Characters brought to life during museum 'fun-raiser'


Seated on stools on a small elevated portion of the Oak Room of the Pine Bluff Country Club, Jane Hankins and her husband, Craig O’Neill (a.k.a. Randy Hankins), read from her most recent novel, “The Thirty-Foot Elvis.”

Kitty Rubenstein, O’Neill’s cousin, introduced the pair as “Arkansas originals.” The event, last Saturday – a luncheon and readers theatre — was a fundraiser for the Arkansas Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, located in Washington, D.C. It is the only museum dedicated exclusively to celebrate the achievements of women in the visual, performing and literary arts. Locally the Committee has sponsored and promoted exhibitions.

Hankins was one of 10 Arkansas women artists whose work was selected for inclusion in an exhibition at the museum.

For those attending, it was a “fun-raiser” as the artist/actress/author Hankins and the radio-personality-turned-TV-anchor O’Neill brought to life characters from the current publication, which was released recently, the second in the Peavine Chronicles series.

As she introduced their presentation, Hankins said that she met O’Neill, the love of her life, when she was 18. Both were attending Arkansas State University at Jonesboro. She is a Jonesboro native. He is from Warren. They presently reside in Little Rock and have been married 41 years.

Rubenstein said that she was pleased that her cousin “had the remarkable good sense to marry her.”

It took Hankins eight years to write the first book, “Madge’s Mobile Home Park,” and eight months for the second. When she handed in the first book to her publisher, Ted Parkhurst, she said he told her there were enough characters for at least another book and suggested she save some for her second manuscript. So she created backstories.

Taken from chapter nine of “The Thirty-Foot Elvis,” Vaudine Fortney was one of those characters. Her parents were, Eulelie Astor, a very religious, straight-laced woman, and her father, Lester Astor, who owned the Pontiac and Buick dealership and was famous for playing practical jokes and spinning yarns, many off-color.

Most of the wives wondered how she could put up with that husband of hers. For her 60th birthday, Lester thought it would be a hoot to give his long-suffering wife a real talking parrot. Much to his surprise, Eulelie doted on the parrot, even giving him a biblical name, Leviticus. She taught him Bible verses, while Lester taught the bird swear words and dirty jokes

Eulelie would stumble out of bed each morning to uncover Leviticus’ cage and wait for the first words of the day. She referred to his utterances as one would consult a horoscope to discover what kind of a day to expect.

When Eulelie died, Vaudine inherited Leviticus. After Vaudine’s father died, she and her husband, Fred Fortney, moved to Peavine to care for Eulelie. Peavine is a fictional town in South Arkansas – the major location of Hankins’ stories. Fred had just retired as a major in the Army and was looking forward to moving to Hot Springs, where he planned to work at the Oaklawn race track. As a concession to his agreeing to move to Peavine, Vaudine agreed that he could go to Hot Springs anytime he wanted during racing season.

After the death of her mother, Vaudine’s two brothers inherited money and a house, and she received Leviticus. They bonded quickly. The parrot spent much time happily perched on Vaudine’s left shoulder. Fred began to notice Leviticus repeating Lester’s dirty jokes and gave him the name “Mr. Nasty.”

Vaudine was not interested in racing, so she would leave Fred at the race track and then seek out rummage sales, antique stores and estate sales. Her collection became so large that she opened Vaudine Fortney’s Forever Formica Used Furniture and Collectibles. This saved the Fortneys’ marriage and sanity. It was later that Mr. Nasty became a hero on the night of the Fifth Annual Poodle Pageant.

Then Hankins and O’Neill took the guests to chapter one, when the 30-foot statue of Elvis mysteriously appears in the city park. Half of the town loves it and half hates it. Who erected it and the reason are revealed in succeeding chapter, making it necessary to read the book to find the answers.

Southeast Arkansas residents who serve on the committee board could easily be identified at the event by the metallic garlands worn around their necks, embellished with either tiny wrapped packages or miniature Christmas ornaments. They are Rubenstein and Dabney Pelton, both of Pine Bluff; Maribeth Frazer of Warren; and Elgenia Ross of Monticello.

The Christmas theme continued with the table decorations. Guests were seated at tables for 10, each covered with a black cloth and a zebra-printed overlay centered with a basket filled with red and white peppermint candies atop red tissue paper. A gold garland was wrapped around a dowel, creating a tree shape, which was topped with a star adorned on each side with a picture of Elvis.

O’Neill said that Rubenstein told him they were selling the centerpieces “in the true mark of a Hankins from Warren.”

With swiveling hips and a smile, 10-year-old Garrett Cook was dressed as Elvis and greeted guests as they entered the club to a medley of Elvis’ music.

Hankins said that after she signed a book for him, she told him, “You need to let your Mama read that first.”

The Elvis-influenced menu was fried chicken salad with dried cranberries, pecans and shredded Mozzarella cheese, topped with fried okra and served with a honey mustard dressing. This was accompanied with corn bread muffins and honey butter and topped off with banana-peanut butter layer cake.

The Christmas theme was also reflected in the artwork of Hankins, which included Santas, angels and characters from her books. Thomas Hankins, the couple’s son, also brought along wire-wrapped crystal treasures. He mines the crystals and then makes them into one-of-a-kind pendants and earrings.

“The Thirty-Foot Elvis” is available through major booksellers and the publisher’s website at parkhurstbrothers.com.