Tag Archives: Crisis at Central High

Pulitzers play Little Rock – SOUTH PACIFIC at Murry’s Dinner Playhouse in 1981

MDP SoPaIn the summer of 1981, the touring production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was causing controversy by bleeping out “whore” in its radio ads in the Little Rock market.  At the same time, a formerly controversial musical was settling in for a seven week run in the Arkansas capital city at Murry’s Dinner Playhouse.

When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had originally collaborated with Joshua Logan on South Pacific, the team attracted some complaints for the preachiness of the story as it tackled racism.  It was the look at these social issues which probably prompted the Pulitzer committee to make South Pacific only the second musical to win the prize.  (It was also the first Drama Pulitzer recipient to be based on another Pulitzer recipient – in this case James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific.)

With a leading character from Little Rock, South Pacific was caught up in anti-Arkansas backlash during and after the Central High integration crisis.  A production on Long Island received boos when the character of Nellie announced she was from Little Rock.  The original national tour had a hard time booking spots in the south due to the themes.  Shifts in attitudes about race and miscegenation had rendered South Pacific a period piece by 1981 – and a non-threatening summer fare for Murry’s.

Directed by Jack Payne, the cast included Mary Winston Smith, Greg Carter, Bruce Rainey, Leslie Hall (now Basham), Dianne Tack, Chip Huddleston, and Beth Buffalo.

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.



Little Rock Look Back: March 20 in City of Little Rock history

For much of Little Rock’s history, the City Council did not meet on March 20.  (Under City Council rules, meetings were often once a month, and later moved to twice a month – usually second and fourth Monday).  Since switching to the City Manager form of government, meetings moved to the first and third weeks of the month.  The first instance of the First Day of Spring being a City Board meeting was in 1961.

At that meeting, there were the usual zoning issues. There were also proposals to close several streets, in anticipation of industrial development.  That Little Rock was anticipating industrial development was indeed news.  After the 1957 crisis, the city had no new businesses locate to Little Rock for several years.  One of the longtime tenants in Little Rock, Westinghouse Corporation, was experiencing legal issues on the national level.  As a way to show that Little Rock was open for business, the City Board passed a resolution on March 20, 1961, to thank Westinghouse Corporation for their continued commitment to Little Rock.

The next City Board meeting on March 20 was in 1973.  In addition to the usual zoning issues, there were a couple of items of note for future projects which would impact Little Rock in the late 1970s and beyond.  The first was to enter into an agreement with the US Army Corps of Engineers regarding a park at Murray Lock and Dam.  The second dealt with the planning for Metrocentre Mall.  There was also a lengthy discussion about the proposed annexation of 55 square miles in southwest Little Rock.

Six years later, on March 20, 1979, topics addressed included upgrades to University Park and Greyhound bus service to Texarkana and Memphis.  $316,800 was appropriated to reconstruct Markham from Ellis Drive to I-430, a distance of 0.4 miles.  Rules and regulations for the Fire Department were also approved.  In addition, some citizens spoke about the Batty Glass collection, which was then at the Museum of Science and Natural History.   In 1984, if Big Brother was watching on March 20, most of the items were routine.  Southwestern Bell did have a request for a project on Hinson Road in anticipation of future growth in that area.

The location for a future west Little Rock park took up much time at the March 20, 1990, City Board meeting.  Several sites were under consideration. Each of the seven City Directors seemed to have his or her own favorite.  Ultimately no final decision would be made that evening.  Parks were a topic at the next March 20 meeting, in 2001.  Parks Director Bryan Day (who was celebrating a birthday that day) was recognized for being the Outstanding Parks professional in a five state region.  There was a lengthy discussion that evening about additional funding for the Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility, which ultimately passed.  At the end of the meeting, there were updates on the proposed Summit Mall.

On March 20, 2007, the City Board spent time discussing potential projects for a short-term financing bond issuance.  Items included HVAC repairs to the Dunbar Community Center and Central Fire Station, improving the elephant exhibit at the Zoo, new city vehicles and computer software upgrades.  Five years later, Milton Crenchaw was recognized with the Spirit of Little Rock Award for his role as an instructor to the Tuskegee Airmen and other accomplishments in the fields of aviation and Civil Rights.

LR Women Making History – Nancy Rousseau

Though not a graduate of Little Rock Central High School, Nancy Rousseau is a Central High Tiger through and through.

She has been principal of Little Rock Central High School since the summer of 2002. Born in New York, she graduated high school in Tenafly, New Jersey.  After attending Ohio University, she graduated from Adelphi University with a degree in English education.  Her first job was teaching in Port Washington, NY, where she won the “New Teacher of the Year” award.  After teaching in Midwest City, Oklahoma, she arrived in Little Rock in 1976.

From 1976 until 1986, she taught English at Pulaski Academy.  After receiving her master’s degree in educational administration from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, she was hired by the Little Rock School District as an Assistant Principal at Central High School.  From 1991 until 1998, she served in that capacity. During that time, she worked on the planning for the 40th anniversary of the integration of Central High by the Little Rock Nine.

In 1998, she became principal of Pulaski Heights Junior High School.  She led the school’s transition from a junior high to a middle school.  When the position of Central High School principal became open in 2002, she applied for the job.

Since returning to Central as its principal, Mrs. Rousseau has been a very visible champion of the school, its students, faculty and alumni.  She served as co-chair for the Central High Integration 50th Anniversary Commission.  During her tenure, the school’s physical plant has been upgrade and much of the historic façade and interior has been restored.  A Central High Alumni Association and a Tiger Foundation have been formed.  Through their effort, the arts, academics and athletics have been enhanced.

Mrs. Rousseau also participated in the planning for the 60th anniversary of the school’s integration.  She is one of a very few who worked on the 40th, 50th and 60th anniversaries.

Rock the Oscars: Charles Durning

In 1980, future two time Oscar nominee Charles Durning came to Little Rock to film the TV movie Crisis at Central High.  In the movie he played Jess Matthews, who was principal at Central High during the desegregation of the school.  Girls Vice Principal Elizabeth Huckaby had written a book about her experiences during that time which was published earlier in 1980.

The film, which aired on TV on February 4, 1981, also starred Joanne Woodward and Henderson Forsythe.  Several local actors also appeared in the movie.  While much of the interior scenes were shot in Dallas, there were exterior scenes shot at the Central High.  Other Little Rock locations were also used.

Durning was born on February 28, 1923.  Following World War II, he worked in a variety of professions, including as a ballroom dance instructor.  In the 1960s, he started appearing on TV, which led to his breakout role in the Oscar winning film The Sting.  Throughout the 1970s, he started appearing in supporting roles in major films.  After filming Crisis at Central High he received back-to-back Oscar nominations in the Supporting Actor category for Mel Brooks’ To Be or Not to Be and for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

In the 1990s, he made visits to Arkansas in conjunction with his role in the TV series “Evening Shade.”  Durning died in 2012.

Rock the Oscars: Joanne Woodward

In 1980, Oscar winner Joanne Woodward came to Little Rock to film the TV movie Crisis at Central High.  In the movie she played Elizabeth Huckaby, who was vice principal for girls at Central High during the desegregation of the school.  Huckaby had written a book about her experiences which was published earlier in 1980.

The film, which aired on TV on February 4, 1981, also starred Charles Durning and Henderson Forsythe.  Several local actors also appeared in the movie.  While much of the interior scenes were shot in Dallas, there were exterior scenes shot at the Central High.  Other Little Rock locations were also used.

Woodward was born on February 27, 1930.  In the early 1950s, she split her time between theatre and TV, both based in New York City.  In only her third year of making motion pictures, she won the Best Actress Oscar for her role(s) in The Three Faces of Eve.  As she continued to make movies, she received three other Best Actress nominations over the decades.

In the past two decades, she has focused more on directing and producing theatre, with some voice work for films.  Her last motion picture onscreen role was in 1993’s Philadelphia, where she played Tom Hanks’ mother.


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: Roy Reed

It is possible that journalist extraordinaire Roy Reed appears in archival footage of the Oscar winning documentary “Nine from Little Rock” (Documentary, Short-1964) and Oscar nominated Eyes on the Prize: Bridge to Freedom 1965 (Documentary, Feature-1988).  First for the Arkansas Gazette and then for The New York Times, Reed was an eyewitness to history being made.  What is not in doubt is that he is a character in the Oscar winning film Selma.  In that movie, he was played by actor John Lavelle.

Roy Reed was born on February 14, 1930, in Hot Springs and grew up in Garland County. After attending Ouachita Baptist College and the University of Missouri (from which he would receive a Bachelor’s and a Master’s in Journalism), Reed worked for a newspaper in Joplin and served in the US Army.  In 1956, he returned to Arkansas to work for the Arkansas Gazette.

While he did not specifically cover the integration of Little Rock Central High in 1957, he was part of the paper’s coverage of civil rights. He later was assigned to cover the Faubus administration.  In 1965, he was hired by The New York Times and covered the South. He covered the historic Freedom March to the state Capitol in Montgomery in March 1965.  After spending 1965 and 1966 in the South, he was assigned to the Times’ Washington DC bureau.  In 1969, he moved to New Orleans to open a Southern bureau for the paper.  He remained in the Crescent City until 1976, when he was transferred to the London bureau.

After retiring in 1978, he moved to Northwest Arkansas and taught journalism at the University of Arkansas until 1995.  Reed continued to write essays and books including Faubus: The Life and Times of an American Prodigal (1997),  Looking Back at the Arkansas Gazette: An Oral History (2009) and Beware of Limbo Dancers: A Correspondent’s Adventures with the New York Times (2012).  Reed died in December 2017.