One of the presenters at Sunday’s 72nd Tony Awards is Mikhail Baryshnikov. Twenty-nine years ago, he himself was a 1989 Tony nominee for Actor in a Play (for playing a man-turned-cockroach in an adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
In 1985, Baryshnikov returned to Little Rock to perform again at Robinson Center under the auspices of Ballet Arkansas. He had performed here two years earlier, as well.
Among the dancers who joined him in the program was future Tony nominee Robert LaFosse. He would be nominated for a 1989 Tony as well. But he was up for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. Other dancers in the company were Cynthia Harvey, Susan Jaffe, Leslie Browne, Elaine Kudo, Cheryl Yeager, Amanda McKerrow, Deirdre Carberry, Bonnie Moore, Valerie Madonia, Ross Stretton, Peter Fonseca, Gil Boggs, John Gardner, and John Turjoman.
The company danced to pieces choreographed by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Marius Petipa, future Tony Award winner Twyla Tharp, Lisa de Ribere, and La Fosse. The music composers included George Gershwin, Jacques Offenbach, Frederic Chopin, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Hector Berlioz, as well as composers who wrote songs for Frank Sinatra.
While Ballet Arkansas did not have any dancers perform during the evening, the organization presented it and was able to receive the proceeds which exceeded the expenses. For several years in the 1980s, the Ballet would either commence or conclude their season with such an performance. In fact, the 1985 Baryshnikov program contained a promotion of a 1986 visit by Alvin Ailey’s dance company.
Whereas the 1983 Baryshnikov appearance had been sponsored by the Arkansas Democrat, this time, the rival Arkansas Gazette was the sponsor.
On May 27, 1955, on the stage of Robinson Auditorium, the Dunbar High School senior class graduated. This academic year marked not only the 25th anniversary of Dunbar’s opening, but it was the last year that the school building would offer junior high through junior college classes.
In the fall of 1955, the new Horace Mann High School would open. Dunbar would continue to be open, but only as a junior high. (Though no reason was given, the junior college component ended in May 1955.)
The new Mann High School was constructed, in part, as a way to delay any integration plans for the Little Rock School District. With a new second all-white high school in the works for Little Rock, it was thought that a new African American school would placate the African-American community by not only giving them a new building, but relieving the overcrowding at Dunbar.
But on May 27, 1955, and the days leading up to it, the focus was on celebrating the final graduation class and the 25th anniversary of Dunbar High School. On May 25, teachers who had taught for 25 years at the school, and original teachers who retired from the school were honored.
The school’s original principal, Dr. John H. Lewis, was the commencement speaker. The current principal, Dr. L. W. Christophe presided over the awarding of the diplomas and announcements of scholarships. Among the higher education institutions to which they received scholarships were the University of Michigan, Wiley College, Tennessee State, Arkansas AM&N, Talladega College, and Philander Smith College.
While the Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat both DID run stories on the graduation, it was hardly equal to the coverage they gave Central High School. In fact, on the day after Dunbar’s graduation, the Democrat ran a photo of two Central graduates huddled under an umbrella in the rain – three days after the ceremony took place.
In 1971, Mann ceased its status as a high school as well. Today, both Mann and Dunbar serve as middle schools within the Little Rock School District.
On May 5, 1958, it was announced that the Arkansas Gazette had received two Pulitzer Prizes. These were for the coverage of the 1957 integration (or lack thereof) at Little Rock Central High School.
The first Pulitzer was for Public Service. It was awarded to the newspaper. The citation stated:
For demonstrating the highest qualities of civic leadership, journalistic responsibility and moral courage in the face of great public tension during the school integration crisis of 1957. The newspaper’s fearless and completely objective news coverage, plus its reasoned and moderate policy, did much to restore calmness and order to an overwrought community, reflecting great credit on its editors and its management.
The second Pulitzer was for Editorial Writing. It was awarded to Harry Ashmore. The citation read:
For the forcefulness, dispassionate analysis and clarity of his editorials on the school integration conflict in Little Rock.
This was the first time that the Pulitzer for Public Service and Editorial Writing went to the same publication in the same year.
The newspaper coverage in the afternoon Arkansas Democrat and morning Arkansas Gazette was provided by the Associated Press. The Democrat‘s story ran on the afternoon of the announcement. The front page story had the headline “Pulitzer Honors Go to Gazette.” The next morning the Gazette ran a longer story under the headline “Gazette and Editor Win Two Pulitzer Prizes for Race Crisis Stand.” It included a quote from publisher Hugh Patterson, Jr. He stated, “This recognition belongs to every member of the staff of the Gazette. I am proud to be associated with these men and women.”
The Pulitzer for National Reporting went to Relman Morin of the Associated Press for his coverage of the events. His citation noted: for his dramatic and incisive eyewitness report of mob violence on September 23, 1957, during the integration crisis at the Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Photographer Will Counts of the Arkansas Democrat was the unanimous choice of the jury to receive the Pulitzer in photography for his photo of the crowd jeering at Elizabeth Eckford. The board overruled that selection, as was their purview. Speculation was that the board may not have wanted to award four Pulitzers for the same news story.
This year marks 41 years since the first (fourth?/fifth?/soon to be sixth?) 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.
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 Warswas 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.
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. 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.)
The 2018 Pulitzer Prizes are announced later today. Over the years, there have been several Pulitzer winners with connections to Little Rock.
In 1939, Little Rock native John Gould Fletcher, a scion of a politically prominent family, won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his work Selected Poems. He appears to be the first Pulitzer Prize winner with Little Rock connections.
The 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Drama went to South Pacific. With a leading lady who is from Little Rock, this Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Joshua Logan musical explores race against the backdrop of World War II. It is based on James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, which won the 1948 Pulitzer for Fiction. (Because it was a collection of interrelated short stories, the category was changed from Novel to Fiction from that year onward.) But in the Michener book, Forbush is not from Little Rock. In fact, she is not even from Arkansas, but hails from Alabama.
The Arkansas Gazette made Pulitzer history in 1958 by winning both the Public Service and Editorial prizes in the same year. This was the first time that one organization had received both awards in the same year. These were for the coverage of and response to the 1957 integration of Central High School by the Little Rock Nine. J. N. Heiskell was the paper’s owner and editor, while Harry Ashmore led the editorial page. Relman Morin of the Associated Press received the Pulitzer for National Reporting for his coverage of the events at Central. Apparently Will Counts of the Arkansas Democrat was the jurors’ choice to receive the Pulitzer for Photography. But the Board opted to give the prize to another photographer. Some speculate that the Pulitzer Board did not want to give four prizes in the same year for the same story.
Current Little Rock resident Paul Greenberg won the 1969 Pulitzer for Editorial Writing. at the time, he worked for the Pine Bluff Commercial. In 1986, he was a finalist in the same category. Greenberg moved to Little Rock to join the staff of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 1992. While no longer the Editorial Page Editor, Greenberg continues to write columns for the newspaper.
Former Little Rock resident Richard Ford received the 1996 Pulitzer for Fiction for his novel Independence Day. As a young boy of eight, and for several years after, Ford spent much time at Little Rock’s Marion Hotel with his grandparents. In making the presentation, the Pulitzer Board noted it was, “A visionary account of American life, Independence Day reveals a man and country with unflinching comedy and the specter of hope and even permanence…”
The Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2001 went to David Auburn. A 1987 graduate of Hall High School, Auburn was recognized for his play Proof. The Pulitzer Board described Proof thus: “This poignant drama about love and reconciliation unfolds on the back porch of a house settled in a suburban university town, that is, like David Auburn’s writing, both simple and elegant.” Auburn also served as a 2014 juror for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. While a student in Little Rock, Auburn participated in theatre at the Arkansas Arts Center.
On March 31, 1943, Alfred Drake sauntered on the stage of Broadway’s St. James Theatre and sang “Oh, what a beautiful mornin'” to launch OKLAHOMA! into not only theatrical history but popular culture as well.
In February 1948, as the original Broadway run was about to mark five years on Broadway, the national tour of Oklahoma! made its way to Little Rock for eight performances. The week-long stay it had in Little Rock at Robinson Center was a record for that building that would last until Wicked came in 2010. (Hello, Dolly! in 1966 and Beauty and the Beast in 2002 had both equalled the record.)
By the time Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s first show made it to Little Rock, they were working on their fourth stage show, South Pacific, which had a leading character from Little Rock.
To get Robinson Auditorium ready for Oklahoma!, the Auditorium Commission had to spend $2,000 on upgrades. That would be the equivalent of just under $21,000 today.
Oklahoma! opened at Robinson on Monday, February 9, 1948. With eight performances, approximately 24,000 tickets were on sale during the run of the show. There was a cast of 67 actors and 28 musicians. The cast was led by Ridge Bond, Carolyn Adair, Alfred Cibelli Jr., Patricia Englund, and David Morris. Mr. Bond had relatives who lived in Little Rock. He was a native of Claremore, Oklahoma, which was the town in which the story took place.
While they were in Little Rock, the stars of the show made an appearance at Reed Music on February 10. The music store (located at 112 and 114 East 7th Street–across the street from the Donaghey Building) was promoting the sale of the Oklahoma! cast albums, sheet music, and recordings of songs from Oklahoma! by other singers.
Both the Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat carried reviews of the show. Another item, which appeared in the paper that week was a syndicated column which noted that the film rights for the show had been sold. It was speculated that the star would be Bing Crosby. It would actually be 1955 before the film was made, and Mr. Crosby had no connection to that movie. By the time it was made, the stars were Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones. Mr. MacRae would appear in Little Rock for the 1963 opening of the Arkansas Arts Center. Ms. Jones has made several concert appearances in Little Rock over the years.
Little Rock had seen its fair share of top Broadway shows on tour. Prior to Robinson’s opening and since then, many well-known actors and popular shows had played Little Rock. But just as it had been on Broadway, Oklahoma! in Little Rock was more than a show — it was an event!
Over the years, Oklahoma! has been performed by schools, churches, community theatres, dinner theatres, and colleges. National tours have come through Arkansas again. People have become jaded or dismissive of it, because they have seen it performed so often — and sometimes badly. So it is hard to understand the excitement that was felt by Little Rock audiences in 1948 when they first saw it on the stage of Robinson Center.
But 75 years later (and 25 years after it was commemorated by the US Postal Service with its own stamp), Oklahoma! is still doing fine. Countless new generations sing the songs and say the lines.
Two upcoming cultural events in Little Rock are a testament to the genius that helped create Oklahoma! In May, Ballet Arkansas will present a dance piece which was the final dance created by Agnes de Mille. Before choreographing Oklahoma!, Miss de Mille was already making her mark in the world of ballet. She alternated between the two for decades. At the 1993 Tony Awards, Miss de Mille accepted a special Tony upon the show’s 50th anniversary milestone.
The second connection to Oklahoma! will take place in February 2019. The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra is bringing Oscar “Andy” Hammerstein III, grandson of the beloved librettist and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, to host a celebration of some of America’s most cherished music from the stage.
Julia Burnelle “Bernie” Smade Babcock was an author and museum founder. When her husband died, leaving her with five children, she starting writing for money. She published several temperance novels and later wrote for the Arkansas Democrat. She also published a magazine, wrote plays which were performed in New York, and authored a poetry anthology. She later became recognized as an expert on Abraham Lincoln and wrote several books about him, as well as other historical figures. For her writing skills, she became the first Arkansas woman to be included in Who’s Who in America.
In 1927, after professional curmudgeon H. L. Mencken wrote derisively of Arkansas, she decided to start a museum. The Museum of Natural History and Antiquities was first located in a Main Street storefront. In 1929, she “gave the City of Little Rock a Christmas present” by giving the museum to the city. It was relocated to the unfinished third floor of City Hall, with her as its employee. After being closed during part of the Great Depression, she relocated the museum to the Arsenal Building and reopened it as the Museum of Natural History. She was involved in the efforts to rename City Park in honor of Douglas MacArthur (who had been born there) and welcomed him when he came to Little Rock in 1952.
Following her retirement in 1953, she moved to Petit Jean Mountain where she wrote and painted.
After more name changes and a relocation, her museum is now known as the Museum of Discovery and is an anchor in the River Market district.