Reel to Real: Lawrence Hamilton Helps Historic Arkansas Museum

How do you get an in-demand Broadway star like Lawrence Hamilton to help organize the Historic Arkansas Museum’s Candlelight Gala?

Just ask.

“Another board member approached me and asked if I would be willing to serve,” the Foreman native said. “I said yes.”

Hamilton — singer, dancer, concert performer, director of cultural affairs at Philander Smith College and member of the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame — is co-chair (along with fellow Historic Arkansas Museum Foundation board member Vincent Insalaco) of this year’s gala. The event will take place on Saturday, April 30, from 6:30-11 p.m. on the museum grounds. The biennial fundraising fête will offer a dinner and auction to aid in the purchase of Arkansas-made art and artifacts for the museum’s permanent collection.

Unique to this year’s gala will be the introduction of “Reel to Real,” an exhibit contrasting items from the 1939 film “Gone With the Wind” with actual objects from and accounts of the war in Arkansas.

“I love history and love learning about it,” he said. “The Civil War was an important era, and for the good or the bad, we can still learn to heal and press forward as a people.”

The “Reel” exhibit will guide visitors into the film world of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler with the help of costumes, photos and movie outtakes, while exploring the influence of movies on public attitudes. The “Real” portion portrays the true nature of the Civil War, with Arkansas slave narratives, women’s diaries and letters from soldiers, uniforms and weaponry from the museum’s permanent collection.

“Most people don’t realize this—even I didn’t until recently—that some 140 slaves lived on the grounds of Historic Arkansas Museum,” Hamilton said. “I am proud to say that we are dedicating a monument to honor and thank them for their time here.”

There are always things to learn, he added. “Right now I am trying to finish my PhD in choral conduction. My goal is also to be fluent in at least three foreign languages.”

Big ambitions are natural for Hamilton. “I guess my first dream was to be a concert pianist,” he said. “I saw the great Andre Watts play on TV, and I wanted to be like him.”

His parents (the late Dr. Oscar and Mae Dell Hamilton, parents of five boys and two girls) bought him a piano when he was in second grade, which eventually led to a piano scholarship to Henderson State University. “At the end of my sophomore year I auditioned for a summer workshop at Walt Disney World in Florida, and they accepted me,” he said. “After graduation I was asked to come back and be a part of the professional group. After three years there, a talent scout saw me and said that I should be on Broadway. He set up an audition, and after singing one song, I was told that I would be doing ‘Timbuktu!’ with Eartha Kitt. I never looked back.”

Other Broadway credits include “Play On,” “Jelly’s Last Jam,” “The Wiz,” “Uptown It’s Hot,” “Blues in the Night” and “Ragtime.” Hamilton’s résumé includes performing for President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan at the White House, Ambassador and Mrs. Thomas Pickering at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and Pope John Paul III at the Vatican. He has worked as a vocal coach and arranger with Marky Mark (Mark Wahlberg), New Kids on the Block, Jordan Knight and Joey McIntyre; appeared in several Arkansas Repertory Theatre productions; and was musical director for opera great Jessye Norman on the 1997 TV special “Jessye Norman Sings for the Healing of AIDS,” which included performances by Elton John, Whoopi Goldberg, Maya Angelou and a 60-voice choir.

He credits his parents for the drive that powers him throughout his career. “They demanded hard work in our studies, my piano studies and on the farm,” Hamilton said. “I baled hay, fed pigs and chickens and worked hard in the fields. One of my dad’s greatest sayings was, when he would ask if I had finished my homework and I would reply yes, ‘Read the next chapter.’”

Hamilton has yet another goal: “To help my amazing co-chair, Vince Insalaco, make this the best Gala ever.”

Soirée: What’s it like to work with talents like Lena Horne and Jessye Norman?
Hamilton: Because I love what I do so much, I look at everything as a milestone. I have worked with many greats, but my parents always reminded me: ‘Son, they are people just like you.’ It was a great realization for me.

What are you working on now?
I’m an assistant professor of humanities and director of cultural affairs at Philander Smith College and doing concerts all over. I still live in New York City and am there often. I’m also working on my taxes!

Do you serve on other boards?
I am on the board for Women and Children First, The Mayor’s Commission for Tourism and the Arts and Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame.

What inspires you?
The love of my family and amazing and wonderful friends. Waking up each morning is the best motivation.

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