Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area

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Little Rock Look Back: Ben Piazza

Ben compositeActor-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.

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 language.  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.

piazzaPiazza 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.

BDP early

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).

BDP final

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.


Arkansas Heritage Month – American Institute of Steel Construction honors Polk Stanley Wilcox and CALS

AIA ALA PSW HRCCLCThe American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC) in Chicago has announced that Polk Stanley Wilcox Architect’s design of the Hillary Rodham Clinton Library and Learning Center in Little Rock, Arkansas has been honored in its prestigious annual awards.

In all, just ten building projects from around the country earned awards in the 2016 Innovative Design in Engineering and Architecture with Structural Steel awards program (IDEAS2), recently announced during AISC’s 2016 Conference in Orlando, Florida. An award presentation will be scheduled for this summer at the library in Little Rock. A panel of design and construction professionals identified National and Merit Awards in three categories, based on constructed value. Other winners included the National 9/11 Memorial Museum Pavilion in New York by Snohetta, Rutgers University School of Business by TEN Arquitectos, and Emmerson College in Los Angeles by Morphosis.

East Harding Construction of Little Rock was the General Contractor, while Engineering Consultants Inc. of Little Rock served as structural engineer for the innovative project.

Jury Comments:

“With a community driven mission, the library showcases steel in its purest form and use in a whimsical, but purposeful manner.” – Wanda Lau, Senior Editor ARCHITECT Magazine

“Playful and inspiring inside and out, this project succeeds in its goal of capturing the child’s imagination.” – Jason Stone, Senior Associate Leslie E. Robertson Associates

“The playfulness of the steel structure exterior, combined with the opportunity to utilize the structure as a teaching tool to inspire children to pursue math and science, makes this a natural choice for AISC and the IDEAS2 Awards” – Paula Pritchard, Plant Construction Co., L.P.

According to design architect Reese Rowland FAIA, “This library’s meaning can be seen in the faces of the children – their excitement and wonder, and hopeful smiles that say their future can be limitless with the right opportunities. Some of those opportunities involve teaching simple life skills that build confidence, while others focus on technology not available in the home.

The key to the library’s success comes from a vision set forth by CALS to not only build a functional public library and education facility, but also a symbol that represents hope. Being listed alongside these other nationally recognized projects is a strong indication that this vision was successfully achieved, helping create a new sense of pride for the children of Little Rock. We are grateful to the Central Arkansas Library System, as well as the people of Little Rock that funded this incredible project for our children.”

The Hillary Rodham Clinton Library and Learning Center was also honored in 2015 with Library Architecture’s highest honor, a National AIA/ALA Library Honor Award, one of just six given recognizing the best examples of new libraries from around the world. Learn more about this award at:

http://www.aia.org/practicing/awards/2015/library-awards/

This is the fourth AISC National Award for Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects, with the others being the CALS Arkansas Studies Institute in Little Rock, The El Dorado Conference Center, and Heifer International’s World Headquarters in Little Rock, which also won architecture’s highest honor: the American Institute of Architect’s National Institute Honor Award.


Arkansas Heritage Month – The architecture of AIA/ALA award winning CALS libraries by Polk Stanley Wilcox

To encourage excellence in the architectural design and planning of libraries, the AIA and the American Library Association/Library Administration and Management Association created this award to distinguish accomplishments in library architecture.  In 2011 and again in 2015, Polk Stanley Wilcox won the award for projects designed for the Central Arkansas Library System.

AIA ALA PSW ASIThe 2011 award went to for work on the Arkansas Studies Institute.  This actually combines three buildings of three different centuries and construction types into one architectural timeline, evoking imagery of pages of an opening book.

The Arkansas Studies Institute is a repository for 10 million historic documents and the papers of seven Arkansas Governors, including President Bill Clinton. Located in a thriving entertainment district comprised of rejuvenated warehouses near the Arkansas River, the design combines significant, but neglected buildings from the 1880’s and 1910’s with a new technologically expressive archive addition. This creates a pedestrian focused, iconic gateway to the public library campus – and the public face of Arkansas history.

The design philosophy is based literally on the book – a physical container of information, with pages flowing into a site-sensitive narrative of the building’s function. Taking cues from the medium for which the Institute was created, the entrance acts as an abstract book cover, pulled away from the building as a double wall, defusing western sunlight and heat in the atrium beyond.

Public Spaces – galleries, a café, museum, and meeting rooms – enliven streetscape storefronts, while the great library research hall encompasses the entire second floor of the 1914 warehouse building. A thin atrium pulls the new structure away to protect the old, stretching the building’s length and flooding all levels with light – a key sustainable strategy. 100 historic images in glass handrails signify that architecture can and should actively engage in storytelling. Suspended bridges span the gap between new and old, open and secure, today and yesterday.

The Arkansas Studies Institute weaves history, research, pedestrians, and a restored streetscape together, healing a gaping wound in the urban fabric, while expanding environmental stewardship into the public realm and serving as a beacon of knowledge.

AIA ALA PSW HRCCLCIn 2015, the award went to PSW for their work on the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library and Learning Center.

Based on experiential learning where hands-on education teaches life skills needed to become responsible adults, a new Children’s Library and Learning Center boosts hopes for a neglected neighborhood, serves as an exemplary tale of urban renewal, and acts as a beacon of hope for an entire city.

This “community embedded, supportive learning center” offers not only books, but also a performance space, teaching kitchen, greenhouse, vegetable garden, and an arboretum. It is the state’s first library holistically imagined as a children’s education destination. The Library Director’s challenge was to create a “playground without equipment” where nature and imagination create grand adventures on an abandoned six acre site in the heart of the capital city. A charrette with youth uncovered a surprising and heartbreaking result: their top desire wasn’t for the latest video game technologies… it was food security. They wanted to learn how to feed themselves. Children also desired a place that was uplifting, inspirational and full of natural light, while in contrast feeling safe, secure, and sheltered. They wanted a place that “lifted expectations”.

An interstate highway—the railroad tracks of our generation—split Little Rock 40 years ago and destroyed a unified city grid, contributing to racial and socioeconomic divisions that separated citizens physically and emotionally. The site’s border condition became a national symbol for gang violence when featured in a 1990’s HBO documentary. Its opposite side, however, continued to be the city’s version of New York City’s Central Park—the place to live, work, and play. The design team’s overarching idea was centered on three moves: bridge the gap by stretching the park across the highway, create a library that is “the place to be” for all children, and develop civic pride in an underserved neighborhood, helping to mend partitions that have plagued the city for so long.

Landscape ecology and urban connectivity themes provide experiential education. Children see natural vegetation representing the state’s varied ecological regions from the Ozark Highlands to the Mississippi Delta. Two bus lines within a quarter mile assure access from distances, while the hundreds of children living within a half mile can walk or bike. An instructional greenhouse, gardens, and teaching kitchen allow children to cultivate, harvest, prepare meals, and sell produce in a planned farmer’s market. A full time ‘Environmental Educator’ oversees programs, teaching proper use of water, energy, and resources, and how we keep healthy through decisions made within the built environment. The lobby’s smart monitors can display real time water and energy consumption. Mechanical and structural systems are purposefully exposed so operations and construction methods can be discussed.

While this Library exceeded expectations by achieving LEED Gold, the true measure of success beyond points is the neighborhood’s feel, which shifted from dangerous to full of life and pride. The library is a safe zone and home to a sustainable-minded community.


Arkansas Heritage Month – Kaki Hockersmith

KakiIn 2015, Kaki Hockersmith was honored at the Governor’s Arts Awards.  She creates art as a designer. In addition, she promotes arts and heritage through her tireless efforts on behalf of numerous cultural institutions.

In 2010, she was appointed to the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts for The Kennedy Center.  In that capacity, she serves as a national ambassador for The Kennedy Center. She has also brought programs from The Kennedy Center to Arkansas to help established and emerging arts organizations. She also serves as a commissioner on the cultural committee of UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

In 1993, she redesigned the interior of The White House during the Clinton Administration. She was also appointed a member of the Committee for the Preservation of The White House.  Her work on this American landmark was featured in Hillary Clinton’s book An Invitation to the White House: In Celebration of American Culture.

Locally, she serves on the Board of Trustees for the Arkansas Arts Center and the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion Association. She is an active supporter of many cultural organizations in Little Rock.  She and her husband Max Mehlburger open their home to host receptions and fundraisers for numerous cultural institutions and organizations.  In 2014, she was recognized for this support at Ballet Arkansas’ Turning Pointe gala.

Professionally, she has been honored by the national ASID organization as well as the Washington D.C. chapter. Her projects have won 16 regional ASID awards, including seven gold awards.


Little Rock Look Back: Longtime CALS trustee Rabbi Ira Sanders

SandersIraE_fOn May 6, 1894, Ira Eugene Sanders was born in Missouri.  After receiving an undergraduate degree and rabbinate degree in Cincinnati, he was ordained a rabbi in 1919.  He served congregations in Pennyslvania and New York before coming to Little Rock in September 1926.

Shortly after arriving to lead the B’nai Israel congregation, Rabbi Sanders became active in the Little Rock community.  Among his projects were the Little Rock Community Fund, Little Rock School of Social Work (which he founded), Central Council of Social Agencies, and University of Arkansas Extension Department. During the Great Depression, he helped organize the Pulaski County Public Welfare Commission.  Other areas of involvement over his career included the Arkansas Human Betterment League, Urban League of Greater Little Rock and Arkansas Lighthouse for the Blind.  On November 3, 1930, Rabbi Sanders debated Clarence Darrow about the existence of God in front of a packed house at Little Rock High School.

For his many involvements, he received an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree in 1951 from the University of Arkansas.  Three years later he received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Hebrew Union College’s Jewish Institute of Religion.

A lifelong supporter of a Jewish state, he participated in nineteen bond drives for the state of Israel.  In August 1963, he retired as the leader of B’nai Israel after over 35 years. He would remain as Rabbi Emeritus until his deal in 1985.

In January 1978, Rabbi Sanders tendered his resignation from the Central Arkansas Library board of directors.  The City Board of Directors passed resolution 5873 which noted that he had served for 51 years on the Library Board. He was first appointed in 1926.  He served during 19 different Mayoral administrations from Charles Moyer’s first term through Donald Mehlburger’s.

On April 8, 1985, Rabbi Ira Eugene Sanders died of natural causes.  He is buried in the City’s Oakland Jewish Cemetery.  The Central Arkansas Library System honors his memory with an annual distinguished lecture series.


The NEH announces grant to CALS for Dialogues on the Experience of War

2016 NEH New grantsThe National Endowment for the Humanities today announced a total of $21.1 Million in grants.  One of those went to the Central Arkansas Library System.

CALS will receive $99,772 for a project focued on dialogues on the experience of war.  Project Director Alex Vernon will lead “Fiction & Fact: A Dialogue with Veterans.”  It will consist of four discussion programs for Arkansas veterans and others on the themes of battlefield and homefront, World War I, Vietnam, and war and witness.

 


Prizing Mount Holly Cemetery on Pulitzer Day

The Pulitzer Prizes are to be announced today.  This year marks the 100th announcement of the prizes, though not all of the current categories have been around since 1917.

Mount Holly Cemetery not only touts that it is the site of a whole host of elected officials, it is also the only place in Arkansas where two Pulitzer Prize recipients are buried. The cemetery is open every day, but a special visit to these two prize winner gravesites can be made next Sunday during the Mount Holly Cemetery Association’s annual “Rest in Perpetuity” fundraiser picnic.

In 1939, John Gould Fletcher became the first Southern poet to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.  He was born into a prominent Little Rock family in 1886.  Fletcher was awarded the prize for his collection Selected Poems which was published by Farrar in 1938.  Two years earlier, he had been commissioned by the Arkansas Gazette to compose an epic poem about the history of Arkansas in conjunction with the state’s centennial.

Fletcher is buried next to his wife, author Charlie May Simon and his parents (his father was former Little Rock Mayor John Gould Fletcher).  Other relatives are buried nearby in the cemetery.

The other Pulitzer Prize winner buried in Mount Holly is J. N. Heiskell, the longtime editor of the Arkansas Gazette.  It was Heiskell, in fact, who asked Fletcher to compose the poem about Arkansas.  Heiskell served as editor of the Gazette from 1902 through 1972.  He died at the age of 100 in 1972.

Under his leadership, the Gazette earned two Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage of the 1957 desegregation of Little Rock Central High.  One was for Harry Ashmore’s editorial writing and the other was for Public Service.

Heiskell remained in charge of the Gazette until his death in 1972.  He is buried alongside his wife with other relatives nearby.  Also not too far from Mr. Heiskell are two of his nemeses, proving that death and cemeteries can be the great equalizer. In the early days of his Gazette stewardship, he often locked horns with Senator (and former Governor) Jeff Davis. Later in Mr. Heiskell’s career, he vehemently disagreed with Dr. Dale Alford, who had been elected to Congress on a segregationist platform.