And the Pulitzer goes to SOUTH PACIFIC

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. But the book does mention Nellie and her mother visiting Little Rock.  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.

The Return of the STAR WARS Day

Today, May the 4th, is Star Wars Day.

This year marks 42 years since the first (now subtitled Episode 4) movie opened!

The classic film first opened in fewer than 40 theatres nationwide on May 25, 1977.  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 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.

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.)

National Balloon Race starts in Little Rock on April 29, 1926

On April 29, 1926, nine hot air balloons took off from Little Rock’s airport (which was actually just an airfield at the time) in a national race to win the Litchfield Trophy.  In addition to the trophy, the winner would be on the American team in an international balloon race in Belgium.

The New York Times coverage noted that the weather conditions were ideal as the balloons took off in five minute intervals between 5:00pm and 5:30pm.  The test balloon (akin to a pace car in a car race) was the Arkansas Gazette‘s Skylark.  It took off at 4:25 and headed in the direction of the northeast, which was the desired direction.

The nine balloons, in order of liftoff were: the US Army from Phillips Field in Maryland; the US Army from McCook Field in Ohio; the Goodyear Southern California; the Detroit; the Goodyear IV (whose pilot Ward T. Van Orman had won the 1924 and 1925 contests); US Army from Scott Field; a balloon piloted by a Danish pilot Svend A. U. Rasmussen; US Army balloon from Langley Field in Virginia; and the Akron National Aeronautic Association balloon.

The pilots carried provisions for 48 hours and were equipped for sea flying.  Each had a radio and loud speaker.  KTHS radio of Hot Springs (a forerunner to today’s KTHV TV station) was broadcasting the location of each balloon.  As they left the Arkansas radio station’s range, there was a network of other stations which would do the same.

It was expected that the race would last between eighteen and thirty-six hours.  The last balloon aloft was Van Orman for the third year.  He lasted approximately 31 hours and landed near Chesapeake Bay.

Though no headcount was given, the New York Times called the viewing audience “the largest crowd ever assembled in Little Rock.”

Many thanks to Brian Lang of the Arkansas Arts Center for giving me the tip on this.

You cannot spell Pulitzer without LIT

The 2019 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.

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.

A Pulitzer Preview – Prizing Mount Holly Cemetery

The Pulitzer Prizes are to be announced tomorrow (Monday, April 15).  This year marks the 102nd 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 28, during the Mount Holly Cemetery Association’s annual “Restore 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.

Women Making History: Rev. Dr. Peggy S. Bosmyer

In 1977, Peggy S. Bosmyer was ordained an Episcopal priest at Little Rock’s Trinity Cathedral.  Not only was she the first woman in Arkansas to be ordained to a full priesthood in the Episcopal Church, she was the first woman south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Born in Helena, she was a graduate of the University of Arkansas and Virginia Theological Seminary.  She served as a deacon at Grace Episcopal in Pine Bluff before serving as a curate at Little Rock’s St. Mark’s Episcopal.  In 1976, the Episcopal Church approved the ordination of women to the priesthood. It was after that she was able to be ordained in 1977.  Her ordination was front page news in the Arkansas Gazette.

Following ordination, she was appointed Vicar of Little Rock’s St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, then a part-time position. She also served as a program director for the Diocese of Arkansas, which included oversight of Camp Mitchell.  In 1985, Rev. Bosmyer was appointed full-time Vicar of St. Michael’s.  Nine years later, she left Little Rock to be a professor on the faculty of the School of Theology at the University of the South.  While there she served as Co-Vicar of St. James at Sewanee. She also received her Doctor of Divinity from the University of the South in 1999.

Rev. Dr. Bosmyer returned to Little Rock in 2001 to be Vicar of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church.  She held that position until her death in December 2008 from pancreatic cancer.  She is interred at the columbarium of St. Margaret’s.  She was survived by her husband of 24 years, Reverend Dr. Dennis Campbell, and four children.

She was not only one of the first female Episcopal priests in the U.S, she was on the forefront of women serving as ordained priests and preachers in mainline denominations.  Certainly her ordination was not without controversy. There are still those who disagree with women serving as priests (though likely few remain within the Episcopal church).

The legacy of Rev. Dr. Bosmyer continues today with the women serving as rectors, vicars, priests in charge, and associate rectors throughout the state of Arkansas.  While Arkansas has not had a woman serve as Bishop, Rev. Dr. Katherine Jefferts Schori served as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church from 2006 to 2015.