Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium in Little
Built in downtown Little Rock (Pulaski County) during the Great Depression as a Public Works Administration (PWA) project, the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium—known since 1973 as the Robinson Center Music Hall—frequently hosts touring performances, including Broadway musicals, and is home to the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. Named for Lonoke County native Joseph Taylor Robinson, who was governor of Arkansas and a U.S. senator, the Art Deco building on Markham Avenue near Broadway Street is a major Little Rock landmark.1
Prior to the construction of the Robinson Center, Little Rock’s largest auditorium for concerts and other public events was at Little Rock High School (now called Central High School). Senator Robinson, a strong supporter of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, helped to bring several major projects to Arkansas, including a new civic auditorium. Unlike other New Deal programs, the PWA required local funding to accompany federal dollars. On January 26, 1937, Little Rock voters approved a bond referendum to help fund the auditorium, as well as additions to the public library and a city park for African Americans.1
Construction of the auditorium began on December 27 of that year and was largely completed by December 8, 1939. The structure was received by the City of Little Rock on January 24, 1940, and formally dedicated on February 16, 1940. The building was named for Senator Robinson, who had supported its creation; he died in 1937. The total cost of construction was $855,000, more than $200,000 over the initial budget. In addition to the main stage and arena, including mezzanine and balcony seating, the building also holds lecture/exhibit halls and meeting rooms. As originally designed and built, the auditorium had two separate performance venues on an upper and lower level. Its team of architects included the firm of George Wittenberg and Lawson Delony, as well as associate architect Eugene Stern, all of whom had designed many other prominent buildings in Little Rock and around Arkansas.1
The first use of the auditorium was as a basketball court for high school games, but orchestral performances, ballet, and traveling theater rapidly came to the impressive new building. During the 1940s, the building also was used as a community center, offering ping pong, shuffleboard, bridge, checkers, and domino tournaments. Among the many famous performers and speakers to appear at the Robinson Memorial Auditorium 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 Robinson Center in 1955 and 1956; for the
first appearance, he was paid $150, but he grossed $9,000 when he
returned a year later.1
Arkansas Democrat Feb. 13, 1955
Arkansas Democrat Feb. 18, 1955
Arkansas Democrat Feb. 20, 1955
On February 20, 1955, Elvis, Scotty and Bill began a weeklong tour
of Arkansas and Louisiana with their first appearance at the Robinson
Auditorium. As advertised there were two shows that day, a 3 p.m. and an
8:15. Tickets sold at the box office for $1.00 for adults and .50 for
children, while advanced tickets sold for .75 at Walgreens. Billed as
both the “WSM Grand Ole Opry" show, and "All-Star Jamboree, it featured
the Duke of Paducah, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters,
Jimmie Rodgers Snow, Charlie Stewart, the Singing Hardens, Sammy
Barnhart, Bob Neal, Uncle Dudley and Smilin' Mac Cyclone.
According to Lee Cotten, Charlie Stewart was another RCA Victor
recording artist managed by Colonel Parker at the time and Uncle
Dudley was the stage name for Ernest Hackworth of
Texarkana. Hackworth promoted this tour in conjunction with an old
friend, Colonel Parker. Bonnie, Ernest’s first wife, and Marie Parker,
the Colonel's wife, sold tickets, "Hack” acted as the program’s emcee,
and the Colonel worked the crowd selling programs. The Colonel later
offered Hackworth a part of Elvis’ contract for $3,000. Hackworth, who
didn’t much care for rock ‘n roll, turned it down, preferring to remain
in radio. It is believed that Gladys and Vernon Presley attended this
performance, invited by Elvis who wanted to introduce them to the
Colonel. Gladys was a big fan of the Duke of Paducah.2
Comedian and banjo player Benjamin Francis “Whitey” Ford was born in DeSoto, Missouri in 1901 and appeared on the Grand Ole Opry from 1942 to 1959. Ford originally developed the Duke character on the air of
KWK-AM, St. Louis in the early 1930s and carried the character over to his own show with Red Foley in 1937,
on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance. Ford’s signature tagline was “I’m going back to the wagon, these shoes are killing me.”
They boys had only earlier that month begun their official association
with Colonel Parker, Hank Snow and their Jamboree Attractions. After a
meeting between shows at Ellis Auditorium in
Memphis initiated by Bob Neal, their help had been enlisted for
bookings. The first booking they got from them was in
Roswell. The Colonel though had known
of Elvis sometime before that and already had his sights on getting
control. According to Bill
E. Burk, Hackworth had seen Elvis earlier at the Hayride and is
reputedly the one who called the Colonel and said, "There’s a
kid at the Hayride tearing ‘em up. You’ve got to come down here and have
a look." Oscar Davis though, is
probably the first to have clued him in after meeting him at the
Eagles Nest in Memphis the previous
On August 3, 1955 they returned for their second appearance in Little
Rock at the Robinson Auditorium. Billboard listed it as part of Bob
Neal's "eighth anniversary tour" that started by drawing capacity crowds
in Tupelo at the fairgrounds on the 1st. This tour featured Webb Pierce,
Elvis, Scotty and Bill, Red Sovine, Wanda Jackson, Bud
Deckelman and Charlie Feathers. Local attraction Sammy Barnhart
was again added to the line-up in Little Rock and they played the night after in
and concluded in Memphis
on the 5th at the Overton
Park Shell. Sonny James and Jim Wilson joined them in Memphis
and Johnny Cash performed several dates on the tour as well.
According to Lee Cotten, the Little Rock show drew an estimated 3,000
and Gladys and Vernon Presley were remembered to have been on hand
for this show. They drove to Little Rock specifically to meet again with
Colonel Parker at Elvis’ insistence. As an extra incentive, the Colonel
brought along Whitey Ford, the Duke of Paducah, who happened to be the
Colonel’s neighbor in Madison, Tennessee. As mentioned earlier, the Duke
was a favorite of Gladys. After all this attention the Presleys still
did not sign a contract with Colonel Parker that would have allowed him
to become Elvis’ "special advisor." They would however sign less
than two weeks later, on the 15th, granting him exclusive territorial
rights to book him in 47 cities and the exclusive right to negotiate any
renewal to existing contracts on his behalf.2
Only several weeks before Elvis, Scotty and Bill had recorded what would
be their last single for Sun, Mystery
Train, the flip side of which was I Forget to Remember to Forget,
written by Stan Kessler. According to Kessler, he needed a good
demo of the song and got Feathers to sing it for which he gave him 50%
of the royalties. According to Feathers though, Stan started the
song and he finished it, also making the somewhat dubious claim that he
worked out the vocal licks and taught Elvis the vocal arrangement.3
Feathers, originally from Holly Springs, MS, had been
around Sun and Sam Phillips at least as early as October of 1954 and in
1955 started spending time at Sun on a regular basis. Colin Escott
describes him as a superb stylist who made a handful of brilliant
records though eclipsed by larger than life boasting.
Frustrated at Sun, he went to Meteor records in May of 1956 and his trio
would later tour on package shows with Warren Smith, Johnny Cash, Jerry
Lee Lewis, Johnny Horton and Roy Orbison. They would even make one
appearance in Dallas on the Big D Jamboree
but would never rise to more than an underground figure in Memphis.3
Arkansas Democrat -
May 14, 1956
Arkansas Democrat -
May 15, 1956
Arkansas Democrat -
May 16, 1956
By their third and last appearance at the Robinson auditorium on May 16, 1956, the price of the show had
doubled to $1.50 in advance at Walgreens and $2.00 at the box office.
The ads featured 8 great acts in "his" variety show which consisted of
the Jordonaires; Rick and Emil Flaim and their orchestra; vocalists
Frankie Conners and Jackie Little and comedian-magician Phil Maraquin.
The review in the Arkansas Gazette the following day read:
Auditorium Pandemonium Elvis Cools Cats Down To a Dungaree Delirium By Jack Blalock and Ray Moseley of the Gazette Staff
It started as a chant of "We want Elvis," mounted to a wave of hysterical screaming and from then on the cats had a ball.
Elvis Presley, his guitar and his singing caused it all last night - the biggest mob scene the Auditorium has ever witnessed.
Teen-aged rock-and-roll fans started lining up 5 1/2 hours before his appearance and at show time the auditorium was packed, with hundreds more waiting outside.
Presley, flashily dressed and beaming broadly, took it all with ease as he sang for two worshipful mobs.
The 21-year-old singing star was scheduled to appear at 8 p.m. but he missed a plane connection in Memphis and did not come on stage until almost 8:30. The delay merely heightened the pandemonium in the Auditorium.
Thirty minutes before his arrival, the big hall started rocking with waves of rhythmic applause and cries of "We Want Elvis!" The crescendo mounted to a hysterical pitch when the stage lights came on.
The curtain parted and a blue jacketed master of ceremonies bubbled: "Bless your
hearts, you're going to get him." That touched off another round of screaming.
Then the crowd booed and hissed intermittently as another act performed. Plainly they wanted Elvis.
Scotty and Elvis onstage at Robinson Auditorium, Little
Rock, AR - May 16,
In Person; In Purple
The master of ceremonies returned, fumbled through an introduction that no one cared to hear and then it happened.
Out of the curtains on the right emerged a broadly smiling Presley, garbed in a violet purple coat and black silk slacks. A guitar was draped over his shoulders as he slinked toward the microphone.
Instantly, the crowd was on its feet, screaming and waving. The front rows surged forward.
Presley continued to beam, wrestled the microphone toward him and suddenly burst into the opening notes of his most popular song "Heartbreak Hotel."
That was more than the teenagers could take sitting down. On the left side of the auditorium, they rose in a body and stormed down the aisle, then stood screaming on the brink of the stage.
Presley gyrated wildly on stage, drawing louder screams each time he flicked a leg in hula dancer fashion.
Police Herd Them Back
Policemen scrambled down the aisle after the teen-agers and finally persuaded them to return to their seats.
The screaming never subsided during the rendition.
The notes came through only now and then, but it didn't matter.
She's Screamy 'Cause He's Dreamy
The kids just go wild when Elvis sings and wiggles.
Elvis was on stage.
The crowd quieted somewhat after the first number but each new song brought its own moment of hysteria.
outside, hundreds of teen-agers thronged the Auditorium steps, waiting for the second show.
It was strictly a night for the dungaree set and few oldtimers -- anyone old enough to vote -- ventured to the site of Presley's triumph.
The girls came to look pretty for Presley in smart spring frocks, but the boys wore dungarees.
The youngsters paid $2 at the door or $1.50 for advance sale tickets to hear Presley sing.
... Oscar Davis of Memphis, a press agent for Presley, said that the teen-agers' idol was deliberately late because of shrilling mobs that had pressed him too close in the past.
"Too much trouble in other towns," Davis said. He had been with Presley five months.
Davis glanced with a practiced eye at the house and said the crowd was "real great for Little Rock."
At other towns, he said, mobs "beggared description."
"We want Elvis." The chant began at 6:15 p.m. Thirty minutes later the chant grew to a concerted roar.
It's not just the song, it's the sight of Elvis
himself singing it.
Squealed at the Thought
From time to time infectuous squeals arose from female admirers a they thought Elvis was entering. Then they died to an impatient mumble.
At 6:40 p.m. Harville ordered an end to ticket sales for the 7 p.m. show.
A second show was
scheduled for 9:30 p.m.
Harville said early in the evening that it wasn't the largest crowd he had seen at the Auditorium, but it was the largest bunch of
"A crowd like this is milling all the time," Harville said.
To control the crowd there were 10 off-duty Little Rock policemen. there were two firemen keeping a watchful eye.
Who's Elvis Presley
The police took the mob scene casually. The adult spectators scattered in the crowd appeared either determined or sheepish.
The fame of Presley is centered in the rock-and-roll crowd and admirers of his hill-billy style. But lots of Arkansans had hardly heard the husky crooners name.
"I wouldn't know him if I saw him. And I wouldn't be here unless I was being paid," commented a patrolman.
"They might tear the place down before he gets here," said another patrolman at 6:45 p.m. He explained wisely: "They go nuts you know."
Arkansas Gazette May 17, 1956 courtesy Little Rock Public
Elvis onstage at Robinson Auditorium, Little Rock, AR - May 16, 1956
Photo courtesy Cristi Dragomir and TCB-World
Elvis signing autograph for KLRA Deejay Ray Green - May 16, 1956
Photo courtesy Brian
In between shows backstage Elvis was interviewed by KLRA
deejay Ray Green. Green started his career in radio in Little Rock
where he developed his own daily radio show called 'The Ray Green Show'.
He is said to have the highest rated radio audience in radio history for
Arkansas. During the latter part of the interview before Elvis
returns for the second show, Jackie Little backed by the Flaim brothers
can be heard singing onstage.
REALLY SENDS 'EM - Elvis Presley "sent" these
teen-agers "a-rockin and a-roll-in" while singing and shaking out
one of his self-styled "hi want you, hi need you" songs. This
front row scene was typical in the packed Robinson Auditorium last
night. The ticket demand was so great that Presley presented a
Arkansas Democrat Photo by Cranford courtesy Little Rock
Ray Green held on to that interview in his private collection and also a
recording of one of Elvis' entire performances. Years later it was
rediscovered and released though RCA on collector editions.
During the 1940s and 1950s, seating in the Robinson Center was often segregated by race. Music manager and promoter Jim Porter Jr. sought to overturn this policy in the wake of the desegregation of Little Rock’s school system. In 1961, he was arrested during a Ray Charles concert at the center for sitting among black audience members; other concerts by black performers such as Duke Ellington were canceled because of the segregated seating. By the time Louis Armstrong performed at the Robinson Center in September 1966, this policy had ended.1
In 1966, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra made the Robinson Memorial Auditorium its home. The building underwent extensive renovation in 1973, with underground parking added in the place of the lower performance hall. An attached hotel was erected to the east. At this time, the name was formally changed to the Robinson Center Music Hall. Famous acts continue to appear at the Robinson Center, including traveling Broadway shows such as Les Miserables, Riverdance, and Wicked. Since its renovation, the auditorium seats 2,609. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places on February 21, 2007.1
According to the
Internet Movie Database, after radio, Ray Green began acting in commercials, and got some small parts in different
television series. Finally, he won the role of Lomax in his first and last feature film 'Axe', which also carried the name of 'Virgin Slaughter', 'California Axe massacre' & 'Lisa, Lisa.
After 'Axe', he developed a line of motivational kits, and tapes called 'Redirectional Thinking' and traveled as a motivational speaker and a sales trainer, encouraging and training people all over the country.
Ray Green now lives in Lafayette, Louisiana with his wife. He is involved part time in local public television, and still gives occasional interviews about his Elvis Presley interview. He has 4 children and 6 grandchildren.
Ray is also the founder and president of the "I
Met Elvis Fan Club."
All photos on this site (that we
didn't borrow) unless
otherwise indicated are the property of either Scotty Moore or James V.
Roy and unauthorized use or reproduction is prohibited.