Monday, February 19, 2018

Banjo Conmen

Note: This was written in 2012. 

Upon hearing the news of Earl Scruggs’ death earlier this year (Mar. 28, 2012), my thoughts went straight to a 36-year-old memory connected to a movie that played for two weeks at the Biograph Theatre (which I managed at the time) in January of 1976. The film was “Banjoman” (1975).

As “Banjoman” had only been in release for a couple of months when it played at the Biograph, the two young independent producers/filmmakers/distributors of the movie starring Earl Scruggs said they were learning the distribution business on the fly. When their 105-minute movie opened at the Biograph they were there, too ... they had brought the 35mm print with them. It was their monster-sized sound system that we used to present the film to our patrons.

The filmmakers were my age (I was 28 at this time). And, I almost think there was a third guy, but I’m not sure. My bosses in D.C. had booked the film sometime after meeting one (or more) of the filmmakers in a social situation; I don‘t remember the details.

Traditional distributors, like Paramount, Warner Bros., and so forth, generally shipped the prints of their films by way of a courier accustomed to handling them. Although it was unusual for people to travel with a print of a movie in the trunk of their car, it was not unprecedented. As an independent exhibitor the Biograph booked product from various sources that large movie chains would have routinely ignored.

“Banjoman” was just such a situation and its distributors actually hung around at the theater during screenings. They seemed like nice enough guys.    

The first clue: It was unusual when my bosses had me pay those guys directly in cash from box office receipts. But it was not my job to question it. We even advanced them some money against anticipated receipts, when they had to leave after the first week to work in another city. That surprised me but I don't remember if I said so. 

Since they didn’t have much in the way of pressbook materials, ad slicks, etc., I created the Biograph’s display advertisements for the newspaper. I used stills from the film that I had half-toned. Then I had some type set and pasted it all up. That led to me agreeing to create similar materials for them to use in other cities. We agreed upon my price. It was something like $250, plus what it cost me to produce a stack of different sized ad slicks for them to use in the future.

At that point I think they had two other prints of their movie (with sound systems) working on the road. We kept in touch by telephone. They were anxious to get their new promotional materials from me for their other play-dates. So I did a rush job for them which they said they greatly appreciated.

Then came the day to ship their print and sound system to them in another city. The run at the Biograph was over. When the truck driver came by the theater he told me his helper wasn’t with him, so he said I needed to put the equipment on his truck. Well, at the time, I was the only one in the building and I was nursing a slipped disc in my lower back.

Unless I wanted to be laid-up for a spell, I couldn’t lift the stuff. When the driver asked me how long it would take to get somebody there, to do the lifting, it annoyed me.

Therefore, I told the driver it was his job to get that junk on the truck, just to come back the next day with a helper. Yet, as I spoke with him I suddenly had a hunch that something was wrong. 

The truck driver shrugged and said, OK, he’d come back tomorrow. When I told one of the “Banjoman” guys what had happened, he said there was still plenty of time to get the equipment set up for the next engagement. So shipping it out the next day would be fine.

The second clue: Later that same day the mailman delivered a bank notice that a $200 check they had written to me had bounced. Uh-oh!

At this point, in addition to that check, they owed me another $600, or so, most of which I owed to a printer. And, they owed the Biograph maybe another $300, or so, because in the second week of their film’s run it didn’t live up to expectations. It failed to cover the advance in rental they had received.

By coincidence, I talked with my friend Dave DeWitt right after I got the rubber check in the mail. Dave had moved from Richmond to Albuquerque about a year earlier. At this time he was hosting a late night movie program on television there.

When I told Dave about the check and about my hunch not to ship the equipment, he said he’d heard of the guys who had produced "Banjoman." He told me he wanted to do a little checking up on them.

No more clues necessary: Dave called back soon to tell me the jokers I’d been dealing with had left a trail of angry people behind them out in the West, back when they were shooting concert footage of Scruggs' tour. It seemed they had found ways to do a lot of things without paying up front. They had also ripped off a movie theater that had played "Banjoman," just a month before.

After that unsettling news I told the guys who had been conning me that until they settled up, I was keeping their sound equipment and print of "Banjoman." They threatened me with legal action. After a couple of months with no word from them I sold off their sound equipment, it was the sort of stuff a band might use.

Then some time later, maybe another couple of months, I was indeed served with legal papers. By way of a local attorney they sued me for about $90,000. Don't remember how that figure was generated. I laughed and offered their lawyer the print of the film and about $800, which was what the equipment brought in, minus what they had owed the boys in D.C. and me.

Over the telephone line the Banjo Conmen huffed and puffed again. I went ahead handed over to the attorney their print of "Banjoman." After a few weeks of silence, they agreed to take the $800. In my view, they were lucky to get that. My guess is most of that dough went to their local attorney. Or maybe they somehow stiffed him and moved on.

Never heard another word from those guys. Ever since this oddball episode, when I hear Earl Scruggs’ banjo, I usually can't help but think of the weaselly Banjo Conmen. RIP, Earl.      

-- 30 --

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Biograph Times: Chapter Two




Note: This is the second chapter of Biograph Times, a work in progress that will hopefully become a book.

Midnight Shows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On October 22, 1982, “The Honeymoon Killers” (1969) opened as a midnight show. I had seen it somewhere and become convinced it would appeal to the same crowd that loved absurd comedies by Luis Buñuel and Robert Altman, plus those who had adored previously popular midnight shows, such as “Eraserhead” (1977), or “Harold and Maude” (1971).

A droll murder spree movie in black and white, “The Honeymoon Killers” fell flat. Unlike most people, I saw it as a comedy. Mostly, nobody else saw it at all.


After-Hours Screenings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over the next few years Reggae music smoothly crossed over from niche to mainstream to ubiquitous. Bob Marley (1945-81), dead for over 30 years, still has a huge following to this day. Reggae's acceptance opened the door for the popularity of the still-fresh fusion sound of the 2 Tone bands, like The Selecter, The Specials, the (English) Beat, Madness, and so forth, in the early-1980s.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Biograph Times: Chapter One: The First Year

by F.T. Rea 

The First Year: Over 200 Titles 

Note: The second of my three bosses, while I was manager of Richmond's Biograph Theatre, died on Tuesday. Lenny Poryles drew his last breath on Feb. 6, 2018, at his home in Arbonne-La-Forêt, France. He was 81. In addition to being an insightful and reliable person to work with, Lenny was a warm and generous man. RIP, Lenny.

About six weeks before its Feb. 11, 1972, opening gala this wide-angle view of The Biograph was captured by a Richmond News Leader photographer. It was snapped late in 1971, a few days before the new building at 814 W. Grace St. received its distinctive bright yellow paint-job.

*

On what I remember as a bright morning, it was in early July of 1971, I went to a construction site on the north side of the 800 block of West Grace Street. Mostly, it was a big hole in the orange dirt between two old brick houses.

A friend had tipped me off that she’d been told the owners of the movie house set to rise from that hole were looking for a manager who knew something about movies and could write about them. She also said they were hoping to hire a local guy. Chasing the sparkle of that opportunity I met David Levy at the construction site.

Levy was the Harvard-trained attorney who managed the Biograph Theatre at 2819 M Street in Washington. D.C. He was one of a group of five men who, in 1967, had opened Georgetown’s Biograph in what had previously been a car dealership.

Although none of them had any experience in show biz, they were hip young movie lovers whose timing had been impeccable -- they caught a pop culture wave. The golden age of repertory cinema was waxing and those original partners happened to be living in what was the perfect town for their venture. They did well right away.

With their success in D.C. to encourage them, a few years later the same five, plus one, were looking to expand. In Richmond’s Fan District they thought they had discovered just the right neighborhood for a second repertory-style cinema, again using split weeks and double features. In this style of calendar house programming one usually adheres to a published schedule. So if a movie draws well, instead of holding it over you bring it back soon.

A pair of local players, energy magnate Morgan Massey and real estate deal-maker Graham “Squirrel” Pembroke, acquired the land. They agreed to build a cinder block building to house a single-auditorium cinema just a stone’s throw from Virginia Commonwealth University’s academic campus for the entrepreneurs from D.C. to rent. The "boys in D.C." had to pay for the projection booth equipment, the turnstile (we used tokens, rather than tickets) and the seats, some 515 of them.

At the time I was working for a radio station, WRNL, so I gave Levy tapes of some humorous radio commercials I had made for what had been successful promotions. About 10 weeks after that first meeting with Levy I was offered the manager’s position for the new Biograph.

Can't recall all that much about that day, except I was told I beat out a lot of competition. Oddly, what I do remember clearly is a brief flash of me sitting in my living room, trying to be nonchalant, so as to not to reveal just how thrilled I was at getting that offer. In truth, at 23-years-old, I could hardly imagine a better job for me existed, at least not in the Fan District. 

This all happened three years after Richmond Professional Institute and the Medical College of Virginia merged to become VCU in 1968. In the fall of 1971 there were few signs of the dramatic impact the new university would eventually have on Richmond. Although a couple of film societies were thriving on campus in that time, other than local film critic Carole Kass' History of Motion Pictures class, the school itself was offering little in the way of classes about movies or filmmaking.

There were a few VCU professors who occasionally showed artsy short films in their classes. Mostly, independent and foreign features didn’t come to Richmond. So, in 1971, the coming of the Biograph Theatre to Grace Street was great news to local film buffs. Generally, it was seen as another sign the neighborhood's nightlife scene was becoming more attractive to the young adult market. 

Levy and I got along well right away. We became friends who trusted one another. He and his partners were all about 10 years my senior.

My manager’s job lasted until the summer of 1983. Owing to unpaid rent Grace Street’s Biograph Theatre was seized by the landlord four years later. A hundred miles to the north, the Biograph on M Street closed in 1996. David Levy died in 2004.

In 2018 there’s a noodles eatery in same building that once housed the repertory cinema I managed for 139 months. Now it’s the oldest building on the block.

*

On the evening of Friday, February 11, 1972, the adventure got off the ground with a gem of a party. In the lobby the dry champagne flowed steadily, as the tuxedo-wearers and colorfully outfitted hippies mingled happily. A trendy art show was hanging on the walls. The local press was all over what was an important event for that bohemian commercial strip.

The feature we presented to over 300 invited guests was a delightful French war-mocking comedy — “King of Hearts” (1966); Genevieve Bujold was dazzling opposite the droll Alan Bates. With splashy news and television stories about the party trumpeting the Biograph's arrival the next night we opened for business with a cool double feature: “King of Hearts“ was paired with “A Thousand Clowns“ (1965). Every show sold out.

The owning partners were all there for the first-ever Biograph party. Other than the projectionist, Howard Powers -- who was supplied by the local operators union -- I had hired the theater's opening night's staff: The cashiers were Cathy Chapman and Susan Eskey. The ushers were Bernie Hall and Chuck Wrenn. A few weeks later Chuck was promoted to assistant manager and Susan Kuney was hired as a third cashier. I think Joe Bumiller replaced Chuck as an usher.  

The Biograph’s printed schedule, Program No. 1, was heavy on documentaries. It featured the work of Emile de Antonio and D.A. Pennebaker, among others. Also on that program, which had no particular theme, were several titles by popular European directors, including Michaelangelo Antonioni, Costa-Gavras, Federico Fellini, and Roman Polanski.

Like the first one, which offered mostly double features, each of the next several programs covered about six weeks. At this point Alan Rubin, who worked in the Georgetown office, did all the mechanical art for those programs, as he had been doing for the D.C. Biograph. In the initial months he and Levy made the programming decisions, with me throwing in my two-cents worth.

Baby boomers who had grown up watching old movies on television had learned to worship important movie directors. Within a certain set, knowing film was cool; it could get you laid. The fashion of the day elevated certain foreign movies, selected American classics, a few films from the underground scene, etc., to a level above most of their more accessible Hollywood counterparts.

In reading everything I could find about which films were respected and popular, especially in New York and San Francisco, it was easy to gather that the in-crowd viewed most of Hollywood’s then-current product as either laughingly naive or hopelessly corrupt. Or both. Perhaps most admired of all foreign films were those considered to be part of the French New Wave, which began as the '50s ended with the early features made by Louis Malle, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.

What the first year on the job would teach me was how few people in Richmond really wanted to see the best imported films in that time. After the opening flurry of interest in the new movie theater, with long lines to nearly every show, it was surprising to me when the crowds shrank dramatically in the months that followed. Which showed me how important that run-up to the opening publicity had been.

As VCU students had been a substantial portion of the theater’s initial crowd the slump was chalked off to warm weather, exams and then summer vacation. In that context the first summer of operation was opened to experimentation aimed at drawing more customers from beyond the immediate neighborhood. That gave me an opportunity to do more with a project my bosses had put me in charge of developing, Friday and Saturday midnight shows -- using radio in particular to promote them.

By trial and error I learned quickly that movies that lent themselves to attention-getting promotion performed better at the box office. Early midnight show successes were “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), “Yellow Submarine” (1968), “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” (1971), and an underground twin bill of “Chafed Elbows” (1967) and “Scorpio Rising” (1964). Most of the failures have been forgotten.

With significant input from Chuck, the theater’s well-known assistant manager, quirky non-traditional ad campaigns were designed in-house. Chuck's help with developing the style we used for choosing these late shows and promoting them effectively can't be overstated. 

We learned there were two essential elements to midnight show promotions: 1. Wacky radio spots had to be created and run on WGOE, a popular AM station aimed directly at the hippie listening audience. 2. I made distinctive handbills that were posted on utility poles, bulletin boards and in shop windows in high-traffic locations. Both elements had to show a sense of humor. 

Dave DeWitt produced the radio commercials. We happily shared the copy-writing chore. In his studio, Dave and I frequently collaborated on the making of those spots with an ample supply of cold Pabst Blue Ribbons and whatnot. Most of the time we went for levity, even cheap laughs. Dave had a classic announcer's voice and he was quite masterful at physically crafting radio commercials. He was more of a nitpicker for perfection than I was, so we made a good team.

On September 13, 1972, a George McGovern-for-president benefit was staged at the Biograph. Former Gov. Doug Wilder, then a state senator, spoke. We showed "Millhouse" (1971), a documentary that put President Richard Nixon in a bad light.

Yes, I was warned that taking sides in politics was dead wrong for a show business entity in Richmond. Taking the liberal side only made it worse. But the two most active partners who were my bosses, Levy and Rubin, who was a geologist turned artist, were delighted with the notion of doing the benefit. They were used to doing much the same up there. So with the full backing of the boys in D.C. I never hesitated to reveal my left-leaning stances on anything political.  

Also in September “Performance” (1970), a somewhat overwrought but well-crafted musical melodrama -- starring Mick Jagger -- packed the house at midnight three weekends in a row. Then a campy, docu-drama called “Reefer Madness” (1936) sold out four consecutive weekends.

The midnight shows were going over like gangbusters. To follow “Reefer Madness” what was then a little-known X-rated comedy, “Deep Throat” (1972), was booked as a midnight show. By then the Georgetown Biograph was experimenting with playing naughty midnight shows. In Richmond, we had played a handful of films that had earned an X-rating, they had been more artsy than they were vulgar. This was our first step across the line to hardcore porn.

*

As “Deep Throat” ran only an hour, master prankster Luis Buñuel’s surrealistic classic short film (16 minutes), “Un Chien Andalou” (1929), was added to the bill, just for grins. It should be noted that like "Deep Throat," Buñuel’s first film, was also called totally obscene in its day. Still, this may have been the only time that particular pair of outlaw flicks ever shared a billing ... anywhere.

A few weeks after “Deep Throat” began playing in Richmond, a judge in Manhattan ruled it was obscene. Suddenly the national media became fascinated with it. The star of "Deep Throat," Linda Lovelace, appeared on network TV talk shows. Watching Johnny Carson pussyfoot around the premise of her celebrated “talent” made for some giggly moments.

Eventually, to be sure of getting in to see this midnight show, patrons began showing up as much as an hour before show time. Standing in line on the brick sidewalk for the spicy midnight show frequently turned into a party. There were nights the line resembled a tailgating scene at a pro football game. A determined band of Jesus Freaks took to standing across the street to issue bullhorn-amplified warnings of hellfire to the patrons waiting in the midnight show line that stretched west on Grace Street. It only added to the scene.

Playing for 17 consecutive weekends, at midnight only, “Deep Throat” grossed over $30,000. That was more dough than the entire production budget of what was America’s first skin-flick blockbuster.

The midnight show’s grosses conveniently made up for the disappointing performance of an eight-week program of venerable European classics at regular hours. It included ten titles by the celebrated Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman. The same package of art house workhorses played extremely well up in Georgetown, underlining what was becoming a painfully underestimated contrast in the two markets.

On the theater's first anniversary I made a list of all the titles we had presented. A few noteworthy shorts films were on the list, such as Chris Marker's "La Jetée" (1962), but I omitted most shorts. The list, which I had printed as a flyer to hand out, was over 200 titles long.

In 52 weeks, to establish what we were, the Biograph had presented over 200 different films, some in a couple of runs. Split weeks with doubles features, plus midnight shows, chewed up a lot of product. By the end of the first year Levy, Rubin and I knew we needed to make some changes in our programming.

The Fan District was not becoming Georgetown and in spite of what some folks were predicting, maybe it never would. To be successful in Richmond we realized we had to do more to cultivate the audience here to appreciate the sort of films we loved and most wanted to present. And, in the meantime, we had to figure out how to stop losing money at an alarming rate.

To start, maybe fewer old Bergman flicks.

*

Here's a small sample of the first year's avalanche of sweet double features. In this case I chose to have 12 double features on the list, because that's typically what was on one of the Biograph's calendar style programs in the first year of operation:

Feb. 12-14, 1972: 
“King of Hearts” (1966): Color. Directed by Philippe de Broca. Cast: Alan Bates, Geneviève Bujold, Pierre Brasseur. Note: The first movie to play at the Biograph was a zany French comedy, set amid the harsh but crazy realities of too much World War I.
“A Thousand Clowns” (1965): B&W. Directed by Fred Coe. Cast: Jason Robards, Barbara Harris, Martin Balsam. Note: A social worker investigates the rules-bending circumstances in which a boy lives with his iconoclastic uncle, an unemployed writer.

Feb. 21-23, 1972:
“Z”  (1969): Color. Directed by Costa-Gavras. Cast: Yves Montand, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Irene Papas. Note: A political assassination’s cover-up in Greece spawns a compelling based-on-truth whodunit, with sudden plot twists, all told at a furious pace.
"The Battle of Algiers" (1966): B&W. Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. Note: This account of the cruel tactics employed by both warring sides during the Algerian revolution is part documentary, part staged suspenseful recreation. Unforgettable.

Mar. 17-20, 1972: 
“Gimme Shelter” (1970): Color. Directed by Albert Maysles and David Maysles.  Performers: The Rolling Stones, the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Tina Turner and more. Note: A documentary with much concert footage and one murder.
“T.A.M.I. Show” (1964): B&W. Directed by Steve Binder. Performers: the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, the Supremes, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Lesley Gore and more appear in concert footage.

Apr. 12-13, 1972:
"Bell Du Jour" (1967): Color. Director: Luis Buñuel. Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli. Note: Beautiful Severine loves her successful husband. With him she’s frigid. Her kinky fantasies lead her to the oldest profession … only by day.
"A Man and a Woman" (1966): Color. Director: Claude Lelouche. Cast: Anouk Aimée, Jean-Louis Trintignan. Note: A widower and a widow meet by chance at their childrens' boarding school. As the struggle to deal with their attraction to one another, neither has gotten over their loss.  

June 1-7, 1972: 
“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1969): Color. Directed by Robert Altman. Cast: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie. Note: With Altman, the routine gambling, prostitution and power struggles in the Old West take on a different sort of look. More grit. Less glory. All random.
"Klute" (1971): Color. Directed by Alan J. Pakula. Cast: Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Roy Scheider. Note: Fonda grabbed a Best Actress Oscar for her convincing portrayal of a damaged prostitute who helps a dogged private detective solve a complicated missing person case.

June 14-18, 1972:
“Putney Swope” (1969): Both B&W and color. Directed by Robert Downey Sr. Cast: Stan Gottlieb, Allen Garfield, Archie Russell. Note: This strange but hilarious send-up of Madison Avenue was Downey’s effort to crossover from underground to legit. Probably his most accessible work.
"Trash" (1970): Color. Director: Paul Morrissey. Cast: Joe Dallesandro, Holly Woodlawn. Note: It was billed as "Andy Warhol's Trash," as he was credited with being the producer of Morrissey's series of undergroundish films. This one reveals the down-and-out urban lifestyle of an oddball couple.

June 29-July 2, 1972: 
"Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964): B&W. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens. Note: This nuke-mocking black comedy raised eyebrows at the height of the Cold War. Still a laugh riot.
 “M.A.S.H.” (1970): Color. Directed by Robert Altman. Cast: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Sally Kellerman. Note: This cynical comedy about doctoring too close to the pointless battles of the Korean War is much funnier than the long-running TV show that followed it.

Sept. 21-24, 1972:
"Citizen Kane" (1941): B&W. Directed by Orson Welles. Cast: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore. Note: The meaning of a powerful, lonely man’s last word enlarges into a mystery. Flashbacks reveal a large life driven by lusts and obsessions. As American as it gets. 
"The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942): B&W. Directed by Orson Welles. Cast: Tim Holt, Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter. Note. This truncated-by-the studio version of what the indulgent director intended follows the meandering story of a prominent family's fortunes.  

Oct. 9-11, 1972:
“The Third Man” (1949): B&W. Directed by Carol Reed. Cast: Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alida Valli. Note: This elegant film noir mystery, set in crumbling post-war Vienna, is pleasing to the eye and stylishly cynical. Hey, no heroes here, but great music. 
"Breathless" (1960): B&W. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg. Note: An opportunistic thief on the lam becomes irresistible to a pretty American journalism student in Paris. Uh-oh, the guy is dangerous. How long can living in the moment last?

Nov. 17-19, 1972:
“Duck Soup” (1933): B&W. Directed by Leo McCarey. Cast: The Four Marx Brothers (Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo), Margaret Dumont. Note: With Rufus T. Firefly as dictator of Freedonia and flush from a fat loan from Mrs. Teasdale, what could hilariously go wrong? How about war?
"Horse Feathers" (1932): B&W. Directed by Norman McLeod. Cast: The Four Marx Brothers, Thelma Todd. Note: The Biograph's secret password that opened doors was "swordfish." The scene that spawned that tradition is in this gag-filled send-up of on-campus life and football.

Dec. 7-10, 1972: 
“The Producers” (1968): Color. Directed by Mel Brooks. Cast: Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Kenneth Mars, Dick Shawn. Note: Brooks’ first feature film laughed at Nazis with what was a fresh audacity. Mostel and Wilder are so funny it ought to be illegal.
“The Graduate (1967): Color. Directed by Mike Nichols. Cast: Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Katherine Ross. Note: The mores of upper middle class life in the '60s are laid bare, as a recent college graduate's idleness leads to an affair with the beautiful, but wrong older woman.

Jan. 25-28, 1973:
"The Conformist" (1971): Color. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, Gastone Moschin. Note: A visually stunning look at fascist Italy, with Mussolini in power and old class distinctions melting away. Betrayal is in the air.
 “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” (1971): Color. Directed by Vittorio De Sica. Cast: Dominique Sanda, Lino Capolicchio, Fabio Testi. Note: With WWII approaching, why did wealthy, well educated Jews stay too long in Germany and Italy? This film provides some answers.
 
-- 30 --

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Fifty Years of Perspective on 1968

Note: Fifty years ago, yesterday, the Tet Offensive was launched in Vietnam. A week before, the USS Pueblo had been captured at sea. It was a hell of a way to start a year. It was 1968.

*

Jan. 23: The USS Pueblo was seized on the high seas by North Korean forces; at least that’s the story I got. At the time I was in the Navy and I had little doubt we would rescue the Pueblo’s crew, even if it meant another war.

Subsequently, as captives, the Pueblo’s 83 men endured an ordeal that was shocking to an American public that had naively thought its Super Power status meant such things could not happen.

Jan. 30: The Tet Offensive began, as the shadowy Viet Cong flexed its muscles and blurred battle lines with simultaneous assaults in many parts of South Vietnam. Even the American embassy in Saigon was attacked.

Mar. 16: Some 500 Vietnamese villagers -- women, children and old men (animals, too) -- were killed by American soldiers on patrol in what came to be known as the My Lai Massacre. However, it would be another 20 months before investigative journalist Seymour Hersh would break the horrifying story of the covered-up massacre, via the Associated Press wire service.

Mar. 31: Facing the burgeoning antiwar-driven campaigns of Sen. Eugene McCarthy and Sen. Robert Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson suddenly withdrew from the presidential race, declining to run for reelection by saying, “I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination...”

Apr. 4: America’s most respected civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots followed in cities coast-to-coast. The bitterness that remained after the dust settled was scary.

In Richmond, it ended an era. Young adventurous whites who followed music could no longer go in the black clubs they had once patronized. No more Sahara Club for me.

May 13: The USA and North Vietnam began a series of negotiations to end the war in Vietnam that came to be known as the Paris Peace Talks. Ironically, as a backdrop, France, itself, was in chaos. Workers and students had shut down much of the country with a series of strikes. The trains weren’t running, the airports were closed, as were schools, etc.

May 24: On the same day I was discharged from the Navy, Father Philip Berrigan and Thomas Lewis (of Artists Concerned About Vietnam) got six-year sentences for destroying federal property, stemming from an incident in which duck blood was poured over draft files at Baltimore’s Selective Service headquarters.

June 3: Artist Andy Warhol nearly died from wounds received from a gunshot fired by Valerie Solanis. She was a sometime writer and one of the many off-beat characters who had occasionally hung out at Warhol’s famous studio, The Factory. 

June 5: Having just won the California primary, Robert Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan in Los Angeles. The hopes of millions that the Vietnam War would end soon died that night.

It’s hard to imagine that Richard Nixon would have been able to defeat Kennedy in the general election. Kennedy's death meant the gravy train being enjoyed by big corporations supplying the war effort would continue to chug along.

June 8: James Earl Ray was arrested in London. Eventually, he was convicted of murdering Martin Luther King. Yet, questions about that crime and Ray's role linger today.

July 23: After watching “2001: A Space Odyssey” at the Westhampton Theatre, I saw The Who play live on stage at the Mosque (now the Altria Theater). Looking at the long line to get into the concert, I was quite surprised at how many hippies there were in Richmond. This was in the period the band was into smashing up its equipment to finish off shows.

The acid I took that day served me well.

Aug. 20: Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush what had been a season of renaissance. As it had been with the construction of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis, talk of World War III being one button-push away was commonplace.

Aug. 28: In Chicago the Democratic convention that selected Vice President Hubert Humphrey to top its ticket melted down. With tear gas in the air and blood in the streets 178 demonstrators/bystanders were arrested. Many were roughed up on live television. As cops clubbed citizens in the streets,on the convention floor CBS reporters Mike Wallace and Dan Rather were punched.

Watching the riots surrounding the Democratic convention on television, I began wondering if those who were saying our society was coming unglued might be right. Consequently, for the first time my political ideas were aired out in a newspaper, when my letter to the editor was published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. That experience began a love affair with seeing my name in print.

Oct. 18: At the Summer Olympics at Mexico City, American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the medal ceremony for the 200 meter race. Smith and Carlos wore black gloves (and other symbolic accouterments) for a protest gesture that was widely seen as a “black power” salute.

Nov. 5: Richard Nixon (depicted above) narrowly defeated Hubert Humphrey. Although Humphrey, himself, was for peace, out of loyalty he refused to denounce Johnson’s failing war policy. That mistake cost Humphrey dearly.

Also elected that day was Shirley Chisholm from Brooklyn. She was the first black female to serve in the House of Representatives.

Dec. 21: The first manned space mission to escape Earth’s gravity and orbit the moon began with the launching of Apollo 8.

Dec. 24: After having its way with them for 11 months, torture and mock executions included, North Korea released all of the members of the Pueblo’s crew but kept the ship. The U.S. Navy seemed to blame the Pueblo’s captain, Commander Lloyd M. "Pete" Bucher, for the entire painful fiasco. Mercifully, the Secretary of the Navy called off any official punishment.

At the time, there was a cumulative, escalating feeling that connected the most earthshaking events of 1968. Each crazy thing that happened seemed to be feeding off of the last crazy thing.

After 1968, the general public’s perception of the antiwar movement’s protests as being unpatriotic kaleidoscoped into something else. In June of 1969 LIFE Magazine published “The Faces of the American Dead in Vietnam: One Week’s Toll.” It was a ten-page story that featured photographs and the names of 242 men who had died in the war in one week.

The effect was dramatic. Looking at all those hopeful young faces was too much to bear, when we knew each coming week was going to claim the lives of another two or three hundred young men.

In 1969 the Hawks' picture of how a victory in Vietnam would look was fading into a blur. With 1968 in the rear-view mirror, the Doves were beginning to prevail in the propaganda struggle. Nonetheless, the bloody war went on for years.

-- My words and art.

-- 30 --

Friday, January 26, 2018

Sign of the Times

One pleasant afternoon in the mid-1970s, I was walking some 20 yards behind a guy heading east on the 800 block of West Grace Street. It was probably summertime. Curiously, he picked up the Organic Food Store’s hand-painted sandwich board style sign from the sidewalk in front of the store and put it under his arm.

Without looking around for any witnesses, he resumed his walk, eastward. I don't remember what I thought, at the time but to close the distance between us, I walked a little faster down the red brick sidewalk.

By the time we had passed the Biograph Theatre, where I worked, was plotting what to do. I was sure he had no honest reason to take the sign. He was a big-haired hippie, 18 to 20 years old. I suppose he could have been a student. Or, he might have been a traveling panhandler/opportunist. In those days there were plenty of both in the neighborhood.

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

The thief’s body language announced that he had heard me. He didn’t turn around. Instead he walked faster. I continued following and I said with more force: “Put the sign down. The cops are already on the way. Walk away while you still can.”

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

So I carried the recovered property back to the store. Obviously, I don’t really remember exactly what I said in this incident all those years ago, verbatim, but what you just read was a faithful recounting of the events and the spirit of what I said.

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

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

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

The original Village Restaurant, a block west of Chelf’s, was a legendary beatnik watering hole, going back to the 1950s. Writer Tom Robbins and artist William Fletcher “Bill” Jones (1930-‘98) hung out there. In the '60s and '70s the same neighborhood was also home to cartoon-like characters such as the wandering Flashlight Lady and the Grace Street Midget.

By the late-'70s the scene in that neighborhood had evolved. It was meaner and more dangerous. Bars needed bouncers at the door. Hippies were being replaced by punks. Cocaine was replacing pot as the most popular recreational drug.

In 1981, or so, I can also remember a day when an angry, red-bearded street beggar with a missing foot was scaring old ladies coming and going from the then-new Dominion Place apartment building on the 1000 block of Grace. We were about the same age. I said something to him like, "Cut it out and move on."

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

-- 30 --

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

An Epiphany at a Stop Light


Facing east on Monument Avenue I was waiting for the stoplight to change. Then a fresh thought struck me like bolt from the blue. It was some 30 years ago.

The sights were as familiar as could be. The J.E.B. Stuart monument and the hospital named for that place on the map -- Stuart Circle. I was born in that hospital and so was my daughter.

Not too long before this moment in the 1980s, I had run for a seat on Richmond's City Council. The task of campaigning had exposed me to some neighborhoods in my home town that had been mostly unfamiliar to me before I suddenly decided to run for office. Why I took that plunge, with no chance to win, is another story, for another day. But the reason for mentioning it here is how eye-opening that experience was.

For one thing, I don't think I had ever spent any time in Gilpin Court before the campaign trail took me there. It was part of the Fifth District, which also included the part of the Fan District that was behind the equestrian statue before me. Virginia Commonwealth University's academic campus was sprawled out in the blocks ahead, just beyond the statue.

Looking at that looming depiction of a man on a horse a question exploded in my head: What would I have thought of that statue if I had been born black, instead of white, and I had grown up in a housing project like Gilpin Court?

The thought that followed made me laugh. Answering my own question provided me with a momentary walk-in-the-other-man's-shoes epiphany, as I said to myself: "By the time I was 16, I would have blown that damn thing up."

That prompted me to be amazed that it hadn't already happened. Folks who remember the 16-year-old version of me should be laughing now. At least a few of them know there would have been some chance I would have really done it ... had I been a headstrong black teenager, who, like me, got thrown out of school regularly.

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

Today I think a lot of good people in Richmond need to try to step into the other man's shoes, if only for a second, and take another look at Monument Avenue's famous statues.

Art and words by F.T. Rea

-- 30 --

Monday, January 15, 2018

Rea's Rams Report No. 5

Senior guard Johnny Williams (photo from VCU)
This edition offers a link to the piece I wrote for STYLE Weekly previewing the 80th match-up of the University of Richmond Spiders and the Virginia Commonwealth University Rams.

The game between the crosstown rivals will be played on Jan. 17 at the Siegel Center. Tip-off is at 7 p.m. Note: It will be televised exclusively in Facebook.

Click here to read the piece.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Rea's Rams Report No. 4

On Saturday afternoon (Dec. 30) at the Siegel Center Virginia Commonwealth University's senior forward, Justin Tillman, turned in his fifth double-double performance of the season – 23 points and 14 rebounds. It did much to help propel VCU to its fourth consecutive victory.

In what was their first Atlantic 10 game of the season the VCU Rams, (9-5, 1-0 in A-10) built up a 22-point lead near the end of the first half, then coasted through the second half. The visiting Rams of Fordham never got closer than an 8-point difference. Final score: VCU 76, Fordham 63.

A capacity crowd of 7,637 (109th consecutive sell-out) saw Tillman hit the game's first shot, a 3-pointer from the top of the key. Sophomore guard De’Riante Jenkins scored 14 points. Sophomore guard Malik Crowfield added 10 points. Sophomore guard/forward Issac Vann played for 26 minutes off the bench, after a month out of action nursing an ankle injury. Vann scored 9 points, grabbed 5 rebounds and dished out 5 assists. His defensive contribution was also noticeable.

VCU's next game is against St. Joseph’s (5-7, 0-1 in A-10) in Philadelphia on Wed., Jan. 3, at 7 p.m. (MASN).

At the end of the calendar year VCU is sitting at No. 97 in the latest RPI. The Rams have played six games against teams with a better RPI, for a 1-5 record. The A-10 is currently seen as the 10th best conference, click on the link to view the current conference standings.

-- 30 --

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Time Warping, Again

 This photo of Larry Rohr riding through the Biograph's larger 
auditorium on was shot on March 1, 1980.
In 1975 “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” produced by Lou Adler, was released by 20th Century Fox. Adapted from the British gender-bending stage musical, “The Rocky Horror Show,” the movie died at the box office. The critics didn’t particularly like it, either.

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

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

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

We had already asked Fox, the distributor, about playing it but were told there weren't any prints available. Then a trip to LA in May of that year boosted my interest in the film. I was fascinated with what I was told about what was happening out there with “Rocky Horror.” I told my bosses in Georgetown what I'd learned and we decided to try harder to book it. Their former partner, David Levy, had beaten them to it for the D.C. market; it had recently started playing at The Key.

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

In those days Richmond was generally seen by most movie distributors as a weak market — not a place to waste resources. Besides, no one at Fox seemed to understand why the audience participation following for the picture had started, or what was making it catch on in some places, but not in others.

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

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

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

Instead, the strategy called for attracting the taste-makers, the ones who must see everything on opening night, to see it first. Their endorsement would spread the good word. Accordingly, I produced radio spots using about 20 seconds of the “Time Warp” cut on the soundtrack to run on WGOE-AM. The only ad copy came at the very end. The listener heard my voice say, “Get in the act … midnight at the Biograph.”

There was no explanation of what the music was, or what the ad was even about. We put out a handbill with a pencil drawing of Riff Raff — a character in the movie — against a black background, with the distinctive dripping blood title in red. The “Get in the Act” theme was repeated. The hook was that none of it gave the listener/reader as much information as they expected. Still, it was more than enough to alert the fanatics who had already been going to D.C. or New York to see it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 1, 1980.

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

The late Carole Kass, the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s sweetheart of a entertainment writer/movie critic, wrote up a nice feature on what was basically hokum. 

That same night Larry Rohr (as seen in the photo at the top of the page) rode his motorcycle through the auditorium’s aisles at the point in the story when Meatloaf’s character in the film, Eddie, rides his motorcycle.

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

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

While “Rocky Horror” had an underground cachet in the first year or so of its run, its status eventually changed in the staff’s eyes. Rice, toast and all sorts of other stuff that got tossed around — never at the screen! — had to be cleaned up each and every time by the grumbling janitors, who grew to detest the movie. To keep the peace they got “Rocky Horror” bonuses — a few extra bucks for their weekend shifts.

Once into the third year of the Friday and Saturday midnight screenings the demand began to wither. By then much of the audience seemed to be tourists from the suburbs … any city’s suburbs. The Fan District’s fast crowd in the punk rock scene mostly ignored it. The shows didn’t sell out, anymore, but they continued to do enough business to justify holding onto that original print.

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

-- Photos by Ernie Brooks

-- 30 --

Monday, December 11, 2017

Remembering Rozanne Epps (1922-2008)

Photo from STYLE Weekly
Note: The remembrance below was originally posted here on SLANTblog nine years ago (Nov. 20, 2008), shortly after the death of Rozanne Epps (pictured right). 

After watching the excellent new HBO documentary, "The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee," I had a telephone conversation in which I rambled onto citing the importance of having good editors (in the old days), and now ... which eventually led to mentioning Rozanne as an example of a skilled editor that I loved working with. So I decided to re-post this brief tribute to a person who deserves to be remembered well.   
Rozanne Epps led a full life before she died at the age of 86 on Sunday. For over 20 years she worked at STYLE Weekly, going back to the days when Lorna Wyckoff was still its publisher. I knew of her long before her days at STYLE, because of her noteworthy career at VCU. (Click here for background in the STYLE obituary.) And, I knew her as Garrett Epps' mother. I knew him only casually when he was a member of the staff at the Richmond Mercury, along with Frank Rich, Harry Stein, Glenn Frankel and others in the early-70s.
But my only real association with her began in 1999, when she accepted one piece I submitted to STYLE and sent me to Richmond.com with the other. The one that ran as a Back Page piece was about baseball. The one that began my relationship with Richmond.com was about the closing of the Texas Wisconsin Border Cafe.

Over the years since, STYLE, and especially Richmond.com, have published a lot of my work. So, I'm grateful to her for that good turn. However, what I got from her as an editor is why I'm writing this remembrance. Rozanne taught me to be a better writer. She did that with good humor and fairness. It was always fun to exchange emails and talk on the telephone with her.

So, to those who knew her far better than I did, yes, we are all lucky we knew Rozanne Epps.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Texas 71, VCU 67

Tues., Dec. 5, 2017: It was the 105th consecutive sell-out crowd for the home-standing VCU Rams. ESPN2 was in the house, so a national television audience had also watched the Texas Longhorns build a 19-point lead with 11:59 left in the game.

Then VCU went on a run and there were moments it got as loud as I've heard it at the Siegel Center. OK, maybe it was louder when the Rams beat the Louisville Cardinals, on Nov. 19, 1999, the night the first game was played in that arena. I'm not sure.

At the 3:52 mark VCU took its only lead in the game: VCU 63, Texas 62.

For the next two-and-a-half minutes neither team scored. Then the visitors pulled ahead and went on to win what was a first class college basketball game. Indeed, both teams left it all on the floor.  

Final score: Texas 71, VCU 67.

The Rams senior forward, Justin Tillman, led all scorers with 22 points. Tillman also grabbed 10 rebounds. Much of the game he was working against Texas forward Mohamed Bamba, the 7-foot-tall freshman phenom with the monster wingspan. Bamba blocked 4 shots, changed several others and got 13 boards to match his 13 points. He is widely expected to be a lottery pick in the next NBA draft.

Anyway, after the game in the media room, it was packed with sports writers, broadcasters and others who have access. Hoops fan Stuart Siegel was there; he frequently is. So were Dr. Eugene Trani (VCU President Emeritus) and his wife, Lois. VCU's Coach Mike Rhoades faced the assembled press. He did his usual fine job of handling the ordeal.

After Rhoades cleared out, Shaka Smart sat in the hot seat. Smart seemed eager to say, "This is a special place to play a basketball game." He also seemed tired.


When Smart was through answering questions the reporters started to pack up and leave. Dr. Trani approached Smart and the two had a warm but brief conversation. So I snapped a quick shot of them with my cell phone. Then Trani asked me to take a photo of the three of them. I was happy to document the moment.

The Washington Post also covered the scene with a nice feature article by Dan Steinberg.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Person of the Year?

If this happens no one will be more surprised than Rebus. 
Oh, and Donald Trump, of course.

 

Monday, December 04, 2017

Rea's Rams Report: No. 3

Shaka Smart returns to Richmond on Dec. 5, when his 
Texas Longhorns will face the VCU Rams at the Siegel 
Center. ESPN2 will carry the telecast (7 p.m.).

VCU's senior forward Justin Tillman has been named Atlantic 10 Conference Co-Player of the Week. He shares the award with George Washington's senior guard Yuta Watanabe.

In leading the Rams to two wins last week,  Appalachian State (85-72) and Old Dominion (82-75), Tillman averaged 24.5 points and 6 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-8 forward's 28 points (10 for 13 from the floor) against ODU on Saturday was a career-high. For the season, Tillman is averaging a team-high 15.5 points per game.

The Rams (5-3) next game is on Tues., Dec. 5, when they will host Shaka Smart's Texas Longhorns (5-2) at the Siegel Center. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.

To read my STYLE Weekly preview of the Texas vs VCU tilt, with background on Smart and VCU head coach Mike Rhoades, click here.

 -- Photo from VCU.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Stretch

Note: This piece was originally published by STYLE Weekly on Oct. 4, 1999. 

*

With the turning of the leaves, The Fan District of Richmond, Va., will again be transformed into a living impressionistic cityscape. As they always do, the season’s wistful breezes will facilitate reflection.

All of which leads to the fact that yet another baseball season has come and gone. After 6,783 games, the last game ever has been played at Detroit’s fabled Tiger Stadium. The Giants and the Astros will be playing in new parks next season, as well. The World Series, first played in 1903, will soon be upon us. Although baseball’s claim as the National Pastime may no longer hold up, the colorful lore generated by the magic of events at baseball parks probably outweighs that of all the other sports, put together.

In the mid-1950s I began going to the Richmond V's (for Virginians) games at Parker Field with my grandfather. Probably saw my first game when I was about seven. Naturally, I eagerly drank in all I could of the atmosphere, especially the stories told about legendary players and discussions on the strategy of the game.

As I got older I began going to games with my friends, most of whom played baseball. We usually took our baseball gloves with us to the game. We’d go early so we could watch the V’s warm up. As often as possible we talked with the players. If one of them remembered your name it was a source of pride. When we cheered the heroics we witnessed and rose for the seventh inning stretch and stayed until the last out, regardless of the score, it was tantamount to exercising religious rites.

A few seasons before they tore Parker Field down (it was dismantled in 1984 and in its place stands The Diamond), I experienced one last thrill at the old ballpark. This was when my daughter, Katey, was about seven years old.

The home team by then — as it is now — was The Braves. Katey, her mother and I were sitting in box seats as guests of neighbors who had gotten comps from a radio station. It was probably Katey’s first trip to Parker Field.

The spectacle itself was interesting to her for a while. As it was a night game, the bright lights were dazzling. The roar of the crowd was exhilarating. Being old enough to go along on such an outing, instead of staying at home with a baby sitter, was a boost to her morale. Nonetheless, by the middle of the game Katey (pictured above at about the age of this story) was getting tired of sitting still and bored with baseball.

During the sixth inning it fell to me to entertain, or at least restrain her, so the others could enjoy the game. I tried telling her more about the object of baseball, hoping that would help her pay some attention to the game.

That didn’t work for very long. She was soon climbing across seats again and this time she knocked a man’s beer into his lap. As the visiting team began their turn at bat, in the top of the seventh, I got an idea and asked Katey if she wanted to see some magic. Of course she did.

Then I got her to promise to be good if I showed her a magic trick. She agreed to the terms. Making sure she alone could hear me, I pulled her in close and whispered my instructions.

The gist of it was that she and I, using our combined powers of concentration, were going to make everyone in the ballpark stand up at the same time. Katey was thrilled at the mere prospect of such a feat. I told her to face the ongoing game, close her eyes, and begin thinking about making the crowd stand up.

After the visiting team made their third out, I cupped my hand to her ear and reminded her to think, “stand up, stand up …”

As baseball fans know, when the home team comes to bat in the bottom of the seventh inning everyone stands up, ostensibly to stretch their legs. It’s a longtime tradition called “the seventh inning stretch.” There’s a mention of the practice in a report about a Cincinnati Red Stockings (baseball’s first professional team) game that took place in 1869.

Tradition aside — when Katey turned around, opened her big blue eyes and saw thousands of people standing up — it was pure magic in her book.

No one in the group gave me away when she explained what we had just done. As I remember it, she stayed true to her word and was well-behaved the rest of the game. It was a few years later that Katey confronted me, having learned how the trick worked. We still laugh about it.

Some sports fans today complain that baseball games are too slow and meandering. While I admit baseball has its lulls, nonetheless there are textures and layers of information present at baseball parks that are just too subtle and ephemeral for the lens of a TV camera to capture. To appreciate them you have to be there. You have to bother to notice.

Sometimes there’s even a hint of magic in the air.

-- Words and photo by F.T. Rea
– 30 –

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Rea's Rams Report: No. 2

Kyle Guy drives past Malik Crowfield
Good storytellers know "discovery" is a device that can magnify the power of a message embedded in the plot. That's why they sometimes allow their readers/viewers to discover keys to unlocking the mystery. Of course, a little subtle foreshadowing can help goose the process of discovering. In real life, we also know plenty of people seem to have more faith in what they've figured out, for themselves, than they do in whatever they've been told.

OK, four games into the season, Coach Mike Rhoades' 2017-18 VCU Rams team has had the opportunity to discover, firsthand, something important to most D-I teams striving to achieve their goals. Having lost two consecutive games, both against teams that will likely be in the postseason conversation in March – UVA's 'Hoos and Marquette's Golden Eagles – and the Rams should have seen that summer league defense usually won't beat such teams.

No doubt, this is something Coach Rhoades has already mentioned more than a few times in team practices. So, do his players – 10 of which have only played four games in black and gold – need to lose more games to see the truth clearly?

As Col. Nathan R. Jessep (Jack Nicholson) suggested memorably, in "A Few Good Men" (1992), maybe these young and talented Rams can't handle the truth ... yet. We'll soon see. VCU has two more games in Hawaii to start proving to themselves they are getting better.
  • Can these Rams change to playing a withering full-court defense, time and again, without fouling too much? 
  • Around the backboard, before poising to out-jump everybody, can they remember to first box out? 
  • Can they deflect more passes and dive for more loose balls on the floor? Can they be more aggressive on defense, take more chances?
In a nutshell, when can Rhodes' Rams start becoming a team capable of playing intense defense, as a unit, for a game's 40 minutes? That, rather than being five guys running around the floor in the same uniforms?

Next tilt: Maui Invitational: Tues., Nov. 21, at 4 p.m: VCU (2-2) vs. California (2-2) on ESPN2. 

Update: The Rams raced to 26-point lead at the half. Then coasted to the win: VCU 83, Cal 69.

-- Photo from VCU

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Rea's Rams Report: No. 1


Justin Tillman with the smooth jumper
over Noah Horchler

Monday night at the Siegel Center VCU's senior power forward, Justin Tillman, schooled the visiting University of North Florida Ospreys on what a bona fide Atlantic 10 preseason poll first team pick looks like, up close. Tillman scored 27 points (on 13-for-17 shooting from the field). He also grabbed eight boards and blocked a couple of shots.

Still, the Rams had to score the last seven points of the game to win it by 10 points: VCU 95, NF 85.

That victory moved the Rams to a 2-0 record. VCU's undefeated status will be severely tested on Friday, when the University of Virginia Cavaliers visit the Rams' West Broad Street home court (4 p.m.; CBSSN). The game will be VCU's 102nd consecutive sell-out. The Cavs, with their stingy Pack Line defense, are also sitting at 2-0.

It's worth noting that Virginia has held its two opponents this season to 48 and 49 points. VCU, with its explosive offense, has scored 94 and 95 points. Something's got to give. However, with Virginia's reputation for running a painfully deliberate offense the pace of the game could well be a key factor for the winner. The Rams will surely want to play faster than the Cavs.

Still, fast or slow, VCU has to outscore Virginia. That likely means the Rams will have to limit the points scored by three players, in particular: 6-foot-5-inch senior guard Devon Hall; 6-foot-2-inch sophomore guard Kyle Guy; 7-foot-1-inch freshman forward Jay Huff.

Two games into the 2017-18 season two pleasant surprises about new VCU players are: Sophomore transfer Issac Vann, a small forward, was billed as a potent addition to the Rams offense. While he's shown flashes that back that up, Vann been one of the better defensive players. Freshman power forward Sean Mobley has shown good court sense as well as a pair of good hands. Look for them to get more playing time.

The overall athleticism of Coach Mike Rhoades' young squad is impressive, but that's been more in evidence when the Rams have the ball. On Friday VCU's defense will probably be tested more than it has been this season. 

-- Photo from VCU