Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


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Little Rock Look Back: Cornice installed at Robinson Auditorium

On June 1, 1939, the cornice was installed on Robinson Auditorium.  This granite slab noted the name of the building as the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium.  (It is interesting to note that it used the more modern “u” instead of the classical “v” which was often used in buildings during prior decades – as evidenced by the Pvlaski Covnty Covrt Hovse across the street.)

This was a milestone marking the completion of the front facade of the structure.  Much work would continue on the interior of the structure.  This step in the construction was considered major enough that the Arkansas Gazette mentioned it in a news article.

On this date in 2015 and 2016, the cornice was again surrounded by construction materials and braces. But the restoration of Robinson Center finished in November 2016. Once again, the cornice stands proudly atop the six columns with no impediments around it.


Little Rock Look Back: Elvis headlines Robinson

Photo by Wayne Cranford

After two visits in 1955 where he was down on the bill, Elvis Presley made his third and final appearance at Robinson Auditorium on May 16, 1956.  This time he was the star and Robinson was packed. The tickets were $1.50 in advance at Walgreens and $2.00 at the box office.

The ads featured 8 great acts in “his” variety show which consisted of the Jordonaires; Rick and Emil Flaim and their orchestra; vocalists Frankie Conners and Jackie Little and comedian-magician Phil Maraquin. A second show was added at 9:30 p.m. to accommodate the ticket demand.

About 30 minutes late, due to a missed flight, Elvis appeared on stage in a purple blazer and started singing “Heartbreak Hotel.”  The crowd rushed the stage. Little Rock police officers were able to control them eventually and get the teenagers back to their seats.  While the crowd was impressed, the police officers were less so.  One of the patrolmen told the Arkansas Gazettereporter: “I wouldn’t know him if I saw him. And I wouldn’t be here unless I was being paid.”

Disc jockey Ray Green recorded the concert that night.  Copies of the concert on CD (which also includes an interview with Presley) are prized possessions of Presley collectors.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has a special section on its website containing quotes from some of the concert attendees.


Little Rock Look Back: ARKANSAS GAZETTE wins 2 Pulitzer Prizes

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.


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Little Rock Look Back: SOUTH PACIFIC wins Pulitzer Prize

On May 5, 1950, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific captured the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. This would receive special attention in the Arkansas Gazette. The reason this carried such weight in Arkansas was that the musical had a connection to Little Rock.
The 1950 Pulitzer for Drama went to a musical, for only the second time in the history of the awards. The recipient was South Pacific by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan. The character was the leading lady of Nellie Forbush. She was an Navy ensign and a nurse stationed on an exotic island during World War II. The musical was based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific.

In the Michener novel, Miss Forbush is not from Little Rock. She is actually from a small town in Alabama. The part was written for Mary Martin from Weatherford, Texas. Rodgers, Hammerstein & Logan did not discuss why they relocated Nellie’s birthplace.

Originally the musical contained a song entitled “My Girl Back Home” in which Nellie sang of being from “Little Rock, A-R-K” while another character sang of being from “Philadelphia, P-A” and “Princeton, N-J.” It is possible the change to Little Rock was made because it offered more lyrical possibilities, but that is only a supposition on the part of the Culture Vulture. That song did appear in the movie version in which Mitzi Gaynor played Nellie Forbush. It was also featured in the 2008 Broadway revival, this time with Kelli O’Hara playing Nellie.

In the musical, Nellie struggles with her own prejudices. This issue of prejudice became an instance of fact meeting fiction. In 1957, a few weeks after Eisenhower sent troops into Little Rock to ensure that Central High would be desegregated, a production of South Pacific on Long Island was temporarily halted when the audience booed and yelled after Nellie mentioned she was from Little Rock. Interestingly, the movie was released in 1958, but retained references to Little Rock. That was either a testament to the expense of re-editing it, or the fact that audience reaction had lessened.


Little Rock Look Back: The Return of STAR WARS Day

Today, May the 4th, is Star Wars Day.  This year marks 40 years since the first (fourth?) 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.

While Star Wars would seem like the perfect movie for the great UA Cinema 150, it did not play there.  The film playing at the 150 was A Bridge Too Far, which was, at least an action movie.  Star Wars did not even open at a UA theatre.  It opened at the ABC Cinema 1 & 2 (located at Markham and John Barrow) and at the McCain Mall Cinema.  (The ABC Cinema location is now home to discount cellphone and discount clothing businesses; a cinema has returned to McCain Mall, but now in the location of the former MM Cohn’s store.)

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 Wars was 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.   It is interesting to note what was playing at the two theatres which had originally screened the 1977 film.  The McCain Mall Cinema was showing Coal Miner’s Daughter and The Fog. The former ABC Cinema was now the Plitt Southern Theatre and showed the Bill Murray comedy Where the Buffalo Roam and the “Get Smart” movie The Nude Bomb.  None were likely to attract the same number of audience members as The Empire Strikes Back.

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.  Like the first film, though it would have been perfect for the Cinema 150, it did not play there.  Instead it played at the UA Cinema City (Breckenridge Village), the UA Four (at Geyer Springs and I-30 – now the Ron Sherman production studios), and at McCain Mall.  Flashdance was playing at the Cinema 150. In a forerunner of what is now standard practice, The Return of the Jedi played simultaneously on two of the seven screens at UA Cinema City and two of the four screens at UA Four.  While this is now part of the modus operandi, at the time, it was extremely rare to have a movie play on more than one screen in the same complex.  Though each of the theatres was smaller than the Cinema 150, the five combined exceeded the availability if it had played an exclusive run at the Cinema 150.

By the time The Return of the Jedi opened, the former ABC Cinema was now part of the ill-fated locally-based Rand Cinema chain and was known as the Markham 1 & 2.  It was showing the Roy Scheider film Blue Thunder and Dan Aykroyd in Dr. Detroit.

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.)


Pulitzer Day – a good time to “Prize” Mount Holly Cemetery

The Pulitzer Prizes are to be announced today.  This year marks the 100th anniversary 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 on Sunday, April 30, 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.


Little Rock Look Back: Little Rock reacts to death of Martin Luther King, Jr.

On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis.  Thankfully Little Rock did not see the unrest that many cities did.

Part of that was probably due to quick action by Governor Winthrop Rockefeller. The Governor released a statement fairly quickly expressing his sorrow at the tragedy and calling for a day of mourning. He also made the State Capitol available for the NAACP to have a public memorial, as well as worked with a group of ministers to host an interdenominational service.

Little Rock Mayor Martin Borchert issued a statement as well:

We in Little Rock are disturbed about the incident in Memphis. We are disturbed regardless of where it had happened.  Killing is not the Christian solution to any of our problems today.

In Little Rock, we feel we have come a long way in 10 years toward solving some of our problems of living and working together regardless of race, creed or color.

The city Board of Directors in Little Rock has pledged itself toward continuing efforts to make Little Rock a better place in which to live and work for all our citizens.

We feel the efforts of all thus far have proved we can live in harmony in Little Rock and are confident such an incident as has happened will not occur in Little Rock.  We will continue our most earnest efforts toward the full needs of our citizens.

The day after Dr. King was assassinated, a group of Philander Smith College students undertook a spontaneous walk to the nearby State Capitol, sang “We Shall Overcome” and then walked back to the campus.  President Ernest T. Dixon, Jr., of the college then hosted a 90 minute prayer service in the Wesley Chapel on the campus.

On the Sunday following Dr. King’s assassination, some churches featured messages about Dr. King.  As it was part of Holy Week, the Catholic Bishop for the Diocese of Little Rock had instructed all priests to include messages about Dr. King in their homilies. Some protestant ministers did as well. The Arkansas Gazette noted that Dr. Dale Cowling of Second Baptist Church downtown (who had received many threats because of his pro-integration stance in 1957) had preached about Dr. King and his legacy that morning.

Later that day, Governor Rockefeller participated in a public memorial service on the front steps of the State Capitol. The crowd, which started at 1,000 and grew to 3,000 before it was over, was racially mixed. At the conclusion of the ceremony, Governor and Mrs. Rockefeller joined hands with African American ministers and sang “We Shall Overcome.”

That evening, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral was the site of an interdenominational service which featured Methodist Bishop Rev. Paul V. Galloway, Catholic Bishop Most Rev. Albert L. Fletcher, Episcopal Bishop Rt. Rev. Robert R. Brown, Rabbi E. E. Palnick of Temple B’Nai Israel, Gov. Rockefeller, Philander Smith President Dixon, and Rufus King Young of Bethel AME Church.

Earlier in the day, Mayor Borchert stated:

We are gathered this afternoon to memorialize and pay tribute to a great American….To achieve equality of opportunity for all will require men of compassion and understanding on the one hand and men of reason and desire on the other.