Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Save the Diamond Breakthrough?

Ed. Note: Can't say whether this will turn out to be a real breakthrough, or just another level of discordancy. But I'm glad somebody outside of City Hall has continued to work on a plan that makes sense for the neighborhood The Diamond is a part of now, and for the rest of the city, as well.

Owned by Richmond's citizens, The Diamond is far too great of an asset to sweep away without such a plan. The Flying Squirrels made a mistake when they backed Mayor Dwight Jones' rejected plan to build a ballpark, etc., in Shockoe Bottom. Now the management of the Squirrels obviously regrets it. Still, no one should hold that against them too much. Their arms were being twisted. The push for Baseball in the Bottom twisted a lot of arms before it crashed and burned.

Now the Squirrels want to stay on the Boulevard. That seems to be what baseball fans prefer. And, for what it's worth I support that concept ... for now. As far as how important minor league baseball really is to the whole community, well, maybe that's what ought to be considered -- maybe even voted upon -- before we commit to spending a lot of money on it down the road. Anyway, I got this info in the form of a press release, by way of email today.

Media Announcement
Nov. 24, 2015, For Immediate Release 
Richmond Group Announces Plan To Transform The Diamond and Spark Economic Development In Surrounding North Boulevard Area (Richmond, Va.)

Calling itself “The Save The Diamond Committee,” a local group of citizens, architects, and developers has created a proposal – Live. Work. Play Ball. A New Vision for North Boulevard – to transform the existing Diamond baseball stadium into a 21st century minor-league ballpark. The proposal also includes a multi-use development plan for the contiguous 50 +/- acres that can provide needed significant tax revenue to the City of Richmond.

Committee representatives – Harry H. Warner, Jr, committee chairman, Randy Holmes of Glavé & Holmes, and Steve Terrill of AECOM – will present the plans and ideas to the media and the public on Wed., Dec. 2, 2015, 2 p.m., at the Richmond Public Library auditorium, 101 E. Franklin St. 
Contact: Harry H. Warner, Jr., (804) 357-8157; NewBoulevardVision@Outlook.com

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Five Film Favorites: French Films

From 'Breathless'

My trips to France have been vicarious: words written by others, pictures created by others. For the most part, what I know -- or think I know -- about France has been gathered and presented to me by filmmakers. Moreover, a good part of what I know -- or think I know -- about good movies has been shaped by countless hours spent watching French films.

Like many baby boomers who grew up loving movies, once I discovered foreign films the French New Wave films exerted a big influence on me. So, for me, the memories of Paris that were stirred up by the terrorist attacks on Nov. 13, 2015, weren't based on times I actually spent there, soaking up the milieu.

Instead, films I've loved have been brought to mind. Today, Nov. 14, 2015, my five favorite French feature films are as follows:

“The 400 Blows” (1959): B&W. Directed by François Truffaut. Cast: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claire Maurier, Albert Rémy. Note: This story’s deft portrayal of a brave boy’s yearning for dignity in an indifferent world kicked in the door for the New Wave’s filmmakers.

"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 it last?

"Day for Night" (1973): Color. Directed by François Truffaut. Cast: Jacqueline Bisset, Valentina Cortese, François Truffaut. Note: An engaging look at the process of making of a movie, with the private lives of the cast and crew intermingling with the production.

"The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" (1972): Color. Directed by Luis Buñuel. Cast: Fernando Rey, Paul Frankeur, Delphine Seyrig. Note: Probably prankster Buñuel’s most accessible film, this dream within a joke, within a dream, sparkles with its dry wit.

“Lacombe, Lucien” (1974): Color. Directed by Louis Malle. Cast: Pierre Blaise, Auroe Clement, Holger Lowenadler. Note: How does a naive, nihilistic teenager in France, just looking for a way to fit in, end up running with the Nazi invaders? Hey, why not?

That list of sweet flicks includes only feature-length movies. But today I just can't resist mentioning two of my favorite short films that happen to be French:

“La Jetée” (1962): B&W. Directed by Chris Marker. Cast: Davos Hanich, Hélène Chatelain, Jen Négroni. Note: A stunning example of how less can be way more. This short New Wave classic about memory, imagination, longing and time is unforgettable.

“The Red Balloon” (1956): Color. Directed by Albert Lamorisse. Cast: Pascal Lamorisse, Sabine Lamorisse, Georges Sellier. Note: Using little dialogue, this utterly charming 34-minute French fantasy follows a boy and his balloon friend along the streets of Paris.

From 'The Red Balloon'

To wind up, allow me to quote Rick Blaine (played by Humphrey Bogart), the protagonist in "Casablanca" (1942). Speaking to Ilsa Lund (played by Ingrid Bergman), Rick says: "We'll always have Paris."



Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Cheaters

A Veterans Day Remembrance: This 1916 photograph of my grandfather, Frank W. Owen (1893-1968), was shot when he was in the Richmond Light Infantry Blues. At the time he was stationed in Brownsville, Texas, as part of a contingent called up and assigned to protect the border. Mexican revolutionary/bandit Pancho Villa had been crossing over to raid small towns ... or so it was said. The next year the Richmond Blues were thrown into WWI in France. 

The story below is about my grandfather. It's set in the summer of 1959. I wrote it 25 years ago for SLANT. A version of it was later published in STYLE Weekly in 2000.

The Cheaters
by F.T. Rea
Having devoted countless hours to competitive sports and games of all sorts, nothing in that realm is quite as galling to this grizzled scribbler as the cheater’s averted eye of denial, or the practiced tones of his shameless spiel.
In the middle of a pick-up basketball game, or a friendly Frisbee-golf round, too often, my barbed outspokenness over what I have perceived as deliberate cheating has ruffled feathers. Alas, it's my nature. I can't help it any more than a watchful blue jay can resist dive-bombing an alley cat.

The reader might wonder about whether I'm overcompensating for dishonest aspects of myself, or if I could be dwelling on memories of feeling cheated out of something dear.

OK, fair enough, I don't deny any of that. Still, truth be told, it mostly goes back to a particular afternoon's mischief gone wrong.


A blue-collar architect with the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway for decades, my maternal grandfather, Frank Wingo Owen was a natural entertainer. Blessed with a resonant baritone/bass voice, he began singing professionally in his teens and continued performing, as a soloist and with barbershop quartets, into his mid-60s.

Shortly after his retirement, at 65, the lifelong grip on good health he had enjoyed failed; an infection he picked up during a routine hernia surgery at a VA hospital nearly killed him. It left him with no sense of touch in his extremities. Once he got some of his strength back, he found comfort in returning to his role as umpire of the baseball games played in his yard by the neighborhood's boys. He couldn't stand up behind home plate, anymore, but he did alright sitting in the shade of the plum tree, some 25 feet away.

This was the summer he taught me, along with a few of my friends, the fundamentals of poker. To learn the game we didn’t play for real money. Each player got so many poker chips. If his chips ran out, he became a spectator.

The poker professor said he’d never let us beat him, claiming he owed it to the game itself to win if he could, which he always did. Woven throughout his lessons on betting strategy were stories about poker hands and football games from his cavalry days, serving with the Richmond Blues during World War I.

As likely as not, the stories he told would end up underlining points he saw as standards: He challenged us to expose the true coward at the heart of every bully. "Punch him in the nose," he'd chuckle, "and even if you get whipped he'll never bother you again." In team sports, the success of the team trumped all else. Moreover, withholding one’s best effort in any game, no matter the score, was beyond the pale.

Such lazy afternoons came and went so easily that summer there was no way then, at 11, I could have appreciated how precious they would seem looking back on them.

On the other hand, there were occasions he would make it tough on me. Especially when he spotted a boy breaking the yard's rules or playing dirty. It was more than a little embarrassing when he would wave his cane and bellow his rulings. For flagrant violations, or protesting his call too much, he barred the guilty boy from the yard for a day or two.

F. W. Owen’s hard-edged opinions about fair play, and looking directly in the eye at whatever comes along, were not particularly modern. Nor were they always easy for know-it-all adolescent boys to swallow.

Predictably, the day came when a plot was hatched. We decided to see if artful subterfuge could beat him at poker just once. The conspirators practiced in secret for hours, passing cards under the table with bare feet and developing signals. It was accepted that we would not get away with it for long, but to pull it off for a few hands would be pure fun.

Following baseball, with the post-game watermelon consumed, I fetched the cards and chips. Then the four card sharks moved in to put the caper in play.

To our amazement, the plan went off smoothly. After hands of what we saw as sly tricks we went blatant, expecting/needing to get caught, so we could gloat over having tricked the great master. Later, as he told the boys' favorite story -- the one about a Spanish women who bit him on the arm at a train station in France -- one-eyed jacks tucked between dirty toes were being passed under the table.

Then the joy began to drain out of the adventure rapidly. With semi-secret gestures I called the ruse off. A couple of hands were played with no shenanigans but he ran out of chips, anyway.

Head bowed, he sighed, “Today I can’t win for loosing; you boys are just too good for me.” Utterly dependent on his cane for balance he slowly walked into the shadows toward the back porch. It was agonizing.

The game was over; we were no longer pranksters. We were cheaters.

As he carefully negotiated the steps, my last chance to save the day came and went without a syllable out of me to set the record straight. It was hard to believe that he hadn’t seen what we were doing, but my guilt burned so deeply I didn't wonder enough about that, then.


My grandfather didn’t play poker with us again. He went on umpiring, and telling his salty stories afterwards over watermelon. We tried playing poker the same way without him, but it didn’t work; the value the chips had magically represented was gone. The boys had outgrown poker without real money on the line.

Although I thought about that afternoon's shame many times before he died nine years later, neither of us ever mentioned it. For my part, when I tried to bring it up, to clear the air, the words always stuck in my throat.

Eventually, I grew to become as intolerant of petty cheating as F.W. Owen was in his day, maybe even more so. And, as it was for him, the blue jay has always been my favorite bird.
-- 30 --

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Crybaby Candidates

Hard to blame voters of the Republican persuasion for being grumpy. They're being asked to believe their roster of presidential hopefuls are tougher than Democrats, especially Hillary Clinton.

Clinton undergoes a marathon of questioning at the most recent Benghazi investigation by the House. Much of it was a rather mean-spirited stunt designed to put her in a bad light. She handles it all and emerges looking patient, well-seasoned and totally prepared to serve as president. 

Meanwhile, like pouting children, the aforementioned Republican candidates complain about a few minutes of aggressive questioning by reporters. Donald Trump, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, et al, are pissed off at everybody! The media. The Democrats. Their own national committee's leadership. And, of course, at each other. 

Hard to see such candidates as looking tough, or prepared, when they're so busy being crybabies. So, to me, it's hardly surprising that conservative voters are grumpy. But it is funny.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Strange Case of Gus the Cat

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Literature on Film

One of the more popular themes for a program of double features at the Biograph Theatre (1972-87) was Literature on Film; movies that were adapted from existing works of literature. The first time we used that hook was in this 1977 festival which did quite well at the box office.

On the flip side of the program (not seen) the following twin bills were listed: "Of Human Bondage" and "Lolita"; "Slaughterhouse 5" and "Ulysses"; "Anna Kaenina" and "Dr. Zchivago"; "Little Women" and "David Copperfield"; "The Stranger" and "Steppenwolf"; "Stage Door" and "Alice Adams"; "Grapes of Wrath" and "Les Miserables" and tha, tha, that's all folks.

(Click on the program itself to enlarge it.)

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Bijou presents: 'Entertainment' screening at The Byrd on Nov. 8

The Bijou Film Center, VCU's Institute for Contemporary Art and the Virginia Film Office will present "Entertainment" at the Byrd Theatre. After creating stirs at various film festivals, including the Sundance, "Entertainment" is about to have its theatrical first run begin in New York City. Please note that five days prior to that premiere in the Big Apple, its "pre-premiere" will take place in Richmond on Sun., Nov. 8. The show starts at 6:30 p.m.

Following a special happy hour gathering at the Portrait House (5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.), across the street from The Byrd, Richmond's own Rick Alverson -- the director of "Entertainment" -- will be on hand to introduce the film.

Admission: Tickets at the box office will be $10.00. Advance tickets are available online at Eventbrite for $7.00 (plus a processing fee of $1.38) each. Paper advance tickets will be available for $7.00 (cash or check) at Bygones Vintage Clothing and Steady Sounds until the day of the show.

The After-Party will unfold at the New York Deli following the screening. It will feature a live comedy showcase, which will be hosted by Herschel Stratego. As a special treat, the protagonist in the film, The Comedian, aka Neil Hamburger (as played by Gregg Turkington), will appear on that program. Admission will be free.

"Entertainment" (2015): Color. 110 minutes. Directed by Rick Alverson. Cast: Gregg Turkington, John C. Reilly, Tye Sheridan, Michael Cera. Note: The film's protagonist is an abrasive comedian who hurls his absurd material at small audiences in bleak dives in forgotten towns. The laughs come more from the situations than the jokes. As it mocks our expectations, "Entertainment" is a compelling odyssey. Occasionally, it's laugh-out-loud funny. For viewers who've enjoyed the rather unconventional work of directors such as Robert Bresson, Luis Buñuel and David Lynch, Alverson's new flick could be about to shoulder its way onto their top ten lists. Love it, or hate it, "Entertainment" is a bona fide "art movie" that is probably destined to become a cult classic.

The Mission of The Bijou is to establish the nonprofit film center in Richmond, Virginia, the centerpiece of which will be a small independent cinema. We will strive to present the best of the artsy first-run independent and imported films available. Those engagements will be sandwiched between short runs of selected classics. Beyond the exhibition of our gourmet film fare, we hope to be a friend to Richmonders interested in the preserving of old films and the making of new films.

More info is available at the Facebook event page.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Flashback: Virginia's 1994 Senate Race

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

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

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

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

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

Beneath the 1994 newspaper article about that card collection are scans of 12 of the 15 original cards from the set. With 21 years of dust on the cards, some of my attempts at humor may not work so well now, hopefully the caricatures are still fun to look at. As I produced these cards, it was an interesting challenge to try to write lines for the dialogue balloons that would hold up for a month or two, no matter what the developments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a wild ride.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Blood Isn't Just Red

Each time we ask basically the same questions: Why is it almost always a young white male? Did the mayhem stem from a humiliating rejection? Was it television or video games that made an already disturbed individual into a crazy shooter? The Internet? What role did his family life play in bending his mind? Were the words of crackpot celebrities rattling around in the shooter's head? Did a dog tell him to do it?

Sorry, I can't offer a conclusive answer. But pretending that people do things, even strange things, for a single reason doesn't usually get us closer to the truth. Searching for an overriding motive for spraying bullets into a schoolroom or a movie theater -- some clue to make sense of it -- doesn't usually lead to any sort of satisfaction .... but to ease our pain we always look, anyway.

Will we ever really understand how someone could do such a thing? I doubt it, but our common sense tells us there's something in America's culture that has been contributing to these massacres. Certainly, the availability of the rapid-fire weapons facilitates the slaughter, but what else can be said to be a common denominator? 

The piece that follows was published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch on its May 1, 1999 OpEd Page. The point it makes about the long-term effects of repeated violent images on television still seems apt to me.
Blood Isn’t Just Red
by F.T. Rea

Television has dominated the American cultural landscape for the past 50 years. A boon to modern life in many ways, television is nonetheless transmitting an endless stream of cruel and bloody images into everyone’s head.

However, if you’re still waiting for absolute proof that a steady diet of video violence can be harmful to the viewer, forget it. We’ll all be dead before such a thing can be proven. This is a common sense call that can and should be made without benefit of dueling experts. Short of blinding denial, any serious person can see that the influence television has on young minds is among the factors playing a role in the crime statistics.

How significant that role has been/is can be debated.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m as dedicated to protecting freedom of speech as the next guy. So perish the thought that I’m calling for the government to regulate violence on television. It’s not a matter of preventing a particular scene, or act, from being aired. The problem is that the flow of virtual mayhem is constant.

Eventually splattered blood becomes ambient: just another option for the art director.

My angle here is that in the marketplace of ideas, the repeated image has a decided advantage. The significance of repetition in advertising was taught to me over 25 years ago by a man named Lee Jackoway. He was a master salesman, veteran broadcaster, and my boss at WRNL-AM. And, like many in the advertising business, he enjoyed holding court and telling war stories.

He had found me struggling with the writing of some copy for a radio commercial. At the time he asked me a few questions and let it go. But later, in front of a group of salesmen and disc jockeys, Jackoway explained to his audience what I was doing was wrong. Basically, he said that instead of stretching to write good copy, the real effort should be focused on selling the client more time, so the ad spot would get additional exposure.

Essentially, Jackoway told us to forget about trying to be the next Stan Freeberg. Forget about cute copy and far-flung schemes. What matters is results. If you know the target audience and you have the right vehicle to reach it, then all you have to do is saturate that audience. If you hit that target often enough, the results are money in the bank.

Jackoway told us most of the large money spent on production went to satisfying the ego of the client, or to promoting the ad agency’s creativity. While he might have oversimplified the way ad biz works to make his point, my experience with media has brought me to the same bottom line: When all else fails, saturation works.

Take it from me, dear reader, it doesn’t matter how much you think you’re ignoring the commercials that are beamed your way; more often than not repetition bores the message into your head. Ask the average self-absorbed consumer why he chooses a particular motor oil or breakfast cereal, and chances are he’ll claim the thousands of commercials he paid no heed had nothing to do with his choices.

Meanwhile, good old Lee Jackoway knows that same chump is pouring Pennzoil on his Frosted Flakes because he has been influenced by aggressive advertising all day long, every day.

OK, if repetition works so well in television’s advertising, why would repetition fail to sell whatever messages stem from the rest of its fare? When you consider all the murders, all the rapes, all the malevolence that television dishes out 24 hours a day, it adds up. It has to.

What to do?

I have to believe that if the sponsors of the worst, most pointless violent programs felt the sting of a boycott from time to time, they would react. Check your history; boycotts work.

It’s not as though advertisers are intrinsically evil. No, they are merely trying to reach their target audience as cheaply as possible. The company that produces a commercial has no real interest in pickling your child’s brain with violence; it just wants to reach the kid with a promotional message.

If enough consumers eschew worthless programs and stop buying the products that sponsor them, the advertiser will change its strategy. It really is that simple.

As we all know: A day passes whether anything is accomplished or not. Well, parents, a childhood passes, too, whether anything of value is learned or not.

Maybe television is blocking your child off from a lesson that needs to be learned firsthand -- in the real world where blood isn’t just red, it’s wet.

-- 30 --

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Remembering High on the Hog 1977-2006

Note: This piece was originally published by Brick Weekly in 2007.  

Memphis Rockabilly Band (and impresario Chuck Wrenn) on the HOTH stage in Libby Hill Park for the last time.

Due  to the intrusion of an all-day downpour, last year’s edition of High on the Hog, No. 30, was a soggy affair. Two of the bands scheduled couldn’t play under the circumstances. Yet, in spite of the stormy weather, the Bopcats and the Memphis Rockabilly Band performed using a scaled down sound system. Tarps were lashed to the sides and back of the stage to block the wind-driven rain.

A few party stalwarts danced in the mud with umbrellas. The show went on … but perhaps for the last time.

“It was a Nor’easterner that settled over Richmond,” said the longtime director of matters musical, Chuck Wrenn. “We’ll see what the future brings.”

Meanwhile, there certainly will be no High on the Hog 31 this year.

So, the director of matters porcine, Larry Ham, won’t be slathering his Carolina red vinegar basting sauce over slow-cooking pork this Saturday in Libby Hill Park. Moreover, it seems likely that High on the Hog—which for three decades has served a generation as a reliable reunion party—has probably happened for the last time.

The heavy losses sustained from last year’s fizzler meant the handful of friends/neighbors who have staged and financially backed HOTH since its inception took a bath in red ink ... the rainy day fund was wiped out.

Going back to HOTH’s origins, other than Ham, among Wrenn’s chief co-conspirators have been: Bobby Long, Dave O’Kelly, John Cochran, Randy Smith and Steve McKay. For such veterans last year’s weather had to bring to mind another rainy day, 26 years before. 1980 was the year they significantly enlarged the plan for what had originally been a small annual neighborhood party.

Three rousing rock n’ roll bands played on a flatbed trailer in the cobblestone alley behind Wrenn’s 2808 East Franklin Street back yard for what was the then-largest HOTH crowd ever.

Yet, this was a time when one couldn’t get a permit from the proper authorities for such an event. Amplified rock simply wasn’t allowed at outdoor shindigs in Richmond, most especially on public property. So, in a sense HOTH 4 was flying below, or perhaps above, the radar. For whatever reason the cops on the beat chose not to bust it.

When it suddenly began raining in 1980, rather than lose momentum by shutting off the electricity and clearing the stage—to wait out the downpour—Wrenn broke out his staple gun and large rolls of heavy-gauge transparent plastic. With the help of volunteers an awning was hastily improvised to keep the rain off the stage. A portion of the yard closest to it was also protected, somewhat.

Then, with the electric guitars of Don’ Ax Me ... Bitch wailing in defiance of the chilly rainstorm, the sense of common purpose felt by those dancing in the mud was unforgettable. The full potential of live rock n’ roll music to simultaneously express both lamentation and celebration was realized.

In 1983 HOTH had outgrown its alley venue, so it shifted gears and moved into the park across the street. The throwdown even went legit. Subsequently, HOTH’s rollicking success and noteworthy lack of trouble planted the seeds for Jumpin’ in July, Friday Cheers and the outdoor music festivals that have blossomed since.

The HOTH record for beer sales on a Saturday afternoon still stands at 209 kegs; it was some time in the early ‘90s, according to Chuck. At its peak, it took some 350 volunteers to chop the pork, serve the beer, tend the stage, etc. Each year volunteers got a new HOTH T-shirt for their trouble; extras were sold to the public. There have been 25 different models.

What was a beloved local gospel group, The Silver Stars, holds the record for most HOTH appearances with 10 (1987-‘96). The Memphis Rockabilly Band played the gig seven times (1980, ‘81, ‘84-‘87, ‘06).

“The Silver Stars, we got every year we could ... until they died,” Wrenn recalled.

What were locally-based bands with multiple appearances include: The Bopcats, The Good Humor Band, Billy Ray Hatley’s bands, Page Wilson with Reckless Abandon and The Wall-O-Matics. Maybe the three most noteworthy national acts were: Billy Price and the Keystone Rhythm Band in ‘83 and ‘85; NRBQ in ‘87; Marcia Ball in ‘01.

Presented with the prospect that HOTH has run it course, a smiling Chuck Wrenn offered familiar advice, “Don’t forget to have a good time.”

Those coveted laminated backstage credentials, which meant free beer to the wearer, will probably be selling on eBay soon. Who knows what T-shirts will eventually be worth?

Appropriately, as it stands now, the last band to perform was the impeccably authentic Memphis Rockabilly Band. Although it was unplanned, they were the perfect act to play an encore for 30 years of smiles ... one last fast dance in the mud.

-- Word and photo by F.T. Rea

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Big Stretch

Note: This piece first appeared in STYLE Weekly as a Back Page in 2002.

The prototype was assembled during a lull in seventh grade shop class. After tying some 15 rubber bands together to make a chain, a collaborator held one end of the contraption as I stepped back to stretch it out for a test. Squinting to sight along the taut line to take proper aim, finally, I let go.

The whole thing gathered itself and shot past the holder. The released tip struck a target smartly, several feet beyond the holder. While the satisfaction I felt was a rush, the encouragement from the boys who witnessed that launching felt transforming.

Through a pleasant sequence of trial-and-error experiments, it was soon determined how to best maximize distance and accuracy. Once guys across the room were getting popped with the bitter end of my brainchild -- dubbed The Stretch -- the spitballs that routinely flew around classrooms in 1961 at Albert H. Hill Junior High -- were strictly old news.

A couple of days later, uncharacteristically, I appeared on the schoolyard an hour before the first bell. Inside a brown paper bag I had was an updated version of my invention. This one was some 60 links long -- the Big Stretch. No one at school had seen it and I was only too happy to change that.

Once the Big Stretch was tested on the schoolyard, demonstrating its amazing new range, boys were soon shoving one another aside just to act as holders. Most of the time I did the shooting. Occasionally, one of the guys from my inner circle was permitted to be the shooter. As the wonder whizzed by it made such a splendid noise that just standing close by the holder was a thrill, too. On the asphalt playground behind the yellow brick school building an enthusiastic throng cheered each flight.

The Big Stretch went on to make an appearance at an afternoon football game, where its operators established to the delight of the audience that cheerleaders on the sideline at a football game could be zapped on their bouncing butts with impunity from more than 25 yards away. After a couple of days of demonstrations around the neighborhood and at Willow Lawn shopping center, again, I significantly lengthened the chain of rubber bands.

But the new version -- about 100 rubber bands long -- proved too heavy for its own good. It was not as accurate or powerful as the previous model. Then came the morning a couple of beefy ninth-grade football players weren’t content with taking a single turn with the new Big Stretch. Although there was a line behind them they demanded another go.

Surrounded by seventh-grade devotees of the Big Stretch, I stood my ground and refused. But my fair-weather entourage was useless in a pinch. Faced with no good options, I fled with my claim-to-fame in hand. In short order I was cornered and pounded until the determined thieves got the loot they wanted. They fooled around for a while trying to hit their buddies with it. Eventually, several rubber bands broke and the Big Stretch was literally pulled to pieces and scattered.

By then my nose had stopped bleeding, so I gathered my dignity and shrugged off the whole affair, as best I could. I chose not to make another version of the Big Stretch. A couple of other kids copied it, but nobody seemed to care. Just as abruptly as it had gotten underway, the connected-rubber-band craze ran out of gas at Hill School.

It was over.

At that time the slang meaning of “cool” had an underground cachet which has been stretched out of shape since. We’re told the concept of cool, and the term itself, seeped out of the early bebop scene in Manhattan in the ‘40s. That may be, but to me the same delightful sense of spontaneity and understated defiance seems abundantly evident in forms of expression that predate the Dizzy Gillespie/Thelonious Monk era at Minton’s, on 118th Street.

Wasn’t that Round Table scene at the Algonquin Hotel, back in the ‘20s, something akin to cool? If Dorothy Parker wasn’t cool, who the hell was? (Of course, I mean on paper, not necessarily in her day-to-day deportment.) And, in the decades that preceded the advent of bebop jazz, surely modern art -- with its cubism, surrealism, constructivism, and so forth -- was laying down some of the rules for what became known as cool.

Cool’s zenith had probably been passed by the time I became enamored with the Beats, via national magazines. Widespread exposure and cool were more or less incompatible. Significantly, cool -- with its ability to be flippant and profound in the same gesture -- rose and fell without the encouragement of the ruling class. Underdogs invented cool out of thin air. It was a style that was beyond what money could buy.

The artful grasping of a moment’s unique truth was cool. However, just as the one-time-only perfect notes blown in a jam session can’t be duplicated, authentic cool was difficult to harness; even more difficult to mass-produce.

By the ‘70s, the mobs of hippies attuned to stadium rock ‘n’ roll shrugged nothing off. Cool was probably too subtle for them to appreciate. The Disco craze ignored cool. Punk Rockers searched for it in all the wrong places, then caught a buzz and gave up.

Eventually, in targeting self-absorbed Baby Boomers as a market, Madison Avenue promoted everything under the sun -- including schmaltz, and worse -- as cool. The expression subsequently lost its moorings and dissolved into the soup of mainstream vernacular.

Time tends to stretch slang expressions thin as they are assimilated; pronunciations and definitions come and go. Since then, when people say, “ku-wul,” usually it's to express their ordinary approval of routine things.

The process of becoming cool, then popular, pulled The Big Stretch to pieces. Once the experimental aspect of it was over it got old, like any worn out joke. Then it began to play as just another showoff gimmick, which was something less-than-cool, even to seventh-graders a long time ago.
-- 30 --

Friday, September 18, 2015

Richmond's Handbill War

Note: The clipping above is from Throttle magazine's July 1982 issue.


In 1982 the City of Richmond tweaked its City Code to crack down on the posting of unauthorized messages on fixtures in the public way. With a focus on the Fan District, policemen pulled handbills from utility poles and charged who they held responsible for posting the handbill with violating the new statutes.

On June 28 of that same year, David Stover, a photographer and part-time usher at the Biograph Theatre, was ordered by a General District Court judge, R.W. Duling, to pay a $25 fine. Stover’s misdemeanor conviction stemmed from promoting a gig for his band, The Prevaricators. He admitted to having stapled copies of a letter-sized promotional flier to utility poles.

In the weeks before Stover’s court date others in bands had been fined for committing the same crime. In the early-80s Richmond’s live music scene was probably the strongest it had been in decades, but the crackdown suddenly had most clubs and bands afraid to rely on handbill campaigns to promote their shows. As fliers were the main promotional tool for most of the Rock 'n' Roll shows the crackdown threatened to throw a wet blanket over the aforementioned live music scene.

As the manager of the Biograph, I had been using the same sort of handbills on a regular basis for 10 years to promote that repertory cinema’s fare, in particular the midnight shows. Xerography had made the cost of a short run of little posters much more affordable. So, I wasn’t about to give up such a reliable and inexpensive method of promotion without a fight.

It felt to me like the City of Richmond was not only trampling on my freedom of speech rights, but it was trying to destroy the nightlife scene the Biograph was part of in the Fan District. The local authorities appeared to be trying to scrub away what some in Richmond had come to see as an undesirable element -- much of which was affiliated with VCU. 

Given those thoughts, I decided to go on stapling fliers to utility poles, more or less to invite a bust.

It wasn’t long before a polite cop showed up at the Biograph with a flier for the movie we were playing, “The Atomic Café.” He said he had removed it from a pole in the neighborhood. I admitted to putting it up and was issued a summons. Due to procedural delays, it took over four months for my day in court to arrive.

Which was fortunate, because I used that time window to build my case.

In a larger sense, it was another battle in a conflict we have come to know as the Culture War, which has been dragging on since the late-1960s. In part, the crackdown was blowback from the resentment some property owners in the Fan felt toward VCU’s growing presence. In 1982 the look associated with Punk Rock -- how the kids dressed, as well as their art -- was just as off-putting to some conservative old folks and Yuppies as the amplified sound of the music, itself. 

Consequently, the Fan District Association of that era was dead set against irreverent handbills that promoted edgy happenings in the Fan. Prompted by that civic association’s pressure, the City of Richmond said the whole mess was mostly about trash -- fliers stapled to poles were officially branded as litter. 

So, I started reading about similar situations in other places, cases that involved using fixtures in the public way, such as utility poles. I found some useful precedents that backed up my thinking. Plus, I began to read about and look at political art and outlaw art, down through history, more than ever.

The study of laws and decisions about free speech and the use of public property became my obsession. Scheming about how to present the argument filled my head for the next four months. First, I wanted the court to see an essential context -- our society tolerates all sorts of signage on utility poles, because the messages are considered useful and the practice works.

Then, I wanted to convince a judge that once you considered all the handbills in the neighborhood around VCU, as a whole, it could be seen as an information system. It was a system that some young people were relying on for information, just the same as others might rely on newspapers obtained from a box sitting on public sidewalk.

After all, what right did the newspaper company have to block the public sidewalk with its box full of information, including a lot of advertising? What allowed for that?

One person might read the entertainment section in a local newspaper. Another person might look to the utility poles in their neighborhood, to read the posters touting live music shows or poetry readings. Some would trust the information found in a newspaper. Others might put more faith in the handbills posted on certain poles they walk past regularly. 

The only reason privately owned utility poles had ever been allowed to impose on public property, in the first place, was that electricity and telephone lines had been seen as serving the commonweal. So, why not use the bottom of the same poles as kiosks?   

Somewhere along the line, I told my bosses it would cost them nothing in legal fees. A couple of my friends who were on the theater's softball team, who were also pretty good lawyers, would handle the defense.

To gather plenty of good examples of handbills to use as evidence, we had an art show at the Biograph (see flier above). On October 5, some 450 flyers, posted on black foam core panels, were hung in the theater’s lobby. In all, there were probably three or four dozen different artists represented. A group of friends acted as impromptu art expert judges to select the best five of the show.

Naturally, there was a keg of beer on hand to grease the wheels of progress.

Two of the handbill art show judges from that night also served as expert witnesses at the trial. They were: Gerald Donato and David Manning White. Donato was an art professor at VCU; White was the retired head of the mass communications department at VCU. The best 100 of the handbills from the show were later taken to court as evidence.

One of Phil Trumbo’s Orthotones (later Orthotonics) handbills was named Best in Show. Most people who knew much about the handbill artists in the Fan would have said Trumbo was top dog, so it was a popular decision by the judges.

Thus, on November 5, 1982, I witnessed a fascinating scene in which an age-old question — what is art? — was hashed out in front of a patient judge, who seemed to thoroughly enjoy the parade of exhibits and witnesses the defense attorneys put before him. The room was packed with observers, which included plenty of gypsy musicians, film buffs and art students wearing paint-speckled dungarees.

Trumbo testified at the trial as a handbill expert, to explain how to make a handbill and why they were used by promoters of entertainment. He also described how the music and art associated with the bands and clubs were all part of the same scene that flowed out of the neighborhood's university.

My defense attorneys attacked the wording of the city's statute I was charged with violating as “overreaching.” They asserted on my behalf that it was my right to post the handbill, plus the public had a right to see it. The prosecution called the handbill, “litter.”

The judge was reminded that history-wise, handbills predate newspapers. Furthermore, we asserted that some of the cheaply printed posters, a natural byproduct of having a university with a burgeoning art school in the neighborhood, were worthwhile art.

At a crucial moment, Donato was being grilled by the prosecutor. The Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney, William B. Bray, asked the witness if the humble piece of paper in his hand, the offending handbill, could actually be “art.”

“Probably,” shrugged the prof. “Why not?”

The stubborn prosecutor grumbled, reasserting that it was no better than trash in the gutter. Having grown weary of the artsy, high-brow vernacular being slung around by the witnesses, the prosecutor tried one last time to make Donato look foolish.

As Warhol’s soup cans had just been mentioned by the art expert, the prosecutor asked something like, “If you were in an alley and happened upon a pile of debris spilled out from a tipped-over trashcan, could that display be art, too?”

“Well,” said the artist, pausing momentarily for effect, “that would depend on who tipped the can over.”

Donato’s punch line was perfectly delivered. The courtroom erupted into laughter. Even the judge had to fight off a smile.

The crestfallen prosecutor gave up; he had lost the case. Although I got a kick out of the crack, too, I’ve always thought the City’s mouthpiece missed an opportunity to hit the ball back across the net.

“Sir, let me get this right,” he might have said, “are you saying the difference between art and randomly-strewn garbage is simply a matter of whose hand touched it; that the actual appearance of the objects, taken as a whole, is not the true test? Would you have us believe that without credentials, such as yours, one is ill-equipped to determine the difference ordinary trash and fine art?”

A smarter lawyer could well have exploited that angle.

Still, the prosecutor’s premise/strategy that an expert witness could be compelled to rise up to brand a handbill for a movie, a green piece of paper with black ink on it, as “un-art” was absurd. So, Donato, who was a wily artist if there ever was one, probably would have one-upped the buttoned-down lawyer, no matter what.

Perhaps the question should not have been — how can you tell fake art from real art? Any town is full of bad art, mediocre art and good art. Name your poison.

The better question to ask is whether the art is pleasing to the eye, thought-provoking or useful. Then you become the expert witness.

However, when it comes to great art, it still depends on who tips the can over.

The next day the story about winning the handbill case was draped stylishly across the top of the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
‘Atomic Café’ handbill case is still clouded
By Frank Green
Sat., Nov. 6, 1982

Though the case has ended, the fallout from “The Atomic Café” may not be over.

Richmond District Court Judge Jose R. Davila Jr. dismissed a charge yesterday against Terry Rea, the manager of the Biograph Theater, who allegedly posted handbills advertising the movie “The Atomic Café” on some utility poles in the Fan in June…

…The case concerned the seemingly simple issue of the allegedly illegal posting of a handbill. But before it was over, the proceedings touched on topics that included free speech, soup cans, and nuclear energy, and invoked the names of such diverse personalities as Andy Warhol and the city‘s public safety director.

Rea’s attorneys, John G. Colan and Stuart R. Kaplan, argued the city’s ordinance was unconstitutional because it violated Rea’s right of freedom of speech…

…“The city, GRTC, VCU, churches, the Boys Club and all the candidates use the public’s utility poles to post their signs. They know as well as the general public that there is nothing pretty about a naked pole. Handbills pose no danger to anyone. Is free speech only for some?” Rea asked in a handbill he had printed up before yesterday’s trial.   
Later that Saturday Richmond’s afternoon daily, the Richmond News Leader, carried this story:
Art or litter? Judge rules handbills not in ‘public way’
by Frank Donnelly
Nov. 6, 1982

One man’s art may be another man’s litter, but the real question was whether it blocks the “public way.”

Terry Rea, manager of the Biograph Theatre in Richmond, was charged in June with obstructing a city sidewalk when he posted handbills on utility poles in the Fan District.

Rea’s attorneys, eliciting testimony on mass media and art from several professors at Virginia Commonwealth University, argued yesterday that the city law limited their client’s freedom of speech.

However, Richmond General District Judge Jose R. Davila, Jr., said the issue came down to whether the posters obstructed the public way, and he ruled that the commonwealth’s attorney’s office failed to prove they did.

Davila dismissed the charge against the manager of the theater but stopped short of finding the city law unconstitutional, which also had been requested by Rea’s attorney’s.

The city now must decide whether to find a better legal argument to defend the city law or to revise it, officials said. The law is used by the police to combat excessive advertising in the public way, which is defined as any place open to the public, such as a street or sidewalk.

“The poles were perfectly clean this morning,” Capt. Robert T. Millikin, Jr., said about the possible impact of the decision. “Between you and me, I don’t know what they’ll [sic] going to look like between now and tonight.”

For the last year, Fan District residents have complained to police about the the unsightliness caused by posters on trees and utility poles, Millikin said. The police asked businesses in June to stop posting the handbills and most businesses did so, he said.

Rea said he always has relied on handbills as an inexpensive but effective way to advertise movies at the theater, which specializes in the showing of avant-garde movies. Two weeks later, he was charged with a misdemeanor after posting advertisements for the anti-nuclear power movie, “The Atomic Cafe.”

The manager was charged under a law that states: “It shall be unlawful for any persons to obstruct or use a public way for advertising, promotional or solicitation purposes or for any purpose connected therewith ... by placing attacking [sic] or maintaining a sign on or to a fixture (such as a utility pole) ...”

Rea’s attorneys, Stuart R. Kaplan and John G. Colan, contended in court that the posters did not obstruct the public way, and the arresting officer agreed with them.

“It was nothing anyone would trip over,” Patrolman James P. Gilliam said about the posters.

The attorneys also argued that the city law abridged Rea’s freedom of speech by denying him one possible way to advertise.

David M. White, a former VCU professor of mass communication and author of 20 books on the media. said handbills are a unique form of communication. The theater could advertise in newspapers but the cost was prohibitive, he said.

Jerry Donato, an associate VCU professor of fine arts, said that posters in the Fan District contained both art and messages. “The Atomic Cafe” posters, which contained the slogan, “A hot spot in a Cold War,” criticized the use of nuclear power, he said.

Asked by assistant commonwealth’s attorney William B. Bray whether a bunch of soup cans on the ground is art, Donato replied, “It depends on who arranged them.”

The courtroom, which held about 30 artists and supporters of the theater, erupted into laughter.

Bray said purpose of the statute was to prevent littering but agreed that another reason was to prevent obstruction of the public way. The posting of handbills could block the public way by falling off of a utility pole and causing pedestrians to slip, he said. The posting of the advertisements caused a hardship for the police, which sometimes had to take down the posters, Millikin said.

“This ties my men up,” he said. “We have more important things to do, God knows.”

Rea and his attorneys said they were happy with the decision although they wished Davila had gone farther and ruled the city law unconstitutional.

“I’m glad there are no criminal charges against me,” said Rea, who will continue to post the handbills. “But I wish the judge had gone further and ordered the statute to be unconstitutional. I don’t whether I’m safe.”

Before the trial, Rea had argued, “The handbill posted in the public way is a unique and vital form of communication. Production and distribution is direct, swift and cheap.”

That message was printed on a handbill.

In 1985, Richmond once again passed new laws forbidding unauthorized fliers on utility poles. Another crackdown ensued.

This time it spawned a reaction from several of the Fan District’s handbill artists, musicians and promoters -- activists who called themselves the Fan Handbill Association.

Eventually, this issue prompted me to design a two-page, twice-a-week magazine, SLANT, made to be stapled to utility poles. There were cartoons, stories and ads. But that’s another story for another day.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Barack Obama, the Jackie Robinson of Our Day

The people who like to brand Barack Obama's presidency as a “failure” are saying more about themselves than Obama or about their understanding of politics. Like baseball Hall-of-Famer Jackie Robinson (1919-72), Obama broke new ground in the USA and has had to put up with relentless mean-spirited attacks to block his way and undermine his efforts.

During Robinson's career with the Brooklyn Dodgers (1947-56), not only were there ballplayers who deliberately tried to injure him, there were fans of a certain mindset who claimed he really wasn't all that good. Some still say it. Of course they had to overlook his Rookie of the Years award in 1947. Same with his Most Valuable Player award in 1949. Same with his six times being selected as a National League All-Star. Robinson received those honors in spite of the abject racism in the air in those days, attitudes that blinded some of those who were voters. 

Fortunately, Robinson's stats still speak for themselves – .311 lifetime batting average; 197 stolen bases, etc. It should be noted that he didn't start his 10-year MLB career until he was 28 years old.

Like Robinson's accomplishment's were, Obama's have been made as part of a team, and they were made in spite of relentless focused efforts to undermine him and deny him fair treatment. Today, 59 years after Robinson's last game in a Dodgers uniform, those who assert that Obama has been a failure as a president obviously have no interest in speaking the truth. Some of them are still claiming he's a closet Muslim who was born in Kenya.

As it has turned out with history's view of Jackie Robinson, historians will know what label to put on all that crap. And, in my view Obama has been the most successful president in a long time, maybe since the days when Robinson was pissing off racists.  

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Double-Take: Kass 333

Note: I wrote this piece in 2010 for the James River Film Journal. 


Alan Rubin (one of the Biograph Theatre's owners) and 
Carole Kass in the Biograph lobby at the second
anniversary party (Feb. 11, 1972).
Photo by Gary Fisher.

This morning I thought of Carole Kass, longtime movie critic at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, who died at the age of 73 in 2000. So, for the sake of a little variety this week my post will be about her, instead of a list of five favorites.

During my nearly 12-year stint as the manager of the Biograph Theatre (1972-83) I spoke with Carole nearly every week, often more than once. She came to the theater regularly to review first-run pictures. She came to see movies she liked on her own time. Plus she was there for various social occasions and a publicity stunt, or two. In the process, over the years, we learned to trust one another.

The genuine enthusiasm and warmth Carole brought to her work as a film critic/entertainment columnist was uncommon. Those same traits were evidenced in everything she touched. Whether she was helping out a little independent movie theater with her words in ink, or teaching cinema history to undergraduates at Virginia Commonwealth University, or teaching film production to inmates at the Virginia State Penitentiary, Carole always cared and it showed.

Carole understood the power that motion pictures have to lift people from the grips of their vexations and depressions, if only for a few sweet moments.

My last show-biz encounter with Carole took place in 1998, when she was part of the Jewish Community Center’s presentation of a live Joan Rivers show at the then-Carpenter Center. My job, as a freelance videographer, was to record the performance for the sponsors with two cameras; one for closeups and the other for a wide shot of the stage.

Rivers’ topic was surviving tragedy. In spite of the subject she was quite funny. After her prepared remarks, Joan answered written questions submitted by the audience and then asked of her onstage by Carole. Their impromptu performance together was nearly as good as what had gone before.

At that time, it was public knowledge that Carole was battling cancer. She joked with me that night about her fretting over whether she would live long enough to do the show for the JCC. A few days after that performance I went out to her home in the West End for a visit. I wanted to shoot some stills of old pictures of her to insert into the video, to play over the sound of her introduction in the show. I was also searching for a way to tell her how much she had always meant to the Biograph’s survival and to the film-loving community in Richmond.

Typically, Carole was her modest self. In her view, she had only been a background artist, helping out. Then there had been her forced retirement from Media General a few years before, which had never set well with her.

A week or so later, I delivered a video tape to her at her home. It included Rivers’ talk to the audience and what followed. At the end of the tape there was a tribute to Carole that I had staged, shot and edited without her knowledge; I didn’t let on about the surprise.

Here’s what Carole didn’t know as she watched the tape: The R-TD’s then-executive editor, Bill Millsaps, had helped me out by asking all the writers to come outside for about 20 minutes to be the performers in a tribute to Carole. Others from the local film buff community, including former staff members at the Biograph, were also asked to be on hand.

The cast was directed to walk around for a while, then stand applauding in front of 333 W. Grace St., an entrance to the newspaper’s building that no longer exists. I had help shooting the scene from Jerry Williams and Ted Salins, who manned two of three cameras I used.

Later I edited the footage from the three tapes into a short piece, using music from the movie “8½” for sound; the imagery also imitated it, somewhat. That particular Fellini flick was one of her favorites. No one had told Carole a word about it; it had been beautiful teamwork.

When she saw the tribute footage, watching it with pain as her only companion, Carole couldn’t fathom that all those people had actually been assembled, just to give her a standing ovation. When she called, she told me she had assumed I found the footage, somewhere, and spliced it onto end of the tape. Where had I found it? she asked.

With a measure of satisfaction I chuckled and informed her how the scene was actually set up. She didn’t buy it!

Carole thanked me warmly, but added a gentle scolding for my trying to fool her about the mysterious scene, shot in front of the old entrance to 333. She reminded me of my reputation as a trickster.

Later Carole telephoned then-television critic Douglas Durden, only to hear from her old friend (they sat at desks next to one another for years) that it all had been just as I said.

After talking with others at the newspaper, Carole called me back to laugh, to cry and to apologize for not believing me. She went on to say that what had started out as a rather “bad day” for her — coping with the indignities of her situation — had been changed into a “good day.”

As my mother died of cancer in 1984, I could grasp what Carole might have meant by “good days” and “bad days.” Carole thanked me for that good day. I told her I’d had a lot of help.

It began with an idea for a gesture to lift an old friend’s spirits and let her know how much her colleagues and the rest of us appreciated her. The finished product, with Carole’s double-take reaction actually turned out better than I had envisioned. Which is somewhat unusual for one of my stunts.
Back in the summer of 1998, I gave a print of the tape to Saps, to say, “Thanks.” Naturally, the JCC got a tape. No one else has seen it, as far as I know.

And, dear reader, a good day is wished to you and yours.

Note: what is shown in the YouTube video below is just the 90-minute tape’s last two minutes and 39 seconds. Unfortunately, owing to the half-ass transfer process the look of it is rough.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Bijou presents: 4K restoration of 'The Third Man'

The Bijou Film Center's next move will be to present the newly restored version of "The Third Man" (1949) at the Byrd Theatre on Sunday, September 6, at 7 p.m. Admission $10.00.

Following the one-time-only screening of the film noir gem an after-party will unfold at the New York Deli, located just two doors west of the movie theater. Gypsy Roots will perform live on stage.

Richmond Magazine's Harry "The Hat" Kollatz, Jr., offers some background on the 4K restoration of the film and its protagonist from Petersburg, Virginia -- Joseph Cotten (pictured above). This movie, set in post-WWII Vienna, is one of several collaborations between Cotten and Orson Welles. Click here to read Kollatz's piece.

Advance tickets for $7.00 are available at Bygones Vintage Clothing and Steady Sounds. To read more on one of the most beloved movies of all-time go here.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

An Over-Awareness of the Camera

Note: This piece was written in 2011. Unfortunately, again this year we're seeing murders presented as stunts. Long before most of us, Paddy Chayefsky saw it coming.

Behind makeshift barricades in the basement of a small church there will be 18 people, 17 of which will hostages of a 20-year-old schizophrenic full of sweet red wine and homemade speed. He will have a military rifle with a large magazine with which to threaten his hostages. And, he will also have a portable nuclear device he bought from a Middle Eastern underground arms merchant.

His laptop's camera and microphone will capture and transmit the hostage-taker's cryptic announcement: "I am the Looney Tunes Bomber, my presentation will be a one-reeler." The media covering the on-going hostage story will broadcast his "presentation" live.

The entire nine minutes and 11 seconds of the LTB’s ranting performance will be consumed by a rapt audience; there will be millions of viewers in the final minute. Although he will talk about wanting to kill lots of "deserving Americans," he won't mention how he plans to do it.

After chuckling, “Tha, tha … that’s all folks,” he will set off the bomb.

It will blow Boise, or maybe Baltimore, off the map. Videos of the suicidal bomber’s diabolical stunt will go up on YouTube about a half-hour after the appearance of the mushroom cloud.

Somewhere, in Rio, or Tokyo, or elsewhere, a heart will be beating faster in the chest of an abused and angry boy who will be instantly determined to top the LTB’s bloodthirsty audacity.

We are watching a generation grow up with an awareness of the camera that goes far beyond previous generations. And, we are also witnessing a snowballing of the ability of anyone to transmit words and images about love, hate, religion, style and politics, by way of the Internet, to a worldwide audience.

It’s anybody’s guess where the current generation’s insatiable thirst to record and share voluminous records of their everyday lives will lead ... good or bad. We do already know that revolutionaries everywhere are relying on social media in a way that is mind-boggling.

Meanwhile, more and more we are seeing news stories that are tantamount to stunts staged for willing cameras. While it's fashionable these days to scold the press for its tasteless and excessive coverage of certain events, it's not entirely the fault of media executives and editors. The stories they encounter, in some cases, have been planned and packaged by people who are damn good at planting a story.

A precedent-setter in this area occurred in 1979 with the shameful cooperation that developed between news-gatherers for television and the Iranian "students," who demonstrated on a daily basis in front of the American embassy during the hostage crisis that sabotaged the presidency of Jimmy Carter.

Now we know that much of the feverish chanting and fist waving was done on cue. Now we know the camera shots were pushed in tight because the angry horde yelling, "Death to America!" was only a dozen souls deep.

Today, it seems cultural and religious grievances are routinely becoming more heated, here and abroad, by provocative or slanted news coverage. Moreover, much of the reportage these days actually seems designed to inflame situations being covered.

On top of that, in America, the press scrutiny of angry the anti-government firestorm being stoked by some for political gain is surely helping to push some alienated militia types closer to the edge -- the sort that sees Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh as a hero.

Speaking of McVeigh, the future’s bomber in the church basement will have already seen how plenty of sullen murderers have been made into celebrities by the press. So, he'll be confident the television networks and online newspapers would not switch off a live feed from an on-going hostage situation. Sadly, even if they could see they would be magnifying the reach and power of our maniac, it’s hard to believe the mainstream media would be able to deny him his last terrible wishes.


Post-ka-boom, can’t you hear the executives explaining their decisions? "Hey, if we didn’t cover the story in real-time, the other networks would have..."

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