86 years since Ben Piazza was born

He shared the screen with Cher, Tom Hanks, John Belushi, Gary Cooper, Robert DeNiro, Judd Nelson, Liza Minnelli, Ken Howard, Shirley Jones, George C. Scott, Karl Malden, and Walter Matthau.

His stage co-stars included Jane Fonda, Shirley Booth, Dyan Cannon, William Daniels, Uta Hagen, Mercedes McCambridge, and Arthur Hill.

Ben Piazza spent his entire adult life earning money solely through work in the arts. (Except for a very brief, failed stint as a waiter for a few weeks after he graduated from Princeton.)  Few in the acting profession can make that claim.

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.

Piazza attended college at Princeton University and graduated in 1955.  While there he continued acting, including an appearance in a Theatre Intime production of Othello.

In February 1958, he starred in Winesburg, Ohio sharing the National (now Nederlander) Theatre stage with James Whitmore, Dorothy McGuire, and Leon Ames. In April 1959, Piazza starred in Kataki at the Ambassador Theatre.  For his performance, Piazza received one of the 1959 Theatre World Awards.

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.

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.)

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.

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, West Side 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.

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, his one-acts: Lime Green/Khaki Blue opened at the Provincetown Playhouse.  Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Piazza toured in many plays nationally and internationally. As the 1970s progressed, he turned his focus to television and movies.

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.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he appeared in a number of TV shows.  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 . 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.

July 9, 1906 – plans for new Little Rock City Hall are approved. And the fun has just begun

The 1906 plans for City Hall with the Municipal Auditorium on the left portion.

On July 9, 1906, the Little Rock City Council approved Resolution 281 and Ordinance 1,295. These actions approved the plans for a new City Hall complex to be constructed on land at the northwest corner of Markham and Broadway Streets.  A few days later, the contract was awarded for the construction of the new building.

Mayor Warren E. Lenon had first called for a new city hall complex in his annual address in April 1904. He repeated his request in April 1905.   The City Council took up Mayor Lenon’s quest for a new city hall in December of 1905.  The Council appropriated money for the purchase of land for a city hall, jail and auditorium.

In response to this, the Arkansas Gazette daily newspaper ran a story featuring the viewpoints of a few civic leaders weighing in on the need for a new city hall complex which would also include a new jail and a city auditorium.  Two of the respondents, L. B. Leigh and P. Raleigh, stressed the need for paved streets and better sewers instead of a new city hall and auditorium.

The other three businessmen interviewed were more favorable to Mayor Lenon’s proposal.  Morris M. Cohn, a former Little Rock City Attorney, stated “I do not think we can make a better investment than in a fine city hall and auditorium.”  (Mr. Cohn, though an M. M. Cohn, was not related the M. M. Cohn who was the namesake for the longtime Little Rock department store.) County Judge William Marmaduke Kavanaugh offered his satisfaction with the action of the City Council on that matter.  R. E. Walt, a banker, opined that he thought $150,000 was not enough; he suggested $200,000 should be spent.

Later that month the Gazette reported that a site had been selected for the city hall and auditorium complex.  The proposed location was most of a city block located at the corner of Markham and Broadway Streets.  Mayor Lenon was vague as to the details of the deal because negotiations were still underway with the property owners

As 1906 dawned, Mayor Lenon and other city leaders continued to take steps to build the new city hall and auditorium.  They invited three local architects to make presentations for the chance to design the new complex.  The three were Charles L. Thompson, Frank W. Gibb and George R. Mann.  Mr. Thompson was chosen to receive the assignment.

On February 5, 1906, Mayor Lenon announced the creation of a special committee to work on the planning for a future city hall complex.  This committee consisted of Aldermen Louis Walther, A. B. Poe, L. N. Whitcomb, Christopher Ledwidge, and John A. Adams.

Mayor Lenon further stated that the new city hall complex and several private developments would “put us in that march of progress with which nothing can prevent us from having a 100,000 population in a few years.”

The saga to get the building built was just starting.

Happy Birthday to Buddy Villines

On this date in 1947, future Little Rock Mayor Floyd G. “Buddy” Villines was born.  A 1969 graduate of Hendrix College, he served in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971. He later graduated from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law School.

Villines’ first interaction with Little Rock City Hall was as an employee in the City Manager’s office.  After joining the private sector, he returned to City Hall in 1985 serving on the Little Rock City Board of Directors.  He was re-elected in 1989.

While on the City Board, he was chosen as Vice Mayor for a two year term in 1987 and 1988.  The following year he was selected as Mayor for a two year term.  In 1990, Villines was elected Pulaski County Judge; he resigned from the City Board in December 1990 to take office.

Villines served as Pulaski County Judge for 24 years, from January 1991 until December 2014.  He is the longest serving County Judge in Pulaski County history.

Remembering LR Mayor John Widgery

On June 17, 1802, future Little Rock Mayor John Widgery was born in Portland ME to Mr. and Mrs. William Widgery.  His father died in 1804.  At the age of 11, John Widgery entered Bowdoin College.  He was the youngest student admitted to the college.

Widgery studied law with his uncle, Nathan Kinsman.  He married Ann L. Woodward, who was from Boston MA.  According to Bowdoin College records, he later “wandered away into the Southwest” spending time “in the Cherokee country.”

Widgery spent most of his adult life in the south. For a time Widgery was clerk of the Mississippi House of Representatives.  He then moved to Little Rock prior to 1840.  By 1840, he was Recorder for the City of Little Rock.

According to media reports at the time, several tradesman groups encouraged Widgery to run for Mayor in January 1841.  He did run but lost to Rev. Samuel H. Webb.  The next year, Widgery ran again and this time was elected Mayor.  He took office in January 1842.  On May 24, 1842 he resigned from office.  He later served as Secretary of the Arkansas Senate (where he made $8 a day when the Senate was in session).

Widgery eventually settled in St. Louis.  He later returned up north.  He died on August 2, 1873 in Portland ME and is buried there.  He and his wife did not have any children.

No known painting or photograph of Mayor Widgery exists.