Little 500: Entertainers of the Past

There’s a little event going on in town this week.

Victorious Little 500 riders, 1964

Yep, it’s time for Little 500 at Indiana University, for many years called the World’s Greatest College Weekend.

The race was the brainchild of Howard “Howdy” Wilcox. Wilcox, Director of the IU Foundation (IUF), established the IU Student Foundation Committee in 1950 in order to raise awareness of the Foundation and its purpose. He saw the race as an opportunity to publicize the IU Student Foundation and raise scholarship money for students working their way through school. The bike race, modeled after the Indianapolis 500, was first run in 1951. The first years featured only the race but before long a Variety Show was added and in subsequent years additional entertainment and events were developed, including the Golf Jamboree (1958), the Cream and Crimson intra-squad football game (1963), and the Style Show (1969).

This year there has been a tremendous amount of excitement over the headliner Lil Wayne and I thought there might be some interest in learning a bit about the past acts that have come for Little 500. In 1953, IUF Director Bill Armstrong decided to add a little celebrity luster and brought in the first Little 500 Sweetheart, actress and singer Lu Ann Simms. Simms was given every photo op possible throughout the weekend.

Actress and singer Lu Ann Simms served as the first Little 500 Sweetheart in 1953.
Actress and singer Lu Ann Simms served as the first Little 500 Sweetheart in 1953.

With the crowds the race began to draw, Armstrong harbored concerns about what folks could do in town post-race, so two years later he added a Variety Show. The headliner that year was Horace Heidt and his 50-person “Swift Show Wagon.” The group performed at the Auditorium and a new tradition was born. Feeling there could still be more, in 1960 Armstrong launched the Friday night concert, the Little 500 Extravaganza. The first performers were The Four Lads, who entertained crowds from the Woodlawn tennis courts.

In his book, The Little 500: The Story of the World’s Greatest College Weekend, author John Schwarb relays the story of Armstrong’s greatest celebrity coup, Bob Hope. Schwarb writes, “Making a personal crusade out of landing the big act of the day, he traveled to Hope’s North Hollywood, California, home in early 1963 to personally ask for the star’s attendance. Initially Hope rebuffed Armstrong’s request, saying that IU couldn’t be anywhere near as great as advertised, and that the school up the road in West Lafayette was better.” [this archivist’s response: *gasp*] Armstrong continued to pursue Hope and he agreed to come in 1964. That year, Little 500 set an attendance record of 23,790 and Hope delivered with four shows to accommodate the deluge of ticket sales. But when Armstrong in turn delivered his $30,000 check, Hope tore it up. Turned out he had such a great time that he asked to return the next year and did so again in 1967, 1971, and 1975, donating his fees to a scholarship fund in his name. (Interested in applying? Check out http://iufoundation.iu.edu/students/scholarships.html.)

The McGuire Sisters were 1954's Little 500 Sweethearts.
The McGuire Sisters were 1954's Little 500 Sweethearts.

So, there have been a lot of celebrities connected to Little 500. Some other names of the past:

  • 1955: Horace Heidt’s Swift Show Wagon
  • 1958: headliners Don Cherry & Tina Robin; Popoff Teddy Family, and Al Cobine
  • 1965: The Kingsmen
  • 1969: Tony Bennett, George Kirby, and the Sandpipers
  • 1970: Chicago
  • 1978: Lou Rawls
  • 1983: Barbara Mandrell & the Do-Rites
  • 1988: Innuendo, the Cones, & Voyage
  • 1992: Larry Crane, Henry Lee Summer, and John Mellencamp
  • 1993: The BoDeans (openers were Material Issue & The Why Store)
  • 2001: Nelly
  • 2005: The Roots
IU alums, what were some of your favorite Little 500 shows?

Frank Lloyd Wright and the Usonian House

For those of you on or near campus later this morning, architectural historian Kathryn Smith – one of the foremost experts on Frank Lloyd Wright and modern architecture – is giving a lecture on “Frank Lloyd Wright and the Usonian House” as part of the Horizon of Knowledge Lecture Series. For more specific information about the event see here.

In general the term Usonian – first coined in 1936 with the design of the Herbert Jacobs House in Madison, Wisconsin  – refers to Wright’s rethinking of the small affordable house in his effort to shape the period of prosperity and development that he envisioned for post-Depression America. In many ways quite similar to Wright’s earlier Prairie style homes which featured low roofs, open living areas, and an apparent relationship to nature, the Usonian style homes however were smaller, one-story structures. The traditional plan consisted of an L-shaped footprint for the house, with the back of the house facing the street and the front organized around a courtyard. On the interior, he eliminated the concept of the separate dining room, reorienting the kitchen and the dining area into one space. The traditional garage was replaced by the carport, while the need for a basement was eliminated by the use of lightweight floor slabs resting on a grad of packed sand containing a radiant heating system.

The announcement for this lecture, reminded us of related correspondence in the recently re-processed Henry Radford Hope papers. Hope – who served as the Chair of the School of Fine Arts for 27 years and as the first director of the Indiana University Art Museum – gave a talk in June of 1943 before a faculty group on Wright’s domestic architecture. In preparation for that talk, Hope surveyed several current owners of Wright designed homes, asking them to provide “information such as the cost of your house, difficulties you had with priorities, differences of opinion between architect and contractor”, and “details with which you were satisfied or dissatisfied.” While carbon copies of these inquiries are included in the collection, of particular note are the responses from the owners of two Wright designed Usonian homes – each with a rather differing opinion on the success of the final product.

Stanley and Mildred Rosenbaum House (Florence, AL)

Flikr Creative Commons, by Gino

Added to the National Register of Historic Place in 1978, the Rosenbaum House was built for newlyweds Stanley and Mildred in 1939 and exists as the only Frank Lloyd Wright designed structure  in the state of Alabama.

On May 25, 1943, Hope sent Stanley Rosenbaum a letter outlining the above questions, and the following day Rosenbaum responded in a rather critical way – to put it mildly. The second page from that letter is shown here, with  “Jack” serving as a pseudonym to refer to the Wright-recommended contractor who worked on the project. You can view the letter in its entirely here.

Today the site serves as a museum open to the public, so for more information you about the history of the site visit their website.

Gregor S. and Elizabeth B. Affleck House, Bloomfield Hills, MI

A childhood friend of Wright, in 1940 Gregor Affleck and his wife Elizabeth chose to commission the design of their new home from the renowned architect – despite the fact that Elizabeth  had originally desired a “‘Colonial’  with white pillars to the roof.” Wright directed the couple to locate a site for their new home that “‘no body else can do anything with,” and the resulting product brought on a rush of local and national attention. In October 1940, Progressive Architecture published a 4 page spread on the house, while the model for the design was included in a Wright retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1940-1941. Upon inquiry, the resulting – and much more positive – correspondence between Gregor Affleck and Henry Hope elaborates upon the merits of the design (see here) as well as an stylistic comparison between Wright’s style as compared to those of his contemporaries Le Corbusier and Walter Groupius (see here).

In 1980, the home was donated to Lawrence Technological University to ensure that it would continue to be available to the public and to inspire students of architecture. More information about the history of the site can be found through their website.

Looking for an Interesting Summer Vacation Spot?

In the process of writing this entry, I happened to find that you can actually rent this little Usonian gem in northern Wisconsin – originally designed for business man Bernard Schwartz in 1938.