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The Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau has joined forces with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to create an exhibit about the colorful history of what for decades was known as Robinson Memorial Auditorium. Ceremonies were held last week to unveil the exhibit. They coincided with the second anniversary of the building's reopening following a $70 million renovation.

What's now known as the Robinson Center closed July 1, 2014, for a 28-month transformation. It reopened Nov. 10, 2016, with a fully restored lobby, a more modern performance hall and a new conference center and outdoor terrace overlooking the Arkansas River. It has been an anchor for the continued revitalization of downtown Little Rock.

Prior to the Robinson Center's construction during the Great Depression, the largest auditorium in the city was at what's now Little Rock Central High School. Little Rock had a powerful ally in Washington in the person of Joe T. Robinson, who had been born in Lonoke County in 1872. Robinson became the youngest member of the Arkansas Legislature at age 22 in 1894, and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1902. Robinson served 10 years on the House side of the U.S. Capitol. In 1912, he announced he would run for the U.S. Senate against controversial incumbent Jeff Davis. Robinson later determined that Davis was unbeatable. Before the ratification of the 17th Amendment on May 31, 1913, U.S. senators were chosen by their state legislatures.

"He ran for governor instead and won," Cecil E. Weller Jr. writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "But before Robinson's inauguration, the recently re-elected Davis died of a heart attack. Robinson won a close vote for Davis' Senate seat. As governor, Robinson pushed through a progressive agenda for the state. He proposed, and the Legislature enacted, laws creating a state banking board, a state health board and the Arkansas Highway Commission. He oversaw the reform of the penitentiary system, including a paid oversight board and the outlawing of the notorious convict-leasing system. On March 8, 1913, he resigned the governorship to take his Senate seat."

It didn't take the politically talented Robinson long to become a major player in the Senate. He became the Democratic leader of the Senate in 1923. Robinson was nominated for president in 1924 and was described by The New York Times as the "obvious compromise candidate." Delegates to the Democratic National Convention wound up choosing Wall Street lawyer John W. Davis after 103 ballots. Davis lost that fall to Republican incumbent Calvin Coolidge. In 1928, Robinson was selected as Democrat Al Smith's running mate. Smith lost in the fall to Republican Herbert Hoover.

Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, and Robinson became a key FDR ally in the Senate. Roosevelt repaid Robinson in part by having the federal Public Works Administration build a downtown Little Rock auditorium. PWA programs required local matching funds. Little Rock voters approved a bond issue on Jan. 26, 1937, to help fund the structure. Construction began Dec. 27, 1937, and was completed by December 1939. Robinson had died of a heart attack on July 14, 1937. The formal dedication of the auditorium took place Feb. 16, 1940. Well-known Little Rock architects George Wittenberg, Lawson Delony and Eugene Stern all were involved in the project.

"Anyone who has spent time in central Arkansas has a personal story of the Robinson Center," says Gretchen Hall, the president of the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau. "The facility has touched so many within our community. Maybe you experienced your first symphony concert or Broadway production there; graduated or performed on the stage; or attended a wrestling, boxing or basketball game in the original basement."

The permanent timeline on the east wall of the second-floor lobby was the work of UALR's Center for Arkansas History & Culture and its Windgate Center for Art + Design. The timeline begins with a 10-foot photo of Robinson. The lead researcher was Shannon Lausch, and graphic designer Kevin Cates led the team that created the exhibit.

"Archivists did the research and writing for the historical pieces, and the artists created the visuals and design," says Deborah Baldwin, the Center for Arkansas History & Culture director. "It has been a nice match of skills."

By the early 1940s, the auditorium was hosting everything from high school basketball games to ballet performances and traveling productions.

"During the 1940s, the building also was used as a community center, offering ping-pong, shuffleboard, bridge, checkers and domino tournaments," writes Steven Teske of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. "Among the many famous performers and speakers to appear in the 1940s were Louis Armstrong, Katharine Hepburn, Ella Fitzgerald, Mae West, Gene Autry, Bob Hope, Ethel Barrymore, Duke Ellington, Guy Lombardo, Eleanor Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Some performers would offer two shows on the same day to different audiences, one upstairs and one downstairs. Elvis Presley performed at the auditorium in 1955 and 1956. For the first appearance, he was paid $150. He grossed $9,000 when he returned a year later. During the 1940s and 1950s, seating in the auditorium was often segregated by race."

The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in February 2007.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 11/14/2018

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