Bill Rector opened the door to Madame Flora’s, an antique shop on Kavanaugh Boulevard in Little Rock, in 1973 in hopes of finding some new furniture.
Madame Flora’s — and her proprietor, Cliff Fannin Baker — opened to him the world of theater.
Baker invited him to attend a show in the small Theater of the Arkansas Philharmonic, which Baker had started in a storefront on the same street as his store.
“I said, ‘Theater … well, you know,” says Rector now. “I think I had maybe gone to a high school production or something, and I think I had gone to one play in college.”
He went, though, and he remembers seeing Dames at Sea.
“It was just mind-blowing,” he says. “You’re sitting in a 50-seat house and they were just up there singing and dancing. It was just mind-blowing.”
Rector and his first wife, Susan — who died in 1984 — became theater regulars.
The Theater of the Arkansas Philharmonic evolved into what is now the Arkansas Repertory Theatre and Rector has been there almost every step of the way. When the Rep suspended operations in April, Rector moved into a leadership role — as a volunteer — in hopes of bringing it back to life.
“As I’ve been telling people, my job is to find my replacement,” he says.
Three quarters of Rep’s staff were laid off in the spring, when it was thought the production house would close. Now, he says: “We are busily heading into next season and are interviewing for all the positions that we need to run the show.”
The Rep’s season has been shortened from six plays to four, which were revealed earlier this week.
The season will open with Chicago, which was to be directed by Baker, who died in September.
“So, that’s poignant,” Rector says.
It will also include Native Gardens, about a young Hispanic couple who moves into a house next to an older white couple, with whom it turns out they have a very different opinion about how to raise a garden. That will be followed by Million Dollar Quartet, a musical about Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. There will also be a student-produced show, Willy Wonka Jr.
“It’s up to the community. Right now it looks positive, but if this fades away again …. It’s expensive to put on live theater. It’s worth it — the experience is like nothing else.”
“We’re going to close with the radio play of It’s a Wonderful Life,” Rector says.
Rector grew up in Little Rock, at the corner of Country Club Boulevard and Palm Street in the Heights.
“I grew up with a silver spoon in my mouth,” he says. “My family goes way back in Arkansas. My great-great-great-grandfather was governor of Arkansas. His father was the surveyor general of the Missouri Territory and Arkansas was part of it. So there have always been Rectors here.”
His father, William Field “Billy” Rector started an insurance firm, Rector Means & Rowland Inc., in 1931.
“He built it into the second largest insurance company in the state. After he died that business became a part of Rebsamen Insurance,” Rector says.
His father formed Rector Phillips Morse Inc., in 1955, and later brokered the sale of the land that became Pleasant Valley. He was 62 when he died in 1975.
“He had sleep apnea, and they didn’t know what it was back then. I have sleep apnea, but if you have sleep apnea you sleep with a CPAP,” Rector says. “What sleep apnea does is you quit breathing and your blood oxygen goes down and it strains your heart. So he had a heart attack and died. It was a big day in my life when I turned 63 and I’d outlived him.”
His mother, Eleanor Townsend Rector, was in the Junior League of Little Rock. She and his father are the reasons he has taken on the challenge at the Rep.
“He was a force,” says Rector of his father. “When he died, I remember going to the funeral and there were people parked in the ditch. He was at the height of his power. He was the kingmaker. He was fully involved civically. He was president of the Chamber of Commerce. I’d get this from him, ‘Son, you pay your civic dues. You’ve got to pay you’re civic dues.’”
PULASKI ACADEMY AND SHOPPING CENTERS
Rector majored in physics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va.
“I was good at math so that appealed to me,” he says. “It was really a pre-engineering degree so had I elected to go be an engineer of basically any type, it was the basis for that. But I came back and went into the real estate business with my dad.”
In 1970, he worked for his father on the construction of Pulaski Academy and with Rector Phillips Morse’s development of several shopping centers and apartment complexes, including Crestwood Manor, where he lived for a while.
It was at Crestwood Manor that Rector first met Ruth Shepherd, now chairman of the Rep board. They were neighbors and became friends, but they became patrons of the Rep separately.
Shepherd remembers when realization dawned that the Rep couldn’t move forward, following a year when attendance had fallen, in part because of increasing competition from community theaters and in part because of a season unpopular with patrons.
“We have always, for 40-something years, lived hand to mouth. We’ve never had a margin. We had started a capital campaign about four years ago now and when we had a leadership change we put that capital campaign on hold and that capital campaign was not to buy a new building. It was to put us on a firm foundation and so we ran out of time and we ran out of money,” she says. “We knew that we had to do something drastic and it was incredibly painful.”
She and Rector leapt into action when the board decided to suspend operations.
“We said we’ve got to do something. We can’t let this theater go away without doing everything we can and so we sort of stepped forward and divided up the responsibilities because he is really great with the budgets and finances and spreadsheets and contracts and that kind of stuff and my experience from running a nonprofit is in program management, fundraising, public relations, communications, all that kind of stuff,” she says. “We knew that between both of us we could make an impact and that we were needed because when we went dark we only had six paid staff members — so with the two of us there were eight.”
Rector was semiretired in the spring when he took on his current role, although he is still president of Renaissance Properties. He had sold his interest in the Daily Record, the law and business publication he published between 1990 and 2016. His emotions surge as he talks about support shown for the Rep.
“We’ve had almost 1,500 people from 30 states give us three quarters of a million bucks, which was matched by the Horn Foundation and the Wingate Foundation,” Rector says. “But that is not to say that we are out of the woods. We have got to raise another $1 [million to] $1.5 million. We need to pay off the rest of the property debt, we need to create some reserves, we need to fix the roof of the scene shop — there are a lot of things like that.”
SAVING THE REP
The Rep board has changed the ticketing structure to a three-tiered one in hopes of making it less expensive for patrons, and has increased community outreach efforts, allowing outside organizations to use the facilities that were before in constant production use.
“We have made a deal with a local African-American production company here, SoWright Productions, that does scripts and local casting and they’re going to be in here November-December,” he says.
The Arkansas Cinema Society and KABZ-FM and others have also used the space for events.
“It’s all a learning curve for me. I’ve been in the real estate business, I’ve published the Daily Record for 23 years, and all of a sudden I’m the [human resources] person, I’m the one who looks after the insurance for all the properties, I’m the one that deals with [chief financial officer] and the auditors,” he says.
Don Bona, Rector’s friend since childhood, has partnered with him in several ventures, including the Daily Record and Renaissance Properties.
Their first partnership happened when they were about 25 years old.
“He was working for RPM and decided to buy and fix up and resale houses in Hillcrest,” Bona says of Rector. “Back in those days Hillcrest hadn’t completely turned around like it has now. However, there were so many young people moving into the area and wanting to buy houses that we had the younger market that was looking for us to make something nice for them and we did that for four or five years.”
The two have played poker together over the years as well.
“As he got older and started using his data experience and ratios and such, commutations and permutations, he figured out some very good things that have aided him in his poker endeavors,” Bona says of Rector, remembering the first time Rector returned to their office after playing in a World Series of Poker tournament out of state. “He won $58,000 and he had it all in $100 bills, still in the little wrappers. He just pulled it out of his briefcase and put it on my desk.”
Rector goes every June, spending a week or so playing cards with people from all over the world.
“I sat down one year and I had a Bulgarian and a guy from Bosnia [and] Herzegovina, two Germans, a Canadian or two and two Americans at my table – and that’s not unusual,” Rector says. “It’s still a fairly small community, so if I go to a tournament in Durant, Okla., there will be people I’ve played with in New Jersey or certainly out in Vegas.”
He and his wife, Sally, like to follow musicians — Parker Millsap, Lori McKenna and Jonatha Brooke, to name a few — and frequent arts events at South on Main and Oxford American and others around the state.
They are often joined by Dr. Sharon Meador, who met Rector in 1975 when she was in medical school with Susan Rector. She lived for a couple of years with Susan and Bill Rector in the old Victorian-era house they had rescued from demolition, the one he was shopping for furniture to fill when he met Cliff Baker.
Meador is the godmother of Rector’s twin daughters — Annabelle Rector, who owns Reinvented Vintage in Little Rock, and Molly Rector, project editor at the University of Arkansas Press.
“I’m the fix-it guy for Annabelle. If we find a piece of furniture that needs work I fix it,” says Rector, who also likes to play basketball at noon at the Little Rock Athletic Club and contributes photography to the Rep.
The girls’ mother is Jennifer Powers. She and Rector divorced in 1998.
Meador was witness to Rector’s attempts to develop Little Rock’s Main Street complex, which includes the building that houses the Rep, in 1986 after he left Rector Phillips Morse.
“We were trying to do what they were doing in a lot of places around the country like South Street Seaport or the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, the sort of what they called festival marketplaces in inner cities,” says Rector, godfather to Meador’s two children.
The biggest competition when the project started was Park Plaza, which was an open air mall, and University Mall, which was aging.
“Lo and behold this guy bought Park Plaza, tore it down and they built this new thing,” he says. “So finally we let the bank have it back and they eventually sold it to the state. But look at this building — it’s still really pretty 30-some-odd years later. I’m still proud of it even if it didn’t work the way we wanted it to. And I’m really proud, of course, of the Rep. We developed all of this at the same time.”
Rector laments that those efforts didn’t pan out, but he is pleased to see the development happening in downtown Little Rock in recent years.
“We were before our time. There’s been a lot of success post Main Street,” he says.
He has high hopes that the outcome of efforts regarding the Rep will be more successful.
“It’s up to the community. Right now it looks positive, but if this fades away again …” he says. “It’s expensive to put on live theater. It’s worth it — the experience is like nothing else.”
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: May 30, 1948, Little Rock.
MY ALL-TIME FAVORITE MOVIE: Apocalypse Now.
THE FIVE PEOPLE I WOULD INVITE TO MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY WOULD BE: Cliff Baker, my dad, Milton Freeman, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. I mean, you talk about idea people … these are idea people.
MY FAVORITE MEAL IS: A nice filet, medium-rare, with a good vegetable side, probably asparagus, a Caesar salad and probably a baked potato.
I WANT TO BE REMEMBERED FOR: Being a good guy who was involved civically and gave more than I got. And that I treated people fairly and honestly.
I WISH I COULD: Ensure the success of the Rep.
MY MOST PRECIOUS CHILDHOOD MEMORY IS: Of getting up early in the morning and walking out and putting a ball down on number 10 and playing a round of golf by myself. I was probably 12 or 13.
I’M MOST COMFORTABLE: Sitting on the couch at home with my wife watching The Good Wife.
IF MY LIFE WERE TO BE PORTRAYED ON STAGE I WOULD BE PLAYED BY: Well, Bradley Cooper was great in A Star Is Born.
ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Honest.
Print Headline: William Field Rector Jr.