Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Crab-Folder

By F.T. Rea
Carlos Runcie Tanaka, a Peruvian sculptor of what one brief biography called, “of mixed Japanese and European ancestry,” is a star in the international art world. As it happened, in April of 2001, he was in Richmond’s Fan District for a few days.

Let me tell you, after watching the sculptor fold and crease a piece of paper in a local bar, I’ve got two words of advice for him -- show business. This concept would combine the origami with Tanaka’s considerable talent for yarn-spinning.

OK, maybe I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Like so many tales, this one began with Happy Hour:

The Baja Bean is a Fan District watering hole located in the basement of what was originally a schoolhouse. The building itself is a stone and brick fortress. It was a typical crowd of mid-week regulars -- there were about 20 decidedly adult faces around the three-sided, horseshoe-shaped bar. The group was approximately equal parts white collar, blue color and no collar.

When then-chairman of Virginia Commonwealth University’s sculpture department Joe Seipel came in the room, with Carlos Tanaka at his side, Joe was smiling more broadly than usual. Seipel, who enjoys telling a good story, maybe even more loves to present a cool visiting artist to his pals at Happy Hour. It’s a tradition left over from the Texas-Wisconsin Border Café (1982-99), the nearby much-missed saloon which Seipel himself once co-owned. Seipel (who is now the Dean of VCUarts) introduced Carlos to those who hadn’t already met him.

Tanaka has done much traveling, owing to his acclaim as an artist. At an art confab somewhere in South America he had met and gotten to know Seipel, plus a couple of other art faculty types at VCU’s world renown fine arts school. Then they arranged for him to come to the art school here as a visiting artist/scholar. That’s how a Peruvian artist ends up in the Bean at beer-thirty.

As an aside, Tanaka was among the hostages taken by the Tupac Amaru in that bizarre 1996 incident in Lima, Peru, at the Japanese ambassador’s home. Nonetheless, his experience as the hostage of hell-bent terrorists for 50 days apparently did nothing to diminish his overall sense of humor.

Eventually, someone asked him about the crab-folding thing.


Someone else supplied a blank sheet of paper. For the next 20 minutes Tanaka told stories, made observations, ad-libbed and entertained everyone on hand. Nothing else was happening in the room for that spell. The product was an intricate paper crab made from an ordinary piece of white bond paper.

Looking at the crab was fun; it almost seemed cute, for a crab. But watching the artist fold the paper, over and over -- each fold exactly where it had to be -- as he offered his lighthearted patter, like a pro, was a rare treat. To the delight of the person who had supplied the sheet of paper, the crab-folder gave it to them.

Of course, someone else had to have one, too. Then another. Tanaka must have folded four or five paper crabs that afternoon. He never ran out of offbeat stories about drinking, playing practical jokes, making art, fools in high places, and so forth. By the way, the upbeat Tanaka never mentioned the dark time he was a hostage. I found out about that later.

The next time I saw Carlos in the Bean, a couple of days later, he gave me a paper crab as a souvenir (as shown above). Soon afterward he went back to Peru. As he’d been away from his studio for months, traveling and lecturing, the artist had said he was glad to be going home. I haven’t seen him since.

Occasionally, I have seen Tanaka’s name associated with a big art happening in South America or Europe. (He's now a Facebook friend) Regarding his mixed ancestry, one of Tanaka’s grandfathers was British and the other was Japanese. Both men married Peruvian women. Anyway, whenever Carlos is ready to take a break from the sculpture gig, I still say a career in show biz as a crab-folding monologist awaits.

No doubt, I’ve spent too many of my personal allotment of hours in bars. Although it’s easy to say many of those hours were wasted, every now and then something genuinely unusual has happened, out of the blue, that makes me say -- “I’m glad I was there.”

If nothing else those times provide fodder for a story to tell at a subsequent Happy Hour. Like our ancestors, we listen and observe, so we can tell stories about what seemed unusual. To see a gallery of Tanaka's work click here.
-- 30 --

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Where the Frisbees Landed T-shirts

Please note: Orders for the second printing of the most recent model of Greater Richmond Frisbee-Golf Association T-shirts will go in on Monday, Aug. 4. The art was designed by me (F.T. Rea). Regardless of the garment’s fabric color, the art (as shown above) on all of the shirts will be silk screen printed in just two ink colors -- black and white. So the gray halftone in the illustration represents the fabric color.
  • Short-sleeve T-shirts are $19.
  • Long-sleeve T-shirts are $21. 
For double-X T-shirts add a dollar. 

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

Antique Sapphire (a bright greenish-blue)

Cardinal Red (a cool red)
Military Green (olive drab) as shown in photo below.

  • Hooded sweatshirts are $29. They are available in athletic gray only
For double-X sweats add two bucks. 

The shirts should be ready by August 20. Message me on Facebook or send an email (ftrea9@yahoo.com) for more details and to discuss payment and pick-up/delivery. If you aren't in Richmond, shipping by first class mail looks like it will cost $6 for the T-s and between $9 and $10 for the sweats, depending on how far it goes (I'll look up your zip code and see what it costs. 


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

From Yeats to Greene to Stone

As a professor, Balcomb Greene
is said to have had a significant 
influence on Andy Warhol. 
Revved up over an English class assignment to write a paper on "The Second Coming," by W. B. Yeats, I stayed up all night crafting it, and thought I had hit a home run. The professor, an awkward, gangly sort of fellow in his late-20s, gave me a “C” on it.

Well, I just had to ask him to explain to me what was wrong with the paper. In a private conference he told me my analysis of the poem didn't jibe with the accepted school of thought on what Yeats was saying. While admitting my writing and analytical technique were fine, he nervously explained that I was simply wrong in my conclusions, no matter how well-stated my case might have been.

That sort of pissed me off, so I told him I thought that ambiguity could imply multiple meanings, and it deliberately invited alternative interpretations. Rather than defend as his stance the man suddenly grabbed his face and broke into tears.

The sobbing professor went into a monologue on the shambles his life had fallen into. His personal life! Worst of all, he said, his deferral had just been denied by Selective Service, so he would soon be drafted.

He was wearing a pitiful brown suit. His thinning beige hair was oiled flat against his scalp. My anger over the bad grade turned into disgust. As I remember it, I walked out of his office to keep from telling him what I thought.

Now, four decades later, I regret my impatience and feel sorry for the poor schlemiel. Still, when the offer came at the end of the semester to expand my part-time job to full-time, I took the leap. My chief duty was to schlep visiting scholars around Virginia from one university campus to the next in a big black Lincoln.

Each week, under the auspices of the University Center in Virginia -- a consortium of Virginia colleges and universities -- there was a new scholar in a different field. Somebody had to drive them to lectures, dinners, convocations and to hotels throughout the week. For one whole semester in 1969 that was me.

Naturally, in the crisscrossing of Virginia, the wiseguy driver and the actually wise scholars had a lot of time to talk. Some of them kept to themselves, mostly. Others were quite chatty, in several cases we got along well and had great talks.

Three of them stand out as having been the best company on the road: Daniel Callahan (then-writer/editor at Commonweal Magazine), Henry D. Aiken (writer/philosophy professor) and Balcomb Greene (artist/philosopher and art history professor).

Callahan challenged me to think more thoroughly about situational ethics and morality. He was happy I was reading the books of Herman Hesse and others. He turned me on to “One Dimensional Man,” by Herbert Marcuse.

Callahan was quite curious about my experiences taking LSD, we talked about drugs and religion. Click here to read about him.

Aiken (1912-‘82) was then the chairman of the philosophy department at Brandeis University, he loved a debate. He was used to holding his own against the likes of William F. Buckley. Talking with him about everything under the sun in the wee hours, I first acquired a taste for good Scotch whiskey (which I haven't tasted in many a year).
From a ‘pragmatic’ point of view, political philosophy is a monster, and whenever it has been taken seriously, the consequence, almost invariably, has been revolution, war, and eventually, the police state.

-- Henry D. Aiken
Aiken, like Callahan, agreed to help me with a project I told them about. Inspired by popular new magazines Ramparts, Avant-Garde, Rolling Stone, etc. -- at 21-years-old -- I wanted to jump straight into magazine publishing, with no experience, ASAP.

That dream stayed on the back burner for 16 years, until the first issue of SLANT came out in 1985. How I went about designing SLANT to be a small magazine, mostly featuring the work of its publisher, flowed in great part from my brief association with Balcomb Greene (1904-90). Of the rent-a-scholars I met, he was easily the funniest.

The son of a Methodist minister, Greene grew up in small towns in the Midwest. He studied philosophy at Syracuse University, psychology at the University of Vienna and English at Columbia University. Then he switched to art, having been influenced by his first wife, Gertrude Glass, an artist he had married in 1926. He became a founder of the avant-garde group known as American Abstract Artists in 1936.

After World War II, just as abstract art was gaining acceptance, Greene radically changed his style. He began painting in a more figurative, yet dreamy, style that fractured time. Click here,
and here, to read about Greene and see examples of his work.

One day I’ll write a piece about the visit to Sweetbriar with Greene. It was a hoot collaborating with him, to have some fun putting on the blue-haired art ladies of that venerable institution. This time my mention of him is to get this piece to I.F. Stone. It was Greene who gave me a subscription to I.F. Stone’s Weekly.

I.F. “Izzy” Stone (1907-89) was an independent journalist in a way few have ever been. In the 1960s his weekly newsletter was a powerful voice challenging the government’s propaganda about the war in Vietnam. Click here to read about Stone, and here.
"All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out."
-- I.F. Stone
Stone remains one of my heroes. At my best, over the years, I have emulated him in my own small ways. Thank you for the schooling, Professor Greene.

-- 30 --

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Ring Around The Diamond

Thinking about a stunt to dramatize the opposition to a Shockoe Bottom stadium and the widespread sentiment to keep baseball on the Boulevard, a friend (Larry Rohr) and I walked completely around the Diamond a few months ago. Staying on public property, it took something a little less than 1,000 strides of about three feet each.

The reason we were counting the steps it took to encircle the Diamond was that we guessed each step would represent one person. Thus, we determined it would take about 1,000 people to surround the Diamond, while standing/parading on public property.

Voila! A ring around The Diamond.

If people showed up on a day with no baseball game -- flash-mob-style -- carrying signs, beating drums and tooting horns, chanting slogans, seeing old friends and meeting new ones, etc., I bet that party-like scene would appeal to photographers. Some of those shutterbugs might be on the job shooting still or moving pictures for the media. We could create one of those pictures-worth-a-thousand-words moments. Once it gets underway, via the Internet, messages would be flying around town saying, "join us!"

Note: July 26 and 27 are the next Saturday and Sunday when the Flying Squirrels are on the road (Erie). If it happened on one of those two days the stunt shouldn't interfere with anything, so the authorities would probably not try to stop it.

Let's say the whole thing would take an hour, or so. Virtually no money would need be spent and hopefully no laws would be broken. Unlike a referendum, which would only permit voters in the city to participate, this stunt would allow for anyone who cares to join in the fun.

For all the folks who’ve stood on the sidelines, watching this 10-year-old debate drone on, feeling frustrated, because they wanted to do something, anything! to make it stop, this could be your chance. If 2,000 people show up we could put two rings around the Diamond, etc.

While City Council and Mayor Dwight Jones continue to stall and strike poses, we the people could do something. And, it wouldn't be fun to see it/make it happen?

Update: Weather permitting, 2 p.m., on July 27, would be as good time as any to do this. Of course, it would require that people do more than just post their opinions on Facebook and complain to their friends. It would take an hour, or so, of your time on a Sunday afternoon to create an event that would be memorable.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Should Shockoe Bottom Be Declared a No-Stadium-Zone?

Over the last 10 years I’ve penned many blog posts about where not to build a baseball stadium in Richmond. And, several articles I’ve written on the same topic have been published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, STYLE Weekly and Richmond.com. In all of them I have opposed the concept of playing professional baseball in a stadium in Shockoe Bottom.

This time, I’ll skip the passion and the history to cut to the chase. Here’s the question a carefully worded referendum could settle:

Should Shockoe Bottom be declared a special historic area that is a “no-stadium zone”? 

Yes or no. This approach would not say where to build anew, or whether to renovate the Diamond. It would simply allow voters in all nine districts a chance to rule out the Bottom for sports stadiums and arenas.

Then, on November 4, if the voters actually choose not to set aside and protect an old neighborhood that many in Richmond have come to understand matters greatly to the nation's history, then so be it. However, most of the politicians in Richmond know perfectly well that if the voters get the opportunity on election day, the majority of them will say, “No!” to baseball in the Bottom.

Given his trouble with getting sufficient support for his so-called "revitalization" plan by City Council, if Mayor Dwight Jones and the Shockoe Stadium boosters thought they could get the endorsement of a majority of the voters, they would happily support a referendum. They might try to tell you there are all sorts of other reasons not to hold a referendum to help settle this 10-year-old debate, but don’t buy it.  

Since the baseball stadium debate began, 27 different people have served on City Council and the matter remains unsettled. Still, today I won’t speculate about why members of that body would oppose holding an advisory referendum that would allow democracy to settle the squabble and get them off the hook.

If you brush aside all the hidden agendas and gamesmanship, the solution could be as simple as yes or no. "Should Shockoe Bottom be declared a no-stadium-zone?"

Update for Background: 

This same strategy was discussed at a meeting of Referendum? Bring It On! members on Dec. 17, 2013, at Gallery 5. I called that meeting and seven others attended it. We talked for about an hour about various ways to go about stopping the new momentum toward building a stadium in Shockoe Bottom. Chiefly, we talked about a referendum.

This was also the approach to a referendum we discussed, when Paul Goldman called me on Mar. 3, 2014, to talk about joining forces to stop baseball in the Bottom. In our initial chat, he said he liked the idea. Liked it a lot. We talked a second time and agreed to invite others to a meeting to be held at the City Library on Mar. 8.

Meanwhile, on Mar. 6, Don Harrison interviewed me for his WRIR radio program, Open Source. We covered the baseball stadium issue and using a referendum as a tool to settle it. During the taping, to answer one of Don’s questions, I told him Goldman and I had talked briefly about my approach to wording the proposal and that we were in accord. The tape ran the next afternoon, a Friday. It’s on the record.

The next day at the library about 20 people showed up. Goldman told me he didn’t want to talk about the idea of allowing voters to say whether the Bottom should be declared a “No-Stadium-Zone.” Without much explanation he simply said, it wouldn’t work. I was surprised and disappointed, but since he was the expert I let it go. Goldman dominated the confab by telling lots of stories about his vast experience in politics ... if you know him, you know what I mean.

Two weeks later, at the third meeting, Goldman showed up with petition forms already printed up. That came as a surprise to some in the room. The forms had two proposals, and for the most part, the language barely resembled what the group had been leaning toward. Some of us left that meeting a bit puzzled, but determined to give it a try.

Without guessing, I can’t say what happened in the four days between my first talk with Goldman and the first meeting of the ad hoc group that subsequently decided to call itself the Citizens Referendum Group.

However, today I still think that a referendum giving voters in all nine of Richmond’s districts a chance to cordon off the Shockoe Bottom neighborhood, to protect it from a bizarrely inappropriate development that would bury aspects of Richmond's history, yet again, is the best way to resolve this longstanding debate.

While I know there are people in town who don’t particularly like this approach, for rather tangential reasons, I’ve yet to have it explained to me why -- from legal and strategic standpoints -- this wouldn’t work to finally resolve an issue that has bedeviled us for way too long. Setting aside land to serve specific purposes or be protected in specials ways, when it benefits the commonweal, is how the whole concepts of zoning laws and having public parks works.  

Friday, July 11, 2014

Re-creation of Baseball Games on Radio

Photo of Frank Soden from the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame

The job I left to become manager of the Biograph Theatre was in radio. Lee Jackoway, a veteran radio and television ad salesman who was the general manager at WRNL AM/FM, hired me to sell time for the two stations. That gave me the chance to learn a great deal about advertising; the job lasted a little less than a year (in 1971).

By learning to write commercials, I also got my first taste of professional writing there. Learned a bit about production, as well. Some of my efforts were aimed at being funny, as I sometimes imagined myself as a budding Stan Freberg.

Jackoway, who could be a tyrant, took me under his wing and gave me a bunch of big accounts. That was partly because he liked me, and partly to piss off the senior salesman who he wanted to drive off. I also learned some good lessons about promotion from media buyers and account executives at local ad agencies, too.  

Jackoway sometimes liked to hold court, telling the young DJs and salesmen stories of his freewheeling days as a top salesman, working for Ziv Television. He had been a national sales rep for popular half-hour TV shows, such as "Sea Hunt" and "Home Run Derby." Traveling to markets large and small Lee sold the shows directly to local affiliates on 16 mm reels, literally out of the trunk of his Thunderbird. Lee died at the age of 78 in 2008.

During my stint at WRNL AM/FM the ownership changed from the Richmond News Leader to Rust Communications. Rust promptly changed the call letters for the FM station to WRXL.  

In 1971 WRNL AM carried lots of local sports -- the R-Braves games, college football, etc. A previous station manager there, broadcasting legend Frank Soden, who died at the age of 91 in 2010, was in and out of the station frequently, because he was still the talent for much of the station‘s sports broadcasting.

Bob Gilmore also did some of that kind of work for WRNL, as well. Before coming to Richmond, Gilmore had been the play-by-play man for the Cincinnati Reds on radio. One of my fondest memories from these days took place on an afternoon that Soden and Gilmore were trading stories about their “re-creation” era.

As a kid, I listened to Richmond V’s games on the radio. But in the late-1950s, when they were on the road, the voices I was listening to weren’t coming from press boxes in Rochester or Havana. They were in the WRNL studio in downtown Richmond. In those days for away games Soden and his partner Frank Messer would get the bare details of the game in progress by way of Western Union, or over the telephone. Then, using canned sound effects, they would re-create the game as if they were watching it live. This was done to save the money it would have cost to send the announcers on the road.

A lot of times all Soden knew was that a batter got a single, struck out, or smacked a fly ball that an outfielder caught. He might not have known what the pitch count was, etc. So he would make it up. Sometimes the sender would leave out a play entirely. Again, that called for the announcer to improvise.

With a few other guys who worked at the station as their audience, Soden and Gilmore told several stories about how they covered for times when no info would come in for 20 minutes, and other such calamities. They’d create a rain delay, or whatever they needed to keep from breaking the spell and saying what was the truth -- that they had no idea what was going on.

By 1971 re-creation was a thing of the past. As I remember it, Gilmore said he was the last guy doing re-creation broadcasts in the major leagues, when he was with the Reds in the late 1950s. It was a rare treat hearing those radio yarns, whether they were true or not. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Situational Conservatives

Remember when Republicans cried crocodile tears over sending the boy refugee, Elián González, back to Cuba? Seems like times have changed quite a bit with regard to deporting children. Now angry Republicans appear ready to instantly deport thousands of kids seeking exile back to scary countries.

Meanwhile, Republicans have demanded Obama go to the border. So, with the way the game is being played these days, Obama has refused. But I think he should announce that he wants to spend a couple of days touring the border in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. For each stop, the White House should invite the two senators from that state to join him. Democrats and Republicans. Throw in all the members of the House whose districts touch the border.

Then we’ll see who shows up.

Speaking of monumental hypocrisy, how many Republicans who have been ranting for years about passing laws to eliminate frivolous lawsuits are now onboard with Boehner’s bizarre lawsuit strategy against Obama?

One of the aspects of this unfolding story that hasn’t been covered yet is provoked by this question: Why would the Republicans want to do something that has almost no chance of working, but if it did, it would hobble future presidents in a way no president has ever faced?

Why would the GOP risk doing that to future Republican presidents?

The answer may be that some Republicans have accepted that with the way the population is changing, they aren’t likely to win the White House again for a long time. So they would be happy to diminish executive power in favor of strengthening the power of Congress.

Monday, July 07, 2014


An excellent photographer, Jack Leigh (1948-2004), was part of the Biograph Theatre’s staff in late-1973/early-1974. While he worked at the Biograph as an usher, Leigh taught me to play Half-Rubber, a game he said originated in his home town, Savannah. Half-Rubber is a three-man baseball-like game that is played with a broom handle and half of a red rubber ball.

Jack’s best known picture was snapped in 1993, when he was commissioned to shoot the photograph in a Savannah cemetery that would appear on the cover of what became a bestselling book -- “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by John Berendt. Later the same photo was used to promote the movie with the same title.

When I knew him, Jack was earnest and quick-witted. He liked to play chess and talk about movies, and of course -- photography. In his Biograph days he was already a very good photographer.

Once, when we went out shooting pictures together, he snapped his shutter maybe twice. In the same amount of time, a couple of hours, I went through two rolls of Tri-X. The quiet style Jack would use throughout his career was already evident. He eventually authored six books of photographs, including "Oystering," which featured a foreword by James Dickey.

So, to kill time one warm afternoon, I cut a ball in half, ruined a broom and crossed the street with Jack and the theater’s assistant manager, Bernie Hall, to play a new three-man game. At the time there were several vacant lots on Grace Street, across from the Biograph.

It turned out the key to pitching was to throw the half-ball with a side-arm delivery, with the flat part down. That made it curve wildly and soar, somewhat like a Frisbee. Hitting or catching the damn thing was quite another matter. Oh, and hitting the ball on a bounce was OK, too. In fact, it was better to do so, from a strategic standpoint.

The pitcher threw the half-sphere in the general direction of the batter. If the batter swung and missed, and he usually did miss, the catcher did his best to catch it, which wasn't easy, either. When the catcher did catch it, providing the batter had swung, the batter was out. Then the pitcher moved to the catching position, and the catcher became the batter, and so forth. Runs were scored in a similar fashion to other home run derby-like games.

But the best reason to play, other than the laughs stemming from how foolish we looked dealing with the crazy ball, was the kick that came from hitting it. When we connected with that little red devil it left the bat like a rocket. It felt better than crushing a golf ball. Smashing it over the theater and halfway to Broad Street was a gas.

Click here to visit Jack Leigh’s online gallery.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

A Stunt Without a Cause

Like a good political cartoon, a political stunt can sometimes drive a point home much better than an essay or a speech. Still, to be good at cartoon-drawing, speech-making, or essay-writing it takes a certain amount of finesse and practice. Whereas, a stunt might be pulled off by anybody with the imagination and the nerve.

For instance, there was the Independence Day incident that had reporters with notepads and cameras following two young men carrying eye-catching firearms around in a busy shopping district in Richmond known as Carytown. Before that story is examined more closely, to provide context, here's a little history: 

Regardless of what else might be accomplished, whether they are staged to protest a condition, instill fear in enemies, rally the like-minded, or you-name-it, what political stunts of every stripe have in common is they are all perpetrated to express ideas in ways that send messages to target audiences. Thus, they have something in common with advertising campaigns. 

The Boston Tea Party, which was perpetrated 241 years ago, is one of history’s most famous political stunts. To protest England’s notorious Tea Act of 1773, the self-named Sons of Liberty dressed up like Indians, boarded a ship in Boston Harbor and flung a bunch of tea overboard. It clearly sent the bold Sons' sentiments about “taxation without representation” across the pond to the King of England.

Fast-forwarding to the 1960s, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963, which featured Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, received extensive live television coverage that amplified the message of the gathering. Some 250,000 attendees made this pivotal event the largest demonstration anyone had ever seen in the nation’s capital.

Less than three weeks later, in Birmingham, Alabama, a church that had been central to the Civil Rights Movement was bombed; four black girls were killed in the blast. The dynamite was planted by message-sending members of the Ku Klux Klan, white men who wanted to inject a nightmare into the fray.

As different as they were, both of those events in 1963 were political stunts. The antiwar demonstrations that occurred in DeeCee and on college campuses later in the same decade were also designed to express a bitter disapproval of the escalating war in Vietnam in a way that delivered that message to all the world, in general, and policy-makers, in particular.

It was in this era the television industry became entwined with the authors of political stunts in a fasjion that has facilitated the promulgation of all sorts of messages ever since. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11’s hijackings/explosions have underlined how cold-blooded message-senders can be, once they cross the line to become terrorists.

Of course, for all sorts of reasons most stunts don’t end up reaching wide audiences. Modern society has grown accustomed to them. Many simply fizzle, or they don’t manage to send a clear message to anybody -- at least not a message than stands out more than the galling look-at-ME factor. Which brings us to back to the unfolding “open carry” story in Carytown, a story that had been brewing for a while leading up to a July 5th article written by Jim Nolan for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
More than 300 people were invited on Facebook to walk down Cary Street on July Fourth with handguns, rifles and other so-called “long guns” proudly displayed. Two showed up — and they were the organizers of the midday event in the family-oriented Carytown shopping district.
Click here to read the entire article.

Once again, context is important. Two or three guys carrying rifles across the parking lot of a suburban gun store won’t get much notice. Two or three guys walking by the Byrd Theatre with rifles might make some film buffs think of the 2012 shootings in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado: 12 killed; 70 injured. And, speaking of Colorado, school children might flash on the dozen students shot to death in Columbine in 1999.

Since there’s no practical reason to have a rifle at hand, to leisurely stroll by shops, it had to make bystanders who saw the reporters and guys with rifles wonder what was going on. While Virginia’s laws would seem to allow for an open-carrying stunt in Carytown, some observers had to wonder if the right to own, carry and use a rifle gives anyone permission to provoke fear on a city sidewalk.


If the wee parades through Carytown keep up -- with loaded or unloaded rifles, how does anyone know which? -- eventually, dear reader, you know there will be some sort of problem. A child will get scared. A dog will lunge. Or some paranoid having a bad day will...

As for the expectations of business owners in Carytown to make a living, aren't they being trampled over? So maybe the trouble on the public sidewalk will come from an angry merchant confronting the perpetrators of the stunt with a question: weirdo Ayn Rand-ism aside, how far can the rights of an individual be stretched, at the expense of the rest of humanity?

Back to context: Unless they had seen some of the publicity the Carytown Riflemen had garnered leading up to the holiday stunt, how would anyone on the street's sidewalks have known in time to make a difference that they were witnessing a what was meant to be a harmless stunt?

Speaking of messages, from here on, what chance is there a shooter with a growing yen to shoot will hear the call to join the open-carry brigade? In the future, how will anyone know the guys with rifles in Carytown aren’t terrorists without a cause?

Thursday, July 03, 2014

The Jellypig

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 sudden.  

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.

When 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?

In 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.

The 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.”

There 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.

As 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.

My 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 all else.

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 its basis.

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.

Now 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.

The 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.

After 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.

Quite 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 playing Frisbee-golf.

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.

A 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.

Unmercifully, 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.

Anxiety 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.

If 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.

Part 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 hour.

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.

Living 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.

Misunderstandings 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.

It 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 -- Dorian Gray.

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 the theater.

As the telephone company’s pin register gadgetry soon revealed, there was good reason for that.

One 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 number.

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.”

Why jellypig?

Let’s 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.

Although 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 seemed real.

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 him.

I was flabbergasted!

It hadn’t 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 away.

Maybe I didn’t have a plan.

The 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.

The union’s 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 boycott.

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 operation.

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 contract.

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 Pittsburgh.

Oh brother!

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.

At 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.

As 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.
Not 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.

During the spring, the two managing partners frequently brought up the subject of selling the Richmond Biograph, which scared me to no end.

In 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.

Shortly 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.

Then 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.

So 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.

However, I’m 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.

The future 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.

Without much 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.”

Over lunch 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 invited ruin.

She got so angry she walked out of the restaurant. At the time I couldn’t grasp what her reaction meant.

What 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.

The 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.

Although 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 awkward position.

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.

The 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.

For the 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.

On 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.

The 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 in 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.

My dear 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 own grandchildren.


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.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

1974's Riots and Turning Points

Note: At the Biograph Theatre 1974 was the year of the "Devil in/and Miss Jones" prank, staged on the theater's second anniversary in February. It was also the year a 16mm film, "Matinee Madcap," was produced at the Biograph. Then the theater suddenly benefited from a lucky quirk of business and played several of Paramount's top first-run pictures. But in spite of early good fortune, some years turn out to be more about unexpected upheaval and the resulting detours. 1974 ended with increasing uncertainties weighing heavily on the operation of Richmond's only repertory cinema. 


The most obvious change in the air in 1974 was the unraveling of the presidency of Richard Nixon. While that was happening the culture shifted. Tastes in music, clothes, politics, movies, drugs, and you-name-it, took off in new directions. Among other things, it was also the year in which social causes went out of style for most of the baby boomers.

Going into 1974, no one would have guessed the most popular gesture of group defiance on campus -- the protest march -- would morph into spontaneous gatherings to cheer on naked people, as they ran by. Yet, in the spring of 1974, streaking on college campuses became a national phenomenon.

Richmond’s police chief, Frank Duling, announced that his department would not tolerate streakers running around in the city’s streets, alleys, etc. He didn’t care whether they were students, or not. But the VCU police department said if it took place on campus, streaking was a university matter and would be dealt with by its personnel.

The relationship between Richmond and VCU was somewhat awkward in this period. Leading up to this point, there had been a series of confrontational incidents on, or near, the VCU campus. Perhaps the most bitterly remembered of them occurred on Oct. 12, 1970, after Allen Ginsberg spoke at the VCU gym. The city police used overkill force to break up a street party in the area of the 1100 blocks of Grove Ave. and Park Ave. Debris was thrown, a cop was hit by a brick and police dogs were set loose in the crowd. 

So, leading up what happened on the 800 block of W. Franklin St. on the night of March 19, 1974, Richmond’s police department had some history with what might have been characterized as the anti-establishment crowd based in the lower Fan District.

Several groups of streakers had made runs before four naked kids rode down Franklin in a convertible at about 10 p.m. The crowd of 150-to-200 cheered as the motorized streakers waved. The mood was festive. I know this firsthand, because I was in that crowd. This scene played out a block from the Biograph Theatre and I had walked over to the commotion with Biograph usher Trent Nicholas to see what would happen.

Seconds later a group of some 50 uniformed policemen stormed in on small motorbikes and in squad cars from every direction to arrest those four streakers in the car. The crowd booed and yelled in protest. No VCU cops seemed to be involved.

After a lull in the action, the Richmond cops inexplicably charged into the assembled bystanders. A few of those bystanders were dragged into the middle of the street. One kid was knocked off of his bicycle and slammed repeatedly against the fender and hood of a police car. Others were beaten with clubs or flashlights.

The Richmond cops were acting like Brits in Belfast or Derry, free to abuse the gathering, at will. That the unprovoked brutality was about terrorizing fad-driven streakers on a college campus made it all the more absurd -- 17 people were arrested. Most of them were bystanders, not streakers. I had not seen anything quite like it before. As it turned it it was a prelude.

The war between Richmond's partying hippies and its police force escalated beyond all previous clashes at the Cherry Blossom Music Festival (which was headlined by the Steve Miller Band and Boz Scaggs) on April 27, 1974, at City Stadium. When police officers attempted to arrest some pot-smoking members of the audience, things got out of hand. My knowledge of this incident came from witnesses and news reports.

Several police cars were destroyed in what turned into a four-hour battle. In all, 76 people were arrested. This melee put the kibosh on any outdoor rock 'n' roll shows in Richmond, with alcohol available, for several years.

Back to the streakers on campus angle: Richmond's city manager, Bill Leidinger, promised me there would be an investigation into the conduct of the local police on Franklin St. on March 19 by an outside organization.

In exchange for that promise, I didn't go to the press with some volatile charges being made by a guy who said he had photos of the beatings. Unfortunately, he may have talked about them too much. He showed up at the theater, claiming the prints and negatives had been stolen from his car — while he was in a store, briefly — on his way to deliver them to me. It was strange; I had offered to put the stuff in the theater’s safe, because he told me he felt paranoid about it. The cat got so scared he left town.

Leidinger did not make good on his promise. Eventually, Richmond's police department held an in-house investigation of its own dirty doings on Franklin St. The investigators found the department had done nothing wrong.

Trusting Leidinger was a mistake I regret.


1974 was a great year for movies, too. At the Biograph we premiered “Chinatown,” a superb film about corruption. We got it and several other mainstream Hollywood productions that year, including "The Conversation," because Paramount and Neighborhood Theatres were having a feud. "Chinatown" is still my all-time favorite feature. Here are some other noteworthy events that happened during 1974:

Jan. 2: To conserve on gasoline President Richard Nixon signed a bill mandating a 55 mph speed limit, coast-to-coast. Imagine the over-the-top reactions from Republicans if President Barack Obama did the same thing today. 

Feb. 4: Patty Hurst was abducted; eight days later the Symbionese Liberation Army told the extremely well-to-do Hurst family it had to give $230 million in food aid to the poor.

Feb. 11: Richmond's Biograph celebrated its second anniversary with free movies and free beer. Too late to line up, thousands who wanted to be in on the happening were turned away.  

Mar. 2: Nixon was named by a federal grand jury as a co-conspirator in the Watergate cover-up. At this point it was still hard to see that he wouldn't last out the year.

Apr. 8: Playing for the Atlanta Braves outfielder Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record with his 715th round-tripper. Later we found out about the death threats Aaron had received leading up to his feat. The name of the all-time home run leader, who broke Aaron's record will not be mentioned in these pages.

Apr. 15: According to photographic evidence Patty “Tania” Hurst seemed to be helping her captors rob a bank at gunpoint. Nobody knew what to make of it.

May 15: Richmond-based A.H. Robins Co. yielded to pressure from the feds to take its contraceptive device, the Dalkon Shield, off the market.

June 28: "Chinatown" opened at the Biograph Theatre. Walsh: “I don’t know -- the traffic was pretty loud. I only heard one thing -- apple core.”

July 1: Argentina’s President Juan Peron died. His wife, Isabel, took over, which eventually lead to a Broadway musical -- "Evita".

July 27: The House Judiciary Committee voted 27-11 to impeach Nixon. Three days later the Supreme Court said Nixon had to surrender tape recordings of White House meetings that had been sought by the Watergate investigation’s special prosecutor. At this point it was possible to see that Nixon's presidency was in a death spiral.  

Aug. 8: Nixon resigned in disgrace; President Gerald Ford was sworn in. Subsequently millions of hippies stayed too long at the party to celebrate Nixon's downfall.

Aug. 12: The Biograph closed to be converted by a 24-hour-a-day construction crew into a twin cinema in four weeks. The after-hours Liar's Poker games were the stuff of legends.

Sept. 8: Ford pardoned Nixon, which all but sealed Ford’s defeat when he ran for reelection in 1976.

Oct. 29: Muhammad Ali regained the world heavyweight boxing crown he had lost by refusing to be drafted into the army in 1967. In Zaire, Ali defeated the heavily favored champion George Forman by a knockout in the eighth round. 

Nov. 13: Yasir Arafat, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, addressed the UN with a pistol strapped to his waist. Supporters of Israel cringed. Israel's enemies puffed up their chests. Lovers of peace weren't necessarily encouraged. Lovers of dignity hoped for the best.

Dec. 12: Georgia governor Jimmy Carter announced he would run for president. Nobody noticed. Outside of his immediate circle of friends and advisers, who could have imagined it would matter?

Words and art by F.T. Rea. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Throwback Sense of Entitlement

In the comments under published articles about politics and in Facebook posts about the same, it’s easy to find conservatives playing games with labels and twisting history to suit themselves. Frequently the authors of such comments enjoy pretending the two major political parties are the same entities they were in the 1950s. Of course to play along with that game one must ignore the effect the conservative migration to the GOP since then has had on the makeup of the two parties.

Today it would not be easy to find a place for Nelson Rockefeller in the Republican Party. Likewise, Harry Byrd, Sr., would not fit comfortably in today’s Democratic Party.  

Let’s get real: regardless of their party labels, the truth is it was conservatives who worked to deny voting rights to citizens along ethnic lines in the Jim Crow era, and they‘re still trying to do it today. It was conservatives who opposed Social Security and Medicare when they were instituted. And, today whether they wear labels that say Republican, Tea Party or Libertarian, it’s conservatives who still oppose those programs. Don't forget, it’s still conservatives who scoff at protecting the environment, too.

Thinking their causes were righteous, conservatives who supported blacklisting and segregation 60 years ago felt entitled to label their opponents as communists and traitors. Labels come and go like other styles, but that wicked sense of entitlement hasn’t changed much. So opposing the Affordable Care Act, by telling lies about it, is as easy as pie.

The conservatives who call Barack Obama names warmed over from the ’50s are walking in the footsteps of Strom Thurmond, who at various times called himself a Democrat, a Dixiecrat and a Republican. Following Thurmond’s prickly example is one thing, but matching his outrageous sense of entitlement might be a reach for the most mean-spirited and vociferous of today’s conservatives.

And speaking of conservative icons, one of the funniest aspects of the label game in 2014 is that some of Ronald Reagan’s actual policies, transplanted into today’s rightwing milieu, would likely earn him the label of RINO (Republican in name only).

-- My Reagan caricature (1987)

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Birth of the Blockbuster: Or How Margot Kidder Made My Day

The movie business changed during the summer of 1975. A new style of creating, promoting and exhibiting feature films was established when “Jaws” opened in 465 theaters and became a box office smash.

Typically, in those days, major releases opened initially in the most popular movie houses in a handful of large cities. Which meant the advertising buys were all local. The unprecedented marketing strategy for “Jaws” required enormous confidence, because its distributor had to spend millions on national advertising and strike at least 465 prints of the film.

Before that summer was over “Jaws” had already broken all-time Hollywood box office records.

Washington D.C. was a regional hub for film distribution. Part of the strategy for releasing “Jaws” was that the distributor, Universal, chose not to screen the film for bookers and exhibitors in the usual way. Ordinarily, a feature about to be released would be shown a couple of times in a small screening room downtown; it was run by the National Association of Theater Owners and seated about 50 people. Bookers for theater chains would see the new films to help them weigh how much money should be bid for the rights to exhibit the picture in a given market. But security on admission wasn't all that tight, so any industry insider, entertainment writer, etc. might have been in the audience on a given day.

At this time I managed the Biograph Theatre on Grace Street in Richmond. My bosses were located in Georgetown and I saw several movies in the DeeCee screening room over the 12 years I worked for the guys who oversaw the Biograph on "M" Street.

The prior-to-premiere screenings of “Jaws” took place about a month before it was to open. It was shown to theater owners and their guests in selected cinemas in maybe a dozen cities on the same night. As I remember it, in DeeCee the function was at the old Ontario.

As a treat my bosses gave me four of their allotment of tickets to the special screening of “Jaws.” My ex, Valerie, and I were part of a full house and the show itself went over like gangbusters. The rather jaded audience shrieked at appropriate times and applauded as the movie’s closing credits were lighting up the screen.

Not only was I knocked out by the presentation, I came back to Richmond convinced “Jaws” would be a gold mine. It was the slickest monster movie I’d even seen. The next day I tried to talk my bosses into borrowing a lot of money to put up a big cash-in-advance bid on “Jaws.”

Ordinarily, such a picture would play at the dominant theater chain’s flagship house. I wanted to bet everything we could borrow to steal the picture by out-bidding Neighborhood Theatres, Inc., for the Richmond market. I even convinced a branch bank manager to try to help us borrow the dough.

Well, we didn’t get the money, but it was privately satisfying seeing “Jaws” open on June 20, 1975, and go on to set new records for its box office grosses. Its unprecedented success put its director, Steven Spielberg, on the map.

After “Jaws” everybody in Hollywood rushed out to try to duplicate the way the producers and distributors had handled it. Thus, in 1975, the age of Hollywood-produced summer blockbusters with massive ad campaigns and widespread releases began.

Another thing “Jaws” did was make guys who were sometimes too self-absorbed, like me, feel intimidated by Spielberg’s outrageous success at such a tender age. I can still remember reading that he was younger than me.

Although I actually had a great job for a 27-year-old movie-lover, it offered no direct connection to filmmaking. At this time I had one nine-minute film and one 30-second television commercial, both shot in 16mm, to my credit. 1975’s Boy Wonder, Steven Spielberg, made me feel like I was on the wrong track.

Fast-forward 34 years to when I watched a BBC-produced documentary, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood,” about filmmaking in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Made in 2003, it was thoroughly entertaining (I saw it on Turner Movie Classics in 2009). Directors and other players from that time were interviewed.

Among those who made comments in the documentary were Tony Bill, Karen Black, Peter Bogdanovich, Roger Corman, Richard Dreyfuss, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, László Kovács, Kris Kristofferson, Arthur Penn and Cybill Shepherd.

Dreyfuss, who was one of the stars of "Jaws," spoke of attending one of those pre-release screenings. He said he got caught up in the experience of seeing it for the first time in a crowded theater, because he totally forgot himself as the actor on the screen.

Actress Margot Kidder (best known for her Lois Lane portrayals in the Superman series of movies) appeared on camera several times. She made a joke out of how Spielberg had begun to fib about his age, once he became famous. She had known him before his sudden notoriety, so she noticed it when he went from being older than her to being younger. Kidder claimed Spielberg was fudging his birth date by a couple of years.

Well, flashing back on my silly jealousy to do with Spielberg’s rise to stardom, when he was supposedly younger than me, I had to laugh out loud. Then I looked Spielberg’s age up; he’s older than both Margot and me.

So, I Googled around and found some old articles about “Jaws” and Spielberg. Yes, it looks like Kidder was right. Back in the ‘70s, perhaps to play up the Boy Wonder aspect of the story, Spielberg’s birth date was being massaged. Somewhere along the line, since then, it looks like it got straightened out.

Laughing at one’s own foolishness is usually a healthy exercise. Yes, and when the laugh had been waiting over three decades to be realized, it was all the sweeter.

After all, nothing has ever been more integral to Hollywood’s special way of doing business -- before or after “Jaws” -- than making up fibs, especially about one’s age.

*   *   *

This story is part of a series called Biograph Times. All rights reserved by F.T. Rea

Friday, June 13, 2014

Addicted to Choice

Note: A version of this piece was published by STYLE Weekly 10 years ago.

John Lennon illustration by 
Mike Lormand (1984)

"Whatever gets you through the night 'salright, 'salright
It's your money or life 'salright, 'salright”
 -- John Lennon

Obsessions, compulsions and addictions have always been in play. Now we see a somewhat new twist in driven behavior: In a time of plenty, many Americans seem to have become addicted to the act of choosing between this and that. This group has unwittingly developed what amounts to a jones for choosing from a smorgasbord of options.

Yet, as with any buzz, when it subsides the anxious feelings it allayed return with a vengeance. Thus, choice addicts find themselves living in a continuous loop of making choices in order to cope with their habit. This is beyond consuming, it's about choosing.

Of course Madison Avenue, the great facilitator of this shop-’til-you-drop scenario, has long depicted “choice” as utter bliss: Come and get 'em! These limited-edition widgets come in five, I say five, designer colors.

Choice has also been a hot political buzzword for some time. To a person wanting to express a belief that a woman is absolutely entitled to opt for an abortion, choice is a useful word for a slogan. It implies that ending the pregnancy is a matter of a person having dominion over her own body, rather than submitting to an authority claiming to represent society’s collective will. Of course, those calling for “choice” in this case see the individual’s right to choose an abortion as trumping whatever damage, if any, might be done to society by the abortion.

The notion that it should be fine for any citizen to pull his tax money out of the funding of public education, in order to finance sending his own child to private school, has been called “choice” by its advocates. While this argument appears to be resting on a convenient logic, it ignores the long-held American tenet that everyone in the community has a stake in public education, regardless of how many children they have.

In both cases, the sloganeers show a telling awareness of the lure the word “choice” has today. Perhaps this is due to some new collective sense of powerlessness in the air. Or maybe the scam aspect of selling folks their own freedom is as old as dirt.

In “One-Dimensional Man,” German-born philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) warned us in the 1960s about illusions of freedom: 
Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear.
Marcuse’s keen eye saw the counterfeit aspect of the processed brand of freedom wielders of easy credit felt, even then, as they exercised their prerogative to select one set of time-payment obligations over another. But Marcuse’s hard-nosed take on what he saw as controls over modern society is out of style today. Still, his view of how language is predictably used by a few of us to manipulate the rest of us remains as valuable as ever. Propaganda works better than ever.

French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord’s (1754-1838) words on the topic of language remain crisp today. Talleyrand offered: 
Speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts.
British philosopher/mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) went further: 
Speech was given to man to prevent thought.
OK, so tricky lingo has long been used to shape perception. However, as a true believer in the unfettered streaming marketplace of ideas, I expect tortured language and agenda-driven slogans to come and go. My point is that the act of choosing should not be so highly valued that it comes at the expense of appreciating what happens after the choice is made.

Some folks put a lot of store in choosing the perfect mate. They shop, and they shop, but from what I’ve seen, it's what couples actually do, after their choice/commitment, that has more to do with the success of the relationship than anything else. Of course, some just keep shopping, vows or not. They can’t stop shopping and choosing.

Can constantly switching TV channels for hours be a more satisfying experience than watching one interesting program? Well, the answer probably depends on whether you value what comes after the choice. After all, in order to be able to surf 200 channels, as opposed to only 50 or 100, customers gladly pay extra, although many of them never watch any program in its entirety.

Much of television’s most popular programming feeds its audience a steady flow of information about people who happily act as if they have genuine clout -- rich celebrities who cavort about with enough bread to buy anything. Then, quite conveniently, every few minutes, commercials interrupt the program to offer the viewer a chance to unjitter his jones by calling a phone number, or getting online.

Choices! Schmoices! Anytime your options are limited to what’s on a menu that was put together by someone else, by choosing from that prepared list you are surrendering some control to the list-maker.

And, the mountain of disposable schmidgets grows, evermore, as choice addicts cast off yesterday’s tarnished urge, to grab after today's sparkling urge ... just to get through the night.

-- 30 --