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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Tonight – Clinton School and UA Little Rock present program on The Struggle in the South mural

Today (January 16) at noon, UA Little Rock officially cuts the ribbon on the new UA Little Rock Downtown campus in the River Market district.

Tonight at 6pm, the Clinton School Speaker Series in conjunction with UA Little Rock presents a panel discussion on the Joe Jones mural, “The Struggle in the South” which is featured in that new space.  It will take place in the UA Little Rock Downtown location.

In 1935, famed American artist Joe Jones created “The Struggle in the South,” a provocative depiction of Southern sharecroppers, coal miners and a black family in fear of a lynching.

Originally painted in the dining hall at Commonwealth College near Mena, Arkansas, this 44-by-9-foot work was recently restored with a $500,000 grant from Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Center.

During this program, moderator Senator Joyce Elliott will join Brad Cushman, UA Little Rock Department of Art and Design Gallery director and curator; author Guy Lancaster; Dr. Brian Mitchell, UA Little Rock professor of history; Dr. Bobby L. Robert, former UA Little Rock archivist and Central Arkansas Library System executive director; and Taemora Williams, UA Little Rock student, to discuss the artwork’s historical significance and importance of its new home in UA Little Rock Downtown’s reflection room.

All Clinton School Speaker Series events are free and open to the public. Reserve your seats by emailing publicprograms@clintonschool.uasys.edu or by calling (501) 683-5239.

2nd Friday Art Night – Christ Church

Christ Episcopal Church will open a new art exhibit in its Gallery on Friday, January 11, 2019. Brenda Fowler will be the featured artist from January 11 through the end of March 2019.

Fowler’s paintings will be on display for purchase in the Gallery. The exhibit is entitled “Life Changes,” which, Fowler explains, embraces the essence of an ever-changing life, as well as the emotions experienced throughout these changes.

Fowler is an Arkansas artist whose original contemporary abstract expressionist paintings are intended to convey the creative energy and passion for expression through which all artists go. Her mixed media, large-scale paintings on deep, gallery-wrapped canvas, are comprised of multiple layers of strong, vibrant, high-quality fine art acrylic colors, often with added texture. Each piece begins with a concept, a thought, or an idea with the intent to convey emotions and are reflective of their titles.

Fowler received her formal education at the University of Arkansas Little Rock and the Arkansas Arts Center Museum School. Her paintings have been displayed at numerous art galleries and interior design firms throughout Arkansas and in Dallas.

Christ Church believes that artists, whether painters or singers or sculptors or poets, show something of God when they show us the world’s truth and beauty through their talents. The Gallery is open to the public each weekday during regular business hours and is also a regular stop on downtown Little Rock’s Second Friday Art Night. The exhibition will open with a reception for the artist on Friday, January 11 from 5 pm-8 pm.

18 Cultural Events of 2018 – UA Little Rock unveils restored Joe Jones mural from 1930s

As curator Brad Cushman said at the unveiling of the Joe Jones mural, “There is absolutely no reason this mural should still exist.”  But it does.  And now fully restored Jones’s 1935 mural The Struggle in the South is a centerpiece of the new UA Little Rock Downtown Campus in the heart of the River Market.

First painted in the 1935 to be placed at Commonwealth College in Mena, it spent many years lining two closets in a house after it had been taken down from its original location. When that house was being torn down, someone called Bobby Roberts because they thought it might be something worth saving.

Dr. Roberts drove to west Arkansas, picked it up, and brought it back to Little Rock.  For years it sat in storage at UA Little Rock. While that probably stopped its deterioration, it did nothing to restore it.

In 2009, the St. Louis Art Museum restored one panel of it to include in an exhibition on Jones, a native of the Gateway City.  That prompted Cushman to push even harder to have the rest of it restored.  In 2012, the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council provided a grant which made restoration possible.  Additional funding came from the University and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  The 29 pieces of the mural were sent to Helen Houp Fine Art Conservation in Dallas.

The mural consists of three sections that brutally but honestly tell tales of the South in the first third of the 20th Century.  The first section depicts coal miners about to go on strike, the middle section shows a lynching of an African American man, and the third shows an African American family in fear inside a wooden shack – both in the shadow of the lynching and an impending tornado set to destroy the land they are working.

It is a difficult piece. It is intended to be disquieting. But UA Little Rock also sought to put the piece in context. They did not do this to explain away or make excuses. But they did it to relate it to events in Little Rock both during that time period and other times in the City’s history.  It is designed to encourage dialogue, scholarship, and collaborations.

The space in which the mural is displayed was designed by architect Steve Rousseau.  Credit goes to the UA Little Rock Board of Visitors, Chancellor Andrew Rogerson, and many other faculty and staff at the campus for making the UA Little Rock Downtown campus a reality and a showcase for this important mural.

Legacies & Lunch today at noon – When Arkansas was part of Missouri

Survey marker erected in 1926 at what is now Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park, photo by Brandon Rush

Today (January 2) at 12 noon, the Central Arkansas Library System Butler Center for Arkansas Studies kicks off its programming for 2019. First up is the monthly Legacies & Lunch program. Today’s focus is on the creation of the Arkansas Territory. The year 2019 marks 200 years since Arkansas was separated from Missouri.

Author and professor S. Charles Bolton, who taught history at University of Arkansas Little Rock for over three decades, will discuss the early history of the geographical region that became the state of Arkansas.

The state was formed on land that was part of the Louisiana Territory for a time before becoming the Missouri Territory. The federal government eventually sent the Hunter-Dunbar Expedition up the Ouachita River, and designated a spot in eastern Arkansas as the starting point for land surveys west of the Mississippi River. The U.S. government also built a military installation on the future site of Fort Smith. These actions  led to the eventual creation of Arkansas Territory in 1819, followed by statehood in 1836.

About Legacies & Lunch

Legacies & Lunch is a free monthly program of the CALS Butler Center for Arkansas Studies that highlights Arkansas-related topics. Programs are held from noon to 1 pm on the first Wednesday of the month. Attendees are invited to bring a sack lunch; drinks and dessert are provided. A library parking discount is available upon request. For more information, contact 501-918-3030.

 

18 Cultural Events from 2018 – Windgate Center for Art + Design opens at UA Little Rock

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Photo of Windgate Center (courtesy UA Little Rock Department of Art and Design)

2. In February, the new WIndgate Center for Art + Design opened on the UA Little Rock campus.  This 65,000 square foot building put, for the first time, all of the art and design programs under the same roof.  In addition to classrooms, it features two gallery spaces.

The Windgate Center of Art + Design building is physically divided into two distinct architectural forms based on the distinctly unique use of the spaces. However both forms are connected and share common building utilities and circulation patterns. The Applied Design area of the building is a single story high bay industrial style space that lends itself to 3 dimensional forms of art. The Visual Arts portion of the building is a 3-story structural steel framed building to house the typical classrooms, galleries, lecture hall, admin area and other miscellaneous spaces that make up the visual arts program.

The Windgate Center of Art + Design building is designed to have a strong community presence to help strengthen the various community partnerships that have been forged over the years. Access for gallery shows, art festivals and other events is an important component in the building design.

Sustainable measures are fully integrated into the building orientation, exterior envelope and support systems to support energy and long-term maintenance efficiencies. The building will pursue LEED Gold and is currently being registered in the LEED Certification program.

As part of the Windgate Foundation’s commitment to the project, the University pledged to raise $3 million in scholarships for art students.

In October of 2018, a new seven foot tall wooden sculpture by Robyn Horn was installed at the entrance to the building and dedicated.

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.