Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


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Rock the Oscars: 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.

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Rock the Oscars: THE STORY OF DR. WASSELL

Dr WassellFrom April 24 to 26, 1944, future Oscar winner Cecil B. DeMille was in Little Rock for the world premiere screening of The Story of Dr. Wassell.  This 1944 Paramount Pictures Technicolor release told the story of wartime hero Dr. Corydon Wassell.  It would be nominated for the Oscar for Best Special Effects.

Why was Little Rock chosen?  It was the hometown of Dr. Wassell.  His paternal grandfather, John Wassell, was Little Rock’s 27th mayor.  His first cousin, Sam Wassell, was serving on the City Council at the time of the film’s release and would become Little Rock’s 51st mayor.

Based on a book by James Hilton, it was inspired by the heroic efforts of Dr. Wassell, a naval officer, as he led the evacuation of several sailors (and treated their wounds) in Java in February 1942.  President Roosevelt highlighted Dr. Wassell in his May 26, 1942, fireside chat.

Little Rock rolled out the red carpet (literally and figuratively) for DeMille and a contingency from Hollywood.  Dr. and Mrs. Wassell also returned to Little Rock for the festivities.  Unfortunately, Gary Cooper (who played Wassell in the film) was unable to attend due to illness.  His costar, Laraine Day, was making another film and could not attend either.    Those in attendance with DeMille (and Mrs. DeMille) included actresses Signe Hasso and Carol Thurston, and actor Melvin Francis.  The latter played himself; he had actually been one of the sailors saved by Dr. Wassell.

On April 24, 1944, DeMille and Dr. Wassell appeared on a radio program broadcast live from the music hall of Robinson Auditorium.  The next day, the troupe toured Camp Robinson and spoke to the soldiers there.  Later that day, Miss Hasso and Miss Thurston sold war bonds at Pfeiffers and M.M. Cohn’s.

April 26, 1944, was a full day for the DeMilles, the Wassells, and the others.  It started with a luncheon at the Hotel Marion, hosted by the Lions Club and Little Rock Chamber of Commerce.  Governor Homer Adkins presented DeMille with an Arkansas Traveler certificate.  DeMille, in return, presented Governor Adkins with a copy of the script.

When it was Dr. Wassell’s time to speak, he praised Little Rock’s efforts on the home front.  He also asked for a standing tribute to longtime Little Rock school superintendent R.C. Hall, who had died the day before.  Dr. Wassell had taught with Mr. Hall decades earlier.

Following the lunch, there was a parade on Main Street.  It started at 10th and Main and proceeded to Markham before ending at the War Memorial Building (now the Old State House Museum).  Newspaper accounts said that it was four miles long and featured many military units and marching bands.

Dinner that evening was at the Lafayette Hotel before screenings of the movie at the Capitol and Arkansas Theatres. Both screenings were sold out.  On April 27, 1944, a regular run of the movie started at the Capitol Theatre.  It would be released nationally on July 4, 1944, which also happened to be Dr. Wassell’s birthday.


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Central to Creativity – Gail Davis

gail_davisGail Davis is best known as TV’s Annie Oakley.  She was born Betty Jeanne Grayson on October 5, 1925. Her mother was a homemaker and her father, W. B. Grayson, was a physician in McGehee (Desha County), which did not have a hospital, so her birth took place in Little Rock (Pulaski County).

When her father became the state health officer, the family moved from McGehee to Little Rock, where Grayson attended Little Rock High School. Grayson rode horses and was a tomboy growing up. Grayson also held various beauty titles in high school and college, and she sang and danced in local shows from the time she was eight.

While studying dramatics at the University of Texas in Austin, she married Robert Davis in 1945, with whom she had a daughter, Terrie (the couple divorced in 1952). After World War II, they moved to Hollywood, where she worked as a hatcheck girl until being discovered by an agent who obtained an MGM screen test for her. She was signed to a contract, with her first appearance in 1947’s The Romance of Rosy Ridge, starring Van Johnson.

She worked steadily in movies, including fourteen films with Gene Autry in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He was impressed with her, changed her name to Gail Davis, and cast her as the star of the Annie Oakley TV show, which he produced. The show ran for eighty-one episodes from 1954 through 1956.

After her TV series ended, she appeared as Annie Oakley in the 1959 film Alias Jesse James starring Bob Hope. In that film, she appears in an uncredited role along with such other stars, also uncredited, as Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, Roy Rogers, James Garner (as Bret Maverick), and Fess Parker (as Davy Crockett).

Her television appearances include guest roles on The Lone Ranger, The Gene Autry Show, The Cisco Kid, and Death Valley Days, as well as a 1961 episode of the Andy Griffith Show (Episode 37, “The Perfect Female”), her final appearance as a performer and in which she demonstrated her trademark sharpshooting.

Gail toured with Gene Autry’s Wild West show and made appearances as herself on TV programs such as Wide, Wide World: “The Western” (1958) with fellow Arkansan Ben Piazza. For her work in television, she was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located at 6385 Hollywood Boulevard, and in 2004, she was inducted posthumously into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame.

Gail Davis died of cancer in Los Angeles on March 15, 1997, and is buried in Hollywood’s Forest Lawn cemetery.  In 2007, she was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas Entertainer’s Hall of Fame.  In 2016, a room was named in her memory at the newly renovated Robinson Center.


Little Rock Look Back: Hollywood in Little Rock

All right Mr. DeMille, Little Rock was ready for its close up.

From April 24 to 26, 1944, Cecil B. DeMille was in Little Rock for the world premiere screening of The Story of Dr. Wassell.  This 1944 Paramount Pictures Technicolor release told the story of wartime hero Dr. Corydon Wassell.

Why was Little Rock chosen?  It was the hometown of Dr. Wassell.  His paternal grandfather, John Wassell, was Little Rock’s 27th mayor.  His first cousin, Sam Wassell, was serving on the City Council at the time of the film’s release and would become Little Rock’s 51st mayor.

Based on a book by James Hilton, it was inspired by the heroic efforts of Dr. Wassell, a naval officer, as he led the evacuation of several sailors (and treated their wounds) in Java in February 1942.  President Roosevelt highlighted Dr. Wassell in his May 26, 1942, fireside chat.

Little Rock rolled out the red carpet (literally and figuratively) for DeMille and a contingency from Hollywood.  Dr. and Mrs. Wassell also returned to Little Rock for the festivities.  Unfortunately, Gary Cooper (who played Wassell in the film) was unable to attend due to illness.  His costar, Laraine Day, was making another film and could not attend either.    Those in attendance with DeMille (and Mrs. DeMille) included actresses Signe Hasso and Carol Thurston, and actor Melvin Francis.  The latter played himself; he had actually been one of the sailors saved by Dr. Wassell.

On April 24, 1944, DeMille and Dr. Wassell appeared on a radio program broadcast live from the music hall of Robinson Auditorium.  The next day, the troupe toured Camp Robinson and spoke to the soldiers there.  Later that day, Miss Hasso and Miss Thurston sold war bonds at Pfeiffers and M.M. Cohn’s.

April 26, 1944, was a full day for the DeMilles, the Wassells, and the others.  It started with a luncheon at the Hotel Marion, hosted by the Lions Club and Little Rock Chamber of Commerce.  Governor Homer Adkins presented DeMille with an Arkansas Traveler certificate.  DeMille, in return, presented Governor Adkins with a copy of the script.

When it was Dr. Wassell’s time to speak, he praised Little Rock’s efforts on the home front.  He also asked for a standing tribute to longtime Little Rock school superintendent R.C. Hall, who had died the day before.  Dr. Wassell had taught with Mr. Hall decades earlier.

Following the lunch, there was a parade on Main Street.  It started at 10th and Main and proceeded to Markham before ending at the War Memorial Building (now the Old State House Museum).  Newspaper accounts said that it was four miles long and featured many military units and marching bands.

Dinner that evening was at the Lafayette Hotel before screenings of the movie at the Capitol and Arkansas Theatres. Both screenings were sold out.  On April 27, 1944, a regular run of the movie started at the Capitol Theatre.  It would be released nationally on July 4, 1944, which also happened to be Dr. Wassell’s birthday.


Little Rock Look Back: Ben Piazza

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.

Keeping the Tiger as his mascot, Piazza attended college at Princeton University.  While there he continued acting, including an appearance in a Theatre Intime production of Othello.  Following his 1955 graduation, he moved to New York City and studied at the Actor’s Studio.

piazza

Piazza was an understudy in the 1956 play, Too Late the Phalarope at the Belasco Theatre.  In February 1958, he starred in Winesburg, Ohio sharing the National (now Nederlander) Theatre stage with James Whitmore, Dorothy McGuire, and Leon Ames. Other cast members included Claudia McNeil (who originated the part of Lena in A Raisin in the Sun) and Sandra Church (who originated the part of Gypsy Rose Lee in Gypsy).

In April 1959, Piazza starred in Kataki at the Ambassador Theatre. This two actor play also featured Sessue Hayakawa, who played a Japanese soldier who spoke only his native l

anguage.  Therefore, Piazza’s part was largely a very lengthy monologue.  For his performance, Piazza received one of the 1959 Theatre World Awards.

As the 1960s dawned, Piazza joined a small cadre of actors who had achieved status on Broadway who then also returned to acting Off Broadway.  Colleen Dewhurst, George C. Scott, and James Earl Jones were others in this select group who helped establish Off Broadway as an entity in itself, instead of being just a farm team for Broadway.

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.

 

Also in 1961 Piazza starred in several plays during a South American tour sponsored by the American Repertory Company.  He played Christopher Isherwood in I Am a Cameraand Chance Wayne in Sweet Bird of Youth.  In 1962, he starred in a series of plays at the Cherry Lane Theatre.  Piazza returned to Broadway to star along with Jane Fonda and Dyan Cannon in The Fun Couple at the Lyceum Theatre. This play had a troubled rehearsal period, which was documented in a short film about Jane Fonda.

Ben Piazza stayed on Broadway and returned to Albee 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.)

This play was at the Billy Rose Theatre, which marked a return for Piazza. He had acted at this theatre when it was the National while appearing in Winesburg. 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.

Exact and Very Strange cover

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, Westside 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.

Following Virginia Woolf, he starred in The Zoo Story at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 1965.  In August of 1967, his play The Sunday Agreement premiered at LaMaMa.  This was Piazza’s first playwright output to be professionally staged.

As Sunday Agreement was opening, Piazza was in rehearsal for his next Broadway opening. 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, a double bill of his one-acts: Lime Green/Khaki Blue opened at the Provincetown Playhouse.  It was directed by future Tony nominee Peter Masterson and starred Louise Lasser, Robert Walden (who starred in the 2013 production of Death of a Salesman at Arkansas Repertory Theatre), Clinton Allmon and Dolores Dorn-Heft, to whom Piazza was married at the time.

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Piazza toured in many plays nationally and internationally. He also appeared in major regional theatres as an actor and a director.  During this time period he was in productions of Bus Stop, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, You Know I Can’t Hear You when the Water’s Running  and Savages.  In 1970, he starred as Stanley Kowalski in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire in New Orleans.  As the 1970s progressed, he turned his focus to television and movies.

BDP early

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.  Though he received positive reviews for his performances, Piazza chose to return to New York and perform in stage and TV productions.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he appeared in a number of TV shows including Studio One, Kraft Theatre, Zane Grey Theatre, The Naked City and Dick Powell Theatre.  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 (where he was reunited with Walden).

BDP final

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.


RobinsoNovember: Gail Davis

gail_davisGail Davis is another of the former Little Rock artists honored at Robinson Center.  She was born Betty Jeanne Grayson on October 5, 1925. Her mother was a homemaker and her father, W. B. Grayson, was a physician in McGehee (Desha County), which did not have a hospital, so her birth took place in Little Rock (Pulaski County).

When her father became the state health officer, the family moved from McGehee to Little Rock, where Grayson attended Little Rock Senior High School. Grayson rode horses and was a tomboy growing up. Grayson also held various beauty titles in high school and college, and she sang and danced in local shows from the time she was eight.

While studying dramatics at the University of Texas in Austin, she married Robert Davis in 1945, with whom she had a daughter, Terrie (the couple divorced in 1952). After World War II, they moved to Hollywood, where she worked as a hatcheck girl until being discovered by an agent who obtained an MGM screen test for her. She was signed to a contract, with her first appearance in 1947’s The Romance of Rosy Ridge, starring Van Johnson.

She worked steadily in movies, including fourteen films with Gene Autry in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He was impressed with her, changed her name to Gail Davis, and cast her as the star of the Annie Oakley TV show, which he produced. The show ran for eighty-one episodes from 1954 through 1956.

At just over five feet tall and under 100 pounds, Davis was a charming heroine on Annie Oakley who wore pigtails and stopped criminals by outsmarting them or shooting the guns out of their hands. She rode horses and did many of her own stunts. She was the first woman to star in a TV western. Many young women later said they were influenced by watching Gail Davis as Annie Oakley, a female character in a traditionally male role. In the show, Gail took care of her younger brother, Tagg, in the fictional town of Diablo and solved crimes with handsome deputy sheriff Lofty Craig.

After her TV series ended, she appeared as Annie Oakley in the 1959 film Alias Jesse James starring Bob Hope. In that film, she appears in an uncredited role along with such other stars, also uncredited, as Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, Roy Rogers, James Garner (as Bret Maverick), and Fess Parker (as Davy Crockett).

Her television appearances include guest roles on The Lone Ranger, The Gene Autry Show, The Cisco Kid, and Death Valley Days, as well as a 1961 episode of the Andy Griffith Show (Episode 37, “The Perfect Female”), her final appearance as a performer and in which she demonstrated her trademark sharpshooting.

Gail toured with Gene Autry’s Wild West show and made appearances as herself on TV programs such as Wide, Wide World: “The Western” (1958) with fellow Arkansan Ben Piazza. For her work in television, she was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located at 6385 Hollywood Boulevard, and in 2004, she was inducted posthumously into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame.

Gail Davis died of cancer in Los Angeles on March 15, 1997, and is buried in Hollywood’s Forest Lawn cemetery.  In 2007, she was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas Entertainer’s Hall of Fame.


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War Hero Cinema: Gary Cooper and Gregory Peck as LR natives

Dr. WassellThe exploits of two Little Rock natives during World War II have both been turned into Hollywood movies.  One was released during World War II and starred Gary Cooper as Dr. Corydon Wassell. The other was released in the 1970s and starred Gregory Peck as General Douglas MacArthur.

Born in Little Rock on July 4, 1884, Corydon McAlmont Wassell (called “Cory”) was born to Albert and Leona Wassell. A grandson of Little Rock Mayor John Wassell, he graduated from what is now UAMS in 1909. In 1911, he married Mary Irene Yarnell, with whom he would have four children.  In 1914, the couple volunteered to be Episcopal missionaries in China.  He served there until 1927. Following Mary’s death and his remarriage, he and new wife Madeline Edith Day Wassell returned to Arkansas in 1927.

Dr. Wassell resumed his medical practice. Given his experience with malaria in China, he proved to be an asset fighting malaria among Civilian Conservation Corps members in Arkansas. He was subsequently called to active duty in the Navy in 1936 and stationed in Key West.

After the outbreak of World War II, he was stationed in Indonesia. In early 1942, he refused to abandon his patients after the Japanese started invading Indonesia. Instead, he was able to evacuate a dozen severely wounded men over 150 miles to get to a ship. It took ten days for the ship to get to Australia, during which time it was attacked numerous times.  His official Navy Cross citation notes that he disregarded personal safety while caring for others.

He became an instant international hero. During the early days of the war, his heroism was one of the few bright spots. James Hilton wrote a biography of him; President Roosevelt praised him in a fireside chat. James Hilton wrote of Dr. Wassell in a book which was then adapted by Cecil B. DeMille into the 1944 movie starring Cooper.  Originally Arkansan Alan Ladd was wanted to play Cooper’s sidekick, but Ladd was pressed into military service and unavailable.

Thirty-three years after The Story of Dr. Wassell was released, MacArthur was brought to the screen by Universal Pictures.  It was their attempt to capitalize on the success of the movie Patton, including sharing some of the same members of the production team.

macarthur-gregory-peck-1977-everettTold entirely in flashback, it stars Gregory Peck as the fabled World War II general who was born in Little Rock. It focuses primarily on events in 1942 during the war, his dismissal by Truman in 1952, and his famous address to West Point in 1962.

Peck initially did not care for the subject or the script, but eventually stated that he grew to admire the challenges MacArthur faced.  Peck later called it one of his favorites roles, if not one of his favorite movies.

Producer Frank McCarthy, who worked on both Patton and MacArthur once said of Patton and MacArthur: “Both were complex men but General MacArthur was complex on a much broader scale. Patton had no ambition except to be a soldier and to command a field army. He was strictly command.”

Most of the film was shot on the backlot at the movie studio, which impacted the quality of the film.  The production budget simply would not allow for overseas location filming.

The film was released in July 1977.  One of the premieres was held in Little Rock. Peck attended a reception in the Arsenal Building where MacArthur was born. Now the home to the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History, in 1977 the building still housed the Museum of Science and Natural History (now the Museum of Discovery).  Since MacArthur only spent a few hours in Little Rock as an adult, it is possible that Peck spent more time in the building than the General did.