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.

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Little Rock Look Back: LR Voters approve additional funds for Robinson Center in 1940

Though Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium opened in February 1940, there was still money that needed to be raised to finish the construction and the building’s furnishing.  Ten days after the auditorium opening, the City Council approved an ordinance to call a special election on April 2, 1940, for the purposes of approving bonds for three separate projects.  One of these was for $30,000 for the completion of the auditorium; the bonds would not require any additional tax levy.

At the same meeting, a letter was read from the Young Men’s Business Association expressing support for the auditorium in the election, which was to be held in conjunction with the annual municipal general election. The Auditorium Commission had previously asked the City Council to consider issuing the bonds to pay for additional equipment for the building.  In their request to the aldermen, the members stressed that due to the current bond structure, these new bonds would not necessitate any tax increase.

The campaign for the new bonds used a similar structure and message as the 1937 election to build the auditorium.  There were newspaper ads by the steering committee (this time simply called the Citizen’s Committee and led by Omar Throgmorton) and support from civic organizations.  One thing very different from the 1937 campaign was the presence of an actual building.  On Sunday, March 31, just two days before the election, there was an open house for the public to explore the edifice.  From 1:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., members of various Little Rock Boy Scout troops led 4,000 visitors on tours of the auditorium.  Visitors were shown all over the building; one scout calculated that the walking tour equated to two miles.  Though most people were from Little Rock, the guest registry indicated visitors from California and Pennsylvania.

On April 2, 1940, Little Rock voters approved the new bonds 1,413 to 423.  Every precinct in every ward of the city voted in favor of the new bonds.  Shortly after the election, the bonds were issued.  The auditorium construction which had first been broached in 1904 was now completed in 1940.

Little Rock Look Back: Werner C. Knoop

To Little Rock citizens under a certain age, the name Knoop means Knoop Park — a picturesque park tucked away in a pocket of Hillcrest.  There are, however, still many who remember Werner C. Knoop as a business and political leader who helped shape Little Rock as a modern city.

Knoop was born on March 30, 1902.

In 1946, Knoop joined with Olen A. Cates and P. W. Baldwin to form Baldwin Construction Company in Little Rock.  Knoop had previously founded Capital Steel Company and established his business reputation there.  From 1945 through 1951, he served on the Little Rock School Board.

Following a series of political scandals, efforts were undertaken for Little Rock to shift from Mayor-Council to City Manager form of government.  Even before the desegregation of Little Rock Central put the city in the eyes of the world, an election for new leaders had been set for November 1957.  Knoop was on a “Good Government” slate and was one of the members elected.

At the first meeting of the new City Board, Werner C. Knoop was chosen by his fellow directors to serve as Little Rock Mayor.  Knoop served as Mayor until December 1962.  For the first several months in office, Little Rock had no City Manager so Knoop oversaw the transition of City staff as the forms of government changed.

Though City Hall generally stayed out of school district matters, that did not mean that the public viewed the two entities separately.  In September 1959, the Baldwin Construction offices were bombed as part of a series of terrorist activities protesting the desegregated reopening of all Little Rock high schools.

Downtown LR as viewed from Knoop Park

Downtown LR as viewed from Knoop Park

After two terms on the City Board, Knoop decided against seeking a third term.  He concluded his elected public service on December 31, 1962.  Following his time on the City Board, Knoop did not retire from Civic Affairs.  In 1970, he served as Chairman of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce.   The previous year he served as President of the Arkansas Chapter of Associated General Contractors.

Mayor Knoop died in July 1983.  He is buried at Roselawn Memorial Park next to his wife Faith Yingling Knoop, a renowned author.

In the 1930s, Knoop moved into an Art Moderne house on Ozark Point in Hillcrest.  It was adjacent to Little Rock Waterworks property which was developed around the same time.  Eventually much of the land was deeded to the City for creation of a park.  In 1989, it was named in tribute to long-time neighbor Knoop in honor of his lifetime of service to Little Rock.

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: Suit filed calling for integration of LR public facilities

Attorney Wiley Branton, who filed the law suit.

On March 8, 1962, 22 members of the Council on Community Affairs filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the city Board of Directors for the desegregation of “public parks, recreational facilities, Joseph T. Robinson Auditorium and all other public facilities.”  The members included journalists, dentists, attorneys, school teachers and other members of Little Rock’s African American professional class.  Attorney Wiley Branton, Sr., filed the suit.

Though the City’s Auditorium Commission was mentioned in the suit, they were not served with papers. So when media contacted them, they made no comment.

Historian John A. Kirk has written, “Members of the City Board were willing to admit that the desegregation of public facilities was ‘a foregone conclusion’ if the case went to court, but they remained committed to fighting the lawsuit if only to buy time to devise other methods to avoid desegregation.”

The decision was rendered in February 1963 that the City must integrate its public facilities.

In 1951, the City’s library facilities had been integrated followed by the bus system in 1956. Both of these had been accomplished without incident.  Of course the same was not said for the integration of the public schools in 1957.

In 1961, there had been attempts to have Robinson Auditorium integrated after Duke Ellington threatened to cancel a concert rather than play to a segregated crowd.  The Auditorium Commission refused to change its policy, and Ellington did not play the concert.

Based on efforts of the Council of Community Affairs working with white business leaders, downtown lunch counters and businesses were integrated starting in January 1963.  The efforts of the Council of Community Affairs and the white business leaders are commemorated in the Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail with medallions in front of the Little Rock Regional Chamber building.

Little Rock Look Back: Opening of Robinson Auditorium

robinson-auditorium-by-scott-carterOn 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.  (The concept of a municipal auditorium for Little Rock had first been raised in 1904, so this evening was truly a long time in the works.)

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.”

Auditorium Commission chairman E. E. Beaumont, a local banker, noted that while event planners knew the evening of ballet and classical music would not appeal to everyone, it was intended to show the wide range of offerings that would be suitable in the new space.  Earlier in the week, children’s theatre performances had been offered to school groups through the auspices of the Junior League of Little Rock.

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.

Little Rock Look Back: Bombing of the Carlotta Walls Home

On February 9, 1960, a bomb was detonated at the home of Carlotta Walls. One of the Little Rock Nine as a sophomore, she was now in her senior year at Little Rock Central High.  This followed the September 1959 Labor Day bombings in Little Rock.

The bomb went off at approximately 11:00pm.  The blast could be heard for two miles from the house (located at 1500 S Valentine St.). Carlotta’s mother, Juanita, and sisters were at home with her, though her father, Cartelyou, was at his father’s house at 3910 West 18th Street.  Thankfully all members of the family were not physically harmed.  Two sticks of dynamite were used for the bomb.  The blast removed brick and broke three windows in the Walls house.

According to media accounts, this bombing was the first in the United States directed at a student since the 1954 US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.  As such, it made national headlines.  Carlotta was not deterred.  She had no thought of dropping out of school.

Reaction in the community including the Women’s Emergency Committee deploring the action and the NAACP being outraged.  The Little Rock School District only stated that it was a matter for the police.  The Chamber of Commerce was concerned about the impact it would have on attracting industry.

The FBI came in to investigate in addition to the Little Rock Police Department.  Two African Americans, Herbert Monts and Maceo Binns, Jr., were convicted for causing the bombing. Binns’ conviction was thrown out because it was proven he was coerced into a confession.  Monts served twenty (20) months of a five year sentence.  The supposed motive was to build sympathy for the African American community.  Carlotta Walls LaNier has stated that she did not believe the men bombed her house.

Monts has petitioned the Arkansas Parole Board for a pardon. It is scheduled to be reviewed in September 2018.