January 25, 1940: Little Rock finally takes possession of Robinson Auditorium

On January 25, 1940, the City of Little Rock officially took complete possession of the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium. By assuming custody of the structure from the contractor and the PWA, the City accepted responsibility for any of the remaining work to be completed.

This event happened one day shy of the third anniversary of the election which approved plans to issue bonds for an auditorium.  The act took place only about five months behind schedule.

E. E. Beaumont, the Auditorium Commission chairman, stated that an opening date could not be set until more work was completed. A major unfinished task was the laying of the front sidewalk which had been delayed due to cold weather.

The night before Little Rock took possession, Robinson Auditorium had been a topic of discussion at the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce annual meeting. The new Chamber president Reeves E. Ritchie (who as an Arkansas Power & Light executive had been engaged in the lengthy discussions about the installation of the steam line and transformers of the building) pledged that the Chamber would work to bring more and larger conventions to Little Rock at the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium.

WICKED generates a lot of Green in Little Rock

The Broadway sensation WICKED flew out of Robinson Performance Hall on Sunday, January 19th after a record-setting 24-performance return engagement in Little Rock, presented by Celebrity Attractions. Welcomed by the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, WICKED’s third play in Little Rock grossed over $3.9 million in sales and was seen by more than 50,000 patrons.

Based on a statistical analysis by The Broadway League, the New York City-based national trade association for the Broadway industry, the local economic impact of this year’s engagement of WICKED in Little Rock can be estimated at over $12.7 million. This estimate includes economic impact generated by patrons, tourism, hotels, dining at local restaurants, parking and more. It also includes the cost of local supplies and local labor involved in the production.

The cultural phenomenon returned by popular demand after successful runs in 2010 and 2013, providing a significant impact on the local economy once again. “We are overwhelmed by the support of Broadway and by the love Arkansans have for WICKED. The show has certainly turned Little Rock into the Emerald City,” says Kristin Dotson, CEO of Celebrity Attractions. “It has been extraordinary way to kick off 2020, with patrons coming from 74 of Arkansas’ 75 counties and from each of its neighboring states. It is also exciting to see the impact that WICKED had on downtown Little Rock during the run.  Restaurants, hotels and retail establishments have benefited from the number of visitors in town for the production.”

Celebrity Attractions has helped drive the local economy by showcasing high-profile Broadway, concert and comedy events.  Since its reopening in 2016, Robinson Performance Hall has become Little Rock’s definitive center for live entertainment, offering more than 320 performances with more than 479,000 patrons attending ticketed events.

Celebrity Attractions will announce its 2020-2021 season in just a few weeks.

Final two chances to be WICKED in Little Rock

Today is the last day to see Glinda and Elphaba before they fly away as the Tony winning musical Wicked continues at Robinson Center Performance Hall until January 19.

Based on the best-selling 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire, Wicked, has won a Grammy and three Tony Awards.  Wicked features songs by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, and Working) and a book by Winnie Holzman (“My So Called Life,” “Once And Again” and “thirtysomething”).  It tales the untold story of the witches of Oz.  The musical is directed by multiple Tony Award-winner Joe Mantello (Take Me Out; Assassins; The Receptionist).

Two other girls meet in the Land of Oz.  One – born with emerald-green skin – is smart, fiery and misunderstood.  The other is beautiful, ambitious and very popular.  “Wicked” tells the story of their remarkable odyssey, and how these two unlikely friends grow to become the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good.

Presented by Celebrity Attractions, the production takes center stage at Robinson Center Music Hall for a limited three-week engagement.

HAIR shone in on Robinson Auditorium starting on January 18, 1972

Ad for the original production of HAIR in Little Rock. Note the ticket prices. And that they could be purchased at Moses Music Shops.

Forty-eight years ago today, on January 18, 1972, the musical Hair settled in for a week-long run at Robinson Auditorium.  The saga to bring the national tour to Little Rock had actually begun eleven months earlier.

In February 1971, a young Little Rock attorney named Phil Kaplan petitioned the Little Rock Board of Censors to see if it would allow a production of Hair to play in the city. He was asking on behalf of a client who was interested in bringing a national tour to Arkansas’ capital city. The show, which had opened on Broadway to great acclaim in April 1968 after an Off Broadway run in 1967, was known for containing a nude scene as well for a script which was fairly liberally sprinkled with four-letter words. The Censors stated they could not offer an opinion without having seen a production.

By July 1971, Kaplan and his client (who by then had been identified as Southwest Productions) were seeking permission for a January 1972 booking of Hair from the City’s Auditorium Commission which was charged with overseeing operations at Robinson Auditorium. At its July meeting, the Commissioners voted against allowing Hair because of its “brief nude scene” and “bawdy language.”

Kaplan decried the decision. He stated that the body couldn’t “sit in censorship of legitimate theatrical productions.” He noted courts had held that Hair  could be produced and that the Auditorium Commission, as an agent for the State, “clearly can’t exercise prior censorship.” He proffered that if the production was obscene it would be a matter for law enforcement not the Auditorium Commission.

The Commission countered that they had an opinion from City Attorney Joseph Kemp stating they had the authority. One of the Commissioners, Mrs. Grady Miller (sister-in-law of the building’s namesake the late Senator Robinson, she had served on the Commission since 1940), expressed her concern that allowing Hair would open the door to other productions such as Oh! Calcutta!

On July 26, 1971, Southwest Productions filed suit against the Auditorium Commission. Four days later there was a hearing before federal Judge G. Thomas Eisele. Judge Eisele offered a ruling on August 11 which compelled the Auditorium Commission to allow Hair to be performed. Prior to the ruling, some of the Auditorium Commissioners had publicly stated that if they had to allow Hair, they would close it after the first performance on the grounds of obscenity. To combat this, Judge Eisele stated that the Commission had to allow Hair to perform the entire six day engagement it sought.

Upon hearing of the Judge’s ruling, Commissioner Emily Miller offered a succinct, two word response. “Oh, Dear!”

In the end, the production of Hair at Robinson would not be the first performance of that musical in the state.  The tour came through Fayetteville for two performances in October 1971 at Barnhill Arena.

On January 18, 1972, Hair played the first of its 8 performances over 6 days at Robinson Auditorium.  In his review the next day, the Arkansas Gazette’s Bill Lewis noted that Hair “threw out all it had to offer” and that Little Rock had survived.

The ads promoting the production carried the tagline “Arkansas will never be the same.”  Tickets (from $2 all the way up to $8.50–the equivalent of $12.23 to $51.99 in 2020 dollars) could be purchased at Moses Melody Shops both downtown and in “The Mall” (meaning Park Plaza). That business is gone from downtown, but the scion of that family, Jimmy Moses, is actively involved in building downtown through countless projects. His sons are carrying on the family tradition too.

Little Rock was by no means unique in trying to stop productions of Hair.  St. Louis, Birmingham, Los Angeles, Tallahassee, Boston, Atlanta, Charlotte NC, West Palm Beach, Oklahoma City, Mobile and Chattanooga all tried unsuccessfully to stop performances in their public auditoriums.  Despite Judge Eisele’s ruling against the City of Little Rock, members of the Fort Smith City Council also tried to stop a production later in 1972 in that city. This was despite warnings from City staff that there was not legal standing.

Within a few years, the Board of Censors of the City of Little Rock would be dissolved (as similar bodies also were disappearing across the US). Likewise, the Auditorium Commission was discontinued before Hair even opened, with its duties being taken over by the Advertising and Promotion Commission and the Convention & Visitors Bureau staff.  This was not connected to the Hair decision; it was, instead, related to expanding convention facilities in Robinson and the new adjacent hotel.  Regardless of the reasons for their demise, both bygone bodies were vestiges of earlier and differently focused days in Little Rock.

One week remains to be WICKED in Little Rock

There is still one week to see Glinda and Elphaba before they fly away as the Tony winning musical Wicked continues at Robinson Center Performance Hall until January 19.

Based on the best-selling 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire, Wicked, has won a Grammy and three Tony Awards.  Wicked features songs by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, and Working) and a book by Winnie Holzman (“My So Called Life,” “Once And Again” and “thirtysomething”).  It tales the untold story of the witches of Oz.  The musical is directed by multiple Tony Award-winner Joe Mantello (Take Me Out; Assassins; The Receptionist).

Two other girls meet in the Land of Oz.  One – born with emerald-green skin – is smart, fiery and misunderstood.  The other is beautiful, ambitious and very popular.  “Wicked” tells the story of their remarkable odyssey, and how these two unlikely friends grow to become the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good.

Presented by Celebrity Attractions, the production takes center stage at Robinson Center Music Hall for a limited three-week engagement.

80 years ago today – Basketball came to Robinson Auditorium

Coach Earl Quigley in the 1940s

While Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium is known today as a performance and meeting venue, in its early days it was also the home to sports. Eighty years ago tonight the first basketball game was played at Robinson.

With the renovation dropping the orchestra level down many feet, one of the basketball goals would have been approximately where the cast of Wicked is currently performing.

One of the first regular activities which took place in the lower level exhibition hall was a series of boxing and wrestling matches.  Building on the success of this, basketball came to the convention hall in January 1940.

A series of games featuring Little Rock High School and North Little Rock High School were announced by Tiger Coach Earl Quigley to take place from January 11 through February 16, the official opening day for the facility.

At that time, neither high school had a gymnasium; therefore both schools played their basketball games on their school auditorium stages with fans seated in the audience. The convention hall offered a regulation size floor (made of pecan block parquet) with seating for over 1,300 people along the sidelines and in the balcony.  The first men’s basketball game in Robinson Auditorium took place between the Little Rock High School Tigers and the North Little Rock High School Wildcats on January 11, 1940.

The Tigers lost the game before a crowd estimated to be 1,300.  Earlier in the evening there had been an exhibition between two women’s basketball teams.  The cost for admission to the games was 35 cents for the reserved seating and 25 cents for general admission.