The farkleberry

The farkleberry is a shrub that can be found from the East Coast to Texas. It can grow to a height of almost 25 feet and has black berries that birds feed on.

Curtis Morris writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “The shrub is nearly unknown today.”

So why does it have its own entry in the state encyclopedia?

If you don’t know the answer to that question, you’re likely not old enough to remember Gov. Orval Faubus and editorial cartoonist George Fisher.

Faubus, who served as governor from 1955-67, helped clear brush along a state highway in Franklin County one day for what’s now referred to as a “photo op.” Lou Oberste, a writer and photographer for what later would become the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism, shot photos of the governor, who was dressed in overalls and carrying an ax.

Faubus had grown up in Madison County in the Ozarks and claimed to know the identities of most of the trees and bushes native to Arkansas. Along the highway that day, he pointed out redbuds, dogwoods and other trees he wanted saved.

After hearing about the publicity stunt, Fisher decided to draw cartoons showing Faubus with a farkleberry, whose wood was considered worthless.

Fisher grew up at Beebe and died in 2003 at age 80. He has been described by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial cartoonist John Deering as a man whose work “influenced and helped define Arkansas politics for a generation. He created a series of visual metaphors and themes that were widely associated with the politicians he caricatured and became a part of Arkansas political folklore. Fisher focused primarily on political, social and environmental issues.

“Fisher was born on April 8, 1923, near Searcy to Charles W. Fisher, a tree nursery owner, and Gladys Fisher. His mother died when he was five, and his father raised Fisher’s two brothers, sister and him. Fisher grew up in Beebe, where he attended school and started the Beebe Grammar School News. Fisher’s father was an avid reader and encouraged his son’s interest in drawing. He suggested an idea for Fisher’s first published carton, a sketch lampooning Gov. Homer Adkins.

“Fisher attended college in Beebe for a year while serving in the Army Reserves. He left college in 1943 after being called to active duty. While stationed in England, he attended drawing classes at the Municipal College of Art at Bournemouth and drew cartoons for his regiment’s newspaper. In Bournemouth, he met art student Rosemary Beryl Snook. While serving as an infantryman in the Battle of the Bulge, Fisher maintained a sketch diary of his fighting experiences. After the war, in 1946, Fisher married Snook and returned to college.

“His first cartooning experience was with the West Memphis News, run by World War II veterans determined to fight the abuses of Arkansas’ machine politicians. At the time of his hiring in 1946, Fisher wrote news stories in addition to drawing cartoons. The paper’s staunch reformist stance led to threats of lawsuits from the local political machine.”

The newspaper at West Memphis was shut down in 1949, and Fisher moved to Little Rock to begin a commercial art service. He approached Robert McCord at the North Little Rock Times and offered to draw political cartoons. McCord accepted his offer. Soon, the Arkansas Gazette and the Pine Bluff Commercial were reprinting some of the cartoons, giving Fisher a statewide audience.

“Fisher and his wife created a syndicated television show, ‘Phydeaux and His Friends,’ featuring puppets they sculpted,” Deering writes. “The puppets appealed to children, and the show’s political satire delighted adults. Local political figures, including Faubus, made guest appearances. Although Fisher initially supported Faubus, he quickly concluded that Faubus was an opportunist. Fisher’s most famous Faubus cartoon showed the governor addressing a Legislature of Faubus look-alikes in a biting commentary on his influence on state government.

“In 1972, the Gazette published Fisher’s cartoons several times a week. By the time he was hired as the paper’s editorial cartoonist in 1976, Fisher’s name was synonymous with the Gazette’s. Many of his cartoon symbols have become icons. He popularized the farkleberry bush in an account of a bizarre meeting of Faubus with state highway workers. As the story goes, Faubus stopped at a site where workers were clearing brush to demonstrate how it should be done. He named all the native plants, including the obscure farkleberry.”

So it was that the farkleberry came to be identified with the Faubus administration.

Faubus later called the walking path behind his Huntsville home the Farkleberry Trail.

When the Arkansas chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists began looking for ways to raise money for college scholarships, it decided to put on a stage show that would lampoon newsmakers. The inaugural show was held in 1967 (Winthrop Rockefeller’s first year as governor) and was known as the Farkleberry Follies. The follies were held every other year during legislative sessions through 1999.

Last month, the Political Animals Club of Little Rock held a program to mark the 50th anniversary of that first show. Veteran Little Rock advertising and public relations executive Ben Combs, who played Faubus, was joined by former Arkansas Senate chief of staff Bill “Scoop” Lancaster, who played Congressman Tommy Robinson. Lancaster brought back his Robinson character for the luncheon.

“We had some great Arkansas political characters to use as script material through the years,” Combs says. “These types of shows often are called gridiron shows, but the lawyers were already using that name. We came up with Farkleberry Follies for that first show, and it stuck.”

The show would sell out from Wednesday night through Saturday night. Combs says the tradition was for local elected officials to be seated up front on Wednesday nights followed by members of the Legislature on Thursday nights, the governor and other statewide constitutional officers on Friday nights and the members of the state’s congressional delegation on Saturday nights.

“We liked to put them up front so the other people attending could see their reactions when we made fun of them,” Combs says.

A driving force behind the Farkleberry Follies was Leroy Donald, who died in 2009 at age 73 after a long career as a writer and editor at the Arkansas Gazette and later the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Months in advance of the Farkleberry Follies, people such as Lancaster and Combs would gather with Donald for long nights of eating, drinking and script writing.

Combs says the goal was to “skewer the inflated egos of the political class with skits and songs.”

In his book “Inside the Arkansas Legislature,” Lancaster gives an example of the writing that made the show memorable: “The Arkansas Senate is like a fine bottle of Montrachet while the House is like a pitcher of Miller Lite — warm Miller Lite.”

The show was held at what originally was the Olde West Dinner Theatre and is now Murry’s Dinner Playhouse in southwest Little Rock. There was a political connection since the theater, which was new in 1967, was owned by Ike Murry, who served two terms as the state’s attorney general from 1949-53 when Sid McMath was governor. Murry ran for governor in 1952 and finished last in a field of five in the Democratic primary. He later became a regular at the weekday luncheons hosted for years by Little Rock financier Witt Stephens. Politics often dominated the discussions at those luncheons, where cornbread was always on the menu.

Bill Lewis, who was a longtime Gazette reporter, was the local chapter president for the Society of Professional Journalists the year the show began. He’s now 87 and still lives in Little Rock.

“We were attempting to get by on dues of $10 a year, and it was becoming increasingly difficult,” Lewis says. “So I invited the board to my little house at 14 Westmont Circle in Meadowcliff one Sunday afternoon. The board consisted of Marcus George, Robert McCord, Margaret Smith Ross, George Fisher and one or two others I can’t recall. I had been in a gridiron show while working for United Press in Baton Rouge so I proposed that we attempt one in the campaign off years to avoid conflict with the lawyers’ show. We talked about the idea, and everyone seemed agreeable. It was Fisher who came up with the name that afternoon. I was a little dubious, but I was overridden by the others. They thought it was great, and they were right.

“I negotiated with Ike Murry to use the Olde West Dinner Theatre. There were only two performances of the first show, but later we bowed to public demand, and it went up to a full week. The $12 ticket price for the first show included a buffet dinner and an open bar. The show made a ton of money. I hired Betty Fowler, who worked every show thereafter. The last production had a ticket price of $50, and it sold out.

“We rehearsed in the old synagogue on Broadway. The editor of the Benton paper volunteered to direct the show provided he had full control of the script. I reluctantly agreed, but then he began inserting four-letter words that I knew would be destructive. I called his hand on it. He threw down his script and stormed out. I’ve never seen him since. This happened two weeks before the opening. In desperation, I called Margaret Carter at UALR. She agreed. By some miracle, she whipped the show into shape. It was a huge hit. It made so much money that it was decided to open a scholarship fund for students studying journalism.”

Ernie Dumas writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Fisher had a significant role in formulating, producing and performing in the show, which took the name of the Faubus icon. Fisher usually began the show by caricaturing a few of the figures who would be lampooned. … Donald brainstormed and produced each show, rewrote the whimsical skits of others (“funnying them up,” as he described it) and directed the performances. The skits were often built around Broadway show tunes and popular songs, the lyrics altered to fit current public controversies.

“A few peformances proved so popular that they became regular features — Donald as the perennial political candidate Jim Johnson, Gazette news editor Bill Rutherford as University of Arkansas football coach and athletic director Frank Broyles, Arkansas Democrat political cartoonist Jon Kennedy as Sen. J. William Fulbright.”

When Little Rock banker B. Finley Vinson was planning the skyscraper that’s now the Regions Bank building, he wanted a fine-dining venue on the top floor. That became Restaurant Jacques & Suzanne’s. Vinson also wanted a less formal restaurant on the first floor that also would serve as a happy hour watering hole for the downtown business crowd. Public relations executive Ron Robinson suggested to Vinson that the place be called The Farkleberry and that the walls be covered with political cartoons and caricatures of well-known Arkansans.

The Farkleberry operated from 1975-88. Years later, Jack Fleischauer, who headed Arkansas operations for Regions Bank, found the cartoons from The Farkleberry in boxes in a storage room. He thought about throwing them away but decided to ask Skip Rutherford, the founder of the Political Animals Club, if he wanted them. Rutherford, now dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, saved the cartoons. Some of them are on display at the Clinton School and the others are stored at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.

In that sense, the fruit of the farkleberry lives on.

 

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