Monday, September 09, 2019

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 running opinion pieces that questioned the Bush administration's post-9/11 tactics in any way. Many publishers had become too afraid of losing advertising. I added the famous Herblock 'toon to this post. It didn't run with the original piece.


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 --

Monday, September 02, 2019

Remembering Hurricane Hazel

As a kid and throughout my young adulthood I liked intense storms. Even liked being outside in them. Seeing a tornado, too close for comfort, in 1968, didn't change that. But growing older gradually did change my feeling about extreme weather. Hurricane Isabel's impact on Richmond in 2003 finished the job of turning me into a total scaredy-cat, when it comes to hurricanes. Now I want nothing to do with them.

This first hurricane I remember was Hazel in 1954. The smell of the storm and the sound of the wind-driven water were exciting. As a six-year-old, looking out of the bay windows of the dining room, Hazel's power made a big impression on me.

The tall, skinny pine trees behind the outbuildings were whipping around in the wind, when I saw what was thrilling ... then sad. The Umbrella Tree (our family name for it, I don’t know what kind it was) was suddenly yanked up out of the ground. It was in the air for a moment with its roots torn and exposed – it was a big tree – before it came crashing back down, almost upside down, to fall on its side.

In a flash of its gray wrath Hazel had killed what was my favorite tree to climb. Never again would it provide shade for the white lawn furniture that rested in the part of the yard we called, The Dell. Hazel left a mark on Virginia that few storms have. Its unusual path brought it up from North Carolina, on its way to Toronto. From the Caribbean to Canada the death total was over 600.

Here’s on Hazel:
The strongest storm of 1954 was the legendary Hurricane Hazel, a powerful Category 4 storm that brought estimated winds of 150 mph when it made landfall in the Carolinas on Oct. 15. The storm retained strength fairly far inland, causing 100 mph winds as far north as Pennsylvania and New York.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Big Stretch

Note: A version of this piece first appeared in STYLE Weekly as a Back Page in 2002.

The prototype was assembled during a lull in seventh grade shop class. After tying some 15 rubber bands together to make a chain, a collaborator held one end of the silly looking contraption as I stepped back to stretch it out for a test. Aiming as best I could, looking along the taut line of connected rubber bands, I let go.

The whole thing gathered itself and shot past the holder. The released tip struck a target, or maybe it was near it, several feet beyond the holder. It worked! While the satisfaction I felt was a rush, the encouragement from the boys who witnessed that launching was glorious.

Through a pleasant sequence of trial-and-error experiments, it wasn't long before I figured out how to best maximize distance and accuracy. Once guys across the schoolroom were getting popped with the bitter end of my brainchild, dubbed the Stretch, the spitballs that routinely flew around such rooms in 1961 at Albert H. Hill Junior High were strictly old news. The next two days of playing with the new sensation of the seventh grade had the effect of transforming me into the leader of a crew, of a sort.

A couple of days later, uncharacteristically, I appeared on the schoolyard an hour before the first bell. Inside a brown paper bag I had was an updated version of my invention. This one was some 60 links long. Of course, it's name was the Big Stretch.

Only trusted henchmen had seen it in its test runs. No one else at school had seen it and naturally, I was only too happy to change that. Once the mind-boggling range of the Big Stretch was demonstrated on the schoolyard, boys were shoving one another, trying to be next in line to act as the holder.

With this new version, early on, most of the time I did the shooting. As the rubber-band wonder whizzed by the holder, it made such a splendid noise that just standing close by was something to talk about. On the asphalt playground, adjacent to the yellow brick school building, each flight was a crowd-pleaser.

The Big Stretch went on to make an appearance at an afternoon football game, where its experienced operators established to the delight of the crowd that cheerleaders doing their routines on the sideline could be zapped on their bouncing butts from 25 yards away with impunity. In my junior high school in 1961 not much could have been cooler than that.

After a couple of days of demonstrations around the neighborhood and at Willow Lawn shopping center, I decided to significantly lengthen the chain of rubber bands. However, the new version, about 100 rubber bands long, was neither as accurate or powerful as the previous model had been. My theory was that it was just too damn heavy for its own good.

A day or so later came the morning a couple of beefy ninth-grade football players insisted on taking a single turn as shooter and holder of the new Big Stretch. OK. Then they demanded a second turn. I said, "No."

Surrounded by seventh-grade devotees of the Big Stretch, I stood my ground. "No.!"

But my fair-weather entourage proved to be useless in a pinch. Faced with no good options, I fled with my claim-to-fame in hand. In short order I was cornered and pounded until the determined thieves got the loot they wanted.

The bullies fooled around for a while trying to hit their buddies with it. Eventually, several rubber bands broke and the Big Stretch was literally pulled to pieces and scattered. By then my nose had stopped bleeding, so I gathered what remained of my dignity and decided to shrug off the whole affair, as best I could.

For whatever reasons, I chose not to make another version of the Big Stretch. I don't remember thinking about it. A few days later a couple of other kids copied it, and showed it off, but nobody seemed to care. Just as abruptly as it had gotten underway, the connected-rubber-band craze simply ran out of gas at Hill School. It wasn't cool, anymore.

So, it was over. At that same time, 1961, the slang meaning of “cool” still had an underground cachet. I thought beatniks were cool. The same went for certain musicians and baseball players. Still, I would hardly have known how to convincingly say why.  

Since then I've come to understand that the concept of cool is said to have seeped out of the early bebop scene in Manhattan in the ‘40s. Well, that may be so, but to me the same delightful sense of spontaneity and understated defiance seems abundantly evident in forms of expression that predate the Dizzy Gillespie/Thelonious Monk era at Minton’s, on 118th Street.

Anyway, wasn’t that Round Table scene at the Algonquin Hotel, back in the ‘20s, something akin to cool? If Dorothy Parker's word-smithing wasn’t cool, what the hell was? And, in the decades that preceded the advent of bebop jazz, surely modern art -- with its cubism, surrealism, suprematism and so forth -- was laying down some of the rules for what became known as cool.

Cool’s zenith as a style had probably been passed by 1961, about the time I was becoming enamored with the Beats, via national magazines. Looking back on that time now I have to think that widespread exposure and cool didn't mix. Significantly, cool -- with its ability to be flippant and profound in the same gesture -- rose and fell without the encouragement of the ruling class.

Underdogs invented cool out of thin air. It was a style that was beyond what money could buy. The artful grasping of a moment’s unique truth was cool every time.

However, just as the one-time-only perfect notes blown in a jam session can’t be duplicated, authentic cool was difficult to harness; even more difficult to mass-produce. By the ‘70s, the mobs of hippies attuned to stadium rock ‘n’ roll shrugged nothing off. Cool was probably too subtle for them to appreciate. The expression subsequently lost its moorings and dissolved into the soup of mainstream vernacular.

Eventually, in targeting self-absorbed baby boomers as a market, Madison Avenue promoted everything under the sun -- including schmaltz, and worse -- as cool. The Disco craze ignored cool. Punk Rockers searched for it in all the wrong places, then caught a mean buzz and gave up. By the mid-'80s nihilism was masquerading as cool ... then it just stopped mattering. 

Since then, when people say, “ku-wul,” usually it's to express their ordinary approval of routine things. Which underlines the lesson that time tends to stretch slang expressions thin, as they are assimilated. 

At Hill School, the process of becoming cool, then popular, then routine, literally pulled the Big Stretch to pieces. Once the edgy, experimental aspect of it was over, it had become just another gimmick. Its coolness was kaput.

If Dorothy Parker's word-smithing wasn’t 
cool, what the hell was?

-- Photo of Albert H. Hill Middle School from RVA Schools 
My Dorothy Parker illustration was done in 2013. 

Friday, August 16, 2019

Living in a Movie: The Walk

Although Susan was quite attractive she wasn't the sort of heavenly brunette likely to stare at a viewer from the cover of a glossy fashion magazine. On the other hand, when she walked across a room, all eyes tended to follow her. Susan had a great walk. Her gait wasn't particularly fast or slow, it didn't seem affected. Her slender limbs were long. The sway of her body was natural, not exaggerated. Her steps had a graceful light-on-her-feet confidence and her head was held high. Her wrists were loose. Susan glided.

Susan was a part-time cashier at the Biograph Theatre (in Richmond) for some five months during the Biograph's first year of operation (1972). She was a full-time VCU student. Although I can't recall anything unusual happening to mark the occasion, for some reason I clearly remember a scene in which I noticed that everyone in the lobby seemed mesmerized, watching her walk across the room. It was like living in a movie. 

Actually, I know that sort of thing happened other times during Susan's stint at the Biograph, but for some reason I still only picture the few seconds I just mentioned. In those days I tended to collect scenes for my imaginary movie. When something caught my eye sometimes I would think it should be remembered, so I could put a scene like it in a film I would someday make. While the movie was never made, some of the saved memories linger.

In a lot of moving pictures that show people watching an attractive woman walking it's about her projected sex appeal and frequently it's played as campy. Think Fellini.

Which is not at all like the scene I'm remembering in the Biograph's lobby. In my scene the woman is smooth and aloof. Think “The Girl From Ipanema” … ahh.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Forced Reverence

The controversy began with quarterback Colin Kaepernick's quite gesture in 2016. Here we are now three years later and the arguments for and against athletes taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem haven't changed much. 

When I see threads on Facebook about it the comments are basically the same each time. It's almost like those commenting are reciting them. Frequently that thought reminds me of an odd episode about recitation rituals from my own childhood.

When I was in elementary school there was a start-the-day ritual that was done each day. First the teacher called the roll. Then one student was summonsed to the front of the class to lead in the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer. We kids took turns.

Like some of my peers, I didn't like doing that job. It made me nervous. But in the second grade I hadn't gotten to the point in my career as a student that I would have protested, or flatly refused to do what was expected.

The Pledge came first. So I faced the flag, as required, and started saying the spiel with my hand over my heart. Except, I was reciting the Lord's Prayer – “Our Father, which art in heaven...”

Naturally, the kids laughed ... a lot. 

Of course, I must have changed gears to say the proper speech, but I don't remember that part. The embarrassment and laughter I remember all too well. 

Later some kids were said they were sure I'd done it on purpose, perhaps because I was already somewhat of a class clown type. At some point later on it must have occurred to me that the Pledge of Allegiance was sort of like a prayer.

Gradually, over the years, I grew to be more and more uncomfortable with any kind of prayer/chant that is forced onto people. Maybe WWII movies about Nazis were influencing me.

Consequently, it has been a long time since I've put my hand over my heart during the National Anthem at games. I always stand, quietly, hands clapped together in front of me, but I don't sing along. Yes, I've been glared at more than a few times, but there's never been a scene.

Sometimes I do flash back onto that time in the second grade when I was first made to feel uncomfortable about forced patriotism or forced prayer.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Shooters Shoot


Don't tell me most of America’s mass-murdering shooters were just crazy killers who would simply have switched over to bombs or poison, if they couldn't have gotten a hold of their favorite tools. I believe those massacre-makers craved the raw thrill of shooting rapid-fire weapons at living people so much the urge finally became irresistible.

Killers they were, but they weren't bombers or poisoners. They weren't knife-wielders or stranglers. They were shooters. Shooters shoot.

Shooters project their will over a distance with instant results they can see. While Wayne LaPierre and the rest of the shills for the firearms industry talk about protecting constitutional rights, the angle they don't want to discuss is protecting thrills. Truth be told: Possessors of assault rifles adore the thrill of shooting those weapons of war.

As we've seen too often, for the most evil of rapid-fire gun lovers, the thrill of shooting at their selected human targets, even terrified children, can become irresistible.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Night the Earth Stood Still

Note: In December of 1999 the editor at, Richard Foster, asked me to do something with the much-in-the-news Y2K scare. He was happy to let me play with it. The gig had me filing the story a few days before New Year’s Day, to be published on January 3rd. This is what I came up with.   

The Night the Earth Stood Still
F. T. Rea
Monday, January 03, 2000

To Whom It May Concern: Greetings from the waning hours of 1999 in Richmond, Virginia, USA. And, in case it matters, on Earth.

Sitting at a table outside of Puddn'Heads Coffee House on an Indian Summer morning in November, I read a Y2K paranoia article with smug satisfaction as I consumed my daily dose of black coffee.

When I noticed a woman walk by with a mischievous Jack Russell Terrier at her side, I paused to think - who actually believed that anything significant was going to happen just because another page of the Christian calendar was about to be removed and tossed into the cosmic trash bin of time?

The woman looked a bit like Patricia Neal, which brought to mind "The Day the Earth Stood Still," the 1951 sci-fi classic that anticipated a modern society's panic from the sudden loss of all electricity.

Alas, that was only a few weeks ago. A few weeks ago, when I felt so unconcerned about Y2K bugs.

Now my nonchalance about this Y2K business has evolved into something else. Tonight, sitting at my keyboard on Dec. 16, I've started to get spooked by contemplating what's actually going to go down when zillions of pulsing gizmos sense that we have crossed the border between 1999 and 2000.

While I am anything but knowledgeable about matters pertaining to computers and the Internet, the fact is I use them both all the time. Frankly, I don't like to think about a world without word processing and e-mail.

At this point, I don't even know whether my computer will be of any use to me once we cross the great divide. I've been told on some good authority, there is a chance my old 486 may just seize up.

Of course that's a practical fear. Being a writer, I'm naturally concerned about my livelihood.

What is this I'm reading? You ask.

It's days after Y2K. We all know by now that (pick one) a) the Earth has been reduced to a still-glowing fireball; or b) it was all a big bore and we'll never fall victim to mass-hysteria again.

Well, reader, you're one up on me. The real problem looming as I type these words is that I have no idea that modern civilization isn't going to melt down over this splendidly ironic glitch in the system. I'm still weeks behind you, still left to wonder if the lights really will go out at midnight, Jan. 1, 2000. Still left to wonder if it's possible that our whole deal could go down the drain.

So think of this piece as a quaint time capsule beamed into the future - January, 2000.

Despite my Y2K blues, however, I believe that this article will almost certainly appear online as scheduled. I fully expect that you are sitting in front of your monitor reading this on

Then the laugh will be on all the people who admitted they were preparing for all manner of catastrophe. And, I suppose to some extent that will mean me. Fine. I'll be laughing then too.

I hope.

Nonetheless as I sit here, sipping on a bitter Pale Ale, I have no trouble imagining that roving bands of thugs could be out the first night without electricity. Looters could come out of the woodwork. If our toilets won't flush, our phones don't work, and all forms of mass communication are kaput, people could wig out big time.

Then, anything from the familiar post-apocalyptic menu could happen. Yes, I admit it - I'm getting a little worried.

In fact, I'm not at all sure when, or even if, anyone is actually going to read this. It has already occurred to me that maybe the only real point to my writing these paragraphs is to keep my squirmy consciousness occupied.

For that matter, every time a wordsmith plies his trade there is some leap of faith involved: Yes, it will be published. And yes, someone will read it.

Fetching yet another perfectly chilled ale, it just struck me that, for all I know, the entire power grid has gone down hard by the time you're supposed to be reading this.

And you, my dear reader, you could be someone who has stumbled across this material decades into the future. You could be an archeologist studying the artifacts of what remains of civilization circa 1999.

Or, perhaps you are reading this less than a month into the new millennium.

You are huddled in a icy bunker. Your generator-powered PC's monitor is providing the only light for you to pry open the precious can of beans you found in a pile of rubble.

And, with good reason you are reading this little essay with one eye peeled on the only doorway. Your revolver, as always, is at your side. You still have three bullets left.

You could even be the last human being alive. On the other hand, maybe you are not human at all. You could be from ...

Maybe everything is still, frozen timelessly in place.

OK, calm down.

If that is the case, there still could be one last chance. I know it sounds silly, but try saying the following phrase aloud: "Klaatu Barada Nikto."*

How could it hurt?

"Klaatu Barada Nikto!"

From 1999, this is F. T. Rea, over and out ...

Note: *The key line from "The Day the Earth Stood Still" that commanded the all-powerful robot Gort to switch the world's machines back on.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Punch Drunk

Benny Paret (left) died 10 days after this beating.
Note: In this piece I wrote 17 years ago, I anticipated the demise of professional boxing. Looks like I was wrong (again). It was originally published by STYLE Weekly on June 26, 2002


In case the sports-minded reader was distracted by the Triple Crown, the French Open, the World Cup, the NBA finals or interleague baseball games during the second weekend of June, please note that pugilist Mike Tyson was in the news as well. This time it wasn't about parole violations. Nor was it anything to do with his oft-stated desire to eat children. It was about the boxing match held in Memphis, Tenn., on June 8.

After an avalanche of pre-fight hype, once in the ring, reigning heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis punished Iron Mike for seven rounds. Perhaps then Lewis was satisfied that the man who had bitten his leg at a January press conference had been sufficiently softened up for the knockout punch. In the eighth, Lewis, 36, sent a bloody and thoroughly beaten Tyson crashing to the canvas for the 10-count. (Click here to see the knockout punch at YouTube.)

The ripples from the Tyson/Lewis affair resonated beyond the traditional audience for boxing. Because of Tyson's much-reported propensity to lose his grip, this was a spectacle with the brand of sizzle that trash culture consumers can't get enough of.

Television's sports talkers went so far as to claim the aforementioned weekend, with its wide variety of stellar attractions, was the greatest weekend of sporting events in history. At this desk it isn't known who keeps track of such records. However, I do have a take on whether professional boxing should still be viewed as a sport in 2002.

In a word the answer is "no."

Boxing is an archaic, sometimes compelling spectacle that features men who bleed for cash. Whether boxers bleed willingly is not the issue. People will do a lot of things for money. Whether the old "sweet science" has overstayed its welcome, that is the issue.

Isn't convicted rapist Mike Tyson, a longtime protégé of boxing boss Don King, precisely the shameless personality we've needed to look directly in the eye to finally ask ourselves, "Why in hell is boxing still around?" Since professional boxing has long been directed by the worst elements of society, why should a civilized people continue to countenance a practice that really has no upside to it?

Boxing calls upon its participants to strive to injure one another in plain sight. No legitimate sport permits that. Violent games, such as football and hockey, allow plenty of contact. But both prohibit players from deliberately trying to injure an opponent.

This scribbler turned the corner on boxing after interviewing a Richmond neurologist, Nelson G. Richards, for a boxing article in 1985. At the time, Dr. Richards was making national headlines for his leadership in persuading the American Medical Association to change its position and call for the outright banning of boxing.

After listening to Richards describe what had been recently learned about how the puncher's blows can move the punchee's brain around inside his skull — apparently it compresses and ricochets like a bouncing rubber ball — boxing's traditional defenses withered for me.

"The public should be made aware of the intentionally dangerous effects of boxing," Richards said.

Beyond the vexing medical and moral considerations of boxing, there are some legal questions, too. Why does the label "boxing" immunize the participants from facing what would be the legal consequences of anyone else repeatedly striking a person with their fists? Why should the presence of ropes, a referee and an audience trump a community's laws against assault and public brawling?

Modern society no longer permits dueling with pistols or swords. Boxing is dueling with fists.

While I don't follow boxing closely these days, at one time I did. I remember watching Emile Griffith literally beat Benny "Kid" Paret to death on TV when I was 14. Paret collapsed into the ropes in such a way that they held him up.

Griffith blocked off the incompetent referee and repeatedly hit the totally helpless Paret until the job was done. It was their third fight, and supposedly, there was some bad blood between them. (Click here to see the almost surreal end of that fight at YouTube, including some commentary by Norman Mailer.)

Given the chance to decide whether this commonwealth should continue to allow professional boxing matches, my guess is, Virginia's voters would say "no." After all, once it becomes an issue, and the pros and cons are debated, how many people would really step forward to defend boxing as a legitimate sport that gives something positive back to the community?

Back to Tyson: Even at his best, 15 years ago, Tyson, 35, wasn't a skilled boxer. He was a hard puncher, a first-round knockout artist. Sonny Liston, a surly heavyweight champion in his day (1962-'64), was a feared puncher, too. But you don't hear many boxing aficionados throwing Liston's name into discussions of the great heavyweights.

For what it's worth, it says here that Tyson and Liston are roughly equal in the all-time heavyweight rankings. Both were brutal. Yet, neither ever showed the deft skills or competitive heart the most revered champions have exhibited.

This is all to say that much of the drawing-card power Tyson brought to Memphis was due to publicity about his wretched doings outside the ring and the ridiculous Holyfield ear-biting incident five years ago.

Immediately after the Memphis fight, with his face swollen and shredded, a subdued Tyson wasted no time in begging Lewis for a rematch in that creepy baby-voice of his.

Don't be surprised to see Tyson's blood flowing on the small screen, again. For every guy who paid $54.95 hoping to see Tyson win, or bite somebody's nose off, there will be another guy happy to see the washed-up bully get thrashed more severely next time around.

Television or not, eventually the boxing match itself is bound to be banished to Third-World countries and offshore barges. It's just a matter of when. Although men such as Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson were seen as heroes in their day, that day is fading into the mists of history.

Hasn't the time run out for putting up with the stench of professional boxing?


Friday, July 19, 2019

They Persisted

First elected to the House of Representatives out of San Francisco in 1987, Nancy Pelosi (1940-) served as Speaker of the House from 2007 to 2011. Her fingerprints are all over some important legislation. Since Jan., 2019, she has been serving her second term in that office. She remains the only female Speaker in history.

It should always be remembered that Pelosi has been standing on the shoulders of many brave women. Some of them attended the Seneca Falls Convention that 171 years ago, to this day, kicked off the women's rights movement in the U.S.A.

For instance, in 1916, Jeanette Rankin (1880-1973) was elected to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, 1917-19. She was one of two at-large representatives for the state of Montana and she was the first woman ever elected to serve in Congress. Rankin was a dauntless suffragette and pacifist. She also served a second term in the House over 20 years later, 1941-43. She was the sort of Republican we don't see much of, anymore.

In 1932 Hattie W. Caraway (1878-1950) became to first woman to be elected to a full six-year term in the U.S. Senate. As a Democrat in the Depression Era she routinely supported Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal measures.

After serving four years in New York's state legislature, in 1968 Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005) won a seat in the House of Representatives. That made her the first Black woman ever to serve in Congress. In 2015 Chisholm was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Nominated by Pres. Ronald Reagan in 1981 the Senate unanimously approved the appointment of Sandra Day O'Connor (1930-) to the Supreme Court. She was the first woman to serve on the high court. In 1992 O’Connor proved to be the swing vote to reaffirm the Roe v. Wade decision in the Planned Parenthood v. Casey case.

In 1948 Madeleine Albright (1937-) and her family (her father was a diplomat) immigrated to the U.S.A from Czechoslovakia; they settled in Denver. After serving as Ambassador to the United Nations for four years, Pres. Bill Clinton then appointed Albright to be Secretary of State. Thus she became the first woman to serve that capacity, which she did for four years.

Two of the Democratic Party's top tier presidential hopefuls for the 2020 race are women -- Sen. Kamala Harris (1964-) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (1949). Largely, next year it will be how women voters cast their ballots that will decide if America elects its first female president. 

-- 30 --

Tuesday, July 16, 2019


Norman Rockwell's painting of Ruby Bridges on her way to 
school in New Orleans, protected by federal marshals.
The older I get the more amazed I am when looking back at the courage of the Americans who took it upon themselves to challenge the hate-driven established order concerning race – the segregated public schools, the withheld voting rights, the whites-only lunch counters, etc., in the 1950s and '60s – all during my lifetime.

We still know the names of some of the heroic leaders; especially a few of them who were murdered. But in this instance, I'm remembering the followers who took the beatings and wouldn't be turned around. The demonstrators who marched across a bridge; the parents who sent their kids to previously all-white schools; the Freedom Riders, and so forth.

So today I'm thinking of the folks who didn't become famous for choosing to risk their lives trying to make the country a better place. What courage they had.

Monday, July 08, 2019

Stone Post Sundays

In recent years our group has played the Stone Post Course on Sunday mornings. It was designed by Leo Rohr, who grew up playing Frisbee-golf in Byrd Park. The downhill approach to that target is pictured above; this view is from a position about two-thirds of the way there.

The nine-hole object course gets its name from the target on the par 5 eighth. As this series of photos shows the stone post, itself, is guarded by three wooden posts. Thus, a good player will usually try to approach it obliquely to have an unobstructed view of it.

Although it's my favorite hole on this nine that isn't to suggest I've usually played it all that well. I like it for its circuitous path with various options. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Flashback: 1992: Smooth Noir

Here's a flashback to an issue of SLANT 27 years ago. It was published when the infamous Joe Camel ad campaign was still popular, so I had to weigh in. In this time the USA's tobacco industry was still riding high ... but not for long. In August of 1992 the art above appeared over the text below:
It's Happy Hour. Rebus starts the Lamberts, Hendricks and Ross tape that he had selected to kick off his shift. In walks his first customer.

It's Joe Camel, smooth matchbook celebrity.

Although Rebus recognizes him immediately, even without his makeup, he doesn't call attention to it. Joe looks like he would rather not be bothered.

Joe: Two shots of Cuervo Gold. No fruit. No salt.

Rebus: Hey pal, if it's been that kind of day, let me buy the first one. It's the...

Joe: THAT kind of day? Yeah, I guess it's been about as bad a day as ... forget it.

The bar's only customer slaps the first empty glass down onto the cold marble as Rebus turns the stereo's volume up a notch.

Joe: The tests came back. It's the Big C. I'm doomed. It's too late to operate. Just like that -- cancer. Kaput!

Rebus: Well, er, in that case, I'll spring for the second one, too.

Joe: Thanks.

Rebus: How about a sandwich?

Joe: A sandwich?

Rebus: Sure. Like something to eat. We've got a killer cold meatloaf sandwich, or...

Joe: Cancer of the hump.

Rebus: The hump?

Joe: They said my five-pack-a-day habit probably had nothing to do with...

Rebus: I didn't even know you had a hump. Like, it never shows in the commercials.

Joe: I wear a corset. We all do. It's part of the act. The Mad Ave. geniuses want smooth camels, not hunchbacks. Hey, let me tell ya, they tighten those babies down with a torque wrench.

Rebus: I won't say anything about it.

Joe: I'm not hungry. How 'bout another shooter?

Rebus: Sure, ah, did the doctor, er...

Joe: Did they say how, how long I've got?

Rebus: Yeah and no offense meant.

Joe: Maybe a week.

Rebus: Cancer of the hump! What a bad break.

Joe: I deserve it.

Rebus: Hey, nobody deserves hump cancer. Not even...

Joe: I do man. I'm paying the price for selling my soul to the devil. All those kids.

Rebus: Kids?

Joe: Innocent children that Joe F. Camel suckered into smoking the product. It's karma.

Rebus: You didn't invent cigarettes.

Joe: Above all else, be smooth. Don't you want to be the smoothest dude?

Rebus: Come on Joe, kids are going to smoke cigarettes regardless of...

Joe: Maybe, but this campaign was slick. They brought in behavioral voodoo scientists.

Rebus: Joe, it's not your fault. You've just been dealt a bad hand. Joe, ah, that is your real name?

Joe: What's in a name? What's real? Way back, maybe before your time, people knew me as Clyde. Since then I've...

Rebus: Right! Clyde. I knew you looked familiar. Yeah, you worked with a cat named Ahab the Arab. But, now you look, like, ah, wider.

Joe: You're talking 30 years since that gig. Who hasn't put on a little weight?

Rebus: I can dig it. But it's still not your fault if a kid smokes. Everybody's got to earn a living. You're like Tony the Tiger or Ronald McDonald, or...

Joe: No! I knew it was wrong. I went to the meetings. I knew the marketing strategy. We were going after third-graders. It was sick.

Rebus: So, what are you going to do?

Joe: Get drunk, then make a plan.

Rebus: Good move. Ready for another?

Joe: I wonder if strapping my hump down made the cancer, ah...

Rebus: Maybe it's never too late to beat the devil. They made you a celebrity; call a press conference. Go public with it. Confess! Drop a dime on the subliminal sleazemeisters.

Joe: Do you really think people would listen?

Rebus: The Marlboro Man went clean.

Joe: You're right! I knew getting drunk was a good idea. Hand me that telephone. I'll do it. I'll blow the lid off the...

Rebus: That's the spirit!

Joe: I've got work to do; call my agent. And, you know what?

Rebus: Chicken-butt!

Joe: Let me try one of those meatloaf sandwiches. And, some coffee.

Rebus opens his eyes. The dream was OK until that business about the meatloaf sandwich. Not to mention the stupid chicken-butt joke.

He gets out of bed and walks toward the bathroom. On the way, Rebus remembers the Joe Camel jacket draped over the chair by the door. A steady customer had given it to him at the bar. He picks it up and throws it into the trash can next to the toilet.

Rebus: Sorry Clyde, I'm not taking any chances.

-- Fini --

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

After Midnight

Note: This is an excerpt of Biograph Times, a work in progress that will hopefully become a book.

Midnight Shows

In the 1970s, during what some film aficionados call "the golden age of repertory cinema," double features ruled. Perhaps the hodgepodge of double features that was central to the format of a repertory cinema had something to do with a sense of postmodern license to combine disparate elements. The presenting of midnight shows was also an integral aspect of the programming for many such movie houses.

Although films are still being shown in theaters at the midnight hour, the cultural significance of such screenings has been in steady decline since the end of the '70s. While most of what was done at the Biograph was standard practice in that era for art houses/repertory cinemas, it was somewhat of a trend-setter with regard to the methodology of promoting and presenting midnight shows.

The formula for how to do it consistently had yet to be established in Richmond when a twin bill of so-called "underground" films, “Chafed Elbows” (1966) and “Scorpio Rising” (1964), became the first special late-night attraction the Biograph presented. On April 7, 1972, the show actually started at 11:30 p.m. It was simply called a "late show." 

Then, over our initial year of operation, we came to figure out the sort of pictures that would appeal to the late crowd. So although “The Godfather” (1972) was a critical success and a popular film the year the Biograph opened, it was not the sort of movie that would draw an audience at midnight. On the other hand, “Fritz the Cat” (1972), released the same year — but barely remembered today — was a good draw. When we premiered “El Topo” (1970) during regular hours in the spring of 1973 it flopped. Later as a midnight show it did well.

A 16mm bootleg print of “Animal Crackers” (1930), a Marx Brothers romp that had been out of release for decades, played well at midnight. Some rock ’n’ roll movies worked, others didn’t. Same with thrillers and monster flicks. The most successful midnight shows needed a cachet of something slightly forbidden -- maybe not allowed during regular hours.

In that light, a Marx Brothers title that couldn’t be seen on television or in a standard movie theater had an extra luster. We rented it from a private collector who had a beautiful 16mm print.

We promoted midnight shows with radio spots on WGOE-AM and with handbills posted on utility poles and in shop windows. We relied on little or no newspaper advertising for midnight shows in the early days. We usually didn’t list them in our regular printed programs, which displayed the titles and some film notes for the movies we exhibited during regular hours.

By showing “Animal Crackers,” we may have been bending some sort of copyright laws. But the Fan District wasn’t Manhattan or Malibu, so no one who had any interest in the obscure battle over the rights to an old Marx Brothers feature film was likely to notice.

In the first couple of years of operation we occasionally rented short subjects, old TV shows and even feature films from private collectors who acted as distributors. Some titles were in the public domain, which meant no one actually had the “exclusive rights” to the rent out prints of the movie. “Reefer Madness” (1936) was such a title. Others were like “Animal Crackers,” which, due to a legal dispute, wasn’t in general release.

My bosses at the Biograph in Georgetown and I talked about the propriety of showing bootleg prints of films with murky rights issues several times. I came to agree with them that we weren’t denying the artists, or rightful distributors any money. Instead, they saw it as liberating those films for people to see. Anyway, we didn’t get caught.

A few years later the issues that had kept “Animal Crackers” out of release were resolved. So we booked a nice 35mm print from the proper distributor. It didn’t perform at the box office nearly as well as it had before, when it was forbidden.

When the Biograph started running midnight shows in 1972 the bars in Richmond closed at midnight, so there was a lot less to do at 12:01 a.m. than when the official cutoff time was extended to 2 a.m. in 1976.

Another reason midnight shows caught on when they did was that drive-in theaters, which had done well in the '50s and '60s, were going out of style fast. Some of the low-budget product they had been exhibiting found a new home as late-night entertainment in hardtop theaters. “Mondo Cane” (1962), “Blood Feast” (1963) and “2,000 Maniacs” (1964) all played as Biograph midnight shows. Once into the ’80s that sort of movie began to routinely go straight to video, skipping a theatrical run.

By the time we booked “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” in June of 1978, going to a midnight show was no longer seen as an exotic thing to do in Richmond. Multiplexes in the suburbs ran them all the time. Which ironically made the timing perfect for a kitschy spoof of/tribute to trashy rock ‘n’ roll and monster movies to become the all-time greatest midnight show draw.

The midnight show craze of the ‘70s could only have flourished then, when baby boomers were in their teens and 20s. It came before cable television was widely available and video rental stores had popped up in nearly every neighborhood.

Sometimes, a successful midnight show run came along in the nick of time to pay the Biograph's rent. On the other hand, as a promoter, there were times when I bit off more than I could chew.

On October 22, 1982, a film about a murder spree, “The Honeymoon Killers” (1969), opened as a midnight show. I had seen it somewhere and become convinced it would appeal to the same crowd that loved absurd comedies by Luis Buñuel and Robert Altman. Well, I was dead wrong, because “The Honeymoon Killers” fell flat.

Yet, to this day, I still wonder how it would have been received by Biograph midnight show devotees in our first year or two of operation.

After-Hours Screenings

Still of Jimmy Cliff as Ivan.
In the fall of 1973, David Levy, then the most active managing partner/owner of the Biograph Theatres in Georgetown and Richmond, asked me to look at a film to evaluate its potential. From time to time he did that for various reasons. In this case he had a new 35mm print of “The Harder They Come” shipped to me.

In those days we had frequent after-hours screenings of films we came by, one way or another. Usually on short notice, the word would go out that we would be watching a movie at a certain time. These gatherings were essentially impromptu movie parties. A couple of times it was 1940s and '50s 16mm boxing films from a private collection.

Sometimes prints of films that were in town to play at another venue, say a film society, would mysteriously appear in our booth. In such cases the borrowed flicks were always returned before they were missed ... so I was told.

Although I don’t remember any moments, in particular, from that first screening of “The Harder They Come”, I do recall the gist of my telephone conversation with Levy the next day. After telling him how much I liked the Jamaican movie, he asked me how I would promote it.

Well, I was ready for that question. I had smoked it over thoroughly with a few friends during and after the screening. So, I told David we ought to have a free, open-to-the-public, sneak preview of the movie. Most importantly, we should use radio exclusively to promote the screening. Because of the significance of the radio campaigns for the Biograph's midnight shows, over the last year, he liked the idea right away.

In this time, long before the era of giant corporations owning hundreds of stations, a locally-programmed daytime radio station with a weak signal played a significant role in what success was enjoyed at the Biograph. For a while we had a sweet deal -- a dollar-a-holler -- with WGOE-AM, the most popular station for the under-35 set in the Fan District and environs. In the first half of the 1970s, the station at the top of the dial, 1590, owned the hippie market. 

Subsequently, on a Friday morning in November the DJs at WGOE began reading announcements of a free showing of “The Harder They Come” that would take place at the Biograph that afternoon at 3 p.m. Then they would play a cut by Jimmy Cliff, the film’s star, from the soundtrack. This pattern was continued maybe three times an hour, leading up to the time of the screening.

Note: “The Harder They Come” (1972): 120 minutes. Color. Directed by Perry Henzell; Cast: Jimmy Cliff, Janet Bartley, Carl Bradshaw. In this Jamaican production, Cliff plays Ivan, a pop star/criminal on the lam. The music of Cliff, The Maytals, The Melodians and Desmond Dekker is featured.

Of course, reggae music was being heard in Richmond before our free screening, but it was still on the periphery of popular culture. As I recall, some 300 people showed up for the screening and the movie was extremely well received.

In previous runs in other markets, “The Harder They Come” had been treated more or less as an underground movie. As it was shot in 16mm and blown up to 35mm for its American distribution, it had a grainy, documentary look to it that added to its allure. Upon hearing about the test-audience's approval, Levy got excited and wanted to book it to run as a regular feature, rather than as a midnight show.

While it didn’t set any records for attendance, “The Harder They Come” did fairly well and returned to play several more dates at the Biograph, at regular hours and as a midnight show. 

Levy became a sub-distributor for “The Harder They Come.” When he rented it to theaters in other cities within his region, he advised them to use the same radio-promoted, free-screening tactic.

In 1973, watching a virtually unknown low-budget Jamaican film after operating hours in the Biograph had seemed edgy, almost exotic. That night we had no idea how popular reggae music was about to become.

Over the next few years reggae music smoothly crossed over from niche to mainstream to ubiquitous. Bob Marley (1945-81) still has a huge following to this day. Reggae's acceptance opened the door for the popularity of the still-fresh fusion sound of the 2 Tone bands, like The Selecter, The Specials, the (English) Beat, Madness, and so forth, in the early-1980s.

Monday, May 27, 2019


The more I hear about “electability,” the more it seems to be something like beauty, because it appears to be a quality that lies in the eye of the beholder. 

However, from my experience, we don't always know all that much about presidential candidates' electability until we've seen them on the campaign trail for a while, making speeches, answering tough questions, debating, etc. In other words, watching how they react to pressure.

Issues aside, does being in the spotlight flatter them? Or does it tend to reveal their worst side?

So in late-May of 2019 it's wise for Democrats to refrain from bashing too harshly the 2020 presidential hopefuls with whom they disagree with the most, or the ones they deem to be less electable than their favorite(s). By the end of the summer we'll all have a lot more to go on than we do now, electability-wise. 

After Labor Day, several of the 23 hopefuls will probably have thrown in the towel, or displayed their abundant lack of electability for all to see. Meanwhile, anything that “lies in the eye of the beholder” remains something to consider carefully.

-- Image from 538

Sunday, May 26, 2019

What Trump Saw ... Perhaps

In the '80s, when greed was good, Donald Trump, the huckster/developer, saw President Ronald Reagan's popularity and he coveted it.

Watching Reagan, a man who had been a mediocre second banana movie actor charming a gullible nation with his cornball patter, Trump saw tremendous potential that went unexploited.

Trump figured that if Reagan had played his cards differently he could have become the most powerful president, ever – a little king. Already a despot-in-the-making, Trump plotted that he would never piss away such a royal opportunity to cash in.

Three days after 9/11, when Trump, the failed Atlantic City casino mogul, saw President George W. Bush at ground zero in Manhattan wielding that bullhorn, again it happened.

Looking at the potential for unchecked power that Bush II had just gained, Trump saw the opportunity to rule like an emperor … it sparkled and he coveted it.

Nobody knows how many wannabe Trumps are out there watching and thinking they could do it better. Imagining how they would be more aggressive. More powerful. Less afraid to be cruel. Trump, unchained.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

A Goddess in the Fan District in 1989

Built by art students, on May 30, 1989, the Goddess of Democracy was erected in Tiananmen Square as a symbol of their call for democratic reforms in China. The gathering protest in Tiananmen Square had begun in mid-April; tension was mounting. Subsequently, on June 4, following orders, the People’s Liberation Army put an end to the demonstration. Mayhem ensued.

Although reports varied widely, hundreds, if not thousands, were killed. Made of chicken wire and plaster the Goddess was destroyed during the brutal routing of the protesters that had remained to the end, in defiance. As the drama played out on television, via satellite, the events shocked the world.

As their art student counterparts in China had been murdered in the shadow of their 33-foot-tall sculpture, in Richmond a group of VCU-affiliated artists heard the call of inspiration to stand with those who had fallen. The impromptu team of the willing and able worked for the next couple of days to give form to their tribute to the courage of those who had perished for the sake of freedom of expression.

While the project was not sponsored by the school, wisely, VCU did nothing to discourage the gesture. Richmond’s Goddess of Democracy (pictured above and below) stood the same height and was made of the same basic materials as the one in China had been. Thirty years ago, facing Main Street, it stood as a memorial for about a month in front of the student center. CNN had a report on it, as did many other news agencies. Its image was on front pages of newspapers all over the world.

The June 16 -30, 1989 issue of SLANT ran a story about building of the Goddess. It included mention of a handbill that I found posted at the site of the VCU memorial. Here's a portion of the text that appeared on that small poster: 
On May 13, 1989, Beijing University students began an occupation of Tiananmen Square to call for democratic reforms and an end to official corruption. The ensuing peaceful and often festive protest drew world attention and gained support from the citizens and workers of Beijing. On Sunday, June 4, at 3:30 [a.m.] Chinese time, troops of the 27th Division of the People’s Liberation Army entered the square with orders to disperse the students. At approximately 6 a.m. these same troops attacked the protestors with automatic weapons, tanks, and bayonets. According to government estimates only 300 students were killed, but local medical estimates put the death toll between 500 and 1,000.
The brutal suppression of unarmed students by a powerful totalitarian government has moved the world’s conscience. Many of the Tiananmen victims were art students who aspired to same basic freedoms which we enjoy daily. As American artists we cannot overlook, and we must never forget, the suffering and sacrifice of our brothers and sisters in Beijing. Their peaceful struggle was a cry for human rights everywhere, and their symbol, the Goddess of Democracy, was the highest artistic tribute they could pay to humanity’s noblest ideal -- freedom.
The little placards on sticks that surrounded the sculpture (see the photos) were added a few days after the Goddess was completed. As far as I know, nobody made a penny out of it. 

Thinking back on it this episode was also a good illustration of how the traditional left and right, liberal and conservative, characterizations of all things political don’t always do justice to the truth of a situation. Like, was the stubborn and heavy-handed Chinese government standing to the right, or to the left, of the upstart students calling for reform?

When communists are the conservatives clinging to the old way, how does that play out on a spectrum of left-to-right thinking? It seems authoritarian regimes are what they are, regardless of how else they wish to be viewed.

The Goddess of Democracy on VCU’s campus in the spring of 1989 was the most successful piece of guerilla art this scribbler can remember having seen firsthand.

-- Photos by F.T. Rea

Friday, May 10, 2019

Time-Warping, Again

by F.T. Rea


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.


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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