HAIR shone in on Robinson Auditorium starting on January 18, 1972

Ad for the original production of HAIR in Little Rock. Note the ticket prices. And that they could be purchased at Moses Music Shops.

Forty-eight years ago today, on January 18, 1972, the musical Hair settled in for a week-long run at Robinson Auditorium.  The saga to bring the national tour to Little Rock had actually begun eleven months earlier.

In February 1971, a young Little Rock attorney named Phil Kaplan petitioned the Little Rock Board of Censors to see if it would allow a production of Hair to play in the city. He was asking on behalf of a client who was interested in bringing a national tour to Arkansas’ capital city. The show, which had opened on Broadway to great acclaim in April 1968 after an Off Broadway run in 1967, was known for containing a nude scene as well for a script which was fairly liberally sprinkled with four-letter words. The Censors stated they could not offer an opinion without having seen a production.

By July 1971, Kaplan and his client (who by then had been identified as Southwest Productions) were seeking permission for a January 1972 booking of Hair from the City’s Auditorium Commission which was charged with overseeing operations at Robinson Auditorium. At its July meeting, the Commissioners voted against allowing Hair because of its “brief nude scene” and “bawdy language.”

Kaplan decried the decision. He stated that the body couldn’t “sit in censorship of legitimate theatrical productions.” He noted courts had held that Hair  could be produced and that the Auditorium Commission, as an agent for the State, “clearly can’t exercise prior censorship.” He proffered that if the production was obscene it would be a matter for law enforcement not the Auditorium Commission.

The Commission countered that they had an opinion from City Attorney Joseph Kemp stating they had the authority. One of the Commissioners, Mrs. Grady Miller (sister-in-law of the building’s namesake the late Senator Robinson, she had served on the Commission since 1940), expressed her concern that allowing Hair would open the door to other productions such as Oh! Calcutta!

On July 26, 1971, Southwest Productions filed suit against the Auditorium Commission. Four days later there was a hearing before federal Judge G. Thomas Eisele. Judge Eisele offered a ruling on August 11 which compelled the Auditorium Commission to allow Hair to be performed. Prior to the ruling, some of the Auditorium Commissioners had publicly stated that if they had to allow Hair, they would close it after the first performance on the grounds of obscenity. To combat this, Judge Eisele stated that the Commission had to allow Hair to perform the entire six day engagement it sought.

Upon hearing of the Judge’s ruling, Commissioner Emily Miller offered a succinct, two word response. “Oh, Dear!”

In the end, the production of Hair at Robinson would not be the first performance of that musical in the state.  The tour came through Fayetteville for two performances in October 1971 at Barnhill Arena.

On January 18, 1972, Hair played the first of its 8 performances over 6 days at Robinson Auditorium.  In his review the next day, the Arkansas Gazette’s Bill Lewis noted that Hair “threw out all it had to offer” and that Little Rock had survived.

The ads promoting the production carried the tagline “Arkansas will never be the same.”  Tickets (from $2 all the way up to $8.50–the equivalent of $12.23 to $51.99 in 2020 dollars) could be purchased at Moses Melody Shops both downtown and in “The Mall” (meaning Park Plaza). That business is gone from downtown, but the scion of that family, Jimmy Moses, is actively involved in building downtown through countless projects. His sons are carrying on the family tradition too.

Little Rock was by no means unique in trying to stop productions of Hair.  St. Louis, Birmingham, Los Angeles, Tallahassee, Boston, Atlanta, Charlotte NC, West Palm Beach, Oklahoma City, Mobile and Chattanooga all tried unsuccessfully to stop performances in their public auditoriums.  Despite Judge Eisele’s ruling against the City of Little Rock, members of the Fort Smith City Council also tried to stop a production later in 1972 in that city. This was despite warnings from City staff that there was not legal standing.

Within a few years, the Board of Censors of the City of Little Rock would be dissolved (as similar bodies also were disappearing across the US). Likewise, the Auditorium Commission was discontinued before Hair even opened, with its duties being taken over by the Advertising and Promotion Commission and the Convention & Visitors Bureau staff.  This was not connected to the Hair decision; it was, instead, related to expanding convention facilities in Robinson and the new adjacent hotel.  Regardless of the reasons for their demise, both bygone bodies were vestiges of earlier and differently focused days in Little Rock.

January 3, 1936 – groundbreaking for Museum of Fine Arts

On January 3, 1936, the ground was broken for the Museum of Fine Arts building in City Park.  The facility would face Ninth Street and be to the west of the Arsenal Tower Building.   That building was the one remaining structure of more than 30 which had populated the grounds when it was a federal military establishment.

Excavation for the building uncovered the foundation for another structure.  New footings for the Museum would be poured into the old footings.

The cornerstone would be laid in October 1936, and the building would open in October 1937.  The building would serve as the museum’s home until the new construction for the new Arkansas Arts Center began in 1961. That construction would enclose the original Museum of Fine Arts.  By that time, the City had long renamed the park in honor of General Douglas MacArthur, who was born there when it had been a military installation.

Subsequent additions to the Arkansas Arts Center over the decades have further expanded the museum’s footprint.  After the 2000 expansion, the original 1937 facade was featured prominently in a gallery, giving it more visibility than since 1963. With the Arkansas Arts Center undergoing a reimagining, the original 1937 facade will be maintained and re-exposed as an entrance to the building.

But it all began on January 3, 1936.

19 LR Cultural Touchstones in 2019. Part 2: Changes at the Arkansas Arts Center, ASO and UA Little Rock

As the look back to 19 cultural occurrences in 2019 continues, this entry looks at personnel and location changes.

4. Groundbreaking for reimagined Arkansas Arts Center on first day of tenure for new executive director, Dr. Victoria Ramirez.  October 1, 2019, was a red-letter day for the Arkansas Arts Center.  Not only was it the first day for new executive director, Dr. Victoria Ramirez, but it was also the ground-breaking for the award-winning reimagining of the Arkansas Arts Center.

Dr. Ramirez was hired in August 2019 to take over the leadership of the Arkansas Arts Center. She came from the El Paso Museum of Art, where she has been Director. Previously she has worked at museums in Austin, Houston, Washington DC as well as Georgia and Virginia. Since October 1, she has hit the ground running with meetings and almost daily visits to the construction site.

In June and August 2019, the AAC paid farewell to its previous building in MacArthur Park in a series of events. In August, the staff and museum school moved to facilities in the Riverdale section of Little Rock which will be its home until the reimagined (and largely newly constructed) facility is reopened in 2022.  The AAC continues to offer programming, largely in conjunction with the Central Arkansas Library System and the Clinton Presidential Center.

One last AAC note of mention: in December 2019, Bradley Anderson stepped down after FORTY years as artistic director of the Arkansas Arts Center Children’s Theatre.  In his typical lowkey fashion, he eschewed a public tribute, but was feted by the staff.  Mayor Frank Scott, Jr., honored him with a proclamation, as well.

5.  Philip Mann steps down as Music Director of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra; Geoffrey Robson is Interim Music Director.  After nearly a decade on the podium of the ASO, Philip Mann left the organization in May 2019.  He was honored by the Board and musicians at final concerts in Robinson Center and the I.N.C. series.  Associate Music Director Geoffrey Robson was named as the Interim Music Director.

While he is conducting many of the concert for the ASO this season, he is sharing the podium with a variety of guest conductors.  Some of the guest conductors may be candidates for the permanent post.  In deference to those who would prefer to keep their interest under wraps, the ASO is conducting (pun intended) this search more privately than in previous efforts.  All of the guest conductors (whether a candidate or not) are being given a chance to interact with audience members.  So far, audience response to the concerts and guest conductors has been overwhelmingly positive.

The ASO has not publicly announced a timeline for naming the next permanent music director.  In the meantime, Robson and Executive Director Christina Littlejohn, along with ASO Board members and staff, continue to present an aggressive concert and outreach schedule.  Another ASO personnel change of note, longtime ASO supporter Ellen M. Gray was named an Honorary Lifetime Member of the ASO Board this year. She joins a very select few who have been granted this designation.

Image result for ua little rock logo6.  A new Chancellor and new arts Dean at UA Little Rock.  While not specifically a cultural institution, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock is definitely a player in the City’s arts environment.  2019 saw Dr. Christy Drale, a longtime university administrator, assuming the helm as the Chancellor of UA Little Rock.  She has been a valued supporter of the university’s arts, cultural and heritage offerings throughout her tenure.

While she is faced with making deep cuts at the university due to declining enrollment and the accompanying decrease in funding, it is highly unlikely that she will make knee-jerk cuts to arts funding first, which has often been the case in the past not only at this university but at many others.

Likewise, Dr. Sarah Beth Estes was permanently named Dean of Arts, Letters, and Sciences at UA Little Rock in the summer of 2019. She had previously held the position in the interim and has been a faculty member and administrator at UA Little Rock since 2006.  Dean Estes has been a vocal advocate for cross-discipline collaborations within the university as well as the importance of UA Little Rock as a community asset.

Image result for ualr public radio7 – Comings and Goings at UA Little Rock Public Radio.  KUAR and KLRE, the public radio stations at UA Little Rock saw some personnel changes of their own this year.  After leading the station as Interim General Manager for several years, Nathan Vandiver was named General Manager in December. He started at the stations in 2009 as an intern while he was a student at UA Little Rock.  From 2013 to 2016, he was program manager for UA Little Rock Public Radio before assuming the title of Interim G.M. following the death of Ben Fry.

Longtime Arts Scene host Ann Nicholson retired from the station in the fall of 2019. A British national, she was raised in India, Scotland, and England. She moved to Canada in the 1950s and the US in the 1960s. She and her late husband moved to Little Rock in the 1970s, upon which she quickly ensconced herself in the arts community. In 1985, she started hosting Arts Scene on UA Little Rock Public Radio. Since then, she has interviewed hundreds of artists, musicians, authors, and performers about projects in Little Rock.

UA Little Rock reporter Daniel Breen is conducting the Arts Scene interviews now. A graduate of Little Rock Central High School and UA LIttle Rock, Breen is an avid fan of the music scene and the arts in general in Little Rock.

Pay What You Can Weekend as Arkansas Arts Center Children’s Theatre on Tour presents two shows in Riverdale

A Christmas CarolThe Children’s Theatre on Tour is stopping by the Arkansas Arts Center’s Riverdale location for a weekend of Pay What You Can performances December 20–22.

Children’s Theatre on Tour will hold four performances of A Christmas Carol throughout the weekend and one performance of Wynken, Blynken and Nod: A Play for the Very Young. While the Arts Center’s MacArthur Park building undergoes a transformational renovation, the Children’s Theatre has expanded its touring program, which will feature four shows throughout the 2019–2020 season.  

A Christmas Carol will be performed at 7 p.m. on Friday, December 20, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday, December 21, and 2 p.m. on Sunday December 22. Clever, comedic, and kid-friendly, A Christmas Carol breathes new life into Dickens’ heart-warming classic. Schooled by a team of magical Christmas Eve visitors, Ebenezer Scrooge, the most miserable of all misers, rediscovers the true spirit of the season—one of love, generosity, and family. With these touchstones of happiness revived in him, he wakes Christmas morning to find himself “light as a feather, happy as an angel, and merry as a schoolboy!” There will be a pre-show holiday party at 5:30 p.m. on December 20 with art activities, a hot chocolate bar, cupcakes, shopping and more. The holiday party is free for Friday evening ticket holders.

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod: A Play for the Very YoungWynken, Blynken and Nod: A Play for the Very Young will be performed at 10:15 a.m. on Saturday, December 21. Toddlers and preschoolers will delight in the enchanting and whimsical journey of Wynken, Blynken, and Nod as they sail away one magical night and meet the mystical Moon! Inspired by Eugene Field’s poem, this interactive musical for early-childhood audiences explores the fantasy world of dreams. When the Moon asks, “where are you going, and what do you wish?” the night sky becomes the sea and stars become fish as audience members see, touch, and participate throughout the play.

Pay What You Can tickets can be purchased by phone at 501-372-4000 or in person at the Arkansas Arts Center’s Riverdale location (2510 Cantrell Road). Ticket desk hours are 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. Monday – Friday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday, and noon – 5 p.m. Sunday.

A Christmas Carol
Friday, December 20, 7 p.m. | Saturday, December 21, 2 p.m. & 4 p.m. | Sunday December 22, 2 p.m.
Clever, comedic, and kid-friendly, this holiday show breathes new life into Dickens’ heart-warming classic. Schooled by a team of magical Christmas Eve visitors, Ebenezer Scrooge, the most miserable of all misers, rediscovers the true spirit of the season—one of love, generosity, and family. With these touchstones of happiness revived in him, he wakes Christmas morning to find himself “light as a feather, happy as an angel, and merry as a schoolboy!”

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod: A Play for the Very Young
Saturday December 21, 10:15 a.m.
Toddlers and preschoolers will delight in the enchanting and whimsical journey of Wynken, Blynken, and Nod as they sail away one magical night and meet the mystical Moon! Inspired by Eugene Field’s poem, this interactive musical for early-childhood audiences explores the fantasy world of dreams. When the Moon asks, “where are you going, and what do you wish?” the night sky becomes the sea and stars become fish as audience members see, touch, and participate throughout the play. Join Wynken, Blynken, Nod, and the Moon on this 45-minute multi-sensory adventure for the very young. 

First Beaux Arts Bal raised money for fine art acquisition in Little Rock on December 12, 1958

Snow covered highways throughout the state on Friday, December 12, 1958.  However, the 400 guests at the Fine Arts Club’s first Beaux Arts Bal braved the roads and made their way to the blue drape bedecked ballroom of the Country Club of Little Rock. (Note, the event used the French spelling of Ball using only one “l.”)

Proceeds from the evening would be used by the Fine Arts Club to build up an acquisition fund for the Museum of Fine Arts. At the time, the club was in the process of launching an effort which would lead to the creation of the Arkansas Arts Center.

With the theme “bal de tete” (or “Head Ball”) guests were encouraged to come in their finest evening wear while sporting elegant and/or creative chapeaus atop their crowns.

Gege Darragh

Among the revelers were:

  • Elsie Stebbins, president of the Fine Arts Club, wearing a papier-mache silhouette of Arkansas adorned with the five flags which had flown over it
  • Howard Stebbins, president of Ducks Unlimited, wearing a replica of a duck blind complete with Mallard ducks
  • Daisy Jacoway, beneath a white Christmas wreath
  • Cooper Jacoway, clad in a black and white bear’s head with eyes flashing on and off
  • Carrie Dickinson, wearing a hat made of pink and red roses
  • Mayriann Hurst, bedecked in an epergne holding Christmas ornaments and fresh white orchids (as befitting the owner of Tipton Hurst florist)

Gege Darragh won a prize as “Most Artistic” hat which included lighted candles on a styrofoam base intermingled with white glitter oak leaves and silver balls. Her prize was a portrait by noted Arkansas artist Edwin Brewer.

The Hamiltons (as Marie Antoinette and her executioner) and the Kreths (as Siamese dancers)

Dr. and Mrs. K. M. Kreth won the prize for “Best Hats” which were a matching pair of elaborate gold peaked headdresses in the style of Siamese dancers. Their prize was a trip to Nassau.

The “Most Creative” prize went to Jeane and Jim Hamilton who wore hats depicting Marie Antoinette and her executioner.  They received a Swedish crystal masque.

The headgear was judged by a triumvirate of notables: Little Rock hotelier, restaurateur, and raconteur Sam Peck; future Arkansas First Lady Jeannette Rockefeller, and architect Edward Durrell Stone.

Among the many women serving with Elsie Stebbins on the planning committee were Jane McGehee, Daisy Jacoway, Raida Pfeifer, Buff Blass, and Kula Kumpuris.

Just as the Museum of Fine Arts made way for the Arkansas Arts Center, so too did this event change.  In 1971, the annual Beaux Arts Bal was replaced by Tabriz. In 1976, it became a two night event which took place every other year.

Peck, Rockefeller, and Stone judging the head wear