By F.T. Rea
Note from Rebus: The little painting above was the third in a series Rea did in 1983 to amuse his mischievous girlfriend. In each of them I got killed off in a different way. In
the summer of 1983, it was generally assumed that Rea had quit his job
on a sudden whim. In truth, the mysterious process had been anything but
In 1997, feeling challenged by F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Crack-Up,"
and wanting to experiment with the power of catharsis, Rea first
attempted to write an account of his departure from the Biograph. As it
required laying bare some of his troubles with what he calls
"melancholia," it wasn't such an easy project to execute. This version of the story was assembled in 2007. The weird telephone piece below was also made by Rea that same summer. It's dark significance will become apparent as the story unfolds.
one divines the presence of a specific person in connection with some
unexplained occurrence, without any tangible evidence of their
involvement, what real trust should one put in such raw instinct?
How much of a hunch is a flash of extraordinary perception? How much is imagination?
a high contrast crisis, doubting a hunch could get somebody killed.
But in everyday life’s ambiguous gray scale of propriety, how much can
anyone afford to put at risk strictly on intuition? Hey, if you shoot a
guy based on your gut feeling that he was about to kill someone else,
with no corroborative evidence, you’re going to need a good lawyer.
torturous story of why I left my longtime job as manager of the
Biograph Theatre began with a ringing telephone on an Indian Summer
afternoon in 1981 that I remember all too well. I put the Sunday
newspaper aside to pick up the receiver and said, “Hello.”
was no reply. At that moment there was no reason to think it was more
than a wrong number or a malfunction on the line. Yet, after listening
to a creepy silence for half a minute and repeating “hello” a few
times, I sensed I knew the person at the other end of the line.
I hung up that mysterious feeling was replaced by a flicker of a
thought that named a specific person. Then the notion faded into a
queasy sensation that made me go outside for some fresh air. For an
instant I thought I knew something there was no plain way for me to
know. Moreover, I didn’t want to know it.
grandmother had told me a thousand times to never go against a hunch.
Had I have discussed it with her she would have said a clear message
from what she would have called my “inner voice” should always trump
Instead of seeking her counsel I asked only
myself: “Why would that person call me, to hang on the line and say
nothing?” It made no sense. So, I tried to study the hunch, to examine
As I walked toward the closest bar, the
Village, I was already caught in an undertow that would eventually
carry my spirit far away from everything that had mattered to me.
I know that my grandmother understood something I was yet to learn -- a
hunch is a bolt from the blue that cannot be gathered and
investigated. It can’t be revisited like a conclusion. A true hunch can
only be felt once.
Yet, for a number of reasons it was
easier for me to view my inconvenient hunch as counterfeit. A few
weeks later, by the time the calls had become routine, the whole
concept of believing in hunches was on its way to the same place as
beliefs in the Tooth Fairy and Heaven. A grown man, a man of reason,
needed to rise above all such superstitions.
caller never spoke. Usually, I hung up right away. Sometimes I’d listen
as hard as I could for a while, trying to hear a telltale sound. The
reader should note that telephone answering machines, while available
then, were not yet cheap. Most people did not have one at this time.
a haphazard year-and-a-half of one-night stands and such, following
the break-up of my ten-year marriage, at this same time I had a new
girlfriend. Tana was long-legged and sarcastic; she could be very
distracting. She was a fine art major who waitressed part-time at one of
the strip’s busiest saloons, the Jade Elephant. My apartment was just
two blocks from there and she stayed over at my place about half the
time, so she knew about the calls.
Tana was the only
person who knew anything about it for a long time. She was sworn to
secrecy. Mostly, I just let Tana distract me.
sensibly, she urged me to contact the authorities, or at least to get
an unlisted phone number. Offering no real explanation, I wasn’t
comfortable with either option. Playing my cards close to the vest, I
simply acted as if it didn’t really bother me. At this point she didn’t
know about the hunch. We spent a lot of time riding our bicycles and
As I rummage through my memory
of this time period now the images are smeared and spooky. I stayed
high more than before. For sure, I’ve forgotten a lot of it.
few months later my nose was broken in a basketball game, and by pure
coincidence I saw my grandmother on a stretcher at the hospital while I
was there. Feeling weak, she had checked herself in. Nana died before
dawn: March 5, 1982.
Later that morning, when I went
to her apartment to see after her affairs, she had already packed
everything up. She left notes on pieces of cardboard taped to furniture
about her important papers and what to do with everything. A few days
later my daughter and I sprinkled Nana's ashes into a creek in Orange
County; it was a place she had played when she was a little girl.
the stalking telephone calls became more frequent. Wherever I went,
home, office, or someone else’s place, the phone would ring. Then there
would be that same diabolical silence, no matter who answered.
had become my familiar companion, although I didn’t know then to call
it by that name. While I surely needed to do something decisive about
the telephone problem, the energy just couldn’t be mustered.
someone had told me I was sinking deeper and deeper into a major
depression, well, I would have laughed it off -- I was too cocky to be
depressed. In my view, then, depression was an affliction of people who
were bored. It never occurred to me that pure confidence was leaking
out of my psyche, spilling away forever.
Unfortunately, my narrow view of the problem centered around the mystery of who and why.
of the persona I had created and projected in my role as the
Biograph’s manager was that everything came easily to me. I liked to
hide any hard work or struggle from the public, even the staff at
times. While I might have wrestled with the artwork for a Midnight Show
handbill for days, I would act as if it had been dashed off in an
Looking back on it now, I’d say that pose was part of a cool image I wanted to project for the theater, itself, too.
inside such a pretend world -- within a pretend world -- rather than
seeing the debilitating effect the telephone monster was having on me, I
saw only clues. My strategy was to outlast the caller, to close in
like a hard-boiled movie sleuth without ever letting anyone know it was
getting to me.
Since the calls started around the
time I began seeing Tana, it seemed plausible it could have to do with
her. Maybe an old boyfriend? Also, there was my own ex -- maybe one of
her new squeezes? Maybe my rather eccentric brother (who died in 2005)?
Beyond those obvious possibilities, I poured over the smallest details
of each and every personal relationship.
As a theater
manager, my movie detective training told me it had to be someone with
a powerful grudge, so I created a list of prime suspects.
with disgruntled former employees were combed through, rivals from
various battles I’d fought over the years were considered. And, there
were people I had hurt, out of just being careless. It became my habit
to question the motives of those around me at every turn. In sly ways,
they were all tested.
As I examined my history,
searching through any details that could have set a grudge in motion, a
new picture of Terry Rea began to emerge. I found reasons for guilt
that had never occurred to me before. When I looked in the mirror, I
began to see a different man, a self-centered phony.
was as if I had discovered a secret, grotesque portrait of what was
left of my soul, hanging in the attic, like Oscar Wilde’s character --
Then my old yellow Volvo wagon was
rifled. A few personal things were taken but they didn’t touch the
stereo. When my office at the theater was burglarized, my glasses and a
photograph of me were stolen. Of course, I saw those crimes as
connected to the phone calls.
Tired of the ordeal and
frustrated with me, Tana had been imploring me to have the calls traced.
In late September, I finally agreed to do it. A woman who worked for
the telephone company told me I had to keep a precise record of the
times of all the calls, and I had to agree to prosecute the guilty party
if he was discovered. Although it had been nearly a year, I was still
holding the mystery close to me and hadn’t mentioned it to anyone at
As the telephone company’s pin register gadgetry soon revealed, there was good reason for that.
way or another, I managed to get information out of the telephone
company lady without actually getting on board with the police part of
it. The bottom line was this -- there were two numbers on the list of
traced calls that coincided with nearly all the calls on my record. One
was a pay phone in Goochland County, the other was the Biograph’s
Several of those calls were placed from the
theater, well after it had closed. After looking at the record of the
work schedule from the previous weeks, one employee had worked the late
shift on each night a call came from the building after hours. Not
coincidentally, this same man was the only person who lived in
Goochland, twenty miles away.
Most importantly, it was
the same man revealed by my original hunch -- he was the projectionist
at the Biograph. Now I refer to the culprit only as the “jellypig.”
just say he had a porcine, yet gelatinous way about him. I prefer to
avoid using his real name because it suits me. People who are familiar
with the cast of characters in this tangled story still know his name.
That’s enough for me.
Nonetheless, while all the
circumstantial evidence pointed at only one man the thought of
wrongfully accusing a person of such a terrible thing was still
unbearable to me.
So, I continued to stew in my own juices.
In November, I decided to move, to flee Grace Street
for a new pad further downtown on Franklin Street. At a staff meeting,
I revealed aspects of the stalking I had been enduring. I explained
that for a while, I would not get a new home telephone. They were also
told I had proof of who was actually behind the calls, but I said
nothing about any of the calls having been made from the theater. Most
importantly, I left them to guess at the villain’s identity.
Truth is, I don’t remember. Perhaps I was hoping to scare the jellypig and make him slink away.
the calls at my home ceased to be a problem, a week or so later a
weird note was left in my car. Why that became the last straw I don’t
know ... but it was.
The following afternoon, when no
one else was in the building, I called the jellypig into my office.
Sitting at my desk, I looked him in the eye and calmly lowered the
boom. It was like living in a black and white B movie. None of it
He looked scared and flatly denied it.
So, I told him about the traced phone calls. That news deflated him; he
collapsed into himself. The bulbous jellypig stared blankly at the
floor. Then he insisted that someone ... somebody had to be framing
I was flabbergasted!
even occurred to me that he would simply lie in the face of such a
strong case. To get him out of my sight I told him he had one day to
come up with a better story, or the owners of the theater would be told
and he’d be turned over to the cops. I can’t remember what I said would
happen if he came clean. Most likely, I was still hoping he’d just go
Maybe I didn’t have a plan.
problem with just firing the jellypig right on the spot was that
replacing him wouldn’t be so easy. Since late-1980, the Biograph had
been operating as a non-union house. Because of an ongoing dispute with
the local operators union, I was hiring our projectionists directly
off the street.
As it happened, our original
projectionist developed a problem with the local union over some
internal politics. Later, his rivals took over. They fought. He got
steamed and walked out. Which prompted the union to tell me to bar him
from the booth. Although I was uncomfortable going against the union,
politically, I felt standing by the individual I had worked with for
eight years was the right thing to do.
reaction was to pull its men off the job. This eventually led to me
hiring the man who became the jellypig to be a back-up projectionist.
For reasons I can’t recall, he was then at odds with the union, too, so
he was willing to work at the Biograph in spite of the official
Subsequently, our full-time projectionist --
whose squabble had created the problem -- left to take a job with
another theater that had also broken with the union. Which made it look
like the whole town might follow our example and go non-union.
Naturally, that put me in an even worse light with the union brass, who
blamed me personally.
The jellypig seemed qualified to
run the booth, so the easiest thing to do was promote him to full-time
when the opening came about. Although I ’d never really checked up on
him, like I usually did when I hired people, I put him in charge of the
two projection booths.
So, if I fired the jellypig --
summarily and on the spot -- the Biograph didn’t have as many options
as it should have, owing to the fact there was a very limited pool of
qualified projectionists readily available to a non-union house. We had
trained an usher to be backup, but he wasn’t ready to run the whole
It seemed I had little choice but to get in
touch with the union for a replacement. Since the theater was in a
slump, it was a bad time for operating expenses to go up, and I
expected the union bosses would go for some payback with a new
The jellypig rushed into my office the next
day with the big news -- he had solved the mystery! In a flurry, he
claimed the person responsible for the calls was an old nemesis of his.
It was an evil genius who was an electronics expert. He could fool the
phone company’s machinery.
It seemed the jellypig's
comic book villain had a long history of playing terrible dirty tricks
on him, going back to their tortured childhood at the orphanage in
Then, if that
wasn’t bad enough, the jellypig told me the guilty one was doing it all
for two reasons: One was simply to heap trouble onto the house of the
jellypig, who had a wife and kids to support. The other was to hurt
your narrator, directly ... since the evil genius knew all.
this point the jellypig coughed up the breaking news that he had long
been harboring a powerful carnal lust for me. Caught up in the moment,
the jellypig began to sob, admitting it was all his fault -- he had
foolishly shared the vital particulars of his secret craving with the
evil one, himself.
OK. I know it makes no sense now,
but as I listened to jellypig, along with disgust I began to feel
something akin to pity. The selling jellypig assured me that he would
do whatever it took to stop the evil genius from bothering me ever
again. He begged me, literally on his knees, not to tell his wife or
the theater’s owners about any of it.
My mind was reeling and my stomach had turned.
I told the jellypig to leave the office and let me think, there's no
doubt that I should have wondered which one of us was the craziest.
surprisingly, the tailspin the Biograph had gone into had become
wilder. The theater was loosing money like it hadn’t in several years.
As the winter came and went, my spirits sank steadily. It was like being
paralyzed so slowly it was almost imperceptible.
the spring, the two managing partners frequently brought up the
subject of selling the Richmond Biograph, which scared me to no end.
the meantime, the owners told me expenses had to be slashed
drastically, meaning I had to let some people go. Who and how many was
up to me, but salaries had to come in under a certain figure. So I was
given a few days to come up with a new plan that had to eliminate at
least one of the two guys who had been there the longest.
thereafter, I was at my desk talking on the phone to a close friend
about how I was putting out feelers for another job, because the
Biograph was for sale. Without thinking, I gave him my new, unlisted
home phone number, which had been put in Tana’s name. When I hung up,
it struck me the damned jellypig might have heard me, if his ear had
been up to the common drywall between the booth and my office.
My home telephone rang several times that night.
That very night! It was pure hell. Mustering the coldblooded attitude to fire friends to cut costs wasn't within me.
there was this -- if I bowed out of the picture it would eliminate the
biggest salary burden the theater had. By this point I had developed a
couple of mysterious health problems. I literally lost my voice, due
to a vocal cord problem.
Plus, the Biograph’s ability
to negotiate with the local union would be less encumbered without me
around. Good reasons for me to run away from 814 West Grace Street
seemed everywhere I looked. With no plan of where I would end up, I
suddenly decided to walk away from what I had once seen as the best job
in the Fan District.
I called the owners to tell them of my decision to leave; they also
heard about the jellypig business for the first time. The boys in DeeCee
were shocked and urged me to reconsider, to take a month off. They had
hired me to manage the theater months before it opened it opened in
1972. We’d been through a lot together.
sure they were actually quite torn with what to do with their
floundering friend. Clearly, at that time I was not the resourceful
problem solver I had been for many years. Beyond that, we could all see
fashion was turning sharply against what had been a darling of the
‘70s popular culture -- repertory cinemas.
for the Biograph looked dicey no matter what I did. The owners agreed
with me that the jellypig had to go ... as soon as possible. I remember
mentioning that I had gotten him to promise to get psychiatric help in
exchange for me not calling the police.
of an explanation to anyone else, I announced to whoever cared that I
was moving on and looking forward to a life of new adventures. Movie
critic Carole Kass wrote a small article for the Richmond
Times-Dispatch noting that I had “retired.”
at Stella’s on Harrison St., soon after my barely explained departure
from the Biograph, I told a former Biograph co-worker that maybe I had
it all coming to me. Maybe the jellypig had just been an agent of
karma. I speculated that perhaps my hubris and nonchalance had all but
She got so angry she walked out of the restaurant. At the time I couldn’t grasp what her reaction meant.
I couldn’t explain to anyone, because I didn’t understand it myself,
was that I just had no confidence. I didn’t know what to do next at any
given moment. My gift of gab, such as it had been, was kaput. I
stammered. In the middle of a sentence, I would lose my place ...
questioning how to end it.
As the summer wore on it
turned out the jellypig wasn’t quickly replaced in the Biograph’s
booth, which galled me to no end. Apparently the owners were struggling
with the union over a new contract.
That’s when I
came up with the name “jellypig.” A few weeks after dropping my job
like a hot potato I went by the theater to leave off a little drawing
for him on the staff message board. It featured a cartoon character I
created for the occasion -- the jellypig.
character was a simple line drawing of a pig-like creature. He was
depicted in a scene under a water line, chained to an anchor. He had
little x’s for eyes. There were small bubbles coming from his head and
drifting toward the water’s surface. The jellypig was almost smiling,
he seemed unconcerned with his fate.
The caption read
something like, “The jellypig takes a swim,” or “The jellypig’s day at
the beach.” That began a short series of similar cartoons, all left off
at the Biograph. The others portrayed a suffering jellypig in that
same droll tone.
Yes, I did it to get into his head -- let him be scared, for a change.
I was no longer in charge of the theater, it was habit for me to have a
say in it’s affairs. Which made for some awkward moments, because the
jellypig cartoons weren’t funny to anybody but me. It put the new
manager, Mike, who had been my assistant manager for five years, in an
For about a year I had been doing a Thursday afternoon show on a semi-underground radio station called Color Radio
As a record played, from the studio I spoke on the phone with the
jellypig. He was at work. I don’t recall what precipitated the
conversation. Anyway, he told me he had blown off the notion of
professional counseling. I warned him that he was breaking his bargain.
He went on to say that he didn’t need any help, but that maybe I did.
jellypig revealed to me that he resented the way I had treated him for
a long time -- deliberately excluding him from much of the social
scene at the theater. He complained bitterly, saying I had stood in the
way of his advancement. But in spite of the way I had tried to poison
the owners’ minds against him ... eventually, he would convince them to
let him manage the Biograph to save money.
first time it hit me -- the scheming jellypig’s entire effort had been a
“Gaslight” treatment. All that time I’d been playing Ingrid Bergman to
his Charles Boyer.
The anger from what I had allowed
to happen welled up in that moment. I told the jellypig that after my
radio shift ended, I was coming directly to the theater. If he was
still there, I’d break both of his legs with a softball bat.
my way to the Biograph I wondered again who, if anyone, on the staff
might have known more about the jellypig's game than they had let on.
When I got to the theater the jellypig had called in a replacement and
vamoosed. We'll never know what would have happened had he been there.
Maybe I would have broken only one leg.
terrified jellypig worked a couple more shifts in the booth after that
day. Taking no chances, he brought in his children to be there with
him, as human shields. Then, wisely, he split ... for good.
Which meant no more jellypig cartoons.
It took my run for a seat on City Council
the spring of 1984 to wrench loose from that unprecedented spell of
melancholia. Blowing off my hunch on that first call probably bought me
more trouble than any other single mistake I’ve ever made. Tana and I
split up in the fall.
All these years later, I wonder
if I heard something in that first call. Maybe it was a sound so faint I
didn’t know I heard it; almost like subliminal suggestion. Perhaps it
was the churning sound of the projection equipment. Although I don’t
remember hearing it, it’s the best explanation -- short of
parapsychology -- that makes any sense.
grandmother’s advice to trust six-sense hunches now seems like good
medicine. Put another way, it simply meant -- trust your own judgment.
Believe in yourself. Which might be the best advice I could ever give my
Note from Rebus: By the time the Biograph's pair of screens went dark in December of 1987 many art houses had already closed all over the country.
The golden age for repertory cinemas was a fading memory. Months behind
on the rent, Richmond's Biograph was seized by its landlord and closed
down forever. It was two months shy of its 16th
anniversary. The building that housed it is still there; now it's the
oldest building on the block.
All rights reserved by the author. For more stories in the Biograph Times series
by F.T. Rea click here.