Friday, September 10, 2021

Evil's Second Coming

 

Herblock cartoon from 1949
Note: This reaction to 9/11 piece I penned was originally published by Style Weekly on May 15, 2002. Looking back on it, I have to thank Rozanne Epps at Style for deciding to run this one on the Back Page, because the climate at the time was against publishing opinion pieces that questioned the Bush administration's post-9/11 tactics in any way. Many publishers had become too afraid of losing advertising. 
 
By the way, I added the famous Herblock 'toon to this post. It did not appear with the original piece in Style.

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Evil's Second Coming
by F.T. Rea

Washing in on what poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) might have called a “blood-dimmed tide,” the specter of evil suddenly emerged from the periphery of modern life eight months ago. In the blue skies of the time before 9/11’s sucker punch, the notion of pure evil had an Old World air about it. Absolutes, such as good and evil, had no seat at the table of postmodern thinking.

After 9/11, a generation of Americans suddenly learned a bitter lesson: Evil never went away. Living in a land of plenty, it had gotten to be a pleasant habit to avert our eyes from evil-doings in lands of want. Evil had gone out of style, as a concept, only because times were so easy.

The last American president to get much mileage out of the word "evil" was probably Ronald Reagan, with his “evil empire” characterization of the USSR and its sphere of influence. Now, 20 years later, we have a president who sees “an axis of evil” — an alleged phenomenon that puzzles most of the world’s leaders, or so they say.

George W. Bush apparently has little use for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s stalwart advice to a nation in need of a boost in confidence — “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Rather than urge his people to rise above it, Bush chooses to color-code fear. The propagandists of the Bush administration have been successful in cultivating the public’s anxiety since September. Whether that’s been done for our own good remains to be seen. Perhaps it has, but this much is clear now — all the official danger alerts about nuclear power plants, bridges and crop-dusters have been effective in keeping most of the natural questioning of the administration’s moves at bay.

To hear Attorney General John Ashcroft tell it, the architects of 9/11 are the personification of the most virulent form of evil ever known. Although much of the evidence that would establish his absolute guilt in connection with 9/11 remains a state secret, Osama bin Laden is said to have shot to the top of the chart.

Forget about Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Idi Amin and Pol Pot. They were amateurs.Then again, evil, like beauty, has always been in the eye of the beholder.

Wasn’t it evil to deliberately dump tons of potent pesticide into the James River during the ’70s to make a greedy buck? Once it was in Virginia’s water, Kepone wasn’t so different from a bio-terror agent in the same water.

With the news seeping out of the cloisters about child-molesting priests and the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-ups, whose betrayal was more evil, the molester or the higher-ups who hid and facilitated his crimes?

Whether evil exists in some pure form, off in another dimension, is not my department. What’s known here is that in the real world evil is contagious. Lurking in well-appointed rooms or hiding in caves, evil remains as it ever was — ready to spread.

None of this is to suggest that al Qaida shouldn’t be put out of business. It isn’t to say that knocking the Taliban off was a bad idea. There’s no question here about whether the United States should protect itself from the networks of organized terror that are hell-bent on destroying the modern world.

Still, today’s evil is the same evil our forefathers faced in their wars. Evil hasn’t changed; technology has. With modern weapons in their hands, the fanatics of the world have the potential to wreak havoc like never before.

What has changed is the extent to which the hate festering in the souls of the world’s would-be poobahs and their psychopathic followers can be weaponized. It’s worth noting that the weapons of mass destruction that are scaring us the most were developed during the arms-race days of the Cold War by the game’s principal players.

So another question arises, who is more dangerous to civilization, the guys who spent their treasure to weaponize germs, or the guys who want to steal the stuff and use it on somebody?

Decades ago this was a concern expressed by some in the disarmament movement. Its scary what-if scenarios always included the likelihood that the Super Powers would eventually lose track of some of their exotic weapons. Looking back on it now, it seems obvious there was no way any government could keep all that material locked away from the greed and hate of determined free-lancers.

A man with a briefcase-style nuclear device may be no more evil than a man armed with a knife. Either danger could kill you just as dead. Those of us who feel connected to others, those who care about humanity's future know which one we should fear the most. The “rough beast” of dreadful evil “slouching towards” us is traveling on the back of technology of our own making.

While we watch out for organized terrorists in the short run, with a handy color code to guide us, it’s time to think more seriously about how to get rid of a lot of very dangerous weapons in the long run.

-- 30 --

Thursday, September 09, 2021

The Passing Parade for Style Weekly: Post No. 1

My iPad photo of the rehearsal for the
Robbin Thompson event on 2/29/16

With the announcement that this week's issue of Style Weekly will be the last, I decided to preserve a few of the many pieces I have written for that periodical. How long its archives will remain online isn't known at this writing.

So this first Passing Parade post isn't about the opinions aplenty contained in the 34 Back Pages I penned between 1999 and 2016. Nor is it about basketball. It's about music. 

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Dec. 10, 2013: Billy Ray Hatley Tribute Show at the National

Although it was months in the planning the uncertainty that preceded Sunday night’s show at the National was understandable. After all, most of the vocalists had learned songs just for the show. And, while the freezing rain had mercifully changed to ordinary rain, as the stage was being set up the weather was still threatening to sabotage Sunday night’s tribute concert.

The good news is the show went on without a hitch. (Photos of the event can be found here.)

The better news is the Billy Ray Hatley Tribute Concert was show business at it best: the music was joyful and uplifting. The experience of being in that refurbished downtown theater will not easily be forgotten by anyone who was there on Sunday. No doubt that will be especially true for Billy’s wife Sara and their two children, Sierra and Sam.

After the last song was sung by Robbin Thompson, the emcee, Chuck Wrenn, stepped to the microphone to sum up what the musicians had just made happen, “Wow, what a night!”

Although the stage was filled by 24 performers (with a stage crew of eight), the entertainment offered was no jam session and the show ran smoothly. No covers of rock ’n’ roll classics were played. Every song was written by Billy Ray Hatley, who can no longer perform them. In all, one corny old show biz word well describes how the concert went over -- "boffo!"

Why and how did this show happen?

A few years ago longtime Richmond favorite Billy Ray Hatley had the bad luck to have his career ended by a condition (Frontotemporal Lobe Dementia) that can be traced to an operation he had in 2005 and his four years in the Navy (1965-69). Eventually, his friend and sideman/collaborator Jim Wark convinced Sara Hatley that putting a tribute show together, made up of Billy’s music, would be the right thing to do. A team was assembled. Velpo Robertson, Rico Antonelli and Dave Owen, also fellow bandmates and close friends of Billy’s, joined Sara and Jim to produce the tribute.

“We got together to discuss the possibility in March,” said Rico. “The hardest part was deciding what songs to do.”

Decisions had to be made about who to include and who would sing which songs, to play the role that had always been Billy’s. It was decided the musicians who had been the sidemen in Billy’s two bands, Big City and The Show Dogs, would back up the invited singers. As each vocalist would only sing a couple of songs that meant handing small roles to people who were all used to being the stars of whatever gigs they played.

Brad Tucker said, “Egos were checked at the door.”

Space won’t allow a recap of all the material presented, but three highlights include: Bill Blue’s gritty performance of “Elvis’ Motorcycle.” Bill traveled from Key West to be there. Michael McAdam’s soulful performance of “Roll the Dice.” Mike traveled from Nashville to be there. Susan Greenbaum’s stirring performance of “Promised Land,” which provided what was maybe the biggest goose bumps moment of the night.

Appearing in addition to those performers already mentioned were: Charles Arthur, Steve Bassett, Jody Boyd, Junie Carter, Craig Evans, Chris Fuller, Eric Heiberg, Janet Martin, Gayle McGehee, Mic Muller, Li’l Ronnie Owens, Drew Perkins and Jim Skelding. (Bruce Olsen was scheduled to be there but was prevented by a cold that stole his voice.)

After the sound checks, two hours before show time, Wark had reminded the performers, “There’s nothing sad about this [show]. It can’t be about what Billy has been through. It’s about what he gave us.”

Those friends and fans of Billy’s who braved the weather to be in that room shared a one-of-kind experience. Throughout the show the spirit of camaraderie flowing from one song to the next was warm and palpable. Perhaps the peak of that feeling occurred mid-show, when Sara stood behind a microphone and thanked one and all for being there.

Proceeds from the tribute show and a CD anthology of Billy Ray Hatley recordings will benefit the Hatley family and the Daily Planet.

A video of the whole shebang was recorded and will eventually be presented by WCVE in 2014.

In case anyone missed it the first time, Chuck said it again, “Wow!”

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Feb. 25, 2014: HOTH: The Gold Standard

The stage was a flatbed trailer parked in a cobblestone alley in Church Hill. It faced the back of Chuck Wrenn's house. The audience spilled into adjacent backyards and wherever else it could. With no licenses to legitimize it, the fourth annual High on the Hog had the edgy cachet of Richmond's freewheeling warehouse parties of the '70s.

On Oct. 11, 1980, Richmond didn't allow large outdoor events combining properly amplified rock 'n' roll music and alcohol consumption, especially on public property. When the Megatonz opened the show, to think the cops would come eventually made sense — which probably encouraged the crowd's collective desire to live in the moment.

Instead, a chilly rain came while the second band, Don' Ax Me ... Bitch, was performing.
Rather than wait out the downpour, Wrenn, the irrepressible impresario, broke out large rolls of heavy-gauge transparent plastic. Armed with staple guns, he and volunteer assistants assembled an awning to keep the rain off the equipment and musicians. The audience followed suit by unrolling more plastic, standing underneath while it was held overhead. Those dancing in the mud felt the power of rock 'n' roll to simultaneously express lamentation and celebration. With electric guitars of wailing in defiance of the rainstorm, the sense of solidarity felt by those baby boomers was the stuff of legends.

The rain subsided. The Memphis Rockabilly Band finished the show. No real trouble from the cops appeared. It was a charmed afternoon.

The series of High on the Hog parties began in 1977 as a small, pork-themed gathering of neighborhood friends. No electric guitars. In the years that followed the event took on a life of its own. Along with Wrenn, those on the team organizing three decades of parties were John Cochran, Larry Ham, Bobby Long, Steve McKay, Dave O'Kelly and Randy Smith. In 1983 that group stuck a deal with city authorities and went legit.

The transformation allowed the stage and festivities for High on the Hog 7 to move into Libby Hill Park. On the bill were the Bop Cats, New Victims of Love, Evan Johns and the H-Bombs and Billy Price and the Keystone Rhythm Band. The turnout was huge, and the untainted success of the event paved the way for a new era. It allowed for Jumpin' in July, Friday Cheers and the countless beer-truck-in-the-street and music festivals that followed.

In High on the Hog's peak years, it took some 350 volunteers to chop the pork, serve the beer, tend the stage. The Silver Stars, a beloved gospel group, set the record for most appearances with 10. While space doesn't allow for the complete list, here are some of the other acts that graced the stage in the park:

Barrence Whitfield and the Savages, Big City, Big Posse, Bill Blue and the Nervous Guys, Billy Hancock, Billy Ray Hatley and the Showdogs, Bio Ritmo, Car Bomb, Deanna Bogart, Dirtball, the Diversions, Evan Johns and the H-Bombs, Faded Rose Band, Glenn Pavone and the Cyclones, the Good Guys, Good Humor Band, Janet Martin Band, Marcia Ball, NRBQ, Page Wilson with Reckless Abandon, the Radiators, Steve Bassett, Suzy Saxon and the Anglos, Terry Garland, and the Wall-O-Matics. 

A Nor'easter drenched Richmond on Oct. 7, 2006. In the torrent the massive sound system couldn't be erected. Two scheduled acts couldn't perform in the conditions. Nonetheless, Lindy Fralin volunteered a scaled-down sound system. Tarps were lashed to the stage to block the wind-driven rain. The Bop Cats went on for a handful of dauntless regulars in front of the stage. Unfortunately, without the expected income from food and beer sales, the backers' rainy day fund was sopped up. Thus, High on the Hog 30 closed the book on a generation's gold standard for Woodstock-inspired parties. 

The Memphis Rockabilly Band, fronted by the late Jeff Spencer, finished the show. Its encore was Link Wray's "Run Chicken Run," with Bill Coover playing lead guitar for one last dance, with umbrellas, in the mud.

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Oct. 24, 2014: The Grace Street Era

Is today's live music and associated art scene in Richmond the coolest it's been for a while? Given the musicians, artists, nightlife venues and galleries, you might think so. And judging from local media, including Facebook posts, it's easy to gather the impression that a lot of people think the answer should be yes.

Maybe it's true. In 20 years we'll be better equipped to say for sure. But if the premise is accurate, then I wonder about timing: Today's in-crowd, music-and-art-driven milieu has been the coolest since when?

If we're to believe much of what was said during the RVA Music History Tour, put on Sept. 27 by WRIR-FM 97.3, the answer is the late-'70s to mid-'80s, centered on the Fan District's nightlife scene. That was when the 800 and 900 blocks of West Grace Street were the epicenter of what was shaking.

The era got under way when undergrad punks began annoying their older siblings — grad students and adjunct faculty, who were still hippies. During that transition, from hippies to punks, a cutting-edge scene emerged. That little section of Grace Street mattered, pop-culture-wise, more so than any other time. It fizzled out in the late-'80s, when the neighborhood fell on hard times. It became scary after dark. Venues closed.

The history tour was led by Gregg Kimball, Don Harrison, Ray Bonis and Bob Gorman and put together by the nonprofit radio station and the special collections and archives department of Virginia Commonwealth University's James Branch Cabell Library. The tour meandered its way from the library, in the heart of the university's Monroe Campus, to the Empire at the corner of Laurel and Broad streets.

About 30 people stopped at various places along the way to hear tall tales recounted about legendary shows and colorful characters: Bo Diddley at Rockitz ... the truncated 1972 Jerry Lee Lewis show in Monroe Park … the Handbill War of 1982 ... early House of Freaks shows at the Jade Elephant ... the Puppy Burn (a war protest rally with a scam for a hook) ... the Ramones at the Franklin Street Gym for Halloween (Single Bullet Theory opened) ... "Rocky Horror" at the Biograph ... the Grove Avenue Republic's secessionists ... Springsteen at the Back Door ... clothing-optional classes at the Free University ... Taj Mahal at the Pass ... Chuck Wrenn busted for selling the Sunflower (a hippie periodical) ... Color Radio getting untamed ... Iggy Pop at the Mosque ... beatniks at the Village Restaurant.

Upon dredging up all that nostalgia, what became obvious was that VCU had facilitated so much of what we discussed. Yet the growth of the university, especially in the last 20 years, hasn't always been seen in a good light. While the university's expansion has done much to rejuvenate downtown Richmond, it's also turned some Richmonders against it. To be fair, it must be acknowledged that the university has critics who have come to see it as a juggernaut, trampling and destroying.

Like plenty of people, I've been unhappy with some things VCU has done during the four and a half decades of its existence. There's nothing wrong with questioning what it's doing and will do. Still, to answer the juggernaut charge, the university has delivered so much that's been a boon to Richmond that harping on the harm it's done along the way can sound petty, sometimes.

While some may decry the startling transformation on Grace Street, which has seen high-rises sprouting from the same lots where townhouses once were situated, I won't jump on that rickety old bandwagon. When I measure VCU's impact, I look more at the talented people in our midst who are associated with the university, and less at the buildings.

Instead of complaining about all the national chains that have shouldered their way onto Grace Street, I'd rather tout the emergence of the stretch on West Broad Street, between Belvidere and Second streets, which seems to be at the heart of a cultural blossoming. Yes, there are other parts of town — including Scott's Addition and Manchester — that also are becoming hubs for galleries, theaters and clubs, but the Arts and Cultural District downtown clearly is the most happening part of this city in 2014.

Walk the area on a First Friday and you'll get the picture. Such a concentration of energy and entrepreneurial spirit is bound to shake things up in the future.

Now the university seems slowly to be moving toward connecting its two campuses. The effect that the university's most significant work in progress, the Institute for Contemporary Art, is going to have on both the Fan and Arts districts will be huge. When the ICA opens, as designed by Steven Holl Architects, it's going to draw international attention.

But it's important to remember the good old days. Because of the university's attention to documenting that era in its archives, my two grandchildren will be able to get a picture of what it was like when I managed the Biograph Theatre from 1972 to 1983 at 814 W. Grace St.

What WRIR's tour of that once-bohemian neighborhood made clear to me is that since that wonderful era for live music faded into the mists, the university clearly has been the best thing my hometown has had going for it.

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Nov. 24, 2015: The Dads Second Album Release Party

Enthusiasm filled the room when local rockers the Dads were performing. It exploded from the speakers. Steamlike, it rose from the crowd. Between 1980 and 1985, onstage in a saloon, the Dads delivered like few others.

Richmond was an accommodating home to some noteworthy black leather-clad punk bands during this period. There was an art-rock scene as well. In live-music venues you could hear reggae and hybrid sounds that fused Caribbean tempos with pop. Other rock ’n’ roll subsets were represented. Among them was a crossover scene that mashed up ’60s British rock with ’50s Memphis rockabilly. With two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer, the Dads operated somewhere in that groove.

The Dads’ sound wasn’t warmed over from the social causes and political crusades of the ’70s. They weren’t hurling nihilist anger at the establishment. Instead, they filled the air with harmonies and a beat that provoked young bodies to move. Theirs was a catchy sound easy to like, and as it turned out — difficult to forget.

But capturing their act and making it into a consumer product wasn’t so easy. The Dads’ one album, produced during their time as a touring band, was released by CBS/Estate Records in 1984. It was decidedly less than satisfying.

“Very unhappy” is how lead guitarist David Ayers characterizes how the band felt about the album. “It was so light and tame-sounding compared to what we were doing live,” he says.

Having met in 1980 as members of Virginia Commonwealth University’s orchestra, Ayers and drummer Mike Tubb were the two original members featured in every iteration of the band. With other pals along for the ride, the group started busking. Eventually, after some personnel shifts, what became the 1981 touring lineup stabilized: the late Bryan Harvey (vocals and bass); Mark Lewis (vocals and guitar); David Ayers (guitar); Mike Tubb (drums). In 1983, Lewis was replaced by Kevin Pittman on vocals and guitar.

“We were very tight musically and as friends, so our breakup had nothing to do with us not getting along or anything like that,” Ayers says of the band’s 1985 parting. “It was more the feeling that the Dads had come to the end of our road.”

Before the band dissolved there was a second album in the works. Accordingly, 30 years later the chance for another ride down that road has arrived.

Recorded by Sal DiTroia, who played guitar on the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer,” the tracks were laid down in 1985 at Live Oak Studios in Chesapeake. Recently Tubb and Victor Benshoff, the Dads’ sound man and road manager, dusted off 11 of those tapes. After some tweaking they were made into the centerpiece of a new album. Four songs recorded in 1982 and engineered by Bruce Olsen also are included.

About to be released by Planetary Records, the new album is titled “Redemption.” Isn’t all that good news worth celebrating?

News of this special event was first posted on Facebook by Mike Tubb. Brooke Saunders soon joined to promote it. As the word spread others came forward to volunteer to help perform 30-some numbers from the Dads’ songbook.

Among the musicians expected to gather onstage at the Canal Club are: Coby Batty, Mark Brown, Craig Evans, Gary Fralin, Harry Gore, Paige Harvey, Stephen McCarthy, Suzy Peeples, Kevin Pittman, Rob Reisinger, Brad Tucker, Jim Wark, Todd Woodson and too many more to fit in this space.

“Redemption” CDs will be available at the event and then go on sale at Plan 9 Music. Remembering the death of Harvey and his wife and two daughters in 2006, and the death of Victor Benshoff earlier this year, proceeds from the show and CD sales will go to charities selected by the Harvey family and the Benshoff family.

Now fans of the Dads, both old and new, will be able to travel the down the aforementioned road. The show amounts to a local reunion and is expected to be packed. The souvenir album should better replicate the soundtrack to many a good time back in the day. What’s not to like about that? S

The Dads perform at a CD-release party for “Redemption” on Friday, Nov. 27, at the Canal Club, 1545 E. Cary St. A small army of musicians will perform. The doors will open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10.

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Feb. 29, 2016: Review of Robbin Thompson's Real Fine Day

Robbin Thompson penned many songs throughout his long career as a songwriter -- one of which was officially designated as Virginia's popular state song last year.

Thompson's last recorded work was a celebration of life itself, entitled “A Real Fine Day.” On Sunday, Feb. 28, the music lovers who packed the National on a sunny afternoon for a tribute to Thompson, the tunesmith, enjoyed an unforgettable experience -- a real fine day, indeed.

Chief among those who put together the well-run event were Bob “Rico” Antonelli, Velpo Robertson, who acted as music director, Skip Rowland and Jan Williams, who acted as technical director.

The show's proceeds are to be donated to two local nonprofits, SPARC and JAMinc. And, speaking of SPARC, one of the highlights of the show was the segment in which a group of youngsters from that splendid program for kids rushed onto the stage to dance along with a recording of Thompson singing “A Real Fine Day.” It prompted more than a few grizzled Thompson fans to wipe tears away from their cheeks.

The show's performers included four musicians from the original Robbin Thompson Band (which goes back to the '70s): Velpo Robertson (guitar), Bob “Rico” Antonelli (drums), Eric Heiberg (keyboards) and Audie Stanley (bass).

All of the songs performed during the concert Sunday were written by Thompson. "At times, the love in the room was overwhelming,” said Skip Rowland, who photographed the event for the planners. “In addition to the music, everyone was treated to video contributions from Phil Vassar and Timothy B. Schmit."

Robbin's stories were told onstage by some of the performers. Mike McAdam reminisced about meeting Thompson when McAdam's high-school band shared a bill with Mercy Flight, at the behest of the late Tom Maeder, who represented both bands at the time. McAdam chuckled, remembering how tough it was to follow Thompson, even then.

Brad Spivey recalled the time he went to a Robbin Thompson show at Ashland Coffee & Tea, and afterward asked Thompson to sign the CD he bought. “I felt a little goofy asking a friend for his autograph,” he said.

Thompson gladly signed it, but he added a message that Spivey imagined would be something like, “To my friend, Brad,” or words to that effect. But when Spivey looked at the CD, over the signature it read, “Listen and learn.”

Performers came from as far away as Chicago and Nashville to be onstage for a song or two. And many attendees also traveled to be there for this once-in-a-lifetime show.

Pam Barefoot made the trek to Richmond from the Eastern Shore. Barefoot, who has known Thompson since their days at Virginia Commonwealth University, is now the president of Blue Crab Bay Co. A few years ago, she put together three Robbin Thompson concerts down in her neck of the woods.

“Prior to the 2011 concert,” Barefoot said, “we walked around town and passed by the Roseland Theatre. Robbin told me his dream was to perform there, so I decided to see if I could make that happen … Robbin has a loyal following on the Eastern Shore.”

From the stage, Chuck Wrenn thanked former-state Sen. Walter A. Stosch for his part in having the General Assembly designate “Sweet Virginia Breeze,” written by Thompson and Steve Bassett, as the popular state song. Wrenn also read a letter from Gov. Terry McAullife.

Like many other baby boomers who were at the National, both Barefoot and Wrenn were at the legendary 1970 Steel Mill/Mercy Flight show atop a downtown parking lot. No concert from the hippie era in Richmond ranks above it in pop-culture importance. Steel Mill was Bruce Springsteen's band; Thompson fronted Mercy Flight. Not long after that show Thompson joined Springsteen's band as the featured vocalist and toured with that group for the better part of a year.

Other supporting players and performers for the National show included: Steve Bassett, Jody Boyd, Marna Bales, Leetah Stanley, Gregg Wetzel, Mike Lucas, Michael Lille, Carlos Chafin, Brooke Fauver Drumheller, Kyle Davis, Jon Carroll, John Stanley, Lewis McGehee, Carter Gravatt, Adam Stubbs, Bill Bevins, Erin Thomas-Foley, Tim Timberlake and Chip Miller.

Two of the other highlights of the show were: McAdam's bluesy performance (guitar and vocal) of “I Won't Quit.” McAdam nailed it. Then there was Miller's singing of “Bright Eyes.” He sounded so much like Thompson that it was noticed by several of the musicians standing in the stage-right wing.

The underwriters of the show were: Digital Video Group Inc. (DVG), Donna Meade Dean-Stevens and The Old Dominion Barndance, Dr. Joe Niamtu, Kirk Schroder and Schroder Davis PLC, Nick and Becky Colleran and Acoustics First, and Virginia Tourism.

Robert W. “Robbin” Thompson (1949-2015) was born in Boston, raised in Florida and he made Richmond his home for most of his life. Rest in peace, Robbin.

-- 30 --

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

The Price of Free Speech

Note: I wrote the piece below in 2001. It's set in my neighborhood near the Lee Monument and it was published that same year by C-Ville Weekly.

My photo (2016)

Of course, in Richmond the proper meaning of the words and deeds of Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) is still hotly debated. Lee's presence, in the form of a solemn memorial on Monument Avenue has become a lightning rod of a sort in recent years, on top of being a longtime tourist attraction for Confederacy buffs. 

On a pretty morning a few summers ago a curious commotion was underway about the statue's pedestal. About 25 adults were milling about purposely; some were propping large posters against the statue's massive base. Upon closer examination the posters proved to be pro-life propaganda. It was the same sort of designed-to-disgust material displayed relentlessly by demonstrators outside the Women's Clinic on the Boulevard for years.

So, why would anti-abortion activists be rallying in the shadow of a piece of heroic sculpture that fondly remembers a Confederate general mounted on his horse? Baffled, this scribbler's curiosity got the best of him.

To get a better look, I continued walking toward the proceedings. In response to my inquiry it was explained they were there to picket an “abortionist” with an office in the medical office building, just across the street. Well, OK... 

Then, with that mission accomplished, the group had opted to take some keepsake photographs, using the oldest of Monument Avenue's statues -- it was dedicated in 1890 -- as a backdrop.

Standing next to identical placards displaying a blown-up depiction of a bloody fetus -- at first it looked like an under-cooked hamburger that had fallen off the grill -- they posed with easy smiles, like it could have been a company picnic. or maybe a class reunion.

On a one-to-ten scale, in the Absurd Postmodern Juxtapositions category, this business was easily a nine. Old General Lee -- whose view on abortion is not widely known -- he did not flinch.

A year or two before this morning a group of a similar ilk had set itself up on the grassy, tree-lined median strip, a half-block to the east. On this occasion they were there to use the funeral of Associate Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church to suit their purpose. Along with a large contingent of the working press and dozens of uniformed police officers, they waited for the funeral underway to end.

Inside the church Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist delivered the eulogy, “...[Powell] was the very embodiment of judicial temperament; receptive to the ideas of his colleagues, fair to the parties to the case, but ultimately relying on his own seasoned judgment.”

Outside the church the eager TV crews had their cameras and microphones at the ready. The patient cops had their night sticks and side arms close at hand. The lathered up news-makers brandished their oozing fetus signs and posters citing Powell as a “murderer.”

When Powell’s family, friends and Supreme Court colleagues came outside, following the service, they had no choice but to notice the demonstration before them. Lenses zoomed in to focus on their stunned reactions.

As a longtime admirer of Lewis Powell, when I saw that one of the ranting pro-lifers was wearing a clerical collar, my curiosity got the best of me then, too. So I walked over to ask him something like -- was he really a man of the cloth, or was it just a shirt?

Taking umbrage, he fired back at me something about Powell having killed millions of babies. I had to assume he was referring to Powell’s role in the famous Roe vs. Wade decision. Asked what that had to do with forcing the dead judge’s family to look at his gross placard, the sweaty zealot huffed and puffed. Instead of answering the question he repeated the same blustery charge against Powell.

There you have it -- free speech isn’t always pretty. In practice, the first amendment means we all have to take turns putting up with people who seem twisted, even mean, to us.

It’s difficult to imagine the demonstrators at Powell’s funeral changed any minds on the abortion issue by creating such a disturbing sight in the middle of the street. No, I’d say they were chiefly interested in venting their collective spleen and dealing out some payback. They weren’t there to persuade. They were there to punish and strike fear in the hearts of anyone who dares to rub them the wrong way.

Still, in our optimistic and open society, we are supposed to be obliged to allow for such venting. Let’s not forget that popular speech has never needed much protection at any time in history.

OK, that’s the price of free speech. Pose however you like next to the statue of old General Lee, astride Traveler. Wear funny costumes and bring props, if you like. Short of what might constitute an assault, it’s your right. Lee won’t flinch, even if I do.

-- 30 --

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Epiphany at a Stop Light

My depiction (2007) of Fred Monihan's sculpture

of J.E.B. Stuart fading into the mists.

Facing east on Monument Avenue I was waiting for the stoplight to change. It was probably 30 or 35 years ago. The sights were as familiar as could be. Through the windshield I could see the J.E.B. Stuart monument. To the right was the hospital named for that place on the map -- Stuart Circle. I was born in that hospital and so was my daughter.

Suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, a fresh thought struck me. It felt like an epiphany.

Background: Not too long before this moment, in 1984, I had run for a seat on Richmond's City Council. The task of campaigning had exposed me to some neighborhoods in my home town that had been mostly unfamiliar to me before I decided to run for office.

Why I took that plunge, with no chance to win, is another story, for another day. But the reason for mentioning it here is how eye-opening that experience was. For one thing, I don't think I had ever spent any time in Gilpin Court before the campaign trail took me there. It was part of the Fifth District, which also included the part of the Fan District that was behind the equestrian statue before me. As Richmonders know, Virginia Commonwealth University's academic campus is sprawled out in the blocks just beyond the statue.

Looking at that glorifying depiction of a man on a horse, resting on a plinth, a question exploded in my head: What would I have thought of that so-called "monument" if I had been born black, instead of white? What if I had grown up in Gilpin Court?

The thought that followed made me laugh. Essentially, I said to myself: "By the time I was 16, I probably would have blown that damn thing up." 

Answering my own question had provided me with a momentary walk-in-the-other-man's-shoes. That prompted me to be amazed that it hadn't already happened. Boom! For the first time, I wondered how it had survived in that public space since the early 1900s. 

Folks who remember the 16-or-17-year-old version of me should be laughing now. At least a few of them know there would have been some chance, indeed, that I would have really done it ... had I been a headstrong black teenager, who, like me, got thrown out of school regularly.

Before that flash of empathy, I don't think I had ever tried to imagine myself as a black Richmonder looking at those looming statues of Confederate generals, day after day. Ever since then, I've seen those memorials to the Lost Cause in a different light.

In the last year Monument Avenue has been undergoing a mind-boggling transformation with the removal of Confederate sculptures. Some of it done by City Hall, some of it at the hands of young people who have seen to it that the spell that propaganda in bronze has had on Richmond is kaput. 

Last summer the statue of Stuart was removed by authority of the City of Richmond. Tomorrow, by authority of the Commonwealth of Virginia, the last of Monument Avenue's statues of Confederate heroes -- Robert E. Lee -- will be removed from its pedestal. What was largely unthinkable a generation ago now seems quite overdue.

Art and words b y F.T. Rea

-- 30 --

Monday, September 06, 2021

Greenberg's 'Lee and the Lingering South'

Gen. Robert E. Lee (1807- 1870)

The piece above, "Mercie's Lee," is an ink and pastels study of the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in my neighborhood. That statue itself is scheduled to be removed from Monument Avenue this week. Until the last 10 years, such a removal was largely unthinkable in Virginia. Now, for many Richmonders, it seems overdue.
 
Three years in the making, French sculptor Jean Antoine Mercie's solemn bronze statue of Lee was unveiled in 1890. It was the first of Richmond's renown series Confederate monuments to be installed on on Monument Avenue. Now it will be the last to exit. 
 
For the sake of everyone's safety the City of Richmond plans to have streets blocked off in every direction from the massive memorial for two or three blocks. No driving, no parking until the removal ordeal is over; the estimate is three or four days. When the job has been done, yet another souvenir of a previous time in the South will no longer be on public display, to be worshiped ... or hated.
 
"What is the South?" Arkansas writer Paul Greenberg (1937 - 2021) asked in a series of columns. The one I've linked to below was published first in 2008. Here's a pullout from it. 
...On this Lee's Birthday, the South seems only a lingering shadow of the great civilization-and-barbarism she once was, but that ended ... when? April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Courthouse? With the last great Southern novel, and which was it? When cotton was dethroned? When industry overtook agriculture, when the city took over from the country? Did the South end with the coming of air conditioning or of the two-party system? Or when the race issue ceased to be The Issue, and became just another Northern-style ethnic competition and/or collaboration?
The answer to that question always seems to come down to this: The South ended with the previous generation -- which fits in well with the common perception that each generation becomes a little less Southern, a little more Americanized. It's like Zeno's Paradox about the hare who always halves the distance between himself and the tortoise, yet never catches up: Southernness is always fading yet never disappears. Our children will doubtless say it ended with us even as it continues in them.
Click here to read all of Greenberg's piece, "Lee and the Lingering South."

-- Art by F.T. Rea in 2007

Thursday, September 02, 2021

What Do Trumpist Schemers Really Want?

Truth is, those of us who cherish democracy and prefer to avoid giving in to bullies need to do a better job of understanding our mean-spirited opponents. Thus, as we hear reports of chatter about more mob-driven events being planned -- Sept. 18th? -- we ought to look at more than just what's on the surface.  

Like, what's the real purpose of such shenanigans? 

Well, if the Congressional and F.B.I. investigators look under enough rocks they are likely to find some answers. Other answers call for deduction. 

Simply put, here’s what I'm saying: The planners who command the violent activist wing of the Trumpist Party doesn't want to use violence to actually overthrow the federal government. No. They want to use violence and intimidation as tools to win elections. So, like January 6th was, the next such event will be a stunt designed to scare the hell out of people ... and, of course, as a recruitment and  fundraising gimmick. 

Thus, even if the mob raises hell and says it wants to skin some politician or scientist alive, the next stunt's real purpose will be to make anyone who opposes them feel afraid of vigilante violence. It's the old gangster-style ploy: "We know where you live."

Generally speaking, extreme right-wingers seem to have convinced themselves that most liberals are scaredy cats who will always cave. That, rather than challenge them publicly. Moreover, fascists leaders have always needed to have their brownshirts, or blackshirts, to ratchet up the fear factor weighing on the citizenry. 

Some of the white nationalist fratboy groups who've made a show of loving Trump as a celebrity already seem eager to play that role. So what color shirts will they eventually choose to wear, to signify, as they stomp around in groups fingering their triggers?    

My guess is gray. 

Bottom line: The tactics to win street battles and propaganda battles will come, change and go. Nonetheless, the Trumpist goal is to win elections, by any means necessary.

-- 30 --
 

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

The Perfect Rainy Day

Fiction by F.T. Rea
 
“Com’ere Bustah,” the old coot barked gruffly.

Slouched on a bench made of stone and wood, the man wore an oversized pea coat and a dark blue knit cap. Most noticeable were his pale swollen ankles, showing between high-water plaid trousers and scuffed brown brogans.

Roscoe Swift was content to simply ignore the rumpled stranger until the guy made his purpose clear: “Gotta match?”

Out in the bay, Alcatraz was partially visible in the chilly fog. The thick gray sky was speckled with noisy white seagulls.

Roscoe approached the weather-beaten character cautiously to hand him a matchbook. In spite of the breeze the man lit his hand-rolled cigarette on the first try. Then the man coughed, cleared his throat, and spat triumphantly on the heavy support of the nearby tourist telescope. Roscoe watched the spittle slime its way off the heavy base to collect on the pavement.

After a couple of pulls on his smoke, the man tossed the matchbook into the bay and said, “Look’ere kid, y'er no prodigy -- nothing special."

Annoyed, Roscoe looked in the water for the matchbook. It floated up so he could still read the type on the cover. It said Fancy Melons.

“No sir, heh, heh, y'er just another thin-skinned boy -- ha! Maybe a skinless boy -- trying to bluff his way into heaven,” said the old timer. His pale blue eyes twinkled in a maze of wrinkles and broken capillaries.

The sea breeze gusted. When Swift rolled over, he woke up startled and confused. His situation was nearly as weird as his mysterious dream had been. He found that he'd been asleep on a stack of inflated rafts on the beach. Suddenly, it was a beautiful morning in Virginia Beach and Roscoe was very thirsty.

Slowly, he began to remember climbing the lifeguard stand in the sand to the top of a pile of rental rafts lashed to it. Strangely, in the moonlight, it had made sense to sleep on an open-air perch, 15 feet up. He shuddered as he thought of the old man in the dream that was already beginning to fade away.

Then Roscoe realized he was still dreaming.

*

April 9, 1980: Roscoe Swift woke up already aware of the warm, moist air wafting through the slightly open bedroom window. Contrary to the weather forecast, it was still raining. Selena Cross, asleep on her back, didn’t stir as he deftly climbed over her and down from his loft.

The dream-within-a-dream he had just endured was a new variation on a familiar haunt. It went back to when was 16 and actually did wake up on top of a stack of rafts on the beach. Roscoe shut off the alarm clock, so it wouldn't ring, and he gathered up his clothes from the night before -- a black Rock ‘n’ Roll High School T-shirt, khaki shorts, white socks, and high-top Converse All-Stars. He grabbed a new pair of white socks on his way to the bathroom, where he threw yesterday's socks and T-Shirt into the dirty clothes hamper.

After his morning bathroom routine, Roscoe passed the shoulder-level bed. Still asleep, Selena looked too good to be true. Indeed, their six-week-old secret affair -- out of context from all else -- seemed dream-like much of the time to him. Quietly, he grabbed an old J.W. Rayle softball shirt from the dresser and headed toward the kitchen.

Leggy and graceful, bright-eyed Selena had a feline quality that Roscoe told her was reminiscent of a young Brigitte Bardot, in “And God Created Woman.” While such a comparison was obviously meant to flatter, it also recognized her natural talent for mimicry and disguising her thoughts. To him, Selena usually seemed to be working from a script.

Roscoe and Selena had a big day planned -- a stolen day, removed from time. As he headed for the kitchen to scavenge up some breakfast, she opened her eyes, unbeknownst to him.

Selena Cross waitressed three nights a week at Soble’s on Floyd Avenue. To protect her image as one who never partied after hours, or strayed from her main squeeze, Selena invented a system to facilitate her “sessions” with Roscoe. On the nights she worked, he would swing by the bar on his way home from work at the Fan City Cinema, where he was the manager. Her fiancé -- a 30-year-old antique dealer, with money to burn -- traveled frequently, usually for a couple or three days, on short notice. If she was free and feeling amorous Selena would wear her honey-colored hair in a ponytail, to signal Roscoe she would be showing up at his place later. That way they could confine their conversation in the restaurant to small talk and leave at different times without huddled discussions.

In spite of the obvious chemistry between the two of them, Selena had convinced herself this subterfuge kept her coworkers and the bar’s regulars from suspecting anything.

In the summer between high school and college Selena had learned a lesson about being caught with her pants down, literally. Her outraged boyfriend, a judge’s son, beat her up. When the bruises faded she left her hometown for good.

Sometimes, Roscoe didn’t know whether to believe Selena. Nor was he sure the ponytail really had everybody fooled. Still, with the bangs, it was a great look for her. Just the sight of that ponytail, bobbing and swaying as she walked, had a hypnotic effect on him.

Until this particular occasion it had been her custom to leave Roscoe’s carriage house apartment, in the alley behind the 1200 block of Franklin Street, before the first light of day. This time her fiancé was scheduled to be away longer than usual. Thus, this was their first morning together.

Roscoe Swift, 32, was a divorced wannabe filmmaker, who was too nonchalant for his own good. Having had the same job for nine years, he could coast most of the time. Selena was a 23-year-old art history graduate. She led a disciplined, goal-oriented life and was ready to make her mark on a world of unlimited opportunity. Aside from a shared taste for Rockabilly music and a similar appreciation for black humor, they really didn’t have much in common. Generally, Selena didn’t talk about the past and Roscoe didn’t talk about the future.

Roscoe switched on the kitchen radio and opened the refrigerator. Then he remembered that Selena had wolfed down his leftover pizza.

He was out of eggs, too. What he had to work with was: a half-loaf of wheat bread, an almost new stick of butter, jars of mayonnaise, mustard and strawberry jam, a box of fig bars, a tired-looking head of lettuce, a bottle of extra dry domestic champagne, two cans of ginger ale, seven cans of beer and an empty pizza box.

Roscoe took out the champagne and sat it on the counter next to a small watermelon Selena had brought with her from the restaurant. He opened a can of ginger ale. As he carved up the melon, he whistled along with the radio to the classic Everly Brothers’ not-so-thinly-disguised ode to masturbation: “All I Have to Do is Dream.”

Selena, naked but for her thick socks, entered the room without making a sound. Amused that Roscoe hadn’t noticed her, she leaned her butt against the damp windowsill and folded her arms.

“Morning!” said Roscoe. “Hot coffee, buttered toast and cold champagne, with a watermelon spear, served in a pewter goblet. Presto! A perfect rainy day breakfast.”

Selena grinned. “I like rainy days. With no shadows, colors look extra juicy…”

“Miss Cross,” said Roscoe, “would you please slide the coffee pot onto the burner. It’s already loaded up.”

“Done,” said Selena. “Watermelon and champagne, together?”

“Yep,” said Roscoe, watching the gas flame burst into action, “this is an old Southern favorite. They call it a ‘Spring Fling.’ You haven’t heard of it?”

“No, but it’s so appropriate,” she said with a yawn. The gesture fit perfectly with her decadent rich girl act -- sometimes Selena almost seemed to have walked out of a F. Scott Fitzgerald story. Given her blue-collar, small town background, it was a persona he enjoyed watching her affect.

Roscoe popped the cork off the bottle of bubbly and the moment’s perfection promptly fizzled. The bubbly wasn’t!

“Goddamn it!” he growled in a tone she hadn’t heard from him before.

While Selena’s body language had seemed to suggest that something other than breakfast was on her mind, anyway, the suddenly crestfallen Roscoe was focused on the flat champagne.

“I’ll be right back,” Roscoe blurted out, grabbing a hooded sweatshirt. He ran three-and-a-half blocks to a neighborhood wine shop in the rain, convinced the owner to open early, and returned with chilly bubbles aplenty.

“When you’re wet, you look fantastic!” Selena said, at first sight of him.

That prompted an impromptu session, with Selena seated on the porcelain kitchen table. Once again, they delighted in their collaborative ability to please one another. If anything, it was still improving. And, that was that.

The rain stopped and the clouds parted as they polished off their breakfast with gusto. During the drive from Richmond to their destination, Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, Selena and Roscoe sang along with a taped compilation of cuts by Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe.

With her hair gathered in a ponytail, Selena wore a pair of maroon short shorts and a lightweight gray sweatshirt with Bertand Russell's face on it that she borrowed from Roscoe. He knew she would try to steal it. Smitten with the sight of her, Roscoe could hardly keep his eyes on the road.

“I’ve smiled at you so much I feel like a Cheshire cat on two hits of acid,” Roscoe deadpanned, as he pulled his pale yellow 1973 Volvo wagon into the parking lot of the quaint Hilltop Hotel.

As soon as they got to their room, Selena went to the bathroom. As he waited, Roscoe lit a joint, took a hit, and asked, “Do you still want to go to the horse races in Charles Town? We’ve still got the rest of the day to go sightseeing, or do whatever…”

“Whatever suits me fine,” said Selena, as she opened the door wearing only the new Fan City Cinema T-shirt he had given her. That, and a spectacular smile.

“What the hell,” said Selena, who rarely smoked pot, “Up here I’m as out of town as it gets, give me a toke of that.”

After her second hit, she passed the joint back to him. Then Selena lifted her right foot to rub the instep along the back of her left calf. Roscoe stepped closer, tossing the joint at the bedside table’s ashtray. Her head tilted slightly to one side. The air between them was charged.

She pulled at his belt buckle as they landed on the bed. His hands cascaded along her rib cage to her bare hips.

Then Roscoe heard a loud explosion; he flinched. “Wha, what the hell was that?”

Selena laughed as Roscoe rolled onto his back, seemingly dazed. “What was what?” she cooed.

“That sound; like a gunshot, or a bomb,” he gasped. “That bang! Didn’t you hear it?”

“Passion!” she said, widening her eyes. “Pure, pure passion!”

Roscoe was disoriented. Hadn’t the noise been real? Hadn’t she heard it, too? He sat up. “Come on Selena, you didn’t hear that sound?

She kissed him with such fury that he had to stop talking.

Soon, thoughts of fiancés, ex-wives, everyday concerns in Richmond, horse races in Charles Town, and especially mysterious explosions in hotel rooms were put aside. Later they slept the sleep known only to lovers who’ve given their all to the moment.

*

The next day, in spite of his efforts, Roscoe was unable to determine if Selena had actually heard the explosion he had. They talked about it during the drive back to Richmond, but she never gave him a straight answer. She enjoyed teasing him -- maybe this, maybe that.

Exaggerating her southern accent, Selena would say, “Pah-shun.” Eventually Selena’s evasiveness began to rub Roscoe the wrong way, so he stopped asking.

They finished off the drive with little to say, accompanied by a Kraftwerk tape, turned up loud. He dropped her off at her Volkswagen bug, parked in a lot near his place. She planned to stop by her apartment and then take care of some errands. Selena’s parting words were: “I’ll call you around dinnertime, about getting together later ... if you’re up for a encore session.”

At 6 p.m., that same day, when Roscoe got home from playing Frisbee-golf, he found a message Selena had left on his new telephone answering machine. Essentially, it said her fiancé had returned from his business trip, without warning, two days early. Roscoe felt a sense of panic, wondering how much the man knew. There must have been some gossip.

Although she said twice that everything was “fine,” the fact she said it at all gave him a bad feeling.

The end was abrupt: Harper’s Ferry proved to be the finale for Selena and Roscoe. Two months later, Selena’s wedding took place in her husband’s hometown, Alexandria, Virginia. After a honeymoon in Ireland, the newlyweds surprised everyone by deciding to set up residence in Annapolis, Maryland, instead of Richmond.

And, that was that, except for a rainy day about a year after Harper’s Ferry. Upon returning from a week’s stay in San Francisco, visiting his old friend Finn Daley, Roscoe found a large brown paper bag on the driver’s seat of his Volvo, which he never locked. In the bag was a bottle of Dom Perignon, a small watermelon and an unlabeled tape cassette.

Roscoe shoved the cassette into the stereo and switched the ignition on. Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” poured out of the speakers. He smiled as he said,
“Pah-shun,” 
 
Then he let out what was left of his clutch and turned up the volume.

* * *
 
All rights reserved by the author. A Perfect Rainy Day with its accompanying illustration are part of a series of stories called Detached.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Five Film Favorites: Crazy Protagonists

 

For this edition of Five Film Favorites the common denominator is craziness. Not just somewhat eccentric, or sort of peculiar. I’m talking about bats-in-the-belfry loony.

To get on this list the protagonist’s madness is what drives the story. Maybe they’re trying to keep a grip on the reality around them. Maybe not. In each of the movies on the list below, the main character is adrift in sea of imagination, gone wrong.

However, context is the key to this premise. Therefore, if most everybody in the story is just as strange, which character is the one that’s off-kilter? The same goes for a plot that depicts a world of pretend. If the customary norms simply aren’t present, then the protagonist isn't disconnected from the reality of his or her peers.

Example: David Lynch‘s brilliant surreal joke of a film, “Eraserhead” (1977), doesn’t qualify. In the dark realm Lynch thrusts at the viewer, Henry Spencer (played by Jack Nance) doesn't appear to be any more detached from everyday life on Earth than the rest of the film's characters. Although the viewer is told that “in heaven everything is fine,” it's plain to see "Eraserhead" isn't set in heaven, either ... but I digress.

The same everybody-is-crazy reason keeps Werner Herzog’s “Heart of Glass” (1976) from being considered for the list. Accordingly, since it's tricky to find anything like a sane world in the midst of a shooting war, moving pictures set in that brand of bloody madness have been excluded this time.

In alphabetical order here are my five favorite films with crazy protagonists: 
  • "Network" (1976): Color. 121 minutes. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Cast: Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall. Note: Written by Paddy Chayefsky, the future of cable television’s soon-to-be-seen excesses in bad taste and irresponsible broadcasting is anticipated with chilling accuracy. This is the flick that gave us the line, “I'm as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Both Finch and Dunaway won Oscars.
  • "Repulsion" (1965): B&W. 105 minutes. Directed By Roman Polanski. Cast: Catherine Deneuve (pictured above), Ian Hendry, John Fraser. Note: When a shy manicurist is left alone in her flat she begins to wallow in paranoia. With her sister away on vacation the beautiful young woman descends into madness. Did I mention she’s got a dead rabbit in her purse? Could she be dangerous? You won’t forget this one.
  • “Sling Blade” (1996): Color. 135 minutes. Directed by Billy Bob Thornton. Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, J.T. Walsh, John Ritter. Note: Thornton wrote the play. The fey but lovable character he invented/plays is Karl Childers. In “The Idiot” Dostoyevsky’s character Myshkin can only tell the truth; so he’s seen as crazy. In this very unusual movie honest and gentle Karl wouldn’t kill anyone without a good reason. He told them so when was discharged from the hospital.
  • "Taxi Driver" (1976): Color. 113 minutes. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Cast: Robert DeNiro (pictured right), Jodie Foster, Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks. Note: Travis Bickle is an ignored, alienated veteran. We stare in the mirror with Travis the insomniac as he points his gun asking, “You talking to me?” We ride with him in his cab, as he steers toward becoming a protector of innocence and a vengeful assassin. This neo noir classic is still as eye-popping and haunting as it was 45 years ago. 
  • "Wise Blood" (1979): Color. Directed by John Huston. Cast: Brad Dourif, Harry Dean Stanton, John Huston, Amy Wright, Dan Shor. Note: This is a deft adaptation of the Flannery O’Connor story about a self-styled street preacher’s twisted efforts to fit into a low-road world of shadows and scams. But he’s an atheist of a sort. It’s one of those movies that makes you feel a little bit guilty for laughing, but you can’t help it.
While identifying with at least one character in the story being presented on the screen is important to many viewers, some of us creative types find a special comfort in watching movies about characters we like to think are crazier than we are.

To close, here's the last title I had to cut from the list to get it down to five: "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (1972) by Herzog.


-- 30 --

Monday, August 23, 2021

Time-Warping, Again

by F.T. Rea

Intro:

In 1955 RKO, which had just changed hands, became the first major Hollywood studio to sell the exhibition rights to its library of feature films to television. Consequently, my early baby boomer generation grew up watching that studio's well-crafted black and white movies on TV. RKO plays a cameo role, of a sort, in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975).

That particular campy send-up of old science fiction and monster flicks is by far the most significant midnight show attraction of all-time. As such, it needs its own chapter in a proper chronicle of the times at the Biograph Theatre in Richmond, Virginia – a repertory cinema I managed from its opening in early-1972 until mid-1983.

 This photo of Larry Rohr riding up the aisle during a 
midnight screening of the "The Rocky Horror 
Picture Show" was shot on Mar. 1, 1980. 

At Midnight Only: 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show' 

"The Rocky Horror Picture Show" was adapted from the British kitsch-celebrating, gender-bending stage musical, “The Rocky Horror Show.” The film version was released by 20th Century Fox in September of 1975.

The play was written in the early-1970s; it opened in London in 1973. Its thin plot cashed in on the time's freedom to pursue pleasure, expressed plainly by the hippies' liberating trope – “if it feels good, do it.”

Yet, to Fox's distribution department in 1975, the movie was weird in a way that made it difficult to pigeonhole, marketing-wise. Which couldn't have helped in the promotion for its early first-run engagements, which were disappointing at the box office. That eventually prompted Fox to give up and take it out of release.

While “Rocky Horror,” the film, became popular during what might now be seen as the punk era, it wasn't really connected to the aesthetic of punk's defiant nonchalance. Style-wise, its music, written by the play's author, Richard O'Brien, was sort of a bubble-gum knockoff of early rock 'n' roll, fused with a measure of glam rock.

Overall, as pop music goes, the songs probably didn't expand any boundaries. Nonetheless, in the context of the movie the music had it own charm.

As a movie musical, "Rocky Horror" was surely no worse than a good deal of the Hollywood musicals of the 1950s and '60s. Anyway, it didn't please critics all that much, either. So when Fox put it on the shelf, no one could have anticipated the one-of-a-kind cult following it would eventually gather as a midnight show.

Note: “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”: 100 minutes. Color. Directed by Jim Sharman (who had also directed the play). Cast: Tim Curry (as Dr. Frank-N-Furter), Susan Sarandon (as Janet), Barry Bostwick (as Brad), Richard O'Brien (as Riff Raff), Patricia Quinn (as Magenta), Nell Campbell (as Columbia), Meat Loaf (as Eddie), Peter Hinwood (as Rocky).

About a year after its original release the second life for “Rocky Horror” is said to have begun at the legendary Waverly Theater (now the IFC Center) in Greenwich Village. At midnight screenings a few audience members began calling out sarcastic comeback lines to the film's action and dialogue. The funniest remarks were appreciated, imitated, then eventually topped by an attendee at a subsequent screening.

Thus, it wasn't originally some adman's brainchild. It just happened.

It should also be noted that midnight shows had been popular in New York City since the late-'60s. As well, they had been running at cinemas in other cities and some college towns for a good five years or more. Basically, if a midnight screening went well, it would be held over to the next weekend, which was a departure from calendar house programming. So the midnight show format had already been developed and was well established when “Rocky Horror” came along.

In the Richmond Biograph's first couple of years of operation midnight show screenings frequently helped keep the lights on. Some of the midnight show features that were popular enough to run for multiple weekends then were: “Performance” (1970); “Reefer Madness” (1936); “Deep Throat” (1972) w/ “The Andalusian Dog” (1929); “Night of the Living Dead” (1968); “El Topo” (1970); “Putney Swope” (1969); “Magical Mystery Tour” (1967). They were promoted using handbills (small posters) and radio spots on WGOE-AM.

During 1977 at the Waverly the role the audience played in the midnight shows enlarged to make the screenings into events with costumes and choreography, as the traditional wall between the screen and the viewers continued dissolving. When that unprecedented interaction phenomenon jumped from Manhattan to other markets where “Rocky Horror” was playing as a midnight show, such as Austin and Los Angeles, it became even more puzzling.

By the winter of 1977/78 “Rocky Horror” was playing to enthusiastic crowds in several cities. Yet, curiously, it had not caught on at others. What would eventually become a popular culture marvel was still flying below the radar for most of America.

As the spring of '78 approached, Alan Rubin, one of my two bosses at the Biograph in Georgetown, asked Fox once again about booking it for Richmond's Biograph. It was already playing at the rival Key Theatre in Georgetown, because Rubin's ex-partner, David Levy, had beaten him to the punch. But Alan was told there still weren't any prints available.

Then, during a trip to Los Angles in May, I heard about the elaborate goings-on at the Tiffany Theatre to do with “Rocky Horror.” Upon my return to Richmond I told Alan and his partner, Lenny Poryles, what I'd learned about its growing popularity in LA. Subsequently, during a conference call with one of the guys at Fox, Alan, Lenny and I were told there was just no enthusiasm at his end for the picture’s prospects in Richmond.

To be fair, in those days Richmond was generally seen by most movie distributors as a weak market – not a place to waste resources. Besides, no one at Fox seemed to understand why the audience participation following for the picture had blossomed in the first place, or more importantly – what was making the movie's cult following catch on in some cities, but not at all in others. So they were holding off on ordering any new prints. Which meant there was no telling how long we might have to wait. It does seem funny now to recall how unconvinced the Fox folks were they had something that was new and old rules didn't apply.

Alan, Lenny and I continued our telephone conversation after the distributor's representative got off the line. That led us to agreeing to a plan: We would offer to front the cost of a new 35mm print, some $5,000, as I remember it, which would stand as an advance against standard film rental fees. There were two provisos: 1. The Biograph would continue hold the exclusive rights to exhibit “Rocky Horror” in the Richmond market as long as we held onto that print. 2. That I would promote it as I saw fit, creating my own materials, rather than rely on Fox's standard press kit stuff (which I was accustomed to doing when situations called for it).

When we called the Fox distributor's office back, it went smoothly. With nothing to lose, they went for the deal. After all, if anything, the Biograph had earned a reputation for being a good venue for midnight shows.

Next, for research, I questioned a couple of publicity people at Fox a little more about how it had been promoted in various situations. Strangely, there was no consensus about what had prompted the successes or failures. However, Fox had encouraged a few exhibitors to call for attendees who would recite certain lines and dance in the aisles, etc. But when they tried to prime the pump in that way it hadn't worked.

After viewing the film, I decided it would be better not to over-promote it. That way there would be less risk of drawing the sort of general audience which might include too many unsatisfied customers – folks who might leave the theater bad-mouthing it. My strategy called for first getting the attention of the kids who had already been seeing “Rocky Horror” screenings at the Waverly or the Key, as well as a few of the most determined of local taste-makers who must see anything edgy first, so they can opine about it.

Accordingly, at WGOE's studio I produced a radio commercial using about 20 seconds of the film's signature song, “Time Warp.” The only ad copy came at the very end with a tag line. The listener heard my voice say, “Get in the act … midnight at the Biograph.”

There was no explanation of what the music was, or what the 30-second spot was even about. At that time the soundtrack for “Rocky Horror” still hadn't become all that well known. The hook was that the spot didn't offer listeners as much information as they expected, which hopefully added somewhat to its underground allure. The same less-is-more approach was used in the print materials.

The Floor Show

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” opened in Richmond on June 30, 1978. It drew a decent crowd, but it was well short of a sell-out. Some of those who attended did occasionally call out wisecrack lines. Most did not. As I recall, a handful of people dressed up in costumes. As hoped, over the next few weeks a following for “Rocky Horror” steadily grew, as did the audience participation.

At the center of that following was a troupe that became the regulars who turned midnight screenings into performance-art adventures. John Porter, a VCU theater major, emerged as the leader of that group; they called themselves the Floor Show. Outfitted in his Frank-N-Furter get-up, Porter missed few, if any, midnight screenings for the next couple of years.

Plenty of crazy things happened in dealing with the “Rocky Horror” audience twice a week. There was the Saturday night an entire full house was thrown out, because some bare-chested roughnecks had run amuck. They were hosing down the crowd, using our fire extinguishers. Fights were underway. So after a stern warning from me to the crowd, to stop-or-else did no good, I pulled the plug. One by one, they all got their money back.

Interestingly, after that night we never had much trouble with violence to do with “Rocky Horror” again. The Floor Show kids helped to monitor the situation, to make it uncool to go too far. Porter’s leadership was a key to keeping it fun, but not out of control. For his part, John was given a lifetime pass to the Biograph.

There was no stranger episode than the night a man breathed his last, as he sat in the small auditorium (Theatre No. 2) watching “F.I.S.T” (1978). Yes, that lame Sylvester Stallone vehicle was hard to watch, but who knew it could be lethal?

Sitting upright in an aisle seat the dead man’s expressionless face offered no clues to his final thoughts. His eyes were open. He was about 30, which was my age.

The rescue squad guys jerked him out of his seat and threw him onto the floor. As jolts of electricity shot through the dead man’s body, down in Theater No. 1 “Rocky Horror” was on the Biograph’s larger screen delighting the audience. Walking back and forth between the two auditoriums, absorbing the bizarre juxtaposition of those scenes in the same building, was a strange trip, to say the least.

A brief item about the death appeared in the newspaper. It said he had been in bad health. Don't remember his name.

Looking on the bright side, after six-and-a-half years of showing screwball comedies, French New Wave films, rock 'n' roll movies, film noirs, and so forth, the Biograph had earned the chance to have what any theater needs to become fully-fledged – a ghost.

Chasing Dignity

On one of those busy nights early in the run of “Rocky Horror (I can't be sure of the date) a battle broke out in the middle of West Grace Street in front of the theater. Rocks, bottles and whatnot were flying back and forth between two factions of young men. Both squads consisted of four or five participants.

As I later discovered, the fight was between members of a VCU fraternity and an Oregon Hill crew. The most alarming angle of the fraught incident was that it was unfolding a perilous 30 yards from the Cinemascopic, all-glass front of the Biograph. Yikes!

The box office had just closed and the cashier was in the midst of count-up duties. At the same time a small group of friends was in the lobby. Some of them were my Biograph Swordfish softball teammates. A few of us were playing a pinball machine. As the manager of the theater I felt obliged to fend off the danger. Accordingly, I asked the cashier to call the cops and opened one of the twin exit doors, to step onto the sidewalk and yell at the kids.

In so many words I told them to scram. As an incentive I mentioned the cops were already on the way. That was good enough for the frat-boy team. They scampered off.

Meanwhile, rather than pursue their enemies the Oregon Hill gang simply switched over to aiming their missiles at me. A rock hit the curb. A tumbling bottle shattered on the sidewalk, which prompted me to duck back inside.

A second or two later an incoming piece of red brick crashed through the door's lowest glass panel. It struck my right shin. That particular moment of this story stands out sharply in my memory.

There were seven, maybe eight men running in the impromptu posse of employees and pinball players that went after the scattering hooligans. However, my focus was totally on the guy who had plunked me. I chased him as he headed west. Suddenly hemmed in by three of us in a public parking lot at the intersection of Shafer and Grace, he faked one way, then cut to the other.

When his traction gave way in the gravel paving he stumbled to regain his balance. That was when I tackled him by the legs. The others in his group got away.

With some help from my friends – two of them held his arms – we marched the brick-thrower back toward the theater. During that trek I suppose there was some conversation. Don't recall any of what was said, but something the captured culprit said as we passed Grace Place (an excellent vegetarian restaurant) provoked one guy in my group to punch him in the jaw without warning.

One of the policemen in the assembled group of cops in front of the theater sarcastically complimented the puncher for his prisoner-escorting “technique.” Shortly thereafter the punchee was hauled off in the paddy wagon. Back in the lobby I told the puncher he had overreached in hitting the kid unnecessarily, especially while he was helpless.

Caught off-guard by my reaction, my softball teammate laughed. He disagreed, saying essentially that his summary punishment would likely be the only price the guy would ever pay for his assault. Another in the group quickly agreed with him. Others saw it my way, or said nothing.

Then we probably resumed the ongoing pinball game. More importantly, it's quite likely I went across the lobby to the theater's refrigerator in a closet and pulled out enough cans of cold beer to say, “thank you” to each member of the posse.

They had helped protect the Biograph from a menace. And, yes, it was satisfying to have at least caught the one who had just bloodied my shin.

It wasn’t long after that night I found myself poring over a 1931 essay by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Echoes of the Jazz Age.” Here is the last paragraph of that evocative piece:
“…Now once more the belt is tight and we summon the proper expression of horror as we look back at our wasted youth. Sometimes, though, there is a ghostly rumble among the drums, an asthmatic whisper in the trombones that swings me back into the early twenties when we drank wood alcohol and every day in every way grew better and better, and there was a first abortive shortening of the skirts, and girls all looked alike in sweater dresses, and people you didn’t want to know said ‘Yes, we have no bananas,’ and it seemed only a question of a few years before the older people would step aside and let the world be run by those who saw things as they were — and it all seems rosy and romantic to us who were young then, because we will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings any more.”
During that reading, seated at my desk in the theater's office, it hit me that the shattering of the Biograph's glass door had been the sound to accompany the hippie era ending. Its trends, causes and distinctive styles had arrived in the late-'60s and they soon would be seen as nostalgia. In some ways the hippie decade had been similar to the Roaring ’20s.

Moreover, the peace-loving, pot-smoking, anti-establishment elements of my generation hadn't changed the world all that much in enduring ways. Ending the Vietnam War and getting rid of Nixon just hadn't solved as many problems as our slogans had promised.

In the summer of '78, it was also time to admit to myself the neighborhood surrounding the Biograph was getting meaner. Which made little sense, even at the time, since it was adjacent to VCU's burgeoning academic campus. Still, for whatever reason the university didn't seem to care then, or for years after this.

A month later, in the General District Court I agreed to a proposal to drop the assault charge, provided the brick-thrower was convicted of a misdemeanor for breaking the glass and that he would reimburse us for the cost of the repairs. A payment schedule was set up.

As we spoke several times after that day in court I came to see the 19-year-old “hooligan” wasn’t really such a bad guy. His payments were made on a timely basis. With his last payment he asked for the name of the man who’d punched him.

While withholding the name, I agreed with him that regardless of my friend's intentions his adrenaline-fueled punch had mostly been a cheap shot. With the money aspect of the debt paid, we shook hands.

Debt and Irony

About a year later, during a Wednesday matinee the Biograph cashier, Gussie Armeniox, was counting a stack of one dollar bills when an opportunistic thief snatched them from her hands. Although I was only a few feet away, behind the candy counter in the lobby, my back was turned. When I looked around, it was alarming to see the robber bolting out the front door. Gussie's wide-eyed, frightened look was unforgettable. It boosted the intensity of the sense of violation.

As I got to the sidewalk the thief was already a half-a-block away. Nonetheless, in spite of his foot speed it turned out he wasn't so good at avoiding capture. Instead of just running to the west, to put plenty of distance between us, he ducked between the buildings, trying to hide. He did it a couple of times, then, when I would find him and get close, he'd take off again.

During the chasing and searching I received some unexpected help from a total stranger. A young man slammed on his brakes and jumped out of his pickup truck. After that reinforcement it took less than five minutes to corner the thief in the men's room of a fast food restaurant. By then a policeman in a cruiser had showed up. Fortunately, that meant I didn't have to go into that men's room to drag the perpetrator out. The cops did it for me.

Of course, I thanked the volunteer and asked him why he’d stopped to help out. He told me he knew I was the Biograph’s manager, because a buddy of his had recently pointed me out to him. His friend?

It was the same Oregon Hill street-fighter I’d tackled a year before. My assistant thief-chaser said his friend told him the story about the broken glass and the assault charge being dropped. Then he said I'd dealt fairly with him. Consequently, a favor was owed to me.

Before he got back in his truck, my collaborator said that in his neighborhood the guys tend to stick together. Thus, he had supported me in my time of need, because of his friend’s debt. I was grateful and flabbergasted.

It now seems to me the sort of obligation he felt and acted upon has been evaporating out of the culture for some time, maybe since the time of this chase scene. The thief turned out to be a repeat offender, so the judge gave him six months for stealing 37 dollar bills.

Looking back on this story what connects those two chase scenes has become increasingly more satisfying. No doubt, that’s partly because in dealing with bad luck and other ordinary tests of character, too many times I’ve done nothing to brag about – even the wrong thing.

Maybe in this two-part adventure I came close to getting it right. In my view, both chases had something to do with pursuing justice and preserving something. Dignity perhaps.

The Exploding Motorcycle

On Friday, March 1, 1980, with its 88th consecutive week, “Rocky Horror” established a new record for longevity in Richmond. It broke the record of 87 weeks, established by “The Sound of Music” (1965), during its first-run engagement at the Willow Lawn Theater.

To celebrate Porter and I dressed in tuxedos to stand before the full house. He held up a “Sound of Music” soundtrack album and I smashed it with a hammer. It went over quite well.
The record-breaking ceremony prior to the screening.
In a nice touch to underline the special night‘s theme, a couple of the regulars came dressed as Julie Andrews. The late Carole Kass, the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s sweetheart of a entertainment writer/movie critic, wrote up a nice feature on what was basically hokum.

That same night Larry Rohr rode his motorcycle through the auditorium’s aisles at the point in the movie when Meat Loaf’s character in the film, Eddie, rides his motorcycle. Rohr’s careful but noisy rides happened only on a few special occasions, such as the record-breaking night. Fortunately, nothing bad ever happened.

A few months later, I had a dream that the motorcycle exploded and blew the roof off of the theater. The nightmare scared me so much the motorcycle rides were discontinued. Anyway, that's what I told people about why we stopped. Yes, now it seems crazy as hell that I ever facilitated such risky shenanigans. Maybe I was somewhat carried away by the aforementioned wide-open permission that went along with the '70s.

With no more motorcycle rides, various Floor Show members sometimes rode a tricycle up and down the aisles. The way members of that group adapted playfully to whatever was said or done in previous weeks was an integral aspect of the fun. They were like players in a story that had new chapters being written for it, on the fly, each weekend.

However, while “Rocky Horror” had an underground cachet in the first year, even the second, eventually its status began to go sour. That was especially so in the eyes of the staff and Biograph regulars who hung out there. The rice, toast and all sorts of other stuff that got tossed around had to be cleaned up each and every time by the grumbling janitors, who naturally grew to detest the movie. To keep the peace they got “Rocky Horror” bonuses — a few extra bucks for their weekend shifts.

Once into the winter of 1980/81 the turnout for the screenings of “Rocky Horror” began a gradual withering. By then many of the originals had stopped coming every weekend. Much of the audience seemed to be made up of sightseers from the suburbs. The fast crowd in the artsy, black leather jacket scene were ignoring it, although the movie was still doing enough business to justify holding onto that original print.

In the summer of 1982 “Rocky Horror” celebrated its fourth anniversary at the Biograph. That same summer, for Program No. 60, I booked a six-week festival offering 12 RKO double features.

The Biograph's record-setting midnight show run of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” ended on June 25, 1983. Although it had helped pay the rent ($3,000 a month), no one was happier to see that well-used 35mm print shipped out than those of us who had lived warped by the “Rocky Horror” experience for five years.

Outro:

In the Biograph lobby I always got a kick out of listening to enthusiastic new film buffs tell me why the old movie he or she had just watched was cool. Still cool! Of course, in agreeing with them I was just doing my job. Anywhere, any time, stimulating a greater appreciation of good films made in previous times was an important aspect of the manager's duties. I've never gotten over it.

Speaking of time warps, here are the titles for that 1982 RKO fest, listed in the order in which they played: “Top Hat” (1935) and “Damsel in Distress” (1936); “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1939) and “The Informer” (1935); “King Kong” (1933) and “Mighty Joe Young” (1949); “Suspicion” (1941) and “They Live By Night” (1948); “Sylvia Scarlett” (1936) and “Mister Blandings Builds His Dream House” (1948); “Murder My Sweet” (1945) and “Macao” (1952); “The Mexican Spitfire” (1939) and “Room Service” (1938); “Journey Into Fear” (1942) and “This Land Is Mine” (1943); “The Thing” (1951) and “Cat People” (1942); “The Boy With Green Hair” (1948) and “Woman on the Beach” (1947); “Citizen Kane” (1941) and “Fort Apache” (1948); “The Curse of the Cat People” (1944) and “The Body Snatcher” (1945).

--  Photos by Ernie Brooks

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