Saturday, May 20, 2017

After-hours screening of 'The Harder They Come'

Ed. Note: What follows is an episode of Biograph Times, which is a work-in-progress that hopes to one day become a book. The Biograph (1972-87) was an independent repertory cinema, located at 814 West Grace Street in Richmond, Virginia. It opened in an era that seemed ready to give the baby boomers, who were becoming adults, whatever they wanted.


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. I managed the Biograph in Richmond.

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.

Ed. 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.

Forty-four years ago, watching a virtually unknown low-budget Jamaican film after 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.

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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Five Film Favorites: Cartoons

This category is especially tricky. There's no way I can remember what my favorite cartoons were when I was 10 years old, back when cartoons mattered to me more than most things in real life. Baseball mattered more.

What will fill up this list will be my five favorite cartoons today. Still, before I get to that I want to give the reader some sense of what I liked best, back when I was a cartoon-loving kid. My favorite 'toons featured these characters: Betty Boop, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Heckle and Jeckle, Mr. Magoo, Popeye, Woody Woodpecker and so forth. Rather than go on, I'll stop there. You get the picture.  

In the late-1950s I still very much enjoyed the smooth animation styles of the old cartoons that were originally made to play in movie theaters. The early cartoons made for television, like Mighty Mouse, had imitated them. Then the Hanna-Barbera style came to TV. It was everywhere suddenly and I didn't like it all that much.

The drawings were flatter. Their entertainment value relied more on the dialogue than the art. Although I watched Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear, even liked them, I was put off by the animation style. The same was true for Rocky and Bullwinkle, although I liked the cartoons on that program more, because the writing was much funnier.

For this list of five favorites I'm talking mostly about cartoons that are about seven minutes long, which was standard in the time before television. So no feature length animated films are on this list. Neither are made-for-TV shows like The Simpsons, etc. 

Here are my five favorite short (all less than 10 minutes) cartoons, with one added special mention of an unusual animated segment of a feature-length film.

"The Critic" (1963): 4 minutes. Color. Directed by Ernest Pintoff. Voice by Mel Brooks. Click here to watch it.

"Duck Amuck" (1953): 7 minutes. Color. Directed by Chuck Jones. Voices by Mel Blanc. Click here to watch it.

"Minnie the Moocher" (1932). 8 minutes. B&W. Directed by Dave Fleischer. Voices by Mae Questel, Cab Calloway. Click here to watch it.

"Rooty Toot Toot" (1951): 7 minutes. Color. Directed by John Hubley. Voices by  Thurl Ravenscroft, Annette Warren. Click here to watch it.

"Thank You Masked Man" (1971): 8 minutes. Color. Directed by John Magnuson. Voices by Lenny Bruce. Click here to watch it.

Bonus pick: This is a segment from "Allegro non Troppo" (1976). It was an Italian take off of Disney's "Fantasia." Both films used pieces of classical music as their sound. Click here to watch it.

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Five Favorite Films: Movies About Television

In the early-1950s television’s ability to reach into America’s living rooms was taking the country by storm. The advertising industry that was building up around television was becoming hugely influential on the nation’s culture. Many observers saw TV as being in the process of killing off the movie-making industry in Hollywood and the movie-exhibiting business all over the country.

Eventually, one by one, the major studios sold off the rights to their old features to television. To lure audiences into aging downtown movie palaces the most panicked producers in Hollywood reached out to eye candy like CinemaScope and 3-D. Soon the studios decided they had to stop making movies in black and white. Eventually, the businessmen of Hollywood saw they had to throw off the Hays Code, adopted in the early-’30s to keep the smut out of American movies.

A national trend moved the movie theater business to multiplexes in the suburbs. Downtown single-auditorium movie houses fell onto hard times. So, Richmond is fortunate to have an authentic old movie palace still in operation as a cinema: The Byrd Theatre, which opened in 1928, is now owned and operated by a non-profit foundation.

Yet, some 60 years after the doom of big-budget movie-making was being predicted, while the old studio system that thrived in the ‘30s and ‘40s is history, it seems no matter how much it costs to make feature films, determined producers will always figure out ways to keep doing it.

Of course, one of the things that Hollywood has relished doing that television couldn’t do, or wouldn’t do, for a long time, was to tell unflattering, inside stories about how the people who rule the television industry operate ... to expose their real priorities. As a medium, TV was too uptight to pull back the curtain to reveal its inner works. In other words, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" wasn’t a realistic look at the job of producing a weekly sitcom.

However circuitous, that introduction leads us to this week’s list of five film favorites -- movies about television. All of them were made in the 20th century, one of them, just barely: 

  • “Broadcast News” (1987): Color. 133 minutes. Directed by  James L. Brooks. Cast: William Hurt, Albert Brooks, Holly Hunter, Jack Nicholson. Note: The inevitable rivalries that color the relationships of the news producer, writer/reporter and presenter/anchorman are explored. Being overly self-absorbed is an industry requirement. Roger Ebert said: “[As] knowledgeable about the TV news-gathering process as any movie ever made.”
  • “The China Syndrome” (1979): Color. 122 minutes. Directed by James Bridges. Cast: Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas, Scott Brady. Note: A reporter discovers a cover-up of an accident at a nuclear power plant and all hell breaks loose. Her determination to tell the story becomes dangerous to her and anyone close by. Ironically, the infamous Three Mile Island partial meltdown incident in Pennsylvania happened 12 days after this film was released in 1979. 
  • “A Face in the Crowd” (1957): B&W. 126 minutes. Directed by Elia Kazan. Cast: Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Anthony Franciosa, Lee Remick. Note: An early warning about television’s potential to boost a charismatic personality into real power. As corny as this film is, in ways, most of it holds up well. Although Andy Griffith doesn’t play a heavy often, he sure knocks it out of the park in this one.
  • “Magnolia” (1999): Color. 188 minutes. Directed by  Paul Thomas Anderson. Cast: Jason Robards, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Tom Cruise, Philip Baker Hall. Note: A dark but whimsical story about fate and luck, told from several angles that overlap. The scene that unites all the characters, to sing the same Aimee Mann song is about as risky AND as satisfying as it gets on the big screen.
  • “Network” (1976): Color. 121 minutes. Directed by Sydney Lumet. Cast: Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall. Note: The future of cable television’s soon-to-be-seen excesses in bad taste is anticipated with chilling accuracy by writer Paddy Chayefsky. Finch’s unhinged anchorman character, Howard “I’m Mad as Hell” Beale, is unforgettable. It won him an Oscar.
Close runners-up: Although I wanted to put “Medium Cool” (1969) on this list, it’s been so long since I’ve seen it that I couldn‘t do it. “Wag the Dog” (1997) almost made the list, too. If I’ve left off your favorite movie about television, please feel free to use the comments option this blogzine offers to give it its proper due.

Next Thursday another Five Film Favorites episode with a different category will be offered. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Five Film Favorites: Movies About Making Movies

Filmmakers tell us stories. 

The people who write the screenplays and direct the movies we see on screens, large and small, sometimes appear to know a lot about cowboys, or modern teenagers in love, or lathered up serial killers, or life in the fast lane, or whatever. Still, what most successful filmmakers actually do know about, firsthand and in-depth, is what goes on behind the camera in the business of producing popular motion pictures.

Consequently, plenty of movies about making movies have been made; some of those inside looks at filmmaking are among the best features ever produced. After all, there’s no business like show business!

Which means narrowing the list down to just five titles this week wasn’t easy, but that’s my job.

Yes, “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) is still a cool flick and it’s sort of about making movies. Yes, I always enjoy watching “Singin' in the Rain” (1952), even though most of the old studio system musicals from the 1940s and ’50s aren’t likely to ever appear on any favorites list of mine. Yes, “Wag the Dog” (1997) deserves more praise than it has received. And, most recently, I enjoyed “The Artist” (2011) quite a bit, although I‘ve only seen it once. Yes, more films could be cited in this paragraph, but today none of them have made the cut. 

This Thursday my five favorite movies about making movies are: 
  • “8½” (1963): B&W. 138 minutes. Directed by Federico Fellini. Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée. Note: While this is a film about making a film, don’t stew over trying to make sense of it. Just watch as Fellini dazzles you with unforgettable characters and images, as he shrugs and admits to his own confusion.
  • “Day for Night” (1973): Color. 115 minutes. Directed by François Truffaut. Cast: Jacqueline Bisset, Valentina Cortese, François Truffaut. Note: An engaging look at the process of crafting a movie's plot, with the soap-opera-like private lives of the cast and crew intermingling with the production. It could be seen as a director’s bittersweet confession.
  • “The Day of the Locust” (1975): Color. 144 minutes. Directed by John Schlesinger. Cast: Donald Sutherland, Karen Black, William Atherton, Burgess Meredith. Note: This foreboding story was adapted from the Nathanael West  novel about the fresh lure of stardom in Hollywood and the same old road to hell.
  • “The Player” (1992): Color. 124 minutes. Directed by Robert Altman. Cast: Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Fred Ward. Note: Dealing out some payback to Hollywood, Altman pulls back the curtain to show us the blackmailing, back-stabbing side of how stories -- reduced to pitches -- get processed into movies. No doubt, Altman and his accomplices had fun making this one.
  • “Sunset Blvd.” (1950): B&W. 110 minutes. Directed by Billy Wilder. Cast: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim. Note: For a young struggling writer, down on his luck, why not coast for a while? Why not facilitate the batty fantasies of a rich, has-been movie star? What could go wrong?
Yes, there’s a thread of cynicism that runs through all five of them. Perhaps that’s because the filmmakers felt compelled to remind the viewer that show business people just make stuff up all the time. We viewers shouldn’t really believe they know all that much about cowboys or modern teenagers.

No, we movie-lovers should just enjoy the best of these filmmakers’ efforts and take them for what they are, for the most part -- made-up stories, created to tell us a larger truth.

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Five Film Favorites: War Movies

Note: This piece was originally published on Sept. 5, 2013. All rights are reserved.

Yes, like it or not, the drumbeat for war is sounding again and stirring passions. The debate inside the beltway over whether to bomb Syria is taking place as these words are being written. Justifications, warnings and predictions are in the air. With uncertainty swirling about, one thing is for sure -- filmmakers are paying attention to what’s happening. They are taking notes for the movies to be made about what’s happening … and what will follow.

As a setting for compelling stories the extremes of war have been useful to filmmakers throughout the history of movies. The first American feature-length motion picture to receive widespread distribution was D.W. Griffith’s rather warped melodrama about the American Civil War and its aftermath, “The Birth of a Nation” (1915).

Depending on what might be called a “war movie,” at least 20 such feature films have won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The problem with arriving at an exact number is that while some movies are set during wars, not all of them seem like traditional “war movies.” Which opens the door to the problem of defining that term.

Well, for today’s purpose “war movies” are going to be divided into two categories: heroic and anti-war. Still, most of the best war movies, at least in my book, have at least a hint of anti-war sentiment in them. Some might call it sanity. After all, war isn’t just hell, it’s crazy hell.

For this week’s list of favorites a “heroic war film” is about the quest to bravely fight through that crazy hell as part of a larger purpose. Such films are usually about losing oneself in the pursuit of that quest. Whereas, an “anti-war film” is more about the toll of war, or the sheer folly of it.

Thus, I have to cheat for this week’s favorites list -- two different sets of five favorites are needed to cover the war front.

Heroic War Films
  • “Attack” (1956): B&W. 107 minutes. Directed by Robert Aldrich. Cast: Jack Palance, Eddie Albert, Lee Marvin. Note: This gritty WWII yarn pits extremes against one another with cynicism as the referee. Cooney is the hated officer who owes his rank to political pull. Caught in the throes of a fit of cowardice he fails to support his men when it counts most. One of them, Costa, survives and wants Cooney to pay.
  • “The Deer Hunter” (1978): Color. 182 minutes. Directed by Michael Cimino. Cast: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Savage, John Cazale. Note: This tense story pulls three pals loose from their familiar blue collar moorings. It drops them into unimagined horrors in another world -- Vietnam. Then it explores the nature of heroism staring into the madness of a dilemma with no good options.
  • “The Great Escape” (1963): Color. 172 minutes. Directed by John Sturges. Cast: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence. Note: McQueen is at his antihero best in this somewhat true WWII story about captured Americans and Brits in a German prisoner of war camp, plotting a massive escape. Their ingenuity and dedication are the stuff of a great adventure … whether they get away with it or not.
  • “The Thin Red Line” (1998): Color. 170 minutes. Directed by Terrence Malick. Cast: Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Adrien Brody, James Caviezel, Woody Harrelson. Note: When Malick makes a WWII movie it’s going to be different from most war movies. This one lingers on the soldiers’ dreams and boredom, then explodes into action most of them have extreme difficulty handling. Of course, there are those charmed individuals who somehow thrive in combat.
  • “The Train” (1964): Color. 133 minutes. Directed by John Frankenheimer. Cast: Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau. Note: In 1944 a German colonel wants to grab a bunch of important art and take it out of France, to Germany, before the approaching Allied troops can liberate Paris. The French resistance wants to prevent the Nazis on the train from completing their thieving mission.

Anti-War Films
  • “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964): B&W. 95 minutes. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn. Note: Coming just after the Cuban Missile Crisis this outrageous, nuke-mocking black comedy worked like a charm. Poof! The fallout shelter-building-craze began to go out of style in the suburbs. Trivia: owing to the assassination of JFK in November of 1963 this film's release was delayed two months.
  • “Forbidden Games” (1952): B&W. 86 minutes. Directed by René Clément. Cast: Brigitte Fossey, Georges Poujouly, Amédée. Note: An orphaned and confused little girl is taken in by a family. In this subtle anti-war classic the devastating toll of mechanized war, as seen by children -- who can hardly grasp what’s happening around them -- is stunning. Don’t look for a lot of battle scenes in this one.
  • “King of Hearts” (1966): Color. Directed by Philippe de Broca. Cast: Alan Bates, Geneviève Bujold, Pierre Brasseur. Note: The first movie to play at Richmond’s long-lost Biograph Theatre (in 1972) was a zany French comedy; Bujold was dazzling opposite the droll Bates. The story is set amid the harsh but absurd realities of way too much war (WWI). Hey, when the world goes crazy, why shouldn’t the crazy people take over the town?
  • “Paths of Glory” (1957): B&W. 88 minutes. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou. Note: In the trench warfare stalemate of WWI, the search for glory becomes a fool’s errand. Living in mud with dead bodies piling up, blame-shifting begins to obscure the mission -- what is the mission? Honest men start to look like enemies to their corrupt superior officers.
  • “Seven Beauties” (1975): Color. 115 minutes. Directed by Lina Wertmüller. Cast: Giancarlo Giannini, Fernando Rey, Shirley Stoler. Note: This film is a unique combination of comedy and tragedy. Caught in a war, if they want to survive, what -- if anything! -- will captive soldiers refuse to do? What will their families at home, facing starvation, refuse to do? This unforgettable look at Italy in WWII takes you there.
Couldn‘t figure out what category to put "The Battle of Algiers" (1966) in, but if you watch it, this docudrama will tattoo your mind. It should be required viewing for those who are deciding whether or not to bomb Syria tomorrow.

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Five Film Favorites: Westerns

Jack Burns and Whisky pass through a junkyard in
"Lonely Are the Brave," which was adapted from the
Edward Abbey novel, "Brave Cowboy."

We’ve all seen lots of bad Western movies. Typically, they feature fist-fighting drunk cowboys and their inevitable handgun duels, all poured into hackneyed plots. Yet, a good Western, with well drawn characters moving about in a lean story, is hard to beat.

Regardless of the overall quality of the movie, the stark landscape of most Westerns is the prefect backdrop for tall tales of men, and sometimes women, driven to extremes.

Listed below are my five favorite Westerns, presented in alphabetical order:
  • “High Noon” (1952): B&W. 85 Minutes. Directed by Fred Zinnemann; Cast: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges. Note: The contrasts are vivid. Shadow or light? Happiness or duty? Community or self interest? Honor or whatever is the opposite? Life or death?
  • “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962): B&W. 107 minutes. Directed by David Miller; Cast: Kirk Douglas, Gena Rowlands, Walter Matthau, George Kennedy. Note: To help his friend, a free-spirited cowboy flings himself recklessly at the hobbling effects of modernity … then tries desperately to escape.
  • “Stagecoach” (1939): B&W. 96 minutes. Directed by John Ford; Cast: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Andy Devine, John Carridine. Note: With this saga that throws disparate travelers together, to face peril, Ford made a star of Wayne. And, Ford created a template for all such movies to follow.
  • “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948): B&W. 126 minutes. Directed by John Huston; Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt. Note: Three down-on-their-luck drifters, almost strangers, throw in together to prospect for gold in Mexico. Problems ensue and personalities clash.
  • “Unforgiven” (1992): Color. 131 Minutes. Directed by Clint Eastwood; Cast: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris. Note: A grizzled pair of former gunfighters/murderers team up to try to collect a $1,000 reward by killing two cowboys who deliberately disfigured a prostitute. Naturally, the corrupt sheriff must throw his weight around.

The films on the list above all have plots that can be boiled down to one word. “High Noon” is about honor. “Lonely Are the Brave” is about freedom. “Stagecoach” is about survival. “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is about greed. “Unforgiven” is about revenge. Decisions by the characters drive the action.

“Lonely Are the Brave” is probably the least known movie on that list. If you aren’t familiar with it, do yourself a favor and see it soon. It’s sort of a beat treatment to the cowboy-verses-modernity angle. It was produced to be a Hollywood answer to the French New Wave films that were becoming popular in America in the early-1960s.

My peers grew up watching Western feature films in movie houses and weekly Western series on television. And, whether we knew it or not, some portion of the baby boomer generation’s collective sense of right and wrong was being shaped by all those heroes and villains wearing cowboy hats and boots.

Speaking of fashion, when I was six or seven years old there was a spell in which any shirts with a collar that I wore had to resemble the trademark checkered cowboy shirt Roy Rogers wore on his weekly TV show.

The five films on my list represent my favorites today. Another day’s list of favorite Westerns might be different. Moreover, this list doesn’t represent my ideas about important or great movies. Just favorites.

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Thursday, April 06, 2017

The Cheaters

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 some 27 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. 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.
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Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Does Neil Gorsuch Still Have Better Angels?

Before it's too late, is it possible that Neil Gorsuch could stop to listen to his better angels? Might he have an epiphany and suddenly know the right thing to do?

Imagine Gorsuch issuing a press release on Thursday morning saying that upon reflection he has decided to decline the appointment to the Supreme Court and go back home to Colorado. In a Frank Capra film Gorsuch would announce he's stepping aside out of respect for Merrick Garland and the Supreme Court, itself.

If that could happen in real life, what would John Q. Public say if Gorsuch ended his confirmation quest by claiming his abiding hope is that what happened to Garland will never happen again?

Well, of course, extremists on the left and on the right would find something snarky to say. Some wags would feel obligated to find fault with such a selfless move. But to a lot of people, by sacrificing himself for the sake of not wanting to be part of setting a bad precedent, Gorsuch would likely become an instant hero. I think it would be uplifting to Americans who still believe that above all else, judges should be fair-minded.

Furthermore, if Gorsuch is really the wise head some of his boosters in the Senate are saying he is, he would have to grasp that the unprecedented and convoluted manner in which he's getting this job is stained in a way that will never fade away.

Gorsuch should be smart enough to know that if he takes the job, as it's being offered, he's going to go down in history as the opportunist who wanted too much. The guy who sold his soul to participate in a shameless episode of cheating – meaning he'll always have an asterisk after his name.

Which will make him the Barry Bonds of Supreme Court justices. Although I don't know how many there are, I'm sure there are still some judges in this country who are wise enough to play the long game and avoid any chance of becoming the Barry Bonds of anything, whenever they can.

Last question: By closing the door to the Supreme Court, wouldn't some other doors open for such an honorable man?

-- 30 --
-- Art and words by F.T. Rea

Saturday, April 01, 2017

The Strange Case of Gus the Cat

Note: In an effort to be funny in an off-beat way, I wrote this piece in 2000. The people quoted were told the scenario and given the freedom to write their own lines, in character. It was first published by  


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.
This photo of Gus was taken by
Stacy Warner for

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: 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, March 28, 2017

Ghost Spider

Some 19 years ago, a spider bit me on the temple next to my right eye. The first symptom was an itchiness that got steadily worse. Initially, I thought it was poison ivy.

It was my then-girlfriend, Jackie, who first suggested, “Spider bite.”

Since I hadn't seen or felt the little culprit poisoning my face, I doubted her call. By the end of the first day there was some swelling and redness. Over the next couple of days the swelling increased dramatically until my eye was completely closed by it. Usually, I don't go see doctors much, but the swelling and body aches were alarming. So, this time was different.

The doctor confirmed the spider bite diagnosis. He guessed it was a brown recluse and told me he didn’t know all that much about spider bites. Said most doctors don’t. He told me it was just a matter of how my body would react. The doc said the venom's tricks would run their course in my body no matter what he did. An antibiotic was prescribed to deal with the infection problem that sometimes comes along with any sort of bite

Once I started taking the medicine, some of how I felt for the next week probably had something to do with a reaction to the pills, too. In general, I wasn’t as sick as the worst day of a full blown flu. The ordeal was similar to the flu, but it was much more disorienting.

As the swelling went down, the seven spots that had formed in the middle of it gradually turned from reddish-purple to bluish-black. Naturally, I looked at them every few minutes, to see what would happen next.

To understand my problem better I read about brown recluse bites online. That only scared me more. I came to understand the spots I was seeing on my face, grouped within an area the size of a penny, were necrotic flesh. It was a sobering thought -- my flesh was dying.

After looking at gross photographs of people with huge tissue losses from brown recluse bites, I swore off my research. The sick feeling gradually went away. The swelling disappeared. The dark spots, most of them the size of a piece of rice, rotted away and dropped off ... leaving seven little holes.

Today the scars are mixed in with the crows feet lines extending from the corner of my eye, so mostly they are only noticed by someone who remembers the episode and wants to look for them.

Like other healing wounds there was an itching problem that was a distraction at times. That went on for months. What was the strangest aspect of it all came later, after I had stopped worrying about the spider bite all the time. You see, every so often, there was a feathery, fluttering sensation that felt just like a spider was skittering across my eyelid, or the eyeball itself.

Each time it happened I flinched, believing -- at least for a fraction of a second -- that it could be a spider on my eye. It was torture. It was nearly a year before that last spooky effect faded away, too. I've since believed that meant the healing was over.

Never worried about spiders much before this experience. Live and let live was my approach. After that ghost spider thing, if I see a spider indoors these days, its biting days are over.

Were there seven separate bites, or was it one big bite and seven reactions?

The doc couldn't help with that question, either. But no doubt, I was lucky it wasn't worse. 

-- 30 --

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Truth: What It Is

Ted "The Kid" Williams
Cool has been a thread that has run through much of the art, music, writing and films that have seemed to reach out to me. Think what you will of me for that, but it's been consistent. Since I was a kid I've looked for the coolness embedded in styles. When I was 11 my favorite big-league baseball player, Ted Williams, looked the coolest swinging the bat.

After too many years of fashionable postmodernism, a half-century in which clever artifice and copycatism have been revered, now the coolest thing happening is the unvarnished truth.

With the truth under assault from hucksters and governmental authorities, alike, seeing through the fog of propaganda to capture the essence of small slivers of truth is a praiseworthy undertaking. Given the threat that currently looms over our nation's institutions, striving to present the nitpicking whole truth to the public – without false equivalencies, on the record – is a challenge for heroes.

Reality simply doesn't allow for the notion of "alternative facts" to be taken seriously. Ironically, if this country's largely distrusted fourth estate doesn't go all out to do some heroic heavy lifting -- to reveal the truth and save the USA from being sucked down the drain by Trumpism -- I don't know what other way there is to get the job done fast enough.

Truth: What it is.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Labels That Don't Stick

Note: This piece was published by STYLE Weekly on April 7, 2004. Thinking about today's ideology-defying brand of politics this piece came to mind. In this 13-year-old essay I was seeing the coming of a different way of framing politics in the USA. To me, then, the old definitions of left and right were being blurred beyond recognition. 
Labels That Don't Stick
by F.T. Rea

The terms “liberal” and “conservative,” as used by many of today's chattering pundits and campaigning politicians, are as outdated as your Uncle Dudley's lime green leisure suit or that open can of beer you left on the porch railing yesterday afternoon.

In the turbulent 1960s, such convenient left–right labels may have been misnomers at times, too, but at least they made some sense. In the context of the Cold War Era – with explosive issues such as the Vietnam War and civil rights in the air – it was useful to see a left-to-right political spectrum.

In those days, segregationists and hawks derisively called their most vocal opponents “liberals” and “pinkos.” Civil rights demonstrators and doves didn’t mind calling their opposites “right-wingers” and “fascists.” And in spite of how the circumstances and issues have changed since then, the same threadbare labels have remained in use.


Well, it’s mainly because it has suited the people attempting to cash in on conditioned reactions to words such as “left” and “right,” “liberal” and “conservative.”

Howard Dean is best described as a political maverick. His record as governor of Vermont was hardly that of a left-winger. Yet because he was for a spell the most effective critic of the Bush policy in Iraq, the feisty doctor was branded by pundits and Bush apologists as an extreme leftist from a silly state that might as well be part of Canada.

In 1991 a radio news story described a political brouhaha in Russia between the ascending free-market style reformers and the old guard, the stubborn communists — who were going out of style faster than a Leningrad minute.

No, make that a St. Petersburg minute.

The report labeled those clinging to the Soviet system as “conservatives” and those in the process of sweeping them out of power as “liberals.” When considered in light of the familiar Western view of matters political — capitalists on the right vs. socialists on the left — the role reversal of this situation’s fresh context was striking and amusing.

George W. Bush likes the tag “compassionate conservative.” It’s a label that served him well in the 2000 election. But Bush’s steering of the nation’s economy, his unprecedented accumulation of debt, have hardly been conservative in the traditional sense. Nor has Bush’s swaggering, go-it-alone foreign policy been in the least bit prudent or conservative.

Being aggressive and being conservative are altogether different things. Leading up to World War II, the conservative Republicans wanted to keep America out of the fray much longer than the FDR Democrats.

When Bush eschewed the idea of nation building in his first presidential campaign he was talking like a traditional, somewhat isolationist conservative. Now he walks like anything but a conservative with what is going on in Iraq — whatever that is.

In the contemporary American political game, when players call themselves or their opponents “liberals” or “conservatives” they are probably just trying to jerk you around by what they see as your shallow understanding of the situation.

Today’s political issues divide along many lines. There are urban vs. suburban arguments. There are differences that split generations, classes, lifestyles and you-name-it. Trying always to frame such issues in a left-right context tortures the truth.

In this election year, the wise voter will brush aside the labels and remember that neither conservatives nor liberals have ever had an exclusive on two considerations that matter a lot more than labels — honesty and competence.

-- 30 --

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Oh, THAT Russian

Oh, THAT Russian. The ambassador. Sure,
now I remember. Sorry, there's just been
so many Rooskies around here lately, it's
hard to keep them all straight.
-- Art and words by F.T. Rea

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Postseason Basketball Musings

In games played through Feb. 20 eight of Virginia's 14 Division I basketball programs have winning records. If they all finish that way any of them could participate in postseason tournaments. However, barring a total collapse, just three of those programs now appear to be heading to the preferred tournament -- the NCAA Championship with its chosen field of 68.

Then there's the NIT, CBI, CIT and the Vegas 16. I may have left one out, but it seems America's basketball fans like tournament-style hoops, no matter how far removed such games are from determining the national championship.

So here are those eight schools, listed according to their latest RPI as published by CBS Sports. After the name of the team you will see their overall records (D-I games only), records in conference games, their BPIs (ESPN rankings) and their records (in bold) in February.

No. 22: UVa.: 18-9, 8-7 in ACC; BPI #8; 2-5 in Feb.
No. 25: VCU: 22-5, 12-2 in A-10; BPI #34; 6-0 in Feb.
No. 36: Va. Tech: 18-8, 7-7 in ACC; BPI #51; 2-3 in Feb.
No. 99: Richmond: 15-11, 9-5 in A-10; BPI #113; 2-3 in Feb.
No. 109: W&M: 13-12, 9-7 in Colonial; BPI #107; 3-3 in Feb.
No. 116: Mason: 18-9, 8-6 in A-10; BPI #124; 4-2 in Feb.
No. 136: ODU: 16-10, 9-5 in C-USA; BPI #127; 3-2 in Feb.
No. 163: Liberty: 15-11, 13-3 in Big South; BPI #189; 4-1 in Feb.

Make what you will of this but, generally speaking, teams trending in the wrong direction are not viewed in a favorable light by the NCAA tournament's committee. What I see at this point is that after those top three, your guess is a s good as mine as for the destiny of the rest of them. Of course, invitations and rankings aside -- same as it ever was -- any team that wins its conference tournament still qualifies for the Big Dance.

-- 30 --

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Citizen Trump's slo-mo train-wreck

Now we have Citizen Trump's slo-mo train-wreck presser on Feb. 16 for the record. One day that disturbing performance may have historians somewhat at a loss to explain to anyone who didn't live through this ongoing interregnum of presidential sanity.

Trump said he wasn't ranting, while he ranted about "fake news" during his disturbing assault on the press. (Click here for some fact-checking.)

Meanwhile, there's a telling aspect of President Trump's bullying that overlaps with his dishonesty -- cheating at golf.

Alice Cooper (in a 2012 interview): "The worst celebrity golf cheat? I wish I could tell you that. It would be a shocker. I played golf with Donald Trump one time. That's all I'm going to say."

Trump doesn't just want to cheat to win a hole. He'd rather cheat blatantly so you can see him doing it. Then he can savor how you are too reluctant to cause a scene, intimidated, or whatever, so you just don't call him on it.

It's a variation on his claim that he grabs crotches with impunity, because he's mighty Donald Trump and thus he's entitled to humiliate you. He doesn't cheat to enjoy his victory. He knows it's tainted. Trump cheats to deprive his opponent of victory and to prance ... he enjoys prancing.

The foreboding sense in the air that we're all hurtling toward a crisis is getting more pervasive every day. How that crisis will manifest itself remains to be seen. Still, being president all day long, every damn day, would be exhausting enough for any 70-year-old man. But we can only imagine how stressful it must be for one who's avoided scrutiny of his methods and associations in much of his life's doings. His so-called "deals."

Sheltered from push-back, in a world of artifice, Trump has been a little king. That changed on inauguration day. Less than a month into his presidency the pressure of having to answer for his blunders is obviously weighing on the president.

Forced to endure criticism, he has appeared to be semi-delusional at times. If nothing else, in the weeks to come we're going to see just how healthy Trump's septuagenarian ticker is.

The Republicans in Congress who can see what's going on are surely riding on the horns of a dilemma: Who wants to be remembered as being foolish enough to stick by Trump too long? How long can they wait to pull the plug?

-- Art and words by F.T. Rea

Thursday, February 16, 2017

An Enhanced RPI

The RPI for college basketball depends heavily on strength of schedule. So once you factor in the reward the teams in power conferences have, for simply being in those leagues, some teams with 10 losses are ranked, RPI-wise, over teams with five losses. Still, in the Big Dance every March in the early rounds we see little known teams from conferences other than the five mega-conferences upsetting the so-called "favorites."

Those Cinderellas are sometimes teams that just know how to win, no matter who they're playing or where. So how much should that factor matter, when comparing teams that haven't played one another and have few common opponents? 

OK, for basketball junkies I've got a way to combine RPI with the notion that some teams are good at winning. Here are the 25 teams taken from today's top 50 of the RPI (CBS Sports) that have five losses or less (their wins and losses are in parenthesis). 

They are listed, 1-25, according to their RPI today. But please note that teams with a better RPI than some listed, which have sustained six or more losses, have been omitted. So this way of looking at rankings combines strength-of-schedule with an appreciation for the teams' wins and losses. 

The national champion should come from this field. Teams from power conferences with 10 or 12 losses might get hot and win it all, but no one should be surprised if Gonzaga wins the championship game because the still undefeated Zags know how to win. 

The Enhanced RPI Top 25 

1. Baylor (21-4)
2. Villanova (25-2)
3. Kansas (23-3)
4. Gonzaga (26-0)
5. Louisville (21-5)
6. Arizona (23-3)
7. Oregon (21-4)
8. UNC (21-5)
9. Florida (21-5)
10. Kentucky (21-5)
11. Florida St. (21-5)
12. Duke (21-5)
13. Cincinnati (23-3)
14. Creighton (20-5)
15. Maryland (21-4)
16. Purdue (21-5)
17. St. Mary's (22-3)
18. SMU (23-4)
19. UCLA (23-3)
20. Wisconsin (21-4)
21. VCU (21-5)
22. Dayton (19-5)
23. Illinois St. (21-5)
24. USC (21-5)
25. Akron (21-4)

-- Words and photo by F.T. Rea

Monday, February 13, 2017

Drake the Flake

On Nov. 8, 1992, the revenge-driven crime spree ended as the man I remembered as Drake the Flake blew out his brains with a .32 caliber revolver. In the 11 hours before taking his own life Lynwood C. "Woody" Drake III had shot and killed six people, wounded a seventh and beaten a former landlady with a blackjack.

It had been over 20 years since I saw him last. It was in the lobby of the movie theater I then managed, the Biograph Theatre. Still, when I saw the AP photo of him in the Richmond Times-Dispatch 25 years ago, he was instantly recognizable.

More about Woody Drake later, but it should come as no surprise to most film buffs that sometimes there is a dark side to the business of doing business after the sun goes down. While some saw the Biograph (1972-87) as a beacon in the night, for others it was a place to hide from reality. So, like any business, sometimes unexpected things just went wrong. Of course, customers could be difficult every now and then, especially at midnight shows. But Drake was easily the worst of them.


There were crazy street people who would sometimes cause trouble. Although nearly everyone who worked at the Biograph during my almost-12-year-stint as its manager was on the up-and-up, there were a couple of rotten apples. As I hired both of them, I have to take the blame there. But those are stories for another time.

Then there were the customers. One man died in the Biograph. His last seconds spent among the living were spent watching "FIST" (1978), starring Sylvester Stallone, in am aisle seat in the small auditorium -- Theatre No. 2. Yes, the movie was bad, but who knew it was that bad?

At the time I was 30 years old, and as I remember it, he was a year or two older than I was. The dead man 's face was expressionless. He just expired. His eyes were open. As the rescue squad guys shot jolts of electricity into his heart, his body flopped around like a fish out of water on floor. Meanwhile, down in Theater No. 1 "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" was on the screen delighting its usual crowd of costumed screwballs.

Then there was the night someone fired five shots of high-powered ammo through one of the back door exits into Theatre No. 1. Five bullets came through the door's two quarter-inch steel plates to splinter seats. Amazingly, no one was hit.

This happened just as the crowd was exiting the auditorium, at about 11:30 p.m. It seemed no one even caught on to what was happening. Later the police were baffled, leaving us to speculate as to why it happened.

Another night, a rat died in the Coca-Cola drain and clogged it up. Not knowing about the rat, and thinking I knew what to do to clear the clogged drain, I poured a powerful drain-clearing liquid -- we called it Tampax Dynamite -- directly into the problem.

Soon a foul-smelling liquid started bubbling and backing up all over the lobby's carpet. A flooding mess ensued. It ran everybody out of there on a busy Saturday night. We had to replace the carpet.


In the early months of operation at 814 W. Grace St. a series of annoyances led up to Woody Drake being literally thrown out of the Biograph and "banned for life."

The news stories reported that Drake, who fancied himself as an actor, had compiled a long list of people he intended to pay back, someday. Drake wore theatrical grease paint on his face when he committed his murders. As the cops were closing in on him Drake punched his own ticket to hell.

From what I found out Drake's childhood was straight out of a horror movie. Apparently he was always a problem to those around him. The photo above -- it was a publicity shot he used to apply for work as an actor -- ran in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on November 16, 1992. What follows are excerpts of a piece I wrote for SLANT a couple of weeks later.
...The November 16th edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch carried Mark Holmberg's sad and sensational story of Woody Drake. As usual, Holmberg did a good job with a bizarre subject. In case you missed the news: Lynwood Drake, who grew up in Richmond, murdered six people in California on November 8. Then he turned the gun on himself. His tortured suicide note cited revenge as the motive.
An especially troubling aspect of Holmberg's account was that those Richmonders who remembered the 43 year old Drake weren't at all surprised at the startling news. Nor was I. My memory of the man goes back to the early days of the Biograph Theatre (1972). At the time I managed the West Grace Street cinema. So the unpleasant task of dealing with Drake fell to me.
Owing to his talent for nuisance, the staff dubbed him 'Drake the Flake.' Although he resembled many of the hippie-style hustlers of the times, it was his ineptness at putting over the scam that set him apart. Every time he darkened our door there was trouble. If he didn't try to beat us out of the price of admission or popcorn, there would be a problem in the auditorium. And without fail, his ruse would be transparent. Then, when confronted, he'd go into a fit of denial that implied a threat.

Eventually that led to the incident in Shafer Court (on VCU's campus) when he choked a female student [Susan Kuney] who worked at the Biograph.
That evening he showed up at the theater to see the movie, just like nothing had happened. Shoving his way past those in line, he demanded to be admitted next.
An argument ensued that became the last straw. Drake the Flake was physically removed from the building, tossed onto Grace Street, and banned from the Biograph for life.
The next day, Drake made his final appearance at the Biograph. He ran in through the lobby's exit doors and issued a finger-pointing death threat to your narrator. Although I tried to act unruffled by the incident, it made me more than a little uncomfortable. In spite of the anger of his words, there was an emptiness in his eyes. In that moment he had pulled me into his world. It was scary and memorable.
Using a fine turn of phrase, Holmberg suggested that, "Whatever poisoned the heart of Woody Drake happened in Richmond..."
If you want more evidence of the origins of the poisoning, take the time to look him up in his high school yearbooks (Thomas Jefferson 1967/68). Pay particular attention to the odd expression in his eyes. Looking at Drake’s old yearbook photos reminded me of a line in the movie 'Silence of the Lambs.' In reference to the serial-killer who was being sought by the FBI throughout the film, Dr. Lechter (a psychiatrist turned murderer himself) tells an investigator that such a man is not born; he is created.
There is no doubt in my mind. Someone close to Woody Drake, when he was a child, systematically destroyed his soul. So while we can avert our eyes from the painful truth, we basically know where the poison is administered to the Drake the Flakes of the world.
Yes, we do. The assembly line for such monsters runs through their homes. The story goes that Drake liked to beat up women. After I threw him out of the Biograph and he disappeared, several people told us stories about various females he had hurt. No doubt, there was a reason why he hated women.

Shortly before Drake ended his wretched life, he woke up a 60-year-old woman by smacking her in the head with a blackjack. She scrambled to hide under her bed and lived to tell the story.

-- 30 --

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Discover the Fan: 1973

Forty-four years ago an ad hoc group of 21 merchants along the commercial strip just north of VCU's Fan District campus cooperated for a one-time-only promotion called Discover the Fan. It should be noted that none of the participating businesses are still there today.

Click on Rebus' nose to enlarge the art.

On April 14, 1973 a lingering cold spell left town and warm breezes brought in a bright spring day. For that Saturday afternoon the 800 and 900 blocks of West Grace Street, and environs, were packed with an unprecedented amount of foot traffic. Hundreds of helium-filled balloons and free prizes donated by the merchants were given away. The street was not closed and the vehicular traffic was slowed to a crawl all day. There was live music on-stage.

Motorists traveling toward the West End were treated to an unexpected scene, given the neighborhood's then-bohemian image. (Grace Street was a busy one-way street heading west in those days.) On that Saturday there were thousands of ordinary people milling about having a good time. Many of them acted like tourists on a lark. Kids with balloons were everywhere.

The illustration above is a scan of a handbill done by yours truly. With its list of participating businesses it provides a snapshot of the area in what was probably the zenith of the hippie age. Some of the characters who ran those businesses were rather interesting people. (H/T: One-on-One owner Fred Awad came up with the name for the event.)

At this time I had been the manager of the Biograph Theatre for a little over a year and the Discover the Fan promotion itself was my project. I convinced my fellow merchants to chip in and promote our oddball collection of businesses as if we were a hip shopping center to the metro area. Many people helped put it together and worked on aspects of it, but the happening couldn't have come about without the help of Dave DeWitt and Chuck Wrenn (the Biograph's assistant manager), which was significant.

Below is a piece about this event from that era. It was penned by the late Shelley Rolfe:
Shelley Rolfe’s
By the Way
Richmond Times-Dispatch (April, 16, 1973)

It was breakfast time and the high command for Discover the Fan Day had, with proper regard for the inner man, moved its final planning meeting from the Biograph Theater to Lum’s Restaurant. Breakfast tastes ran a gamut. Eggs with beer. Eggs with orange juice. H-hour -- the operations plan had set it for noon -- was less than three hours away. Neither beer nor orange juice was being gulped nervously.

Terry Rea, manager of the Biograph and the extravaganza’s impresario, was reciting a last-minute, mental things-to-do list. There was the vigilante committee, which would gather up the beer and soft drink cans and bottles that invariably infest the fronts of the shops in the 800 and 900 blocks of W. Grace St., focus area of the discovery.

The city police had promised a dragnet to sweep away the winos who also invariably litter the neighborhood. The day had bloomed crisp and sunny, the first dry Saturday since Groundhog Day. “I knew it wouldn’t rain,” Rea said with the brash confidence of the young. “Lots of young businessmen around here,” a beer drinker at another table said. The free enterprise system lives.

REA WAS assigning duties for the committee that would rope off two Virginia Commonwealth University parking lots that would serve as the setting for a fashion show and band concert. The committee to blow up balloons, with the aid of a cylinder of helium [sic]. One thousand balloons in a shrieking variety of colors. “If we only get 500 kids... two to a customer,” Rea said cheerfully.

“I need more people,” said the balloon task force leader.

Twenty-one businesses were involved in the project. Each of them had contributed prizes, and gift certificates had been put into plastic Easter eggs. An egg hunt would be part of the day, and Rea had a message for the committee that would be tucking the eggs away: “Don’t put them in obvious places, but don’t put them were people can get hurt looking for them.”

“We talked about doing this last summer but we never got it together,” Rea said. There had been fresh talk in late February, early March, and it had become airborne. The 21 businesses had anted up $1,500 for advertising, which was handled by Dave DeWitt, proprietor of a new just-out-of-the-Fan, small, idea-oriented agency.

“Demographically, we were aiming for people between 25 and 34,” Rea said. There had been newspaper advertising and spots on youth-oriented radio stations. “We had a surplus late in the week...” Rea said. The decision was made to have a Saturday morning splurge on radio station WRVA. “Hey,” said a late arrival, “I heard Alden Aaroe talking about it.”

“We wanted people to see what we have here,” Rea said. “People who probably close their windows and lock their doors when they drive on Grace Street and want to get through here a quickly as possible.”

Well, yes, there must be those who look upon the 800 and 900 blocks as symbolic of the counterculture, as territory alien to their visions of West End and suburban existence. Last November the precinct serving the 800 and 900 blocks went for George McGovern, by two votes. Not a landslide, but, perhaps, a trend.

NOON WAS approaching. Rea and DeWitt set out on an inspection tour. Parking lot ropes were being put into place. Rock music blared from exotically named shops. The balloon committee was still short on manpower. An agent trotted out of a shop to report, “They’ve got 200 customers ...” And how many would they normally have at this hour of a Saturday” “They wouldn’t be open,” Rea said.

Grace Street was becoming clogged with cars It would become more clogged. Don’t know how many drivers got out of their cars, but, for a while they were a captive audience making at least vicarious discovery.

Also much pedestrian and bicycle on the sidewalks. Merchants talked of espying strangers, of all ages. A white-haired woman held a prize egg in one hand, a balloon in the other. A middle-aged man had rakishly attached a balloon to the bill of his cap.

The fashion show went on to the accompaniment of semijazz music and popping balloons, most of them held by children. Fashions were subdued. A dress evocative of the 1840s. Long skirts. Loudest applause went to a man who paraded across the stage wearing a loud red backpack. Everybody’s urge to escape?

ON GRACE STREET a sword swallower and human pin cushion was on exhibition. No names please. “My mother ...” he said. He wished to be identified only as a member of “Bunkie Brothers Medicine Show.”

Discounted merchandise on sale included 20-yesr-old British Army greatcoats and a book fetchingly titled “Sensuous Massage.” Sales resistance remained firm.

On Harrison Street a sidewalk artist was creating. A wino, who had somehow escaped the dragnet, lurched across the sidewalk art muttering. “Free balloons ...” In a shop a man said, “I want the skimpiest halter you have ... for my wife.”

On an alley paralleling Grace Street, a man holding a hand camera and early on a VCU class assignment was directing actors. One stationed in a huge trash bin. “Waiting for Godot” revisited? The second, carrying a an umbrella in one hand, popcorn in another, approached the bin. A hand darted out for popcorn. “I ran out of film!” screamed the director.

Everything was being done again. The actor in the bin emerged, seized the umbrella and ran. “Chase him,” from the direct. Actor No. 2 did a Keystone Kop-style double take, jumped and ran. A small crowd that had gathered applauded.

LATE IN the day. Traffic still was at a saturation level. Early settlers said the territory hadn’t seen such congestion since the movie, “Deep Throat.” Rea spoke of objectives smashingly achieved. Euphoric talk from him on another day of discovery in September. City Hall would be petitioned to block off Grace Street.
The writer, Rolfe, lived only a few blocks away from the Biograph, so he was actually quite familiar with the cinema I ran and the surroundings he described. This was a day in which many things could have gone wrong, but didn't, so it was remembered fondly. Some of the merchants said they set new records for business in one day.