evening was at the Lafayette Hotel before screenings of the movie at the Capitol and Arkansas Theatres. Both screenings were sold out.  On April 27, 1944, a regular run of the movie started at the Capitol Theatre.  It would be released nationally on July 4, 1944, which also happened to be Dr. Wassell’s birthday.

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Rock the Oscars 2019: Marjorie Lawrence

Opera star Marjorie Lawrence, CBE, was born in Australia, but spent the last two decades of her life in Arkansas.   Her triumph over polio to return to the opera stage was the subject of the Oscar winning film Interrupted Melody.

First singing in her native country, she rose to star in the opera halls of Europe before conquering the Metropolitan Opera.  Lawrence had contracted polio as an adult while on a trip to Mexico.  She eventually returned to the stage, usually singing while seated or reclining.  She also had an extensive recital career.  She performed at the White House at the invitation of Franklin Roosevelt and later Lyndon Johnson. During World War II, she performed at Buckingham Palace.  When Queen Elizabeth II made her a Commander of the British Empire in 1977, the Queen fondly remembered that wartime concert.

Eleanor Parker as Lawrence in INTERRUPTED MELODY

In 1949, she wrote her autobiography Interrupted Melody. The next year, Hollywood was interested in making it into a film.  Lawrence only wanted to agree to that if she herself did the singing.  In 1955, MGM released the film starring Eleanor Parker as Lawrence and Glenn Ford as her husband. Lawrence did not provide the singing voice; Eileen Farrell did.  Lawrence was openly critical of the film, though some suspected it was because she did not get to sing for it.  By the time of the filming, her vocal range was not what it had been, which is apparently what led MGM to make the decision not to use her.

Despite Lawrence’s disdain for the film, the film was financially successful.  It was nominated for three Oscars: Original Screenplay (though it was actually based on a book), Eleanor Parker as Best Actress, and Costume Design for Color motion pictures.  Sonya Levien and William Ludwig won the statuette for their screenplay.

Lawrence and her husband bought a ranch near Hot Springs in 1952.  She spent most of her life there afterward though she was a vocal coach at Southern Illinois University and Tulane. She also welcomed international students to her home for coaching.  In 1975, she started working with students from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.  She was also an early member of the Arkansas Arts Council.

Lawrence died in January 1979 and is buried in Hot Springs.

Little Rock Look Back: TR in LR AR

On October 25, 1905, President Teddy Roosevelt, recently elected to a four year term in his own right, made an appearance in Little Rock.

He was greeted at the train station by Governor Jeff Davis and was the guest of honor in a parade up Main Street to City Park (now MacArthur Park) in where a public meeting was held featuring remarks by the President.  During this remarks, speaking to a largely Democratic crowd, the Republican Roosevelt noted: “The candidate is the candidate of a party; but if the president is worth his salt he is the president of the whole people.”

According to media reports at the time, Main Street from Markham to Tenth was a solid mass of cheering spectators for the parade.  This was the first time a sitting President had spent time in Little Rock away from a train station. The only other incumbent President to visit Little Rock had been Benjamin Harrison, who had made only a brief layover.

Roosevelt would make three more visits to Arkansas.  In 1910, he spoke at the Arkansas State Fair in Hot Springs.  In April and September 1912, he made several campaign stops in the state as he was running to reclaim the presidency, this time heading the Progressive (or Bull Moose) ticket.  Though Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, would visit briefly once in office and once after leaving office, it would not be until Roosevelt’s cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited in 1936, that another sitting President spent much time in the state after TR’s 1905 visit.

Little Rock Look Back: Open House Gala for Museum of Fine Arts

On Tuesday, October 5, 1937, the Fine Arts Club of Little Rock held its first meeting in the new Museum of Fine Arts.  But it was not a typical meeting. It was an Open House and Dedication for the new building.

Construction on the 10,140 square foot building had commenced with the January 3, 1936, groundbreaking.  By September 1937, the keys were presented to the City, marking the end of the construction process.

During the October 5 events, a letter of congratulations was read by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and WPA Administrator Harry L. Hopkins.  A letter which had been prepared by Sen Joe T. Robinson prior to his death was also read.  Mayor R. E. Overman, architect H. Ray Burks, and Fred W. Allsopp spoke at the event.  The latter was chair of the museum’s board.  Over 1,000 people were in attendance. At the time the city’s population was around 87,000.

The museum officially opened its doors to the public on October 28, 1937.  Irene Robinson, a longtime member of the Fine Arts Club, was its first director and would serve in that capacity for two decades.

The original facade of the Museum can still be seen inside the Arkansas Arts Center.  Once the expansion and renovation of that building is complete in 2022, the original entrance will be highlighted even more with the new design.

 

JFK in ARK (and specifically LR)

On October 3, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered remarks at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds.  Only a few weeks later, he would be felled by an assassins bullet in Texas.

In the speech, the President praised Arkansas’ congressional delegation including Senators John McClellan and J. William Fulbright and Congressmen Took Gathings, Bill Trimble, Wilbur Mills and Oren Harris.  Each of these men held senior leadership positions in key committees.  The main focus of the speech was to discuss President Kennedy’s vision for a new economy in the South.

The President was actually in the state to speak at the dedication of the Greers Ferry Dam. He agreed to make that appearance as a part of a negotiation with Congressman Mills as they were deadlocked over changes to the tax code.  He had previously visited Little Rock in 1957 when he came to the state to address the Arkansas Bar Association meeting in Hot Springs.

President Kennedy continued the string of 20th Century Presidents to visit Little Rock.  Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman had all visited while in office.  Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower all visited prior to attaining the presidency.

LR Culture Vulture turns 7

The Little Rock Culture Vulture debuted on Saturday, October 1, 2011, to kick off Arts & Humanities Month.

The first feature was on the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, which was kicking off its 2011-2012 season that evening.  The program consisted of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90, Rossini’s, Overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers, Puccini’s Chrysanthemums and Respighi’s Pines of Rome.  In addition to the orchestra musicians, there was an organ on stage for this concert.

Since then, there have been 10,107 persons/places/things “tagged” in the blog.  This is the 3,773rd entry. (The symmetry to the number is purely coincidental–or is it?)  It has been viewed over 288,600 times, and over 400 readers have made comments.  It is apparently also a reference on Wikipedia.

The most popular pieces have been about Little Rock history and about people in Little Rock.

Little Rock Look Back: Memorial Services for Senator Robinson

As Arizona Senator John McCain is being remembered in a series of memorial services, it seems an appropriate time to recall the series of services for Arkansas’ senator who was on a national party ticket. That man was Joseph Taylor Robinson.

Like Senator McCain, Senator Robinson was honored in services both in the state he represented as well as at the US Capitol.

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.

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.