Saturday, October 18, 2014

Campaign Inkbites: The 1994 Senate Race

In the summer of 1994 O.J. Simpson-related material was on television round-the-clock. Meanwhile, a four-way race political race developed in Virginia, as three candidates emerged to challenge the incumbent Chuck Robb for his seat in the U.S. Senate.

Republican Ollie North was nominated by a convention at the Richmond Coliseum. Former governor Doug Wilder, a Democrat, threw his hat in as an Independent. Finally, Marshall Coleman, a Republican former attorney general and failed gubernatorial candidate, ran as an Independent, too.

Naturally, both Wilder and Coleman were seen immediately as spoilers by many observers. The national press that wasn't assigned to the story of Simpson's soon to begin trial was all over the circus-like story of the quartet of candidates in Virginia. Although Robb was the incumbent, North was easily the biggest celebrity in the group. Wilder might have argued that point.

In late August, I issued what was then my fourth set of collectible cards -- “Campaign Inkbites: The ‘94 VA Senate Race.”

After swearing he was in the race 'til the finish, the mercurial Wilder withdrew in October. The wooden Coleman stayed the course, with stubborn Sen. John Warner as his chief backer. North, ever the checkered-shirted dandy, raised and spent over $25 million; what was then a new record for the most ever in a U.S. Senate race ... any state. In the end the awkward Robb outlasted them all and won reelection.

Beneath the 1994 newspaper article about that card collection are scans of 12 of the 15 original cards from the set. With 20 years of dust on the cards, some of my attempts at humor may not work so well now, hopefully the caricatures are still fun to look at. As I produced these cards, it was an interesting challenge to try to write lines for the dialogue balloons that would hold up for a month or two, no matter what the developments.

Right out of the gate, this edition was lucky with publicity, the article reprinted below started it:
Sept. 6, 1994: David Poole and Dwayne Yancey (Virginian-Pilot)
Odds and ends from the past week of Virginia's U.S. Senate campaign: I'll swap you two Doug Wilders for a Tai Collins. The colorful U.S. Senate race has spawned a set of trading cards featuring the four candidates and a host of supporting characters - including the former Miss Virginia who gave a nude massage to Chuck Robb in a New York hotel.

There’s U.S. Sen. John Warner sounding defensive about his hand-picked candidate, Marshall Coleman: “Why should I strain to name an office he hasn't sought, or an abortion stance he hasn't taken? The point is: Marshall isn't Ollie.”

There’s conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh assessing the race: “The choice in Virginia is simple. You’ve got a stained, lap-dog liberal, a bleached and petulant liberal, a fair-weather conservative, and a genuine, world-class hero.”


There’s political pundit Larry Sabato reporting on the latest poll results: “Fifty-one percent said the race is so embarrassing they plan to leave the state.”
The “Campaign Inkbites” are the brainchild of F.T. Rea, a Richmond artist who a decade ago issued a similar deck of cards commemorating a massive death-row escape at Mecklenberg Correctional Center [by the notorious Briley brothers and four others]. The set of 15 Senate cards is available at Biff’s bookstore [also at Chickens, the snack bar in the State Capitol] in Richmond for $12 a pack.

The most unflattering likeness in the set is that of Sabato, whose green skin gives him the look of a vampire.

“Ironically, he’s my best customer,” Rea said of Sabato. “He bought 12
packs.”
Then an AP story written by Martha Slud ran. Lots of newspapers (1, 2, 3) picked it up and printed various versions of it. Some ran the whole piece, as shown below, others edited it down. Click on the cards or the article to enlarge them.
Then came a five-minute report on the card set by Bob Woodruff appeared on CNN. Woodruff had done a report on a previous project of mine and I just happened to run into him and he asked what I was up to. All that led to political memorabilia collectors from far and wide buying the cards through the mail.

All of this led to STYLE Weekly asking me to do a cover and a five-page spread of cartoons on the same campaign (Oct. 18, 1994).

It was a wild ride.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Hillary Clinton vs. the Howlers

 
When President Barrack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize five years ago lots of people howled. Most of them were Republicans.

Democrats mostly smiled. At that point, it hadn't become clear that as the Tea Party's influence on the GOP grew it would have most Republicans howling reflexively, like Pavlov’s dogs, at every single move Obama would make. 

It may not be making much news now, but the anti-war wing of the Democratic Party is coalescing. Obama campaigned in 2008 as a peace candidate; he promised to bring the troops home. And, although he has pulled a lot of American military personnel out of Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama’s continued willingness to bomb installations and people in the Middle East troubles plenty of peace-loving Democrats. Consequently, almost six years in, the murkiness of Obama’s foreign policy has now been criticized roundly by conservatives, liberals and whatever else you‘ve got.

Many Democrats who applauded Obama’s prize-winning five years have been disappointed by his failure to deliver on his promise to close the prison at Gitmo, and horrified by his administration's use of drones. In 2014 the anti-war wing of the Democratic Party is coalescing.

Obama campaigned in 2008 as a peace candidate; he promised to bring the troops home. And, although he has pulled a lot of American military personnel out of Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama’s continued willingness to bomb installations and people in the Middle East has not set well with plenty of peace-loving Democrats. So, almost six years in, Obama’s foreign policy has been criticized roundly by conservatives, liberals and whatever else you‘ve got. Its murkiness troubles some people who continue to support the president.

As much as the beheading videos have put pressure on Obama to lash out at ISIS, they may be more of a problem for Hillary Clinton. Her 2002 vote as a senator, supporting then-President George W. Bush’s plan to invade Iraq, came back to haunt her in 2008. It opened the door for Obama to wrest the nomination from her. By serving as Obama’s Secretary of State for four years, it put her in harm‘s way to take the fall for any foreign policy mishaps on her watch. That played out most obviously with the aftermath of the 2012 raid in Benghazi. More howling.

With the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (1922-91) in the rear-view mirror for over 20 years, America still has military bases all over the world. As part of her presidential campaign, is Hillary Clinton going to map out how Uncle Sam  is going to move away from being the world's policeman. One day, she might win a Nobel Peace Prize if she does take the risk to say that, and then follows through on it.

Or, to try to get elected, will Clinton choose to follow suit and rattle the saber with more inside-the-beltway doubletalk about fighting a never-ending war on terror? If she does, the challenges will come from the right and the left.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Unplugged: Waking Up the Day After


Note: I wrote the piece that follows for a special post-Isabel collection of stories for STYLE Weekly in 2003. My photo.

On the Friday morning after Hurricane Isabel blew through town (Sept. 19, 2003), the sky was blue and the air smelled clean. The residents of the Fan District, at the heart of Richmond, Va., woke from an uneasy sleep. Day One of the unplugged life was underway.

Before the worst of the storm passed, about midnight, Isabel tossed huge trees around like a handful of pickup sticks. Power lines snapped. Cars were crushed. Roofs caved in and basements flooded. As the shocking devastation dealt out by the previous night’s onslaught of wind and rain was revealed to the stunned urbanites in the Fan, so too did the reality of widespread electricity deprivation.

Still, faced with all sorts of uncertainty and disconnected from the doings in the rest of the world, many wandering the streets like zombies on that morning faced the immediate problem that there was no hot coffee to be had.

For hundreds of his neighbors, Manny Mendez, owner of Kuba Kuba, took care of the coffee shortage on that surreal morning. Boiling water on the restaurant’s gas stove and pouring it over sacks (improvised coffee filters) in a big colander, Mendez and his staff doled out tasty Cuban coffee to anyone who stopped by.

While opportunists in other parts of town were marking up prices on candles, batteries, ice, generators and anything else for which the supply was short and the demand was great, Kuba Kuba was pouring strong coffee for one and all at no charge — free!

“What are we going to do [under these circumstances], charge people for coffee?” Mendez asked rhetorically with a shrug.

When word got around that Kuba Kuba — at Park Avenue and Lombardy Street — had hot coffee, the crowd on the sidewalk outside the small restaurant swelled. Into the afternoon the size of the gathering fluctuated between 20 and 40 people at a time. Many neighbors met for the first time. By the time the coffee-making effort shut down in mid-afternoon, 100 gallons of free coffee had been served in paper cups.

By then several of Manny’s tables were on the sidewalk, with chairs arranged around them. Out came the boxes of dominoes.

The marathon dominoes scene continued for hours under the lights of a borrowed generator. Players sat in for a while, then sat out. Neighbors appeared with what they had in the way of libation. They swapped stories and the laughter from what had become an impromptu party drove off the demons that lurked in the eerie darkness, only 50 yards away.

Dominoes shark Manny Mendez was all of sx years old when he boarded an airplane with a one-way ticket to a totally uncertain future in the United States. In 1968, for people such as the Mendez family, getting out of Cuba was worth the risk of fleeing into the unknown.

The day little Manny left Cuba, his father was thought to be in Spain, as he had been deported. His mother was crestfallen when told that there were no flights going to Spain on the day her family was offered its chance to flee what Cuba had become. Recently released from 13 months of confinement at an agricultural labor colony, she opted to board the Red Cross-sponsored Freedom Flight for wherever it was going.

On Aug. 2, 1968, that airplane took Judith Mendez and her two children, Manny and his sister, Judy, away from Cuba. It landed in Florida. Upon touching down, Judith Mendez called her relatives, who lived in Richmond, to tell them the good news.

To her surprise she was told her husband, Manuel, was already in Richmond.

After a spell in an apartment building at Harrison Street and Park Avenue, the Mendez family moved to the 3400 block of Cutshaw Avenue, where several other Cuban families had settled. There was one car, a ’56 Chevy owned by his uncle, for the whole group to share.

Manny’s father had been an accountant in Cuba; in Richmond his first job title was “janitor.” As time passed, Manuel Mendez improved his situation and became a leader of the growing Cuban community in Richmond by making regular trips to Washington, D.C., to buy the essentials for Latin cooking and other imported goods unavailable in Richmond.

“Papi, how often did we used to lose power in Cuba?” Manny asked of his father during one of the dominoes games.

In his distinctive accent, with the timing of a polished raconteur, Manny’s father rolled the “r” as he said, “Oh, about two or three times … a night!”

Those gathered laughed, having instantly gained a wider perspective of coping with bad luck. Manny’s mother and the Cuban employees of Kuba Kuba laughed the loudest. Then, too, that may account for why Kuba Kuba routinely carries candles for sale along with other sundries.

The dominoes party broke up about 1:30 a.m. Most of the crowd returned to homes without power — with strange noises in the anxious quiet — no televisions, no Internet, and refrigerators full of risky food. No doubt, some of those dominoes players that unusual night carried away a new appreciation for people who can handle hardship with grace. Some may have even gained a new sense of how it must be in places where millions do without power, in one way or another, most of the time.

-- 30 --

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

And, I Don't Mean Donuts

To make the scam work, Mayor Jones has promised a slavery museum will be adjacent to the new baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom and a massive shopping center will appear on the Boulevard. Not to mention -- new jobs galore. Now he’s throwing in a children’s hospital.

To be against Hizzoner’s plan for a Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium has been/is being seen by supporters of the mayor’s plan as tantamount to opposing all those goodies and more. Like, who wants to sick kids go untreated? So far, Jones hasn't announced whether unlimited free donuts will be available at Shockoe Stadium. Nor has he publicly said who he might support in 2016 as his replacement at the mayor's desk.

Some of Jones' backers seem to be able to squint and see him as Gov. Terry McAuliffe's replacement, next time around ... especially, if he can make the scam work and further enrich the right people.

Truth be told, it has never mattered to the mayor's supporters whether the voters wanted to back his Shockoe Stadium scheme.

From those on the mayor’s bandwagon we've heard the chuckles, "So what?"

To those aboard the bandwagon, it has never mattered what the many citizens who have wanted to protect Shockoe Bottom from such a wrongheaded development have said, either.

Their whispers have been audible, "What can they do?"

Nor has it ever seemed to matter what most baseball fans preferred, either.

We've read the comments boosters for Shockoe Stadium have written under related articles, "Like, who cares what a bunch of rubes, mostly from the suburbs, want?"

One gets the idea that those on the bandwagon think they can simply mint a bunch of new fans, to replace those who will refuse to go to Shockoe Stadium. For the last year, all that has really mattered in the mayor's camp has been lining up the needed votes on City Council, to facilitate ramming it all down our throats ... and, I don't mean donuts.

Convincing one or two members of City Council to sell out is what the LovingRVA campaign was all about. It sought to create an air of inevitability. And, when you look back over the last year's stream of double-talk from City Hall, flipping a Council member or two is precisely what all the arm-twisting and plan-revising over Jones' so-called “revitalization” proposal has been about.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Chuck Wrenn: Rock 'n' Roll Impresario

FiftyPlus, October 2002
By F.T. Rea

Detail from a postcard-style invitation to Chuck Wrenn’s
40th birthday party on the James River. My art (1985). 
Note: This magazine feature was written 12 years ago by yours truly.

Twenty-two years ago, when it was generally accepted that large-scale outdoor rock ‘n’ roll events couldn’t be staged in Richmond, Chuck Wrenn put three fully-amplified bands, including the impeccably authentic Memphis Rockabilly Band, on a flatbed trailer in the cobblestone alley behind his back yard. It was the fourth edition of High on the Hog, Church Hill’s live music and pork-worshiping festival.

The 1980 event featured a serendipitous, career-defining moment for Wrenn. It began raining. Rather than lose momentum by shutting off the electricity and waiting out the downpour, host/emcee Wrenn broke out rolls of heavy-gauge transparent plastic. Soon, with the help of many happy hands, he had improvised a canopy to protect the stage and cover part of the yard. In effect, he wrapped the whole shebang.

Yes, the show went on. With electric guitars wailing in defiance of the chilly rainstorm, the sense of common purpose felt by one and all was remarkable. And, Richmond’s best-known bartender and most indomitable impresario was emerging as the arbiter of what was valid to a generation of Richmond’s musicians and nightlife aficionados.
  
To this day, when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll, Chuck Wrenn remains Richmond’s kahuna.

*

Charles E. “Chuck” Wrenn began his love affair with show business in 1964 at the Cary Street Coffeehouse, with its open microphone for folksingers and the like. Then a senior at Hermitage High School, Chuck eventually slid into playing with an amalgam of enthusiasts known as the North Pine Street Jug Band.

Pat Jagoda, organizer of a couple of reunions of the coffee-house gang, was also in high school (Douglas Freeman) when she discovered the small folkie scene emerging in what is now Carytown. Today, Jagoda books talent for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' fabulously successful live music series called Jumpin’, a concept that Chuck helped set in motion in the ‘80s by booking the bands for its first three years.

“Chuck has remained true to those very first experiences and brought an amazing group of people into the musical circle for audiences to experience,” Jagoda says. “What has become even stronger since those early years is his passion for music.”

Next, as a fine-art student at Richmond Professional Institute (RPI was the predecessor to Virginia Commonwealth University), Chuck became fascinated with the shifting breeze of popular culture coming from San Francisco, particularly the seminal psychedelic shows at the Fillmore Auditorium. On August 4, 1967, to present their own version of a Happening with music and lights, he and two friends rented Tantilla Gardens on West Broad Street.

The band, put together for the occasion by Ron Courtney, was called Actual Mushroom. The light show was essentially Chuck and fellow art student Eric Bowman using an overhead projector with various props. Chuck’s underground-comix-style art on the handbill touted the promised spectacle as the “first psychedelic dance in Virginia.”

“We sold out, but we lost money,” recalls Chuck. “Yep, been losing money ever since.”

Chuck worked construction jobs and served 3.2 beer in student dives on Grace Street to make money during college. Then, in a Fan District garage, he started a business assembling custom-made stretched canvases called the Square Deal Stretcher Shop.

*

After VCU, Chuck and his wife, Myra, lived on Cape Cod for about a year. He took work as a maintenance man at a seaside national park while she learned to be a bartender, a trade difficult to pick up in Richmond. The concept of serving cocktails, or what had been coined “liquor by the drink,” was still new to Virginia. People had been accustomed to doing their away-from-home drinking in exclusive clubs, neighborhood beer joints, and shot houses (unlicensed bars on the wrong side of the tracks).

When he re-turned to Richmond in 1972, Chuck signed on to become one of the original staff members of the Biograph Theatre, located a block from the VCU campus. Having been chairman of the student film society at VCU, the role of assistant manger at the town’s new repertory cinema fit like a glove. Chuck’s promotional savvy contributed much to the establishment of the midnight show as a staple for the plucky Biograph over its 15-year run (1972-87).

Myra took a bartending job at Poor Richard’s, the city’s first downtown watering hole that had a Georgetown air about it. In the fall of 1973 Wrenn left the movie business to become his wife’s trainee, hoping to learn what he saw as a useful skill in changing times.

Today, Chuck’s first wife and bartending instructor, Myra Daleng, is director of dance in the University of Richmond's Department of Theatre and Dance.

A year later Chuck became head bartender at J. W. Rayle, where he eventually began booking local rock ‘n’ roll bands, hoping to attract customers. It worked. Wood-paneled, with lots of stained glass, Rayle (located at Pine and Cary Streets, on the site of what is now a VCU dormitory), was a huge hit. But it came and went like a comet (1974-77).

In 1978 Chuck began renovating a 100-year-old house on East Franklin Street, which connected him to a new part of town and a lively set of baby-boomer neighbors, who the year before had staged a small neighborhood party they dubbed High on the Hog. Chuck’s band, Faded Rose, graced the second edition, also attended by a small contingent of neighbors and friends.

Chuck’s self-styled role with High on the Hog -- booking bands, serving as emcee, and fronting his own group (later the Megatonz) -- was essential to building what became a mammoth annual party. Anticipating the seventh edition of High on the Hog in 1983, it became clear to its planners that the party had outgrown its location in the alley. But the event had become so popular that it was time to go legit. So with the City’s blessing, it moved across the street to Libby Hill Park.

After nearly a decade of frowning on mixing amplified rock ‘n’ roll with fresh air and beer, Richmond’s official stance had changed. Thus the door was opened for Jumpin‘, Friday Cheers, and the other mainstream music events that are now commonplace in Richmond.

Among the many acts to have appeared on High on the Hog’s stage in the public park, three notables are Billy Price and the Keystone Rhythm Band (1983 and ‘85), NRBQ (1987), and Marcia Ball (2001). On October 12, 2002, High on the Hog No. 26 will feature Julie Johnson and NRG Krysis, plus others. Admission, as always, is free.

*

In 1982 Chuck began a 14-year partnership with friend Barry Gottlieb. In character as Rockin' Daddy (Wrenn) and Mad Dog (Gottlieb), they wisecracked and gave out the scoop on entertainment essentials to 2,500 callers per week, via recordings on a bank of telephone answering machines. The enterprise was known as the Rockline.

“We normally did it [the three-times-a-week tapings] in the morning,” says Gottlieb, now a San Francisco-based writer. “Remember, he usually closed whatever bar he was working at, so he came in after only a few hours sleep. We were efficient, goofy, had fun, rarely if ever did a retake.”

In the mid-‘80s Chuck began putting shows together (in various locations) for Duck Baker, a chum from his Cary Street Coffeehouse days and today a world-class jazz guitarist. Because Baker (still not a rich celebrity) was living in San Francisco or various parts of Europe, those gigs helped to pay for his trips home.

Similarly, while working at Bird in Hand, a Shockoe Bottom restaurant/club in the late-‘80s, Chuck began presenting reunion shows of the Good Humor Band near Christmastime. During the late-‘70s and early-‘80s, that Richmond-based group was one of the most popular touring rock bands on the East Coast. In 1983 they disbanded, and most of the musicians relocated to Nashville.

“I moved from Richmond nearly twenty years ago,” says Mike McAdam, the band’s lead guitarist and founder. “Whenever I visit, I always see my Mom, and I always go have a beer with Wrenn. It confirms the fact that Richmond is still my home. Come to think of it, my Mom and Chuck are nearly the same age. Jeez, I hope they didn’t date in high school, or anything.”

*

In 1992 Chuck became a partner in a new Shockoe Bottom venture called the Moondance Saloon. Due to the stresses of the nightclub business, the original partnership soon fell apart. He took a beating, money-wise, but new partners appeared, Chuck shrugged off his losses, and the show went on.

Manny Mendez, one of the new partners, ran the Moondance kitchen until he left to open his own restaurant, Kuba Kuba, located in the Fan District. Of working next to Chuck for years, Mendez says, “He made it fun! You’re having more fun than the people you’re serving. He never has anything mean to say.”

However, even Chuck’s determination and expertise couldn’t reverse a trend that had the Bottom evolving into a loud, randy, and youth-oriented milieu that intimidated many of the graying music lovers who had made up a significant part of his crowd.

On top of that, the two-headed monster of red tape, the City’s and the Commonwealth’s (ABC Board), persistently hobbled his gritty efforts to keep what was the favorite stage of area musicians from going dark. When the Moondance closed in 1999, Chuck was lucky to get out with his shirt.

Fortunately, at the same time Michael Britt, owner of Poe’s Pub, was looking for a bartender with a following. Since then Chuck has worked at Poe's, located at the foot of Libby Hill Park, doing basically the same thing he’s done for more than twenty-five years: pouring drinks and booking bands. Now he can walk home from work.

Ever the optimist, Chuck took his third trip down the aisle on April 1, 2002. And, for the first time he has become a father. Chuck's wife, Hollie, gave birth to their daughter, Eliza Marie Wrenn, on May 9.

“Chuck has taken like a duck to water to fatherhood” says Hollie, who received an art history degree from VCU in 1995. “He keeps her when I need a break, or go to work. He probably changes more diapers than I do.”

Hollie worked as a waitress at the Moondance and upon Mendez’s departure ran the kitchen. She says Eliza has already been to several live music shows. “Eliza, like most babies, I think, loves music,” says Hollie. “She listens to everything I do, from the Ramones to Mozart. She gets very excited and kicks her legs and moves herself all around.”

Chuck’s reaction to midlife fatherhood? He answers, perceptively: “Rather than changing my life, it’s been a wonderful addition.”

*

How does a silver-haired, bushy-eyebrowed 57-year-old who got his show biz start in a jug band keep up with the latest? Must he follow Britney Spears’ latest warblings, or which titles are climbing the hip-hop charts?

No, he doesn’t. “I book and promote what I understand, what I like,” he says with a smile. And so it continues. The region’s veteran musicians, whether they play rhythm and blues, bluegrass, or an esoteric genre of rock ‘n’ roll, can hardly remember a time when they didn’t rely on gigs that Chuck provided, in one way or another. Craig Evans and Billy Ray Hatley are two of them.

“I don’t know a musician around who has a bad word about him,” says Evans, who plays with The Taters, “which is quite a testimonial for someone in his position.”

“Without Chuck there are a lot of people and bands that would not have gotten their first gig,” adds Hatley, of Billy Ray Hatley & the Showdogs.

Mike McAdam, who has recorded and toured with a number of nationally renown acts says, “He has single-handedly kept true rock ‘n’ roll alive in Richmond.”

When Chuck started putting bands on stage at J. W. Rayles in the mid-'70s, there was no rock ‘n’ roll scene in Richmond, only garage bands playing at private parties. Good musicians left town. In the years since, no one has done more to change that than Chuck Wrenn.

But for his efforts, it’s unlikely he’ll ever get the key to the city.

Chuck shrugs off his triumphs and defeats by snapping off a telling quip about his near legendary career managing Richmond’s night life: “Every night was Saturday night, every morning was Monday.”

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Time-Warping, Again

On March 1, 1980, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” broke the record 
of “The Sound of Music” for the longest-running movie in Richmond. 
This photo of Larry Rohr riding through the auditorium that night was 
shot by Ernie Brooks.
In 1975 “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” produced by Lou Adler, was released by 20th Century Fox. Adapted from the British gender-bending stage musical, “The Rocky Horror Show,” the movie died at the box office. The critics didn’t particularly like it, either.

The odd-ball story of the movie’s second life — as the cult midnight show king of all-time — began at the Waverly Theater in Manhattan, when during the spring of 1977 audience members began calling out sarcastic comeback lines at the screen. It became a game to make up new and better lines.

Later that same year the unprecedented interaction between audience and screen jumped to other cities, where “Rocky Horror” was also playing as a midnight show — chiefly, Austin and Los Angeles. Cheap props and campy costumes mimicking those in the film appeared.

So, by the spring of 1978 “Rocky Horror” was playing to wildly enthusiastic crowds in a few midnight show bookings. Yet, curiously, it had not done well at others. At this point, what would eventually become an unprecedented pop phenomenon was still flying below the radar for most of America.

A trip to LA in May of that year boosted my interest in the film. As manager of the Biograph, I was fascinated with the potential of “Rocky Horror,” as were my bosses at the Biograph in Georgetown. Their former partner, David Levy, had already booked it for The Key, to lock up the DeeCee market.

Our inquiry hit a roadblock. With all of the existing prints of the movie already in use, the brass at Fox felt unwilling to risk money on striking any more prints to cater to a weird fad that might fizzle any time; there was no enthusiasm for the picture’s prospects in Richmond.

In those days Richmond was generally seen by most 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 started, or what was making it catch on in some places, but not in others.

Over the telephone, I was told we would have to wait for a print to become available; there was no telling how long that would be.

So, sensing the moment might pass us by, we got creative. The Biograph offered to front the cost of a new print to be made, which would stand as an advance against film rental (35 percent of the box office take). For that consideration we wanted a guarantee from the distributor that we would have the exclusive rights to exhibit “Rocky Horror” in the Richmond market, as long we held onto that same print and paid Fox the film rental due.

Fox went for the deal. Based on the quirky success of the movie in the cities where it was playing well, I decided to use a concept that had worked with other cult films at the Biograph — let the audience “discover” the movie. Don’t over-promote it and draw the sort of general audience that might include too many people who could leave the theater bad-mouthing it.

Instead, the strategy called for attracting the taste-makers, the ones who must see everything on opening night, to see it first. Their endorsement would spread the good word. Accordingly, I produced radio spots using 20-some seconds of the “Time Warp” cut on the soundtrack to run on WGOE-AM. The only ad copy came at the very end. 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 ad was even about. We put out a handbill with a pencil drawing of Riff Raff — a character in the movie — against a black background, with the distinctive dripping blood title in red. The “Get in the Act” theme was repeated. The hook was that none of it gave the listener/reader as much information as he expected. Still, it was more than enough to alert the fanatics who had already been going to DeeCee or New York to see it.

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” opened June 30, 1978 and drew an enthusiastic crowd, but it was far short of a sell-out. Some of those who attended called out wisecrack lines, to respond to the movie’s dialogue. Most did not. A handful of people dressed in costumes drawn from characters in the movie.

In the next few weeks a devoted following for the rock ‘n’ roll send-up of science fiction and horror flicks snowballed. At the center of that following was a regular troupe who became the costumed singers and dancers that turned each midnight screening into a performance art adventure.

John Porter, a VCU theater major, emerged as the leader of that group; they called themselves The Floorshow. Dressed in his Frankenfurter get-up, Porter missed few, if any, midnight screenings at the Biograph for the next couple of years.

There were a lot of crazy things that happened in the years of babysitting “Rocky Horror.“ Among them was the Saturday night we threw out the entire full house, because so many people had gone wild; bare-chested rednecks were hosing the crowd down with our fire extinguishers. Fights were underway when we shut down the projector and the movie slowly ground to a halt. Everybody got their money back.

Interestingly, after that melodramatic stunt, we never had much trouble with violence to do with “Rocky Horror” again.

However, there was no stranger night than when about six weeks into the run, a man in his 30s breathed his last, as he sat in the small auditorium watching “F.I.S.T.” Yes, that Sylvester Stallone vehicle was particularly lame, but who knew it was potentially lethal?

The dead man’s face was expressionless … he just expired.

When the rescue squad guys got there they jerked him out of his chair and onto the floor. As jolts of electricity were shot through the dead man’s body, down in Theater No. 1 “Rocky Horror“ was on the Biograph’s larger screen delighting a packed house.

The audience had no idea of what was going on elsewhere in the building. A couple of times, I walked back and forth between the two scenes, feeling the bizarre juxtaposition.

Learning just how much to allow the performers to do, what limits were practical or necessary, came with experience. Porter’s leadership of the regulars was a key to keeping it fun, but not out of control. For his part John was given a lifetime pass to the Biograph.

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” at the Willow Lawn in the 1960s.

That night Porter and I were both dressed in tuxedos. In front of the full house he held up a “Sound of Music” soundtrack album. I smashed it with a hammer, which went over quite well with the folks on hand. A couple of the regulars came dressed as Julie Andrews, in a nice touch to underline the special night‘s theme.

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, as seen in the photo above, rode his motorcycle through the auditorium’s aisles at the point in the story when Meatloaf’s character in the film, Eddie, rides his motorcycle. 

Rohr’s careful but noisy rides happened only on a few special occasions, like the record breaking night. Nothing bad ever happened. One time, after we had just barely dodged the fire marshal, to get Larry in position at the proper time — which underlined the what-ifs of what we were doing — I had a dream that the Biograph exploded. The nightmare scared me so much about the danger of the stunt that the motorcycle rides were discontinued.

Afterwards, one of the Floorshow members occasionally rode a tricycle through. Now, of course, it seems crazy as hell that I ever facilitated such shenanigans. In context, well over three decades ago, it was just another part of living out the theater’s slogan/motto — Have a Good Time.

While “Rocky Horror” had an underground cachet in the first year or so of its run, its status eventually changed in the staff’s eyes. Rice, toast and all sorts of other stuff that got tossed around — never at the screen! — had to be cleaned up each and every time by the grumbling janitors, who 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 third year of the Friday and Saturday midnight screenings the demand began to wither. By then much of the audience seemed to be tourists from the suburbs … any city’s suburbs. The Fan District’s fast crowd in the punk rock scene mostly ignored it. The shows didn’t usually sell out, anymore, but they continued to do enough business to justify holding onto that original print.

No doubt, some number of lifelong friendships stem from the nights the kids were dancing to the Time Warp in the aisles at the Biograph; the five-year run of “Rocky Horror” ended on June 25, 1983.

*

Note: This story is part of a collection of stories called "Biograph Times." 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Richmond Magazine on 'Building the Bijou'

 

Writing for Richmond Magazine about the Bijou Film Center’s first fundraiser, Stephanie Manley provides background:
Parrish and Rea, who are both deeply involved in the arts community in Richmond, have focused much of their careers on film. (Rea was manager of the Biograph Theatre and Parrish co-founded the James River Film Society).

In addition to constructing their own theater, Parrish and Rea decided that attaching it to a café would create a more successful business. The partners also frequently returned their discussion to their love of film preservation, which led them to add to their business plan a center devoted to transferring small-format amateur films to digital.
Click here to read the entire article, "Building the Bijou."

On Sunday, September 21, at 6 p.m. the Bijou Film Center will present “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) at the Byrd Theatre.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How Many Previous “Confidentiality Agreements” Have There Been?

Why should members of City Council sign a “confidentiality agreement” to do with Byron Marshall leaving his $181,560-a-year job at City Hall?

To say Mayor Dwight Jones' secrecy policy in this affair stinks to high heaven is obviously an understatement. Hopefully, the Freedom of Information Act will soon allow for taxpayers to better understand Marshall’s mysterious “departure.” 
City Councilwoman Reva M. Trammell said she had not been told anything because she refused to sign.

“I told them it’s going to be a cold day in hell before I sign anything like that,” said Trammell, 8th District. “I think it’s a damn shame that everything we do we’ve got to go sign something to keep the taxpayers of Richmond in the dark.”
Click here to read Graham Moomaw’s “Mayor‘s Office Mum on Marshall Departure” in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Now, on top of knowing why Marshall quit, or was fired, I want to know how many such “confidentiality agreements” have City Council members signed since Mayor Jones took office?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Lohmann: "Cinema Plan Taps Into Downtown's Potential."

Terry Rea and James Parrish in front of Anchor Studios.


In his RT-D piece about the Bijou Film Center concept and the first fundraiser Bill Lohmann writes:
James T. Parrish Jr. and F.T. “Terry” Rea, film fans and co-founders of this venture, have taken the first step toward opening a small, storefront cinema and café in the city’s Arts and Cultural District along Broad Street east of Belvidere.

The independent, nonprofit project is called the Bijou Film Center, and as a kickoff event, the Beatles’ classic, “A Hard Day’s Night,” which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, will be shown at the Byrd Theatre on Sunday, Sept. 21, at 6 p.m.
 
Click here to read, "Cinema Plan Taps Into Downtown's Potential."

Starting in October, the Bijou Film Center's first workspace will be a basement studio at Anchor Studios in the Arts District.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Bijoumania!

Terry Rea, former manager of the Biograph, and James Parrish,
co-founder of the James River Film Society, are launching their
new Bijou Film Center project with a showing of the 50th
anniversary restored version of the Beatles film,
“A Hard Day’s Night” at the Byrd Theater.

For STYLE Weekly's Fall Arts Preview issue, Brent Baldwin writes:
Parrish attended the last three Art House Convergence gatherings held by the Sundance Institute and notes that 80 percent of the country’s art house cinemas are nonprofits — places such as the Castro and the Roxie in San Francisco, the Austin Film Society in Texas, and the Charles in Baltimore. He’s convinced that Richmond is ready to support a community-based, mission-driven art house cinema.

“We need a place where we can see great little films, a place where we can eat, drink, and talk about these films,” he says. “ A place that helps filmmakers and anyone with a home movie they don’t know what to do with.”
Click here to read the entire article, which explains the Bijou Film Center concept and devotes some ink to the Bijou's first fundraiser.

Click here to visit the Facebook event page for the one-time-only screening of "A Hard Day's Night" on September 21.

-- Photo by Scott Elmquist for STYLE Weekly.

Monday, September 08, 2014

The Strange Case of Gus the Cat

Note: This piece was published by Richmond.com in 2000. 

Though cynical people like to say, “All cats are gray in the dark,” the difference between this and that counts with me. Thus, if for no other purpose than to satisfy my own curiosity, I set out to find the truth about Gus, the cat that had long presided over lower Carytown from his plush basket in a bookstore display window facing the street.

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-ohaIkmTZU_0/TYOKL0YuoAI/AAAAAAAAAxw/v5kt5utrTbc/s1600/gusstacywarner.jpg

The mystery began in the course of a casual conversation about re-makes of old movies. Film aficionado Ted Salins, a regular among the society of conversationalists who gather at the tables on the sidewalk in front of Coffee & Co., tossed out that the cat living next door in Carytown Books is not the “original” Gus.

Since I’ve known Salins, a writer/filmmaker/house-painter, for a long time, I suspected his charge was a setup for a weak joke. To give him room to operate I asked, “So, this Gus is an impostor?”

“Just like Lassie, several cats have played the role of Gus over the years,” Salins said matter-of-factly.

Until that moment it hadn’t occurred to me that Gus, someone else’s cat, had slowly become important to me over the years. In the past I’ve been told that he’s over 15, maybe pushing 20. Who can say what that is in cat years? He still has a few teeth left.

“You see, in ‘91 I had lost my beloved Skinkywinkydinky in a separation,” Salins went on, as if revealing a dark conspiracy. “When I first saw Gus, I took to him because he reminded me of Skinky. That Gus wouldn't let you touch him. But, this Gus…”

“Ted, this is absolutely the most off-the-wall nonsense you’ve come up with yet,” I accused.

“The place has changed hands a few times since then,” Salins smugly offered. “The problem is each owner falls in love with the cat and keeps it. But since Gus has become an institution in Carytown, each set of new owners has to find another cat that looks like Gus. The switch is made at night in order to preserve the secret. I’ve seen it.”

Before I could say “horsefeathers,” another member of the Carytown intelligentsia, who had just walked up, spoke: “Salins, as usual you’re all wet,” said artist Jay Bohannan. “That is not only the same cat, but Gus is, let’s see, yes, he’s nearly 70. That particular cat is probably the oldest cat this side of the island of Lamu.”

I laughed at Bohannan’s crack and excused myself from the table to let them hash it out. The two of them have been arguing good-naturedly since their VCU art school days in the early ‘70s.

Walking toward my car, Ted’s suggestion of a fraud having been perpetrated on the public bothered me. I felt certain that if somebody had actually installed a faux Gus in the bookstore it would have been all over the street the next day. As I tried to imagine people spiriting nearly identical cats in and out of the back door, in the dead of night, the matter wouldn’t rest.

So I turned around and went into Carytown Books. The shop’s manager, Kelly Justice, who has worked there for six years under three editions of ownership, scoffed at Salins’ charge.

“Anyone who knows Ted, knows he’s a nitwit,” said Ms. Justice with a wry smile. “More likely than not, this is an attempt to raise funds for another one of his documentaries.”

When I told her about Bohannan’s equally outrageous suggestion that Gus was almost a septuagenarian, Justice laughed out loud. “Perhaps Jay and Ted are both trying to hitch their wagons to Gus’ star,” she suggested playfully.

Back outside, Salins and Bohannan were both gone. So I walked east on the block to Bygones, the collectable clothing and memorabilia store known for its artful window displays. Since Maynee Cayton, the shop’s proprietor, is an unofficial historian for the neighborhood, I decided to see what she knew about Gus.

Cayton, who has been at that location for 16 years, said she had some pictures of the block from the ’30s and ‘40s, but she didn’t think she had any shots of a bookstore cat. However, she did remember that when she was a child she saw a gray and white cat in the window of what was then the Beacon Bookstore.

“It was in the late ’60s, I think it was 1967,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “And I’d say it was a young cat. Either way, I can’t believe the feline impersonator story, so maybe it was Gus.”

The next day, Bohannan called on the phone to tell me he had something I needed to see right away. He was mysterious about it and wouldn’t explain what he was talking about, except to say that it was proof of his claim about Gus the Cat.

Unable to let it go, I told him I’d stop by his place to see what proof he had.

Bohannan’s apartment, located between Carytown and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, was an escape from the modern world altogether. It’s furnished in a pleasant mix of practical artifacts and curiosities from yesteryear. The heavy black telephone on his desk was almost as old as Jay. Next to the desk was a turn-of-the-century gramophone. Bohannan, himself, dressed like a character who just stepped out of a Depression-era RKO film, reached into a dog-eared manila folder and pulled out a photograph. When I asked him where he had gotten the picture, purportedly from about 1930, he shrugged.

In such a setting, his evidence of Gus’ longevity took on an eerie authenticity. Sitting in one of Bohannan’s ancient oak chairs, surrounded by his own paintings of scenes from Virginia’s past, I thought I could see the cat he claimed was depicted in the storefront’s window. Why, it even looked like Gus.

Jay told me I could keep the photo, it was just a Xerox copy. What a scoop!

Later, when I looked at the grainy picture at home, I could hardly even see a cat. The next day, back in Carytown, I spoke with several people who hang out or work in the neighborhood. A few actually thought Bohannan’s bizarre contention could be true. Others agreed with Salins.

One man, who refused to be quoted with attribution, said he was sure the original Gus was an orange cat. A woman looked up from her crossword puzzle to note that Bohannan's evidence was at least as good as what she'd seen on the Loch Ness Monster.

Then the whole group of chatty know-it-alls went off on the general topic of conspiracy theories and hoaxes. At the next table a woman in a straw hat started sketching the sidewalk scene.

A few days later, I saw Ted Salins holding court in front of the coffee shop. I told him what Kelly had said about his claim and I showed him Jay’s so-called proof that Gus is ancient.

“The next thing you’re going to tell me is Shakespeare actually wrote all those plays," Ted said mockingly. "Look, it’s not the same cat. Live with it. This Gus is a ringer, maybe three years old.”

Turning around, I looked through the storefront’s glass at good old Gus in his usual spot. He looked comfortable with a new electric heater under the blanket in his basket. It dawned on me that there was a time when Gus used to avoid me, as well. Now he seems happy for me to pet him, briefly.

Pulled back into the spell of the mystery, I wondered, had Gus changed or had I? Gus stared back at me and blinked. Like one of his favorite authors, J. D. Salinger, Gus wasn’t talking.

Gus was smiling as only a cat can; a smile that suggests equal parts of wisdom-of-the-ages and dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers. One obvious truth about Gus the Cat was that he had grown quite accustomed to having a public.

*

Note: The photo of Gus was taken by Stacy Warner for Richmond.com. On June 19, 2001 a cat alleged to have been the authentic Gus the Cat was found dead in Carytown Books; he was estimated by the bookstore's spokesperson to have been about 18 years old.

Have You Got Your Ticket, Yet?

https://www.facebook.com/events/681330548611741/
Click here for more information at the Bijou Backlight. 
Click here to visit the Facebook event page.
Click here to buy tickets online.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

About Advance Tickets to 'A Hard Day's Night'


On September 21 "A Hard Day's Night" (1964)
will be screened at the Byrd Theatre. 

  • The show starts at 6 p.m.
  • Admission is $7 at the box office.
  • Before the day of the show advance tickets are available at Bygones Vintage Clothing and Steady Sounds for $5. 
  • The proceeds of the screening will benefit the Bijou Film Center and the Byrd Theatre Foundation’s “Journey to the Seats.” The film will play one time only. 
  • The after-party at the New York Deli starts at 8:15 p.m., where The Taters will play live; no cover charge. 
  • To visit the event's Facebook page click here

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Sept. 21: 'A Hard Day's Night'

On Sunday, September 21, 2014, the Bijou Film Center will present a classic film followed by some splendid live music to launch its fundraising effort and begin putting the story of its mission before Richmond's movie-loving public.

4 p.m.: Thirsty admirers of the eye-catching Beatlemania window in Bygones will cross the street to take advantage of a special Happy Hour getting underway at Portrait House, 2907 West Cary Street.  It will offer Fab Four fans a selection of themed drink specials at attractive prices.

6:05 p.m.: From the stage in front of the screen at The Byrd Theatre, James Parrish and Terry Rea will introduce the feature attraction, “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964), which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The sound and picture have been newly restored. And, perhaps a wee surprise will be served up. 

6:30 p.m.: “A Hard Day’s Night,” starring the Beatles in their first movie, will be screened. Shot in glorious black and white the motion picture runs 87 minutes.

8:15 p.m.: At the New York Deli, The Taters will start their first of two sets of live music. Drink specials will be available. And, yeah! yeah! yeah! The Taters will do some Beatles-related material.

Admission to the screening will be $7 at the box office. Up until the day of the show, advance tickets will be available for $5 at Bygones Vintage Clothing and Steady Sounds and online at Eventbrite for $5 plus processing fee ($1.27). 

There will be no cover charge at the Portrait House or at the New York Deli -- free admission!  

The proceeds from the screening will be split evenly by the non-profit Byrd Theatre Foundation’s “Journey to the Seats” and the Bijou Film Center (a non-profit work-in-progress).

https://www.facebook.com/bijoubacklight?fref=nf 

Click here to visit the Facebook event page. 

Thursday, August 07, 2014

A Sign of the Times

One afternoon in the mid-1970s, I was walking about 20 yards behind a guy heading east on the 800 block of West Grace Street. I think it was in the summer. Then, like it was his, he casually picked up the Organic Food Store’s hand-painted sandwich board style sign from the sidewalk in front of the store.

Without looking around for any witnesses to his act of dishonesty, the sign thief kept going at the same pace. To close the distance between us, I walked faster down the red brick sidewalk.

By the time we had passed the Biograph Theatre, where I worked, I had sized him up and decided what I was going to do. He was a big-haired hippie, 18 to 20 years old; he could have been a student. Or, he might have been a traveling panhandler/opportunist. In those days there were plenty of both in the neighborhood.

Passing by Sally Bell’s Kitchen, in the 700 block, I was within six or seven yards of him when I spoke the lines I had written for myself. My tone was resolute, my voice clear: “Hey, I saw you steal the sign. Don’t turn around … just put it down and walk away.”

The thief’s body language announced that he had heard me, but he didn’t turn around. Instead he walked faster. Moving closer to him, I said with more force: “Put the sign down. The cops are on the way. Walk away while you still can.”

Without further ado the wooden sign clattered onto the sidewalk. The sign thief kept going without looking back. As I gathered my neighbor’s property I watched the fleeing hippie break into a sprint, cross Grace Street and disappear going toward Monroe Park at the next corner.

Then I carried the recovered property back to the store. Obviously, I don’t really remember exactly what I said to the thief nearly 40 years ago, verbatim, but that was a faithful recounting of the events and the spirit of what I said.

What I had done came in part from a young man’s sense of righteous indignation. That, together with the spirit of camaraderie that existed among some of the neighborhood’s merchants in that time. There were several of us, then in our mid-to-late-20s, who were running businesses on that bohemian strip — bars, retail shops, etc. We were friends and we watched out for one another.

My tough guy performance had lasted less than a minute. Now I’m amazed that I used to do such things. The character I invented was drawn somewhat from Humphrey Bogart, with as much Robert Mitchum as I could muster. Hey, since he bought the act, the thief probably felt lucky to have gotten away. Who knows? Maybe he’s still telling this same story, too, but from another angle.

This much I know — that quirky pop scene on Grace Street in those days was a goldmine of offbeat stories. Chelf’s Drug Store was at the corner of Grace and Shafer. With its antique soda fountain and a few booths, it had been a hangout for magazine-reading, alienated art students for decades. It seemed frozen in time.

The original Village Restaurant, a block west of Chelf’s, was a legendary beatnik watering hole, going back to the 1950s. Writer Tom Robbins and artist William Fletcher “Bill” Jones (1930-‘98) hung out there. Strangely, that location has remained boarded up for decades, while the new Village still goes on across Harrison Street. In the '70s the same neighborhood was also home to cartoon-like characters such as the wandering Flashlight Lady and the Grace Street Midget.

During the late-‘60s the hippies had come on strong to replace the beats, as the strip went psychedelic, seemingly overnight. By the mid-‘70s the hippie blue jean culture had peaked. It was about to be replaced by the black leather of Punk Rock and polyester of the Disco scene. All-night dance clubs became popular.

So, by the late-‘70s the mood on the strip had changed severely. Cocaine was becoming the preferred drug of choice with the druggie in-crowd, replacing pot. Several restaurants were serving liquor-by-the-drink, the dives catering to the young set began having rugged bouncers at the door.

Into the early-‘80s, I can also remember a day when an angry, red-bearded street beggar with a missing foot was scaring old ladies coming and going from the then-new Dominion Place apartment building on the 1000 block of Grace. We were about the same age. I said something to him like, "Cut it out and move on."

The surly panhandler laughed like a villain in a slasher movie and threatened to, “Bite a plug out” of me. Wisely, I didn’t press my case any further. Instead, I moved on.

Walking eastward away from that unnerving confrontation, passing the 7-Eleven store that's still there, it was more obvious than ever that the times had indeed changed in the neighborhood. By then Chelf's was history. The same space had become home to a greasy spoon restaurant. 

-- 30 --

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Last Call for 'Where the Frisbees Landed' GRFGA T-shirts

On Thursday, Aug. 14th, the window will close on placing orders for the second and final printing of the most recent model of Greater Richmond Frisbee-Golf Association T-shirts. By my count, beginning with the first one in 1984, this model is the eighth different GRFGA T-shirt I've designed. Although I can't promise there won't be a ninth, I'm still expecting this one will be the last of the series. So this is the time to get an extra one to pack away and save. One day you'll be glad you did.

Regardless of the garment’s fabric color, the art (as shown above) on all of the shirts will be silk screen printed in just two ink colors -- black and white. Thus, the gray halftone in the illustration represents the fabric color.
  • Short-sleeve T-shirts are $17.
  • Long-sleeve T-shirts are $19. 
For double-X T-shirts add a dollar. 

The 100 percent heavy duty cotton T-shirts will be available in three fabric colors:

Antique Sapphire (a bright greenish-blue)



Cardinal Red (a cool red)




Military Green (olive drab) as shown in photo below.




  • Crew neck sweatshirts are $26, hooded sweats are $27. Please note: the sweatshirts are available in athletic gray only
For double-X sweats add two bucks. 

No, you don't need to be a member of the GRFGA to place an order. The T-shirts should be ready by the end of the month. Message me on Facebook or send an email (ftrea9@yahoo.com) for more details and to discuss payment and pick-up/delivery. If you aren't in Richmond, I'll be happy to mail them to you, COD, as I'm not interested in trying to make money on the shipping.  

Thanks.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

The Coldest Warrior

Note: This is piece a I wrote for Richmond.com in 1999 (with some touch-ups to update it). I did the illustration back then, too.

August is usually a slow month for news, so we are spoon-fed anniversaries to contemplate: Hiroshima’s 69th, Woodstock’s 45th and 40 years ago Pres. Richard M. Nixon took the fall -- he resigned.

The entire culture shifted gears the day Nixon threw in the towel. The brilliant strategist, the awkward sleuth, the proud father, and the coldest of warriors had left the building.

August 9, 1974 was a day to hoist one for his enemies, many of whom must have enjoyed his twisting in the wind of Watergate’s storm. It was the saddest of days for his staunch supporters, whose numbers were still legion. Either way, Richard Nixon’s departure from DeeCee left a peculiar void that no personality has since filled in anything close to the same way.

For the first time since his earliest commie-baiting days, in the late-‘40s, Dick Nixon had no clout; he hardly mattered. Upon Nixon's departure, concern for social causes went out of style for a lot of young Americans. It was time to party.

Soon what remained of the causes and accouterments of the ‘60s was packed into cardboard boxes to be tossed out, or stored in basements. Watergate revelations killed off the Nixon administration’s chance of instituting national health insurance. On top of that, many people have forgotten that he was also rather liberal on environmental matters, at least compared to the science-doubting Republicans who have followed. Although he was a hawk, Nixon was moderate on some of the social issues.

Nixon's opening to China and efforts toward détente with the Soviets are often cited as evidence of his ability to maneuver deftly in the realm of foreign affairs. No doubt, that was his main focus. Still, at the bottom line, Nixon is remembered chiefly as the president who was driven from office. And for good reason.

Nixon’s nefarious strategy for securing power divided this country like nothing since the Civil War. Due to his fear of hippies and left-wing campus movements, Nixon looked at ex-Beatle John Lennon and instead of a sarcastic musician, in his view he saw a raw power to galvanize a generation’s anti-establishment sentiments. Fearful of that imagined potential, the sneaky Nixon administration did everything it could to hound Lennon out of the country.

Nixon deliberately drove a wedge between fathers and sons. To rally support for his prosecution of the Vietnam War, he sought to expand the division between World War II era parents and their baby boomer offspring. The families that never recovered from that time's bitterness were just more collateral damage.

However, Nixon’s true legacy is that since his paranoia-driven scandal, the best young people have no longer felt drawn into public service. Since Watergate, for 40 years -- taken as a whole -- the citizens who’ve gravitated toward politics for a career have not had the intellect, the sense of purpose, or the strength of character of their predecessors.

We can thank Tricky Dick for all that and more. So weep not for the sad, crazy Nixon of August, 1974. He did far more harm to America than whatever good he intended.

Some commentators have suggested that he changed over that period, even mellowed. Don't buy it. The rest of us changed a lot more than he did. On top of that, Nixon had 20 years to come clean and clear the air. But he didn’t do it. He didn't even come close. In the two decades of his so-called “rehabilitation,” before his death in 1994, Nixon just kept on being Nixon.

So, spare me the soft-focus view of the Nixon White House years. Tricky Dick's humiliating downfall should be a lesson to us all -- he surely got what he deserved.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Accordions Helped Me Keep a Promise

At the A Ring Around the Diamond event yesterday, we had a little over 100 people out there. Perhaps, to some who rode by in their cars, the unusual doings looked more like a performance art piece than a political rally -- a demonstration to dramatize the opposition to the mayor's so-called "revitalization" plan. But with all the arts and show biz hams we had on hand at the Diamond, maybe it was both.

No, Mayor Dwight Jones didn't show. Neither did the cops. 

Riding over to the Diamond in Larry Rohr's orange '74 VW bus, he predicted 77 people would show up for the parade. So we topped a practiced wizard's best guess. Truth is, I had no idea how many people to expect. How could anybody?

Nonetheless, I thought all along that the number 1,000 and the notion of circling the Diamond would catch people’s attention and spark interest. OK, I actually wanted 10,000 people to show up, but I knew better than to expect it. My real plan was to march around the Diamond with whatever turnout we had. That’s what we did. One former Richmond mayor was there. An enthusiastic Rudy McCollum was working the crowd.

Wishful thinking aside, what happened at the Diamond was gratifying. Thanks to Barry Bless and Karen Weatherspoon Sokohl we had accordions leading the parade that circled the Diamond. Three television stations sent reporters with cameras. So the stunt drew the coverage we schemers had hoped would also turn out.

Some history: In 2005 and 2009 I covered the baseball stadium debate for Richmond.com. In both instances I saw building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom as another build-it-and-they-will-come folly in the making. Thus, my opposition to baseball in the Bottom is nothing new. So much for disclosure.

Some eight months ago, when Mayor Dwight Jones' announcement revived the twice-killed idea of dropping a baseball stadium into that same neighborhood, it was disappointing. However, my own thinking about the issue has evolved over the years. Since the critical and box office success of the Oscar-winning film, “12 Years a Slave” (2013), Richmond's slave jail history leading up to the Civil War has become more interesting to a lot of people, here and elsewhere. No doubt, there are folks at City Hall who wish that movie’s release could have been delayed a year or two.

Having grown up in Richmond, I’d like to better understand the slave market business that once thrived in this city. Everybody has heard plenty about Richmond's days during the Civil War. Not so much about the way of life in the 30 years leading up to war, especially as it pertained to Shockoe Bottom. Accordingly, I’d also like to learn more about how that aspect of local history was rather effectively covered up for so long. Regarding the institution of slavery, it's time to shine a new light on how our history books were cooked in the 20th century.

A fresh look needs to be taken at how the truth was systematically processed into palatable lies -- denial. For instance, in 1961 my seventh-grade history book, which was used in all of Virginia's public schools, had this to say at the end of Chapter 29:
Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those whom they worked. They were not so unhappy as some Northerners thought they were, nor were they so happy as some Southerners claimed. The Negroes had their problems and their troubles. But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to those arguments.
In 2014, to think building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom will really facilitate the scholarly investigation of that neighborhood’s history and archeology is just more denial. The same sort of denial that fueled Massive Resistance in the 1950s and ‘60s. The same desire to bury history that was behind the writing of that damn book of pickled history. 

So please do put me on the growing list of those who believe a slavery museum in Shockoe Bottom, sans ballpark, will draw tourists from all over the world. Still, I don’t quarrel with those who oppose baseball in the Bottom for other reasons. Richmond residents who oppose building a new stadium anywhere, saying that with schoolhouse roofs caving in taxpayers ought not to spend another nickel on spectator sports, have a good point. Those who assert that a lot of Flying Squirrels fans aren't likely to go to the Bottom for games, probably know more about local baseball fans than the mayor does.

My personal reason for having taken up the baseball stadium location cause stems, in part, from being asked to write a story about a benefit show in December for STYLE Weekly. Click here to read my review of the “Billy Ray Hatley Tribute Concert at the National.” After spending the afternoon backstage, watching the musicians and stage hands put the complicated show together, and then being there for the show to feel the vibe from the connection between those on stage and in the audience, I was knocked out.

All that, while the weather outside was wretched and they had no idea who would show up. The common desire to celebrate Hatley’s contributions as a musician/songwriter and to help out his family was uplifting. Filled with admiration for the effort it took to put that show together, I decided then to act upon something that had been bothering me. I had been resisting the notion that I needed to step out of the fog of geezerhood to do something, propaganda-wise, to combat the LovingRVA campaign, and ultimately stop Shockoe Stadium from being built.

It was wintertime and the job seemed too big for a guy out of the loop. But being so close to that Hatley show suddenly gave me courage that I could focus the scattered pockets of opposition to Shockoe Stadium. Thus, I soon put my shoulder to a push to let Richmond’s voters weigh in, by way of an advisory  referendum.

After so many years of watching the parade go by and making my wisecracks as a commentator, I decided to cross the line and become an activist for a cause. It became my New Year's Resolution. 

On August 1 the deadline to use signed petitions to get a referendum on the ballot passed. Unfortunately, I don't know how many signatures the Citizens Referendum Group gathered on its petitions for two ballot issues. The group fell apart; it’s too bad its laudable effort was sabotaged by some complicated agendas.

While five members of City Council can still combine to put a referendum on the ballot, it looks quite unlikely. Still, talking about a referendum was useful to the debate. Seeing the fear it inspired among the boosters for the mayor’s plan was revealing. 

Back to Sunday’s colorful demonstration -- there was no sense of failure hanging in the air. Via local news broadcasts, explanations of our impromptu group’s presence at the ballpark have become part of the record of the stadium story. There are lots of nice photos of smiling demonstrators on Facebook. It seems most of them enjoyed the experience. At the moment, some in the group seem poised to do more. Good. 

Now I believe I have followed through on that promise to myself, a resolution that was inspired by live music. My thanks go out to all who helped promote the event, and especially to the faithful who showed up. The point of this piece is not to say I’m giving up. Far from it, but I simply can’t go on neglecting other projects, to stay on top of this worthwhile cause. The stark reality of my need to make some money is bearing down on me.

To finish up, I hope some of those civic-minded individuals who marched around the ballpark, following the accordions playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” will hear the call to do what they can to keep the parade moving. The cause needs more leaders with new ideas. Focusing the scattered opposition is still smart. And, of course, please keep me in the loop.

Note: Here’s the link to the report on that ran on WRIC Channel 8 on Sunday evening.

-- Aug. 3, 2014: Top photo from WRIC Channel 8. Bottom photo by Mark Brown.