Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


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Little Rock Look Back: Clinton Center opens in 2004

wjc library openingIt has been thirteen years since the Clinton Presidential Center opened on a wet, cold Thursday.

The days leading up to it has been glorious.  And while the weather may have literally dampened spirits a bit, it was still an important day for Little Rock and Arkansas.

The events leading up to the opening included a concert by Aretha Franklin with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and an appearance by Senator John Glenn at the Museum of Discovery.  Events were hosted by the Arkansas Arts Center, Arkansas Repertory Theatre, Historic Arkansas Museum, and Old State House Museum.  There were scores of receptions and parties as Hollywood, New York, and DC descended on Little Rock.

November 18 dawned rainy and cool.  As the day continued on the precipitation continued while the temperature did not warm up.  Years of planning for a grand opening ceremony came down to this.  But at the appointed time, festivities began.

On the site of an abandoned warehouse district and unofficial dump which had previously been a train station, many leaders of the free world were gathered.  They rubbed shoulders with thousands of Arkansans from probably every county in the state.

It had been seven years and eleven days since Bill Clinton had announced the site of his presidential library.  It had been five years since artifacts and articles started arriving from Washington DC in Little Rock.  There had been lawsuits, threats of lawsuits, the threat of a Counter-Clinton Library, and countless meetings.

After speeches from Presidents Carter, Bush 41 and Bush 43, remarks from President Clinton and then-Senator Clinton (who was made even wetter by water pouring off an ill-placed umbrella), and even a musical performance by Bono and The Edge, Chelsea Clinton turned over the ceremonial key from the Clinton Foundation to the National Archives to officially open the Clinton Presidential Center.

In his capacity leading the Clinton Foundation, Skip Rutherford oversaw the planning for the Clinton Library and the grand opening festivities.  He, along with the foundation’s Executive Director Stephanie Streett, oversaw a phalanx of volunteers and staff to anticipate every detail.  The 1,000 days countdown sign that had been on the construction site (the brainchild of Tyler Denton) finally reached 0.

Isabelle Rodriguez, Shannon Butler, Mariah Hatta, Jordan Johnson, Lucas Hargraves, and Ben Beaumont — among others — had been putting in twelve plus hour days for months on end to get ready for the opening.  City Manager Bruce T. Moore led a team of City officials who had assisted on the planning and execution of the site preparation and making sure Little Rock was ready to welcome the world.  Moore and City Director Dean Kumpuris had been appointed by Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey to lead Little Rock’s efforts to land the library.  After Clinton’s announcement of the site, Dailey, Kumpuris and Moore continued to work together to ensure the library would be successful.

While the weather on November 18, 2004, may have been a disappointment, the people who were gathered knew they were witnesses to history.  And thirteen years later, is a day people still talk about.

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Little Rock Look Back: Bill Clinton announces LR as site for his library

Refuse on the site where the Clinton Center would be built

On November 7, 1997, President Bill Clinton announced his intentions to locate his presidential library in Little Rock at the end of a warehouse district.

The Little Rock City Board met in a special meeting that day to rename part of Markham Street, which would lead to the site, as President Clinton Avenue.

While the announcement was met with excitement in many quarters, there were still some skeptics who had a hard time envisioning a presidential library and park in the middle of a wasteland worthy of a T. S. Eliot poem.

There would be many hurdles between the November 1997 announcement to the December 2001 groundbreaking. But for the moment, City of Little Rock leaders, celebrated the achievement.  Then Mayor Jim Dailey had appointed City Director Dean Kumpuris and City employee Bruce T. Moore to lead the City’s efforts.  Moore and Kumpuris worked with Skip Rutherford and others to narrow the potential sites.

In September 1997, the Clintons were in town for the 40th anniversary of the integration of Central High School.  They surprised Kumpuris and Moore with a decision for a Sunday afternoon visit to the warehouse district proposed site. Secret Service would not let the limousine drive in part of the property, so the Clintons, Moore, Kumpuris, and Rutherford walked up a path to the roof of the abandoned Arkansas Book Depository.  It was there that the Clintons could see the Little Rock skyline which would be visible from the library.

Of course by the time the library had opened in November 2004, the Little Rock skyline was different. Spurred on by the library, several new highrises had been constructed in downtown.


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Little Rock Look Back: Sixty Years of the Little Rock Nine

Sixty years ago today the Little Rock Nine entered Central High School and stayed. On one hand, this brought to the end a nearly month long standoff between segregationists and those who wanted to obey the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision.

In the bigger picture, the struggle did not end that day.  Throughout the remainder of the school year, the Little Rock Nine were subjected to threats, isolation and hostility.  Outside of the school, while the crowds may had dispersed after September 25, the raw feelings did not subside.

This was evidenced by the fact that the following year the high schools were closed to avoid having them integrated.

But September 25, 1957, was an historic day in the United States. Under guard of members of the 101st Airborne Division of the Army, the Little Rock Nine were escorted into Central High School. This action by President Dwight Eisenhower was the result of the intrusive efforts of Governor Orval Faubus who had used the Arkansas National Guard to keep the nine students out.

The City of Little Rock was largely a bystander in this issue. The form of government was changing from Mayor-Council to City Manager in November 1957. Therefore Mayor Woodrow Mann and the entire City Council were lame ducks. Mann, whose son was a senior at Central, tried to focus on keeping the peace in Little Rock. Most (if not all) of his Council members sided with the Governor.

Congressman Brooks Hays, a Little Rock resident, had tried to broker an agreement between the President and the Governor but was unsuccessful.  Following that, Mayor Mann was in discussions with the White House about the ability of the Little Rock Police Department to maintain order.  Finally, in the interest of public safety, the President federalized the National Guard and removed them. This paved the way for the Army to come in.

Though the school year was not easy, the nine youths who became known worldwide as the Little Rock Nine were finally in school.  They were Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas and Carlotta Walls.

In 1997, President Bill Clinton, Governor Mike Huckabee and Mayor Jim Dailey, famously held open the doors of Central High for the Little Rock Nine on the 40th anniversary.  Ten years later, Clinton, Huckabee and Dailey returned joined by Governor Mike Beebe and Mayor Mark Stodola to host the 50th anniversary events.

Today, President Clinton was once again at Central.  This time he was joined by Governor Asa Hutchinson and Mayor Stodola.  Two people who have played parts in organizing all three of these commemorations are City Manager Bruce T. Moore and Central High Principal Nancy Rousseau.  Others, such as Skip Rutherford and Annie Abrams have participated in all three commemorations.

In light of its role in history, the school is a National Historic Site, while still functioning as a high school.


Little Rock Look Back: Robinson Center closes for renovation

On July 1, 2014, Robinson Center Music Hall closed so that renovations could commence.  Instead of having a groundbreaking ceremony, Gretchen Hall and LRCVB arranged for a “stage breaking.”  Slats from the stage flooring were pried up with crowbars.

Twenty-eight months later, Robinson Center reopened on-time and on-budget.

(As a side note:  the Culture Vulture announced the countdown before Governor Mike Beebe and various Little Rock leaders used their crowbars for the first breaking of the stage flooring.)

Here are some photos from that ceremony.


Little Rock Look Back: SOUTH PACIFIC opens on Broadway 68 years ago today

Sixty-eight years ago today, a fictional Little Rock heroine took the stage of a Broadway megahit when South Pacific opened at the Majestic Theatre on April 7, 1949. It settled in for a run of 1925 performances. Based on the James Michener Pulitzer Prize winning novel Tales of the South Pacific, it featured a book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, songs by Richard Rodgers and Hammerstein and direction by Logan. It was produced by Rodgers, Hammerstein, Logan and Leland Hayward. Set in the titular islands, it concerned the relationships of sailors, nurses, island natives and other island inhabitants.

The musical starred recent Tony winner Mary Martin as Little Rock native Nellie Forbush, opera star Ezio Pinza, stage veterans Myron McCormick and Juanita Hall, and stage newcomers William Tabbert and Betta St. John. Cloris Leachman was Martin’s understudy and would later succeed her in the part of Little Rock native Nellie Forbush.

Like other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, this show tackled tough themes – this one being prejudice. That did not set well with some theatergoers. Indeed, some potential investors did not put money into the show because of its stance. But Rodgers, Hammerstein, Logan and Hayward persisted. Their diligence paid off when the musical received the 1950 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, only the second musical to receive this designation. It is also the only Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner to be based on Pulitzer Prize winning source material. This was the first Rodgers & Hammerstein musical to not feature big dance numbers. In fact, there was no choreographer. The dance steps which existed were created by Martin, who had taught dance in her native Texas as a young mother.

Opening late in the season, South Pacific was named the 1949 New York Drama Critics Circle Best Musical, but was not part of the Tony Awards until 1950. (Though Jo Mielziner, who designed the set for South Pacific received a Tony for his set designs of shows during the 1948-49 season and South Pacific was one of the titles listed.) At the 1950 Tonys, it received six Tony Awards (sometimes listed as eight because Book and Score were not broken separate from Best Musical that year—but some sources incorrectly separate them.) It was named Best Musical, Actor in a Musical (Pinza), Actress in a Musical (Martin), Featured Actor in a Musical (McCormick), Featured Actress in a Musical (Hall), and Director (Logan). This is the only time that all four acting awards in the musical category went to performers in the same production. In fact, the other two acting trophies that year were incorrectly engraved as being from South Pacific out of habit.

Logan’s win was also the first time that the Director Tony went for a musical, since at the time that award was not separated out among plays and musicals. Hall was the first African American to win a Tony Award for Acting. Martin would reunite with Hayward, Rodgers & Hammerstein ten years later for The Sound of Music. Pinza and Tabbert reunited in 1954 for Fanny which would be the final Broadway credit for each gentleman. McCormick stayed with the show the entire run, except for vacations.

In 1999 for the 50th anniversary and in 2008 for the opening of the first Broadway revival remaining cast members from the original production had reunions in New York City. At the 50th anniversary ceremony, a proclamation from Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey was read declaring it South Pacific day in Little Rock and honoring the show. It is interesting to note that in 1949, there were two heroines on the Broadway stage from Little Rock: Nellie Forbush from South Pacificand Lorelei Lee from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

In 2008, Lincoln Center Theatre produced the first revival of South Pacific on Broadway. It opened on April 3, just four days shy of the musical’s 59th anniversary.  The cast was led by Paulo Szot, Kelli O’Hara (as Little Rock girl Nellie Forbush), Matthew Morrison (before “Glee”), Danny Burstein and Loretta Ables Sayre.  The production restored a song which had been written for the original Broadway production that had been dropped. “My Girl Back Home” was featured in the movie version and in this Broadway revival. In it O’Hara and Morrison sang of their hometowns of Little Rock and Philadelphia.  The production was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won 7: Best Musical Revival, Actor in a Musical (Szot), Director of a Musical (Bartlett Sher), Scenic Design (Michael Yeargan), Costume Design (Catherine Zuber), Lighting Design (Donald Holder) and Sound Design (Scott Lehrer).


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Black History Month – Daisy Bates and Robinson Center

bates daisyToday is the Daisy Bates Holiday in the State of Arkansas.  So it is an appropriate day to pay tribute to Mrs. Bates, who played a leading role in the Little Rock Integration Crisis of 1957.

Daisy Lee Gatson Bates and her husband were important figures in the African American community in the capital city of Little Rock.  Realizing her intense involvement and dedication to education and school integration, Daisy was the chosen agent after nine black students were selected to attend and integrate a Little Rock High School.  Bates guided and advised the nine students, known as the Little Rock Nine, when they enrolled in 1957 at Little Rock Central High School. President Clinton presented the Little Rock Nine with the Congressional Gold Medal and spoke at the 40th anniversary of the desegregation while he was in office.

When Mrs. Bates died, a memorial service was held at Robinson Center on April 27, 2000.  Among the speakers were President Bill Clinton, Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater, and Rev. Rufus K. Young, pastor of the Bethel AME Church.  Others in attendance included Lt. Gov. Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, Mayor Jim Dailey, Presidential diarist Janis Kearney, former senator and governor David Pryor, and five members of the Little Rock Nine:  Carlotta Walls Lanier, Ernest Green, Minnijean Brown Trickey, Jefferson Thomas, and Elizabeth Eckford.

It was during his remarks at the service that President Clinton announced he had asked that Bates’ south-central Little Rock home be designated as a national historic landmark.


Little Rock Look Back: LR votes to Restore Robinson!

restore-robinson-121013On Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013, voters of Little Rock overwhelmingly chose to renovate the historic Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium.

By a vote of 5,183 For and 1,800 Against, Little Rock citizens approved a plan to use a portion of the city’s existing 2 percent restaurant and hotel tax to repay bonds for a renovation of Robinson Center.  The campaign was chaired by businessman Charles Stewart, restaurateur Capi Peck and former LR Mayor Jim Dailey.

Robinson has long been a landmark in central Arkansas. Construction of the Joseph T. Robinson Memorial Auditorium began in 1938 (after a December 1937 groundbreaking under a deadline) and officially opened February 1940. The structure was a PWA (Public Works Administration) project, and is an excellent example of the Art Deco style architecture of the time. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.

The facility is owned by the City of Little Rock and managed by the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The 1940 structure suffered from a wide array of deficiencies, including stage loading and unloading, stage size, acoustical insufficiency, dressing room access and inadequate wing space within the performance hall. Also, structural, mechanical and electrical issues, public circulation and outdated conference center spaces existed within the facility.

Knowing the center is in need of major upgrades if the facility is to continue to serve central Arkansas into the future, the Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commission (LRA&P) empanelled a Robinson Center Concept Team in October 2011. The group was tasked with evaluating all aspects of the existing facility, researching user needs, proposing conceptual solutions and estimating the cost and construction schedule of the proposed additions and renovations. The concept team was led by Mike Steelman of SCM Architects, PLLC, and included representatives from WD&D Architects, Shuler Shook Theatre Planners, Jaffe-Holden Acoustical Consultants, TME Inc. Mechanical and Electrical Engineers, ECI Inc. Structural Engineers, McClelland Consulting Engineers Inc. Civil Engineers, East Harding Construction, HVS Consulting and Hunt Construction Group.

Additionally, stakeholder and tenant organizations representing the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Celebrity Attractions of Tulsa, Oklahoma and the Double Tree Hotel participated in the planning. The concept team findings were presented publicly on June 5, 2012.

On January 17, 2013 the LRA&P announced the selection of Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects, partnered with Ennead Architects, as the architectural and design team for the future renovations. On March 28, 2013 CDI Contractors LLC, partnered with Hunt Construction Group, were selected by LRA&P as the general contractors and construction managers.

On September 23, 2013 the final schematic renderings and cost estimates were presented publicly. The schematic plans depict major interior upgrades within the performance hall including additional volume to create a two-balcony setup, increased lobby space, acoustical improvements, theatrical upgrades, loading dock expansion, a larger stage area, and new dressing room facilities. Additionally, an enhanced modern ballroom and small conference center was unveiled. New technology, mechanical systems, and outdoor plaza spaces were included in the presentation.

Construction would begin on July 1, 2014.  It reopened on schedule and on budget on November 10, 2016.