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OPINION | OLD NEWS: This Arkansas governor wasn’t afraid to sing

by Celia Storey | August 23, 2021 at 1:52 a.m.

Imagine an alternate universe in which Gov. Asa Hutchinson suddenly slips the stately bonds of public servitude and takes to the stage, hoofing about while warbling the lead in a comic opera.

Anything might happen in politics, right? Some of us recall a strange moment in the middle of a highly rated comedy show when then-President Richard Nixon popped into our grainy-resolution TV screens and stiffly asked, "Sock it to meeee?"

Nixon was not exactly praised by critics for his media savvy but rather he was a bit plowed under for lacking whatchamallit, dignity. After that moment, though, the American public added a talent section to the presidential selection process, with candidates right and left playing band instruments.

Before we disparage the depths to which we've supposedly sunk, know that long before Nixon on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" was even a twinkle in a producer's eye, an Arkansas governor put his popularity and personal whatchamallit on the line for a chance to sing Gilbert & Sullivan.

One hundred years ago, Gov. Thomas Chipman McRae consented to play a leading role in a stage production of "H.M.S. Pinafore." When recruited by representatives of an increasingly popular American Legion, McRae agreed to act as "Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, First Lord of the Admiralty." The role presents a not very flattering portrait of leadership:

I always voted at my party's call,

And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.

(He never thought of thinking for himself at all.)

I thought so little, they rewarded me

By making me the ruler of the Queen's Navy!

This wasn't like one night of Dancing With Some Stars for a charity fundraiser. Organized by Floyd Hutsell of New York City — the national American Legion's traveling, professional theater-organizer — a community troupe at Little Rock performed six days of shows. The effort included costume fittings, rehearsals, publicity headshots and singing in front of the Rotary to drum up support.

Gallery: “H.M.S. Pinafore” 1921

[Photo gallery not displaying? See]

What is more, they helped to build — not just sets — the amphitheater where they performed.

The Arkansas Democrat reported Aug. 18, 1921, that "officials and ministers, like the legionnaires, wore overalls, and handled hammers, saws, post-hole diggers and other tools as though to the practice born."

It was a permanent, open-air amphitheater constructed by the Eberts Post of the American Legion at 23rd and High streets. This amphitheater was seen as a much needed amenity for the city, which had for a decade failed to replace its dangerously decrepit city auditorium. (In September, after "Pinafore" was over, 1,000 citizens took part in the first of a series of community "sings" at 23rd and High.)

Support for this undertaking might not have been universal. The Arkansas Gazette and the Democrat reported that the company had bought insurance on the stage and also on the production, in case bad weather forced the cancellation of performances and they had to refund tickets. On Aug. 23, the Democrat reported that during a delay before the closing of the insurance deal, a man tried to burn down the stage.

Henry S. Pepin, operations manager for Eberts Post, was sleeping on the stage as a precaution against fire. After the Aug. 22 dress rehearsal, he dropped off his wife and other cast members at their homes. He returned to the stage after midnight. He heard a noise behind the curtain and investigated, revolver in hand.

A man ran and jumped out of the north stage door, dropping a large bottle, which broke and splattered kerosene in all directions. The Democrat reported:

"Mr. Pepin took two shots at the fleeing figure, which was swallowed up in the darkness along Swaggerty Branch at Twenty-third street."

Members of the cast declared that the fellow was off his nut and in no way evidence of resentment toward veterans in general or the Legion in particular.

Also Aug. 23, the Democrat reported that the amphitheater's acoustics were "perfect."

■ ■ ■

If you've read Kenneth Barnes' new history "The Ku Klux Klan in 1920s Arkansas: How Protestant White Nationalism Came to Rule a State" and, like Yours Truly, have a shoddy memory, you are right now trying to remember the address Barnes gives for the 1924 Ku Klux Klan Tabernacle at Little Rock. It wasn't this outdoor amphitheatre built by the Legion. The Klan's structure, formerly a church of evangelist Charles Reign Scoville, was at 17th and Main streets, not 23rd and High (High Street became today's Martin Luther King Jr. Drive).

The American Legion had Black posts as well as white ones. Seating in the amphitheater for "Pinafore" was segregated, with the Reed Post — a Legion post for Black veterans and their families — selling tickets to Black theatergoers.

But in summer 1921, Barnes notes, a second-generation Klan was beginning its rapid ascension in Arkansas. Presenting itself as a morals-centered social club, it appealed to the same people whose membership in the Legion had created a new seat of can-do civic power at Little Rock.

We can see in archival newspaper reports how this long-ago production of "Pinafore" demonstrated the Legion's ability to pull together serious support from the business community and churches.

■ ■ ■

So, how did the governor do? Although he wasn't able to perform in every show (duty called) he was a hit, according to the Arkansas Gazette and especially the Democrat, which praised him in its editorials and also in a full scale review of opening night.

The show was "entirely worthy of the enthusiastic reception accorded it by the audience," the reviewer said.

"Finished from every standpoint of art, costuming and stagecraft, it was put on by the local veterans and their friends, with a pep and verve that made it a joy from curtain to curtain."

All of the principal roles were well bestowed and well handled, the reviewer continued, with McRae's work surprising even those who had seen him succeed in rehearsal. The reviewer was impressed by "the energy and dash which he put into his traditionally bombastic, and grandiloquent part. No more self-important, platitudinous and oracular 'monarch of the sea' ever trod the quarterdeck of Her Majesty's Ship Pinafore than the governor, and the humor inherent in the role brought forth enthusiasm from the audience frequently."

The rest of the review raves about everyone, including Mrs. Olivette Brown, who played the young woman Sir Joseph expected to marry ("a marvelous voice of great richness, range and power"), and Mrs. L.A. Allen as Buttercup ("a voice of quality and bigness").

Oddly enough, Democrat editor Paul R. Grabiel and his wife are listed as chorus members.

As for McRae, he appears to have done nothing to harm his political standing. According to the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas, he ran for reelection in 1922, trouncing his fellow Democrat Edward P. Toney by 70,000 votes in the primaries and winning 78% of the votes in the general election over Republican John W. Gabriel.


Print Headline: Gov. McRae stars in 'Pinafore'


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