Little Rock Look Back: Aretha Franklin with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra at Robinson Center

On November 16, 2004, the rafters of Robinson Center Music Hall were shaken by the vocal prowess of Aretha Franklin.

She shared the Robinson stage with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.  The ASO brought Miss Franklin to town as part of the festivities surrounding the opening of the presidential library.  Long a favorite of the Clintons, Miss Franklin sang at his 1993 inaugural festivities the night before he took the oath of office.

Resplendent in a series of white dresses, Miss Franklin was in top form feeding off the love from the audience.  While backstage she may have been dealing with back and knee issues (which the Culture Vulture saw first hand), when she stepped on to the stage she was giving her all as she rolled through hit after hit from her starry career.  She sang, she played the piano, she entertained!

It was a sold out house and her voice and energy reached the last row of the balcony.

Prior to her appearance, the ASO played a few selections including variations on “Hail to the Chief” and “America.”

Earlier in the day, I had the privilege of picking up several copies of Bill Clinton’s autobiography for her to get signed by him.  I delivered them to her as she was resting between rehearsals. She was preparing for an interview with Craig O’Neill, and I hated disturbing her. But I wanted to be sure she got the books.  She was gracious and very appreciative.

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Little Rock Look Back: Robinson Auditorium Commission abolished; Duties transferred to LRCVB

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On November 16, 1971, the City of Little Rock Board of Directors abolished the Auditorium Commission which oversaw Robinson Auditorium and transferred duties to the Advertising and Promotion Commission.

This was done with the full support of both commissions.  The transfer took place immediately, with all assets and loose ends to be wrapped up by December 15, 1971.

With the adoption of a hospitality sales tax, by state statute, Little Rock had to have an A&P Commission.  By 1971 plans were afoot to use the A&P tax to build a conference center using some of the existing space in Robinson and adding space.  It did not make sense to have two separate commissions overseeing the same building.

For the Auditorium Commission members, it was possibly a relief.  For years, overseeing the building had been a quiet duty.  But with the social changes of the 1960s, they had been confronted ending the policy of segregation as well as changes in content and subject matter of acts booked at Robinson.  Being agents of social change was doubtful what any of them had envisioned when they joined the commission.  Emily Miller had been a member of the body since January 1940 and others had been on it for many years.

Transferring Robinson to the A&P Commission ushered in a new era for the building. It saw increased booking of meetings which led to a better revenue stream.  The use of the A&P tax would mean the opportunity to give the building an upgrade from 1972 to 1974.

Robinson would eventually prove to be inadequate for all of Little Rock’s needs, which led to the creation and subsequent expansion of Statehouse Convention Center.  But the action 45 years ago today set the stage for the transformation Robinson has undergone as it reopened in November 2016.

Little Rock Look Back: The City says HELLO, DOLLY! to Carol Channing

52 years ago tonight, on November 15, 1966, Carol Channing opened a six day stint in HELLO, DOLLY! at Robinson Auditorium.  She would play 8 sold out shows over those six days.

Channing, who had won the 1964 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her role in this show, had recently returned to the national tour.  She had just wrapped filming THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (for which she would receive an Oscar nomination). She had specifically requested that Little Rock be added to the tour.

Her breakout role was in 1949’s GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDS. In that show she introduced the song “Little Girl from Little Rock.”  Since it had helped make her a star, she had long felt an affinity for the Arkansas capital.  Therefore when she rejoined the tour, she required that LR be one of her stops before she left the tour.

While in Little Rock, Channing was entertained at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion and feted at parties.  She was made an honorary citizen of Little Rock, as well.

But she was here to perform. And perform she did. She was rarely known to miss a performance and always gave her utmost.  Bill Lewis, in his review in the ARKANSAS GAZETTE, stated “To hear Channing sing ‘Hello, Dolly!’ Is one of the great experiences of all musical theater to date…”

In assessing the show’s run in Little Rock (which would be seen by more than 20,000 people), Lewis summed up what many felt at the time — and to hear the reminiscences from a half century later, it still is a heartfelt sentiment — “A week’s too little.”

A Full Fall Weekend with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra

Tonight (11/10) and tomorrow, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra has a full slate of activities, perfect for enjoying the autumnal weather.

While the centerpiece is the concert (7:30 pm on Saturday and 3:00 pm on Sunday), things kick off with a new festival celebrating local community organizations, arts and crafts, food trucks, and brews!

Symphony Local will celebrate local community organizations, including Arkansas Foodbank, and local arts and crafts vendors. Food trucks and drink vendors include Lost 40 Brewing, Say Cheese, Adobo-to-Go, Arkansas Heart Hospital Food Truck ‘Food from the Heart,’ Adams Mobile BBQ and more.

The festival takes place on Markham Street in front of Robinson Center prior to the concert from 5:30 – 7:00 p.m. on Saturday and 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Sunday and admission is free with a concert ticket to Elgar’s Enigma.

Once again, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra is partnering with Arkansas Foodbank to help provide food to those in need. Arkansas Symphony patrons can help by bringing non-perishable food items to the Symphony Local festival. Anyone who brings 10 or more non-perishable food items will receive a voucher good for one pair of tickets to any upcoming ASO concert in the 2018-2019 season.

Also prior to the concert is the Concert Conversation.  All concert ticket holders are invited to a pre-concert lecture an hour before each Masterworks concert. These talks feature insights from the Maestro and guest artists, and feature musical examples to enrich the concert experience.

The talks are one hour before each Masterworks concert, 6:30 p.m. on Saturdays and 2:00 p.m. on Sundays. The talks are in the Robinson Performance Hall’s Upper Tier Lobby. Take the elevators on the East (Doubletree) side of the building to the Upper Tier level. Exit the elevators and walk forward to the lobby.

The concerts begin at 7:30 p.m on Saturday , November 10th and 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, November 11th. Guest conductor Sara Ioannides will begin the concert with Joan Tower’s Made in America. The program continues with Smetana’s The Moldau and Šárka from his set of symphonic poems entitled Má Vlast, and concludes with Elgar’s Enigma Variations. The Masterworks Series is sponsored by the Stella Boyle Smith Trust. Elgar’s Enigma is sponsored by Doubletree Hotel.

 

RIP Donna Axum

News outlets are reporting that Arkansas’ first Miss America, Donna Axum, has died.

A native of El Dorado and a student at the University of Arkansas, during her reign as Miss America Miss Axum (or simply Donna as the newspaper headlines referred to her) made four public visits to Little Rock.  As the first Miss Arkansas to become Miss America, the state’s Capitol City was very interested in giving her a warm welcome.

After being crowned on September 7, 1963, Axum’s first official visit to Arkansas was November 1 through 3.  In addition to stops in Hot Springs and El Dorado, she appeared in Little Rock to attend events including an Arkansas Razorback football game at War Memorial Stadium.  Her entourage included the top four runners up from the Miss America pageant.

In February 1964, she made a brief appearance in Little Rock which included a press conference.

Donna Axum spent nearly two weeks in Arkansas in May 1964 attending several pageants as well as spending time with family.  During that visit she appeared in Little Rock twice.  The second time she headlined a concert with the Arkansas Symphony (not related to the current Arkansas Symphony Orchestra) and the Arkansas Choral Society. It took place at Robinson Auditorium.

Little Rock Look Back: Mr. J. N. Heiskell

At the age of 87, J. N. Heiskell in 1960.

John Netherland (J. N.) Heiskell served as editor of the Arkansas Gazette for more than seventy years.  He was usually called “Mr. Heiskell” by all, but a very few confidantes felt confident to call him “Ned.”

Mr. Heiskell is the person most responsible for Robinson Center Music Hall being located at the corner of Markham and Broadway.  As Chair of the Planning Commission and editor of the Arkansas Gazette he had twin bully pulpits to promote this location when those on the City Council (who actually had the final say) were looking at other locations.  He felt the location would help create a cluster of public buildings with its proximity to the county courthouse and to City Hall.  Mr. Heiskell finally succeeded in winning over the mayor and aldermen to his viewpoint.

He was born on November 2, 1872, in Rogersville, Tennessee, to Carrick White Heiskell and Eliza Ayre Netherland Heiskell. He entered the University of Tennessee at Knoxville before his eighteenth birthday and graduated in three years at the head of his class on June 7, 1893.

His early journalism career included jobs with newspapers in Knoxville and Memphis and with the Associated Press in Chicago and Louisville. On June 17, 1902, Heiskell’s family bought controlling interest in the Arkansas Gazette. Heiskell became the editor, and his brother, Fred, became managing editor.

Governor George Donaghey appointed Heiskell to succeed Jeff Davis in the United States Senate after Davis’s death in office. Heiskell served from January 6, 1913, until January 29, 1913, when a successor was chosen by the Arkansas General Assembly.  His tenure is the shortest in the U. S. Senate history.  His first speech on the Senate floor was his farewell.  He was also only the second US Senator to live to be 100.

On June 28, 1910, Heiskell married Wilhelmina Mann, daughter of the nationally prominent architect, George R. Mann. The couple had four children: Elizabeth, Louise, John N. Jr., and Carrick.

In 1907, he joined a successful effort to build the city’s first public library. He served on the library board from that year until his death and was issued the first library card.  He also served on the City’s Planning Commission for decades.  In 1912, he was instrumental in bringing John Nolen to Little Rock to devise a park plan.

In the paper and in his own personal opinions, he crusaded on a variety of progressive causes.  Perhaps the most famous was the Gazette’s stance in the 1957 Central High desegregation crisis.  It was for this effort that the paper received two Pulitzer Prizes.

Although Heiskell stopped going to the office at age ninety-nine, he continued to take an active interest in the newspaper. He began by having a copy of the newspaper delivered to his home by messenger as soon as it came off the press each night. Eventually, he switched to having his secretary call him daily at his home and read the entire newspaper to him. He operated on the premise that “anyone who runs a newspaper needs to know what’s in it, even to the classified ads.”

A few weeks after turning 100, Heiskell died of congestive heart failure brought on by arteriosclerosis on December 28, 1972. He is buried in Little Rock’s Mount Holly Cemetery.  Interestingly, he is buried in the same cemetery as two of his most notable adversaries: Governor Jeff Davis, and segregationist Congressman Dale Alford.

Mr. Heiskell donated his vast papers to UALR. They are part of the Arkansas Studies Institute collection. These papers give insight into not only his career as a journalist, but also his political and civic affairs.  Thankfully he saved much of his paperwork. Without it, much insight into Little Rock in the 20th Century would be lost.

BOOK OF MORMON tickets on sale on November 9

Hello!

The producers of the national tour of THE BOOK OF MORMON, winner of nine Tony Awards® including Best Musical, and Celebrity Attractions have announced that single tickets will go on sale Friday, November 9, at 10am. Tickets will be available at the Robinson Performance Hall Box Office (426 West Markham), by visiting Ticketmaster.com, or by calling 501.244.8800 (or 800.982.ARTS). Group orders of 10 or more may be placed by calling 501.492.3312.

THE BOOK OF MORMON features book, music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone.  Tony Award-winner Lopez is co-creator of the long-running hit musical comedy, Avenue Q.  The musical is choreographed by Tony Award-winner Casey Nicholaw (Monty Python’s Spamalot, The Drowsy Chaperone) and is directed by Nicholaw and Parker.

THE BOOK OF MORMON is the winner of nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Score (Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, Matt Stone), Best Book (Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, Matt Stone), Best Direction (Casey Nicholaw, Trey Parker), Best Featured Actress (Nikki M. James), Best Scenic Design (Scott Pask), Best Lighting Design (Brian MacDevitt), Best Sound Design (Brian Ronan) and Best Orchestrations (Larry Hochman, Stephen Oremus); the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical; five Drama Desk Awards including Best Musical, the 2011 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album; four Outer Critics Circle Awards, including Best Musical, and the Drama League Award for Best Musical.

THE BOOK OF MORMON features set design by Scott Pask, costume design by Ann Roth, lighting design by Brian MacDevitt and sound design by Brian Ronan.  Orchestrations are by Larry Hochman and Stephen Oremus.  Music direction and vocal arrangements are by Stephen Oremus.

The Original Broadway Cast Recording for THE BOOK OF MORMON, winner of the 2011 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album, is available on Ghostlight Records.

THE BOOK OF MORMON will take the stage at Robinson Performance Hall for 8 performances February 12-17, 2019 (Tuesday-Friday at 7:30pm, Saturday at 2pm & 7:30 pm, Sunday at 2pm & 7:30pm).  Tickets go on sale Friday, November 9th at 10am and may be purchased in person at Celebrity Attractions, via phone at 501.244.8800 (or 800.982.ARTS) or online at ticketmaster.com.  Groups of 10 or more receive a discount by calling 501.492.3312.

Ticket buyers are reminded that for Celebrity Attractions’ productions, Celebrity Attractions and Ticketmaster are the only official retail ticket outlets and the only way to guarantee that you are paying face value for legitimate tickets.  Ticket buyers who purchase tickets from a ticket broker or any third party should also be aware that Celebrity Attractions is unable to reprint or replace lost or stolen tickets and is unable to contact patrons with information regarding time changes or other pertinent updates regarding the performance.