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United Artists

Arts Days: February 05, 1919: United They Stood
Picture Hollywood back in the 1910s and 20s. In those days, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith were kind of like the Julia Roberts, Will Smith, Brad Pitt, and Tom Hanks of today; big-name stars whose appearance in a movie would sell lots of tickets.

Pickford and her pals decided to form a company called United Artists to try to get more money per movie and to have the opportunity to star in movies every year. Plus, they wanted to distribute the movies directly to theaters.

However, the time and expenses required to pull that off soon proved hard to come by, especially with the introduction of sound movies. While UA was eventually a very profitable company, these founders never enjoyed the success they had dreamed of.
Movies & Movie Stars, Innovators & Pioneers, Controversial, Popular Culture

Minstrel show

Arts Days: February 06, 1843: Minstrel Stage Debut
As a uniquely American form of musical entertainment in the 19th century, minstrel shows would shock most people today for the racist caricatures they exploited. White performers uses burnt cork to darken their faces and hands, mocked black people as lazy and ignorant, and, pretending to be slaves working for white masters, danced and sang songs about life on the plantation.

On this day, at the Bowery Theater, the Virginia Minstrels—four performers led by Dan Emmett—performed what’s considered to have been the first full-length minstrel show, or “minstrelsy."
Controversial, Theater, Musicals, America

Hedda Hopper

Arts Days: February 14, 1938: The First “Gossip Girl”
Imagine you’re a movie star in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Say you’re spotted out partying on Valentine’s Day with someone other than your sweetheart. You can bet that Hedda Hopper, an actress with a large network of contacts, would have written all about your scandalous escapade in her gossip column.

Today’s celebrity publications like People and Us Magazine owe a huge debt to columnists like Hopper, who started writing decades ago about celebrities’ off-screen shenanigans. Wearing one of her trademark hats, she would go to big Hollywood parties, chat with all the celebrities, and uncover the juiciest news and rumors.
Fashion, Popular Culture, Controversial, Movies & Movie Stars

Death of a Salesman

Arts Days: February 10, 1949: The Death of a Dream
When the curtain rose at the Morasco Theater this night, Broadway audiences were introduced to Willy Loman, a middle-aged traveling salesman, on the verge of a breakdown.

All too aware that he is at the end of his career, Loman takes stock of the work he’s done, the money he’s made, the relationships he’s formed—and finds that much of it leaves him feeling defeated and disappointed. With actor Lee J. Cobb starring as Loman, and Elia Kazan directing the play, viewers sadly watched as Willy is forced to recognize himself as a failure.

In its review, The New York Times noted that Miller “has looked with compassion into the hearts of some ordinary Americans and quietly transferred their hope and anguish to the theater.” Today, Miller’s play is studied in schools across the country.
Broadway, Playwrights & Plays, Controversial, Theater, Tragedy

Gladiators Fighting

Arts Days: January 01, 404 C.E.: The Day the Crowd Went Silent

Believe it or not, the ancient Roman practice of pitting professional fighters against one another, wild animals, or condemned criminals for the viewing pleasure of a live audience, is considered one of civilization's earliest forms of social entertainment.

The first known gladiatorial competitions were held in Italy in 310 C.E. to impress the public with reenactments of exciting military battles and demonstrations of individual soldiers' strengths.

Over time, the games evolved into a much more elaborate spectacle. The games were popular with members of all social classes, prompting the construction of a new, larger kind of venue--the amphitheatre, or open air arena--a design still used today.

But hold on, not everyone appreciated the gore-filled competitions. Christians objected to the immorality of the viewers who happily observed the violence. Nearing the fall of the Empire, when numerous wars led to an economic recession and Christianity continued to spread, gladiatorial games began to decline.

After the last known gladiatorial competition was held on this day in Rome, Italy, audiences turned their attention to theater performances.
Controversial, Sports, Theater, World Cultures

Elvis Presley

Arts Days: January 08, 1935: Hail to the King
Elvis Presley, also known as "The King of Rock 'n' Roll," began playing guitar as a teenager and made his first musical recording in 1953. He was a pioneer of rockabilly, an up-tempo fusion of country and blues music. His original sound and uninhibited stage and television performances made him a household name by 1956, and he remained influential in rock music for decades.

Though his career included numerous film roles, he is best known for his music, including hits like "Heartbreak Hotel," "Love Me Tender," "Don’t Be Cruel," "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock." It is estimated he has sold over one billion record units worldwide, more than anyone in record industry history.
Controversial, Innovators & Pioneers, Music Legends, Rock & Roll, Popular Culture

Evita

Arts Days: January 10, 1996: Evita Hits the Big Screen
Casting catastrophe and celebrity coup? The film adaptation of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1978 Broadway musical Evita stars pop music singer Madonna and Spanish actor and singer Antonio Banderas. The story traces the life of Eva Perón, beloved Argentinean first lady and spiritual leader.

Prior to the film’s release, critics were skeptical of the casting, unsure if Madonna was best suited for the lead role. Evita, however, was warmly received and won several awards, including the Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song, and the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture.
Broadway, Controversial, Movies & Movie Stars, Musicals, Latin America, Popular Culture

Arthur Miller

Arts Days: June 21, 1956: Just Said “No”
Sitting in the hot seat before the U.S. Congress’ House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), playwright Arthur Miller was pressed to reveal his alleged ties to Communists. Or at least to name people Miller considered sympathetic to Communism and the Soviet Union.

Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, ostensibly about the 17th century Salem witch trials, raised eyebrows among senators like Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy was also suspicious of where Miller’s sympathies lay, knowing that the playwright had attended several meetings of the Communist party in the 1940s. McCarthy and others were on high alert for Communists thought to have infiltrated the government, the arts, and other institutions in the U.S.

Miller, one of numerous writers, actors, and others suspected of having Communist ties, refused to identify anyone and was ultimately convicted of holding Congress in contempt.
Controversial, Playwrights & Plays, History, Theater

Chicago

Arts Days: June 23, 1927: Razzle Dazzle Man
From the hip roll to the finger snap to the perfectly angled hat—these are just some of the signature moves of the unmistakable “Fosse look.”

Jazz choreographer Bob Fosse invented so many moves that are now essential in modern dance that the casual observer may not even be aware of how widespread his influence continues to be. He broke new ground with dances that were demanding, entertaining, and provocative—often by creating one sharp, simple isolated movement. He honed his style in musicals like The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity, and Pippin and saw his creativity peak in the musical Chicago and the autobiographical film All That Jazz.

The second film Bob Fosse directed, 1972’s Cabaret, won eight Academy Awards® including Best Director.
Broadway, Choreographers, Controversial, Dance, Dance Legends, Innovators & Pioneers, Jazz

Shuffle Along

May 23: May 23, 1921: Breaking Broadway’s Barriers
The early 20th century ragtime and jazz musicians Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle had a major hit on their hands when they co-wrote Shuffle Along, the first major Broadway musical by, for, and about African Americans. All told, the show ran for more than 500 performances. It played in Washington, D.C. and other locales before lighting up Broadway, where police were assigned on show nights to help ease traffic congestion.

Shuffle Along also made stars of dancers like Josephine Baker and singers like Paul Robeson. Many songs became popular hits. But by today’s standards, some aspects of Shuffle Along are offensive. For example, though the actors were all African American, they applied makeup to their faces to darken them further, and borrowed stock characters from minstrel shows. As the show’s popularity spread by word of mouth, the audiences were filled with black and white theater patrons alike.
Broadway, Innovators & Pioneers, Musicals, Jazz, Controversial, Theater

Lorraine Hansbury

Arts Days: May 19, 1930: Young, Gifted, and Black
With her powerful drama A Raisin in the Sun, playwright Lorraine Hansberry broke multiple barriers.

When it opened in New York City in 1959, the play was the first to be written and directed by an African American, Lloyd Richards. And when her work was voted Best American Play by the New York Drama Critics’s Circle, the 29-year-old Hansberry became the youngest recipient of that prestigious award. Raisin was partly inspired by racial incidents suffered by Hansberry’s family when they moved into a segregated neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago in 1937.

Hansberry went on to write other works for stage, screen, and television. Though she died at only 34, Hansberry’s influence echoes with generations of young writers dedicated to uncovering racism and other injustices with their words.
Innovators & Pioneers, Playwrights & Plays, Literature, Controversial

Isadora Duncan

Arts Days: May 27, 1877: Something in the Way She Moves
Inspired by everything from ancient Greek art to the power of nature embodied in rushing rivers and rainy weather, Isadora Duncan poured all she had into dancing, which she believed to be the body’s expression of the soul’s innermost desires. She rejected classical ballet as too confining and controlled.

A true free spirit, Duncan brought a new athleticism to dancing; her choreography was full of leaps and jumps and skips. Barefoot, her long hair flying, dressed in Grecian-inspired flowing tunics, she was a captivating sight as she danced. She taught her students that the energy they need for dance originated in the solar plexus, a group of nerves in the body’s abdominal region.
America, Controversial, Dance, Dance Legends, Innovators & Pioneers, Choreographers

Iggy Pop

Arts Days: April 21, 1947: Music Gets Punk’d
As a kid growing up in the Midwest, James Newell Osterberg got his punk-rock nickname when he played drums briefly with a blues band called the Prime Movers. Iggy’s bandmates invented his moniker after his previous band, the Iguanas. In the late 1960s, Iggy Pop helped lay the groundwork for punk music by forming his influential band, The Stooges.

With their blistering guitar work and relentless drumming, coupled with Iggy’s unearthly yowls, shrieks, and moans, the band is still held up as the prototype for intense, driving rock and roll, with everybody from KISS to the Sex Pistols to Green Day. The Stooges only made a few records, like Raw Power and Fun House, before disbanding, but they and Iggy helped shape the course of popular music.
Rock & Roll, Controversial, Innovators & Pioneers, Music, Music Legends

Martha Graham Dance Company

Arts Days: April 18, 1926: Mother of Modern Dance
The first dance performance Martha Graham attended at age 16 with the legendary Ruth St. Denis on the program, may have flickered through Graham’s mind when the lights went down at the 48th Street Theater in New York City, just before she made her debut. The movements she and her fellow dancers were performing that night were anything but traditional. What the audience witnessed was an early public display of Graham’s “contract and release” technique, in which muscles were held taut, then let go in accordance with the emotions a dancer sought to convey. The movements were angular, athletic, jagged—in marked contrast to the graceful style of classical ballet.

Within a year, Graham opened a dance school, attracting attention from many in the dance community. One of the most acclaimed dancers in history, Graham’s choreography shook up the world of modern dance.
Choreographers, Dance, Dance Legends, Controversial, Innovators & Pioneers

Samuel Beckett

Arts Days: April 13, 1906: Post-Modern Poster Boy
Irish playwright and poet Samuel Beckett is considered the first Post-modernist writer. He explored some pretty bleak subjects in works like Waiting for Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape including loneliness, hopelessness, and isolation. His work attracted considerable attention in his day—and even still—for often tossing all conventions of character development and plot, even punctuation, straight out the window.

Some of his works attempted to capture the inner thoughts and feelings of his characters second by second. Beckett combined words and ideas in such innovative ways that he earned the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. But because Beckett was such a private person, the fame that accompanied this honor was a double-edged sword.
Controversial, Playwrights & Plays, Europe, Theater

Marian Anderson

Arts Days: April 09, 1939: Let Freedom Sing

For more than 40 years, Marian Anderson’s supple contralto voice—lower than an alto or soprano—thrilled audiences the world over. She preferred singing in recitals to opera performance, though many opera companies tried to entice her to sing with them. However, it was the Daughters of the American Revolution’s refusal to let Anderson sing at Constitution Hall simply because of her race that set the stage for perhaps the most important concert of her career.

With an assist from President Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt, Anderson gave a spellbinding public performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Some 75,000 people listened live in the chilly spring air, and millions more heard Anderson sing on the radio. In 1955, reconsidering her stance on singing in operas, she became the first African American to perform at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Her grace and beauty—to say nothing of that remarkable voice—made Marian Anderson an important symbol of the Civil Rights Movement.

For more on this historic concert, listen to Of Thee We Sing: Marian Anderson and the Music of the Early Civil Rights Movement.


America, Music, Opera, Controversial

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