Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


Mother’s Day Look Back: Little Rock’s first mother – Eliza Cunningham

Eliza CunninghamEliza Wilson Bertrand Cunningham was the First Lady of Little Rock.  She literally was the first lady and the founding mother.

She became the first permanent female resident when she joined her husband Matthew Cunningham in Little Rock.  She gave birth to Chester Ashley Cunningham, the first baby born in Little Rock, as well as several other children with Cunningham.  When he became the first Mayor of Little Rock, she was the first First Lady of Little Rock. They hosted the first Little Rock Council meeting at their house on what is now the block downtown bounded by Third, Main, Fourth and Louisiana Streets.  Her son Charles P. Bertrand, from her first husband, later served as Mayor of Little Rock, making her the only woman to be married to a Mayor and be mother of a Mayor.

Born in Scotland in December 1788, she emigrated with her parents to the United States as a young girl.  In 1804 or 1805, she married a French businessman, Pierre Bertrand in New York City.  She lived in New York City, while he traveled to his various business ventures.  He never returned from a trip to his coffee plantation in Santo Domingo and was presumed to have died in 1808 or 1809.  She and Bertrand had three children, Charles Pierre, Arabella and Jane. (Jane may have died in childhood, because records and lore only indicated Charles and Arabella coming to Little Rock with their mother.)

Eliza married Dr. Matthew Cunningham in New York City.  He later moved to Saint Louis and settled in Little Rock in early 1820.  Eliza and her two children came to Little Rock in September 1820.  In 1822, she gave birth to Chester Ashley Cunningham, the first documented baby born in Little Rock.  (There are unsubstantiated reports that at least one slave child may have been born prior to Chester.)  She and Matthew also had Robert, Henrietta, Sarah and Matilda.  The latter married Peter Hanger, after whom the Hanger Hill neighborhood is named.

Dr. Cunningham died in June 1851.  Eliza died in September 1856. They and Chester (who died in December 1856) are buried in the Hanger family plot at Mount Holly Cemetery.


Little Rock Look Back: The Return of STAR WARS Day

Today, May the 4th, is Star Wars Day.  This year marks 40 years since the first (fourth?) movie first opened!

The classic film first opened in May 1977 (though after May 4).  It did not reach Little Rock until June 24, 1977.

Given its status as a sleeper hit, it is no surprise that it came into Little Rock largely unnoticed.  In that day, major films opening on a Friday would be heralded the previous Sunday with a substantial advertisement.  The first Star Wars ad ran on Thursday, June 23, 1977, the day before it opened.  By contrast, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, which would play at the same theatre, had a large ad on Sunday, June 19.

While Star Wars would seem like the perfect movie for the great UA Cinema 150, it did not play there.  The film playing at the 150 was A Bridge Too Far, which was, at least an action movie.  Star Wars did not even open at a UA theatre.  It opened at the ABC Cinema 1 & 2 (located at Markham and John Barrow) and at the McCain Mall Cinema.  (The ABC Cinema location is now home to discount cellphone and discount clothing businesses; a cinema has returned to McCain Mall, but now in the location of the former MM Cohn’s store.)

The day it opened, there was a fairly large ad which incorporated the familiar beefcake Luke, Leia in flowing gowns, and Darth Vader mask.  On the Sunday after it opened, there was a slightly smaller ad with the same artwork.  McCain Mall also ran a small add for both Star Wars and Herbie. It noted that Star Wars was a film that management “does not recommend for children.”

Three years later, The Empire Strikes Back opened nationwide on May 21, 1980. Opening a film on the same date was a newer phenomenon, due in part to the success of Star Wars.  For the opening weeks, The Empire Strikes Back played an exclusive showing at the UA Cinema 150.  It would eventually play at other theatres in Little Rock.   It is interesting to note what was playing at the two theatres which had originally screened the 1977 film.  The McCain Mall Cinema was showing Coal Miner’s Daughter and The Fog. The former ABC Cinema was now the Plitt Southern Theatre and showed the Bill Murray comedy Where the Buffalo Roam and the “Get Smart” movie The Nude Bomb.  None were likely to attract the same number of audience members as The Empire Strikes Back.

On the day The Empire Strikes Back opened, the Arkansas Gazette had four different stories about the movie in that day’s edition.  While the Arkansas Democrat did not have any stories that day (though they would in subsequent days), they did carry a story on David Letterman preparing to start his (what would turn out to be short-lived) morning TV show.

On May 25, 1983, The Return of the Jedi opened.  Like the first film, though it would have been perfect for the Cinema 150, it did not play there.  Instead it played at the UA Cinema City (Breckenridge Village), the UA Four (at Geyer Springs and I-30 – now the Ron Sherman production studios), and at McCain Mall.  Flashdance was playing at the Cinema 150. In a forerunner of what is now standard practice, The Return of the Jedi played simultaneously on two of the seven screens at UA Cinema City and two of the four screens at UA Four.  While this is now part of the modus operandi, at the time, it was extremely rare to have a movie play on more than one screen in the same complex.  Though each of the theatres was smaller than the Cinema 150, the five combined exceeded the availability if it had played an exclusive run at the Cinema 150.

By the time The Return of the Jedi opened, the former ABC Cinema was now part of the ill-fated locally-based Rand Cinema chain and was known as the Markham 1 & 2.  It was showing the Roy Scheider film Blue Thunder and Dan Aykroyd in Dr. Detroit.

The cost to see The Return of the Jedi in Little Rock in 1983 was $5.00 for adults and $2.50 for children.  (That would be the equivalent of $12.37 today for an adult ticket.)


An Easter Parade of Bronze Bunnies

Downtown Little Rock has at least three different sculptures of rabbits.  Since today is Easter Sunday and the Easter Bunny is making his rounds, it seems a good day to highlight these sculptures.

In the Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden, Laurel Peterson Gregory’s Bunny Bump has been providing whimsy since 2010.

After she sculpts an animal in wax or oil-based clay, traditional lost-wax casting processes immortalize the design in bronze. One aspect of particular interest to me, and one for which I plan early in the sculpting phase, is the complex and rich patinas that constitute another hallmark of my limited-edition sculptures. Multiple layers of chemicals and oxides are applied to the heated bronze to achieve a range of unique effects, both translucent and opaque, that complement each design.

Two stylized rabbits make for an interesting piece of artwork when they are not only dancing, but also doing the butt bump while dancing. The smooth surface and color of the bronze add to the illusion. This small piece has been placed on a pedestal to elevate more to eye level.

A few yards from the bumping bunnies, James Paulsen’s Lopsided presents a much more laconic rabbit.

Paulsen is a self-taught artist. Alternately studying the wilds of the northern forest, and the open beauty of the American Southwest, he concentrates his work on natural subjects he has grown up with, and is heavily influenced by his family’s artistic background, being raised by an artist-illustrator and an author. In his work, he explores merging the beauty he sees in the natural world with the expressiveness of clay and bronze.

While having most of his work in galleries or private collections across the country, he has recently completed two public commissions

And at the corner of President Clinton Avenue and Sherman Street, Tim Cherry’s Rabbit Reach welcomes visitors to the River Market.

The sculpture is located at the corner of Sherman Street and President Clinton Avenue across from the Museum of Discovery.

The sculpture is a gift from Whitlow Wyatt and the Carey Cox Wyatt Charitable Foundation. It was given in memory of George Wyatt and Frank Kumpuris.  Those two gentlemen were the fathers of Whitlow Wyatt and Dean & Drew Kumpuris.

Cherry’s sculpture was selected for this spot because of its proximity to children at the Museum and in the River Market district.  The design and size of the sculpture encourages children to climb on it and to play around the rabbit.  While some public art is situated so it cannot be touched, this one is situated to be touched as part of the appreciation experience.

There will probably be more bunnies on display this weekend when the 10th Sculpture at the River Market Show and Sale takes place on April 22 & 23.  On April 21, there will be a preview party at 6:30pm.

For more information on the show & sale, visit the the show’s website.

 


TARTAN DAY Little Rock Look Back: BRIGADOON comes to Robinson

April 6 is Tartan Day – a chance to pay tribute to the achievements of Scots in the U.S.  It is also a good chance to wear plaid.

On January 17 and 18, 1951, the Broadway musical Brigadoon materialized at Robinson Memorial Auditorium for its first visit to Little Rock.  This musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe is a Scottish fantasy about a town that materializes for one day every 100 years.

First performed on Broadway in 1947, it was revived at New York City Center in 1950. It was that production that toured in 1951 to Little Rock.  The production was produced by John Yorke (who had worked on the original Broadway production) and brought to Little Rock by Metropolitan Attractions.

The cast was led by future Tony nominee Susan Johnson.  Others in the cast were Elizabeth Early, Robert Busch, Betty Logue and Thaddeus Clancy. All had appeared at City Center, though some in different roles than on the tour.  This touring production featured the original Broadway creative team from 1947 with direction by Robert Lewis, choreography by Agnes de Mille (who won a Tony for it, at the first ceremony), scenery by future Tony winner Oliver Smith, costumes by Tony winner David Ffolkes, lighting by Peggy Clark, and orchestrations by Ted Royal.

Over the years, Brigadoon has resurfaced in Little Rock in community theatre and school productions.  But this was the first time that tartans of the MacLaren, Dalrymple, Brockie and Anderson clans first appeared in Little Rock.


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Little Rock Look Back: St. Pat’s Day with Mayor Pat L. Robinson

On this date in 1900, future Little Rock Mayor Pat L. Robinson was born.  While it cannot be verified that he was indeed named after St. Patrick, it would be fairly reasonable to assume there might be a connection.

Robinson was a rising star of Little Rock Democratic politics.  In April 1929, just weeks after his 29th birthday, he was elected Mayor.  He had twice been elected as City Attorney (1926 and 1928) and was one of the youngest to serve in that position.

During Mayor Robinson’s tenure, he announced plans to construct a new airport.  That project led to the creation of what is now the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport.  Mayor Robinson was also involved in helping Philander Smith College secure the property where it is now located.  In addition, during his tenure, what is now the Museum of Discovery was folded into the City of Little Rock.  Shortly after taking office, he championed several projects for approval by Little Rock voters. The projects he supported were approved; the ones he did not support did not pass.

Single at the time he was in office and generally considered good looking, Mayor Robinson was sometimes referred to as the “Jimmy Walker of the Southwest.” Walker was the handsome and charming Mayor of New York City at the time.

Mayor Robinson ran afoul of some of the Democratic party leaders. While the extent of the discord is not exactly known, it IS known that shortly after taking office he confronted the City Council over a special election.  Mayor Robinson sat silently while the City Council voted to approve a special election with a variety of options for voters. Only after the Council approved it did he disclose he only supported three of the initiatives.  In a bit of political brinkmanship, the Council subsequently voted to cancel the election. The Mayor vetoed their vote.  The aldermen chose not to attempt an override (though they had the votes based on disclosures made to the public and the press).  It appears that the relationship between the Mayor and the City Council never recovered.

IMG_4532During this era in Little Rock, it was customary for an incumbent mayor to be given a second term. But City Clerk Horace Knowlton challenged Robinson in the primary.  It was a bitter campaign with Robinson linking Knowlton to disreputable denizens and Knowlton charging Robinson with “an orgy of spending.”  Robinson initially came out 17 votes ahead. But after a review and a lawsuit, it was found that Knowlton ended up with 10 more votes and became the nominee.  At the time, being the Democratic nominee was tantamount to election.

After he left office, Robinson practiced law for a few years in Little Rock and then left the city.  Records do not indicate where he went but he no longer appeared in the City of Little Rock directory by the early 1940s.  In the 1940 census he is listed as divorced and a lodger living with a couple.


Black History Month – PORGY & BESS at Robinson Auditorium

porgy-bess-robinsonOn December 6, 1943, one of the great love stories of the 20th Century came to Robinson Auditorium.  Cheryl Crawford’s Broadway revival of PORGY & BESS was presented for one performance.

The show was on a national tour after having played Broadway in 1942 and 1943.  The cast included Todd Duncan, who had originated the role of Porgy in 1935 and Etta Moten, for whom George and Ira Gershwin had originally written the part of Bess.  Avon Long played Sportin’ Life (as he would for much of his long career).  The Eva Jessye Choir was the chorus, as they had been for the original 1935 Broadway debut and were in the 1942 and 1943 Broadway revivals.

Conductor Alexander Smallens had been associated with the title since its 1935 debut. The design team of Herbert Andrews (settings) and Paul Du Pont (costumes) had been brought to the project in 1942 by producer Crawford.

This production of Porgy & Bess eliminated some of the singing and changed most of the recitatives to spoken dialogue. It made it less like an opera and more like conventional musical theatre.  While it may not have been true to George Gershwin’s original intent, it was financially more successful than the original production.  In fact, the Crawford version played Broadway in 1942, 1943, and 1944, with national tours after each of the stops on the Rialto.

In 1942, the cast of the revival had performed a one hour version on radio. This was recorded and released, making it one of the first original cast recordings of a Broadway production.

Based on the play by DuBose and Dorthy Heyward,  George Gershwin envisioned Porgy & Bess as an American opera. It had a libretto by DuBose Heyward, who also supplied lyrics along with George’s brother Ira.  While the original production seemed to have slightly confounded critics and audiences who were expecting something more along the lines of the breezy Gershwin shows of the 1920s and early 1930s, it has proven to be a durable title.  It fell out of favor in the 1960s and early 1970s as the Civil Rights movement was causing people to rethink the depictions of African Americans.  In 1976, the Houston Grand Opera staged a new production which restored most of Gershwin’s score and returned it squarely into the realm of opera.  This production played Broadway in 1976 (and won the 1977 Tony for Best Revival) and was revived in 1983 on Broadway.

The most recent notable production of Porgy & Bess originated at Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre in 2011.  It officially opened on Broadway in January 2012 (where Little Rock native Will Trice was one of the producers).  In addition to winning the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical, it captured a Tony for Audra McDonald’s performance of Bess (Miss McDonald’s fifth Tony).


Happy 2017 from the Sculpture Vulture

Several of the sculptures in the Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden and Riverfront Park have figures which mimic a “1” and a “7.”

To celebrate the start of 2017, here is a look at Seventeen of them.  And stay tuned for the 10th Sculpture at the River Market Show and Sale on April 21-23, 2017!  Who knows, there could be some sculptures in that show that also have the “1” and “7” features.

Jane DeDecker's THE TIES THAT BIND

Jane DeDecker’s THE TIES THAT BIND

Kevin Box's DANCING PONY

Kevin Box’s DANCING PONY

Dale Rogers' RETRO TREES

Dale Rogers’ RETRO TREES

Kevin Kresse's BREAKING THE CYCLE

Kevin Kresse’s BREAKING THE CYCLE

Bryan Massey's THE JAZZ PLAYER

Bryan Massey’s THE JAZZ PLAYER

Casey Horn's TRANQUILITY

Casey Horn’s TRANQUILITY

Denny Haskew's FIRST GLANCE

Denny Haskew’s FIRST GLANCE

Kathleen Caricof's LET THE MUSIC PLAY

Kathleen Caricof’s LET THE MUSIC PLAY

Bryan Massey's UPTOWN SATURDAY NIGHT

Bryan Massey’s UPTOWN SATURDAY NIGHT

ROTARY PLAZA

ROTARY PLAZA

Michael Warrick's GROWN

Michael Warrick’s GROWN

Mark Leichliter's MEME

Mark Leichliter’s MEME

2017-talking

Lorri Acott’s TALKING TO MYSELF

Wayne Salge's SIZZLING SISTERS

Wayne Salge’s SIZZLING SISTERS

Laurel Peterson Gregory's BUNNY BUMP

Laurel Peterson Gregory’s BUNNY BUMP

Merle Randolph's SPACE RACE

Merle Randolph’s SPACE RACE

Jane DeDecker & Alyson Kinkade's IN THE WINGS

Jane DeDecker & Alyson Kinkade’s IN THE WINGS