By Lynda Hollenbeck
Many times I've sat in the stands at C.W. Lewis Stadium and heard the Benton High School Band play the "Pink Panther" theme.
The tune is familiar to just about everyone, particularly to fans of the bumbling French detective, Inspector Jacques Clouseau.
First, some history about the Pink Panther film series and the famous theme song.
The series began in 1963 with the release of the film of the same name. The role was originated by, and is most closely associated with, Peter Sellers. Most of the films were directed and co-written by Blake Edwards, with theme music composed by Henry Mancini.
Despite its use in the titles of most of the films of the series, "Pink Panther" is actually not the Clouseau character, but a large and valuable pink diamond which is first shown in the first film in the series. The phrase reappears in the title of the fourth film, "The Return of the Pink Panther," in which the theft of the diamond is again the center of the plot. That film also marked the return of Sellers to the role after a gap of 10 years, which may have contributed to some confusion between the character and the diamond. The phrase was used for all the subsequent films in the series, even when the jewel did not figure in the plot. It actually appeared in only six of the 11 films.
The first film in the series had an animated opening sequence, set to the theme music by Henry Mancini, which featured the Pink Panther character. This character was subsequently the subject of its own series of animated cartoons, which gained its greatest fame when it aired on Saturday mornings as The Pink Panther Show. The character would be featured in the opening of every film in the movie series except A Shot in the Dark and Inspector Clouseau.
All of this is fine and good, but here in Benton, Pink Panther has a different meaning altogether.
Benton High School historian Donnie Burks doesn't take much urging to share the Pink Panther legend as it applies to Benton High School sports history.
Since a lot of people don't know the story ― which has resurfaced recently in conjunction with the closing ceremonies at C.W. Lewis Stadium ― it seems appropriate for it to have its place in a Sense & Nonsense column.,
According to Burks, it all started as an act of vandalism in 1974. During the week leading up to the first game played between the Bryant Hornets and the Benton Panthers, local folks claim that several Bryant High School students devised a plot to intimidate the students at Benton High. The intent was to demoralize the team by painting the black panther statue in front of the high school a bright shade of pink. In keeping with that mission, late one night the week of the game, these students are believed to have sneaked onto campus and painted the statue from nose to tail. Everyone who saw it the next morning was appalled ― coaches, teachers, players, cheerleaders, Pep Steppers, the whole student body.
When Friday night arrived, an angry Panther football team, coached by Max Graham, prepared to enter the stadium. As the players stormed the field prior to kickoff, the Panther Band, for the first time, rang out with the Pink Panther theme. Apparently band director John Conrad has had his musicians secretly rehearse the tune in the days following the painting of the statue.
According to Burks ― who never would allow historical accuracy to interfere with a good story ― Benton punished Bryant that night, both literally and figuratively. The Panthers reeled off four unanswered touchdowns before the final whistle blew that signified a 28-0 victory. And after every touchdown and each extra point, the band would belt out the Pink Panther theme.
So on Sept. 20, 1974, an intense rivalry was born and the Pink Panther theme became the BHS fight song and unofficial mascot of the Benton Panther faithful. Soon the magic was to spread to other elements of the student body.
The Pep Steppers began waving pink pom-poms during the games; a Pink Panther silhouette was erected on a pole near the end zone; and Benton became known as the adopted home of the famous cool cat.
Pink Panther mania remained strong for many years in Benton.
The band continues to play a version of the song at least once during football games and some school shirts still feature the pink mascot, but some of the attention to the pink panther faded after Coach Dwight Fite left the school in 1999.
Burks said there is no doubt that the pink panther has played an integral part of the rich history in Benton. For those alumni that attended Benton between the years 1974 and 1999, the affection is particularly strong, he says.
For them and many others, it was one thing that distinguished the Panther program in Benton from Cabot, Magnolia, Greenbrier and the 18 other panther schools in Arkansas.
That is the "official" unofficial account of what happened, Burks claims.
But there's actually another chapter that some people apparently have forgotten. Before that first game between Benton and Bryant was played, a mysterious "drop" was made onto the football field at Bryant High School.
This involved the delivery of thousands of marshmallows delivered by an unidentified pilot of a helicopter.
Instead of being white, however, you can probably guess the color of the marshmallows.
They had been dyed a bright, bright shade of pink.
"No one ever acknowledged doing it, but we did have our suspicions," Burks said.
And that's all he'll say.
Lynda Hollenbeck is senior editor of The Saline Courier.