Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


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: J. N. Heiskell

At the age of 87, J. N. Heiskell in 1960.

John Netherland (J. N.) Heiskell served as editor of the Arkansas Gazette for more than seventy years.  He was usually called “Mr. Heiskell” by all, but a very few confidantes felt confident to call him “Ned.”

Mr. Heiskell is the person most responsible for Robinson Center Music Hall being located at the corner of Markham and Broadway.  As Chair of the Planning Commission and editor of the Arkansas Gazette he had twin bully pulpits to promote this location when those on the City Council (who actually had the final say) were looking at other locations.  He felt the location would help create a cluster of public buildings with its proximity to the county courthouse and to City Hall.  Mr. Heiskell finally succeeded in winning over the mayor and aldermen to his viewpoint.

He was born on November 2, 1872, in Rogersville, Tennessee, to Carrick White Heiskell and Eliza Ayre Netherland Heiskell. He entered the University of Tennessee at Knoxville before his eighteenth birthday and graduated in three years at the head of his class on June 7, 1893.

His early journalism career included jobs with newspapers in Knoxville and Memphis and with the Associated Press in Chicago and Louisville. On June 17, 1902, Heiskell’s family bought controlling interest in the Arkansas Gazette. Heiskell became the editor, and his brother, Fred, became managing editor.

Governor George Donaghey appointed Heiskell to succeed Jeff Davis in the United States Senate after Davis’s death in office. Heiskell served from January 6, 1913, until January 29, 1913, when a successor was chosen by the Arkansas General Assembly.  His tenure is the shortest in the U. S. Senate history.  His first speech on the Senate floor was his farewell.  He was also only the second US Senator to live to be 100.

On June 28, 1910, Heiskell married Wilhelmina Mann, daughter of the nationally prominent architect, George R. Mann. The couple had four children: Elizabeth, Louise, John N. Jr., and Carrick.

In 1907, he joined a successful effort to build the city’s first public library. He served on the library board from that year until his death and was issued the first library card.  He also served on the City’s Planning Commission for decades.  In 1912, he was instrumental in bringing John Nolen to Little Rock to devise a park plan.

In the paper and in his own personal opinions, he crusaded on a variety of progressive causes.  Perhaps the most famous was the Gazette’s stance in the 1957 Central High desegregation crisis.  It was for this effort that the paper received two Pulitzer Prizes.

Although Heiskell stopped going to the office at age ninety-nine, he continued to take an active interest in the newspaper. He began by having a copy of the newspaper delivered to his home by messenger as soon as it came off the press each night. Eventually, he switched to having his secretary call him daily at his home and read the entire newspaper to him. He operated on the premise that “anyone who runs a newspaper needs to know what’s in it, even to the classified ads.”

A few weeks after turning 100, Heiskell died of congestive heart failure brought on by arteriosclerosis on December 28, 1972. He is buried in Little Rock’s Mount Holly Cemetery.  Interestingly, he is buried in the same cemetery as two of his most notable adversaries: Governor Jeff Davis, and segregationist Congressman Dale Alford.

Mr. Heiskell donated his vast papers to UALR. They are part of the Arkansas Studies Institute collection. These papers give insight into not only his career as a journalist, but also his political and civic affairs.  Thankfully he saved much of his paperwork. Without it, much insight into Little Rock in the 20th Century would be lost.


Little Rock Look Back: Little Rock High School Auditorium Dedicated

On October 31, 1927, a recital took place in the auditorium of the new Little Rock High School which served as a dedication ceremony for the new high school auditorium.  The school had been serving students for several weeks by the time the recital took place.  The first day of school was Wednesday, September 14, 1927.

The star of the recital was Mary Lewis, a Little Rock High School graduate (from the previous location on Scott Street) who had made her Metropolitan Opera debut and become a toast of New York City.

The evening started with remarks from former Arkansas Governor Charles Brough, who had made a name for himself as an advocate for education before, during and after his stint in the statehouse.  He was followed by Miss Lewis, who sang over a dozen arias and musical selections.  For her first encore, Miss Lewis sang “Dixie.”  Her second encore was supposed to be “Home Sweet Home.”  After several attempts to sing it, she was so overcome that she had to abandon the effort.

For more on the opening event, read Jay Jennings’ excellent book Carry the Rock: Race, Football, and the Soul of an American City.

The 1927 schoolbuilding replaced one built in 1905 at 14th and Scott Streets (with an auditorium completed a few years later at 14th and Cumberland).  This new building was located in the western edges of Little Rock on what had been city parkland.  The former West End Park was now site to Little Rock High School.  The adjoining Kavanaugh Field was a baseball field on which Earl Quigley’s football Tigers also played their games.

Architects John Parks Almand, Lawson L. Delony, George R. Mann, Eugene John Stern, and George H. Wittenberg (virtually all of Little Rock’s full-time working architects at the time) designed the $1.5 million structure, which the New York Times dubbed the most expensive school ever built in the United States at that time.

Featuring a combination of Collegiate Gothic and Art Deco architecture, Central High spans two city blocks, comprising over 150,000 square feet of floor space, upon its completion. Requiring 36 million pounds of concrete and 370 tons of steel, the finished product consisted of 100 classrooms (accommodating over 1,800 students), a fireproof 2,000-seat auditorium, a gymnasium, and a greenhouse.

The six-story structure (counting the bell tower and basement) features a middle section containing the auditorium with four classroom wings (two per side) flanking a reflection pool in the foreground of the building. Faced with brick, the building’s highlights include pilasters and colonnades of cut stone, double-hung window frames with twelve lights per sash, and a main entry terrace supported by a colonnade of five masonry arches rising above Corinthian columns of stone.

 


Central to Creativity – Deborah Mathis

Deborah Mathis has deep Arkansas roots.  She grew up in Little Rock the daughter of Rev. Lloyd Myers, a Baptist minister, and Rachel A. Myers Jones, a teacher.

Her journalistic pursuits began as early as junior high school, when she became the first black editor of West Side Junior High’s school newspaper. In 1970 she became the first black and first female editor of Central High School’s Tiger student newspaper. From the early 70′s through the early 90′s, Mathis was busy establishing herself as a journalist and broadcaster. She served in various positions ” reporter, editor, columnist and anchor ” at statewide media outlets including the Arkansas DemocratArkansas Gazette, KARK-Channel 4, KTH V-Channel 11, and KATV-Channel 7 From Arkansas, Mathis career took her to briefly to Jackson, Mississippi before she landed in Washington, D.C., where she was a White House Correspondent for Gannett News Service from 1993-2000.

Since 1992, Mathis has been a syndicated columnist, appearing in more than 100 U.S. publications and periodicals. She is also a contributor to such outlets as USA Today and BlackAmericaWeb.com and a frequent commentator on political and public affairs talk shows such as PBS’s Frontline, CNNs Inside Politics NPR’s All Things Considered America’s Black Forum and Oprah, to name a few. She also field-produced, wrote and narrated two nationally aired documentaries: “Edukashun: The Cost of Failure” (1982) and “Return of the Little Rock Nine” (1987).

Mathis is the author of Yet A Stranger Why Black Americans Still Don’t Feel at Home, Sole Sisters: The Joy and Pains of Single Black Women and What God Can Do: How Faith Changes Lives for the Better.  She has also been an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism (Washington office).  In 2003, she was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.


Central to Creativity – Ben Piazza

 

benpiazza book coverActor-director-playwright-author Ben Piazza was born on July 30, 1933, in Little Rock, and 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.

After graduating from Princeton, he moved to New York City to become an actor.  He made his Broadway debut in 1958 in Winesburg, Ohio.  In April 1959, he starred in Kataki and received a Theatre World Award for his performance.

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.

In February 1963, he took over the role of Nick in the original run of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway.  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.

In August of 1967, his play The Sunday Agreement premiered at LaMaMa.  This was Piazza’s first playwright output to be professionally staged.  In March 1969, a double bill of his one-acts: Lime Green/Khaki Blue opened at the Provincetown Playhouse.  It

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.  As the 1970s progressed, he turned his focus to television and movies.

Piazza’s film debut had been in a 1959 Canadian film called The Dangerous Age. That same year, his Hollywood film debut came opposite Gary Cooper in The Hanging Tree.  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.

In the 1970s and 1980s, his appearances included I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, The Bad News Bears, The Blues Brothers, and Mask.  On TV, he appeared in Dallas, Dynasty, Saint Elsewhere, Barnaby Miller, Moonlighting and Family Ties. 

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 2016, a meeting room in the new Robinson Conference Center was named in his memory.


Central to Creativity – Phyllis Brandon

Phyllis D. Brandon played a unique role in shaping and supporting Little Rock’s cultural life.  As the first and longtime editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette‘s High Profile section, she promoted cultural institutions, supporters and practitioners.

Since it started in 1986, being featured in High Profile has been akin to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.  It exposes cultural institutions and events to new and wider audiences.  There is no way to put a monetary measure on the support Brandon gave to Little Rock’s cultural life during her time leading High Profile from 1986 to 2009.  From 2009 to 2011, she served as editor of Arkansas Life magazine, again supporting and promoting cultural life.

With her unassuming manner, she coaxed stories out of interview subjects and captured photos which highlighted events.  A journalist since her junior high school days in Little Rock, Brandon has also been a witness to history.  As a recent graduate of the University of Arkansas, Brandon returned to her alma mater, Little Rock Central High, to cover the events in early September 1957 for the Arkansas Democrat.  Eleven years later, she was in Chicago for the contentious and violent 1968 Democratic National Convention as a delegate.

From 1957 until 1986, she alternated between careers in journalism and the business world, as well as being a stay-at-home mother.  Upon becoming founding editor of High Profile, she came into her own combining her nose for news and her life-long connections within the Little Rock community.  As a writer and photographer, she created art in her own right. A look through High Profile provides a rich historical snapshot of the changes in Little Rock and Arkansas in the latter part of the 20th Century and start of the 21st Century.


Central to Creativity – Bruce Moore

Today’s feature is not a Central alum or faculty member – but he has been an active supporter of Central High School and is looking forward to being the father of a Central High student in a few years.

Bruce T. Moore was appointed as Little Rock City Manager on December 17, 2002, after having served as Assistant City Manager since April 1999. Prior to that appointment, he served in a variety of capacities with the City of Little Rock including Assistant to the Mayor and Assistant to the City Manager.

Bruce is one of a very few people who worked on the 40th, 50th, and 60th anniversary commemorations of the 1957 integration of Little Rock Central High.  He served as Chair of the 60th anniversary activities.

As City Manager, Bruce is the principal adviser to the governing body on all operational matters pertaining to the overall direction and administration of municipal government overseeing nearly 2,500 employees and a budget of $222.6 million. In addition, he served as the lead City Staff person for the development of William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Center and Park in downtown Little Rock.

Brucehas a Master of Public Administration degree from Arkansas State University and a Bachelor of Science degree from Henderson State University. He is a member of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), Arkansas City Manager’s Association (ACMA), immediate Past President of the National Forum of Black Public Administrators (NFBPA) Board of Directors, Chair of the Henderson State University Board of Trustees, Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and Downtown Little Rock Partnership Executive Board. He has been the recipient of the Just Communities of Arkansas Humanitarian Award, one of Arkansas Business’ “40 Under 40” and the United States Army Commendation Medal/Operation Desert Storm.

Bruce was selected by the United States/Japan Foundation as one of twenty Americans to participate in a two-year business and cultural exchange program with Japan. He also completed the Senior Executive in State and Local Government Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and is a graduate of Leadership Greater Little Rock. Bruce is Co-Chair of the Board of City Year Little Rock, and was recognized by City Year as the 2011 Red Jacket Ball honoree.