The tenacity of soprano Marjorie Lawrence
World famous opera singer from Australia made the Spa City her home
Thelife of Marjorie Lawrence is one of strength and endurance, from her humble beginnings of growing up on a farm in Australia, to finding stardom as a world-renowned opera singer in her twenties, being stricken with polio and paralyzed at the age of 34, and returning to the stage just one year later. The performer would eventually make Hot Springs her home. Lawrence was born south of Melbourne, Australia, in 1907, to butcher William Lawrence and church organist Elizabeth Lawrence. Her mother died in 1909 and Lawrence was left to be raised by her father’s mother.
Having recognized her vocal talents at a young age, Lawrence traveled to Melbourne without her father’s permission to study voice. Despite extreme financial hardship, she studied under conductor and composer Cécile Gilly in France before making her European debut in 1932, her performances at the Paris Opera causing music critics to hail her as one of the greatest sopranos of all time.
Lawrence was a star. She made her American debut with the Metropolitan Opera New York in 1935 and performed with the company for six seasons, just six years before marrying the love of her life, osteopath Dr. Thomas King, at the height of her career.
During a rehearsal in Mexico City, just three months after the wedding, Lawrence suddenly collapsed onto the stage. It was later determined that she had been stricken with polio. Now almost completely paralyzed in both legs, Dr. King brought his wife to Hot Springs in hopes of improving her condition and alleviating her pain with the thermal waters. The couple fell in love with the Spa City and purchased a 500-acre ranch on Highway 7 South just outside of Hot Springs, which they named “Harmony Hills.” This would remain Lawrence’s home until just the last few years of her life.
With incredible bravery, still unable to stand on her own two feet, Lawrence resumed her musical career just 18 months later. She began rebuilding her career in 1942. Beginning in 1944, Lawrence
made extensive tours overseas to entertain troops, beginning with Australia in 1944, occupied Europe in 1945 and 1948, and Vietnam in 1966. She also sang at Buckingham Palace and the White House and continued to perform until 1952.
Meanwhile, Lawrence had been working on her autobiography. “Interrupted Melody: The Story of My Life” became a best-seller and, in 1955, was made into a Hollywood film starring Eleanor Parker. The southern premiere of the film took place at the Malco Theatre in Hot Springs in 1955.
Lawrence then moved into television, briefly hosting a TV show from 1953-54 before leaning more toward teaching voice instead of performing.
She was Professor of Voice at Newcomb College in New Orleans from 1956-60. From 1960-73, she was Professor of Voice and director of Opera Workshop, later named The Marjorie Lawrence Opera Theatre, at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill.
In 1974, Lawrence returned to Arkansas and began teaching at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Garland County Community College, now known as National Park College. For over 20 years, she held annual summer workshops in Hot Springs where her students performed for audiences at the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa and in Christmas concerts at the Convention Auditorium.
Her final recording, “Waltzing Matilda,” was recorded in Australia in 1976.
On Sept. 17, 1978, the city of Hot Springs, her “adopted city,” honored Lawrence when Mayor Tom Ellsworth proclaimed that day Marjorie Lawrence Day.
Lawrence died of heart failure in 1979 at a hospital in Little Rock and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Hot Springs.
After giving a Christmas performance for patients at the Army and Navy General Hospital, Marjorie Lawrence spoke to veterans confined to their beds.