Tag Archives: Robinson Center Performance Hall

Little Rock Look Back: Arkansas’ first Miss America comes to Little Rock

Tonight a new Miss America will be crowned.  The competition has had a tumultuous year with many changes behind the scenes as well as alterations to the event format.

It seems a good time to hearken back to a earlier, simpler time when Donna Axum first brought the Miss America title to Arkansas.

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.

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Little Rock Look Back: Birth of Joe T. Robinson

Future Senator Joseph Taylor Robinson was born in Lonoke in August 26, 1872.  In 1894 Robinson was elected to the Arkansas General Assembly for one term.  From 1903 until 1913, he served in the US House of Representatives as a Congressman from Arkansas’ then-Sixth District.

He chose not to seek another term in Congress and ran for Governor in 1912.  On January 3, 1913, sitting US Senator Jeff Davis died in office.  Robinson was sworn in as Governor on January 16, 1913. Twelve days later he was chosen by the Arkansas General Assembly to become the next US Senator. He became the final US Senator to be selected by a legislator instead of popular vote.  At the time, Senate terms started in March, so Robinson served as governor until March 8, 1913.

He rose through the ranks of the Senate and eventually became the first person to hold the title of Senate Majority Leader.  In 1928, he was the Vice Presidential nominee for the Democratic Party.  Four years later, he rode with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt to the inauguration ceremonies before FDR took the oath.  He would be President Roosevelt’s go-to man on legislative issues.

Senator Robinson died in Washington D.C. on July 14, 1937.  His wife was in Little Rock making preparations for a trip the couple was to take. Following his demise, Mrs. Robinson went to Washington to accompany her husband’s body back to Arkansas.

It was not until December 1937, that Senator Robinson’s name became attached to the municipal auditorium which Little Rock voters had approved in January 1937.  Mrs. Robinson participated in the December 24, 1937, groundbreaking for the auditorium.

Naming the auditorium after him was not Little Rock’s first attempt at honoring Senator Robinson.  In 1930, portions of Lincoln, Q, and Cantrell streets were renamed Robinson Drive in his honor. This was part of an effort to give Highway 10 (which had four different names as it wended through the City) a single name in Little Rock.  A few months later the Senator requested that the original names be returned.  Cantrell had been named in honor of a developer who was continuing to work in the area surrounding that street.  The Senator felt it should be named after Mr. Cantrell.  As part of that, the name Cantrell was extended to most of Highway 10 within the Little Rock city limits.

In 1935, on Senator Robinson’s ante-penultimate birthday, the Little Rock City Council coincidentally approved the plans for a municipal auditorium which would then be submitted to the Public Works Administration.  It was this project which would become Robinson Auditorium.

Remembering Aretha Franklin at Robinson Center with the ASO

On Tuesday, November 16, 2004, Aretha Franklin showed why she was an unparalleled entertainer.

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 I 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 chance to meet her.  The ASO had contacted me to see if I could pick up three copies of Bill Clinton’s autobiography for her to have him sign.  I was out and about on Clinton Library-related errands that day, so I happily obliged.  I picked up three copies and delivered them to Robinson Center.  Miss Franklin was on a break in between rehearsals and was about to be interviewed by Craig O’Neill for KTHV.  I only got to shake her hand and briefly say hello, but I could tell she was thrilled to receive the books.

I obviously did not ask to be reimbursed for the expense. The chance to spend a few seconds with her was payment enough.

Ben Piazza – born in LR 85 years ago

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.

Gretchen Hall of LRCVB appointed to International Tourism Board

Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau (LRCVB) President & CEO Gretchen Hall has been appointed to the Destinations International 2018-2019 Board of Directors representing Little Rock’s and Arkansas’s tourism and hospitality industry on a national and global stage.

Destinations International (formerly Destination Marketing Association International) is the world’s largest resource for official destination organizations, convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs) and tourism boards.

“I’m proud to join the DI Board representing more than 6,000 professional members and 575 destination organizations. My appointment means that Little Rock will be well represented in driving economic impact, job creation, community sustainability and quality of life through travel. Having recently returned from DI’s Annual Convention, I can tell you that the organization is THE leading source for education, research, advocacy and community in the tourism space.”

Hall has spent the majority of her career in the hospitality industry, having served the LRCVB in multiple roles for nearly 17 years. She has been the LRCVB’s President and CEO since May 2011. Hall is the President of the Heart of Arkansas Regional Tourism Association, President of the Arkansas Travel Council, Chair of the Arkansas Association of CVBs, an executive committee member of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, and serves on the board of directors for the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and on the finance committee of Destinations International. She is also a member of the US Travel Association, Destinations International, Skål International, and Little Rock Rotary – Club 99.

Together with representatives from Tourism Toronto, Visit Baltimore, Visit Vacaville, Visit Phoenix and Houston First Corporation, Hall will serve a three-year term dedicated to serving Destinations International’s 6,000 members.

Destinations International serves destination marketing professionals first and foremost. Together with partners from nearly 600 destinations in approximately 15 countries, Destinations International represents a powerful forward-thinking, collaborative association; exchanging bold ideas, connecting innovative people and elevating tourism to its highest potential. For more information, visit www.destinationsinternational.org

The Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau (LRCVB) is the official destination marketing organization for the City of Little Rock, charged with marketing and selling the city as a meeting, sports and leisure travel destination. The LRCVB also manages the Statehouse Convention Center, Robinson Center, River Market and multiple parking facilities.

THE BOOK OF MORMON coming to Little Rock!

The National Tour of THE BOOK OF MORMON, winner of nine Tony Awards ® including Best Musical, will play in Little Rock as a special add-on to Celebrity Attractions’ 2018-2019 Broadway Season.  Subscribers receive priority ticket opportunities to all shows, so a season package is the best way to guarantee seats to THE BOOK OF MORMON.

THE BOOK OF MORMON features book, music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone. Parker and Stone are the four-time Emmy Award-winning creators of the landmark animated series, “South Park.” 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.  Individual tickets will go on sale in late 2018, but subscribers to Celebrity Attractions’ 2018-2019 Season will have the first opportunity to purchase tickets starting July 18th.  Celebrity Attractions 2018-2019 Broadway Season features JERSEY BOYS, LOVE NEVER DIES, FINDING NEVERLAND, EVITA and THE SOUND OF MUSIC.  For season ticket information, please call 501-244-8800 or visit celebrityattractions.com.

Remembering Sen. Joseph Taylor Robinson

Eighty-one years ago today, on July 14, 1937, U.S. Senator Joseph Taylor Robinson died in his apartment in Washington D.C.

The Senator’s wife, Ewilda, was in Little Rock making preparations for a trip the couple was to take. (She was informed of her husband’s death when her sister-in-law called to express condolences. No one had yet notified her of her husband’s demise.) Following the news, Mrs. Robinson went to Washington to accompany her husband’s body back to Arkansas.

As the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Robinson was usually President Franklin Roosevelt’s point person to shepherd legislation on Capitol Hill.  The Democrat’s 1928 Vice Presidential nominee, Senator Robinson was particularly close to FDR. He had successfully steered numerous pieces of New Deal legislation through Congress.  However, at the time of his death, the Senator was facing an uphill climb trying to build consensus on the President’s unpopular Court Packing scheme.

The Senator was honored with a memorial service in the Senate chambers on Friday, July 17.  President Roosevelt and the cabinet joined members of the senate on the floor in what was described as a state funeral without pomp.  Mrs. Robinson sat with her brothers and two nephews as well as Bernard Baruch and Arkansas Power & Light’s Harvey Couch, who were Senator Robinson’s closest friends.  Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the many crowded in the senate galleries observing the service.  Following the service his body remained in the chambers until it was transferred to a train to make the journey to Little Rock.

A sealed mailer containing bound copy of remarks delivered at Sen. Robinson memorial. It bears the franking signature of Sen. Hattie Caraway.

The funeral train bore his body, his family, 50 senators and over twenty congressmen. It reached Little Rock around 8am on Sunday the 19th.  From there, Senator Robinson’s body was taken to his house on Broadway Street until noon.  It subsequently lay in state at the Arkansas State Capitol until being escorted by military to First Methodist Church.

1,500 people packed the church a half hour before the service began. The sun shone through the windows onto the flag-draped coffin as Rev. H. Bascom Watts led the service. Among the pallbearers was former Vice President Charles G. Dawes. Governor Carl Bailey of Arkansas was joined by Governors Richard Leche of Louisiana and E.W. Marland of Oklahoma.

As the funeral procession reached Roselawn Cemetery, thunder echoed. The skies which had alternated between sun and rain that day, returned to rain. A deluge greeted the end of the service and sent visitors hurrying for shelter at the end.

Five months after her husband’s death, Mrs. Robinson participated in the groundbreaking of the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium.  The groundbreaking ceremony was the first time it was announced that building would be named in his memory.   On a plaque inside that building today, a quote from President Roosevelt stands as a further testament of the importance of Senator Robinson to the US.  Taken from President Roosevelt’s remarks upon learning of the Senator’s death, the plaque reads, in part, “A pillar of strength is gone.”