Little Rock Look Back: LR voters overwhelming support bid to Restore Robinson in 2013

On Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013, voters of Little Rock overwhelmingly chose to renovate the historic Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium.

By a vote of 5,183 For and 1,800 Against, Little Rock citizens approved a plan to use a portion of the city’s existing 2 percent restaurant and hotel tax to repay bonds for a renovation of Robinson Center.  The campaign was chaired by businessman Charles Stewart, restaurateur Capi Peck and former LR Mayor Jim Dailey.

Robinson has long been a landmark in central Arkansas. Construction of the Joseph T. Robinson Memorial Auditorium began in 1938 (after a December 1937 groundbreaking under a deadline) and officially opened February 1940. The structure was a PWA (Public Works Administration) project, and is an excellent example of the Art Deco style architecture of the time. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.

The facility is owned by the City of Little Rock and managed by the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The 1940 structure suffered from a wide array of deficiencies, including stage loading and unloading, stage size, acoustical insufficiency, dressing room access and inadequate wing space within the performance hall. Also, structural, mechanical and electrical issues, public circulation and outdated conference center spaces existed within the facility.

Knowing the center is in need of major upgrades if the facility is to continue to serve central Arkansas into the future, the Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commission (LRA&P) empanelled a Robinson Center Concept Team in October 2011. The group was tasked with evaluating all aspects of the existing facility, researching user needs, proposing conceptual solutions and estimating the cost and construction schedule of the proposed additions and renovations. The concept team was led by Mike Steelman of SCM Architects, PLLC, and included representatives from WD&D Architects, Shuler Shook Theatre Planners, Jaffe-Holden Acoustical Consultants, TME Inc. Mechanical and Electrical Engineers, ECI Inc. Structural Engineers, McClelland Consulting Engineers Inc. Civil Engineers, East Harding Construction, HVS Consulting and Hunt Construction Group.

Additionally, stakeholder and tenant organizations representing the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Celebrity Attractions of Tulsa, Oklahoma and the Double Tree Hotel participated in the planning. The concept team findings were presented publicly on June 5, 2012.

On January 17, 2013 the LRA&P announced the selection of Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects, partnered with Ennead Architects, as the architectural and design team for the future renovations. On March 28, 2013 CDI Contractors LLC, partnered with Hunt Construction Group, were selected by LRA&P as the general contractors and construction managers.

On September 23, 2013 the final schematic renderings and cost estimates were presented publicly. The schematic plans depict major interior upgrades within the performance hall including additional volume to create a two-balcony setup, increased lobby space, acoustical improvements, theatrical upgrades, loading dock expansion, a larger stage area, and new dressing room facilities. Additionally, an enhanced modern ballroom and small conference center was unveiled. New technology, mechanical systems, and outdoor plaza spaces were included in the presentation.

Construction would begin on July 1, 2014.  It reopened on schedule and on budget on November 10, 2016.

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Little Rock Look Back: Studio Gang announced as lead architect for re-envisioning of Arkansas Arts Center

On December 6, 2016, the Arkansas Arts Center (AAC) announced the selection of Studio Gang as design architect for its upcoming building project.

The five firms selected as finalists were Allied Works (Portland, Ore./New York), Shigeru Ban (New York/Paris/Tokyo, Japan), Studio Gang (Chicago/New York), Thomas Phifer (New York) and Snohetta (Oslo, Norway/New York/San Francisco).

Studio Gang was deemed the best fit for the project due to the firm’s elegant and smart approach to architecture, their understanding of the issues posed by the AAC’s current facility, their vision for the center as a cultural beacon for Central Arkansas and their commitment to sustainability and strength as urban planners.

Founded by MacArthur Fellow Jeanne Gang, Studio Gang is an award-winning architecture and urbanism practice based out of Chicago and New York. A recipient of the 2013 National Design Award, Jeanne Gang was also named the 2016 Archiitect of the Year by the Architectural Review and the firm was awarded the 2016 Architizer A+ award for Firm of the Year.

Studio Gang is recognized internationally for a design process that foregrounds the relationships between individuals, communities and environments. The firm has extensive knowledge in museum, theatre and artist studio spaces, with projects ranging from the Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Ill. to the Aqua Tower in Chicago to the expansion of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Since their selection, Studio Gang has brought on a variety of other members of the consultant team including:

In February 2018, Studio Gang released their first designs for the project.

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.

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.

The Thea Foundation honored as 2018 Outstanding Foundation by AFP

The Arkansas Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals honored the Thea Foundation as the 2018 Outstanding Foundation.

The Thea Foundation’s mission is to advocate for the importance of the arts in the development of youth. This statewide organization awards 36 scholarships to Arkansas high school seniors annually. It also provides grants of $50,000 each year for creative material and artistic supplies to teachers across the state through Thea’s Art Closet.

Through its Art Reconstruction Program, the Thea Foundation creates new and augments existing arts programs in schools.  The Thea Foundation also sponsors the Thea Paves the Way event, student and community art exhibitions in their gallery, and hosts the quarterly Thea Art Department which showcases emerging Arkansas artists.

All of this work is undertaken by a staff of five full-time staff members, an active board, and ardent volunteer base.

Little Rock Look Back: The City says HELLO, DOLLY! to Carol Channing

52 years ago tonight, on November 15, 1966, Carol Channing opened a six day stint in HELLO, DOLLY! at Robinson Auditorium.  She would play 8 sold out shows over those six days.

Channing, who had won the 1964 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her role in this show, had recently returned to the national tour.  She had just wrapped filming THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (for which she would receive an Oscar nomination). She had specifically requested that Little Rock be added to the tour.

Her breakout role was in 1949’s GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDS. In that show she introduced the song “Little Girl from Little Rock.”  Since it had helped make her a star, she had long felt an affinity for the Arkansas capital.  Therefore when she rejoined the tour, she required that LR be one of her stops before she left the tour.

While in Little Rock, Channing was entertained at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion and feted at parties.  She was made an honorary citizen of Little Rock, as well.

But she was here to perform. And perform she did. She was rarely known to miss a performance and always gave her utmost.  Bill Lewis, in his review in the ARKANSAS GAZETTE, stated “To hear Channing sing ‘Hello, Dolly!’ Is one of the great experiences of all musical theater to date…”

In assessing the show’s run in Little Rock (which would be seen by more than 20,000 people), Lewis summed up what many felt at the time — and to hear the reminiscences from a half century later, it still is a heartfelt sentiment — “A week’s too little.”