Robinson Center Historic Photos Slideshow
In 1937, Mayor R.E. Overman informed the City Council of ten major needs for Little Rock, including the construction of a municipal auditorium. In January of that year, the citizens of Little Rock voted 3:1 in favor of constructing a new municipal auditorium.
The Public Works Administration (PWA) would provide 45% of the total cost for the construction of the auditorium, which was estimated at $650,000. Completed in 1939, this municipal project yielded the largest auditorium in the state with air conditioning and a maximum capacity of 3,000 people.
Even before the completion of the building, rumors of its size spread throughout town as the local citizens anticipated the building would “require an entire block.” Nearly two years after construction began on December 27, 1937, the building was completed on December 8, 1939. The newly finished auditorium housed a music hall with a theater, stage, and balcony, arena, convention and lecture halls, and several committee rooms.
At the time of its construction, the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium was considered one of the finest buildings in Arkansas. In the Works Progress Administration writer’s project’s WPA Guide to the 1930s Arkansas, the description praises the building for its massive form. “Walls rise sheer and windowless, their blankness relieved only by patterned brickwork and recesses decorated with Greek Masks.” Characteristic of the Art Deco style, the architectural details in this description emphasize the building’s large size and grandeur.
The architects selected for the project were very reputable not only in Little Rock, but also in other parts of the state as well. The Wittenberg and Delony firm established in 1918 by George Wittenberg, a native of Little Rock, AR, and his partner Lawson Delony participated in the design of the Little Rock Public High School, the Federal Building and went on to construct the Union Center at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
On opening night, over 4,000 visitors entered the auditorium under the classical portico supported by six columns and found their way through the front lobby furnished with terrazzo flooring and marble wainscoting. The walls were composed of Silverdale stone, where at the top glass blocks extended to the ceiling. It was considered upon its dedication “the most modern type of theater construction in the country.”
It was the only auditorium in the south with air conditioning. Furthermore, the visitors were sure not to miss their show, as a chime was set in the lobby to ring before the show and after the intermission. The evening’s formal performance of the San Francisco Opera Ballet and presentation of the Arkansas State Symphony Orchestra represented the importance of the building’s opening.
Before the auditorium’s construction, music performances were held in the Little Rock High School’s (now Central High School) auditorium. With the luxury and size of the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium, Little Rock could attract much larger crowds of people within and from out of the state.
The bulletin from the music hall opening night commends the “citizens [for] enough foresight to plan a building to meet demands of state and regional convention.” Designed with a multi-purpose, the auditorium not only aided in the attraction to downtown Little Rock, but it also improved the activity and entertainment of the city and the state.
In 1940, the City Council enacted an ordinance, which authorized a non-political commission directed by auditorium manager William T. Clemmons. The commission was established to run the business of the auditorium and to make sure that the auditorium lived up to its potential for providing the most entertainment. The auditorium held over 3,000 people, while the arena below held over 8,000. Due to the advanced sound acoustics, the auditorium could sponsor two different events at one time. Upon its completion in December 1939, the auditorium served as a cultural theater, ballet stage, concert hall, basketball arena, convention bureau, and lecture hall.
While the auditorium attracted out-of-town visitors, it also maintained its value as a popular community center. In the 1940’s the auditorium held Saturday night dances for soldiers, viewings of Technicolor films, and various competitions such as ping pong, shuffleboard, bridge, checkers, and domino tournaments.
The Robinson has been home to some of the most famous performers and productions since it opened. Shows and performances include:
- Elvis Presley
- Louis Armstrong
- Bill Cosby
- Liza Minnelli
- Katharine Hepburn
- Tallulah Bankhead
- Ella Fitzgerald
- Ray Charles
- Ethel Barrymore
- Nat King Cole
- Mae West
- The Beach Boys
- Mikhail Baryshnikov
- Dwight D. Eisenhower
- Gene Autry
- Duke Ellington
- Bob Hope
- Eleanor Roosevelt
- Glenn Campbell
- Willie Nelson
- John Legend
- Dave Chappelle
- Jerry Seinfeld
- Bonnie Raitt
- Beauty and the Beast
- Jersey Boys
- Gertrude Lawrence
- La Boheme
“Elvis Presley is the most meteoric attraction the auditorium has had, and the Robinson family feels like he’s partly theirs. Just last summer the young idol of teenagers wiggled his way through a half-hour stint as part of a Western show. When he returned to Little Rock last month he packed them in for two straight shows on his own. Last summer, Presley was paid $150.00 for his appearance in Little Rock. This year, in the same building he grossed nearly 9,000.”
The 1950s were an important time for the theater and entertainment for the city. In 1966, the auditorium became home to the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. And in 1973 the building was renovated and converted from a civic center to a convention center, and its name was changed to the Robinson Center Music Hall. As part of the renovation, a public parking deck was built below the building, and an adjoining hotel was constructed to serve larger audiences. The auditorium still serves as a theater and stage today, attracting large audiences from around the state and hosting musical artists and comedians.
In addition to hosting the activity and entertainment, it also served as a memorial for Joseph Taylor Robinson, an important political figure for the city, state, and country. Robinson, who played an important part in New Deal legislation, was awarded a great honor in the dedication of the building which reads “built by the citizens of Little Rock named for a great citizen of Arkansas.”