Tag Archives: Robinson Center Performance Hall

Little Rock Look Back: Dan T. Sprick

Future Little Rock Mayor Dan T. Sprick was born on May 19, 1902.  He served three terms on the Little Rock City Council (from 1935 to 1941).  In 1945, he was elected Mayor of Little Rock and served one term. During his tenure on the City Council, he was the sole vote against locating Robinson Auditorium at Markham and Broadway.  He had favored another location.

He was not alone, however, in being held in contempt of court and spending part of the day in jail.  On Monday, December 4, a dozen of Little Rock’s aldermen (which included Sprick) reported to the county jail to serve sentences for contempt of court. The previous Monday, the twelve council members had voted against an ordinance which had been ordered by the judge in an improvement district matter. The other aldermen had either voted in the affirmative or had been absent. Because the twelve had refused to change their votes since that meeting, the judge ordered them jailed.  After the aldermen changed their votes later in the day, they were freed.

His tenure as Mayor was relatively quiet. He took office the same month that World War II ended. While in office, the Sprick administration was marked by growth in the city budget and in city positions. As a part of that growth, there were many more new purchases taking place which had prompted extra scrutiny of the City’s purchasing procedures. A thorough investigation toward the end of his tenure found no malfeasance or misfeasance, it did note that the city needed to do a better job of anticipating cash flow. Much of the City’s focus during the Sprick tenure was on growth and keeping up infrastructure needs.

Sprick later served for ten years in the Arkansas State Senate (from 1961 to 1970).  During his tenure in the Senate, Sprick was closely aligned with Gov. Orval Faubus.  When the Little Rock high schools had been closed a year to ensure segregation, Sprick had served on the board of a private school set up by some of the leaders of the segregation movement.

His time in the Senate was also marked by controversy.  He was one of three Senators to opposed Muhammad Ali’s speaking at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.  After an Arkansas Gazette editorial lambasted him, Sprick sued the paper for libel. The Gazette settled with him out of court because his health was poor.

One of the landmark pieces of legislation he guided through the Arkansas General Assembly allowed cities to collect advertising and promotion taxes.  The 1972 and 1973 upgrades to Robinson Center were funded by this tax (as have some subsequent upgrades). So the building he voted against while on the LR City Council benefited from legislation he championed while in the General Assembly.

Sprick died in January 1972.

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Elvis Has Left the Building (Robinson Center, that is) – May 16, 1956

Photo by Wayne Cranford

After two visits in 1955 where he was down on the bill, Elvis Presley made his third and final appearance at Robinson Auditorium on May 16, 1956.  This time he was the star and Robinson was packed. The tickets were $1.50 in advance at Walgreens and $2.00 at the box office.

The ads featured 8 great acts in “his” variety show which consisted of the Jordonaires; Rick and Emil Flaim and their orchestra; vocalists Frankie Conners and Jackie Little and comedian-magician Phil Maraquin. A second show was added at 9:30 p.m. to accommodate the ticket demand.

About 30 minutes late, due to a missed flight, Elvis appeared on stage in a purple blazer and started singing “Heartbreak Hotel.”  The crowd rushed the stage. Little Rock police officers were able to control them eventually and get the teenagers back to their seats.  While the crowd was impressed, the police officers were less so.  One of the patrolmen told the Arkansas Gazettereporter: “I wouldn’t know him if I saw him. And I wouldn’t be here unless I was being paid.”

Disc jockey Ray Green recorded the concert that night.  Copies of the concert on CD (which also includes an interview with Presley) are prized possessions of Presley collectors.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has a special section on its website containing quotes from some of the concert attendees.

Little Rock Look Back: Mayor J. V. Satterfield

On May 14, 1902, future Little Rock Mayor John Vines Satterfield, Jr. was born in Marion.   He grew up in Little Rock and Earle. J.V. was a star quarterback for the Earle football team and is featured in a painting of that team by respected painter Carroll Cloar.

Following high school, J.V. taught (including, much to his family’s amusement, a course in penmanship) and coached and sold Fords.  He then moved to Little Rock and sold insurance and later securities.  In 1931 he opened his own business; that same year he built a house at 40 Beverly Place in Little Rock, which would serve as his home until his death.

J. V. Satterfield was elected to serve as Mayor of Little Rock in 1939 and served one term, until 1941.  He was credited with saving the City from bankruptcy because of his fiscal policies. Among his efficiencies were the creation of a central purchasing office and using grass moved from the airport to feed the Zoo animals.

Though as a private citizen he had voted against the creation of a municipal auditorium in 1937, Mayor Satterfield fought valiantly to ensure that Robinson Auditorium opened to the public once he took office.  Shortly after he became Mayor, it was discovered that there were not sufficient funds to finish the construction. After the federal government refused to put in more money, he was able to negotiate with some of the contractors to arrange for the building to be completed. He also oversaw a successful special election to raise the money to finish the project.

Satterfield was a staunch supporter of the airport and worked to expand it.  He would serve as the chair of the first Municipal Airport Commission.  He also established the Little Rock Housing Authority (on which he would later serve on the board).  Mayor Satterfield also served as President of the Arkansas Municipal League in 1941.

Following the outbreak of World War II, Satterfield enlisted in the Army and was given the rank of a Major. He later was promoted to a Colonel and worked in the Pentagon during its early days.

In the late 1940s Satterfield became president of a small Little Rock bank called People’s Bank.  The bank changed its named to First National Bank when it moved into new offices at 3rd and Louisiana in 1953.  By focusing on smaller customers and courting corporate customers, Satterfield grew the bank into one of the state’s largest banks.  He maintained his desk in the lobby of the bank so he could interact with the customers and ensure they were having a positive experience.

Due to chronic health issues, Satterfield retired from the bank in 1964. He died in March 1966.

Little Rock Look Back: Miss America Donna Axum sings at Robinson Auditorium

Photo from Encyclopedia of Arkansas, courtesy of Mike Polston

While she had made a few other appearances in Little Rock during her reign as Miss America, on May 11, 1964, Donna Axum appeared in concert at Robinson Auditorium.

She sang with the Arkansas Symphony (not directly connected with the current Arkansas Symphony Orchestra) and the Arkansas Choral Society.

The concert was part of the Arkansas State Festival of the Arts which was an annual event from the late 1950s until the mid 1960s.

Miss Axum’s most recent appearance at Robinson was last June when she appeared, along with several other former Miss Arkansas title holders, at the 2017 Miss Arkansas pageant.  She was joined on stage by Savvy Shields, who like Miss Axum, was a former Miss Arkansas who held the title of Miss America.

Little Rock Look Back: William Grant Still

Long known as the Dean of African American composers, Dr. William Grant Still was a legend in his own lifetime.

Dr. Still, who wrote more than 150 compositions ranging from operas to arrangements of folk themes, is best known as a pioneer. He was the first African-American in the United States to have a symphonic composition performed by a major orchestra. He was the first to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the US; the first to conduct a major symphony in the south; first to conduct a white radio orchestra in New York City; first to have an opera produced by a major company. Dr. Still was also the first African-American to have an opera televised over a national network

Dr. Still was born May 11, 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi to parents who were teachers and musicians. When Dr. Still was only a few months old, his father died and his mother took him to Little Rock. Inspired by RCA Red Seal operatic recordings, his musical education began with violin lessons.  He graduated from Gibbs High School in Little Rock.

After his studies at Wilberforce University and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, he played in orchestras and orchestrated for various employers including the great W. C. Handy. For several years he arranged and conducted the “Deep River Hour” over CBS and WOR.  He also played in the orchestra for the 1921 musical Shuffle Along, which was the first Broadway musical to feature an all African-American cast and writing team.

In the 1920’s, Still made his first appearances as a serious composer in New York. Several fellowships and commissions followed. In 1994, his “Festive Overture” captured the Jubilee prize of the Cincinnati Symphony orchestra. In 1953, he won a Freedoms Foundation Award for “To You, America!” which honored West Point’s Sesquicentennial Celebration. In 1961, he received honors for this orchestral work, “The Peaceful Land”. Dr. Still also received numerous honorary degrees from various colleges and universities, as well as various awards and a citation from Arkansas Governor Dale Bumpers in 1972.

In 1939, Dr. Still married journalist and concert pianist Verna Avery, who became his principal collaborator. They remained together until Dr. Still’s death in 1978.  In a proclamation marking the centennial of Dr. Still’s birth, President Bill Clinton praised the composer for creating “works of such beauty and passion that they pierced the artificial barriers of race, nationality and time.”

In 1995, Dr. Still was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.  In 2016, the ballroom at Robinson Center was named in his honor.  Earlier this month, Opera in the Rock performed Still’s opera Troubled Island.

Pulitzers Play Little Rock: WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?

WAVW LR Jan65As April winds down, today’s featured play did not actually win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  In 1963, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was the choice of the Pulitzer Drama Jury to receive the award.  However, each Pulitzer category’s jury can be overruled by the Pulitzer Board.  In 1963, they chose not to award the Pulitzer in Drama.

Though the Pulitzer board is notoriously tight-lipped about their decisions, the reason for their rejection of the Albee play is known.  At the time, the Pulitzer rules contained language (written originally by Mr. Pulitzer in setting up the prizes) that stated the prize winners must be uplifting and represent high moral values.  With its frank depiction of a fractured marriage and use of vulgarities, the Pulitzer board did not feel that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? met that criteria.

The resulting outcry over the exclusion of Albee’s play contributed to the removal of the clause.  Albee did subsequently win for his plays A Delicate Balance, Seascape, and Three Tall Women.

The national tour of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? came to Little Rock in January 1965.  The tour starred Vicki Cummings and Kendall Clark.  Bryerly Lee and Donald Briscoe played the younger couple.  The production was directed by Alan Schneider (who had won the Tony Award for directing the play on Broadway).

Little Rock native Ben Piazza was a close friend of Edward Albee.  When Albee was working on the play, Piazza participated in the first read-through of it. He did not appear in the original Broadway cast, but ended up playing the part of Nick on Broadway for most of the show’s run.  He still holds the record of appearing in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in a Broadway run longer than any other actor.

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Pulitzer Prize for Drama being given. To pay tribute to 100 years of the Pulitzer for Drama, twenty-nine days this month a different Little Rock production of a Pulitzer Prize winning play was highlighted.  Many of these titles have been produced numerous times.  This look veered from high school to national tours in an attempt to give a glimpse into Little Rock’s breadth and depth of theatrical history.

Pulitzers Play Little Rock: A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE national tour

SND RobinsonIn December 1947, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway. Two years later, in December 1949, the national tour of the play came to Robinson Auditorium.

Judith Evelyn, who had originated the lead in Angel Street starred as Blanche DuBois.  Ralph Meeker, who had succeeded Marlon Brando on Broadway, played Stanley.  Jorja Curtright and Jim Nolan played Stella and Mitch, respectively.  Curtright would play Stella on Broadway in 1950 opposite Anthony Quinn and Uta Hagen.

Others in the cast were Eulabelle Moore, Peggy Rea, Harry Kersey, Victor Rendina, Jams Karen, Sidonie Espero, Angela Jacobs and Arthur Row.

The tour was directed by Elia Kazan with Jo Mielziner’s Broadway set and lighting design.  Lucinda Ballard was the costume designer, as she was on Broadway.

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Pulitzer Prize for Drama being given. To pay tribute to 100 years of the Pulitzer for Drama, each day this month a different Little Rock production of a Pulitzer Prize winning play will be highlighted.  Many of these titles have been produced numerous times.  This look will veer from high school to national tours in an attempt to give a glimpse into Little Rock’s breadth and depth of theatrical history.