Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area

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LR Women Making History – Janis Kearney

Janis Kearney is the only person to have held the title of U.S. Presidential Diarist. In 1995 she was appointed to that position by President Bill Clinton.

After graduating from the University of Arkansas, she was hired by the State of Arkansas as a program manager.  Nine years later, she became managing editor for the Arkansas State Press. She later purchased it from owner Daisy Bates.

In 1992, she took a leave from the paper to work on the Clinton presidential campaign.  Following the election, she worked in the transition office, the White House, and the U.S. Small Business Administration until her appointment as Presidential Diarist.

In 2001, she moved to Chicago and started working on a book, while also having fellowships at Harvard and DePaul.  In 2004, she founded Writing Our World Press and published her first book, Cotton Field of Dreams.  Her Clinton biography, Conversations: William Jefferson Clinton-From Hope to Harlem was published in 2006.  Since then she has also published a novel, a biography of Daisy Bates, and the second part of her memoirs.

She is also active in the Celebrate! Maya Project. This program seeks to honor and promote the inclusive literacy, creativity, and social consciousness of the life and work of artist and activist Maya Angelou.


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LR Women Making History: Lottie Shackelford

Lottie Shackelford has been a trailblazer throughout her career in public service.

Active in community activities and politics, she ran for the City Board in 1974 and lost.  But she was appointed to the Little Rock City Board in September 1978 to fill a vacancy.  This made her the first African American woman to serve on he City Board, and indeed on any governing board for the City (during Reconstruction, there were at least three African Americans on the City Council, but they were all men.) She was subsequently elected to a full-term on the City Board in 1980 winning 55% of the vote over three male candidates.

She was subsequently re-elected in 1984 (unopposed) and in 1988 (with 60% of the vote).

In January 1987, Shackelford became the first female mayor of Little Rock when she was chosen by her colleagues on the City Board to serve in that position. She was Mayor until December 1988.

From 1982 until 1992, she served as Executive Director of the Arkansas Regional Minority Purchasing Council.  She left that position to serve as Deputy Campaign Manager of Clinton for President.  She subsequently served on the Clinton/Gore transition team. She later served on the Overseas Private Investment Corporation from 1993 to 2003. She was the first African American to be in that position.

A graduate of Philander Smith College, she has also studied at the Arkansas Institute of Politics at Hendrix College and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

In recognition of all of her achievements, she has been included in the Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail, the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, and the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame.

Rock the Oscars: Ruby Dee

Future Oscar nominee Ruby Dee was in Little Rock in 1992 for the filming of the Disney Channel movie The Ernest Green Story. The film was produced by Carol Ann Abrams, whose son J. J. Abrams is now an in-demand director and producer.

That Dee and her husband Ossie Davis would appear in this movie was probably no surprise.  Throughout their acting careers, each had been active in the Civil Rights movement and used their status as celebrated actors to advance the cause.

The film starred Morris Chestnut as Green.  The real Ernest Green served as the narrator of the film.  Many local actors also appeared in the film.  The world premiere was held at Little Rock Central High School.  The first airing on the Disney Channel was on January 17, 1993.  The film was introduced by Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, who would take the oath of office as President of the US three days later.

Dee was born in Ohio, but moved to New York as a child. After studying French and Spanish in college, she pursued acting as a way to continue her interest in languages.  In 1950, she starred in The Jackie Robinson Story, which brought her national recognition for her film roles.  She continued to alternate between film and theatre throughout her career.  While she often shared the stage with her husband, the two also pursued independent projects.

She received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role in Ridley Scott’s 2007 film American Gangster.   Dee continued working until a few months before her death in 2014.



Little Rock Look Back: Billy Graham

bgpreaching-960x605With his death today at the age of 99, a look at two visits Billy Graham made to Little Rock.

In 1959, as Little Rock was still grappling with the issue of desegregation, Graham brought his crusade to Little Rock.  Held at War Memorial Stadium, Graham insisted that the seating be desegregated. That was always a requirement of his.  He refused to give in to the segregationist protests.  That was probably the first time War Memorial Stadium had been desegregated.

Thirty years later, he returned to Little Rock and War Memorial Stadium.  Among the performers he had at this time was Arkansan Johnny Cash.  Also in attendance was Governor Bill Clinton.  He remarked that he had been a fan of Rev. Graham’s since the 1959 crusade and his stance on requiring desegregation.


Rock the Oscars: A SOLDIER’S STORY

A SOLDIER’S STORY, Denzel Washington, 1984

In September and October of 1983, Norman Jewison and the cast of A Soldier’s Story filmed the movie at various locations in Arkansas.  Little Rock’s Lamar Porter Field was the site for the baseball scenes.  Adolph Caesar would receive an Oscar nomination for his performance in this movie.  Howard Rollins had recently been an Oscar nominee for his performance in Ragtime.  Future Oscar winner Denzel Washington was also featured in the cast.

Based on Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize winning A Soldier’s Play, the movie was directed by Jewison from a script adapted by Fuller.  The film was nominated for three Oscars: Best Picture, Caesar in the Best Supporting Actor category and Fuller in the Best Adapted Screenplay category.

While the movie was filming in Arkansas, Governor Bill Clinton visited the set.  He had also been instrumental in making the Arkansas National Guard and some of the military facilities in the state available.  In addition to filming at Lamar Porter, scenes were shot in Fort Smith and at Fort Chaffee.


Rock the Oscars: William Grant Still

Long known as the Dean of African American composers, Dr. William Grant Still was a legend in his own lifetime.  As a prolific composer and arranger, his work was featured in numerous movies in the 1930s and 1940s including Oscar winning films The Awful Truth and Lost Horizon.

Dr. Still, who wrote more than 150 compositions ranging from operas to arrangements of folk themes, is best known as a pioneer. He was the first African-American in the United States to have a symphonic composition performed by a major orchestra. He was the first to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the US; the first to conduct a major symphony in the south; first to conduct a white radio orchestra in New York City; first to have an opera produced by a major company. Dr. Still was also the first African-American to have an opera televised over a national network

Dr. Still was born May 11, 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi to parents who were teachers and musicians. When Dr. Still was only a few months old, his father died and his mother took him to Little Rock. Inspired by RCA Red Seal operatic recordings, his musical education began with violin lessons.  He graduated from Gibbs High School in Little Rock.

After his studies at Wilberforce University and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, he played in orchestras and orchestrated for various employers including the great W. C. Handy. For several years he arranged and conducted the “Deep River Hour” over CBS and WOR.  He also played in the orchestra for the 1921 musical Shuffle Along, which was the first Broadway musical to feature an all African-American cast and writing team.

In the 1920’s, Still made his first appearances as a serious composer in New York. Several fellowships and commissions followed. In 1994, his “Festive Overture” captured the Jubilee prize of the Cincinnati Symphony orchestra. In 1953, he won a Freedoms Foundation Award for “To You, America!” which honored West Point’s Sesquicentennial Celebration. In 1961, he received honors for this orchestral work, “The Peaceful Land”. Dr. Still also received numerous honorary degrees from various colleges and universities, as well as various awards and a citation from Arkansas Governor Dale Bumpers in 1972.

In 1939, Dr. Still married journalist and concert pianist Verna Avery, who became his principal collaborator. They remained together until Dr. Still’s death in 1978.  In a proclamation marking the centennial of Dr. Still’s birth, President Bill Clinton praised the composer for creating “works of such beauty and passion that they pierced the artificial barriers of race, nationality and time.”

In 1995, Dr. Still was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.  In 2016, the ballroom at Robinson Center was named in his honor.


Rock the Oscars: Carol Channing

On January 31, 1921, future “Little Girl from Little Rock” and Oscar nominee Carol Channing was born. Alas it was in Seattle.

After gaining the notice of New York critics and audiences in the musical revue, Lend an Ear, Channing achieved Broadway stardom playing fictional Little Rock native Lorelei Lee (the creation of Anita Loos) in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  In this show, which opened in December 1949, she introduced the Leo Robin-Jule Styne songs “Little Girl from Little Rock” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”   In 1964, she won the Actress in a Musical Tony for her second signature role playing the title character in Hello, Dolly!  Channing also earned a special Tony in 1968 for Dolly when it became the longest-running Broadway musical.

On November 15, 1966, Carol Channing opened a six day stint in HELLO, DOLLY! at Robinson Auditorium.  She would play 8 sold out shows over those six days.  She had just wrapped filming THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (for which she would receive an Oscar nomination). She had specifically requested that Little Rock be added to the tour.

While in Little Rock, Channing was entertained at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion and feted at parties.  She was made an honorary citizen of Little Rock, as well.  But she was here to perform. And perform she did. She was rarely known to miss a performance and always gave her utmost.  Bill Lewis, in his review in the ARKANSAS GAZETTE, stated “To hear Channing sing ‘Hello, Dolly!’ Is one of the great experiences of all musical theater to date…”

In 1993, she spent her birthday in Washington DC at a White House dinner for the National Governors’ Association.  This was the Clintons’ first official White House dinner after moving in to the residence eleven days prior.  President Bill Clinton led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to her.  She remarked to the President that she was Christian Scientist and didn’t celebrate birthdays, which meant she didn’t get any older.  He replied that it meant the night was her first birthday (it was her 72nd in actuality).