Little Rock Look Back: Creation of War Memorial Stadium 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.

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Women Making History – Erle Chambers

First 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.

Rock the Oscars 2019: Roy Reed

It is possible that journalist extraordinaire Roy Reed appears in archival footage of the Oscar winning documentary “Nine from Little Rock” (Documentary, Short-1964) and Oscar nominated Eyes on the Prize: Bridge to Freedom 1965 (Documentary, Feature-1988).  First for the Arkansas Gazette and then for The New York Times, Reed was an eyewitness to history being made.  What is not in doubt is that he is a character in the Oscar winning film Selma.  In that movie, he was played by actor John Lavelle.

Roy Reed was born on February 14, 1930, in Hot Springs and grew up in Garland County. After attending Ouachita Baptist College and the University of Missouri (from which he would receive a Bachelor’s and a Master’s in Journalism), Reed worked for a newspaper in Joplin and served in the US Army.  In 1956, he returned to Arkansas to work for the Arkansas Gazette.

While he did not specifically cover the integration of Little Rock Central High in 1957, he was part of the paper’s coverage of civil rights. He later was assigned to cover the Faubus administration.  In 1965, he was hired by The New York Times and covered the South. He covered the historic Freedom March to the state Capitol in Montgomery in March 1965.  After spending 1965 and 1966 in the South, he was assigned to the Times’ Washington DC bureau.  In 1969, he moved to New Orleans to open a Southern bureau for the paper.  He remained in the Crescent City until 1976, when he was transferred to the London bureau.

After retiring in 1978, he moved to Northwest Arkansas and taught journalism at the University of Arkansas until 1995.  Reed continued to write essays and books including Faubus: The Life and Times of an American Prodigal (1997),  Looking Back at the Arkansas Gazette: An Oral History (2009) and Beware of Limbo Dancers: A Correspondent’s Adventures with the New York Times (2012).  Reed died in December 2017.

Little Rock Look Back: Implosion of the Grady Manning and the Marion

On 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.

Little Rock Look Back: HAIR brings Age of Aquarius to 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.

Forty-seven 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 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 to $51 in 2019 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, simpler and differently focused days in Little Rock.

Thanksgiving Football 1969 in Little Rock: Hogs, Tigers, Warriors, Bearcats and Rockets

The Hogs stop Texas Tech at War Memorial Stadium

On Thanksgiving 1969 (November 27), four Little Rock high schools AND the University of Arkansas all played football games in Central Arkansas.  It was a day for football in the Rock!

It appears this was the only time this feat has happened.

It was a cool and misty day which seems to have made balls slippery and grass fields sloppy. But the precipitation seemed to be more an annoyance than a barrier for the players and fans.

The Arkansas Razorbacks, ranked Number 2 in the nation, played host to the Texas Tech Red Raiders at War Memorial Stadium.  The two teams played before a crowd of 35,287.  This was the smallest crowd in LR that season, likely due to it being Thanksgiving and the presence of the Central/Hall football game the same day.  It would have been hard to fit in two football games, Thanksgiving meals, and a possible church service all within one day.

The Hogs were 16 point favorites for the game with a 1:50 kickoff.  It was broadcast on ABC, and fans were encouraged to wear red to show up well on the color telecast.

The Hogs beat the Red Raiders by a score of 33 to 0 in their penultimate regular season game.  Turnovers were the key with the Hogs recovering a fumble and intercepting five passes.

This game set the stage for the final Hogs regular season game, which was the December 6, 1969, shootout against the Number 1 Texas Longhorns in Fayetteville.

Earlier in the day, Little Rock Catholic took on NLRHS north of the river with a 10am kick off. The Rockets, under head coach George Loss, were 9-2 heading into the game. The Wildcats (coached by Ken Stephens) were 5-4 and had won four in a row. At the end of the game, NLR was triumphant by a score of 21 to 12.

Later that day, Jones High hosted Horace Mann at the same stadium. This game, with a 2pm kickoff, would be the final game between Jones and Mann. Jones was being closed at the end of the year.

The teams had met earlier in the season with Mann triumphing 13 to 8. Mann had a record of 2-8, playing in the larger AAAA classification. Jones, with a record of 4-6, played in the AA classification. For years these all African American schools were not allowed to play in the Arkansas Activities Association. But by the late 1960s, they were now playing in AAA conferences.

Jones scored an upset victory over the Bearcats by a score of 19-8.

Quigley Stadium was less than three miles from War Memorial Stadium. With a 10am kickoff before a sold out crowd, people who had wanted to go to both the Hogs game and Hall/Central game also had the option of listening to the high school gridiron competition on KARK radio (now KARN).

Prior to the game, Hall had captured the AAAA State Championship by virtue of its record. (The top classification did not participate in playoffs until 1983.) C. W. Keopple was the Warriors’ coach, while Gene Hall was the Tigers’ mentor.  The damp field and high stakes of the game turned it into a defensive slugfest.  Hall had 2 fumbles while Central fumbled four times.

At the end of the fourth quarter the scoreboard showed a 0 to 0 tie. And that one went into the record books.  Hall’s season record was 9-0-1, while Central’s was 6-2-2.  It was the best season record Hall had amassed in its 13 years of football.

Four football games within a few miles of each other were a peek into Little Rock life:

  • The Hogs were riding the crest of their 1960s football superiority in the Southwest Conference.
  • The final Thanksgiving football game in Arkansas between two segregated public schools.
  • Continued alternating dominance by Hall and Central in the state’s largest school sports classification.  Soon, Parkview would be added to the mix. Throughout the 1970s, all three Little Rock public high schools would rotate winning state championships.

Little Rock Look Back: Thanksgiving Day Football in 1918

100 years ago, the Little Rock High School Tigers football game on Thanksgiving was against a group of soldiers from Camp Pike.

The game took place on Thursday, November 28, 1918. The Great War had ended a little over a fortnight earlier, but the game had been scheduled while hostilities were still going.

The Tigers, who had never lost on Thanksgiving Day after starting a tradition of playing on the day in 1914, were for the first time the underdogs. The soldiers of the 13th Training Battalion were slightly older and much bigger – an average of 20 pounds bigger per player.

Going into the game, the Little Rock High School team was down a key player. Julian Adams was out with wrenched knee.  Another player John Ward was also absent (though the newspaper accounts do not indicate why).

Coach George H. Wittenberg was missing along the sidelines due to illness. He was not the first coach to be absent that season.  The regular coach, Earl Quigley, had been drafted and was stationed in South Carolina during the season.  Wittenberg, was a faculty member at the time. He had lettered for the football team when he had been a student a decade or so earlier. Later, as an architect, he would be one of the designers of the new Little Rock High School, now Central High School.

The game took place at Kavanaugh Field (a baseball field also used for football).  Though it is now the site of current Central’s storied Quigley Stadium, this was nearly a decade before the high school moved from Scott Street to Park Street.

The Camp Pike gridiron team dominated the game before a crowd of 1,000. The soldiers made three touchdowns in the first quarter, two in the second, one in the third, and one more to cap off the game in the fourth.

The closest the Tiger eleven got to scoring was in the second quarter when Hershell Riffel caught the ball at the 12 yard line and team captain and quarterback Alvin Bell advanced another six yards.  Camp Pike held them there.  Just before the game ended, Bell injured his knee and was taken out of the game.

Also that day, the University of Arkansas beat Kendall College (now the University of Tulsa) in Tulsa by a score of 23 to 6, West Tennessee Normal (now University of Memphis) defeated the Jonesboro Aggies (now Arkansas State Red Wolves) by a score of 37 to 0, and Hendrix College bested Henderson-Brown (now Henderson State University) by a score of 9 to 7.

Thanks to Brian Cox’s book Tiger Pride: 100 Years of Little Rock Central High Football for filling in some of the players names which were omitted in the newspaper coverage.