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.


Little Rock Look Back: Robinson Center closes for renovation

On July 1, 2014, Robinson Center Music Hall closed so that renovations could commence.  Instead of having a groundbreaking ceremony, Gretchen Hall and LRCVB arranged for a “stage breaking.”  Slats from the stage flooring were pried up with crowbars.

Twenty-eight months later, Robinson Center reopened on-time and on-budget.

(As a side note:  the Culture Vulture announced the countdown before Governor Mike Beebe and various Little Rock leaders used their crowbars for the first breaking of the stage flooring.)

Here are some photos from that ceremony.


Little Rock Look Back: HST in LR

HST in LR2On June 10 and 11, 1949, President Harry S. Truman visited Little Rock.  He was here to participate in activities connected to the reunion of the 35th Division Association.  He had served in that division during World War I.

While he was in Little Rock, President Truman spoke several times.  He generally was accompanied by Governor Sid McMath and Mayor Sam Wassell.

On June 10, he spoke at Robinson Auditorium as part of a welcome ceremony, at a reception at the Hotel Marion and at a ball held at Robinson Auditorium.  His first address was at 3:48 pm and his final one was at 10:15 pm.  The next day he spoke at a breakfast and at a luncheon at the Hotel Marion.  He took pains at these times to stress he was here as a member of the 35th Division.  He also participated in a parade.

In his Presidential role, he spoke at the dedication of War Memorial Park on June 11.  His address took place inside War Memorial Stadium, which had been opened a few months earlier.  It was not a brief dedicatory speech, but instead was a lengthy treatise on foreign affairs.  The address was carried on nationwide radio.  The text of his address can be found here.

President Truman would return to Little Rock in July 1952.  He was in the state to speak at the dedication of Bull Shoals Dam. He did not make any formal remarks in Little Rock while in the city for that visit.


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Little Rock Look Back: Cornice installed at Robinson Auditorium

On June 1, 1939, the cornice was installed on Robinson Auditorium.  This granite slab noted the name of the building as the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium.  (It is interesting to note that it used the more modern “u” instead of the classical “v” which was often used in buildings during prior decades – as evidenced by the Pvlaski Covnty Covrt Hovse across the street.)

This was a milestone marking the completion of the front facade of the structure.  Much work would continue on the interior of the structure.  This step in the construction was considered major enough that the Arkansas Gazette mentioned it in a news article.

On this date in 2015 and 2016, the cornice was again surrounded by construction materials and braces. But the restoration of Robinson Center finished in November 2016. Once again, the cornice stands proudly atop the six columns with no impediments around it.


Little Rock Look Back: Elvis headlines Robinson

Photo by Wayne Cranford

After two visits in 1955 where he was down on the bill, Elvis Presley made his third and final appearance at Robinson Auditorium on May 16, 1956.  This time he was the star and Robinson was packed. The tickets were $1.50 in advance at Walgreens and $2.00 at the box office.

The ads featured 8 great acts in “his” variety show which consisted of the Jordonaires; Rick and Emil Flaim and their orchestra; vocalists Frankie Conners and Jackie Little and comedian-magician Phil Maraquin. A second show was added at 9:30 p.m. to accommodate the ticket demand.

About 30 minutes late, due to a missed flight, Elvis appeared on stage in a purple blazer and started singing “Heartbreak Hotel.”  The crowd rushed the stage. Little Rock police officers were able to control them eventually and get the teenagers back to their seats.  While the crowd was impressed, the police officers were less so.  One of the patrolmen told the Arkansas Gazettereporter: “I wouldn’t know him if I saw him. And I wouldn’t be here unless I was being paid.”

Disc jockey Ray Green recorded the concert that night.  Copies of the concert on CD (which also includes an interview with Presley) are prized possessions of Presley collectors.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has a special section on its website containing quotes from some of the concert attendees.


Little Rock Look Back: J. V. Satterfield Jr.

SatterfieldOn May 14, 1902, future Little Rock Mayor John Vines Satterfield, Jr. was born in Marion.   He grew up in Little Rock and Earle. J.V. was a star quarterback for the Earle football team and is featured in a painting of that team by respected painter Carroll Cloar.

Following high school, J.V. taught (including, much to his family’s amusement, a course in penmanship) and coached and sold Fords.  He then moved to Little Rock and sold insurance and later securities.  In 1931 he opened his own business; that same year he built a house at 40 Beverly Place in Little Rock, which would serve as his home until his death.

J. V. Satterfield was elected to serve as Mayor of Little Rock in 1939 and served one term, until 1941.  He was credited with saving the City from bankruptcy because of his fiscal policies. Among his efficiencies were the creation of a central purchasing office and using grass moved from the airport to feed the Zoo animals.  Though as a private citizen he had voted against the creation of a municipal auditorium in 1937, Mayor Satterfield fought valiantly to ensure that Robinson Auditorium opened to the public once he took office.  Shortly after he became Mayor, it was discovered that there were not sufficient funds to finish the construction. After the federal government refused to put in more money, he was able to negotiate with some of the contractors to arrange for the building to be completed. He also oversaw a successful special election to raise the money to finish the project.

Satterfield was a staunch supporter of the airport and worked to expand it.  He would serve as the chair of the first Municipal Airport Commission.  He also established the Little Rock Housing Authority (on which he would later serve on the board).  Mayor Satterfield also served as President of the Arkansas Municipal League in 1941.

Following the outbreak of World War II, Satterfield enlisted in the Army and was given the rank of a Major. He later was promoted to a Colonel and worked in the Pentagon during its early days.

In the late 1940s Satterfield became president of a small Little Rock bank called People’s Bank.  The bank changed its named to First National Bank when it moved into new offices at 3rd and Louisiana in 1953.  By focusing on smaller customers and courting corporate customers, Satterfield grew the bank into one of the state’s largest banks.  He maintained his desk in the lobby of the bank so he could interact with the customers and ensure they were having a positive experience.

Due to chronic health issues, Satterfield retired from the bank in 1964. He died in March 1966.


Little Rock Look Back: Dr. William Grant Still

Long known as the Dean of African American composers, Dr. William Grant Still was a legend in his own lifetime.

Dr. Still, who wrote more than 150 compositions ranging from operas to arrangements of folk themes, is best known as a pioneer. He was the first African-American in the United States to have a symphonic composition performed by a major orchestra. He was the first to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the US; the first to conduct a major symphony in the south; first to conduct a white radio orchestra in New York City; first to have an opera produced by a major company. Dr. Still was also the first African-American to have an opera televised over a national network

Dr. Still was born May 11, 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi to parents who were teachers and musicians. When Dr. Still was only a few months old, his father died and his mother took him to Little Rock. Inspired by RCA Red Seal operatic recordings, his musical education began with violin lessons.  He graduated from Gibbs High School in Little Rock.

After his studies at Wilberforce University and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, he played in orchestras and orchestrated for various employers including the great W. C. Handy. For several years he arranged and conducted the “Deep River Hour” over CBS and WOR.  He also played in the orchestra for the 1921 musical Shuffle Along, which was the first Broadway musical to feature an all African-American cast and writing team.

In the 1920’s, Still made his first appearances as a serious composer in New York. Several fellowships and commissions followed. In 1994, his “Festive Overture” captured the Jubilee prize of the Cincinnati Symphony orchestra. In 1953, he won a Freedoms Foundation Award for “To You, America!” which honored West Point’s Sesquicentennial Celebration. In 1961, he received honors for this orchestral work, “The Peaceful Land”. Dr. Still also received numerous honorary degrees from various colleges and universities, as well as various awards and a citation from Arkansas Governor Dale Bumpers in 1972.

In 1939, Dr. Still married journalist and concert pianist Verna Avery, who became his principal collaborator. They remained together until Dr. Still’s death in 1978.  In a proclamation marking the centennial of Dr. Still’s birth, President Bill Clinton praised the composer for creating “works of such beauty and passion that they pierced the artificial barriers of race, nationality and time.”

In 1995, Dr. Still was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.  In 2016, the ballroom at Robinson Center was named in his honor.