Little Rock Look Back: The THREE Mayoral Elections of 1951

On September 24, 1951, Pratt C. Remmel was nominated for Little Rock Mayor by the Pulaski County Republican Committee.  This was the first time there had been a GOP mayoral nominee in Little Rock since the 1880s.  It also set up a competitive General Election mayoral race for the first time in decades.

Incumbent Sam Wassell, a Democrat, was seeking a third two-year term. First elected in 1947 (after being unsuccessful in his quest for the position in 1945), Wassell had survived a primary and runoff in the summer of 1951. So confident was Mayor Wassell that Little Rock would remain a Democratic city, he barely campaigned for the office in the General Election.

While Mayor Wassell was ignoring the “run unopposed or run scared” maxim, he was not incorrect that Little Rock remained a stronghold for the Democratic Party.  Indeed there were no Republicans seeking office in Little Rock other than for mayor in 1951. Few, if any, Republicans had run for the City Council since Remmel had unsuccessfully made a race in the late 1930s.

In response to inquiries as to his lack of campaigning, Mayor Wassell averred that the voters had shown their support for him on July 31 and August 14. He continued that he did not see a reason to think the result would be different in November.  The 68 year-old Wassell stated that if he could defeat a young opponent who had over a decade of experience as an alderman, he could certainly defeat a young opponent who had no governmental experience.

In the July 1951 Democratic mayoral primary, Wassell had been challenged by Alderman Franklin Loy and grocer J. H. Hickinbotham.  Two years earlier, Wassell, seeking a second term, had dispatched Loy rather handily by a vote of 7,235 to 3,307.  He fully expected that 1951 should produce the same results as 1949.

But Wassell was trying to buck recent history.  Since 1925, no Little Rock mayor had won a nomination for a third term. One (J. V. Satterfield) had chosen not to seek a second term, while two (Pat L. Robinson and Dan T. Sprick) were defeated in their quest for two more years. Of those who served two two-year terms, a brace (Horace Knowlton as well as Charles Moyer in 1945) had not sought a third term.  Moyer HAD sought a third two-year term during his first stint as mayor (1925-1929) but was defeated. Likewise R. E. Overman also lost his bid for a third term.

By trying to win a third term, Wassell was seeking to return to the era of the first quarter of the 20th Century where several of his predecessors had been elected at least three times.  In his 1951 campaign, he was promising to stay the course of the previous four years. He answered his opponents’ ideas with a plan to continue providing services without having to raise taxes.  So confident was he of besting Loy and Hickinbotham that he predicted a 3 to 1 margin of victory.  A large horseshoe-shaped victory cake sat in a room at his campaign headquarters inside the Hotel Marion on election night.

The cake would remain uneaten.

When the results came in, Wassell had managed to get 5,720 votes to Loy’s 4,870. But with Hickinbotham surprising everyone (including probably himself) with 1,235 votes, no one had a majority.  The race was headed for a runoff two weeks later to be held in conjunction with the other city and county Democratic elections on August 14.

The day after the July 31 election, the Arkansas Gazette showed an dazed Wassell with top campaign aids in a posed picture looking at the results.  Further down the page, a jubilant Alderman Loy was surrounded by his wife and supporters.  The differing mood reflected in the photos was echoed in the two men’s statements that evening.  Wassell castigated his supporters for being overly-confident and not getting people to the polls. He further apologized to the Little Rock electorate for having to be “inconvenienced” with another election.  Loy, on the other hand, was excited and gratified. He thanked the citizens for their support.

The day of the runoff, a 250 pound black bear got loose at the Little Rock Zoo after the zoo had closed and took 45 minutes to be captured and returned to its pit.  Perhaps Wassell wondered if that bear was a metaphor for the Little Rock Democratic electorate.  Much like the bear returned to its pit, Little Rock’s Democrats returned to Wassell — or at least enough did.  Wassell captured 7,575 votes, while Loy received 6,544.  The moods that night echoed those two weeks earlier.  Wassell, his wife, and some supporters were combative towards the press (they were especially critical of the “negative” photo for which he had posed) while Loy was relaxed and magnanimous in defeat.

The closeness with which Mayor Wassell had escaped with the Democratic nomination was noticed.  A group of businessmen started seeking someone to run as an independent.  Likewise the Pulaski County GOP was open to fielding a candidate.  At a county meeting held at Pratt Remmel’s office, the offer of the nomination was tendered to their host.

After he was nominated in September, Remmel (who was County Chair and State Treasurer for the GOP) visited with the business leaders who were trying to find someone to run. He had made his acceptance of the nomination contingent on being sure there would be a coalition of independents and possibly even Democrats backing him in addition to the Republicans.

Once he was in the race, Remmel was tireless.  He blanketed newspapers with ads touting his plans and criticizing the lackadaisical attitude of his opponent. He made speeches and knocked on doors. He worked so hard that once during the campaign his doctor ordered him to 48 hour bedrest.

Mayor Wasssell, for his part, was confident voters would stick with party loyalty.  But as the November 6 election day grew nearer some City and County leaders grew increasingly wary.  Still, the Mayor rebuffed their concerns.  Someone had even gone so far as to set up a campaign office for him in the Hotel Marion. But before it could officially open, it was shut down.  (While the Mayor had criticized his supporters for being overly-confident in the July election, he apparently was not concerned about too much confidence this time around.)

Remmel had an aggressive campaign message promising better streets, more parking availability, a new traffic signalization plan, and the desire for expressways. His slogan was “a third bridge, not a third term” in reference to the proposed expressway bridge across the Arkansas River. (This would eventually be built and is now the much-debated I-30 bridge.)

The Saturday before the election, the Hogs beat Texas A&M in Fayetteville at Homecoming while a cold snap held the South in its grip.  In addition to featuring both of those stories heavily, that weekend’s papers also carried the first ads advocating for Wassell. They were Wassell ads, in a manner.  Ads from the County Democratic Committee, County Democratic Women, and Democratic officeholders in the county urged voters to stick to party loyalty.  That would be the closest to a Wassell campaign ad in the autumn of 1951.

The night before the election, Wassell made his only radio appearance of the campaign while Remmel made yet another of his several appearances. Earlier that day in driving rain, there had been a Remmel rally and caravan through downtown, including passing by City Hall.

That evening, as the results came in, the fears of Democratic leaders were well-founded.  Remmel carried 23 precincts. Wassell won two precincts and the absentee ballots. His victories in those three boxes were only by a total of 46 votes.  Remmel won both Wassell’s home precinct (377 to 163) and his own (1,371 to 444).

In the end, the total was 7,794 for Remmel and 3,668 for Wassell.

And Little Rock was poised to have its first Republican mayor since W. G. Whipple had left office in April 1891, sixty years earlier.

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Little Rock Look Back: Truman attends WWI Reunion

Outside of his capacity as President of the United States, Harry S. Truman visited Little Rock on June 10, 1949, for the annual reunion of the 35th Division, his World War I unit.  He was joined on this trip by members of Arkansas’ congressional delegation and his sister.

Upon arriving in Little Rock, President Truman gave brief remarks at a welcome reception inside Robinson Auditorium.  He also spoke at a reception at the Hotel Marion and following a ball given at Robinson Auditorium.

In all of his June 10th remarks, President Truman spoke of the hospitality he always enjoyed in Little Rock. He discussed visits he had made over the years, including a stay at the Hotel Marion while in Arkansas campaigning for Senator Hattie Caraway.

At the ball, he commented on how, as a Baptist, he had not learned how to dance.  He then joked that however he had picked up other habits which were perhaps not in keeping with his Baptist faith.

At one event, President Truman asked all in attendance to shake hands with their neighbors as a way to shake his hand by proxy.  He explained that on inauguration day, he had shaken over 25,000 hands. Given the fact that he signed 600 documents a day, regardless whether he was in Washington or not, he felt he could not keep up with shaking hands all day.

As he concluded the day, he previewed that he would be giving a national address the next day while in Little Rock.  In his usual, self-deprecating way, Truman remarked “…if you want to hear the President of the United States you had better come out to the stadium tomorrow, and I will tell you something that will be good for your souls.”

The texts of all of his remarks while in Little Rock can be found here.

Little Rock Look Back: World Premiere of a movie in Little Rock

Dr Wassell adAll right Mr. DeMille, Little Rock was ready for its close up.

From April 24 to 26, 1944, 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.

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.

Putting the LIT in Pulitzer

two_medalsThe 2018 Pulitzer Prizes are announced later today.  Over the years, there have been several Pulitzer winners with connections to Little Rock.

In 1939,  Little Rock native John Gould Fletcher, a scion of a politically prominent family, won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his work Selected Poems.  He appears to be the first Pulitzer Prize winner with Little Rock connections.

The 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Drama went to South Pacific. With a leading lady who is from Little Rock, this Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Joshua Logan musical explores race against the backdrop of World War II.  It is based on James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, which won the 1948 Pulitzer for Fiction. (Because it was a collection of interrelated short stories, the category was changed from Novel to Fiction from that year onward.)  But in the Michener book, Forbush is not from Little Rock.  In fact, she is not even from Arkansas, but hails from Alabama.

The Arkansas Gazette made Pulitzer history in 1958 by winning both the Public Service and Editorial prizes in the same year. This was the first time that one organization had received both awards in the same year.  These were for the coverage of and response to the 1957 integration of Central High School by the Little Rock Nine.  J. N. Heiskell was the paper’s owner and editor, while Harry Ashmore led the editorial page.  Relman Morin of the Associated Press received the Pulitzer for National Reporting for his coverage of the events at Central.  Apparently Will Counts of the Arkansas Democrat was the jurors’ choice to receive the Pulitzer for Photography. But the Board opted to give the prize to another photographer.  Some speculate that the Pulitzer Board did not want to give four prizes in the same year for the same story.

Current Little Rock resident Paul Greenberg won the 1969 Pulitzer for Editorial Writing.  at the time, he worked for the Pine Bluff Commercial.   In 1986, he was a finalist in the same category.  Greenberg moved to Little Rock to join the staff of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 1992.  While no longer the Editorial Page Editor, Greenberg continues to write columns for the newspaper.

Former Little Rock resident Richard Ford received the 1996 Pulitzer for Fiction for his novel Independence Day.  As a young boy of eight, and for several years after, Ford spent much time at Little Rock’s Marion Hotel with his grandparents.  In making the presentation, the Pulitzer Board noted it was, “A visionary account of American life, Independence Day reveals a man and country with unflinching comedy and the specter of hope and even permanence…”

The Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2001 went to David Auburn.  A 1987 graduate of Hall High School, Auburn was recognized for his play Proof.  The Pulitzer Board described Proof thus: “This poignant drama about love and reconciliation unfolds on the back porch of a house settled in a suburban university town, that is, like David Auburn’s writing, both simple and elegant.”  Auburn also served as a 2014 juror for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  While a student in Little Rock, Auburn participated in theatre at the Arkansas Arts Center.

MacArthur Returns to Little Rock

MacArthur and Mayor Remmel

General MacArthur and Mayor Remmel

On Sunday, March 23, 1952, General Douglas MacArthur made his only post-infancy visit to Little Rock. He had previously been scheduled to visit Mississippi, and Little Rock Mayor Pratt Remmel had persuaded him to add a visit to Little Rock to the agenda. The fact that Little Rock now had a Republican mayor had apparently piqued the General’s interest.

General MacArthur, accompanied by his wife and son as well as several journalists and members of his military retinue, arrived at Little Rock Airport at 10:40 am. He was met by a delegation of civic leaders including Mayor Remmel. Alderman James Griffey made welcoming remarks on behalf of the city. Then the General and Mayor boarded an open car and led a motorcade from the airport to downtown.

The motorcade’s destination was Christ Episcopal Church at Capitol and Scott streets. It was at this church that MacArthur had been baptized as an infant. The delegation was greeted by the Episcopal Bishop R. Bland Mitchell, Rector J. Hodge Alves, and Rector Emeritus W. P. Witsell. (While he had been Rector, Dr. Witsell had garnered national attention by issuing an Easter blessing to Gen. MacArthur as he had been evacuating the Philippines at the height of World War II.) In order to gain admittance to the church that morning, church members and guests had to have tickets.

Following the worship service, the General and his party went to three events in the park named in his honor. The first was a tour of the Museum of Natural History (now the Museum of Discovery and located in the River Market; the current tenant of the building is the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History), which was located in the building in which the General had been born. After the tour, he spoke at a dedication of a small rose garden adjacent to the museum. It was sponsored by the Little Rock City Beautiful Commission and the Garden Clubs of Greater Little Rock.

Though every stop of the General’s visit had featured crowds, the largest was at the third location in MacArthur Park. A crowd of several thousand greeted the General as he spoke from the Foster Bandshell in the park’s southwest corner. Chamber of Commerce president Richard C. Butler (brother-in-law of Mayor Remmel) was the master of ceremonies. Following an invocation by Methodist Bishop Paul Martin, the only other speaker was the General. In his remarks he spoke of his Southern heritage and of his appreciation for the support of the citizens of Little Rock over the years.

Several gifts were bestowed upon the MacArthurs at the ceremony. The City of Little Rock presented Mrs. MacArthur with an engraved silver serving tray.

Following the events in MacArthur Park, the family retired for a brief respite to the Hotel Marion. They then attended a luncheon buffet in their honor at the home of Howard and Elsie Stebbins on Edgehill Road. The General and Mrs. MacArthur circulated through the house greeting guests and then eschewed a special table in favor of balancing their plates on their laps and sitting in wingback chairs. Meanwhile Arthur MacArthur stayed upstairs and discussed stamp collecting and other hobbies with the Stebbins’ two teenage sons.

Following the luncheon, the MacArthur party went back to the airport and by 4:00pm, the plane was in the air.

Though this visit was coming at the end of a whirlwind of activities, by all accounts, the General and Mrs. MacArthur were very gracious and accommodating. The General was being mentioned as a potential GOP candidate for President, but purposefully steered clear of any political comments in his remarks. He and Mrs. MacArthur dutifully posed for photos not only for the media but also for amateur photographers. At lunch, the General even asked a Gazette photographer to take a photo of him with his Little Rock Police motorcycle escorts so that they could have a souvenir of the visit.

Little Rock Look Back: Farewell to the Hotel Marion and the Grady Manning Hotel

Manning Implosion.JPGOn February 17, 1980, a cold and clear Sunday morning, over seven decades of Arkansas history came tumbling down as the Hotel Marion and Grady Manning Hotel were imploded.  Thousands of people watched from places in downtown Little Rock and along the Arkansas River.  Many more were able to watch from live coverage carried on KATV, KARK and KTHV.  Those that missed it were able to see the replays multiple times on the news.

It was the first large-scale implosion in Little Rock’s history.  (It was likely the first implosion, but there could have been a small one that is not known.)  The two hotels were torn down to make way for the construction of the Excelsior Hotel and the Statehouse Convention Center.

The Hotel Marion, named after the builder Herman Kahn for his wife, opened in 1907. For four years it was Arkansas’ tallest structure.  It was the largest and grandest hotel in the City. For decades it would be the host to many dignitaries, conventions, and gala celebrations.

The Grady Manning Hotel was originally known as the Hotel Ben McGhee when it opened in 1930.   Manning was the head of the company which owned both the Marion and Ben McGhee properties.  Upon his untimely death by drowning in September 1939, the property was subsequently renamed in his memory.

The Manning Hotel, though taller, was never as grand a hotel as the Marion.  It was more of a mid-range property in pricing.

By the 1970s, both hotels were suffering from neglect and disinterest.  Changes in the lodging industry combined with a decline in downtown Little Rock had left both facilities with little business.

When Little Rock civic and government leaders decided to construct a larger convention center downtown with an adjacent hotel, it was decided that neither of these facilities could be properly renovated to be part of the project.  Instead, the land on which they stood (and the space in between) would be prime for the new hotel and center.

So, on the cold Sunday morning, the explosives were detonated, and the buildings came down.   Sunday morning was chosen because it would have the least impact on traffic flows since it would cause numerous streets to be closed for safety reasons.  The blast was delayed due to a rumor that someone might be in one of the buildings.  After checking both sites and finding them empty, the charges were set off.

And the Marion and Grady Manning became as much a memory as the long gone people who had once populated them.

The University of Arkansas’ Pryor Center for Oral and Visual History has a video of the implosion.

Rock the Oscars: THE STORY OF DR. WASSELL

Dr WassellFrom 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.