The Oxford American magazine recently celebrated the fifty-year anniversary of the publication of True Grit. The novel is Charles Portis’s best-known work, due in no small part to the film versions released in 1969 (John Wayne, Glen Campbell, Kim Darby) and 2010 (Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld). The weekend event took place in Little Rock Arkansas, the author’s home town. The agenda included screenings of both movies, readings by writers who are also Portis fans, panel discussions with critics, educators and film experts, and seminars about the novel’s settings: Fort Smith AR and Oklahoma “Indian Territory.” A variety show, featuring singer Iris DeMent, rounded out the entertainment.
One of the panels included filmmaker Katrina Whalen who discussed the challenges of translating Portis’s work to the screen. Whalen’s short film, an adaptation of a Portis short story, was shown.
“I Don’t Talk Service No More” was published in 1996. The story is narrated by the resident of a “nut house.” He tells of his late-night phone calls trying to reconnect with his buddies in the combat unit he served with decades earlier in Korea. Katrina Whalen wrote the screenplay and directed the nine-minute picture. The film captures the mood of Portis’s story and brings alive the narrator’s dialog.
Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross traveled by train from Dardanelle to Fort Smith, on the western border of Arkansas. She was searching for a man with grit, someone to help her track down Tom Chaney, the lowlife who had robbed and murdered her father. She hired Rueben Cogburn, a deputy U.S. marshal known as “Rooster.” A Texas Ranger is also looking for the killer, for an unrelated murder in Texas. He joins up with them and they head off into the “Indian Territory” of what is now Oklahoma.
Charles Portis’s novel, True Grit, was published in 1968. To celebrate its fifty-year anniversary, the Oxford American magazine is hosting a celebration in Little Rock, Portis’s hometown. The weekend event includes a screening on Friday of the1969 film starring John Wayne, in his only Oscar-winning performance, Glen Campbell, Kim Darby and Robert Duvall. The 2010 Coen Brothers version of True Grit, featuring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hailee Steinfeld, will be shown the next day. The weekend event includes speakers Roy Blount Jr. and Calvin Trillin and entertainment by Iris DeMent. (Garrison Keillor was originally scheduled to be the featured speaker, but he was quietly dropped from the agenda.)
Little Rock is also home to the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport. The Clinton Presidential Library sits on the bank of the Arkansas River, at the end of President Clinton Avenue.
Central High School, made famous by the “Little Rock Nine,” who with the help of the 101st Airborne, integrated the school in 1957, is now a National Historic Site.
As in many cities of segregated America, Little Rock Arkansas had a thriving African-American community. The West 9th Street neighborhood on the eastern edge of downtown was filled with black-owned businesses and professional offices. The Dreamland Ballroom headlined acts such as Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Etta James, Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner et cetera. Urban renewal came to the neighborhood in the 1950s. It came with a vengeance after the integration of Central High School made news around the world.
Originally termed “slum clearance,” the more genteel label “urban renewal” saw the eviction of black families and their relocation to housing projects further east. The Little Rock Housing Authority (LRHA) had authority to purchase –requiring homeowners to sell at assessed price – and demolish swaths of “blighted” areas. The LRHA director went on record that, “the city of Little Rock through its various agencies including the housing authority systematically worked to continue segregation” through its slum clearance and public housing projects. The city built two new high schools: Horace Mann High in the mostly black eastern part of Little Rock, and Hall High in the white western edge. Construction in the 1960s of Interstates 630 and 430 solidified the de facto boundary between white and black Little Rock.
Fast forward to 1991. Kerry McCoy, founder and owner of Arkansas Flag and Banner, was looking for a new headquarters for her company. The Taborian Hall, built in 1918 by an African-American contractor for the Knights and Daughters of Tabor, had stood derelict on West 9th for decades; it even lacked a roof when McCoy purchased it. In addition to the lodge, the building in its glory days housed the USO, the Gem Pharmacy, medical and dentist offices and the Dreamland Ballroom. The flag business has thrived and Kerry McCoy has steadily progressed with making the Dreamland a viable operation. (You can schedule your wedding reception there.)
While full-scale gentrification has yet to come to the West 9th district, the neighborhood’s changes and Dreamland’s resuscitation was the subject of a PBS documentary.