Entertaining Evening in Pine Bluff

Kerry Kraus
A sharp-shootin’ cowgirl, some rockabilly legends, three well-known actors, a local television news icon, a prolific band leader and a pioneer in the state’s talent scout industry – Wow! What an evening! Dust off the black tie attire and mark your calendar for the chance to mingle with the stars – Arkansas-style.

Ceremonies on November 16 will provide an opportunity for residents – and visitors – to pay homage to some Arkansans have delighted us over the years with their talents as the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame in Pine Bluff inducts eight new members. The honorees this year are Gail Davis, Sonny Burgess, Gil Gerard, Laurence Luckinbill, Jack Mitchell, B. J. Sams, Sarah Tackett and Beth Brickell.

Gail Davis: Davis is best known to the baby boomer generation for portraying the legendary female sharpshooter Annie Oakley from 1954 to 1956. The daughter of a McGehee, Arkansas doctor, she was born in a Little Rock hospital on October 5, 1925. She continued to live in Arkansas attending Little Rock Senior High School until she left for Harcum Junior College for Girls in Bryn Mawr majoring in dramatics.

According to her biography, “Gail as Annie Oakley was the screen’s first out and out female Western star, having been called “the perfect Western actress” by cowboy actor Gene Autry, who was the driving force behind the show. In an era dominated by cowboys, she was one of the few cowgirls whose role and abilities made her an equal. She had to deal with the same kinds of outlaws that the cowboys dealt with and she did it without ever killing a one of them. Though she did a man-sized job of shooting, riding, and cliff hanging in the course of each episode, Gail’s Annie was feminine through and through.” Davis continued to portray Annie Oakley after the television series ended, touring the United States. She passed away on March 15, 1996 from lung cancer.

Sonny Burgess: A Newport native, Burgess is best known as one of the original rock and roll recording artists for Sun Records in Memphis, and as one of the pioneers of rock and roll. In the early-to-mid 1950s, he headed-up bands known by several names including the Rocky Road Ramblers, the Moonlighters and later The Pacers. While known as the Moonlighters (for the Silver Moon Club in Newport where they performed regularly), the group shared the circuit club stage with many up-and-coming performers such as Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Conway Twitty. The Moonlighters opened for Presley  performances four times. Sonny Burgess and The Pacers continued to record for Sun Records until 1959. Burgess was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame of Europe in 1999. In 1998, the Smithsonian Institute made a video called “Rockin’ on the River” that brought Burgess and the legendary Pacers together again. In 2002, they were inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in Jackson, Tennessee.

Gil Gerard: Little Rock native Gil Gerard rocketed to fame as Buck Rogers in the NBC television series, “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” from 1979 to 1981. He has also starred in numerous made-for-television movies and feature films. Gil headed to New York in the summer of 1969 where he trained at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. Shortly thereafter, he won an audition for the movie “Love Story,” which was followed by over 400 commercials for various national accounts, including Coca-Cola, Ford Motor Co., and Procter & Gamble. Gerard was also a member of the cast of the Emmy Award winning “The Doctors,” daytime drama, playing the part of Dr. Alan Stewart for over three years.

During this same time, Hollywood called where he guest-starred in an episode of the television series “Baretta” and appeared in the role of Lee Grant’s lover in the motion picture “Airport ’77.” After landing a guest starring role on “Little House on the Prairie,” Michael Landon offered him the lead in a new series, “Stone.” The show was never aired by NBC but Gerard was. He was offered the title role in the feature film and television show “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.”

Laurence Luckinbill: Fort Smith is where actor Laurence Luckinbill was born on Nov. 21, 1934. He studied acting at the University of  Arkansas where he appeared in nine student productions. Luckinbill made is professional debut at the Carnegie Playhouse in New York as the Old Shepherd in “Oedipus Rex.” His theatrical career includes roles in “Othello,” “A Man for All Seasons,” “Galileo” and “Death of a Salesman,” among others. Luckinbill reprised his role of Hank in the critically acclaimed film version of “The Boys in the Band” in 1970. He went on to appear in “Such Good Friends,” the made-for-television movie “Ike,” “Cocktail” and “Star Trek.”  Luckinbill is married to Lucie Arnaz, who will attend the function with her husband.

Jack Mitchell: Though not a native Arkansan, Mitchell now chooses to call Arkansas home. The self-taught drummer had is first professional gig when he was hired at age 17 by Harry Barry to be the featured boy drummer in an otherwise all-girl orchestra. His first introduction to The Natural State came during the 1940s when stationed at Eaker Air Force Base in Blytheville. He continued his military and musical career when he was transferred to a base in Sebring, Florida, then Smyrna, Tennessee. After the war, Mitchell worked as an exporter for 30 years and also continued to play in various bands. When not overseas, he worked with bands in Chicago and appeared with such entertainers as Eddie Fisher, Steve and Edie Gorme, The McGuire Sisters, Joey Bishop, Bob Newhart, Isaac Stern, Gregory Hines, Regis Philbin and Tony Bennett.

Mitchell retired from business and moved to Bella Vista in 1988. He joined the Bella Vista Big Band, becoming leader in 1990. Under his tutelage, the band performed for both of former President Bill Clinton’s inaugural balls in 1993 and 1997 in Washington, DC. He continues to reside in Northwest Arkansas and leads several bands, ranging from small combos to the big band and Praise band.

B. J. Sams: Longtime Central Arkansas news anchor, Sams s one of the most recognizable faces in the state. B.J. has worked in broadcasting for more than 50 years, 32 of them in the Little Rock market. He graduated from the University of Tennessee with a Business and Administration degree. After graduation he entered the U.S. Army where he took basic training at Fort Hood, Texas with Elvis Presley. He began his broadcasting career in 1964 at KTVE in Monroe, Louisiana. He then came to Little Rock to work for KATV as anchor in 1966. In 1973, he moved to Honolulu, Hawaii where he worked for nine years. Sams returned to Arkansas in 1982 to work for KTHV where he remains today. For the past 10 years, he has worked the top morning show in the state along with Robyn Richardson and Tom Brannon. The Associated Press presented Sams their Broadcaster of the Year award in 2000. On his 50th anniversary in broadcasting, KTHV renamed the studio in his honor.

Sarah Tackett:
The owner and founder of The Agency, Inc., Sarah was born in 1958 in Conway. Her involvement with the entertainment industry began as a self-employed freelance make-up artist for film and video production. Recognizing a production void for a consolidated source of models and actors to efficiently cast projects, Tackett began to enlist local talent while looking for new faces to provide a well-rounded pool for client casting needs. “The Agency, Incorporated” was introduced to area production companies, advertising agencies, and photographers as Arkansas’ first full-service professional talent, modeling, and casting agency in 1984.

In less than a year, Tackett was hired to provide local casting for the made-for-TV movie, “Under Siege.” She has since provided location casting for over 20 films throughout the south including over 350 principle roles and extras in excess of 20,000. She has worked for award-winning directors including Billy Bob Thornton, “Slingblade;” Mike Nichols, “Biloxi Blues;” and Ray McKinnon, “Chrystal.”

Tackett has also provided additional casting for dozens of principle roles in more than 25 films. Some include “The Firm” by Sidney Pollack, “The Rainmaker” by Francis Ford Coppola, and “Walk the Line” by James Mangold.

Beth Brickell: Beth Brickell, a writer, producer and director, began her film career as an actress training in New York with Sanford Meisner and Lee Strasberg and having membership in the legendary Actors Studio. She performed in leading roles in over 25 stage productions, including “Thurber Carnival” with Jean Stapleton, “Room Service” with Bill Macy, and “Take Her, She’s Mine” with Walter Pidgeon. Moving to Hollywood, she starred for two seasons in the popular CBS-TV family series, “Gentle Ben,” with Dennis Weaver. Subsequently she appeared in some 100 TV shows and movies, receiving Emmy consideration for guest roles on “Bonanza” and “Hawaii 5-0.”

While teaching film acting for three years at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York and Los Angeles, Brickell developed an interest in directing. She has written, produced and/or directed a dozen dramatic films and TV programs. A “Rainy Day” and “Summer’s End” won a total of 23 film festival and television awards and received outstanding critical reviews when broadcast on Showtime, A&E, Nickelodeon and PBS. She currently divides her time between Little Rock and Los Angeles.

If you go:  Tickets are to the induction ceremonies are $50 per person or $350 for a reserved table of eight. The Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame is located in the Pine Bluff Convention Center and exhibits personal career memorabilia of each of the inductees. Tours of the museum are free. For tickets or additional information, call (870) 536-7600, ext. 2145.

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