Woodrow Mann, Little Rock’s 53rd Mayor, born on Nov. 13, 1916

Future Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Wilson Mann was born on November 13, 1916, in Little Rock.  His tenure at Little Rock mayor was tumultuous from both things of his doing as well as events that catapulted him onto the international scene.

In 1955, he ran as the Democratic nominee for Mayor of Little Rock and defeated two term incumbent Pratt C. Remmel, a Republican.  He took office in January 1956 and immediately set about to make a lot of changes.  In addition to revitalizing the City’s bus system, and removing some color barriers at City Hall, he oversaw the dismantling of the copper dome on top of Little Rock City Hall (as opposed to the repair of the dome championed by Mayor Remmel).

Mayor Mann was caught up in a grand jury investigation into purchasing practices at City Hall as well as within the City government in North Little Rock.  Partially in response to this, Little Rock voters approved a new form of government in late 1956.  Mayor Mann opposed the switch to the City Manager form and refused to set the election for the new officials but was ultimately compelled to do so.

He was also Mayor during the 1957 integration of Little Rock Central High School.  He sought to keep the peace and to broker a deal between President Dwight Eisenhower and Governor Orval Faubus.  His powers within the city were, no doubt, hampered because of his lame duck status as Mayor.  In November 1957 following the election of the new City Board of Directors, he chaired his last City Council meeting and left office.

In January of 1958, a series of articles written by Mayor Mann detailed his perspective on the events at Central High. These were carried by newspapers throughout the US.

Because of ill will toward him due to the Central High crisis (he was criticized by both sides) and grand jury investigation, Mayor Mann felt it would be difficult to maintain his insurance business in Little Rock. He moved to Texas in 1959 and remained there the rest of his life.  He died in Houston on August 6, 2002.

An entry about Mayor Mann in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture can be found here.

Dedication of the Little Rock High School Auditorium on October 31, 1927

The stage and front seating area of the Central High Auditorium in September 2017.

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 final number she was supposed to sing “Home Sweet Home.”  After several attempts to sing it, she was so overcome with emotion 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.

Little Rock and VIRGINIA WOOLF

On October 13, 1962, Edward Albee’s first Broadway play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway.

Though not in the original cast, Little Rock native Ben Piazza had participated in early readings of the play.  In fact the first time the script was ever read through aloud it was by Albee, Piazza, and producers Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder.

After original cast member George Grizzard left the show due to another commitment, Piazza joined the cast in February 1963.  He remained in the production throughout the rest of the run. Piazza holds the record of most performances of any Edward Albee play on Broadway.

The play was selected by the Pulitzer jury for drama to receive the prize in 1963. But because the award criteria still contained language about “moral example” the final committee rejected the choice and no play was recognized that year. The public hue and cry over the decision served to shake up the criteria for future play selection. Albee would receive the Pulitzer for A Delicate Balance, Seascape and Three Tall Women.

The New York Drama Critics Circle recognized the play as Best Play. It also won Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Producer of a Play (Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder), Actor in a Play (Hill), Actress in a Play (Hagen) and Director of a Play (Alan Schneider). Dillon, who received a Tony nomination for Featured Actress in a Play, received a Theatre World Award for her performance.

During the run of Virginia Woolf, Piazza was writing a novel called The Exact and Very Strange Truth. This would be a fictionalized account of his boyhood in Little Rock. Whenever he would stop writing on it, he would put the manuscript in the freezer of his refrigerator to keep it safe.

Piazza would go on to appear in several other Albee plays both on and off Broadway. He would direct and appear in other productions of Virginia Woolf? throughout the country.

Fifty years to the day after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? first opened on Broadway, the production’s third revival opened. It starred Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Carrie Coon and Madison Dirks.  It was directed by Pam MacKinnon.  Nominated for five Tony Awards, it won three: Best Revival of a Play, Actor in a Play (Letts) and Direction (MacKinnon).

One of the producers on stage accepting the Best Revival Tony was Little Rock native Will Trice. Like Piazza, he was a graduate of Little Rock Central High School. Now Trice is the Executive Artistic Director of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre.

TV’s Annie Oakley – Little Rock native Gail Davis born on October 5, 1925

Gail 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.