Their friendship has spanned decades. Their patronage of the arts has reshaped Shreveport. Shreveport Magazine asked celebrated author, illustrator and filmmaker Bill Joyce to interview philanthropist and champion of the arts O. Delton Harrison Jr. about the role of art in his life. Over the course of an early fall afternoon at Harrison’s beautiful South Highlands home, the two discussed art, family and the state of Shreveport’s arts community.
Bill: Were your parents patrons of the arts?
Delton: My mother was, more so than my father. Daddy got to where he liked the arts, but mother really was a great musician. She played the piano. She was on the founding Board of Directors of The Shreveport Opera, which was founded at around the same time as the Shreveport Symphony Orchestra. Shreveport’s very lucky to have an opera and a symphony, and our theatres are wonderful as well. I’m also proud of the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum, which is absolutely a jewel.
B: Whenever I have visitors from out of town, there’s a couple of things that I always do: I bring them to meet you and I take them to see the dioramas at the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum. Those dioramas are really something.
D: We have a very good group now, called the Friends of the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum, which raises funds to keep that incredible museum alive. We have the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum, we have R.W. Norton Art Gallery and the Meadows Museum of Art at Centenary College. Any city in America would be proud to be home to any one of those museums, and we’ve got all three of them.
B: Our museums don’t get talked about as much as they should, I think. We take them for granted. You’ve been involved in the arts in Shreveport for your entire life, and you know the community as well as anyone ever has. You’ve seen how it’s changed. As far as the arts go, what do you think we’re doing right?
D: The arts community in Shreveport, to me, is wonderful. Now the responsibility is with the next generation of arts supporters to step up and keep it alive. Keep building on it. Look at Robinson Film Center, for example – most cities twice the size of Shreveport don’t have a facility like Robinson Film Center. Baton Rouge doesn’t have one. I don’t believe that even New Orleans has anything like Robinson Film Center. It’s just been a wonderful thing for our city. I’m so proud of the Shreveport Regional Arts Council, as well, they’ve done wonderful things. There’s no one in this city who works as hard as (Shreveport Regional Arts Council Executive Director) Pam Atchison. She’s so dedicated to making Shreveport better.
B: Our arts scene is so vibrant and so strong. I need to be more involved in the local arts scene than I have been lately. I’m taking it a little easier these days.
D: That’s alright, you’ve earned a break. You’ve already got your Academy Award. And five Emmy Awards.
B: Well, for a while, I just had the two Emmy Awards – we named them “Salt” and “Pepper” – and I kept them in the kitchen. Then I got a third one, and I called it TABASCO® Sauce. Now that there’s five of them, I don’t know what to do with them anymore. I have run out of condiments to name them after.
Getting back to your love of the arts. Do you remember your first visit to New York City? Was that when you fell in love with opera?
D: Indeed it was. I remember going to the opera with mother in New York City. During World War II, we weren’t able to go to New York, because people couldn’t travel. So, when the war was over, one of the first things that we did was go to New York, where we saw Risë Stevens in Carmen at The Met. I loved it! When we came home, I guess people realized that I liked opera. Four years later, I was elected President of The Shreveport Opera’s Board of Directors, which was overwhelming. I wasn’t yet 30 years old.
B: You’re a member of the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Opera, and you’ve traveled all over and seen performances at the world’s greatest opera houses. In your opinion, where is the greatest place on earth to see opera performed?
D: It’s still the Metropolitan. While I enjoy the Paris Opera and the London Opera, to me there is still something magical about the Metropolitan Opera. There is something very special about it.
B: Opera has a special place among the arts for you, doesn’t it?
D: I just love the opera. I go to the symphony and I enjoy it, but at the opera there’s so much more action taking place. People are stabbing one another, screaming and running all over the stage. I love the opera for the same reasons that I love the movies – there’s a lot going on to keep you entertained! The Shreveport Opera has operated continuously for 67 years, it hasn’t stopped at any time, which is quite an achievement.
B: You’re also a great movie buff. You told me once that, as a child, you spent a lot of summers in Los Angeles.
D: There were so many things about California in the 1950s that were just wonderful. I met Cary Grant, Joan Crawford and Clark Gable one night after dinner, outside of Romanoff’s Restaurant. I still have the autograph that they signed for me that night. I loved California then, but it’s changed so much.
B: Is it true that you befriended Elizabeth Taylor during one of those trips to California?
D: Yes. A friend of ours was a member of a downtown beach club in Santa Monica, and my sister and I would go out to the beach about twice a week. One day, we were there and a gentleman introduced us to a young girl who was visiting from England. I said ‘What’s your name?’ and she said ‘My name’s Elizabeth Taylor.’ Well, at the time, I’d never heard of her. She told us that she was filming a movie in town, and that she was enjoying California very much. My sister and I spent several days at the beach with her. We traveled a lot, mother and daddy and I, and met a lot of interesting people along the way.
B: Did you go to a lot of museums together during those travels?
D: Oh, yes, always. That was a “must” on my parents’ list for us. And not only the art museums, but the museums of natural history, too – they loved those. There are wonderful museums in the world, you know, that aren’t all art museums. I really encourage people to explore those museums that focus on science and nature. They’re not filled with famous works of art, but they’re filled with fascinating things that speak for themselves.
B: One of the things that I have always admired about you is that you open your home up to visiting guests. You’re an incredibly gracious host. Is that something that you enjoy doing, hosting guests?
D: Oh, absolutely. These days, most of the speakers who come to Shreveport to speak to the English-Speaker’s Union stay with me. Our English-Speaker’s Union branch in Shreveport is the largest branch in the United States. It’s bigger than New York, bigger than Dallas-Ft. Worth, bigger than any branch in California. Through hosting others in Shreveport, and traveling around the world, you come to know more and more people. There’s one thing I can say that describes a lot of my life: It’s a small world. You meet people along the way, and you never know who they’ll turn out to be.
B: You’ve traveled the world over. You could have lived anywhere that you wanted. Why did you choose to settle down in Shreveport?
D: I must say this: When I got out of college, my parents challenged me to stay in Shreveport and make a life here. And I took them up on it. There’s a lot to get involved in here in Shreveport, and too many people are leaving Shreveport. What they ought to be doing is coming home.
B: I believe that a lot more young people are choosing to do what you did, Delton. People leave and they experience big city life, and it’s all great fun. But when they get a little older, they realize that the quality of life in Shreveport is actually very high. It’s fun to live in a larger city that feels like the center of the Universe – to go out and be wild every night. That’s fun for a while, but especially when you start raising kids, Shreveport is a great place. There’s an abundance of art and culture.
D: You are so right. The next generation has to keep it going, keep getting involved. Take responsibility. Be the president of something! Don’t just sit around and complain. If you’re complaining about the way that things are, you should do something to change it. We have wonderful young people in Shreveport, like Andrew Crawford, who are doing just that. He’s doing a good job with Rhino Coffee. I think that what SRAC did with the old fire station is just wonderful. It’s made a fantastic addition to downtown Shreveport. We need more of that kind of thing.
B: What you have always encouraged me to do is have an impact. People like you have encouraged me, ever since I was a little kid, not just to live but to live in a way that makes a difference.
D: I feel very fortunate. I have enjoyed this life, and this city, very much. If I leave it tomorrow, I will leave happy with what I did. And I hope that the rest of the city will be happy with it, as well.
At the conclusion of their interview, we asked Delton to stick around a bit and reflect on his friendship with Bill Joyce. Here’s what Delton had to say about his friend and neighbor, Bill.
“I met Bill Joyce when he was getting ready to make his first trip to New York. Some friends told him ‘Bill, you ought to go see Delton. He really knows New York.’ Bill had just written a book and some wonderful things were happening in his career. I asked Bill if he had someone to meet him at LaGuardia, and he said that he was being met by Bennett Cerf—one of the founders of Random House publishing, and one of the most important figures in American publishing at that time. I said ‘Bill, you don’t need me to make connections for you—I need you to make connections for me!’
“I think that his work is unique in that it expresses so much. He has such a wonderful ability to dream up entire worlds. I know adults who buy the books to share with their children, but they end up keeping the books for themselves because they enjoy them so much. I believe that Bill is a true genius. One of my favorite moments along the way, observing Bill’s career, was seeing The Rise of the Guardians screened at The Strand Theatre.
“We’ve had a lot of happy times at Bill’s house, he and I have. I would go over and see him and Elizabeth, on her birthday and so forth, and we made so many great memories there.
“The night that Bill won the Academy Award, I was thrilled. I was happy for him, of course, but I was also happy for our city. I think that it is such a testament to the creativity that you find here that our city can say it is home to an Academy Award-winner. It means a great deal for a community to have someone so talented to call their own.”
-O. Delton Harrison, Jr.