Friday, February 14, 2020

1974: A Year of Change


The most obvious change in the air in 1974 was the day-by-day unraveling of Richard Nixon's presidency, culminating with his resignation. The Vietnam War was over and with the passing of those events the zenith of the hippie era was in the rear view mirror. The culture's styles in music, clothes, politics, movies, drugs, and you-name-it, began changing course. It was time to party. It was about this same time that my generation's focus on social causes also began to blur ... at least that's how I remember it. 

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

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

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

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

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

Then a group of some 50 uniformed policemen zoomed in on small motorbikes and in squad cars. They immediately arrested the four streakers in the car. They were city cops, not VCU cops.



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

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

In person, I've never seen so many cops go crazy violent. More important, it was without being in response to any threat to people or property. It was a shocking scene.   

Crazy violent cops made bigger news at the Cherry Blossom Music Festival (which was headlined by the Steve Miller Band and Boz Scaggs) on April 27, 1974, at City Stadium. That was where the war between Richmond's partying hippies and its police force escalated beyond all previous clashes. When police officers attempted to arrest pot-smoking members of the audience, things got out of hand. Way out of hand!

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

1974

Jan. 2: To conserve on gasoline President Richard Nixon signed a bill mandating a 55 mph speed limit, coast-to-coast.

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

Feb. 11: Richmond's Biograph celebrated its second anniversary with free movies and free beer and a wee prank. Once all the seats were filled for the 6:30 p.m. show thousands who had lined up around the block were turned away. For more on this event see "The Devils & the Details." 

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

Apr. 2: Acting on his own volition, Robert Opel streaked the 46th Academy Awards ceremony at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in LA. As Opel ran by flashing a peace sign with his hand, host David Niven ad-libbed: "The only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings."

Apr. 8: Playing for the Atlanta Braves, outfielder Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record with his 715th round-tripper. Later the public was told about the many intimidating messages, including death threats, Aaron had received leading up to his feat.

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

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

June 28: One of the best films ever made, "Chinatown," premiered at the Biograph Theatre. It was owing to a lucky quirk of business that allowed the independent cinema to play several of Paramount's top first-run pictures that spring and summer. 


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

Aug. 8: Nixon resigned in disgrace; President Gerald Ford was sworn in. Millions of hippies celebrated Nixon's downfall; some of them stayed too long at the party.

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Biograph Times: The First Year

by F.T. Rea 

Over 200 Titles in Year No. 1

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My manager’s job lasted until the summer of 1983. Four years later, owing to unpaid rent, Grace Street’s Biograph Theatre was seized by Pembroke. A hundred miles to the north, the Biograph on M Street closed in 1996. David Levy died in 2004. Lenny Poryles, a second of those Georgetown-based bosses, died in 2018.

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

*

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

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

The six owners were there for the first-ever Biograph party. That was the only occasion they were all there at the same time. Other than the projectionist, Howard Powers -- who was supplied by the local operators union -- I had hired the theater's opening night's staff: The cashiers were Cathy Chapman and Susan Eskey. The ushers were Bernie Hall and Chuck Wrenn. A few weeks later Chuck was promoted to assistant manager and Susan Kuney was hired as a third cashier.

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

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

In reading everything I could find about which movies were well-respected and popular in art houses, especially in New York and San Francisco, it was easy to gather that the in-crowd viewed most of Hollywood’s then-current product as either laughingly naive or hopelessly corrupted by the system. The fashion of the day elevated certain foreign movies, selected American classics, a few films from the underground scene, etc., to a level above most of their more accessible Hollywood counterparts. In 1972 perhaps the most admired of all foreign films were those considered to be part of the French New Wave, which began as the '50s ended with the early features made by Louis Malle, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. What my first year on the job eventually taught me was how few people in Richmond really cared all that much about seeing such films.

After the opening flurry of interest in the new movie theater, with long lines to nearly every show, it was surprising to me when the crowds shrank dramatically in the months that followed. Among other things that showed me how important the publicity running up to the Biograph's opening had been.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To start, maybe fewer old Bergman flicks.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 06, 2020

To the Biograph, many memories, Love Aimee.

Note: This piece about Biograph Theatre anniversaries was first published 20 years ago by Richmond.com (Feb. 16, 2000).  

*

Anniversaries are knives that can cut both ways. Although we may raise the glass to remember certain events, sometimes we end up drinking to forget. Since I tend to dwell on the calendar more than I should, last Friday afternoon I was in a somber mood.

Then, shortly after 4 p.m., I received an e-mail from a friend who lives in D.C. Until then, I hadn't realized that I had been fretting all day over the notion that I was alone in remembering that it was the Biograph Theatre's 28th anniversary. Upon looking at the e-mail, I smiled.

On Feb.11, 1972, the Biograph Theatre at 814 W. Grace St. was set in motion by a gem of a party. The first feature presentation was a French war-mocking comedy, "King of Hearts" (1966). On the screen, Genevieve Bujold was dazzling opposite the droll Alan Bates. In the lobby, the Fan District's version of "beautiful people" was assembled. The champagne flowed and the flashbulbs popped.

As the new cinema house's first manager, at 24, this yarn's recounter was convinced he had the best job in the Fan District.

Repertory movie theaters such as the Biograph became popular in large cities and college towns in the late '60s and early '70s. The fashion of the era, driven by a film-buff in-crowd, elevated many foreign movies, certain American classics, and selected underground films above their current-release Hollywood counterparts. A repertory cinema's regulars viewed most of the product coming out of Hollywood then as naïve or corrupt.

For me, the gig lasted nearly 12 years, including five years of Rocky Horror midnight shows. Four years after my departure, seven years after the arrival of cable TV in Richmond, the Biograph's screen went dark in December '87. Times had changed and the theater could no longer pay its way.

But in that little independent cinema's heyday, Feb. 11 meant something to those familiar with the nightlife in the VCU area. The Biograph's second anniversary was the party that established the occasion of the theater's birthday as a date to mark on the calendar. That was the year of The Devil Prank.

Following a circuit court judge's well-publicized banning of a skin flick, "The Devil in Miss Jones" (1973), we booked an old RKO light comedy with a similar title - "The Devil and Miss Jones" (1941) for a one-day event.

A press release announced that the theater was throwing a party to celebrate the anniversary of its opening day, admission would be free, and the titles of the movies were listed. (A Disney nature short subject - entitled "Beaver Valley" - was added to flesh out the program.)

As planned, no one at the theater answered any questions from the public or the media about the nature of the shows. The people who didn't notice the difference in the two titles were left to assume whatever they liked.

On the day of the party the staff decorated the lobby with streamers and balloons, laid out the birthday cake, and tested the open keg of beer. Spurred on by news reports of the Biograph's supposed intention to defy a court order, hundreds were in line by lunch time.

By show time, 6:30 p.m., the line of humanity stretched almost completely around the block. Thousands of people were waiting to see a notorious X-rated movie without knowing a Jean Arthur/Bob Cummings comedy was going to be shown instead.

The atmosphere was electric when I unlocked the entrance door. Only the first 500 in line could be admitted because that was the auditorium's seating capacity. Later on, contrary to what I had expected, the audience didn't all get the joke at once. The realization came in waves.

Most of those who were admitted seemed to enjoy the night. The movies had to be funnier in that context than ever before, as long as you could laugh at yourself. To wash down the taste of the hoax, free beer was available.

Of course, there were a few people who were still miffed, but so many more loved being in on such a massive joke that the grumbles hardly mattered.

The story of the stunt hit the wire services and it appeared in newspapers all over the country. NPR did a piece on it. Needless to say, the frothy publicity only added to the luster of what was truly a unique night.

In subsequent years, the occasion of the annual party served as a reunion for everyone who had ever worked or hung out at the theater. Sometimes special films were brought in for a screening, or a band would play after hours.

Another anniversary that was rather unusual was the tenth. In 1982, a Louis Malle film that had been shot in the Jefferson Hotel was in its initial release. We booked the picture to open on Feb. 11 and combined with VCU's Anderson Gallery to stage a party that served as a benefit for the art gallery.

"My Dinner with Andre" was a movie about two friends talking over dinner. The actual meal they ate in the movie was provided by a local caterer named Chris Gibbs. He also created restaurants such as Gatsby's, Fifth Avenue, and Winston Churchill's. Each day of the movie's shooting schedule, the flamboyant Gibbs would show up at the set with another batch of Cornish Hens and wild rice for the actors to pick over as they spoke their lines.

For our party, Gibbs served the art movie/art gallery patrons the same dinner as the actors on the screen were having. It went over like gangbusters. The local media ate it up, which of course validated the notion that a good time was had by one and all.

Naturally, since then, the theater closed and the tradition has atrophied. There was a small party for the 20th anniversary even though the cinema's screens had long been dark.

Back to the e-mail that made my day - here's how it worked: A few weeks ago, Style Weekly ran an interview with singer/songwriter Aimee Mann, a Richmond native and former lead singer of the '80s New Wave band 'Til Tuesday. The article mentioned her recent success with the song "Save Me" from the movie "Magnolia." Among her fond memories of Richmond, she spoke of having enjoyed going to the Biograph as a teenager.

Aimee looks familiar, but I don't really remember her from her Open High School days (in the late '70s). I sent the article to the friend I mentioned, Ernie Brooks, because I knew he was enthusiastic about "Magnolia."

Brooks, a regular at the Biograph in the '70s, subsequently attended Mann's recent performance at the Birchmere in Alexandria. During a break, he presented her with an almost never-worn Biograph T-shirt from his collection.

Ernie claims she was nearly overwhelmed by his gesture. However, in spite of what my experience tells me about such stories, I'm choosing to believe him.

In turn, she autographed a copy of her "Magnolia" CD for him. Ernie then e-mailed me a scan of it attached to an account of his conversation with Aimee.

On the cover art she had written - "To the Biograph, many memories, Love Aimee."

Upon seeing her simple message, my frame of mind changed instantly. Instead of letting mid-February's inevitable dreariness continue to bum me out, it even occurred to me how lucky I was to have been in on the adventure the Biograph was.

Because of a quirky art-movie connection, facilitated by way of an old friend of the Biograph, a willowy blond from the past beamed me a pleasant mood swing: a virtual happy anniversary present.

Thanks, Aimee. And congratulations on your Best Original Song Oscar nomination for "Save Me." I'll be watching to see what you are wearing on Oscar presentation night.

Ain't life grand?

-- 30 --

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

A Beer With the Mayor

It's hard to believe it's been nearly 20 years since I wrote "A Beer With The Mayor," about Tim Kaine, for Richmond.com. It was published on Fri., Sept. 29, 2000. At that time I was writing about politics on a regular basis for them.
As an observer of matters political, when I learned of Tim Kaine's interest in running for lieutenant governor, it got my attention. Having been favorably impressed with his performance as mayor of Richmond, I was curious about his plans. To get some answers, and to get a feel for Kaine as a player, I asked him to set aside some time to meet with me and spend a few minutes talking politics.

The busy councilman/attorney was kind enough to agree to get together on what is familiar turf for me -- the Baja Bean at Friday happy hour.

Kaine and I sat down at a small table and the waitress took our order; a Rolling Rock for me and a Miller for the mayor. I was glad to see, as a good Democrat, he ordered a beer and not a Slice -- the soft drink he has been seen shilling for in local television commercials.

Once we got past the normal exchange of introductory folderol, I asked him why he wanted to be lieutenant governor. He pointed out that he hadn't officially announced his candidacy, but conceded he was looking hard at running. Then he cut to the chase: He admitted that his long-range sights are on the governor's chair.

He went on to say that for a number of reasons, the lieutenant governor's job seemed like the best move for him to make at this time.

Most of us would probably agree that in politics, little - if anything - is more important than timing.

In July, the sudden withdrawal of state Sen. Emily Couric of Charlottesville - the presumed Democrat nominee for lieutenant governor - threw the door open for Kaine, as well as two others who are reportedly testing the waters: Del. Jerrauld Jones of Norfolk and Del. Alan Diamonstein of Newport News.

Taking On The GOP

Essentially, Kaine indicates he also likes the looks of the part-time position of lieutenant governor because it would allow him to move on - he thinks eight years on City Council will be enough - and up, yet stay in Richmond. He puts value in being able to remain in his Richmond home, to spend time with his wife and three children, ages 5 through 10.

As far as his agenda is concerned, Kaine points to education as his chief interest and what would surely be at the center of any campaign of his for statewide office.

"Virginia is deeply underfunded in education, K through 12," says the mayor with the assurance of a man who can back up what he just said.

He explained that Virginia's Republicans - in order to strike the populist pose of tax-cutters - have shifted a greater portion of the burden of the cost for public education to the localities. They did this by cutting local taxes, such as the car tax, rather than income taxes. So while we are in a time of general prosperity, the cities and counties are hurting for revenue even as the Commonwealth remains flush.

Beyond education, Kaine is already on record as a supporter of tougher controls on access to handguns and other common-sense measures to restrict exotic weapons. As well, he intends to run against the death penalty. In his view, taking what I'd call a progressive stand on these issues will play better across the state than some would argue.

His Republican opponent, should Kaine secure his party's nomination, will likely characterize those positions as liberal. But Kaine doesn't flinch at the prospect. It is his reading that such positions on guns and the death penalty are consistent with mainstream thinking in Virginia today.

Running On Beliefs

Cheerfully, he told me it's his intention to run on what he believes. He hopes to win. If he loses, he'll be happy to go on to live the good life of a successful attorney and family man. I gathered that he wants to be governor one day, but he doesn't need to be governor at all costs.

"I like public service. And I think I'm good at it," Kaine says.

When time permits, he plans to stump for Chuck Robb. He'll put off any official announcement concerning his own running for office until after November's general election.

I do have one bit of free advice for Richmond's savvy and genial mayor: He should make that silly Slice commercial the last of its ilk. Although it may have seemed harmless when the prospect was pitched to him, as it appears on TV, the gesture comes off as bush league (not a whit of reference to anybody named Bush is intended), even if it's not inappropriate.

Maybe an eager police chief, even a small-market mayor, does it for a laugh. But in my view, it's not the sort of thing a Virginia governor does.

Or, maybe I'm being a stick in the mud.

Nonetheless, I suspect Tim Kaine has a bright future in politics. His grasp of the circumstances in which he is operating sounds sure. His natural confidence in his own view of the political landscape strikes me as refreshing. He comes off as a man who does his own thinking, and his sense of purpose seems genuine.

If Tim does get as far as the governor's mansion, I hope he'll still find the time to have a cold beer and talk politics at happy hour.

-- 30 --
-- My illustration (2004). 

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Looking at Wiley's 'Rumors'

It was a sunny, warm Sunday afternoon and I was in the neighborhood running an errand. So I snapped a few shots of a news-making statue that was installed on the grounds of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts last month -- Kehinde Wiley's "Rumors of War." Seeing lots of people also photographing it, or just looking at it, was cool. By the way, the so-called "flaggers" were nowhere in sight.








-- 30 --

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Picasso and Powell

Note: My feelings about this piece I couldn't sell are still a little bittersweet. Back in 2003 I put a lot of work into crafting it. Felt satisfied with it, at the time. As I had been writing regularly for a list of publishers, it surprised me when I couldn't place it. I wasn't accustomed to being turned down; at least not by local periodicals. But suddenly, after the invasion of Iraq, my OpEd opinions went way out of style -- fast. Ouch!

With the drumbeat for war in the air, once again, maybe this piece still says something about the haunts that follow wars.

*

In February of 1981 I saw Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” with my then-11-year-old daughter. When the Museum of Modern Art’s elevator doors opened the sight of the 25-foot wide masterpiece was so stunning the doors began to close before the spell was broken.

Picasso's “Guernica”

A few months later, upon the 100-year anniversary of Picasso’s birth, history’s most celebrated piece of anti-war art was packed up and sent to the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, Spain. However, a large copy of “Guernica” hangs on the second floor of the United Nations building -- a tapestry donated to the U.N. by Nelson Rockefeller’s estate in 1985.

On the occasion of then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s February 5, 2003, presentation, underlining his president’s impatience with U.N. members seeking to avoid or delay war in Iraq, the tapestry was completely covered by a blue drape. Powell, or somebody on his staff, apparently realized that even a replica of that particular piece had to be avoided as a backdrop of any photographs of him on that fateful day.

Today I wonder how much of what Powell said that day he knew then had been ginned up by propagandists in the Bush administration. And, I wonder how much of what he said that day ... he truly believed at the time.

*

In some ways little has changed at the heart of arguments concerning war and occupation since France’s army -- as driven by the empire-building vision of Napoleon Bonaparte -- was an occupying force in Spain.

Overwhelmed by the brutality of France’s campaign of terror to crush the Spanish will to resist, Francisco Goya (1746-1828) -- a well-connected artist who had much to lose -- took it upon himself to remove the romantic veil of glory which had always been draped over paintings of war in European art. Documenting what he saw of war, firsthand, the images Goya hurled at viewers of his paintings and prints radically departed from tradition.

Instead of heroic glorification Goya offered horrific gore. The art world hasn’t been the same since.

Following in Goya’s footsteps artists such as Honore Daumier (1808-1879), Georges Rouault (1871-1959), Frans Masereel (1889-1971), Otto Dix (1892-1969), among many others, created still more haunting images focused on the grittier aspects of modern war. In the midst of the Spanish Civil War, with the storm clouds of World War II gathering, Spaniard Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) created “Guernica.”

On April 27, 1937, to field test state-of the-art equipment, Adolf Hitler loaned a portion of Germany’s air force, the Condor Legion, to a fellow fascist dictator -- Spain’s Francisco Franco. The mission: to bomb a small town a few miles inland from the Gulf of Biscay; a Basque village that it's usually said had no strategic value whatsoever.

The result: utter terror.

Bombs rained on Guernica for over three hours; cold-blooded machine gunners mowed down the poor souls who fled into the surrounding fields.

Four days later with grim photographs of mutilated corpses on the front pages of French newspapers a million outraged Parisians took to their streets to protest the bombing of Guernica.

That same day Picasso, who was in Paris, dropped everything else and began sketching studies for what became “Guernica.” As Spain’s government-in-exile had already commissioned him to create a mural for its pavilion in the upcoming Paris World’s Fair, the inspired artist already had the perfect place to exhibit his statement -- a shades-of-gray, cartoonish composition made up of a terrified huddle of people and animals.

When the fair closed “Guernica” needed a home. Not only was the Spain of Generalissimo Franco out of the question, Picasso decided it wouldn’t be safe anywhere in Europe. He was probably right. Thus, the huge canvas was shipped to the USA and eventually wound up calling MOMA its home until 1981.

*

Colin Powell, a former four-star general, who, unlike some of Bush’s hawkish neoconservative experts, knows war firsthand, from the inside out. It seems to me the Secretary knew something about art history, as well. Six weeks before the invasion of Iraq, he apparently retained a firm grasp of the potential of “Guernica” to cast a bitterly ironic light on what would be his history-making words. That, while he may have lost his grip on what had been his honor.

Instead of resigning, because he disagreed with the Bush policy, Powell said, “We also have satellite photos that indicate that banned materials have recently been moved from a number of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction facilities...”

Powell will have to live with his memory of walking past a hidden "Guernica" tapestry on the same damn day he threw a symbolic blue drape over the truth.

-- 30 --

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Byrd Theatre History

Note: Last month the Byrd Theatre celebrated its 91st birthday. The non-profit Byrd Theatre Foundation took over operation of the theater in 2007. In the last few weeks there has been a shakeup in the management at the Byrd, as Style Weekly reports here

In 2004, writing for FiftyPlus, I penned the brief history of the Byrd that follows.
The Byrd Theatre: 1928 Movie Palace Faces Its Future
by F.T. Rea
The rising water posed a stark threat. Yet, the cliffhanger wasn’t flickering on the Byrd Theatre’s 16-by-36-foot movie screen.
No, the action was down in the depths of the cavernous building at 2908 West Cary Street. There, an underground spring had swollen out of the chamber that routinely contains it and was lapping at the base of a mammoth three-phase blower motor that circulates seasonally conditioned air throughout the building. The pumping system, designed to carry off excess water, wasn’t functioning because the electricity was out.

Hurricane Isabel’s wet fury [in 2003] had unplugged much of Central Virginia and most of Carytown.

Dissolve to a plot-twist a Hollywood producer would cherish: a generator and pump were located at the eleventh hour and the threatening water subsided.

“I can’t imagine what it would have cost to replace that motor,” said Todd Schall-Vess, the Byrd’s general manager, looking back at that time of peril.

The antique movie theater has dodged many such bullets during its 76-year history. Now, the good luck in the Byrd’s future will come by way of a little help from its friends, if it is to continue its remarkable run - which began the night of December 24, 1928.

A registered national landmark since 1979, Richmond’s Byrd Theatre was named after Richmond’s founder, William Byrd. It is one of the last American movie palaces - most of them built in the late 1920s - still in operation as a privately owned cinema. That it remains an independent operation with a single 1,396-seat auditorium makes its longevity all the more noteworthy.

Strikingly, it cost about $900,000 to build the opulent Byrd. Amenities included fountains, frescos, marbled walls, arches adorned with gold leaf, a richly appointed mezzanine, and red, mohair-covered seats. A two-and-a-half ton Czechoslovakian chandelier, suspended over the auditorium by a steel cable, dazzled patrons with thousands of crystals illuminated by hundreds of colored lights.

Four main players established the Byrd Theatre on what was then called Westhampton Avenue. Visionary owners Walter Coulter and Charles Somma set it in motion. They hired Fred Bishop as architect/contractor, as well as the manager, Robert “Bob” Coulter, Walter's brother.

They all had to be optimists. In placing such a plush cinema in a developing area far from the downtown theater district, they took an enormous risk.

The first feature presentation at the Byrd was Waterfront, a light comedy that used the experimental Vitaphone sound system; accompanying 78-rpm records had to be synchronized on the fly. The film starred the vivacious Dorothy Mackaill and elegant leading man Jack Mulhall. The program opened with organist Carl Rond playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

In the mid-1930s, a change came about. Neighborhood Theatres, owned primarily by real-estate man Morton G. Thalhimer and managed by Sam Bendheim, Jr., assumed the running of the Byrd. Neighborhood was then in the process of establishing itself as the region’s dominant chain. With Bob Coulter staying on as manger, the Byrd served as the flagship of the Richmond-based chain’s operation until 1970, when it opened the Ridge Twin Cinemas in Henrico County.

A 1952 Richmond News Leader article on the history of Richmond’s movie theaters, written by George Rogers, offered, “Robert Coulter at the Byrd is the dean of managers.”

As late as the 1960s ordinary people still routinely dressed up to go to the movies. An evening’s show at the Byrd would include a newsreel, a cartoon, a comedy or travelogue, and a live set by the ever-popular Eddie Weaver at the Mighty Wurlitzer.

Rising up from a dark pit before the screen, Weaver worked furiously at the pipe organ’s console. By pushing various buttons, keys, and pedals, the maestro could also play a harp, a piano, drums and more - real instruments, some of them visible to the audience, up in the wings.

After a short set of rousing tunes, Weaver would descend back into the pit. Then, from the projection booth, the sweet chattering sound of one of two heavy-geared 35mm movie projectors could be heard pulling a leader through its gate. Presto! The ancient carbon-arc lamp would project a stream of light through the moving celluloid strip, and an image would burst onto the screen.

Today, the Byrd uses that same pair of 1953 Simplex projectors.

Weaver’s regular performances at the Byrd spanned twenty years, from 1961 to 1981. For the last seven years Bob Gulledge has been sitting on what was Weaver’s bench.

As for Coulter, he retired in 1971, at age 76, and died in 1978 - although according to his 2004 counterpart, Schall-Vess, a ghostly presence said to resemble Coulter has been spotted over the years, sitting in what had been his favorite chair on the cantilevered balcony.

In the 1960s and 1970s America’s cities saw unprecedented growth in their suburbs. New multi-screened theaters began popping up like mushrooms in shopping centers. More screens under one roof meant expanded customer options. In the process, single-screen houses without parking lots gradually lost their leverage with movie distributors.

That process undermined urban cinemas everywhere. The list of darkened screens within Richmond’s city limits over the last three decades includes evocative names such as the Biograph, the Booker T, the Brookland, the Capitol, the Colonial, the Edison, the Loew’s, and the Towne.

Into the mid-1970s the Byrd continued to exhibit first-run pictures. With business falling off, the region’s distributors eventually decided it was no longer worthy of commanding exclusive runs of the most sought-after titles. By 1983 Sam Bendheim III, who by then was managing the Neighborhood chain, could no longer justify keeping the Byrd open. As well, Samuel Warren bought the building.

To the rescue came Duane Nelson, an assistant manager in the Byrd’s last days under Neighborhood’s auspices. Unable to bear the thought of the screen going dark, Nelson, who had studied the development of historical properties at VCU, lined up a partner: Jerry Cable, creator of the Tobacco Company, in some ways the most significant restaurant in Shockoe Slip since the late-1970s. Together, in 1984, Nelson and Cable secured a lease and set about revitalizing the West Cary Street anachronism.

For five years they struggled with little success to establish the theater as a repertory house, facing the booking and film-shipping nightmares posed by offering a steady diet of double features for short runs. Recognizing that changes had to be made, the partners eventually parted ways, and the Byrd has been under Nelson’s leadership ever since.

Nelson’s role in shielding the Byrd from the wrecking ball, or from being converted into a flea market or some other less-than-appropriate use, is commendable. Over the last fourteen years his policy has been to offer bargain-priced, second-run features. And this strategy has resulted in a certain measure of stability.

Film-rental fees come out of box-office receipts in the form of a percentage; distributors generally take between forty and seventy percent. Consequently, most movie theaters, including the Byrd, lean heavily on revenue from their concession stands. On the other hand, by showing second-run movies the Byrd is not obliged to charge its customers the steep price of admission that distributors insist upon for first-run releases.

The $1.99 ticket scheme works as long as the crowds are large enough to buy plenty of popcorn. Because of the traffic this formula brings to the area, Nelson’s fellow Carytown retailers are smiling about the Byrd’s customary long lines.

The Nelson formula also includes special events. Live Christmas shows have featured high-kicking chorus lines, and every spring the VCU French Film Festival takes over the Byrd for three days. More than 16,000 tickets were sold for the 2003 series, which the French government formally recognized as the largest French film festival in the United States.

As Nelson sees it, the city itself provides some of the most frustrating obstacles for the Byrd. “We’re competing against [multiplexes in] the counties. Richmond’s theaters pay a twenty-five-percent utilities tax, a six-percent food tax, and a seven-percent admissions tax that they don’t have to pay.”

Nelson has company. Without exception, Richmond’s entertainment-industry veterans decry the seven-percent grab - off-the-top - that the city demands from ticket sales.

Still, the show goes on. And if the Byrd’s survival is to be assured well into the 21st century, it will probably be due to the efforts of people like Bertie Selvey and Tony Pelling.

Selvey was a longtime supporter of TheatreVirginia, the live stage formerly in operation at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (1955-2002). And now she is a driving force behind the Byrd Watchers, a group of volunteers that she founded to raise money for preserving the theater.

“I need a cause,” explained Selvey. “The Byrd is an endangered species.”

Why endangered? As Nelson admits, although the Byrd has been taking in sufficient revenue to stay afloat on a day-to-day basis, putting away reserves to restore the building properly - or perhaps withstand the next hurricane - remain out of reach. In recent years the current owners of the property, heirs to the Warren estate, have been quite flexible in their rental demands. But clearly, something needs to be done. Recognizing the seriousness of the situation, Nelson seems ready to pass the torch.

Rather than wait for a crisis, a group of supporters has devised a plan to secure the Byrd’s future. It calls for the theater to be operated by a not-for-profit foundation, thus putting it in a position to accept broader community support and to take advantage of some attractive tax advantages.

Accordingly, the Byrd Theatre Foundation was established. Its aim is to purchase the property and to assume responsibility for the theater’s management. Pelling, a retired Under Secretary from the UK Civil Service, assumed the role of the Foundation’s president, a volunteer task, in January of this year. Although he and Selvey have had little experience in the art of selling movies to the public, in truth, they join a long list of important players in Richmond’s movie-theater history who had little in the way of credentials before taking the plunge.

In 1928 posh movie palaces opened in cities coast-to-coast. Most have not survived. As it has before, Richmond’s Byrd Theatre has somehow managed to imbue its current stewards and a growing list of civic-minded contributors with enough of that same Roaring ‘20s optimism to keep the light on the screen.

[sidebar]
A Grand Plan for the Byrd

The Byrd Theatre Foundation intends to purchase the Byrd Theatre. The ultimate goal is to restore the theater to its original splendor and to operate it much as it has been in recent years: playing popular fare, mostly as a second-run discount house. The price tag on that dream is $3.5 million.

The Foundation has its 501(C)(3) status, which means that donations are tax deductible. Once the theater is purchased, it will be owned and operated by the Foundation.

Immediate needs include a new roof, refurbished seats, new carpeting, repair of the Mighty Wurlitzer organ, and a thorough cleaning. It is also hoped that the 1930s neon marquee will be restored. The estimated cost of these projects is $2.5 million.

[sidebar]
Movie Theater Mania

There are records of an exhibition of “moving pictures” presented at The Academy (originally called the Mozart Academy of Music) at 103-05 N. Eighth Street in 1897. Built in 1886, that venue was generally considered to be Richmond’s most important and stylish theater - until it burned down in 1927. It is said that in 1906 the Idlewood Amusement Park held regular screenings of “photo dramas.”

However, one showman, Jake Wells, has been credited with being “a theatrical proprietor, impresario and father of Richmond movie houses” (according to George W. Rogers, writing in the Richmond News Leader in 1952). Wells was a former-major league baseball player (1882-84), who had served as the manager of the city’s entry in the Atlantic League during the Gay Nineties.

In 1899 Wells opened the Bijou, on the northeast corner of 7th and Broad Streets. Offering family-oriented fare, the venue thrived. Encouraged by his success, Wells began to expand his influence. With his younger brother, Otto, he opened the Granby Theatre in Norfolk in 1901. Eventually they built a chain of forty-two theaters throughout the Southeast. A second version of the Bijou was built for Wells in 1905 at 816 East Broad, on the site of the legendary Swan Tavern.

By the early 1920s the feature-length movie had been established by Hollywood as a cash cow. Theaters were being built that were designed to be cinemas primarily, rather than multipurpose stages. America was caught in a veritable explosion of popular culture. The influence of national magazines was at an unprecedented level and commercial radio was booming. It was the Roaring ‘20s, and more theaters were needed.

The Byrd Theatre and the Loew’s (now the Carpenter Center) both opened in 1928. Most of their counterparts, styled after grand European opera houses, were also built just before the Depression. Coincidentally, at the same time talkies were revolutionizing the movie business.

The next thrilling episode of the Byrd’s story calls for a cast of thousands to stoke the wonder of the theater that puts the “town” in Carytown.

Here's the link to a second 2004 piece about the Byrd's transformation into a non-profit.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Decade That Was

With our opinions clashing thunderously, we, the beleaguered people, have survived the 2010s. Facilitated by social media, it seems to me that now we're ruled by our stubborn opinions even more than we were on Dec. 31, 2009.

These days, wags like to say we're becoming more "tribal." Along with that, pundits regularly decry the lack of "civility" in the tone of how we're currently interacting with one another. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the realm of politics.

However, on this New Year's Eve, I choose not to hurl any new political opinions at you, dear reader. Besides, this late in the year I'm not sure I have any more 2019 opinions.

Instead, here are links to a selected group of opinionated columns and reports I penned during the decade ending tonight. Souvenirs, if you will, of the times. Maybe the 2010s will turn out to be the last decade in which being published in ink on newsprint will matter.

"How Free Are We to Express Hate?" June 21, 2010, RT-D

"Anywhere but Byrd Park" Nov. 30, 2010, RT-D

"Picasso's Richmond Period" Feb. 18, 2011 RT-D

"Richmond's Show-Biz Stifling Tax" June 19, 2011, RT-D

"Tongue Tied" Oct. 22, 2013, Style

"Billy Ray Hatley Tribute" Dec. 10, 2013, Style

"The Gold Standard: Remembering High on the Hog" (1977-2006) Feb. 25, 2014, Style

"Full Circle" July 31, 2014, Style

"The Grace Era" Oct. 21, 2014, Style

"Cream Pies for Bullies: The Importance of Satire" Jan. 24, 2015 RT-D

"The Bluster Meister" July 21, 2015, Style

"Maybe We Should Wrap Those Monuments" June 27, 2015, RT-D

"Serving the Greater Good" Feb. 12. 2016, RT-D

"Robbin Thompson's Real Fine Day" Feb. 29, 2016, Style

"The Turning Point for Richmond's Confederate Monuments?" Mar. 15, 2016, Style

"Shredding Magazines, Dying Comets and John Lennon" Jan. 8, 2017, RT-D

"Shaka Brings Sizzle to Siegel Center" Dec. 6, 2017, Style

"High Hopes for VCU Hoops" and "Home Court Advantage" Oct./Nov. 2019, Richmond Magazine

Why more nostalgia? Who cares about what's in the rear view mirror? Well, to take the next step forward, sometimes it helps to understand how you got here. Happy 2020.

-- 30 --

Thursday, December 26, 2019

The Tenth Commandment

Note: This piece was originally published by STYLE Weekly in 1999.


According to the Old Testament, Moses heard directly from God about establishing standards of civilized conduct. A portion of the instructions Moses is purported to gotten from God, Himself – known as the Ten Commandments – is still a news-maker as the millennium winds down.

The Bible tells us there were several other rules offered by God atop Mount Sinai; rules we hear less about. If you try reading the book of Exodus, it won’t take long for you to see why. Some of those other rules are rather Old World – such as the proper regulation of slavery and burnt offerings.
For the most part the Ten Commandments are to-the-point laws about behavior, covering basic stuff: Be willing to make sacrifices for what matters most to you. Along the way don’t kill, lie, or steal. Don’t cheat on your spouse, or perhaps spouses – uh-oh, there's that Old World thing again. In the last of the Ten Commandments, Moses said that we ought not to “covet” our neighbors’ goods.

Isn't is curious that after a rather easily understood list of rules, put in the form of “shalt-nots,” the last rule is against even thinking too much about a shalt-not? Like, don't allow yourself to dwell on wanting what's not properly yours.

Covet? Come on Moses, what’s the problem with a little mild coveting? Why not stick to nine rules about actual behavior?

Hopefully, the reader will permit me the postmodern license to move directly from the Bible to a Hollywood thriller, in order to help out Moses'ghost with his answer: In “Silence of the Lambs” (1991) the brilliant but evil psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter, instructs the movie’s detective heroine, Clarice Starling – who is in search of a serial killer – that people only covet what they see, probably what they see all the time.

Bulls-eye! Of course the ravenous doctor was right about what fuels obsessive cravings. If one hasn’t seen it, how can one lust for it? Coveting is a festering of the mind; it's a craving for that which one should not have. 

Today, because of the reach of television and the Internet, just about everyone alive can see how wealthy/powerful people day-to-day. One sure thing movies, sitcoms, soaps, and the celebrity news all do – in addition to telling a story – is to show us how well off some people are. Then the advertisements chime in to tell us just how to buy the same pleasures and accouterments the stars in those stories possess.

If you’ve got the dough to buy the stuff, that’s one thing. If you don’t that’s another and it might spawn some coveting.

The lifestyle of a celebrity is constantly sold to consumers as the good life. Wanting that good life is a carrot on the stick that helps drive our consumer culture. Therefore, in some ways, it has been good to us. My thesis for today’s rant is that there is a dark side to this strategy. When powerless/poor people see that same good life promotions they want it, too.

Why not? However, if they are trapped in their circumstances and have no hope, they don’t believe the good life is available through legitimate channels. So, instead of feeling motivated to work overtime, to earn more money, the powerless are left to covet.

Eventually all that desire for the unobtainable can lead to trouble. I’m convinced that some part of the violence we have seen from teenagers, in recent times, stems from their exaggerated sense of powerlessness. In the worst cases, their impatience boils over while waiting for what they imagine to be an adult’s prerogatives and awesome powers.

The good news is that kids grow up. Most of our children won’t shoot up their schools because of frustration with having so little say-so over their schedule. The bad news is that for most of the world’s underdogs their sense of powerlessness is something that isn’t going to dissipate so easily.

In the so-called Third World, the longing for First World goods and options is festering as you read this. Meanwhile, the aforementioned powerless folks aren’t thinking about where to shop for knockoffs of what they see flaunted on screens. A hundred years ago, 50 years ago, the world's underclass wasn't wired into the rest of civilization. Now it is. It sees what we brag about the most. Today the underclass knows exactly how soft life is for the well-off.

History isn’t much help here because it tells us the unwashed masses have usually had to take what they wanted by force. How much longer we can rely on the gentle patience of the world’s hungriest millions is anybody’s guess. In the meantime, perhaps the other side of “thou shalt not covet” is “thou shalt not flaunt.”

Just think about how many American movies and TV shows are about rich people doing as the please. If the wisdom of the ages — the Ten Commandments — suggests it's smart to discourage destructive cravings in the shadows, perhaps it would also be smart to stop promoting such trouble with our brightest spotlights.

Bragging was never cool. Now American's braggarts, who flaunt their wealth, are asking for the sort of trouble that will eventually splash onto all of us.

– 30 –

-- Words and art by F.T. Rea

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

For What It Is

 
Fiction by F.T. Rea


Jan. 24, 1991: Bright sunlight lit up the thin coating of freezing rain that had painted the city the evening before. In the crisp air, Roscoe Swift, a slender middle-aged man, a freelance artist/writer, walked at a careful but purposeful pace on the tricky sidewalk.

The ice-clad trees along the street were dazzling, as seen through Swift's trusty Ray-Bans. The woolly winter jacket his girlfriend, Sally, had given him for Christmas felt good.

Since the freelancer couldn’t concentrate on his reading of the morning’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, he left half a mug of black coffee and a dozing cat on his desk to walk to the post office. He hoped the overdue check from a magazine publisher was waiting in his post office box.

Anxiously, Swift opened the box with his key. It was empty. He shrugged. An empty box had its upside, too -- there were no cut-off notices in it. With his last 20 bucks in his pocket, the freelancer hummed a favorite Fats Domino tune, “Ain’t That a Shame,” as he headed home.

Before the end of the workday Roscoe had to finish an 800-word OpEd piece and drop it all off on an editor’s desk in Scott's Addition. With the drum beat for war in the air he wanted to focus on the inevitable unintended consequences of any war. Yet, with the clock ticking on his deadline he was still at a loss for an angle.

The country was still mired in an economic recession. With the national debt climbing an invasion of Iraq was looming. War seemed all but inevitable. Pondering what demons might be spawned by an all-out war in Iraq he detoured a couple of blocks, to pick up a Washington Post and a fresh cup of coffee.

Approaching the 7-Eleven store Roscoe noticed a lone panhandler standing off to the left of the front doors. The tall man was thin and frail. He wore a lightweight denim jacket over a hooded sweatshirt. Snot was frozen in his mustache. The whites of his heavy-lidded eyes were an unhealthy shade of pink.

When Roscoe had run the Fan City Cinema, in the '70s, he had determined his policy should be to never in any way encourage panhandlers to hang around on the sidewalk in the neighborhood surrounding the theater. The rigid policy had lingered well after the comfortable job had faded into the mists.

On this cold day it wasn’t easy for Roscoe to avert his eye from the poor soul’s trembling outstretched hand. Not hearing the desperate man’s hoarse plea for food money was impossible. When there are always so many lives to be saved in our midst, Roscoe wondered, why do we have to go to the Middle East to save lives?

Inside the busy store Roscoe poured himself a large coffee. Black. Fretting profusely, he snapped the cup’s lid in place. It was one of those times when the little Roscoe with horns was standing on one of his shoulders, while his opposite, the one with the halo, was on the other; both were offering counsel.

Roscoe's longtime "policy" caved in seconds later. Still, he decided to give the freeloader food, rather than hand over cash to perhaps finance a bottle of sweet wine. It might change my luck, he thought as he smiled.

Trying to max out the bang-for-the-buck aspect of his gesture, Roscoe settled on a king-sized hot dog, with plenty of free stuff on it -- mustard, chopped onions, relish, jalapeno peppers, chili and some gooey cheese-like product. Not wanting to push it too far, he passed on the ketchup and mayonnaise.

Outside the store, Roscoe found the starving panhandler had vanished. Roscoe looked up and down Cary Street but saw no sign of the poor soul.

So, the crestfallen philanthropist took the meal-on-a-bun with him as he walked, softly singing a Buffalo Springfield song, “For What It’s Worth.” With his strides matching the beat he kept to the sunny street, to avoid the sidewalk in the shade.
There’s somethin’ happening here,
What it is ain’t exactly clear.
There’s a man with a gun over there,
Tellin’ me I gotta beware.
I think it’s time we stop, children, what's that sound,
Everybody look, what's going down.
A line from that song’s last verse -- “paranoia strikes deep” -- suddenly snapped an idea for the OpEd into place, which launched an instant mini-mania. The freelancer picked up his pace and began whistling a jazzy version of “For What It’s Worth.”

Back in his office/studio, rather than waste money, he tore into the feast he had prepared for a beggar. It seemed the food scared, or perhaps offended, the cat, who fled. Between sloppy bites the freelancer wiped his hands off.

About an hour later the heartburn started. Eventually, it got brutal. Roscoe pressed on. He wrote about the way propaganda always works to sell war -- every war -- as glorious and essential to the everyday people, who risk their lives. That while the wealthy, who rarely take a genuine risk on anything, urge the patriots on and count their profits.

Thinking of the war in Vietnam that thinned his generation out, he wrote:
After the war the veterans were largely ignored, even scorned.
Roscoe lamented the popular culture having gone wrong, so there was no longer a place for anti-war protest songs. Feeling righteous, he asked:
Where are today’s non-conformists? Today's questioners of authority?
With time to spare, the freelancer finished the job and turned in his work at 4:20 p.m. He even managed to pick up the overdue check for $200 he was owed. An hour or so later his sour and noisy stomach began to calm down during his second beer at the Bamboo Cafe.

Sally showed up with a smile and joined the group gathered at the elbow of the marble bar. When Roscoe recounted the tale of breaking his rule and buying the stuffed frankfurter he got a laugh. He he explained how the old Buffalo Springfield song gave him an idea for his OpEd piece.

Roscoe's small audience groaned on cue when he finished it off with, “Sometimes it's a thin line that separates heartburn and inspiration ... for what it’s worth.”

* * *

All rights reserved by the author.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

It's Time for Bones

Today VCU played hard on defense. The home team, Wichita State, played harder and smarter at both ends of the floor. One statistic speaks to that smarter observation -- the Shockers had 15 assists to the Rams six assists. Final score: WSU 73, VCU 63.

Overall, as a unit, the Rams aren't a good passing team. Most teams have weaknesses. Passing the ball is probably VCU's biggest.

Some observers would call the Rams' passing "sloppy," which is fair enough, because sometimes it is. Sloppy passes are mostly inaccurate and or ill-timed. But some passes that lead to turnovers should be blamed on the receiver of the pass, if he doesn’t step toward it, to fend off the opponents trying to steal it, or if he doesn‘t do enough to provide a timely target for the passer. 

Thus, the passer isn’t always the only culprit. However, since the passer is the decision-maker he logically gets most of the blame for turnovers. Now I’m going to show my age by reminding readers that passing was a bigger part of the game in bygone days. As basketball has evolved styles have changed.

Yes, I’m thinking that over the last quarter century kids on the playground and in high school have generally put less emphasis on learning and applying the subtleties of passing a basketball aggressively, yet precisely. Nonetheless, when you get to the elite college men’s basketball programs you still find the most successful teams usually do have a decent passing game. My guess is that has more to do with recruiting top talent than great coaching in practice sessions.

Anyway, these days, for many college teams only their point guard is an accomplished playmaking-style passer. VCU's problem is that while their starting point guard, Marcus Evans, is clearly one of the best five all-around basketball players on VCU‘s 2019-20 team, he's just not a confident passer.

Too often Evans seems to be battling his instinct to score first, pass second ... which leads to awkward moments of indecision and some of his ill-advised passes. Against Wichita St. he had zero assists and five turnovers. 

Coach Mike Rhoades‘ team surely needs Evans on the floor for 25-to-28 minutes a game, because he's an important leader. His defensive game is stellar. While he isn’t a great long-range threat, he is a pretty good scorer. His ability to draw fouls is almost uncanny at times and he has an excellent touch at the charity stripe. Yet, he's simply not a natural point guard and the good opposing coaches have noticed it.

Thus, in my view, it’s time to make a lineup move. The starting five needs to lose Mike’L Simms and Bones Hyland should become the starting point guard. I’ve seen enough to believe Bones is a gifted natural point guard. From here on, unless/until another adjustment must be made, I’m saying Rhoades' starting five should be: 1. Hyland, 2. Evans, 3. Jenkins, 4. Vann, 5. Santos-Silva. 

As a freshman Bones very much needs the additional playing time to develop into a better all-around college player. While that process plays out having a better passer at the point will immediately give VCU a better chance at winning games, especially against top shelf teams, such as No. 13 Dayton. The Rams have two games coming against the Flyers.

At 9-3 VCU now has 19 games left on its regular season schedule. The Rams probably need to win 14, maybe even 15, of those remaining games to be a likely invitee to the NCAA tournament. If the Rams continue to turn the ball over like they have so far this season, we may be looking at a NIT postseason, rather than NCAA.

Now I hope Coach Rhoades agrees with me about starting Bones.

-- 30 --

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Flashback: Wondering About Right and Wrong

Here's a piece I wrote for Style Weekly's Back Page in the summer of 1999. I don't remember what the title I suggested was. The editor of that page, Rozanne Epps, changed it to "Do Unto Others."
Do Unto Others
by F.T. Rea

The Ten Commandments have made an unexpected comeback this season. In the wake of recent teen violence, we have heard from pundits and legislators alike who say that posting this excerpt of the Bible on public school walls will help potentially dangerous students avoid running off the tracks.
OK, what’s the harm?
Well, when the guy across the street claims the Koran says it better, what do you say back to him? Next, the lady down the block says that the I Ching is more to the point. And so forth …
Ultimately, I’ve got to believe that the Supreme Court is going to have a serious quarrel with the notion of displaying selected portions of the Old Testament in public schools.
So regardless of the good intentions of those who would put the law according to Moses in the classroom, the First Amendment and a mile of legal precedent tells us: The state can’t establish one particular religion.
Yet I do sympathize with those who want to introduce children to the concept of absolutes. And, I wholeheartedly agree with those who observe that morality seems to be evaporating out of modern life.
The essential line between a healthy desire to improve one’s lot in life and in being so greedy that you’re a menace to society is getting more blurred all the time. Without morality, I’m not sure it is discernible.
Without morality perhaps the only perceived downside to theft, or any other crime, is getting caught.
If it’s ethical guidelines that are scarce, why not look to history?
Right beside the Ten Commandments, put up a copy of Hammurabi’s Code. After that, maybe we toss in some Aristotle. In short, let’s bring the basic rules of all major religions and philosophies into the classroom. Some of us may be surprised to see how similar the ethical precepts are.
In the name of “citizenship studies,” let’s put the history of ethics and laws in the classroom as a course of study.
I’m sure it would be possible to design a streamlined course that would offer second or third graders a basic overview of the subject matter. A subsequent look at the same kind of material might be offered in high school, with greater detail and more opportunity for discussion.
As long as we don’t tell students in public schools to pray, or we seek to raise one faith over the other, religion itself can’t be taboo. As we all know, much of the history of art and literature can’t be told without picking through religious relics.
Now, I’m proposing that the actual tenets of the body of thought be examined as well as the artifacts.
The approach of the course would be to focus on the original purpose of particular precepts, together with the way religious canon has become custom and law through the ages.
If the reader is concerned that we must include every faith or philosophy, including such aberrations as devil worship, never fear. When we study art history we don’t cover every artist, or art movement, in a survey course.
Therefore only the religions and philosophies that have had the most impact on the tides of history would need to be covered.
As the 20th century winds down, this scribbler is not at all confident that most children in the United States have much of a grasp of the classic concepts of right and wrong — much less why. And let’s face it, some kids draw a bad hand when it comes to parents.
Good parents or not, for many children the buzz of popular culture is so loud and prevalent that it overwhelms all other information.
Please don’t confuse me with those aboard the “Hollywood is evil” bandwagon. Nonetheless, I am comfortable saying that TV, pop music and the mass media in general aren’t good either. While they aren’t intrinsically good or evil, as they compete to make a buck they will jam pack a child’s head with sights and sounds.
If we expect all the busy parents in the real world to teach their offspring to see the vital connection between their acts and the inevitable consequences, we are indulging in wishful thinking.
Furthermore, if we expect children to pick up a clear sense of morality from popular culture, we are simply fools.

There is no set of instructions as to how to go about injecting morality into a secular society. In the past, like it or not, much of that sort of thinking came from the dominant religion in a region seeping into every fabric of the culture. So the parents were never expected to do the job alone.
Can there be any doubt that a society hoping to prosper has to find an effective way to instill in its young citizens an awareness of, and hopefully a respect for, its collective sense of right and wrong?

Finally, if it isn’t done in the schools, then where and when?

-- 30 --