31 Days of Arkansas Rep: 1985 World Premiere of THE GOOD WOMAN OF SETZUAN

The Arkansas Repertory Theatre set the American regional theatre world abuzz with its world premiere of a musical version of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan.

Director Cliff Fannin Baker received many telephone calls from his colleagues who were surprised that the Brecht estate had given its authorization for a musicalization to a small professional theatre in Little Rock.

The songs were written by Arkansas native Michael Rice using as a libretto the Eric Bentley translation of the original Brecht work. Rice also served as music director, leading a seven member orchestra as it played the nineteen songs he wrote.

As director, Baker used many Brechtian techniques to stay true to the story. These included music, neon signs, and non-traditional costuming for some of the characters.  Speaking of costumes, Little Rock fashion designer Connie Fails designed the clothing for the production.

Others on the creative team included Michael R. Smith (a set that was described as “dazzling, trashily opulent”) and Kathy Gray.

The title character was played by Vivian Morrison (now Vivian Norman). Other leading roles were played by Mark Johnson, Terry Sneed, Dianne Tack, and Mychael McMillan (in drag).  Playing a trio of gods were Ronald J. Aulgur, Scott Edmonds, and Candyce Hinkle. Others in the cast included Jean Lind, Ruth Shepherd, Kathryn Pryor, Judy Trice, Carol Ann Connor (now McAdams), Ginny Pace, and Jeff Bailey.

The production took place at the Arkansas Arts Center Theatre instead of the Rep’s facility on 11th Street.  With a cast of twenty and extensive set changes, the production needed more space than the Rep’s home could accommodate.

The Good Woman of Setzuan opened on June 13 and ran through June 22.

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Little Rock Look Back: First Dance at Robinson Auditorium

In October 1939, it looked as if Robinson Auditorium would never open.  The construction had run out of money.  But in an effort to generate a little revenue and give the public the chance to see the building, a few events were booked in the lower level.

At the time, the entrance to the lower level was off of Garland Street which ran to the north of the structure.

While Mayor J. V. Satterfield and other leaders were in Washington seeking additional funding, the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium hosted its first event.  On October 4, 1939, the convention hall on the lower level was the site of a preview dance.  The pecan block flooring had been installed just the week before.

RC-dance-orchestraThe first four people to enter the building as paying guests were Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Wilheim, Frances Frazier and Bill Christian.  Reports estimated 3,200 people attended and danced to the music of Jan Garber and His Orchestra.

By happenstance, Garber and his musicians had also played in Little Rock on January 26, 1937, the date of the election which approved the auditorium bonds.  Since Little Rock then did not have a suitable space, that appearance had been on the stage of the high school auditorium.

The dance was a success.  But as the building had no heating or cooling mechanism at the time, there were limits as to how long even the lower level could be in use.  After a few weeks, the PWA, which was still in charge of the construction site, halted all future bookings.

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: Satchmo Criticizes Ike over Little Rock

As the Civil Rights movement started taking hold in the mid-1950s, many African American entertainers were vocal in their support.  Louis Armstrong generally stayed silent.  Until, that is, September 17, 1957.

That night, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, Armstrong blasted President Dwight Eisenhower for his lack of action to make Governor Orval Faubus obey the law.  This was in an interview conducted by a 21 year old University of North Dakota journalism student named Larry Lubenow.

Journalist David Margolick wrote about the incident in The New York Times in September 2007 in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock Central High School.  He recounted how the story, written for the Grand Forks Herald, was picked up all over the country.  The entire Margolick piece can be read here.  Margolick tells that when Armstrong was given the chance to back off the comments, he asserted that he meant all of it.

On September 24, 1957, the night that the 101st Airborne was being mobilized to come into Little Rock, Armstrong sent Eisenhower a telegram again criticizing him for lack of action. (It appears this was sent by Armstrong without knowledge of the President’s plans for intervention.) Armstrong used colorful language which sarcastically spoofed the “Uncle Tom” moniker which some of his critics had bestowed when they felt he was not doing enough for Civil Rights.  The Eisenhower Presidential Library has a copy of that telegram.

The incident between Satchmo and Ike was the basis for two different plays: Terry Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf and Ishmael Reed’s The C Above C Above High C.

Little Rock Arts Community Response on September 11, 2001

As all sectors did, the Little Rock arts and culture community responded to September 11.

Two of the groups in particular come to mind. When airspace was closed on September 11, several flights were grounded in Little Rock. The passengers on those planes became unexpected visitors to Little Rock.   Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey and Assistant City Manager Bruce Moore led efforts to make sure that everyone had a place to stay that evening.

The Arkansas Rep had opened its production of You Can’t Take It with You on Friday, September 7. The show was already scheduled to be dark on September 11, but on Wednesday, September 12, 2001, the performances resumed. That night the Rep offered these unexpected Little Rock guests free tickets to the performance.

Seeing a play which was both heartwarming, comic and full of Americana was the perfect balm for audiences who were weary, confused and nervous in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Most of the cast of that production was from New York City. Luckily, all of their friends and family back in New York were all safe.

Also on September 12, 2001, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra presented a previously scheduled concert with Michael Bolton.  He had been traveling by bus so was able to get to Little Rock.  His concert was cathartic for the 2000 plus attendees at Robinson Center Music Hall. It offered not only a communal experience but also a welcome break from 24 hour coverage.

Three days later, on September 15, the ASO kicked off its MasterWorks series.  As has been tradition since the days of Francis McBeth as conductor, that first concert of the season began with the National Anthem.  The audience and musicians gathered and sang and played with unprecedented gusto that night.

Little Rock Look Back: Arkansas’ first Miss America comes to Little Rock

Tonight a new Miss America will be crowned.  The competition has had a tumultuous year with many changes behind the scenes as well as alterations to the event format.

It seems a good time to hearken back to a earlier, simpler time when Donna Axum first brought the Miss America title to Arkansas.

A native of El Dorado and a student at the University of Arkansas, during her reign as Miss America Miss Axum (or simply Donna as the newspaper headlines referred to her) made four public visits to Little Rock.  As the first Miss Arkansas to become Miss America, the state’s Capitol City was very interested in giving her a warm welcome.

After being crowned on September 7, 1963, Axum’s first official visit to Arkansas was November 1 through 3.  In addition to stops in Hot Springs and El Dorado, she appeared in Little Rock to attend events including an Arkansas Razorback football game at War Memorial Stadium.  Her entourage included the top four runners up from the Miss America pageant.

In February 1964, she made a brief appearance in Little Rock which included a press conference.

Donna Axum spent nearly two weeks in Arkansas in May 1964 attending several pageants as well as spending time with family.  During that visit she appeared in Little Rock twice.  The second time she headlined a concert with the Arkansas Symphony (not related to the current Arkansas Symphony Orchestra) and the Arkansas Choral Society. It took place at Robinson Auditorium.

Little Rock Look Back: Michael Jackson in town

August 29, 2018, would have been Michael Jackson’s 60th Birthday.

On December 2, 1972, he and his brothers performed in concert at Barton Coliseum. But earlier in the day, they were the grand marshals for the second annual Little Rock Christmas Parade.

They were featured in a full page ad for M. M. Cohn advertising the parade (and of course encouraging persons to stop by the store while they were downtown).

The Jackson 5 sang and waved from the upper level of a London style double decker bus. About fifty kids followed behind the bus yelling their appreciation and singing along.

Writing for the Arkansas Gazette, Bill Lewis notes that the biggest cheers at the parade, however, went to Gary Weir as KATV’s Bozo (even louder than the one’s for Santa).