Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


Little Rock Look Back: Ben Piazza

Actor-director-playwright-author Ben Piazza was born on July 30, 1933, in Little Rock.  Piazza graduated from Little Rock High School in 1951 as valedictorian. He also had starred in the senior play that year (The Man Who Came to Dinner) and edited the literary magazine.

Keeping the Tiger as his mascot, Piazza attended college at Princeton University.  While there he continued acting, including an appearance in a Theatre Intime production of Othello.  Following his 1955 graduation, he moved to New York City and studied at the Actor’s Studio.

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Piazza was an understudy in the 1956 play, Too Late the Phalarope at the Belasco Theatre.  In February 1958, he starred in Winesburg, Ohio sharing the National (now Nederlander) Theatre stage with James Whitmore, Dorothy McGuire, and Leon Ames. Other cast members included Claudia McNeil (who originated the part of Lena in A Raisin in the Sun) and Sandra Church (who originated the part of Gypsy Rose Lee in Gypsy).

In April 1959, Piazza starred in Kataki at the Ambassador Theatre. This two actor play also featured Sessue Hayakawa, who played a Japanese soldier who spoke only his native l

anguage.  Therefore, Piazza’s part was largely a very lengthy monologue.  For his performance, Piazza received one of the 1959 Theatre World Awards.

As the 1960s dawned, Piazza joined a small cadre of actors who had achieved status on Broadway who then also returned to acting Off Broadway.  Colleen Dewhurst, George C. Scott, and James Earl Jones were others in this select group who helped establish Off Broadway as an entity in itself, instead of being just a farm team for Broadway.

Piazza started the 1960s on Broadway starring at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in A Second String with Shirley Booth, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Nina Foch, Cathleen Nesbitt, and Carrie Nye.   Following that, he started his association with Edward Albee by appearing as the title character in The American Dream.  That play opened at the York Playhouse in January 1961.  Later that year, he appeared in Albee’s The Zoo Story opposite original cast member William Daniels at the East End Theatre.

 

Also in 1961 Piazza starred in several plays during a South American tour sponsored by the American Repertory Company.  He played Christopher Isherwood in I Am a Cameraand Chance Wayne in Sweet Bird of Youth.  In 1962, he starred in a series of plays at the Cherry Lane Theatre.  Piazza returned to Broadway to star along with Jane Fonda and Dyan Cannon in The Fun Couple at the Lyceum Theatre. This play had a troubled rehearsal period, which was documented in a short film about Jane Fonda.

Ben Piazza stayed on Broadway and returned to Albee in February 1963.  He took over the role of Nick in the original run of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when original actor George Grizzard left to play Hamlet at the Guthrie Theatre.  (He had participated in earlier readings of the play prior to it being mounted on Broadway.)

This play was at the Billy Rose Theatre, which marked a return for Piazza. He had acted at this theatre when it was the National while appearing in Winesburg. Piazza played Nick for the remainder of the run and acted with Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill, fellow Arkansan Melinda Dillon, Eileen Fulton, Nancy Kelly, Mercedes McCambridge, Rochelle Oliver and Sheppard Strudwick.

Exact and Very Strange cover

During the run of this show, Piazza’s novel The Exact and Very Strange Truth was published.  It is a fictionalized account of his growing up in Little Rock during the 1930s and 1940s.  The book is filled with references to Centennial Elementary, Westside Junior High, Central High School, Immanuel Baptist Church and various stores and shops in Little Rock during that era.  The Piazza Shoe Store, located on Main Street, was called Gallanti’s.

Following Virginia Woolf, he starred in The Zoo Story at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 1965.  In August of 1967, his play The Sunday Agreement premiered at LaMaMa.  This was Piazza’s first playwright output to be professionally staged.

As Sunday Agreement was opening, Piazza was in rehearsal for his next Broadway opening. He appeared with Alfred Drake in The Song of the Grasshopper in September 1967.  In 1968, he returned to Albee and starred in The Death of Bessie Smith and The Zoo Story in repertory on Broadway at the Billy Rose Theatre.

Later that season, in March 1969, a double bill of his one-acts: Lime Green/Khaki Blue opened at the Provincetown Playhouse.  It was directed by future Tony nominee Peter Masterson and starred Louise Lasser, Robert Walden (who starred in the 2013 production of Death of a Salesman at Arkansas Repertory Theatre), Clinton Allmon and Dolores Dorn-Heft, to whom Piazza was married at the time.

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Piazza toured in many plays nationally and internationally. He also appeared in major regional theatres as an actor and a director.  During this time period he was in productions of Bus Stop, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, You Know I Can’t Hear You when the Water’s Running  and Savages.  In 1970, he starred as Stanley Kowalski in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire in New Orleans.  As the 1970s progressed, he turned his focus to television and movies.

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Piazza’s film debut was in a 1959 Canadian film called The Dangerous Age. That same year, his Hollywood film debut came opposite Gary Cooper, Karl Malden, Maria Schell and George C. Scott in The Hanging Tree.  Though he received positive reviews for his performances, Piazza chose to return to New York and perform in stage and TV productions.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he appeared in a number of TV shows including Studio One, Kraft Theatre, Zane Grey Theatre, The Naked City and Dick Powell Theatre.  He had a recurring role during one season of Ben Casey and appeared on the soap opera Love of Life.

In the 1970s, he starred in the films Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon; The Candy Snatchers and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.  He also starred as the City Councilman who recruits Walter Matthau to coach a baseball team inThe Bad News Bears.

Among his numerous TV appearances in the 1970s were The Waltons, Mannix, Switch, Barnaby Jones, Gunsmoke, Mod Squad and Lou Grant (where he was reunited with Walden).

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In the 1980s, he appeared in The Blues Brothers, The Rockford Files, Barney Miller, Hart to Hart, Family Ties, The Winds of War, Dallas, Dynasty, Too Close for Comfort, The A Team, Saint Elsewhere, Santa Barbara, The Facts of Life, Mr. Belvedere, Moonlighting and Matlock.

Piazza’s final big screen appearance was in the 1991 film Guilty by Suspicion.  He played studio head Darryl Zanuck in this Robert DeNiro-Annette Bening tale of Hollywood during the Red scare.

Ben Piazza died on September 7, 1991.

In November 2016, a room at the Robinson Conference Center was dedicated to his memory.

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Little Rock Look Back: Mahlon A. Martin

On July 19, 1945, future Little Rock City Manager Mahlon A. Martin was born in Little Rock.

After graduating in 1963 from Horace Mann High School, he attended Philander Smith College.  (He had received a baseball scholarship to Grambling, but chose to remain in Little Rock to be near his ailing grandmother.)  Martin graduated from Philander Smith in 1967 with a degree in business administration.

After working in the private sector for two years, Martin was hired by City Manager Jack T. Meriwether to work for the City of Little Rock in 1969 after the City had received a Model Cities grant.  Martin started working with community organizations and then became promoted to the City’s recruiting officer.

In 1972, he was named to leadership posts at the four-county Central Arkansas Manpower Program.  Three years later, he returned to the City of Little Rock to work on the staff of City Manager Carleton McMullin.  In 1976, Martin was named Assistant City Manager for Little Rock.

Martin left City Hall in 1979 to become a top executive at Systematics, Inc.  However, his stint in the private sector was short-lived.  In 1980, the City Board of Directors asked him to come back and be Little Rock’s sixth City Manager.  At thirty-four, he was one of the youngest chief administrators of a major city in the country and the first African American City Manager for Little Rock.

In 1983, Governor Bill Clinton asked him to join the state of Arkansas as the Director of the Department of Finance and Administration.  He was the first African American to lead that or any major Arkansas state department.  Throughout his tenure with the State, he oversaw numerous initiatives to restore the state to sound financial footing.

Martin joined the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation as president in 1989.  He held that position until his death in 1995.

The name Mahlon Martin lives on in a son and grandson named after him, in an apartment complex on south Main Street, in a street in Clinton Presidential Park, and in the City of Little Rock’s Employee of the Year award.  The latter was created by City Manager Bruce T. Moore in 2004.  At the time Moore noted that Martin had been so popular while City Manager, “It was said you could criticize the Razorbacks to a City of Little Rock employee, but you better not say anything bad about Mahlon Martin to them.”

In 2001, Mahlon Martin was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.  A decade later, the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies created a fellowship in his memory.  It supports research and programming in the field of public policy in Arkansas.  In 2015, he was included in the Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail.


Little Rock Look Back: USS Little Rock (LCS9) is launched

On July 18, 2015, the new U.S.S. Little Rock (LCS9) was christened and officially launched in a ceremony in Marinette, Wisconsin.

Among those in attendance at the ceremony were Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola and US Senator John Boozman.   Then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, who served on the original U.S.S. Little Rock during the Vietnam War, was also present at the ceremony.

The U.S.S. Little Rock will be the nation’s ninth littoral combat ship.  It has been built for the U.S. Navy by Lockheed Martin and Marinette Marine Corporation (MMC) at the MMC shipyard in Marinette, Wisconsin.

The  christening ceremony celebrated the ship’s physical transition from land to sea.  The ceremony was a symbolic transition from a hull number to a ship with a name and spirit of its own.

Following Janee Bonner’s shattering of the champagne bottle on the hull, the U.S.S. Little Rock was side launched into the Menominee River.  A side launch is unique, because the ship enters the water broadside. It is mostly used on inland waters, rivers and lakes.

There will be a commissioning ceremony later in 2017 in Buffalo, New York. At that time, the ship will formally join the Fleet and become sovereign U.S. territory wherever she sails.


Little Rock Look Back: Sonney Henson – LR Mayor and Razorback star

On July 18, 1928, future Little Rock Mayor Harold E. “Sonney” Henson, Jr. was born in Fayetteville to Harold E Henson Sr. and Dollie Croxdale Henson.  He and his sister Sara Sue grew up in Springdale.

Henson graduated from Springdale High School and was later inducted as one of the first inductees into the Springdale High School Hall of Fame where he participated in the state high school championship in football and basketball. He attended the University of Arkansas in 1945 on an athletic scholarship where he participated in three sports: golf, basketball and football, and graduated in 1949 with a degree in Business Administration.

He was active in ROTC at the university and graduated as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Henson served in Korea as a captain and commander during the Korean conflict. He attained the rank of major as an active member of the Army reserve post his duty in Korea.

Henson’s professional career began with First National Bank of Springdale and soon moved to Little Rock where he served as Vice President at the Worthen Bank on Asher Avenue. In 1962 he was elected to the City of Little Rock Board of Directors.  From January 1965 to December 1966, he served as mayor of Little Rock.  In November 1966, he was unopposed in his bid for a second term on the City Board.  However in October 1967, he resigned from the City Board because he was taking a position with a bank in Joplin, Missouri.

From 1966 to 1972, he served as President of Security National Bank Joplin.  While there, he was a Missouri amateur championship golfer.  Herbert Thomas then asked him to move to Ft. Smith to head up City National Bank (present Bank Corp South) where he served as President and CEO from 1972 to his retirement in 1993 at the age of 65. He continued his service to Bank Corp South as an active board member for several years.

Among his many civic activities throughout his career were the Springdale Junior Chamber of Commerce,  Sparks Regional Medical Center board of directors of Fort Smith, president and active member of the board for the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame and Razorback Foundation, on the board for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences foundation, the Westark area council for Boy Scouts, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, the Small Colleges of Arkansas, Leadership Fort Smith, the Community Rescue Mission and the President of the Arkansas Bankers Association to name a few.  In 1995 he received the meritorious service award by the Arkansas Sports Hall of Honor for his lifelong commitment to Arkansas sports.

Henson was married for 53 years to Helen Garrott Henson. He had four children, 16 grandchildren and one great-grand child.  He died on August 8, 2013, and is buried in Fort Smith.


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Little Rock Look Back: Death of Joseph Taylor Robinson

Eighty years ago today, on July 14, 1937, U.S. Senator Joseph Taylor Robinson died in his apartment in Washington D.C.

The Senator’s wife, Ewilda, was in Little Rock making preparations for a trip the couple was to take. (She was informed of her husband’s death when her sister-in-law called to express condolences. No one had yet notified her in Little Rock.) Following his demise, Mrs. Robinson went to Washington to accompany her husband’s body back to Arkansas.

As the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Robinson was usually President Franklin Roosevelt’s point person to shepherd legislation on Capitol Hill.  The Democrat’s 1928 Vice Presidential nominee, Senator Robinson was particularly close to FDR. He had successfully steered numerous pieces of New Deal legislation through Congress.  However, at the time of his death, the Senator was facing an uphill climb trying to build consensus on the President’s unpopular Court Packing scheme.

The Senator was honored with a memorial service in the Senate chambers on Friday, July 17.  President Roosevelt and the cabinet joined members of the senate on the floor in what was described as a state funeral without pomp.  Mrs. Robinson sat with her brothers and two nephews as well as Bernard Baruch and Arkansas Power & Light’s Harvey Couch, who were Senator Robinson’s closest friends.  Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the many crowded in the senate galleries observing the service.  Following the service his body remained in the chambers until it was transferred to a train to make the journey to Little Rock.

The funeral train bore his body, his family, 50 senators and over twenty congressmen. It reached Little Rock around 8am on Sunday the 19th.  From there, Senator Robinson’s body was taken to his house on Broadway Street until noon.  It subsequently lay in state at the Arkansas State Capitol until being escorted by military to First Methodist Church.

1,500 people packed the church a half hour before the service began. The sun shone through the windows onto the flag-draped coffin as Rev. H. Bascom Watts led the service. Among the pallbearers was former Vice President Charles G. Dawes. Governor Carl Bailey of Arkansas was joined by Governors Richard Leche of Louisiana and E.W. Marland of Oklahoma.

As the funeral procession reached Roselawn Cemetery, thunder echoed. The skies which had alternated between sun and rain that day, returned to rain. A deluge greeted the end of the service and sent visitors hurrying for shelter at the end.

Five months after her husband’s death, Mrs. Robinson participated in the groundbreaking of the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium.  The groundbreaking ceremony was the first time it was announced that building would be named in his memory.   On a plaque inside that building today, a quote from President Roosevelt stands as a further testament of the importance of Senator Robinson to the US.  Taken from President Roosevelt’s remarks upon learning of the Senator’s death, the plaque reads, in part, “A pillar of strength is gone.”

Seventy-eight and a half years later, the church was the site of the funeral of longtime US Senator Dale Bumpers in January 2016.


Haco Boyd – Little Rock mayor who went to Cuba

On July 6, 1902, future Little Rock Mayor Haco O. Boyd was born in Leslie, Arkansas.  At the age of four, his family moved to Little Rock; he graduated from the Little Rock public schools.  He attended and graduated from Hendrix College.

In World War II, he was in the Army Air Corps.  He was a very decorated soldier earning two Purple Hearts, a Legion of Merit, and a Bronze star among other designations from the United States.  He also received high military honors from numerous European governments.  Boyd would remain in the Air National Guard and retired with the rank of Colonel in 1964.

As a businessman, he was a founder of Rebsamen Ford and then state manager of Benjamin Moore for Arkansas.  In 1952, he joined Union Life Insurance.  Throughout his career, he received most any recognition and honor and designation that the field of life insurance offered.

In November 1968, he won a three-candidate race for the Little Rock City Board of Directors. One of the candidates he defeated was former (and future) Director and Mayor Byron Morse.  In January 1969, he was selected to serve as Mayor of Little Rock.

One week later, Mayor Boyd and 70 others were on an Eastern Airlines plane headed for a life insurance convention in  Nassau, departing from Miami.  A passenger hijacked it and the plane was diverted to Cuba.   The next morning the passengers were returned to Miami and then sent to Nassau without incident. Once the media found out that one of the passengers was the Mayor of Little Rock, he was interviewed by numerous newspapers.  Mayor Boyd expressed that they had been treated well by the Cuban government, but that all in all he had rather not made that leg of the trip.

In other civic involvement, Boyd served on the Little Rock Airport Commission, including a term as chair.  He was also honored for his involvement with the Boy Scouts of America and Easter Seals.

In September 1923, Boyd married Mary Josephine “Polly” Goodrum.  They were married until her death in February 1977.  Haco Boyd died on March 27, 1988.  The couple are buried at Roselawn Cemetery.  They had two children and four grandchildren.


235 years of Dr. Matthew Cunningham, a founding father of Little Rock

Future Little Rock Mayor Dr. Matthew Cunningham was born on July 5, 1782, in Pennsylvania. After receiving his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, he ended up in New York City.  He also served in the Army during the War of 1812.

It was there he met and married a young widow, Eliza Wilson Bertrand. After a brief stint in St. Louis, Dr. Cunningham was one of the first settlers of Little Rock in February 1820. With his arrival, he became the first physician in Little Rock.

In September 1820, Mrs. Cunningham and her children joined him. She became the first female in the Little Rock settlement. Dr. and Mrs. Cunningham had a son, Chester, who was the first white baby born in Little Rock. (Though not supported by any public records, there is some unsubstantiated thought that one of the African-American slaves they had gave birth to a child before Chester was born.) The Cunninghams had several other children.  One daughter, Matilda, would marry Little Rock businessman Peter Hanger.  (The Hanger Hill neighborhood is named after Peter Hanger.)

In 1831, Dr. Cunningham was elected the first Mayor of Little Rock. He won the race 23 to 15 over Rev. W. W. Stevenson. The first City Council meeting took place at the Cunningham house on the block which is the southwest corner of what is now 3rd and Main Streets. Records are incomplete as to where on the block the Cunningham house was located, but a plaque is on 3rd Street near Main on the side of the Fulk Building which CJRW now calls home.

Dr. Cunningham served one year as Mayor. He lived until June 15, 1851, and is buried at Mount Holly Cemetery. His wife, son, and the Hanger family are buried next to him.  Because he lived for two decades after serving as mayor, he was able to see Little Rock continue to grow.

His stepson – Charles P. Bertrand – also served as Mayor of Little Rock.  While there have not been any Little Rock father-son combinations serve as mayor, Dr. Cunningham and Mr. Bertrand certainly shared a kinship.

Through Matilda Hanger and also the Bertrands, descendants of Dr. Cunningham still reside in Little Rock.