31 Days of Arkansas Rep: THE ELEPHANT MAN in 2009

Thirty years after it opened on Broadway, Arkansas Rep presented The Elephant Man.  Due to anticipated renovations at the Rep’s main stage, it was performed at Wildwood Park in the Cabe Festival Theatre.

Rep founder Cliff Fannin Baker directed this production which starred Rep veteran Steve Wilkerson in the title role. Wilkerson, who had previously shown his skill and versatility in such varied roles as Peter Pan and Prior Walter, displayed his talents and physicality in portraying the deformed John Merrick.

Another Rep veteran, Joe Graves, played the doctor who befriended Merrick.  Others in the cast were Matt Walker, Nathan Klau, Val Landrum, Alanna Hammill Newton, and Wesley Mann.

The creative team included Mike Nichols (scenery), Marianne Custer (costumes), Matthew Webb (lighting), M. Jason Pruzin (sound), and Lynda J. Kwallek (props). The original score was composed by Buddy Habig, a Little Rock musician who died in December 2008.

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LR Culture Vulture turns 7

The Little Rock Culture Vulture debuted on Saturday, October 1, 2011, to kick off Arts & Humanities Month.

The first feature was on the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, which was kicking off its 2011-2012 season that evening.  The program consisted of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90, Rossini’s, Overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers, Puccini’s Chrysanthemums and Respighi’s Pines of Rome.  In addition to the orchestra musicians, there was an organ on stage for this concert.

Since then, there have been 10,107 persons/places/things “tagged” in the blog.  This is the 3,773rd entry. (The symmetry to the number is purely coincidental–or is it?)  It has been viewed over 288,600 times, and over 400 readers have made comments.  It is apparently also a reference on Wikipedia.

The most popular pieces have been about Little Rock history and about people in Little Rock.

Remembering Dr. David O. Belcher

As a undergraduate and later graduate student at then-Southwest Missouri State University, I first became aware of Dr. David O. Belcher.  I had several friends who were music majors, and they would speak glowingly of him.  Another friend, an accounting major, took piano lessons from him.

As the College of Arts and Letters had leadership vacancies, Dr. Belcher was tapped to fill them.  He was chosen because he was a visionary, a perfectionist, and a consensus builder.

My favorite memory of him during the time we were both in Springfield, however, is of him playing the piano portion of “Rhapsody in Blue” at the Grand Opening Gala of Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts.  Backed by the Springfield Symphony, he deftly handled this classic piece.  As a graduate assistant on the staff, I was able to listen to several rehearsals.  He always gave his all during every run-through.

A few years after I returned to Little Rock, I received a phone call from Jo Jones in the Chancellor’s office at UALR.  Dr. Joel Anderson was considering David to be his Provost.  Jo (a family friend) knew I had attended SMSU and wanted to know my thoughts about him.  I told her that due to the fact I was not involved directly in the music department, I had probably said fewer than 10 words to him, outside of “Hello” but then proceeded to tell her of his reputation, of what I had observed, and what I had heard from others.   A week or so later, she called to tell me that Dr. Anderson had just announced to the UALR faculty the hiring of Dr. Belcher.

I sent him an email to welcome him to Little Rock. Since he was a musician, and cultural affairs were part of my duties at the City of Little Rock, I was especially excited to have him come.  Some mutual friends asked me to also reach out to Susan. (I think they were not yet married but were engaged.) I was thrilled to do so.

Once they arrived, the Little Rock arts community embraced them, and they embraced it.  It was a definite mutual admiration society.  They became involved with the Symphony, the Rep, Wildwood, the Arts Center,  Accademia dell’Arte, and numerous music organizations.  They promoted the UALR arts to the community and supported on-campus efforts with their attendance and participation.  I was eventually able to convince David to serve on the City’s Arts+Culture Commission.  After service of  few months, he was asked to be the chair. Though busy with numerous major tasks at UALR, he agreed.

From time to time we would meet for lunch. Our conversations would veer between Springfield, Little Rock, and the arts in general.  They were always delightful.

In 2005, he was a finalist to become the next president at what would be Missouri State University.  At the time, I joked to Dr. Anderson that either way the selection went, I would benefit. He responded with a smile that he appreciated my response, but that he did not benefit if David left. He followed up by saying, “He is so good, I know I won’t be able to keep him here forever, but I want a few more years.”

While it was not meant for David and Susan to return to Springfield, he maintained many close ties. (He also poached several excellent faculty and administrators from Springfield to come to Little Rock.)

Alas for Little Rock, in 2011 he was hired by Western Carolina University to lead that campus.  Not only did it give him the chance to be a Chancellor, but it also took him closer to his family and his roots.

By all accounts, he was as dynamic and respected at WCU as he had been in Springfield and Little Rock.  Unfortunately, in 2016, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  Through two years of treatments, surgery, improvements, and setbacks, he kept up as well as possible with his duties.

A page on the WCU website posted updates. He felt it was important for the faculty, students, and donors to know about his status.  A photo on that page shows hundreds of people standing in the rain at a rally to show support for him as he battled this.  On August 1, 2017, he announced the tumor had returned.  Later in the semester, he announced he would be going on medical leave effective December 31, 2017.

On June 14, 2018, the first update of the year was made. It noted he was in a care facility and receiving only family and close friends. It encouraged people to write notes and stressed that the Belchers wanted any tributes to be made for scholarships at WCU.

Following his death on June 17, 2018, his obituary also encouraged memorials be made to Furman (his alma mater), Missouri State University, and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.  Unselfish to the end, his last wishes paid tribute to the institutions which had prepared him to lead WCU.

Godspeed Dr. David O. Belcher.  The music will continue to play. But it will be a slightly different tune without your contributions.

SHORTIE STORIES tonight at Wildwood Park with The Friends & Family Band

Tonight at Wildwood Park for the Arts….

“Shortie Stories” features inspired harmonies, a jet-flying bassist, and bluegrass instruments, along with generational tales by Melissa Thoma and Ron Hughes, the Friends & Family Band brings mountain music to The Studios at Wildwood for a toe-tapping evening of great music and laugh-out-loud family lore that will warm your heart.

When Melissa Thoma hosts her musical family in Little Rock, they are joined by Ron Hughes and Johnny Scroggins, who altogether make the Friends and Family Band.

Mark Bair, banjo and guitar picker, and Russell Bair, fiddle player, both of Pryor, OK; Rex Bair, mandolin player from Maumelle, AR; Ron Hughes, guitar, banjo, fiddle and bass player and lead singer for the Greasy Greens; Johnny Scroggins, bass playing prodigy who has played with the likes of Leon Russell and Jerry Lee Lewis—and he’s a retired jet pilot to boot! Melissa Thoma provides vocal harmony, having sung everything from bluegrass to opera onstage in Central Arkansas.

Together, they are the Friends & Family Band. “And since everyone is probably either friend or family, we welcome any and all who want to make – or just enjoy – mountain music!”

7:30 pm (doors open at 7)
Onstage in The Studios at Wildwood

90 years of Maya Angelou

Though she left this earth physically in 2014, Maya Angelou’s work and legacy continue on in the lives she touched and her writings.   Ninety years ago today, she was born in St. Louis.

On February 23, 1998, Maya Angelou appeared with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra in a concert at Robinson Center.  The evening featured Dr. Angelou narrating Joseph Schwantner’s tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “New Morning for the World.”

Dr. Angelou, a former resident of Stamps, Arkansas, was not a stranger to Little Rock. She had appeared before at Wildwood Park and would later appear at the Clinton Presidential Center.

A former Poet Laureate of the United States and Tony nominated actor, she won a Grammy Award for her reading of “On the Pulse of the Morning” which had been written for the first inauguration of Bill Clinton as President of the United States.

A poet, author, educator, dancer, singer, actor, and activist, she wrote seven autobiographies. The most notable was arguably I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  Born in St. Louis, she spent part of her childhood in Arkansas before moving to California.  She led a peripatetic life both geographically and career-wise ending as a professor at Wake Forest and residing in North Carolina.  It was there that she died in May 2014.

One of the ways her work continues is through the Celebrate Maya project which is led by Janis Kearney.

Rock the Oscars: Hal Holbrook

(Photo by Joseph Harris for the AP)

Oscar nominated actor Hal Holbrook’s visits to Little Rock have been fairly regular over the decades.  In the 1980s and 1990s, he came several times in conjunction with the TV shows “Designing Women” and “Evening Shade.”  He also made an appearance at Wildwood in his one man play Mark Twain Tonight.

His first visit to Little Rock was in the mid-1950s.  He was just out of college and on a national tour of schools and small towns performing scenes from Shakespeare opposite his then-wife.  In a lengthy essay reflecting on his early career, Holbrook speaks fondly of his visit to Little Rock and of the grandiose stage and auditorium at Little Rock Central High School.

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.