Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area

Leave a comment

LR Women Making History: Stella Boyle Smith

When Stella Boyle Smith died at the age of 100 in 1994, she was well known for her love of music and philanthropy.  It is a lasting connection of her to a building in which she spent so many hours as an arts patron.

Smith was a Little Rock philanthropist and founder of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. She lived to be 100, but ensured that her legacy would continue.  In her lifetime, she donated more than $2.5 million to organizations in the music and medical fields.  Since her death, the Stella Boyle Smith Trust has donated more than $5 million.  One of its most recent gifts was the sculpture In the Wings which graces the front of Robinson Center.

She was born in Farmington, Mo., into a large, musically inclined family, which moved to Arkansas when she was two. She began singing at the age of three and graduated from high school at 14. In 1922, she moved to Little Rock with her first husband, Dandridge Perry Compton, who died in 1935. Her second husband, George Smith, held various business interests and extensive farms in Woodruff and Arkansas counties, which allowed them to engage in philanthropy. Mr. Smith died in 1946.

In 1923, Smith’s love for music inspired her to start The Musical Group in her living room of her residence at 102 Ridgeway Drive in Little Rock, where she lived until she died. Through several iterations, the group eventually became the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra in 1966. Her initial objective was to establish the symphony as an educational tool for children, and, in 1968, she helped establish the Youth Orchestra. In 1972, the symphony board of directors named her an honorary life member. Smith established a trust fund for the symphony’s permanent endowment in 1985. A loyal friend of music and the symphony, she attended nearly every performance and most rehearsals.

Smith was also a pianist. In 1988, she gave UALR a grand piano as well as an endowed trust of $500,000. When she purchased the grand piano for UALR, a Steinway, she later on the same day purchased a Steinway for herself.  She remains the only individual to purchase two Steinway grand pianos in the same day. UALR renamed its concert hall the Stella Boyle Smith Concert Hall as a tribute to her. That year the university also gave her an honorary doctor of humane letters degree. Interest from the trust provides scholarships each year for music students studying string instruments, piano or voice.  After she died, her personal Steinway was given to UALR.  The music faculty and students now lovingly refer to the two pianos as Stella and George (after her and her husband).

Smith enabled many students around the state to attend college through the more than 200 scholarships that she financed.

Other organizations that have benefited from her generosity include Arkansas Arts Center and Historic Arkansas Museum as well as the University of Arkansas.


Rock the Oscars: John Legend

john-legendOn September 26, 2009, future Oscar winner John Legend headlined a concert at Robinson Center.

Born in Ohio, he graduated from high school at age 16 ranked number two in the class.  He attended college at the University of Pennsylvania. In Philadelphia during college, he started performing shows–eventually playing gigs up and down the eastern seaboard.  In 2001, he started performing with Kanye West.  His debut solo album was released in 2004 and was certified gold.  It won the 2006 Grammy for Best R&B album.

In addition to his own work, he has been a much-sought after collaborator.  Between both ventures, he continued to pick up accolades and release hit songs and albums.  At the time he visited Little Rock, he was promoting the album Evolver.

Since his time in Little Rock, he has toured extensively, released more albums, and continued to tour.  He won the Oscar for Best Song for “Glory” from Selma.  At last year’s Oscars, the film La La Land in which he appears, was nominated for several Academy Awards.  It won six but NOT Best Picture.

Rock the Oscars: Robinson Center Music Hall

Over the years, Robinson Center Music Hall has played host to numerous Oscar winners and Oscar nominees.

Stage actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne made only one movie, but each were Oscar nominated for their performances in The Guardsman.  Over the years, they made several appearances in Little Rock in plays.  Their first visits were to the Little Rock High School auditorium. Once Robinson opened, they appeared on that stage.

Two time Oscar winner Helen Hayes appeared on stage at Robinson.  At the time, she was only a single Oscar winner (Best Actress for The Sin of Madelon Claudet).  Later she would pick up her second statuette for Supporting Actress in Airport.

Four time winner Katharine Hepburn graced the stage of Robinson in the 1940s.  Her first Oscar was for Morning Glory.  By the time she appeared at Robinson she had that award.  Later she would pick up Oscars for The Lion in Winter, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and On Golden Pond.

Charles Boyer never won an Oscar in a competitive category (though he was nominated).  He did however win an Honorary Oscar in the 1940s for his promotiono of French culture during World War II.  He appeared on stage at Robinson in the early 1950s as part of the tour of Don Juan in Hell (written by Oscar winner George Bernard Shaw — yes Shaw won an Oscar for the screenplay of Pygmalion.)

Multiple Oscar nominee, and special Oscar recipient, Mickey Rooney appeared on stage at Robinson in 1986 in the national tour of Sugar Babies.

Little Rock Look Back: Opening of Robinson Auditorium

robinson-auditorium-by-scott-carterOn February 16, 1940, after three years of planning and construction including several delays due to lack of funding, the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium officially opened. It was a cold, rainy night, but those in attendance did not care.  (The concept of a municipal auditorium for Little Rock had first been raised in 1904, so this evening was truly a long time in the works.)

Searchlights painting arcs in the sky greeted attendees. They were borrowed from the Arkansas National Guard. Newspaper accounts noted that only a few of the men who attended were in tuxedos, most were simply in suits. The work to get the building opened had been so harried, that it was discovered there was not an Arkansas flag to fly in front of the building. Mayor Satterfield found one at the last minute courtesy of the Arkansas Department of the Spanish War Veterans.

The weather delayed arrivals, so the program started fifteen minutes late. Following a performance of Sibelius’ Finlandia by the fledgling Arkansas State Symphony Orchestra, Mayor J. V. Satterfield, Ewilda Robinson (the Senator’s widow), Emily Miller (the Senator’s sister-in-law and a member of the Auditorium Commission) and D. Hodson Lewis of the Chamber of Commerce participated in a brief ribbon cutting ceremony. Mrs Robinson cut the ribbon on her second attempt (once again proving that nothing connected with getting the building open was easy).

The ceremony was originally set to be outside of the building but was moved indoors due to the inclement weather. The ribbon cutting took place on the stage with the ribbon stretched out in front of the curtain. The opening remarks were broadcast on radio station KGHI.

Mr. Lewis, Mrs. Miller and Mayor Satterfield look on as Mrs. Robinson cuts the ribbon

Mr. Lewis, Mrs. Miller and Mayor Satterfield look on as Mrs. Robinson cuts the ribbon

Though he had previously discussed how he had voted against the auditorium in 1937 before entering public life, the mayor’s remarks that evening were appropriately gracious, statesmanlike and a testament to the effort he had invested to get it open upon becoming mayor. “We hope you have a very pleasant evening and hope further that it will be the first in a long series which you will enjoy in this, your auditorium.”

Tickets for the event, advertised as being tax exempt, were at four different pricing levels: $2.50, $2.00, $1.50 and $1.00.

The estimated attendance was 1700. Following the ribbon cutting, the main performance took place. The headliner for the grand opening was the San Francisco Opera Ballet accompanied by the new Arkansas State Symphony Orchestra (not related to the current Arkansas Symphony Orchestra). The featured soloist with the ballet was Zoe Dell Lantis who was billed as “The Most Photographed Miss at the San Francisco World’s Fair.”

Auditorium Commission chairman E. E. Beaumont, a local banker, noted that while event planners knew the evening of ballet and classical music would not appeal to everyone, it was intended to show the wide range of offerings that would be suitable in the new space.  Earlier in the week, children’s theatre performances had been offered to school groups through the auspices of the Junior League of Little Rock.

At the same time that the gala was going on upstairs in the music hall, a high school basketball double-header was taking place in the downstairs convention hall. North Little Rock lost to Beebe in the first game, while the Little Rock High School Tigers upset Pine Bluff in the marquee game.

Little Rock Look Back: Court orders integration of LR public facilities

Following the March 1962 lawsuit by twenty-two (22) African Americans seeking the integration of public facilities in Little Rock, Federal Judge J. Smith Henley issued a order on February 15, 1963.  Judge Henley ordered the end to segregation in City parks, playgrounds, golf courses, tennis facilities, community centers, and Robinson Auditorium.

Regarding the auditorium, the order allowed for single event, short-term leasing of wholly private meetings for membership and immediate friends of members.  But it did stress that there could be no racial discrimination in the selection of or terms of leases.

The judge’s order did not cover “other facilities not identified in the record.”  Which meant, the order did not apply to swimming pools.  At the time, War Memorial pool was operated for whites and Gillam Park pool was operated for African Americans.   The judge wrote that he saw no reason to extend it to facilities not mentioned, but did not rule out the ability for future lawsuits.  In asking for a summary judgement in January 1963, the defendants had listed many types of facilities but not swimming pools.

Judge Henley’s decision did not mean that a municipality was required to integrate.  It just could not enforce segregation.  As with many other court decisions at the time, it was narrow in scope.

The end result was that Little Rock facilities were now integrated.  Except for the swimming pools.  Those would have their own story.  It would take the 1964 Civil Rights act and more legal actions for that to happen.

Rock the Oscars: James Earl Jones

Actor James Earl Jones has made several appearances in Central Arkansas over the years.  He has appeared at Robinson Center with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.  On February 12, 1999, he narrated Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” and Alexander Miller’s “Let Freedom Ring” with the Symphony in a concert at Robinson Center.  (It was the 190th birthday for Lincoln.)

Born in Mississippi, he spent most of his childhood in Michigan.  After service in the Army during the Korean War, he moved to New York to study theatre.  In the late 1950s he started alternating between Broadway (where he often played a servant) and Off Broadway (where he played leading roles).  His first film appearance was in Dr. Strangelove….  From the 1960s onward he has alternated between stage, film and TV.  In the 1980s, he added voice work to his repertoire.

In 1969 and in 1987, he won Tony Awards for Actor in a Play (The Great White Hope and Fences, respectively).  His other Tony nominations have been for revivals of On Golden Pond and The Best Man.  He was nominated for an Oscar in 1970 for reprising The Great White Hope on film.  He received two Emmy Awards in 1991 – the only actor to ever win two in the same year.

In 2008, he won the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2011 he was given an Honorary Oscar.  In 2002, he was a Kennedy Center Honors recipient.

He is probably best loved for his work as the voice of Darth Vader in many of the Star Wars films as well as his voicework in The Lion King.

Rock the Oscars: Loretta Lynn

Loretta Lynn and Sissy Spacek during 53rd Annual Academy Awards’ Governor’s Ball at Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)

The spate of 1980s musical biopics can be traced to the success of 1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter.  Nominated for seven Oscars, it captured a Best Actress statuette for Sissy Spacek, who played the title character.

Loretta Lynn, has never been nominated for an Oscar (yet) but wrote the book and lived the life on which the film was based.  (Arkansan Levon Helm was robbed of a nomination for playing Lynn’s father in the film.)

Over her career, Lynn has made numerous appearances in Little Rock, gradually moving up the billing until she was the star attraction.  Among her most recent appearances were a 2007 concert at Robinson Center (with three generations of Lynns and Webbs–the latter being her maiden name), and a 1997 concert at Wildwood Park.

While musical biopics were quite popular in the 1930s through 1950s, by the 1960s and 1970s, they had fallen out of favor.  But the success of Coal Miner’s Daughter led to numerous (countless?) on the big screen and TV.  Spacek ably captured Lynn’s grit, warmth, and talent in a well-deserved Oscar turn.