THE ARKANSAS ENTERTAINERS HALL OF FAME

Pine Bluff Convention CenterThere are famous Arkansans in the entertainment field and their Hall of Fame is located in the Pine Bluff Convention Center. Street Entrance to AR Entertainers Hall of FameAn entertainment hall of fame might seem a bit out of place in a state that is suspicious of individual achievement and generally distrustful anybody who seeks attention; but I guess it just goes to show that no matter how much you discourage the mavericks, some will get away from you and accomplish something.

One thing that surprised me was that there are actually quite a few famous Arkansans, mostly in country music. Johnny Cash Animatronic FigureJohnny Cash is probably the most famous native-born entertainer, and his exhibit greets each visitor at the entrance. That's it at the right. The likeness is pretty convincing, although the hair on the robot looks somewhat fuller and more blow-dried than I would have expected on Mr. Cash himself. From some angles he looks a little like Terence Knox.

I wrote to Rodney Heiligman of LifeFormations (the company that built the J.C. robot) in Bowling Green, Ohio to get more information about these animatronic figures. Below are my questions and his answers.

Q: How much do these things typically cost? I gather from your website that figures can have a range of mechanical complexity and intricacy of detail that determine cost, but what would be the difference in cost of a still figure (as for a wax museum) and a very complex one?

A: Our static characters start at about $3,700. Our animated characters start at about $10,000 for a very limited character (just a few moves) and can cost more than $100,000 depending on the number of moves.

Q: How much do animatronics weigh?

A: The animatronics generally weigh between 50 and 200 pounds depending on the number of moves.

Q: Do your artists work from photographs, molds or masks? Did your people visit with, or photograph, or take measurements or casts of Johnny Cash himself?

A: For Johnny Cash, we used photographs to sculpt him, then sent photographs to the client for approval. I believe that Johnny Cash had to approve the pictures before we could cast the head.

Q: I noticed the figure was fairly quiet, and what noise there was was pretty much masked by the recording that played. Is the mechanism mechanical (as in gears and pulleys), hydraulic, pneumatic or what?

A: The character is pneumatic.

Q: Have you ever been tempted to make a figure of a receptionist and seat it in the lobby behind the front desk of your offices to greet visitors and see how long it takes them to notice they're talking to a robot?

A: Sure.

Q: Do you ever catch your employees talking to the robots?

A: Yes.

Q: Have you ever caught yourself talking to one of the robots?

A: Yes.

Q: How much trouble is it to reprogram the movements? If, for example, you were to change the selection of songs offered by the Johnny Cash figure, how long would it take to reprogram the movements to be synchronous with the new songs?

A: It depends on the control system. Johnny Cash uses our own PC control system. It can be programmed on site. Depending on how good you want the character to look, programming can take anywhere from 5 to 60 times the length of the script. We tend to spend between 50 and 60 minutes programming 1 minute of show.

Q: Have you ever been to Arkansas?

A: Been through there a few times.

There's a red button on the cabinet at Johnny's feet. Press it and one of five famous Johnny Cash songs plays as the figure strums and sings. That white Thunderbird in the background in the picture below is the property of Jim Ed Brown. The vocal group The Browns are not all that well-known today, but back in the fifties and sixties they were extraordinarily popular as part of the Grand Ol' Opry. Their "Best of the Grand Ol' Opry" album was nominated for a grammy for Best Album by a Vocal Group the same year the Beatles put out "A Hard Day's Night." Ah, well. Timing is everything.

Johnny Cash Animatronic Figure and Jim Ed Brown's T-birdAdmission is free, but to be inducted you have to have achieved some kind of tangible, legitimate fame outside of Arkansas. I spoke with Jim Porter of Jim Porter Entertainment in Little Rock. He's the former chairman of the governor-appointed panel of review for the exhibit. It was his concern that inductees are really and truly famous and really and truly from Arkansas. It would be a little embarassing to have a hall of fame filled with people nobody in Louisiana has ever heard of, and it's Jim's job to see that that doesn't happen.

Just from looking at the list of inductees, it seems that some kind of professional recognition is de jure. A number-one single might get you in, but a gold record or a grammy is sure to, as will an emmy or an oscar.

The residence rules are a little looser. Susan Madsen of the Pine Bluff Convention Center said that inductees had to have "some kind of Arkansas connection." Jim Porter specified to me "the maintenance of a legal residence in Arkansas for some amount of time." For instance, Tracy Lawrence was born in Texas, but moved to Arkansas as a youngster. He qualifies. Likewise, Jerry Van Dyke (Luther from "Coach") was born in Illinois but took an Arkansas bride (Arkansas' women are notoriously beautiful) and moved to the Benton area later in life. And so he qualifies.

Jimmy Driftwood ExhibitPictured at right is the transporter room. No, wait! Make that the Jimmy Driftwood Exhibit. Jimmy Driftwood is the guy who wrote such memorable folk tunes as "The Battle of New Orleans." You know the one... "We fired our guns and the British kep-a-comin'...." That one. Featured in the case is the homemade guiter that he played most of his life. Jimmy was also a folklorist and actively worked for the historic preservation of Ozark culture, lobbying the state government for the extablishment of projects like the Ozark Folk Center.

Cabinets full of Stuff of the Rich and FamousHere's more stuff. Cabinets display gold records, guitars, stage costumes, Levon (The Band) Helms' (born in Turkey Scratch) autographed drumsticks, some well-thumbed scripts from "Coach," a dress and a hat from Mary Steenburgen, autographed picture of Billy Bob Thornton wearing what looks like a WWF wrestling title belt buckle and so on. The best parts are the stories. When you visit, don't just glance at the names and skip the ones you don't immediately recognize. Read the individual stories, especially the ones you think you've never seen before. There's some good stuff there.

If you would like to nominate somebody for induction into the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame, here's what you need to do: First, gather materials supporting the proposition that your pal is really famous. Not "fifteen-minutes-of-fame" famous. Performing a "Stupid Human Trick" on Letterman or harvesting a potato that looks like Nixon won't do the trick. Second, get documentation to show that your pal has had a legal residence in Arkansas at some time in his life. Third, compose a brief, eloquent letter summarizing your documentation, put it all into an envelope and send it Attention: Susan Madsen to Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame Nominations, One Convention Center Plaza, Pine Bluff, AR 71601.

Here is a list of the inductees as of this writing:

The Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame is open weekdays and admission is free, although donations are encouraged. Address is One Convention Center Plaza, Pine Bluff. Phone is 1-800-536-7660.

Here's a link to an official list of famous Arkansans.

RTJ--4/2/99

RTJ--6/6/2006


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