Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


Little Rock Look Back: Miss America in Little Rock

Tonight a new Miss America will be crowned.  Arkansas’ own Savvy Shields will conclude her whirlwind year as the third Miss America to come from the Natural State.

Earlier this year, two of Arkansas’ three Miss Americas were in Little Rock for the Miss Arkansas pageant.  So as Savvy wraps up her reign, it seems a good time to remember when Donna Axum first brought the Miss America title to Arkansas.

A native of El Dorado and a student at the University of Arkansas, during her reign as Miss America Miss Axum (or simply Donna as the newspaper headlines referred to her) made four public visits to Little Rock.  As the first Miss Arkansas to become Miss America, the state’s Capitol City was very interested in giving her a warm welcome.

After being crowned on September 7, 1963, Axum’s first official visit to Arkansas was November 1 through 3.  In addition to stops in Hot Springs and El Dorado, she appeared in Little Rock to attend events including an Arkansas Razorback football game at War Memorial Stadium.  Her entourage included the top four runners up from the Miss America pageant.

In February 1964, she made a brief appearance in Little Rock which included a press conference.

Donna Axum spent nearly two weeks in Arkansas in May 1964 attending several pageants as well as spending time with family.  During that visit she appeared in Little Rock twice.  The second time she headlined a concert with the Arkansas Symphony (not related to the current Arkansas Symphony Orchestra) and the Arkansas Choral Society. It took place at Robinson Auditorium.

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Little Rock Look Back: Sonney Henson – LR Mayor and Razorback star

On July 18, 1928, future Little Rock Mayor Harold E. “Sonney” Henson, Jr. was born in Fayetteville to Harold E Henson Sr. and Dollie Croxdale Henson.  He and his sister Sara Sue grew up in Springdale.

Henson graduated from Springdale High School and was later inducted as one of the first inductees into the Springdale High School Hall of Fame where he participated in the state high school championship in football and basketball. He attended the University of Arkansas in 1945 on an athletic scholarship where he participated in three sports: golf, basketball and football, and graduated in 1949 with a degree in Business Administration.

He was active in ROTC at the university and graduated as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Henson served in Korea as a captain and commander during the Korean conflict. He attained the rank of major as an active member of the Army reserve post his duty in Korea.

Henson’s professional career began with First National Bank of Springdale and soon moved to Little Rock where he served as Vice President at the Worthen Bank on Asher Avenue. In 1962 he was elected to the City of Little Rock Board of Directors.  From January 1965 to December 1966, he served as mayor of Little Rock.  In November 1966, he was unopposed in his bid for a second term on the City Board.  However in October 1967, he resigned from the City Board because he was taking a position with a bank in Joplin, Missouri.

From 1966 to 1972, he served as President of Security National Bank Joplin.  While there, he was a Missouri amateur championship golfer.  Herbert Thomas then asked him to move to Ft. Smith to head up City National Bank (present Bank Corp South) where he served as President and CEO from 1972 to his retirement in 1993 at the age of 65. He continued his service to Bank Corp South as an active board member for several years.

Among his many civic activities throughout his career were the Springdale Junior Chamber of Commerce,  Sparks Regional Medical Center board of directors of Fort Smith, president and active member of the board for the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame and Razorback Foundation, on the board for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences foundation, the Westark area council for Boy Scouts, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, the Small Colleges of Arkansas, Leadership Fort Smith, the Community Rescue Mission and the President of the Arkansas Bankers Association to name a few.  In 1995 he received the meritorious service award by the Arkansas Sports Hall of Honor for his lifelong commitment to Arkansas sports.

Henson was married for 53 years to Helen Garrott Henson. He had four children, 16 grandchildren and one great-grand child.  He died on August 8, 2013, and is buried in Fort Smith.


Women’s History Month – Phyllis D. Brandon

While today, Phyllis D. Brandon is best known for being the first and longtime editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette‘s High Profile section, she actually holds two historic firsts in Arkansas history.

In 1956, she became the first woman to report news on an Arkansas TV station when she appeared on KTHV.  Later, she was the first woman chosen to serve on the Pulaski County Election Commission.

 

A journalist since her junior high school days in Little Rock, Brandon has also been a witness to history.  As a recent graduate of the University of Arkansas, Brandon returned to her alma mater, Little Rock Central High, to cover the events in early September 1957 for the Arkansas Democrat.  Eleven years later, she was in Chicago for the contentious and violent 1968 Democratic National Convention as a delegate.

From 1957 until 1986, she alternated between careers in journalism and the business world, as well as being a stay-at-home mother.  Upon becoming founding editor of High Profile, she came into her own combining her nose for news and her life-long connections within the Little Rock community.  As a writer and photographer, she created art in her own right. A look through High Profile provides a rich historical snapshot of the changes in Little Rock and Arkansas in the latter part of the 20th Century and start of the 21st Century.


Little Rock Look Back: War Memorial Stadium formally approved

On March 18, 1947, Governor Ben T. Laney signed the bill into law which authorized the construction of War Memorial Stadium.

The plans for the stadium were the brainchild of Arkansas Secretary of State C.G. “Crip” Hall and University of Arkansas Athletic Director John Barnhill.

Apparently the Southwest Conference was threatening to kick Arkansas out because of an inadequate football facility. Since the University did not have the funds to build a new one on its campus, Barnhill and Hall decided that the state should build one. Many other states were building War Memorial facilities of a variety of natures. The duo decided that the new football facility could be a War Memorial Stadium to pay tribute to the men who died in the recently concluded World War II.  While the stadium was touted as being of use to all colleges in the state and a variety of other types of activities, it was very much designed to be a home for the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Getting the stadium through the Arkansas General Assembly was not easy.  The bill to create the stadium commission sailed through both houses. But even some who voted for it said they would oppose any funding bills.  When time came to vote for the funding, the bill fell far short of the three-quarters vote that was needed in the House for an appropriation bill.

WWII veterans were on both sides of the issue.  Some felt it was an appropriate way to honor those who died.  Others felt it was a gimmick to get the stadium approved.  Some of the opponents felt that a new state hospital for UAMS would be the more appropriate way to honor those who died during the war.  The debates were often heated and personal.

Overnight a new bill was created. It would pay for the stadium through the issuing of bonds. In addition to the state issuing bonds, any city which wished to bid for it would have to put up money for it as well as provide land.  This new bill would require only 51 votes to pass the House.  It was able to pass that threshold.  The Senate made a few amendments (mostly dealing with the composition of the stadium commission and the amount of dollars that the host city had to pledge).  Finally the House agreed to the Senate amendments and it went to Governor Laney.

The next hurdle for the stadium was choosing a location. That process would occupy stadium proponents throughout the spring and summer of 1947.

 


Women’s History Month – Ruth May Wassell

On August 27, 1944, Ruth May Wassell shattered a bottle on the hull of a new ship and christened it the U.S.S. Little Rock.  Mrs. Wassell, whose husband was Little Rock alderman Sam Wassell, had been designated as the official sponsor for the City of Little Rock by Mayor Charles Moyer.

Ruth May Wassell was more than the wife of a local political leader.  She graduated from Henderson-Brown College and received a law degree from the University of Arkansas.  In 1932, she was admitted to the Arkansas Bar and later was admitted to practice before the Arkansas Supreme Court, one of the first women to receive this designation.

Mrs. Wassell was active in business, serving as president of the Arkansas Lumber Company  and owner of a citrus farm in Texas.  She was also active in civic affairs through involvement with the Arkansas Democratic Women, Boys Club and Second Presbyterian Church.  From 1947 until 1951 she was First Lady of Little Rock when Sam Wassell was elected as Mayor.

Following the December 1954 death of Mayor Wassell, she subsequently married E. W. “Bud” Gibb.  She died in 1964.


Women’s History Month – Erle Chambers, first woman sworn-in to Arkansas House of Representatives

rep-erle-chambersFirst woman sworn in as a member of the Arkansas General Assembly: Erle Chambers

Miss Chambers of Little Rock was elected in 1922 at the same time as Frances Hunt of Pine Bluff. But because members were sworn in based on their last names, she was actually sworn in first.

She had trained as an attorney at both the University of Arkansas and the University of Chicago, but never practiced law.  She served as Pulaski County probation officer from 1913 until 1917. At that time, she went to work for the Tuberculosis Association, where she would work until her death in 1941.

Miss Chambers served in the Arkansas General Assembly from 1923 until 1926.


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Little Rock Look Back: The Sun shines in as HAIR plays Robinson Center

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

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-five 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. At that hearing, Auditorium Commission member Lee Rogers read aloud excerpts from the script he found objectionable. Under questioning from Kaplan, a recent touring production of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite was discussed. That play has adultery as a central theme of one of its acts. Rogers admitted he found the play funny, and that since the adultery did not take place on stage, he did not object to it. Among those testifying in favor of it was Robert Reddington, who was director of performing arts at the Arkansas Arts Center.

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 Miller offered a succinct, two word response. “Oh, Dear!”

In the end, the production of Hair at Robinson would not be the first performance 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) 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, simpler and differently focused days in Little Rock.