Little Girl from Little Rock  [Song]

The song “Little Girl from Little Rock” is a featured number from a 1949 Broadway musical as well as a hit movie from 1953, both titled Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. With lyrics by Leo Robin and music by Jule Styne, the catchy song, with its slightly naughty lyrical content, was an “audience grabber.” As the opening number for both the Broadway production and the movie, it set the tone for both.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was based on a bestselling comic novel written by Anita Loos. The book caused a sensation when it was published in 1925 and was soon adapted as a non-musical Broadway play in 1926 and a silent film in 1928. The book and the play centered on a girl named Lorelei Lee who was born in Little Rock (Pulaski County). Although Lorelei did not come from the upper classes, she discovers that her blond hair and other physical assets enable her to climb the socio-economic ladder with the help of well-placed male admirers.

Loos noticed first-hand the effect that beautiful blond women had on otherwise straitlaced men. She chose Little Rock as Lorelei’s hometown based on an incident involving her friend, journalist H. L. Mencken, who had written an essay denigrating Arkansas for being a cultural wasteland with what he considered to be ignorant people. By intentionally creating Lorelei as an Arkansan, Loos later wrote that she remembered Mencken’s essay and wanted Lorelei to be “a symbol of our nation’s lowest possible mentality.” However, she also observed how Mencken himself gushingly responded to a “stupid little blonde,” apparently setting aside his intellectual standards during the flirtation.

In German mythology, the Lorelei is a siren who sits at the edge of the Rhine River luring sailors to their doom by mesmerizing them with her enchanting beauty. In her novel, Loos presents a girl who is born “Mabel Minnow” but adopts the new name of “Lorelei Lee,” which has been suggested by a Little Rock judge when the girl is acquitted of murder by an all-male jury. The book, play, musical, and movie go on to describe Lorelei’s various adventures as a nightclub singer among the upper crust both in America and abroad as well as while sailing on an ocean liner on the way to France.

The musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes opened on Broadway in 1949, introducing Carol Channing as Lorelei. It was a hit, running for 740 performances. Over the years, the show would go on to various productions, including revivals and adaptations in the United States and abroad. For its Broadway production, the music, including “Little Girl from Little Rock,” was provided by Jule Styne, who also wrote such hits as “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from the show Gypsy. Lyrics were written by Leo Robin, who was noted for penning entertainer Bob Hope’s signature song, “Thanks for the Memory.”

In the Broadway musical, “Little Girl from Little Rock” was performed by Lorelei Lee as a first-person autobiographical number, with lyrics including:

I’m just a little girl from Little Rock,
I lived on the wrong side of the tracks,
Till a gentleman took me out one night,
And after he’d taught me wrong from right,
We moved to the right side of the tracks.
Then someone done me wrong in Little Rock
So I up and left old Arkansas.

Lorelei goes on to tell her story, going to New York, where she was “wined and dined and ermined,” growing ever more determined to go back and thumb her nose at the one who did her wrong in Little Rock. She learned the lesson (which she later espoused in another song from the show, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”) that it is important to get a token of a man’s appreciation in advance. At the end of the song, Lorelei says she’s “a-goin’ back home and give my thanks / To the one who done me wrong in Little Rock.”

In the film version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the song became a duet between Lorelei and her friend Dorothy Shaw. Jane Russell, already a celebrity, played Dorothy. In the role of Lorelei was newcomer Marilyn Monroe, whose performance made her a star. Not only were there differences in the lyrics to adapt the tune for two singers, there were variations in the lyrics from the Broadway production. The film version began:

We’re just two little girls from Little Rock.
We lived on the wrong side of the tracks.
But the gentlemen friends who used to call,
They never did seem to mind at all.
They came to the wrong side of the tracks.

After they both suffered a broken heart by someone in Little Rock, they left Arkansas and went to New York where they “found out / That men are the same way everywhere.” The two women say they “never did learn to read or write [but] learned about love in the pale moonlight,” having become educated by learning “an awful lot in Little Rock.” After doing well outside Arkansas, they first decide that someday in fancy clothes, they’d go back home and “punch the nose” of the heartbreaker in Little Rock, but now plan to give him their thanks.

Critics noted that Channing’s performance of “Little Girl from Little Rock” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” were the two show-stopping hits from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes on Broadway. Ironically, the Tony Award that year went to Mary Martin for playing another native of Little Rock: Nellie Forbush in South Pacific.

The legacy of Channing’s version of “Little Girl from Little Rock” lived on even after Gentlemen Prefer Blondes closed on Broadway in 1951. Channing appeared on Milton Berle’s hit television show in 1953 as well as a TV special with Jule Styne. Channing visited Little Rock while touring with the musical Hello, Dolly! In 1966, Dolly played for eight sold-out performances at Robinson Auditorium, with Channing in the title role. Apparently, Channing, who had originally played the fictional “little girl from Little Rock,” required that Little Rock be one of her stops on the Dolly tour. There, she was made an honorary citizen of Little Rock and later spoke well of her time in the city, which included a visit to the Governor’s Mansion.

In 1974, the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was re-worked as Lorelei (subtitled Gentlemen Still Prefer Blondes) and was produced with Channing in the title role. With some songs discarded and new ones added, “Little Girl from Little Rock” was one of the musical numbers that remained from the original material, attesting to its popularity.

Another Arkansas connection emerged for Channing when she attended a formal dinner in Washington DC. That evening, her birthday was honored since it happened to coincide with a White House banquet for the National Governors Association. This event marked the first official White House dinner given by newly elected President Bill Clinton who, when he served as Arkansas governor, was a resident of Little Rock.

For additional information:
Brantley, Ben. “Lorelei Is Back, Head Over Carats.” New York Times, May 13, 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/11/theater/reviews/gentlemen-prefer-blondes-with-megan-hilty-at-city-center.html (accessed October 4, 2022).

Carey, Gary. Anita Loos. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Cerasaro, Pat. “Carol Channing and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Broadway World, May 15, 2014. https://www.broadwayworld.com/article/THEATRICAL-THROWBACK-THURSDAY-Carol-Channing-GENTLEMEN-PREFER-BLONDES-20140515 (accessed October 4, 2022).

De Roche, Linda. The Jazz Age: A Historical Exploration of Literature. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2015.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” Internet Movie Database. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0045810/ (accessed October 4, 2022).

“Little Rock Look Back: Carol Channing,” Little Rock Culture Vulture, January 31, 2016. https://lrculturevulture.com/tag/lorelei/ (accessed October 4, 2022).

Loos, Anita. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. New York: Liveright, 1963.

“RobinsoNovember: Carol Channing Brings ‘Hello Dolly’ to Little Rock,” Little Rock Culture Vulture, November 15, 2016. https://lrculturevulture.com/2016/11/15/robinsonovember-carol-channing-brings-hello-dolly-to-little-rock/ (accessed October 4, 2022).

Rodgers, Marion Elizabeth. Mencken: The American Iconoclast. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Nancy Hendricks
Garland County Historical Society

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