Little Rock Look Back: May 31, 1968 – a day of transition for the Arkansas Arts Center

AAC Logo in 1963

An arts organization in financial crisis.
Programming abandoned
Summer education programming for students
Staff laid off
A challenge grant from donors
A community fundraising drive

Sound familiar?

In January 1968, the Arkansas Arts Center made the decision to cease operating a degree-granting education program effective May 31 of that year.  Sixteen faculty members lost their jobs, though a couple were retained for other positions within the organization.

After opening in May 1963 and beginning the degree-granting program in September 1964, the Arkansas Arts Center found itself operating at a deficit each year.  While Jeannette and Winthrop Rockefeller made up the deficits, it was not a sustainable model.  (Mrs. Rockefeller had been the president of the AAC board for several years after she and her husband played leadership roles in the statewide fundraising efforts to establish the AAC.)

Though the degree-granting programs were bringing national recognition to the AAC, they had essentially taken over the entire facility.  The theatre was rarely available for children’s programming or community groups. The galleries were given over largely to the displaying the works of the students and faculty.  What had been envisioned as a facility melding world-class arts with community arts, was not functioning that way.

As such, the statewide membership program was suffering. Without the creation of programming in Little Rock, it was difficult to take any substantial arts offerings out to the membership clusters throughout the state. This resulted in the decline of memberships being purchased.

Following the announcement of the cessation of the degree-granting program, the AAC Board sought ways to more fully engage the public.  Part of this was due to the fact that the Arts Center had a deficit of $295,216 (the equivalent of $2.15 million today).  The only profitable part of the AAC operation was the gift shop.  With that level of deficit, the permanent closure of the AAC was certainly a possibility on people’s minds.

A committee studying the future of the AAC decided to focus on five (5) areas.  (And of course, AAC founding mother Jeane Hamilton was part of this effort.)  The areas were Education (community classes for children and adults), Exhibits (a return to a mix of permanent and traveling exhibitions), Theatre (partnerships with Community Theatre of Little Rock and the creation of children and teen theatre productions), State Services (refocusing the Artmobile to include educational instruction), and Membership. This would result in a net budget of $260,000.

In April 1968, a fund drive was announced led by former Little Rock Mayor Byron Morse.  The goal was $130,000, to be matched dollar-for-dollar by the Rockefellers.  As of May of that year, it had raised $108,731.

There are many parallels between the AAC in 1968 and the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s current predicament. While the causes of the financial woes may be different, the cures are very much the same.

Then, as now, the citizens of Little Rock and Arkansas had to step up and financially support an arts organization in financial crisis.  Whereas the Rockefellers were matching gifts in 1968, the Windgate Foundation is matching gifts now.  Just as the Arts Center renewed its focus on the community and redefined the way it did business, the Rep is now facing these same processes and predicaments.

What the future Rep will look like in terms of numbers and types of productions remains to be seen.  But the core leadership team is touting a mantra of Professional, Affordable, and Sustainable.  All of these are laudable. All are attainable. But all will require continued community commitment year in and year out.

An interesting side note: a key Arts Center Board member in 1968 was William Rector, the father of longtime Rep Board member Bill Rector who is currently part of the interim leadership team at the Rep.  Let’s hope Bill has the same success in his endeavor as his father did.

Viva Center Artium
Repertorium Praeter Theatrum

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Pulitzers Play Little Rock: CTLR’s production of RENT

CTLR RentJonathan Larson’s through-sung updated La Boheme was an instant success from its first Off Broadway preview.  Unfortunately with his death that day, Larson never enjoyed the success.  After a long Broadway run, the rights were made available for other productions.

Though not the first to present Rent in Little Rock, the Community Theatre of Little Rock closed out its 58th season in 2014 with a production of this winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in Drama.

The cast included Michael Goodbar, Ryan Whitfield, Charles Holloway, Jeremiah Herman, Angel Monroe, Brittany Sparkles, Kelsey Padilla, Jess Carson, David Weatherly, Courtney Williams, Douglas Hammon, Elijah Ash, Manny Urban, Brian Christopher Roberson, Robert Warner, Claudia Moskova-Cremeens, Ashley McPhearson, Vivian Murray-Colyer, Nichole Henry, Allison Bode, Courtney Speyer, Makayla Ealy, and Beth Ross.

The production was directed by Frank O. Butler.  Matthew Tatus was the Music Director, while the producers were Liz Clark and Jerry Woods.

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Pulitzer Prize for Drama being given. To pay tribute to 100 years of the Pulitzer for Drama, each day this month a different Little Rock production of a Pulitzer Prize winning play will be highlighted.  Many of these titles have been produced numerous times.  This look will veer from high school to national tours in an attempt to give a glimpse into Little Rock’s breadth and depth of theatrical history.

LR Women Making History – Betty Fowler

Photo courtesy of the Arkansas Jazz Heritage Foundation

The word “Entertainer” seemed to have been invented for Betty Fowler.

Born in Wynne, her love for music began at age 9, when she started taking piano lessons. Betty began her illustrious career at age 18 after winning a talent contest, which gave her the push she needed to pursue her life’s passion. Betty graduated from Little Rock Jr. College in 1944. She spent most of her life in Little Rock as a popular musician and television entertainer.

Betty began her musical career on a statewide radio show. She moved on to become a television performer in the early 1950’s in Little Rock with what is now known as Channel 7. She was best known for her children’s TV show, “Betty’s Little Rascals”, which began in 1955.

She went on to co-host the “Little Rock Today Show” on Channel 4 with Bud Campbell, where she did live commercials, played the piano and interviewed celebrities who came to town, such as Liberace, Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Hope, Red Buttons and Robert Goulet.

Through the years, Betty maintained a vigorous schedule with her band, “The Betty Fowler Four”, which produced a record album of her music. She was also musical director for The Miss Arkansas Pageant (1960-84), Musical Director for Broadway musicals produced by the Community Theater, Musical Director for the Farkleberry Follies and The Gridiron.

For many years, Betty taught piano and had a recording studio in her home, where she gave voice coaching lessons and made accompany tapes for many aspiring performers.  Betty Fowler will forever be remembered and treasured for her lifetime love and devotion to the world of music, both in performing and in the teaching of music to others.

Remembering Betty Fowler

(Photo courtesy of Arkansas Jazz Heritage Foundation)

Arkansas entertainer icon Betty Fowler died Saturday, April 15, 2017.

The information below is adapted from her obituary.

Betty was born on September 17, 1925 in Wynne, Arkansas to the late Harry Willis Hunter and Elizabeth Sands Hunter. Her love for music began at age 9, when she started taking piano lessons. Betty began her illustrious career at age 18 after winning a talent contest, which gave her the push she needed to pursue her life’s passion. Betty graduated from Little Rock Jr. College in 1944. She spent most of her life in Little Rock as a popular musician and television entertainer.

Betty began her musical career on a statewide radio show. She moved on to become a television performer in the early 1950’s in Little Rock with what is now known as Channel 7. She was best known for her children’s TV show, “Betty’s Little Rascals”, which began in 1955.

She went on to co-host the “Little Rock Today Show” on Channel 4 with Bud Campbell, where she did live commercials, played the piano and interviewed celebrities who came to town, such as Liberace, Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Hope, Red Buttons and Robert Goulet.

Through the years, Betty maintained a vigorous schedule with her band, “The Betty Fowler Four”, which produced a record album of her music. She was also musical director for The Miss Arkansas Pageant (1960-84), Musical Director for Broadway musicals produced by the Community Theater, Musical Director for the Farkleberry Follies and The Gridiron.

For many years, Betty taught piano and had a recording studio in her home, where she gave voice coaching lessons and made accompany tapes for many aspiring performers.
Betty Fowler will forever be remembered and treasured for her lifetime love and devotion to the world of music, both in performing and in the teaching of music to others.

Creative Class 2016: Ruth Shepherd

cc16-shepherdThough Arts & Humanities Month ended yesterday, today is a bonus for the Creative Class 2016.  Ruth D. Shepherd has spent her career utilizing the arts and creativity to spread joy, messages of hope, and to change hearts and minds.

She is “retiring” later this year after having served as Director of Just Communities of Arkansas since 2000.  Though she will leave that post, her work in Little Rock and Arkansas will continue.

In her other careers, she has been a school teacher and worked in various non-profits.  She is probably most closely identified with the Arkansas Repertory Theatre having served as a volunteer, staff member, and Board member off and on for most of its 40 years of existence.  She has also served as Tabriz co-chair for the Arkansas Arts Center.

Ruth has graced several Little Rock stages including UALR (where she was in Hair), Community Theatre of Little Rock, the Weekend Theatre, and the Phoenix Theatre among others.  The Culture Vulture’s favorite performance was her riveting portrayal of a frustrated and frustrating matriarch in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women.

While wrapping up her current role with JCA, she is busy putting the finishing touches on next Sunday’s Walk for CommUNITY.  It is not too late to sign up.  For more information on that and other JCA projects and programs, visit their website.

Creative Class of 2015: Erin Martinez

erin54Moving with ease from a portraying a frustrated actress to an earthy Italian strumpet, Erin Martinez has had a memorable 2015 on Little Rock stages. Along the way, this singer/musician, actor, and music teacher has performed cabaret at various Little Rock night spots as well.

​During her childhood she spent many hours singing, composing, or teaching herself to play various instruments. She has been actively involved in performing in orchestra, band, jazz band, and theatre arts well into her adulthood.

In addition to appearing earlier this year in The Studio Theatre productions of The Last 5 Years and Nine, ​Erin has acted in theatrical productions (sometimes even in shows without numbers in the title) with several Central Arkansas companies such as The Weekend Theater, The Royal Players, The Community Theater of Little Rock. She made her NYC debut in November 2013 at 54 Below with Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown.

​Erin received a Bachelor of Music Performance, Bachelor of Music Education, and a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish from The University of Central Arkansas. She enjoys a career teaching elementary music to children ages 4-12 and is very passionate about the importance of fine arts education.

DEATHTRAP, first show of CTLR 60th season, continues

CTLR DeathtrapThe Community Theatre of Little Rock begins its 60th Season with the Tony-nominated murder mystery Deathtrap by Ira Levin.  It opened on September 3rd and continues tonight, tomorrow afternoon at September 10-13th The Studio Theatre, 320 West 7th Street in downtown Little Rock.

Regular admission is $16 for adults and $14 for military, students (10yrs – College) and seniors age 65+. $6.00 for Children (4-9 yrs). Children age 3 and under are given free admission. Groups of 10 or more can get in for $14. Bring a pair of gently used running shoes and receive $1.00 off your admission.
Seemingly comfortably ensconced in his charming Connecticut home, Sidney Bruhl, a successful writer of Broadway thrillers, is struggling to overcome a “dry” spell which has resulted in a string of failures and a shortage of funds. A possible break in his fortunes occurs when he receives a script from a student in the seminar he has been conducting at a nearby college—a thriller which Sidney recognizes immediately as a potential Broadway hit. Sidney’s plan, which he devises with his wife’s help, is to offer collaboration to the student, an idea which the younger man quickly accepts. Thereafter suspense mounts steadily as the plot begins to twist and turn with devilish cleverness, and with such an abundance of thrills and laughter, that audiences will be held enthralled until the final, startling moments of the play.
The cast includes Harold Dean, Jennifer Lamb, Jeremiah Elliott, Miki Thompson and Chris Boggs (who is also the producer). Jerry Woods is the director, and Karena White is the stage manager.
Performances on Thursday – Saturday ~ Box office opens at 6:30 pm, curtain rises at 7:30 pm.  Performances on Sundays ~ Box office opens at 1:00 pm, curtain rises at 2:00 pm.