Long before the Internet or even television or radio, Belle Starr, an infamous Fort Smith resident, gained national recognition as “the bandit queen” — a crude villain, legendary outlaw and horse thief affiliated with a notorious criminal gang, said James Moody, director for the Fort Smith Little Theatre’s upcoming production of “Belle Starr By Herself.”
“Belle contended that many of the accusations were unfounded,” a recent Fort Smith Little Theatre news release stated.
“The amazing thing for me is that she is only convicted of one crime — stealing horses, and she gets nine months in jail for that,” Moody said.
The theater’s off-season production of “Belle Starr By Herself” is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Aug. 9-11 at the Fort Smith Little Theatre, 401 N. Sixth St. in Fort Smith. Doors will open at 6:45 p.m.
Tickets for the off-season production are $5 per person, and they are not part of the season ticket package, the release states. They are available at the door on a first-come, first-served basis; they include general seating only and no reservations will be accepted.
“The one-woman show presenting a unique interpretation of Belle Starr” is being performed in conjunction with the city’s year-long bicentennial celebration, according to the release.
The play was written by the late Ray Coleman, a local actor, director and writer who was a very talented member of the Fort Smith Little Theatre for many years, according to the release. It was performed in 1991 at the King Opera House in Van Buren.
“I saw it,” said Cindy Clark, who will be portraying Belle Starr in the upcoming production. Never in her wildest dreams did Clark imagine herself performing a full length show solo, she said.
The bicentennial celebration year for Fort Smith also marks Clark’s 40th year acting with the Fort Smith Little Theatre, she said. Her first role was Sibyl Chase in the 1978 production, “Private Lives” by Noel Coward, she said. Orin Frank was the director.
Clark said “she hopes her friends from ‘Private Lives’ will come and marvel that the shy little girl who would not say a word is now doing a one-woman show. When (Frank) took a chance and cast someone off the streets in 1978, he had no idea how it would change my life,” Clark said.
Clark played Violet, one of Starr’s girls in the 1990s musical, “Pearl and Her Girls,” also written by Coleman, she said.
In the upcoming production of “Belle Starr By Herself," Starr (Clark) is “sometimes just talking to the audience, and at other times she reads from her 'diary'” according to the release.
“I know she’s going to do a wonderful job,” said Jane Ann Short, producer for the upcoming production.
“In (Coleman’s) note in the original program, he stated that he combined well-documented facts with inference and supposition to conclude that it is just as likely that Belle Starr was a good woman as it was that she was not,” the release states.
Starr is seen as a “wife, mother and pioneer, as well as a self-determined woman who made less than responsible choices in order to survive,” the release states. She is “speaking to the well-to-do members of the Fort Smith Ladies Club in an attempt to present her own version of the story of her life.”
Although Starr’s speaking engagement is fictional, the story she relates is based on extensive study and research, Moody, said.
Coleman, a friend of Clark’s for 35 years, was “a stickler for everything (being) just right,” Clark said.
Each piece of information related in the play has been substantiated with at least two sources, Moody said.
“I’ll tell you the real story, what really happened,” Moody said, quoting Starr. “You decide from there.”
The show will feature what Starr (Clark) will call a “magic lantern show,” Moody said. They will be “making use of some of the new equipment the Fort Smith Little Theatre just purchased last year."
The pictures used in the 1991 production of "Belle Starr By Herself" "died with Ray," Clark said. They have “had to start from scratch to find all (of the pictures Coleman) had included,” she said. There will be a photo display in the lobby.
Starr is a “very fascinating character (with) an interesting journey,” Clark said. Highly fantasized in Hollywood, she has been portrayed in many movies, television shows, dime novels and songs, she said. “I certainly had no idea (Starr was so) widely known.”
“There are all kinds of songs about Belle,” Moody said. Michael Martin Murphey practically retold her story, he said. Murphey sang about “the petticoat outlaw” in the "Ballad of Belle Starr." Woody Guthrie wrote and sang about Starr in the song, "Belle Starr." Gene Tierney, actress, portrayed Starr in the movie, "Belle Starr."
The “multi-faceted (Starr), even today, would be a force to be reckoned with." Clark said she was not sure if it was Starr’s education or her journey that caused the very well educated, snobby little rich girl to become the infamous, self-determined Belle Starr that is remembered today.
Editor's Note: The Times Record is a sponsor of the Fort Smith Little Theatre.