Artober – I Made This….

October is Arts and Humanities Month nationally and in Little Rock. Americans for the Arts has identified a different arts topic to be posted for each day in the month.  Today’s feature is “I Made This.”

A few years ago, I took a class at the Arkansas Arts Center Museum School where we splattered paint onto a spinning canvas. My colors were inspired by my love of the New York Yankees and by actor Ben Piazza.  I first painted dark blue pinstripes on the canvas as a nod to the Yankees. Then I washed it with a watered down version of that blue.

For the colors, I chose Lime Green, Khaki, and White.  The white echoes the white and blue of the Yankees. The Lime Green and Khaki came from Little Rock native Ben Piazza’s plays “Lime Green” and “Khaki Blue.”

Little Rock and VIRGINIA WOOLF

On October 13, 1962, Edward Albee’s first Broadway play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway.

Though not in the original cast, Little Rock native Ben Piazza had participated in early readings of the play.  In fact the first time the script was ever read through aloud it was by Albee, Piazza, and producers Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder.

After original cast member George Grizzard left the show due to another commitment, Piazza joined the cast in February 1963.  He remained in the production throughout the rest of the run. Piazza holds the record of most performances of any Edward Albee play on Broadway.

The play was selected by the Pulitzer jury for drama to receive the prize in 1963. But because the award criteria still contained language about “moral example” the final committee rejected the choice and no play was recognized that year. The public hue and cry over the decision served to shake up the criteria for future play selection. Albee would receive the Pulitzer for A Delicate Balance, Seascape and Three Tall Women.

The New York Drama Critics Circle recognized the play as Best Play. It also won Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Producer of a Play (Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder), Actor in a Play (Hill), Actress in a Play (Hagen) and Director of a Play (Alan Schneider). Dillon, who received a Tony nomination for Featured Actress in a Play, received a Theatre World Award for her performance.

During the run of Virginia Woolf, Piazza was writing a novel called The Exact and Very Strange Truth. This would be a fictionalized account of his boyhood in Little Rock. Whenever he would stop writing on it, he would put the manuscript in the freezer of his refrigerator to keep it safe.

Piazza would go on to appear in several other Albee plays both on and off Broadway. He would direct and appear in other productions of Virginia Woolf? throughout the country.

Fifty years to the day after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? first opened on Broadway, the production’s third revival opened. It starred Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Carrie Coon and Madison Dirks.  It was directed by Pam MacKinnon.  Nominated for five Tony Awards, it won three: Best Revival of a Play, Actor in a Play (Letts) and Direction (MacKinnon).

One of the producers on stage accepting the Best Revival Tony was Little Rock native Will Trice. Like Piazza, he was a graduate of Little Rock Central High School. Now Trice is the Executive Artistic Director of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre.

Artober – On My Bookshelf – Cultural Policy, Fiction about the South, Family Heirlooms

October is Arts and Humanities Month nationally and in Little Rock. Americans for the Arts has identified a different arts topic to be posted for each day in the month. Today’s topic is “On My Bookshelf.”

I love books.  I have thousands. I have not read them all, but I’ve read most of them.

These are from my grandfather Alvin Moses Carter’s set of encyclopedias. They were in his house for decades. Now they are in my office at work, where they sit near his steamer trunk. He died three years before I was born, but I feel connected to him when I see these items every day.

Also in my office are some books on cultural policy and history.  I’ve had the opportunity to meet Frohnmayer, Alexander,and Florida and discuss their books with them.

At home, I have books everywhere. I once tried to group them by subject and put in alphabetical order, but there were just too many, and they have to fit in a variety of spaces. These paper backs are on shelves that were built in my apartment when a doorway was filled in. Two of these books served as inspiration for Broadway musicals in 1949, each with heroines from Little Rock.

These two books face forward on one of my bookshelves (hiding some reference books).  Little Rock native Ben Piazza’s book is a fictionalized account of his childhood. He wrote it while appearing in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway. The other book is an oral history of Angels in America and is one of the best books I have read about theatre and history in a long time.

86 years since Ben Piazza was born

He shared the screen with Cher, Tom Hanks, John Belushi, Gary Cooper, Robert DeNiro, Judd Nelson, Liza Minnelli, Ken Howard, Shirley Jones, George C. Scott, Karl Malden, and Walter Matthau.

His stage co-stars included Jane Fonda, Shirley Booth, Dyan Cannon, William Daniels, Uta Hagen, Mercedes McCambridge, and Arthur Hill.

Ben Piazza spent his entire adult life earning money solely through work in the arts. (Except for a very brief, failed stint as a waiter for a few weeks after he graduated from Princeton.)  Few in the acting profession can make that claim.

Actor-director-playwright-author Ben Piazza was born on July 30, 1933, in Little Rock.  Piazza graduated from Little Rock High School in 1951 as valedictorian. He also had starred in the senior play that year (The Man Who Came to Dinner) and edited the literary magazine.

Piazza attended college at Princeton University and graduated in 1955.  While there he continued acting, including an appearance in a Theatre Intime production of Othello.

In February 1958, he starred in Winesburg, Ohio sharing the National (now Nederlander) Theatre stage with James Whitmore, Dorothy McGuire, and Leon Ames. In April 1959, Piazza starred in Kataki at the Ambassador Theatre.  For his performance, Piazza received one of the 1959 Theatre World Awards.

Piazza started the 1960s on Broadway starring at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in A Second String with Shirley Booth, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Nina Foch, Cathleen Nesbitt, and Carrie Nye.   Following that, he started his association with Edward Albee by appearing as the title character in The American Dream.  That play opened at the York Playhouse in January 1961.  Later that year, he appeared in Albee’s The Zoo Story opposite original cast member William Daniels at the East End Theatre.

In February 1963, he took over the role of Nick in the original run of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when original actor George Grizzard left to play Hamlet at the Guthrie Theatre.  (He had participated in earlier readings of the play prior to it being mounted on Broadway.)

Piazza played Nick for the remainder of the run and acted with Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill, fellow Arkansan Melinda Dillon, Eileen Fulton, Nancy Kelly, Mercedes McCambridge, Rochelle Oliver and Sheppard Strudwick.

During the run of this show, Piazza’s novel The Exact and Very Strange Truth was published.  It is a fictionalized account of his growing up in Little Rock during the 1930s and 1940s.  The book is filled with references to Centennial Elementary, West Side Junior High, Central High School, Immanuel Baptist Church and various stores and shops in Little Rock during that era.  The Piazza Shoe Store, located on Main Street, was called Gallanti’s.

He appeared with Alfred Drake in The Song of the Grasshopper in September 1967.  In 1968, he returned to Albee and starred in The Death of Bessie Smith and The Zoo Story in repertory on Broadway at the Billy Rose Theatre.

Later that season, in March 1969, his one-acts: Lime Green/Khaki Blue opened at the Provincetown Playhouse.  Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Piazza toured in many plays nationally and internationally. As the 1970s progressed, he turned his focus to television and movies.

Piazza’s film debut was in a 1959 Canadian film called The Dangerous Age. That same year, his Hollywood film debut came opposite Gary Cooper, Karl Malden, Maria Schell and George C. Scott in The Hanging Tree.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he appeared in a number of TV shows.  He had a recurring role during one season of Ben Casey and appeared on the soap opera Love of Life. In the 1970s, he starred in the films Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon; The Candy Snatchers and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.  He also starred as the City Councilman who recruits Walter Matthau to coach a baseball team inThe Bad News Bears.

Among his numerous TV appearances in the 1970s were The Waltons, Mannix, Switch, Barnaby Jones, Gunsmoke, Mod Squad and Lou Grant . In the 1980s, he appeared in The Blues Brothers, The Rockford Files, Barney Miller, Hart to Hart, Family Ties, The Winds of War, Dallas, Dynasty, Too Close for Comfort, The A Team, Saint Elsewhere, Santa Barbara, The Facts of Life, Mr. Belvedere, Moonlighting and Matlock.

Piazza’s final big screen appearance was in the 1991 film Guilty by Suspicion.  He played studio head Darryl Zanuck in this Robert DeNiro-Annette Bening tale of Hollywood during the Red scare.

Ben Piazza died on September 7, 1991.

In November 2016, a room at the Robinson Conference Center was dedicated to his memory.

Little Rock Look Back: Broadway debut of Ben Piazza

Though he had been an understudy in the short-lived Too Late the Phalarope, Little Rock native Ben Piazza never went on in the production.  He made his Broadway debut in Kataki, which opened 56 years ago today at the Ambassador Theatre on April 9, 1959.

Piazza was the valedictorian of the Little Rock High School class of 1951. While there, he was recognized for his acting and writing abilities.  After being a Little Rock High School Tiger, he became a Princeton Tiger and graduated in 1955 before moving to New York City.

Written by Shimon Wincelberg, Kataki concerned an older Japanese pilot and a young American soldier stranded on an island at the end of World War II.  As was the case of many plays in the late 1950s, it had originally been a television play.  The title is the Japanese word for “enemy.”

Kataki starred Sessue Hayakawa and Piazza. Most of Hayakawa’s dialogue was in Japanese, so in some ways, Piazza acted in a two-character, one-person play – since he was the only one talking for most of the play.  The play was produced by Jay Garon and Bob Sokoler, with Richard Randall serving as associate producer.  David Amram provided the incidental music.  Peter Dohanos designed the island scenery.  Anne Graham provided the costume design, and Paul Morrison was the lighting designer.

The actors received high praise for their performances, but the play’s dramatic structure was criticized as being plodding and trite.  The play was directed by Alan Schneider, who would reunite with Piazza in the original production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  a few years later.  The play would run only 20 performances, but Piazza was recognized with a Theatre World Award for his portrayal of Alvin, the young soldier.

The play was revived in Los Angeles in 2010 to good reviews.

Rock the Oscars 2019: THE HANGING TREE

On February 11, 1959, THE HANGING TREE was released.  This film was the first Hollywood movie in with Little Rock native Ben Piazza appeared.  For the film, Piazza received a coveted “and introducing Ben Piazza” credit.

The movie starred Oscar winners Gary Cooper and Karl Malden, along with Maria Schell.  Future Oscar winner George C. Scott, was fifth billed for his scenery chewing role of a religious zealot.

The title song, “The Hanging Tree,” written by Jerry Livingston and Mack David, was sung by Marty Robbins in the film.  It was nominated for the Oscar for Best Song.

Filming began in June 1958 in Washington state.  Shooting took place from June through August 1958 mainly near Yakima, Washington.  The film was directed by Delmer Daves, who was probably best known as screenwriter of Love Affair and director of 3:10 to Yuma.  In conjunction with filming The Hanging Tree, Piazza appeared in a TV special on western movies.  Most of the others appearing in the special were well-established Hollywood western personalities including Little Rock natives Bronco Billy Anderson and Gail Davis.

The Hanging Tree had a budget of $1.35 million ($11.5 million today—about half of the typical modest film budget).  A good portion of this expense was the construction of a mining town.  Once production began, Daves became ill and had to be hospitalized for ulcers. Co-star Karl Malden was approached to complete the film.  He had recently finished his first directing assignment.  He had reservations, but agreed to direct because of support of Cooper. (There are discrepancies as to the length of time Daves was out of commission.)

Ben received positive notices.  One reviewer referred to him as being a “laconic, doe-eyed rebel.” Another said he was a “handsome and mean-looking boy…with curls like a golden poodle.”     Several reviewers referenced James Dean when discussing Piazza in a positive light.

The film was released to respectful notices in February 1959.  It earned around $2.2 million, which meant it turned a profit.

Little Rock Look Back: Ben Piazza joins cast of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? on Broadway

On February 4, 1963, Little Rock native Ben Piazza joined the cast of the original Broadway production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? replacing George Grizzard.

Grizzard had left the show to play Hamlet during the Guthrie Theatre’s first season.  He had accepted that role prior to the Albee play opening on Broadway and becoming a runaway hit.

Piazza, a friend of Albee’s, had been involved in the play since its early days. At the play’s first read-through, he read the part of Nick (which he would play on Broadway) with Albee and producers Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder reading the other three parts.

Piazza stayed in the role of Nick for the rest of the run of the show until it closed on May 16, 1964. His fifteen months in the role is the longest that anyone has ever played a role in an Albee play on Broadway (or perhaps anywhere).

He joined original cast members Arthur Hill, Uta Hagen and Melinda Dillon (a native of Hope).  Dillon was the next to leave the cast and was followed by Rochelle Oliver in the role of Honey.  As Martha, Hagen was followed by Nancy Kelly, returned to the role, and then left it to star in the London production. Piazza would then play opposite future Little Rock resident (and Arkansas Rep performer) Mercedes McCambridge for the last five months of the run.

As George, Arthur Hill was succeeded by Shepperd Strudwick a month after Hagen left. He returned to the play when Hagen did and joined her in London.  Donald Davis, who had played George in the matinee cast, took over the part in the evenings for the last five months.