“HERE ARE two prized Arkansas products,” the caption declares. In the image, a man smiles at the camera. With one hand in his suit pocket and one polished wingtip crossed indolently over the other, he is the perfect picture of 1930s Hollywood glamour. Or he would be if it weren’t for the dark mass of a giant watermelon that squats atop a wooden crate in the frame beside him.
This is, as the caption would have it, “Dick Powell, popular cinema crooner, and the huge granddaddy of all watermelons, which residents of Arkansas, the singing star’s native state, presented to him.” Careful lettering on the side of the big crate confirms that the melon pictured is indeed the world’s largest, grown in the city of Hope, Arkansas. The caption notes that at 195 pounds, the fruit is 25 pounds heavier than Dick himself.
As strange as it seems, the movie star and the giant watermelon meant far more than what they seemed to. In 1935, they were both relatively new cash crops for the state. But beyond that, they each represented something aspirational, and their meeting, immortalized in this image, was indicative of a story that was just beginning—a story, one might argue, that continues to play out to this day.
THE GREAT Depression had hit southern Arkansas hard. Like the people in the Dust Bowl, Arkansans in the early 1930s were pinned beneath the double weights of economic hardship and environmental disaster. The catastrophic Flood of 1927, which had kept some 6,000 square miles of Arkansas farmland underwater from April until August of that year, was only the first in a string of floods and droughts that made profitable farming in the southern half of the state nearly impossible for half a decade. To make matters worse, many of the state’s planters still filled their fields with cotton, the South’s greatest and most fickle cash crop.
The cotton market, which had lined the planters’ pockets for generations, had entered free fall in the second half of the ’20s. By the time the Depression hit, Arkansas’ tenant farmers and sharecroppers were already struggling to survive, and by 1932, when cotton prices hit a rock-bottom 6 cents a pound, the farmers were starving in their homes. Red Cross aid workers who had arrived in 1927 as part of the flood-relief effort ended up staying in the southern half of the state for six years, trying to stem the tide of hunger and disease.
Hope, in Hempstead County, had relied almost exclusively on cotton for the first two decades of the 20th century. With just over 6,000 residents, Hope was the second-largest city in the county and the center of its agricultural industry. The town’s Second Street held so many buyers’ offices that it was nicknamed Cotton Row, and its United Cotton Seed Oil Mill was among the largest in the state. In 1935, however, as the dust cleared and the people of Hope found themselves without the once fertile cotton industry, they began to look for some new ideas.
At first, watermelons must have seemed like old news. Local agricultural leaders, foreseeing the economic and environmental pickle that Hope’s ex-cotton growers were now in, had been promoting watermelons for decades as a means of diversifying the area’s industry. Growing contests had begun as early as 1916, when seed-seller John Gibson started one in the hopes of encouraging farmers to invest in the new crop.
It was a gamble, and the results had been mixed. Mr. Gibson’s contest may not have brought about more watermelons from Hope’s fields, but it certainly brought bigger ones. Not long after Gibson put forward his prize money, local growers Edgar and Hugh Laseter began developing a seed that could win the prize. Season after season, they crossed varieties and culled vines, breeding for bigger and bigger fruit. By 1925, they had their first true giant: a 136-pound watermelon harvested on Aug. 12 of that year.
It was that Laseter watermelon, and the excitement surrounding it, that gave the Hope Chamber of Commerce the idea to host the first watermelon festival, which it sponsored the following summer. As it turned out, the real profit to be made from Hope’s watermelons wasn’t at the produce market, but in the tourism industry.
For a few sweltering days each year, Hope’s giant watermelons transformed the city from a struggling farming town into a cultural mecca. Special trains ran to Hope from Little Rock and Shreveport, and others stopped on the tracks outside of town so that iced watermelon could be handed out to the hot, dusty passengers. A parade of floats and decorated cars rumbled down Third Street towards Fair Park, where politicians and dignitaries shook hands, gave speeches and crowned a festival queen. Once the sun went down, bands struck up for dancers that crowded the park, the skating rink and the streets.
By 1928, it was clear that word had gotten out. Among the 30,000 visitors who attended that year’s festival—outnumbering the normal population of Hope six to one—there were camera crews from Pathe, Paramount and MGM, who caught the action on film. Footage of the festival events, edited into newsreels, was distributed to cinemas across the country and showcased ahead of the features. Arkansas’ landscape and culture filled the big screen, and a national audience celebrated the watermelon festival alongside Hope’s local one.
It was perhaps the first time Hollywood had filmed in Arkansas, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. But first, the state, and Hope, would have to make it through some hard times.
The Land of Make-Believe
BY THE EARLY, ’30s, the massive success of the first watermelon festivals had proven to be short-lived. The huge crowds had shown themselves to be a double-edged sword—they had brought in untold profits to local businesses but strained the city’s infrastructure to its breaking point. With no space to handle the masses and no money in the worsening Depression to start building anything new, the Hope Chamber of Commerce shuttered the festival in 1930. The camera crews skipped town, and the city’s spirits were low.
That is, with at least one exception.
In April 1932, readers of the Hope Star opened their papers to find an open letter from Elmer W. Hecht, manager of the town’s Saenger Theatre. With 1,200 seats, the Saenger could comfortably accommodate around a fifth of Hope’s population—and Hecht had recognized the theater’s potential to provide an escape for world-weary townsfolk in those difficult times.
“Moving pictures are not a luxury, as so many of us think: They are a necessity,” he wrote. “They are the medicine that will cure our depression-saturated minds by giving us two hours of laughs, fun and travel into the land of make-believe that revives our spirit and inspires us to carry on to bigger and better things.”
Alongside that letter, Hecht ran an announcement that the Saenger would drop its ticket prices from 35 to 25 cents a pop.
The price drop drew one of the theater’s largest crowds ever. The Star quoted some moviegoers, who named it “the best thing that ever happened in Hope,” while others rejoiced that it would “enable them to see every show, whereas in the past they have been able to attend only once a week.” The change was so successful that Hecht decided to make the discounted prices permanent.
Meanwhile, in Hollywood, studios were filling their production schedules with movies designed to bring in audiences with the promise of a respite from the anxiety and struggle of the Depression. Warner Brothers, in particular, had gotten the feel-good flick down to a science. Working with choreographer Busby Berkeley, the studio was cranking out a line of movie musicals that combined plotlines about plucky characters overcoming adversity with lush, fantastical dance numbers.
Over the next several years, those Warner Brothers musicals—films like 42nd Street, Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers of 1933—would play to massive crowds at the Saenger. They were backstage musicals, telling stories about show-biz productions on Broadway or in Hollywood, populated by chorus girls, songwriters and producers, all a million miles away from rural south Arkansas.
The Warner Brothers backstage musicals were uniquely suited to lift the spirits of Hope’s moviegoers. Like Hecht wrote in his letter, the musicals offered an escape, but more than that, they spoke directly to the roots of their viewers’ unhappiness, soothing many of the emotional and psychological tensions that life during the Depression created. Not only did the movies tell stories that ended with the underdogs on top, the musicals overflowed with the emotions that the Depression had robbed from ordinary people. Numbers like “We’re In the Money” created joy and a sense of abundance for an audience mired in scarcity. Dancers such as Ruby Keeler and Ginger Rogers exuded the energy that people in the audience had exhausted just trying to survive.
But that didn’t entirely account for the Saenger’s success, either. Maybe, as people walked past the theater on the way to the store or drove down Second Street, they caught a glimpse of a poster pasted onto the brick. It was flashy and bold, with skyscrapers and rows of dancers’ legs. Stylish font near the bottom read “42nd Street,” and along the side, the stars’ faces were enshrined in pale circles. Alongside Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels and Ruby Keeler was the face of Warner Brothers’ newest cast member: Dick Powell, a native of The Natural State.
Arkansas Public Citizen Number 1
DICK POWELL was born in 1904, not in Hope, but in Mountain View. The son of a machinery salesman, Powell had grown up in Mountain View and Little Rock, singing in church and learning piano and banjo, along with a few wind instruments. Then he moved north, cutting his teeth on the Midwestern vaudeville circuit before heading out west to Hollywood, where he was soon snapped up by a Warner Brothers talent scout.
With a smooth voice and a boyish, clean-cut charm, Powell was typecast as the juvenile, an eager young man who invariably sang alongside rows of chorus girls and eventually fell for the film’s female lead. Over the seven years that Powell was contracted to Warner Brothers, he played two dozen various juveniles, crooning and smiling his way to stardom.
It wasn’t that Powell represented Arkansan culture onscreen, per se. The representation he brought was completely through his star persona, and the knowledge the audience had of him outside the characters he portrayed.
According to the Hollywood press, Powell’s Arkansan heritage was the most interesting thing about the wholesome, if slightly milquetoast, musical star. Picture Play reported in 1937 that “a vilifying yarn about Dick Powell … is not likely to be credited. Pinned on Marlene Dietrich, it might be accepted as gospel.” Powell was billed as sincere and naïve, even more so than the characters he played onscreen, who could at least pull a trick or two when they needed to steal a spotlight or win someone’s affection.
Powell’s Arkansan upbringing was broadly discussed as the cause behind these mild manners. In 1936, Ruby Keeler, who had starred opposite Powell in no less than seven Warner Brothers musicals, wrote a tell-all piece for Hollywood magazine, revealing what being from Arkansas meant for Dick on set.
“Not that Dick is a ‘hick’ in the ludicrous sense of the word,” she wrote. “But he is a country boy—a small town boy—at heart. He comes, you know, from the hamlet of Mountain View, Arkansas, which has a population of 450! In his native state, he is affectionately known as ‘Arkansas’ Public Citizen Number 1.’ He proudly calls himself a ‘razorback,’ which I understand is the Arkansas term for a backwoodsman or ‘hill-billy.’ Sometimes, around the lot, we call him by the latter nickname.”
Most of the stories took the same tone that Keeler’s did. They were half-kind, half-condescending, cheerfully referencing hillbillies and razorbacks without much regard for what the terms actually meant. For the most part, the writers treated Powell’s background as a benign, but embarrassing, secret. At best, it was the unexpected source of his charm and genuineness; at worst, it was something he had had to overcome in order to make it in Hollywood.
Ultimately, the people in Hope who saw Powell as a native son didn’t have control over what narrative his work promoted about the state. Even the stories about him in the Hope Star were reprinted from national agencies such as the Associated Press and the National Enterprise Association. While the day would come when Arkansan writers, directors and actors would work to represent the state in their own way, that was still many decades removed from the Arkansas of 1935.
But that didn’t stop people of the time from trying to tell a more nuanced story about Arkansas—to change the national narrative into something they could use to make their lives better. And with no way to write a new one from scratch, they did the next best thing and used what they already had: one singing movie star and some truly remarkable watermelons.
The World’s Largest And Arkansas’ Finest
IN BLACK and white, the watermelon looks unearthly, a void sucking the studio light into itself like a black hole. The watermelon looms next to a besuited young man, his winning smile on full display, in front of a set decorated to look like a country house, charming white lattice included. “Dick Gets Whale of a Melon, Product of a Fond Hope, (Ark.),” reads the headline above the picture.
When O.D. Middlebrooks had dragged the 195-pound behemoth out of his fields in summer 1935, it must have seemed like the herald of a new age. The worst of the financial crisis was over, and the weather had evened out. New highway construction was directing traffic through Hope, and growth in the city was quickly outstripping that in Washington, Hempstead County’s actual county seat. As the people of Hope looked around, they found themselves with the rare opportunity to reinvent themselves, so the city’s chamber of commerce began directing its efforts toward a new publicity campaign.
Whether Arkansans really thought of Powell as their “Public Citizen Number 1” or not, they knew that folks in California thought they did. With Keeler’s article and others like it published nationwide, the Hollywood press proved that Dick Powell was seen as an Arkansas product. In crafting his star persona, they changed his presence onscreen from something that was for Arkansas to something that was from Arkansas—grown and tended here, then shipped out for the rest of the world to enjoy. Something not unlike cotton, tomatoes or watermelons.
So after they brushed the dust off its rind, the chamber quickly jumped into action to publicize Hope’s biggest watermelon ever. After being weighed on official scales, it was quickly declared that the Middlebrooks melon was not only the biggest to ever come out of Hope, but the largest in the world. The chamber decided that the best way to get the national media’s attention to turn to Hope was to present the champion watermelon as a gift to a public figure.
Since President Roosevelt was unavailable, they settled on Dick Powell instead.
It took a citywide fundraiser to come up with the money to ship the 300-pound fruit basket to Powell in Hollywood. “Dick Powell Will Get Hempstead Co. World Champion,” declared the Hope Star, reporting that the melon had been sent on its way to “smiling Dick Powell, Arkansas’ gift to sweet music and the motion picture screen.” Even though Powell was the city’s second choice to get the Middlebrooks melon, he quickly became more invaluable to the Star’s publicity campaign than FDR could have ever been. After Powell unwrapped the watermelon near the end of September, he got all dressed up and took it to a soundstage, where he posed for Warner Brothers photographers next to the hulking fruit.
Here, in one image, however ridiculous, was Dick Powell’s Arkansan heritage on display, and it was destined to be distributed all over the country. In the meantime, he sent a thank-you telegram back to the Hope Star, which published it as quickly as possible:
“Haven’t eaten an Arkansas melon in 10 years, but I can’t forget how much I used to enjoy them,” he wrote. “You are very kind to send it, and I’ll promise to do justice to the world’s largest and Arkansas’ finest watermelon. DICK POWELL.”
By the first week of October, the pictures of Powell and the watermelon were printed not just in the Hope Star, but in 800 other American newspapers. The Star dubbed it “the greatest publicity victory in the history of Hempstead County’s world champions,” and ran the picture on its front page. Dick Powell, Hope’s adopted son, became the town’s primary cultural export.
MAYBE IT was the excitement of those first watermelon festivals that Arkansas was trying to reclaim when, decades later, it became the first state in the nation to offer financial incentives to film production projects. The state still does, through the Arkansas Economic Development Commission’s tax rebates. Like John Gibson’s growing competition, the incentives have worked to encourage Arkansans to take a leap, to invest in something new, something that might take the economic and environmental pressure off of the state’s worn-thin agricultural industries. The vision, as it must have been in 1935, is enticing—not only an economic balm, but a new way to improve quality of life and put Arkansas on the cultural map.
Today, Arkansas is playing host to more and more production operations, both from inside and outside the state. Jeff Nichols brought his crew for 2013’s Mud here. More recently, University of Arkansas-educated screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto brought the latest season of HBO’s True Detective. But the cameras, so far, have mostly been focused on the state’s wealthiest parts. The economic realities of film production mean that most of the projects have been based in Northwest Arkansas, where resources such as equipment, studio space and trained crew workers are plentiful. That means places in the state’s more impoverished southeastern half have largely been left out of the benefits of Arkansas’ growing creative economy.
But as more creative voices enter Arkansas’ production industry, the narratives represented in Arkansan cinema are becoming more diverse. Folks like Little Rock native Amman Abbasi are working to tell stories outside of the state’s most tourist-friendly areas and to film them where they happen. In 2017, Abbasi wrote, directed, edited and produced Dayveon, a story about members of a rural gang in Wrightsville. Abbasi said the film looks to tell a more nuanced, more human story about gang culture in Arkansas than so far has been told by national media.
In that way, the work that Abbasi has undertaken today is not so different from what the people of Hope were doing in 1935. The goal, at least, is the same: for Arkansans to take control of the stories told about Arkansans on the big screen. Cinema isn’t the only way those stories could be told, but it captures imaginations in a way that affects parts of our communities far afield from the movie theater. The true benefits of homegrown cinema come not from spotting pieces of Arkansas within the Hollywood utopia, but finding new ways to look at our own struggles and aspirations. Instead of binoculars, we’ve got mirrors, and we’re looking for new stories within ourselves.
So, in the ink-smudged newsprint of the Hope Star, we see more than just Dick Powell and his giant watermelon. We see a uniquely Arkansan story, tied inextricably to the struggles of our past, the work of our present and the hope of our future. In all of the picture’s cheerful strangeness, we see the aspirations of a community of people who not only dreamt of a better future for themselves, but worked smart and worked hard to make it happen. In that sense, perhaps Dick and the watermelon aren’t the only Arkansas products that are larger than life.
Christian Leus is a writer living in the Arkansas Delta, thinking about film and Southern culture.