Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


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.

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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).

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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.


Little Rock Look Back: Ernest Green graduates from Little Rock Central High

Perhaps the most famous graduation ceremony in the long-storied history of Little Rock Central High took place on May 27, 1958.  It was on that date that Ernest Green became the first African American to graduate from the formerly all-white school.

Among those in the audience to witness this historic event was an up and coming minister named Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  A friend of L. C. and Daisy Bates, he attended the 1958 Central High School graduation to witness Green receiving a diploma. Each senior only received eight tickets to the ceremony at Quigley Stadium.   Dr. King was in the state to address the Arkansas AM&N (now UAPB) graduation.  Because he was going to be nearby, Dr. King wanted to witness the history.  Green did not know that Dr. King was in the stands until after the conclusion of the ceremony.  Later that evening, Dr. King gave Green a graduation present of $15.

Because of fears about the event becoming a media circus, the Little Rock School District limited the press on the field to one Democrat and one Gazette photographer. Other press were limited to the press box normally filled with sportswriters covering the gridiron exploits of the champion Tigers.  There were photos taken of Green prior to the ceremony as well as during the ceremony.

During the graduation rehearsal, there had been concerns that some students or other people might try to disrupt the practice.  But it went off without a hitch.  Likewise, the ceremony itself went smoothly.  Local press reported that some members of the class briefly chatted with Green during the ceremony.  That the event took place without incident was a relief on many levels to City leaders.  Also in the class of 1958 were a son of Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Mann and a daughter of LRSD Superintendent Virgil Blossom.


Little Rock Look Back: Rabbi Ira Sanders

On May 6, 1894, Ira Eugene Sanders was born in Missouri.  After receiving an undergraduate degree and rabbinate degree in Cincinnati, he was ordained a rabbi in 1919.  He served congregations in Pennsylvania and New York before coming to Little Rock in September 1926.

Shortly after arriving to lead the B’nai Israel congregation, Rabbi Sanders became active in the Little Rock community.  Among his projects were the Little Rock Community Fund, Little Rock School of Social Work (which he founded), Central Council of Social Agencies, and University of Arkansas Extension Department. During the Great Depression, he helped organize the Pulaski County Public Welfare Commission.  Other areas of involvement over his career included the Arkansas Human Betterment League, Urban League of Greater Little Rock and Arkansas Lighthouse for the Blind.  On November 3, 1930, Rabbi Sanders debated Clarence Darrow about the existence of God in front of a packed house at Little Rock High School.

For his many involvements, he received an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree in 1951 from the University of Arkansas.  Three years later he received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Hebrew Union College’s Jewish Institute of Religion.

A lifelong supporter of a Jewish state, he participated in nineteen bond drives for the state of Israel.  In August 1963, he retired as the leader of B’nai Israel after over 35 years. He would remain as Rabbi Emeritus until his deal in 1985.

In January 1978, Rabbi Sanders tendered his resignation from the Central Arkansas Library board of directors.  The City Board of Directors passed resolution 5873 which noted that he had served for 51 years on the Library Board. He was first appointed in 1926.  He served during 19 different Mayoral administrations from Charles Moyer’s first term through Donald Mehlburger’s.

On April 8, 1985, Rabbi Ira Eugene Sanders died of natural causes.  He is buried in the City’s Oakland Jewish Cemetery.  The Central Arkansas Library System honors his memory with an annual distinguished lecture series.


Little Rock Look Back: ARKANSAS GAZETTE wins 2 Pulitzer Prizes

On May 5, 1958, it was announced that the Arkansas Gazette had received two Pulitzer Prizes.  These were for the coverage of the 1957 integration (or lack thereof) at Little Rock Central High School.

The first Pulitzer was for Public Service.  It was awarded to the newspaper.  The citation stated:

For demonstrating the highest qualities of civic leadership, journalistic responsibility and moral courage in the face of great public tension during the school integration crisis of 1957. The newspaper’s fearless and completely objective news coverage, plus its reasoned and moderate policy, did much to restore calmness and order to an overwrought community, reflecting great credit on its editors and its management.

The second Pulitzer was for Editorial Writing.  It was awarded to Harry Ashmore.  The citation read:

For the forcefulness, dispassionate analysis and clarity of his editorials on the school integration conflict in Little Rock.

This was the first time that the Pulitzer for Public Service and Editorial Writing went to the same publication in the same year.

The newspaper coverage in the afternoon Arkansas Democrat and morning Arkansas Gazette was provided by the Associated Press.  The Democrat‘s story ran on the afternoon of the announcement. The front page story had the headline “Pulitzer Honors Go to Gazette.”  The next morning the Gazette ran a longer story under the headline “Gazette and Editor Win Two Pulitzer Prizes for Race Crisis Stand.”  It included a quote from publisher Hugh Patterson, Jr.  He stated, “This recognition belongs to every member of the staff of the Gazette.  I am proud to be associated with these men and women.”

The Pulitzer for National Reporting went to Relman Morin of the Associated Press for his coverage of the events.  His citation noted:
for his dramatic and incisive eyewitness report of mob violence on September 23, 1957, during the integration crisis at the Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Photographer Will Counts of the Arkansas Democrat was the unanimous choice of the jury to receive the Pulitzer in photography for his photo of the crowd jeering at Elizabeth Eckford.  The board overruled that selection, as was their purview. Speculation was that the board may not have wanted to award four Pulitzers for the same news story.


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Little Rock Look Back: SOUTH PACIFIC wins Pulitzer Prize

On May 5, 1950, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific captured the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. This would receive special attention in the Arkansas Gazette. The reason this carried such weight in Arkansas was that the musical had a connection to Little Rock.
The 1950 Pulitzer for Drama went to a musical, for only the second time in the history of the awards. The recipient was South Pacific by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan. The character was the leading lady of Nellie Forbush. She was an Navy ensign and a nurse stationed on an exotic island during World War II. The musical was based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific.

In the Michener novel, Miss Forbush is not from Little Rock. She is actually from a small town in Alabama. The part was written for Mary Martin from Weatherford, Texas. Rodgers, Hammerstein & Logan did not discuss why they relocated Nellie’s birthplace.

Originally the musical contained a song entitled “My Girl Back Home” in which Nellie sang of being from “Little Rock, A-R-K” while another character sang of being from “Philadelphia, P-A” and “Princeton, N-J.” It is possible the change to Little Rock was made because it offered more lyrical possibilities, but that is only a supposition on the part of the Culture Vulture. That song did appear in the movie version in which Mitzi Gaynor played Nellie Forbush. It was also featured in the 2008 Broadway revival, this time with Kelli O’Hara playing Nellie.

In the musical, Nellie struggles with her own prejudices. This issue of prejudice became an instance of fact meeting fiction. In 1957, a few weeks after Eisenhower sent troops into Little Rock to ensure that Central High would be desegregated, a production of South Pacific on Long Island was temporarily halted when the audience booed and yelled after Nellie mentioned she was from Little Rock. Interestingly, the movie was released in 1958, but retained references to Little Rock. That was either a testament to the expense of re-editing it, or the fact that audience reaction had lessened.


Pulitzer Day – a good time to “Prize” Mount Holly Cemetery

The Pulitzer Prizes are to be announced today.  This year marks the 100th anniversary of the prizes, though not all of the current categories have been around since 1917.

Mount Holly Cemetery not only touts that it is the site of a whole host of elected officials, it is also the only place in Arkansas where two Pulitzer Prize recipients are buried. The cemetery is open every day, but a special visit to these two prize winner gravesites can be made on Sunday, April 30, during the Mount Holly Cemetery Association’s annual “Rest in Perpetuity” fundraiser picnic.

In 1939, John Gould Fletcher became the first Southern poet to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.  He was born into a prominent Little Rock family in 1886.  Fletcher was awarded the prize for his collection Selected Poems which was published by Farrar in 1938.  Two years earlier, he had been commissioned by the Arkansas Gazette to compose an epic poem about the history of Arkansas in conjunction with the state’s centennial.

Fletcher is buried next to his wife, author Charlie May Simon and his parents (his father was former Little Rock Mayor John Gould Fletcher).  Other relatives are buried nearby in the cemetery.

The other Pulitzer Prize winner buried in Mount Holly is J. N. Heiskell, the longtime editor of the Arkansas Gazette.  It was Heiskell, in fact, who asked Fletcher to compose the poem about Arkansas.  Heiskell served as editor of the Gazette from 1902 through 1972.  He died at the age of 100 in 1972.

Under his leadership, the Gazette earned two Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage of the 1957 desegregation of Little Rock Central High.  One was for Harry Ashmore’s editorial writing and the other was for Public Service.

Heiskell remained in charge of the Gazette until his death in 1972.  He is buried alongside his wife with other relatives nearby.  Also not too far from Mr. Heiskell are two of his nemeses, proving that death and cemeteries can be the great equalizer. In the early days of his Gazette stewardship, he often locked horns with Senator (and former Governor) Jeff Davis. Later in Mr. Heiskell’s career, he vehemently disagreed with Dr. Dale Alford, who had been elected to Congress on a segregationist platform.


Women’s History Month – Phyllis D. Brandon

While today, Phyllis D. Brandon is best known for being the first and longtime editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette‘s High Profile section, she actually holds two historic firsts in Arkansas history.

In 1956, she became the first woman to report news on an Arkansas TV station when she appeared on KTHV.  Later, she was the first woman chosen to serve on the Pulaski County Election Commission.

 

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.