Little Rock Look Back: HAIR brings Age of Aquarius to Robinson Center

Ad for the original production of HAIR in Little Rock. Note the ticket prices. And that they could be purchased at Moses Music Shops.

Forty-seven years ago today, on January 18, 1972, the musical Hair settled in for a week-long run at Robinson Auditorium.  The saga to bring the national tour to Little Rock had actually begun eleven months earlier.

In February 1971, a young Little Rock attorney named Phil Kaplan petitioned the Little Rock Board of Censors to see if it would allow a production of Hair to play in the city. He was asking on behalf of a client who was interested in bringing a national tour to Arkansas’ capital city. The show, which had opened on Broadway to great acclaim in April 1968 after an Off Broadway run in 1967, was known for containing a nude scene as well for a script which was fairly liberally sprinkled with four-letter words. The Censors stated they could not offer an opinion without having seen a production.

By July 1971, Kaplan and his client (who by then had been identified as Southwest Productions) were seeking permission for a January 1972 booking of Hair from the City’s Auditorium Commission which was charged with overseeing operations at Robinson Auditorium. At its July meeting, the Commissioners voted against allowing Hair because of its “brief nude scene” and “bawdy language.”

Kaplan decried the decision. He stated that the body couldn’t “sit in censorship of legitimate theatrical productions.” He noted courts had held that Hair  could be produced and that the Auditorium Commission, as an agent for the State, “clearly can’t exercise prior censorship.” He proffered that if the production was obscene it would be a matter for law enforcement not the Auditorium Commission.

The Commission countered that they had an opinion from City Attorney Joseph Kemp stating they had the authority. One of the Commissioners, Mrs. Grady Miller (sister-in-law of the building’s namesake the late Senator Robinson, she had served on the Commission since 1940), expressed her concern that allowing Hair would open the door to other productions such as Oh! Calcutta!

On July 26, 1971, Southwest Productions filed suit against the Auditorium Commission. Four days later there was a hearing before federal Judge G. Thomas Eisele. Judge Eisele offered a ruling on August 11 which compelled the Auditorium Commission to allow Hair to be performed. Prior to the ruling, some of the Auditorium Commissioners had publicly stated that if they had to allow Hair, they would close it after the first performance on the grounds of obscenity. To combat this, Judge Eisele stated that the Commission had to allow Hair to perform the entire six day engagement it sought.

Upon hearing of the Judge’s ruling, Commissioner Emily Miller offered a succinct, two word response. “Oh, Dear!”

In the end, the production of Hair at Robinson would not be the first performance in the state.  The tour came through Fayetteville for two performances in October 1971 at Barnhill Arena.

On January 18, 1972, Hair played the first of its 8 performances over 6 days at Robinson Auditorium.  In his review the next day, the Arkansas Gazette’s Bill Lewis noted that Hair “threw out all it had to offer” and that Little Rock had survived.

The ads promoting the production carried the tagline “Arkansas will never be the same.”  Tickets (from $2 all the way up to $8.50–the equivalent of $12 to $51 in 2019 dollars) could be purchased at Moses Melody Shops both downtown and in “The Mall” (meaning Park Plaza). That business is gone from downtown, but the scion of that family, Jimmy Moses, is actively involved in building downtown through countless projects. His sons are carrying on the family tradition too.

Little Rock was by no means unique in trying to stop productions of Hair.  St. Louis, Birmingham, Los Angeles, Tallahassee, Boston, Atlanta, Charlotte NC, West Palm Beach, Oklahoma City, Mobile and Chattanooga all tried unsuccessfully to stop performances in their public auditoriums.  Despite Judge Eisele’s ruling against the City of Little Rock, members of the Fort Smith City Council also tried to stop a production later in 1972 in that city. This was despite warnings from City staff that there was not legal standing.

Within a few years, the Board of Censors of the City of Little Rock would be dissolved (as similar bodies also were disappearing across the US). Likewise, the Auditorium Commission was discontinued before Hair even opened with its duties being taken over by the Advertising and Promotion Commission and the Convention & Visitors Bureau staff.  This was not connected to the Hair decision; it was, instead, related to expanding convention facilities in Robinson and the new adjacent hotel.  Regardless of the reasons for their demise, both bygone bodies were vestiges of earlier, simpler and differently focused days in Little Rock.

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Little Rock Look Back: Basketball comes to Robinson Auditorium

Coach Earl Quigley in the 1940s

While Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium is known today as a performance and meeting venue, in its early days it was also the home to sports. Seventy-eight years ago tonight the first basketball game was played at Robinson.

One of the first regular activities which took place in the lower level exhibition hall was a series of boxing and wrestling matches.  Building on the success of this, basketball came to the convention hall in January 1940.

A series of games featuring Little Rock High School and North Little Rock High School were announced by Tiger Coach Earl Quigley to take place from January 11 through February 16, the official opening day for the facility.

At that time, neither high school had a gymnasium; therefore both schools played their basketball games on their school auditorium stages with fans seated in the audience. The convention hall offered a regulation size floor (made of pecan block parquet) with seating for over 1,300 people along the sidelines and in the balcony.  The first men’s basketball game in Robinson Auditorium took place between the Little Rock High School Tigers and the North Little Rock High School Wildcats on January 11, 1940.

The Tigers lost the game before a crowd estimated to be 1,300.  Earlier in the evening there had been an exhibition between two women’s basketball teams.  The cost for admission to the games was 35 cents for the reserved seating and 25 cents for general admission.

Elvis at 84

Elvis backstage at Robinson–photo by Wayne Cranford

Eighty-four years ago today, Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi. He would, of course, grow up to become a cultural phenomenon.

Elvis performed in Little Rock throughout his career. In April 1972, he played at Barton Coliseum (with tickets on the arena floor going for a whopping $10!). In the 1950s, he played three at Robinson Auditorium. His first appearance was as his career was just starting to take off. The final appearance on that stage, a mere 15 months later, was when he had become a national icon.

His first appearance at Robinson was on February 20, 1955. Billed as the “WSM Grand Ole Opry” show, Elvis Presley was third on the bill behind the Duke of Paducah and Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters as he began week long tour of Arkansas and Louisiana. On this date there were a pair of shows, at 3:00 and 8:15 p.m., at Robinson Auditorium. Tickets were 75-cents in advance, $1.00 at the box office and 50-cents for kids. It is believed that Gladys and Vernon Presley attended this performance, invited by Elvis who wanted to introduce them to the Colonel. Gladys was a big fan of the Duke of Paducah. Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black receive $350 for these two shows instead of their usual $200 per day. In August 1955, he returned and played Robinson as part of the All-Star Jamboree.

His third and final appearance at Robinson Auditorium was on May 16, 1956. This time, the Auditorium 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 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 Gazette reporter: “I wouldn’t know him if I saw him. And I wouldn’t be here unless I was being paid.”

18 Cultural Events from 2018 – Ballet Arkansas’ 40th anniversary THE NUTCRACKER

Ballet Arkansas’ 40th Anniversary Nutcracker Spectacular took the stage at the Robinson Performance Hall December 6–9, 2018 for four main stage performances and two student matinee performances. The largest holiday production in Central Arkansas, Ballet Arkansas’ Nutcracker has been a tradition in Little Rock for decades.

A two-act ballet, originally choreographed by Marius Petipa, with a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker is a timeless story about a young girl’s journey into a magical land, The Land of the Sweets, on one winter’s eve.

Joining Ballet Arkansas’ fourteen professional dancers onstage was a community cast made up of over 200 children and adults, including local dancers, previous Ballet Arkansas dancers, Ballet Arkansas board members.

The production is enhanced with live music provided by the talented musicians of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Geoffrey Robson, and the ethereal voices of the Mount St. Mary Academy Concert Belles and the Episcopal Collegiate Choirs,

“The Nutcracker is a beloved Holiday classic that families look forward to each year as a part of their traditions, and this year’s production features fully updated choreography, a handful of holiday surprises, and much more!” says Associate Artistic Director, Catherine Fothergill.

In 2017, Michael Fothergill, Executive and Artistic Director of the organization took steps to re-vitalize the choreography in the 2nd Act. This year, Ballet Arkansas have renovated the 1st Act, while maintaining some of the time honored and fan favorite traditions. This updated show celebrates the past, breathing new life into the organization’s most beloved holiday tradition.

For the 2nd year in a row, Ballet Arkansas live streamed the matinee performances to Arkansas Children’s Hospital.

18 Cultural Events from 2018 – THE LION KING rules Robinson Center

On April 19, 2018, THE LION KING opened a twenty-three (23) performance run at Robinson Center Performance Hall in the show’s first-ever production in Little Rock.  Celebrity Attractions brought the show to the Rock.

The twenty-three performances over eighteen days is the longest run a Broadway touring production has ever had in Little Rock.  It eclipses the record of twelve days held by Wicked and The Phantom of the Opera.  More people saw The Lion King in Little Rock than had ever seen a stage production of a single show in the history of Arkansas.

More than 90 million people around the world have experienced the awe-inspiring visual artistry, the unforgettable music, and the uniquely theatrical storytelling of this Broadway spectacular “one of the most breathtaking and beloved productions ever to grace the stage.

THE LION KING brings together one of the most imaginative creative teams on Broadway.  Tony Award®-winning director Julie Taymor brings to life a story filled with hope and adventure set against an amazing backdrop of stunning visuals.  THE LION KING also features the extraordinary work of Tony Award®-winning choreographer Garth Fagan and some of Broadway’s most recognizable music, crafted by Tony Award®-winning artists Elton John and Tim Rice.

Little Rock Look Back: Christmas Eve 1937 Groundbreaking for Robinson Auditorium

On December 24, 1937, at 11:30 a.m., Little Rock Mayor R. E. Overman, Ewilda Gertrude Miller Robinson (the widow of Senator Joseph Taylor Robinson) and  Alexander Allaire of the PWA turned dirt to participate in the brief groundbreaking ceremony for Little Rock’s municipal auditorium.

That morning, the Arkansas Gazette ran a brief story on the upcoming groundbreaking.  The story mentioned that the building would be named in memory of the late beloved Arkansas politician.  This appears to be the first public pronouncement of the Robinson name for this civic structure.

Among others in attendance at the groundbreaking were Mrs. Charles Miller (sister-in-law of Mrs. Robinson), Mr. and Mrs. Grady Miller (brother and sister-in-law of Mrs. Robinson), the mayor’s wife, the three architects (George Wittenberg, Lawson Delony and Eugene John Stern), and D. H. Daugherty and Will Terry of the City’s Board of Public Affairs.

Construction had to start by January 1, 1938, in order to receive PWA funds.  By breaking ground on December 24, there was over a week to spare.  The site had been selected in late October 1937, and the purchase had not been finalized.  But the PWA did give permission for the City to let a contract for excavation, demolition and filling on the site.

The groundbreaking took place at the corner of Garland and Spring Streets which was on the northeast corner of the block set aside for the auditorium.  Today, Spring Street does not extend north of Markham; the street was closed to make way for the parking structure and what is now the Doubletree Hotel.  Garland Street is basically an alley that runs parallel to Markham north of City Hall, Robinson Auditorium and the Doubletree Hotel.

Little Rock Look Back: 1968 THE NUTCRACKER is largest production to date at Robinson

In December 1968, the final stretch of Interstate 40 between Little Rock and Memphis was completed. (Little did anyone know that milestone merely meant work would change from construction to non-stop reconstruction.)  Talks were underway about merging private Little Rock University with the University of Arkansas system.  On the TV on December 19, “The Little Drummer Boy” TV special was being shown for the first time.  Also, Arkansan Glen Campbell was one of the guest stars on Bob Hope’s Christmas TV special.

For those who did not sit at home watching TV, at Robinson Auditorium on December 19 and 20, 1968, the nascent Little Rock Civic Ballet (a forerunner to today’s Ballet Arkansas) presented its first production of THE NUTCRACKER. (There appears to be some debate as to whether this was the first complete production of this ballet in Little Rock.)

Under the direction and choreography of D. Cater Cranford, this production featured 135 performers, a fifty piece orchestra under the direction of Vasilios Priakos, and the largest number of stagehands in Robinson Auditorium’s history.  The production cost $25,000 to mount.  That would be the equivalent of just over $181,000 in 2018.

A large portion of the money went to renting sets from Dallas for the production.  The costumes were designed and sewn by Cranford.  He also appeared as Drosselmeyer in the production.  His wife Lorraine, assisted with the choreography and also appeared on stage.

Though most of the dancers were local, the leading roles were danced by Bill Martin-Viscont, Nathalie Krassovak, Linda DiBona, Margo Dean and Carl Tressler.  Some of the dancers who had rehearsed for the production were unable to participate due to several cast members coming down with flu in the days immediately prior to the production.

The production sold out both public performances as well as the daytime matinee for school children.  The dress rehearsal on December 18 was opened up for children with disabilities to attend.

Though The Nutcracker has not been presented in Little Rock every year since 1968, the overwhelming response to this production set the stage for it to become a much-loved holiday tradition in the city.