Miss Laura has been making Fort Smith memorable for 25 years
Tourists from all over the nation – and some from other countries – have visited Fort Smith because a hospitable, entertaining character got their attention and invited them here.
But if you had asked Carolyn Joyce a little more than 25 years ago, she would have been the last person to believe she would spend the next quarter-century frequently dressed in a period satin gown, projecting an outgoing personality and sallying up to strangers to talk up her town.
In 1992, when Joyce became the first employee under the director of the new Fort Smith Convention & Visitors Bureau, she thought her job would be to set up the office for the agency enabled to market Fort Smith for tourism, conventions and visitors. It was funded by a new state act that allowed a portion of a city lodging tax to be used to promote tourism.
She had worked before with Dee Carroll, the CVB’s first director, when he directed a major, three-year study about downtown redevelopment. When he asked her to join him at the CVB in a small office at what was then the municipal auditorium, she thought she knew what she was getting into – office administration.
Her job turned out to be much, much more and remains so today.
Three factors would lead to Joyce creating “Miss Laura.” She and Carroll, the only two staffers, went to regional marketplaces for group travel, where they would mostly sit in a booth among many other cities, regions and attractions and pass out information to motorcoach tour directors. It was hard to stand out in the crowd, even though Fort Smith had a great pitch.
Also, she was answering the phones at the CVB and noted many inquiries about Miss Laura’s Social Club, a restaurant in the last period house in Fort Smith’s historic red-light District, once called “The Row.” Although the restaurant had closed, many tour operators were still trying to make reservations.
“So, you hear that for a little while and it kind of clicked,” Joyce recalled. “That place is recognized - and it is sitting there empty.”
At the time, Fort Smith had no visitors center and the small office at the municipal auditorium was nothing special. Within a year, the CVB negotiated with the Donald W. Reynolds organization to purchase the mansion and former brothel.
Joyce helped to design the interior decor of the landmark structure, choosing opulent period wallpaper, fabrics and colors to enhance the beautiful mansion, which has a splendid staircase, massive pocket doors and large parlors. It is an attraction in itself.
Historical research and documentation led the building to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places – the first former bordello listed.
“The restaurant had been called Miss Laura’s Social Club - maybe there needed to be a Miss Laura,” Joyce recalled.
On her own, she commissioned a historically correct costume, hat and jewelry to portray Laura Ziegler, the historical proprietor of the club. She created Miss Laura “with a costume and an attitude,” she laughed.
Describing herself as “the most bashful person” while growing up, Joyce’s only previous performance had been her high school senior play. “In the beginning, I could not get on that staircase and give a presentation. I would lead tours through the house,” she recalled. “Probably within two or three months, I started doing the presentation in front of them and the costume helped a lot.”
She also began recruiting volunteers to staff the visitor center, open seven days a week. Called “Miss Laura’s Starrs,” they give tours of the house, provide visitors with information, maps and suggestions to enhance their stay. Today the Starrs are 70 strong, one of Joyce’s proudest accomplishments. She calls them “family” and shows appreciation to the volunteers with an annual excursion and regular celebrations. The visitors center couldn’t operate without them, she said.
Joyce created one more role for Miss Laura to meet a necessity. Many tour operators asked for evening entertainment. She gathered 10 performers who wrote short, humorous sketches and interacted with the visitors in characters.
“Little did I know it would take me away from home night after night,” she said. After 18 years, the group of 10 decided to retire, but she still has a core act with Brad Kidder, Sharon Pitts and herself to do “crowd work,” greeting and entertaining tour groups and conventions.
The need for entertainment also is met by other troupes that emerged over time, such as the Lawbreakers & Peacemakers re-enactors and “Judge & Mrs. Parker,” portrayed by Floyd and Sue Robison.
But much of “Miss Laura’s” work has been on the road, Joyce said. After creating the character, she made a more memorable impression at tourism conventions and marketplaces.
The CVB represents Fort Smith and all its attractions as a destination, she explained. Motor coach tour operators, in the beginning, were mostly stopping at cities on the Interstate 40 corridor, by-passing Fort Smith.
She and the CVB aim to persuade them to stop, even for a few hours, at Miss Laura’s Visitor Center or the Fort Smith National Historic Site, but the ultimate goal is to convince group tours to stay here several nights.
Portraying Miss Laura wins their attention for a pitch, she said, “and then you have to drill it down very well. At these conventions, we may have five to seven minutes per appointment.”
“I like to suggest an itinerary set up like a cruise, so that the Fort Smith lodging is their home for the entire time, while they see the whole area, such as day trips to Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Mount Magazine, even the Cherokee Heritage Center at Tahlequah, along with Fort Smith attractions. It gives them the opportunity to pack up once, but see the area.”
The CVB cooperates with other visitors bureaus to put together these area-wide efforts. Joyce is a long-standing member of what the Arkansas tourism department calls “the A Team,” traveling together to promote the entire state. In recognition of her professionalism, she was voted by her peers into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame in 2011.
This lifetime achievement-level award was special for several reasons. One was that it is hard to keep a secret from Carolyn Joyce, but the entire state tourism community did; the other was that her husband, T. Bob Joyce, was present with their secretly invited children and grandchildren to see her be surprised. Her husband, whom Joyce credits as her biggest supporter, died in 2012.
With a small but extremely able staff, CVB executive director Claude Legris depends on Joyce “to do her thing,” he said appreciatively. The CVB staff includes Amy Knight Jones, who markets to attract conventions and events; Russ Jester, who projects Fort Smith worldwide through cutting-edge digital marketing and communications, and executive secretary Deborah Cossey, whom the staff calls their organizing “zookeeper” for a staff that may be inside Miss Laura’s or traveling the country.
Legris also has charge, in a totally separate entity from the lodging tax-supported CVB, of the Fort Smith Convention Center, which has its own director, sales and operations team who are employees of the City of Fort Smith.
As for that notion to use a character to make Fort Smith memorable?
“When I started marketing, I’d have to take a map with me to show them Fort Smith. Now when I walk in, it’s ‘Fort Smith is here!’ They know Fort Smith is in the house,” Joyce said.
And even out of Miss Laura’s costume, she may have winked.
-By Lynn Wasson
This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith magazine.