Happy Birthday to Pulitzer & Tony winner David Auburn, an alum of Hall High and Arkansas Arts Center Children’s Theatre

November 30 is the birthday of Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning playwright David Auburn. A 1987 graduate of Hall High School, he participated in the Arkansas Arts Center Children’s Theatre while he spent his teen years in Little Rock.

Born in Chicago, he grew up in Ohio. He moved to Arkansas when his parents took jobs here, first in Jonesboro then Little Rock. After graduating from Hall, he returned to Chicago to attend the University of Chicago, where he graduated with a degree in English literature.  While there he was involved with a performance group and also wrote theatre reviews.

In 1992, he went to New York to take part in Julliard’s playwriting program.  In 1997, his first Off Broadway play was produced, Skyscraper.  In May 2000, Manhattan Theatre Club produced his play Proof at one of its Off Broadway theatres. Following the success of that run, it transferred to Broadway in the autumn of 2000.

In 2001, Proof won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Award for Best Play, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best American Play, and Best Play awards from the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama League.

That spring he also served as a script consultant for tick…tick…BOOM! a musical written by the late Jonathan Larson. He was asked by Larson’s family to write the book based on the several different drafts Larson had written prior to his 1996 death.

Subsequently, Auburn has moved between writing plays and movies as well as directing. He has also served as a teacher and playwright in residence. His plays include The New York Idea, The Columnist, and Lost Lake.

He is currently one of the screenwriters on the upcoming new Charlie’s Angels movie.

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Little Rock Culture Vulture Blog Hits a Milestone

Founded in October 2011, the Little Rock Culture Vulture blog passed a milestone today. It has had over 300,000 views during that 7 years and one month.  Considering that it averaged about 10 views a day during the first three months, this accomplishment is a moment to brag.

When it was started, I was unsure if anyone would care. This entry is the 3,874th post on the blog.  Over 10,400 organizations, people, events, pieces of art and works of literature, or historical facts have been featured.

To all the readers and those who post about it on social media, let me say “Thank you!”

Happy Birthday to Hall High and Arkansas Arts Center alum, award winning actor Daniel Davis

On November 26, 1945, future actor Daniel Davis was born in Gurdon.  As a child, his family moved to Little Rock where his parents ran a movie theatre.  As a child, he appeared on “Betty’s Little Rascals” local TV show with Betty Fowler.

While a student at Hall High, Davis had the lead as Horace Vandergelder in The Matchmaker (which would soon be musicalized on Broadway in Hello, Dolly!), appeared in Judgment at Nuremburg, sang in the Hallmarks (concert choir), and was a Harlequin Player (drama club). He was also on the staff of the Warrior (yearbook), War Whoop (newspaper), and Inkwell (literary magazine). His fellow members of the class of 1963 voted him the Wittiest boy in the class.

Davis at Hall in 1963

After graduating from Hall, Davis remained in Little Rock and enrolled in the new Arkansas Arts Center school of Art and Drama, a degree granting program.  While there, he appeared in numerous plays.  One of them was The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.  National theatre critic Henry Hewes of the Saturday Review came to Little Rock to review the production, which was presented a year after the play had won a Tony for Best Play.  Hewes actually liked the Little Rock production better.

After completing studies at the Arts Center, Davis worked with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, American National Theatre Academy, Stratford Festival, and American Conservatory Theatre. He also started appearing in television, including a stint in the soap “Texas” and guest starring in many TV series. In 1993, he started a six year, 145 episode run as Niles the butler in “The Nanny.”  His British accent on the show caused many in the public to think he was from England instead of Arkansas.

Davis has continued to act frequently on stage.  In 1969, he made his Broadway debut as the Dauphin in Henry V followed by an appearance in Othello.  He was a replacement as Salieri in the original production of Amadeus.   In 2003, he received an Obie Award for his appearance in Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads.  Three years earlier he was nominated for a Tony for his appearance in Wrong Mountain.  Other recent Broadway appearances include The Invention of Love, The Frogs, La Cage aux Folles and Noises Off.

Little Rock Look Back: Gail Davis

Gail Davis is best known as TV’s Annie Oakley.  She was born Betty Jeanne Grayson on October 5, 1925. Her mother was a homemaker and her father, W. B. Grayson, was a physician in McGehee (Desha County), which did not have a hospital, so her birth took place in Little Rock (Pulaski County).

When her father became the state health officer, the family moved from McGehee to Little Rock, where Grayson attended Little Rock High School. Grayson rode horses and was a tomboy growing up. Grayson also held various beauty titles in high school and college, and she sang and danced in local shows from the time she was eight.

While studying dramatics at the University of Texas in Austin, she married Robert Davis in 1945, with whom she had a daughter, Terrie (the couple divorced in 1952). After World War II, they moved to Hollywood, where she worked as a hatcheck girl until being discovered by an agent who obtained an MGM screen test for her. She was signed to a contract, with her first appearance in 1947’s The Romance of Rosy Ridge, starring Van Johnson.

She worked steadily in movies, including fourteen films with Gene Autry in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He was impressed with her, changed her name to Gail Davis, and cast her as the star of the Annie Oakley TV show, which he produced. The show ran for eighty-one episodes from 1954 through 1956.

After her TV series ended, she appeared as Annie Oakley in the 1959 film Alias Jesse James starring Bob Hope. In that film, she appears in an uncredited role along with such other stars, also uncredited, as Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, Roy Rogers, James Garner (as Bret Maverick), and Fess Parker (as Davy Crockett).

Her television appearances include guest roles on The Lone Ranger, The Gene Autry Show, The Cisco Kid, and Death Valley Days, as well as a 1961 episode of the Andy Griffith Show (Episode 37, “The Perfect Female”), her final appearance as a performer and in which she demonstrated her trademark sharpshooting.

Gail toured with Gene Autry’s Wild West show and made appearances as herself on TV programs such as Wide, Wide World: “The Western” (1958) with fellow Arkansan Ben Piazza. For her work in television, she was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located at 6385 Hollywood Boulevard, and in 2004, she was inducted posthumously into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame.

Gail Davis died of cancer in Los Angeles on March 15, 1997, and is buried in Hollywood’s Forest Lawn cemetery.  In 2007, she was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas Entertainer’s Hall of Fame.  In 2016, a room was named in her memory at the newly renovated Robinson Center.

Little Rock Look Back: Final film at the Arkansas Theatre

On October 4, 1977, the Arkansas Theatre screened its final films at 516 South Louisiana.  When it closed, it also ended the run of commercial movie theatres in downtown.

The last two films to show there were J. D.’s Revenge (which starred Louis Gossett Jr.) at 5:40pm and 9:00pm, and Coffy (which starred Pam Grier) at 7:20 pm.

The decision to close the theatre was made by United Artists which operated the facility, and had once had its local offices in the building.  Since the 1930s, UA (and its predecessors) had been booking films into the building.  But as the movie going public started preferring to watch their films in the suburbs, downtown movie houses became a thing of the past.

The building opened on September 20, 1910, as the Kempner Opera House. It was designed by New York architect Henry Beaumont Herts of the architectural firm Herts & Tallant. Originally the facade was in a Sullivanesque style, but this was later altered into an Art Deco style, with stucco and ceramic tile highlights.

Seating over 1300, it was home to plays, operas, musicals, lectures, vaudeville, and community meetings. By the late 1920s, with motion pictures a booming business, it was transformed into a movie house.  It reopened as the Arkansas Theatre on September 27, 1929.

The last few years it was open, the Arkansas had featured mainly Blaxploitation films.  But by 1977, Hollywood was moving away from those. The area manager for the UA chain told the Arkansas Gazette that the lack of movies in that genre also contributed to the reason to shut it.

United Artists had a lease with the Kempner family that would run through 1997, unless they could find someone else to take the building over.  They tried to interest the Arkansas Opera Theatre, but it was not a feasible option for AOT.  Eventually, the building was deeded to the University of Arkansas Foundation.

In late 1995, the structure was razed. After 18 years of sitting vacant, the structure had deteriorated beyond repair.  Because of alterations to the interior and exterior over the years, it was not eligible for historic preservation designations or funds.

Today it is a parking lot across the street from the Lafayette Building and due south of the Hall-Davidson Building.

LR Culture Vulture turns 7

The Little Rock Culture Vulture debuted on Saturday, October 1, 2011, to kick off Arts & Humanities Month.

The first feature was on the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, which was kicking off its 2011-2012 season that evening.  The program consisted of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90, Rossini’s, Overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers, Puccini’s Chrysanthemums and Respighi’s Pines of Rome.  In addition to the orchestra musicians, there was an organ on stage for this concert.

Since then, there have been 10,107 persons/places/things “tagged” in the blog.  This is the 3,773rd entry. (The symmetry to the number is purely coincidental–or is it?)  It has been viewed over 288,600 times, and over 400 readers have made comments.  It is apparently also a reference on Wikipedia.

The most popular pieces have been about Little Rock history and about people in Little Rock.

Little Rock Look Back: First Meeting of the WEC

Vivion Brewer, Adolphine Terry, and Pat House with an award presented to the WEC around the time the group disbanded.

On Tuesday, September 16, 1958, the first meeting of the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools took place at the Pike-Fletcher-Terry House in downtown Little Rock.  Fifty-eight women were in attendance at the initial meeting.

The group had been envisioned four days earlier, on September 12. At the time, Adolphine Fletcher Terry had invited Vivion Lenon Brewer and Velma Powell to her house to discuss the current school situation. Terry and Brewer were both daughters of former Little Rock mayors.  They were frustrated with the stalemate that was taking place with the Little Rock School District, the State, and the Federal Government.

In a conversation about the group with her friend Arkansas Gazette editor Harry Ashmore, Mrs. Terry stated, “The men have failed, it’s time to call out the women.”

The same day the trio met, an immediate concern superseded their general discontent.

On September 12, Governor Faubus had signed several segregationist bills into law. One of them gave him the authority to temporarily close schools in order to keep the from being integrated. After signing the bills, he issued an order closing Little Rock’s four high schools. He set October 2 as the election day for Little Rock voters to ratify or reject the closing.

The closure of the schools and impending election, gave an urgency and an immediate focus for the WEC. The women sprung into action.

The way the election law was written, keeping the schools open would require a majority of all registered voters — not just those voting in the election.  There were several other requirements written into the law that made it all but impossible to reject the closure.  Nonetheless the WEC went to work.  They wrote letters, made phone calls, made personal pleas, raised money, and placed newspaper ads.

Their need for a quick and efficient organization became even more paramount with the Governor moved the election forward to September 27.  His public reason was to remove the uncertainty; but privately he was likely concerned that there was organized opposition.

Though the voters approved keeping the high schools closed, the WEC was undaunted. They continued to work throughout the 1958-59 school year in a variety of ways. They backed candidates in the December 1958 school board elections, and succeeded in getting three moderates elected.  In May 1959, they were a crucial bloc in the campaign to recall of three segregationist school board members.

Following the reopening of the schools in 1959, the WEC continued to focus on social issues until disbanding in 1963.

The membership of the WEC was kept a secret. No official roll was kept.  With a membership which swelled to over 1,300, obviously not all attended meetings at once. There were well organized phone trees which quickly got the word out to the membership.  During elections, they would create files on all registered voters with codes for Saints, Sinners and Savable.

In an effort of intimidation (as if anyone could intimidate Adolphine Fletcher Terry), there were efforts to force the WEC to disclose membership lists. The officers and their legal counsel replied that there were no lists in existence, so there was nothing to disclose.

On March 13, 1998, the names of the WEC were made public for the first time when they were published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.  This was done in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the year of the founding.  Later in the year, the names were etched in glass in the solarium of the Pike-Fletcher-Terry House.  (In the 1970s, the house was given by the family to the City of Little Rock for use by the Arkansas Arts Center.)

A ceremony at the house in October 1998 celebrated the 40th anniversary and the names permanently etched there.  First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton came back to Little Rock to deliver remarks at the ceremony.

Sara Murphy, a member of the WEC wrote a book about the organization which was published in 1997, shortly after her death.  Around the same time, Sandra Hubbard produced a documentary called The Giants Wore White Gloves.  A sold out screening of the film is scheduled today at the CALS Ron Robinson Theatre as a presentation of the Clinton School Speaker Series in conjunction with the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.