Imagine an alternate universe in which Governor Asa Hutchinson suddenly slips the majestic bonds of public servitude and takes the stage, wading around while twittering his head in a comedic opera.
Anything can happen in politics, right? Some of us remember an odd moment in the middle of a much-loved comedy show when then-president Richard Nixon appeared on our grainy-resolution TV screens and asked stiffly: ” Sock it to meeee? “
Nixon wasn’t exactly praised by critics for his media savvy, but rather he was a little bit undermined for his lack of dignity, dignity. After that moment, however, the American public added a talent section to the presidential selection process, with candidates on the right and left playing band instruments.
Before you denigrate the depths we’re supposed to have fallen into, know that long before Nixon on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” was even a spark in a producer’s eye, a governor of Arkansas put his popularity and personal content at stake for a chance to sing Gilbert & Sullivan.
One hundred years ago, Governor Thomas Chipman McRae agreed to play a leading role in a theatrical production of “HMS 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 an unflattering portrayal of leadership:
I have always voted at the call of my party,
And I never thought to think for myself.
(He never thought to think for himself.)
I thought so little, they rewarded mee
By making me the ruler of the Queen’s Navy!
It wasn’t like a Dancing With Some Stars night for a charity fundraiser. Organized by Floyd Hutsell of New York City – the traveling professional theater organizer of the National American Legion – a community troupe in Little Rock put on six days of performances. The effort included costume fittings, rehearsals, publicity portraits and chants in front of Rotary to mobilize support.
Gallery: “HMS Pinafore” 1921
[Photo gallery not displaying? See http://www.arkansasonline.com/823old]
Plus, they helped build – not just sets – the amphitheater where they performed.
The Arkansas Democrat reported on August 18, 1921 that “officials and ministers, like legionaries, wore coveralls and wielded hammers, saws, excavators and other tools as if they were born of the practice”.
It was a permanent open-air amphitheater built by the American Legion’s Eberts Post at 23rd and High Street. This amphitheater was considered indispensable equipment for the city, which for a decade had failed to replace its dangerously decrepit city auditorium. (In September, after “Pinafore,” 1,000 citizens participated in the first of a series of community “songs” in 23rd and high school.)
Support for this endeavor may not have been universal. The Arkansas Gazette and Democrat reported that the company had taken out insurance on the stage and also on the production, in case bad weather forced performances to be canceled and tickets had to be refunded. On August 23, the Democrat reported that during a delay before the insurance deal was concluded, a man attempted to burn the stage down.
Henry S. Pepin, Eberts Post’s director of operations, slept on the stage as a precaution against the fires. After the dress rehearsal on August 22, he dropped off his wife and other cast members at their home. He returned to the stage after midnight. He heard a noise behind the curtain and investigated, gun in hand.
A man ran and jumped out of the north floor door, dropping a large bottle, which broke and splashed kerosene in all directions. The Democrat reported:
“Mr. Pepin fired two shots at the fleeing figure, which was engulfed in darkness along the Swaggerty branch at 23rd Street.”
The cast members said the man was insane and in no way resentful of veterans in general or the Legion in particular.
Also on August 23, the Democrat reported that the acoustics of the amphitheater were “perfect”.
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If you’ve read Kenneth Barnes’ new story “The Ku Klux Klan in 1920s Arkansas: How Protestant White Nationalism Came to Rule a State” and like Yours Truly have a bad memory, you’re trying to remember it right now. Barnes’ address. donated for the 1924 Ku Klux Klan tabernacle in Little Rock. It wasn’t that outdoor amphitheater built by the Legion. The Klan structure, formerly a church of evangelist Charles Reign Scoville, was located at 17th and Main Street, not 23rd and High Street (High Street is now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive).
The American Legion had black posts as well as white ones. Seating in the amphitheater for “Pinafore” was separate, with the Reed Post – a Legion post for black veterans and their families – selling tickets to black theatergoers.
But in the summer of 1921, Barnes notes, a second-generation Klan was beginning its rapid rise in Arkansas. Presenting itself as a morally-centered social club, it attracted the same people whose Legion membership had created a new seat of active civic power in Little Rock.
We can see from the archival journals how this long ago production of “Pinafore” demonstrated the Legion’s ability to garner serious support from the business community and churches.
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So how did the governor do? Although he was not able to perform in every show (duty called) he was successful, according to the Arkansas Gazette and in particular the Democrat, who praised him in his editorials and also in a large-scale review of the opening night.
The show was “entirely worthy of the enthusiastic reception given to it by the public,” the reviewer said.
“Completed in every way of art, costume and staging, it was put on by local veterans and their friends, with a dynamism and verve that made it a curtain-to-curtain joy. . “
All of the lead roles were assigned and handled well, the reviewer continued, McRae’s work surprising even those who had seen him succeed in rehearsal. The reviewer was impressed by “the energy and momentum he put into his traditionally grandiose and grandiloquent part. No more prominent, flattering, oracular ‘sea monarch’ has ever set foot on the aft deck of Her Majesty Pinafore’s ship than the Governor, and the humor inherent in the role has often elated audiences. “
The rest of the review rave about everyone, including Mrs. Olivette Brown, who played the young woman Sir Joseph expected to marry (“a wonderful voice of great richness, reach and power”), and Ms. LA Allen as Buttercup (“A Voice of Quality and Greatness”).
Oddly enough, Democratic editor Paul R. Grabiel and his wife are listed as choir members.
As for McRae, he appears to have done nothing to undermine his political position. According to the Arkansas Encyclopedia of the Central Arkansas Library System, he ran for office in 1922, defeating fellow Democrat Edward P. Toney by 70,000 votes in the primary and winning 78% of the general election vote against the Republican. John W. Gabriel.