Thursday, December 08, 2016

Can Satire Survive a Fake News Ban?

Still just weeks after election day most of the interest in the fake news story surrounds the role it may have played in deciding the presidential race. However, the bizarre Comet Pizza story about a vigilante trying to rescue imaginary captive children may be providing a dark preview of what's to come -- more troubling real news about the impact of fake news. 

Happy New Year! 

Given how contagious hysteria tends to be in these always-online days, will 2017 be the year a tidal wave of fake news paranoia washes over the nation? Will Congress be able to resist the call to do something about dangerous fake news?

Just 12 months from now, picture a Saturday Night Live skit being busted in progress on live TV. In this scenario, for presenting a satirical news story about President Trump having the White House painted gold -- quibbling over the deal, cheating the contractors, etc. -- the SNL cast members would be hauled off. In handcuffs. For testing the nation's brand new laws forbidding the dissemination of fake news stories about government actions or officials

Crazy? No doubt. What the hell would have to happen in the USA to spur on such an Orwellian censorship crackdown?

The answer is more Comet Pizza-like stories, only with plenty of blood strewn about the crime scene. Then throw in more damning evidence suggesting some of the election-tilting scams of 2016 were indeed dished out by Russians ... well, that could set the voters' collective fear and indignation to boiling and bubbling. 

If the spreading of more bogus news stories is seen as causing a couple of bloodbaths, well, it gets a little easier to picture outcries calling for action. In response, the Republican-led Congress – goosed by a muscular Trump administration – might leap at the chance to stem the wicked tide. Federal scrutiny of the press and the entertainment industry would likely follow Congressional hearings.

If enforcement of anti-fake news laws becomes vigorous enough that live bust scene on SNL starts to morph from an absurd reach, to being more likely than it ought to be. After all, while candidate Trump was all over the map on some issues, his bombastic attacks on the mainstream media were consistent. 

Furthermore, to assume President-elect Trump now feels he has a mandate to crack down on any sedition that irritates him is hardly a reach. After inauguration day on Jan. 20, protest marches denouncing the Trump administration's policies may be confronted with a somewhat harsher response than did those that followed election day. Can't happen here?

Think again, I'm old enough to remember Selma in 1965 and Kent State in 1970. Our American history is replete with examples of governmental heavy-handed tactics to quell dissent. It has happened here and could again. If it does come to that don't think there won't be plenty of cheerleaders in favor of punishing anti-Trump demonstrators by roughing them up. 

Although some folks will always enjoy seeing pranks ruffle feathers, the fake news epidemic is bound to overstay it's welcome. Which means sooner or later we're probably going to see both clumsy laws and clever laws crafted to wipe it out. Where that will lead is anybody's guess. You've just read mine.

Maybe we all need to think about the perils of living in an echo chamber that only reinforces our preconceived notions. Maybe none of us should share those unverified click bait stories and trashy memes on Facebook. 

Moreover, if the battered fourth estate and we the befuddled people don't find a practical way to solve this fake news problem, ASAP, one of our favorite forms of humor may be in for a rough ride with Trump in the Gold House.  

 

Monday, December 05, 2016

Marking the Loss of Lennon

The first pass at telling this tale appeared in SLANT in 1987. 
The version below was updated in 2012.

Facing the anniversary of his death, on Dec. 8, 1980, I can’t help but wonder what the founder of the Beatles — John Lennon, a master of word-play and sarcasm — would have to say about today's music, art and politics.

It would be anybody's guess. After all, in his nearly 20 years as a public figure Lennon’s knack for changing before our eyes was dazzling. There's no reason to think such a restless soul wouldn't have kept on changing.

In November, 2008, on the occasion of what was the 40th anniversary of the release of the Beatles’ White Album, the Vatican newspaper praised the groundbreaking British band for its body of work and forgave Lennon for his flippant 1966 quip about sudden success, “[We’re] more popular than Jesus.”

Even the bloody Vatican has changed but peace is still waiting, off-stage, for its chance.

In February of 1964 the Beatles made their initial appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. At the time most people probably didn’t connect the events, but those two appearances were less than three months after the assassination of President Kennedy. Surely, the somber mood of the nation, still trying to regain its balance, had something to do with why those fresh sounding Beatles songs cut through the airwaves with such verve.

Clearly, there has been no explosion in the American pop music scene since them, with anything near the equivalent impact of Liverpool’s Fab Four.

Then, in 1980, the murder of moody John Lennon had an impact on the public few would have predicted. It was as if a world leader had been gunned down on the street in Manhattan.

Lennon’s obvious contributions as a songwriter and musician were huge. However, it was the working class hero’s sincerity, his sense of humor and delight in taking risks that helped set him apart from his teen idol counterparts, many of whom toyed with politics and social causes as if they were merely hairdos or dance crazes.

With the Vietnam War still underway in the early ‘70s, President Richard Nixon looked at Lennon and saw the raw power to galvanize a generation’s anti-establishment sentiments. Fearful of that potential, the Nixon administration did everything it could to hound Lennon out of the country. The details of that nasty little campaign are just as bewildering as some of the better known abuses that flowed from the Dirty Tricks Department in the White House during those scandal-ridden days.

With so many years of perspective on Lennon’s death, I have to say that even if that particular nut-case (a man I choose not to name because I refuse to add in any way to his celebrity) hadn’t pulled the trigger, it could easily have been another one; surely there were other bullets out there with John Lennon’s name on them.

Like the comets of each generation are bound to do, sometimes Lennon burned too bright for his own good. And, speaking of assassinations, at this time I’m also reminded of a news item that ran in the Nashville Banner on Feb. 24, 1987. The article began with this:
Two Nashville musicians remained free on $500 bond today after they went on a magazine-shredding tear …to protest People magazine’s current cover story.
The two musicians were Mike McAdam and Gregg Wetzel. As members of the Good Humor Band they were fixtures in Richmond’s rock ‘n’ roll scene in the late-'70s/early-‘80s. By the time the story mentioned above was published, the pair had moved on and established themselves as respected sidemen in Nashville — McAdam on guitar and Wetzel on piano.

In a nutshell, Mike and Gregg became incensed at seeing the magazine with a cover story about John Lennon’s murderer. They felt spotlighting the killer in that way might encourage another deranged wannabe to take gun in hand to go after whoever. So they fortified themselves with an adequate dose of what-it-takes — legend has it they were drinking out of an Elvis decanter — and set out on a mission to destroy the cover of every copy of the offensive publication they could find on the strip.

As the reader may know, this sort of endeavor is frequently best undertaken in the wee hours. In the course of their fifth stop, at a Nashville convenience store, the avenging angels were stopped by the cops and charged with “malicious mischief.”

Shortly afterwards, in a interview about the incident, McAdam said at the time, “If another guy like [name withheld again] sees that, he might think he can get on the cover of People magazine by killing a politician or artist.”

Bravo!

Primary among the reasons John Lennon was stalked and selected for the kill by his murderer was Lennon had a rare ability to move people. In that sense, he was slain for somewhat the same reason as political figures such as Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. Two thousand years ago Jesus H. Christ was taken out of the game for much the same reason. It's always been dangerous to challenge people to change, to give peace a chance. 

Although Nixon miscalculated Lennon’s intentions, the soon-to-be-disgraced president was probably right about the former Beatle’s potential to focus the anti-establishment sentiments in the air. What Nixon didn’t grasp was that Lennon — in spite of his mischievous streak — was really more interested in promoting peace than fomenting revolution.

“The cops looked at me and McAdam,” said Wetzel recently, to flesh out the 25-year-old tale, “decided we weren’t exactly flight risks and entrusted our transport to the pokey with an attractive female officer, all by her lonesome. On the way to the hoosegow, Mickey hit on the cop. True story.”

Well into what are strange days, indeed, 36 years after Lennon's death -- with Lennon's timeless "Rock 'n' Roll" album playing for inspiration -- I can still smile, wondering what more the sarcastic founder of the Beatles would have imagined.

Peace.

-- 30 --

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

'You Mock Me!"

For cartoonists and comics who mock
me? Yes, there has to be some kind of
punishment for that.

Donald Trump doesn't like to be mocked. His predicable reactions to Saturday Night Live skits and other publicly-seen comedic jabs have revealed that weakness. His Dandyship-Elect just can't resist returning fire.

So I have to smile at what that exposure of his addiction to payback invites. Sound the trumpets! (pun intended):

Attention cartoonists, standup comedians and wise-asses of all stripes -- Trump is the living embodiment of the Lord Edmund character in Saturday Night Live's Jan. 21, 1989, skit that featured John Malkovich, Jan Hicks, Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey, and others.

And, given Trump's manufactured squabbles with the press has any politician ever painted such a brightly-colored bull's-eye on his chest?

Here's a portion of the famous skit's script:
Doorman: My Lord! The Royal Artist has completed his portrait of your Lordship, he seeks your approval.

Lord Edmund: Show him in.

Royal Artist: [ enters with painting ] Master, I humbly present the fruit of two years' labor.. [ displays painting ] The Royal Portrait!

Lord Edmund: [ examines it disapprovingly ]

Royal Artist: My Lord is not pleased with the portrait?

Lord Edmund: You mock me.

Royal Artist: My Lordship, quite the contrary.. The portrait celebrates your noble bearing! I put you in uniform to capture the lion heart that beats within your heroic breasts!

Lord Edmund: Will this mockery never cease? Away with you. If there is one thing I cannot abide, it is being mocked! now, go! And take your grotesque caricature with you! [ runs Royal Artist out, as the Servants mock his running ] I will not be mocked!! [ walks across the room, as the Servants continue to mock his movements ] Was I wrong?

Servant #1: Heavens no, your Highness. His most contempt was rendering. The talks on canvas. Wouldn't you say so, Thomas?

Servant #2: Oh, yes, yes, yes.. The affrontary of his derisive painting was surpassed only by his brazen gall!

Lord Edmund: Exactly!
You get the picture. Here's a clip of the hilarious skit at NBC's website.

Who, in real life, is likely to play the roles of the mocking servants? Once he's in office, who will stand right next to him -- just off to the side -- seeming to praise him, while all along slathering his Dandyship with the total Lord Edmund treatment?

-- Art and words by F.T. Rea

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Cheaters

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The Jellypig

By F.T. Rea

Note from Rebus: The little painting to the right was the third in a series Rea did in 1983 to amuse his mischievous girlfriend. In each of them I got killed off in a different way. In the summer of 1983, it was generally assumed that Rea had quit his job on a sudden whim. In truth, the mysterious process had been anything but sudden. 

In 1997, feeling challenged by F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Crack-Up," Rea first attempted to write an account of his departure from the Biograph. As it required laying bare some of his troubles with what he calls "melancholia," it wasn't such an easy project to execute. This version of the story was put together in 2007. The weird telephone piece below was made and photographed by Rea shortly after he walked away from the Biograph. 



When one divines the presence of a specific person in connection with some unexplained occurrence, without any tangible evidence of their involvement, what real trust should one put in such raw instinct?

How much of a hunch is a flash of extraordinary perception? How much is imagination?

In a high contrast crisis, doubting a hunch could get somebody killed. But in everyday life’s ambiguous gray scale of propriety, how much can anyone afford to put at risk strictly on intuition? Hey, if you shoot a guy based on your gut feeling that he was about to kill someone else, with no corroborative evidence, you’re going to need a good lawyer.

The torturous story of why I left my longtime job as manager of the Biograph Theatre began with a ringing telephone on an Indian Summer afternoon in 1981 that I remember all too well. I put the Sunday newspaper aside to pick up the receiver and said, “Hello.”

There was no reply. At that moment there was no reason to think it was more than a wrong number or a malfunction on the line. Yet, after listening to a creepy silence for half a minute and repeating “hello” a few times, I sensed I knew the person at the other end of the line.

As I hung up that mysterious feeling was replaced by a flicker of a thought that named a specific person. Then the notion faded into a queasy sensation that made me go outside for some fresh air. For an instant I thought I knew something there was no plain way for me to know. Moreover, I didn’t want to know it.

My grandmother had told me a thousand times to never go against a hunch. Had I have discussed it with her she would have said a clear message from what she would have called my “inner voice” should always trump all else.

Instead of seeking her counsel I asked only myself: “Why would that person call me, to hang on the line and say nothing?” It made no sense. So, I tried to study the hunch, to examine its basis.

As I walked toward the closest bar, the Village, I was already caught in an undertow that would eventually carry my spirit far away from everything that had mattered to me.

Now I know that my grandmother understood something I was yet to learn -- a hunch is a bolt from the blue that cannot be gathered and investigated. It can’t be revisited like a conclusion. A true hunch can only be felt once.

Yet, for a number of reasons it was easier for me to view my inconvenient hunch as counterfeit. A few weeks later, by the time the calls had become routine, the whole concept of believing in hunches was on its way to the same place as beliefs in the Tooth Fairy and Heaven. A grown man, a man of reason, needed to rise above all such superstitions.

The caller never spoke. Usually, I hung up right away. Sometimes I’d listen as hard as I could for a while, trying to hear a telltale sound. The reader should note that telephone answering machines, while available then, were not yet cheap. Most people did not have one at this time.


After a haphazard year-and-a-half of one-night stands and such, following the break-up of my ten-year marriage, at this same time I had a new girlfriend. Tana was long-legged and sarcastic; she could be very distracting. She was a fine art major who waitressed part-time at one of the strip’s busiest saloons, the Jade Elephant. My apartment was just two blocks from there and she stayed over at my place about half the time, so she knew about the calls.

Tana was the only person who knew anything about it for a long time. She was sworn to secrecy. Mostly, I just let Tana distract me.

Quite sensibly, she urged me to contact the authorities, or at least to get an unlisted phone number. Offering no real explanation, I wasn’t comfortable with either option. Playing my cards close to the vest, I simply acted as if it didn’t really bother me. At this point she didn’t know about the hunch. We spent a lot of time riding our bicycles and playing Frisbee-golf.

As I rummage through my memory of this time period now the images are smeared and spooky. I stayed high more than before. For sure, I’ve forgotten a lot of it.

A few months later my nose was broken in a basketball game, and by pure coincidence I saw my grandmother on a stretcher at the hospital while I was there. Feeling weak, she had checked herself in. Nana died before dawn: March 5, 1982.

Later that morning, when I went to her apartment to see after her affairs, she had already packed everything up. She left notes on pieces of cardboard taped to furniture about her important papers and what to do with everything. A few days later my daughter and I sprinkled Nana's ashes into a creek in Orange County; it was a place she had played when she was a little girl.

Unmercifully, the stalking telephone calls became more frequent. Wherever I went, home, office, or someone else’s place, the phone would ring. Then there would be that same diabolical silence, no matter who answered.

Anxiety had become my familiar companion, although I didn’t know then to call it by that name. While I surely needed to do something decisive about the telephone problem, the energy just couldn’t be mustered.

If someone had told me I was sinking deeper and deeper into a major depression, well, I would have laughed it off -- I was too cocky to be depressed. In my view, then, depression was an affliction of people who were bored. It never occurred to me that pure confidence was leaking out of my psyche, spilling away forever.

Unfortunately, my narrow view of the problem centered around the mystery of who and why.



Part of the persona I had created and projected in my role as the Biograph’s manager was that everything came easily to me. I liked to hide any hard work or struggle from the public, even the staff at times. While I might have wrestled with the artwork for a Midnight Show handbill for days, I would act as if it had been dashed off in an hour.

Looking back on it now, I’d say that pose was part of a cool image I wanted to project for the theater, itself, too.

Living inside such a pretend world -- within a pretend world -- rather than seeing the debilitating effect the telephone monster was having on me, I saw only clues. My strategy was to outlast the caller, to close in like a hard-boiled movie sleuth without ever letting anyone know it was getting to me.

Since the calls started around the time I began seeing Tana, it seemed plausible it could have to do with her. Maybe an old boyfriend? Also, there was my own ex -- maybe one of her new squeezes? Maybe my rather eccentric brother (who died in 2005)? Beyond those obvious possibilities, I poured over the smallest details of each and every personal relationship.

As a theater manager, my movie detective training told me it had to be someone with a powerful grudge, so I created a list of prime suspects.

Misunderstandings with disgruntled former employees were combed through, rivals from various battles I’d fought over the years were considered. And, there were people I had hurt, out of just being careless. It became my habit to question the motives of those around me at every turn. In sly ways, they were all tested.

As I examined my history, searching through any details that could have set a grudge in motion, a new picture of Terry Rea began to emerge. I found reasons for guilt that had never occurred to me before. When I looked in the mirror, I began to see a different man, a self-centered phony.

It was as if I had discovered a secret, grotesque portrait of what was left of my soul, hanging in the attic, like Oscar Wilde’s character -- Dorian Gray.

Then my old yellow Volvo wagon was rifled. A few personal things were taken but they didn’t touch the stereo. When my office at the theater was burglarized, my glasses and a photograph of me were stolen. Of course, I saw those crimes as connected to the phone calls.

Tired of the ordeal and frustrated with me, Tana had been imploring me to have the calls traced. In late September, I finally agreed to do it. A woman who worked for the telephone company told me I had to keep a precise record of the times of all the calls, and I had to agree to prosecute the guilty party if he was discovered. Although it had been nearly a year, I was still holding the mystery close to me and hadn’t mentioned it to anyone at the theater.

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

One way or another, I managed to get information out of the telephone company lady without actually getting on board with the police part of it. The bottom line was this -- there were two numbers on the list of traced calls that coincided with nearly all the calls on my record. One was a pay phone in Goochland County, the other was the Biograph’s number.

Several of those calls were placed from the theater, well after it had closed. After looking at the record of the work schedule from the previous weeks, one employee had worked the late shift on each night a call came from the building after hours. Not coincidentally, this same man was the only person who lived in Goochland, twenty miles away.

Most importantly, it was the same man revealed by my original hunch -- he was the projectionist at the Biograph. Now I refer to the culprit only as the “jellypig.”

Why jellypig?

Let’s just say he had a porcine, yet gelatinous way about him. I prefer to avoid using his real name because it suits me. People who are familiar with the cast of characters in this tangled story still know his name. That’s enough for me.

Nonetheless, while all the circumstantial evidence pointed at only one man the thought of wrongfully accusing a person of such a terrible thing was still unbearable to me.

So, I continued to stew in my own juices.



In November, I decided to move, to flee Grace Street for a new pad further downtown on Franklin Street. At a staff meeting, I revealed aspects of the stalking I had been enduring. I explained that for a while, I would not get a new home telephone. They were also told I had proof of who was actually behind the calls, but I said nothing about any of the calls having been made from the theater. Most importantly, I left them to guess at the villain’s identity.

Why?

Truth is, I don’t remember. Perhaps I was hoping to scare the jellypig and make him slink away.

Although the calls at my home ceased to be a problem, a week or so later a weird note was left in my car. Why that became the last straw I don’t know ... but it was.

The following afternoon, when no one else was in the building, I called the jellypig into my office. Sitting at my desk, I looked him in the eye and calmly lowered the boom. It was like living in a black and white B movie. None of it seemed real.

He looked scared and flatly denied it. So, I told him about the traced phone calls. That news deflated him; he collapsed into himself. The bulbous jellypig stared blankly at the floor. Then he insisted that someone ... somebody had to be framing him.

I was flabbergasted!

It hadn’t even occurred to me that he would simply lie in the face of such a strong case. To get him out of my sight I told him he had one day to come up with a better story, or the owners of the theater would be told and he’d be turned over to the cops. I can’t remember what I said would happen if he came clean. Most likely, I was still hoping he’d just go away.

Maybe I didn’t have a plan.

The problem with just firing the jellypig right on the spot was that replacing him wouldn’t be so easy. Since late-1980, the Biograph had been operating as a non-union house. Because of an ongoing dispute with the local operators union, I was hiring our projectionists directly off the street.

As it happened, our original projectionist developed a problem with the local union over some internal politics. Later, his rivals took over. They fought. He got steamed and walked out. Which prompted the union to tell me to bar him from the booth. Although I was uncomfortable going against the union, politically, I felt standing by the individual I had worked with for eight years was the right thing to do.

The union’s reaction was to pull its men off the job. This eventually led to me hiring the man who became the jellypig to be a back-up projectionist. For reasons I can’t recall, he was then at odds with the union, too, so he was willing to work at the Biograph in spite of the official boycott.

Subsequently, our full-time projectionist -- whose squabble had created the problem -- left to take a job with another theater that had also broken with the union. Which made it look like the whole town might follow our example and go non-union. Naturally, that put me in an even worse light with the union brass, who blamed me personally.

The jellypig seemed qualified to run the booth, so the easiest thing to do was promote him to full-time when the opening came about. Although I ’d never really checked up on him, like I usually did when I hired people, I put him in charge of the two projection booths.

So, if I fired the jellypig -- summarily and on the spot -- the Biograph didn’t have as many options as it should have, owing to the fact there was a very limited pool of qualified projectionists readily available to a non-union house. We had trained an usher to be backup, but he wasn’t ready to run the whole operation.

It seemed I had little choice but to get in touch with the union for a replacement. Since the theater was in a slump, it was a bad time for operating expenses to go up, and I expected the union bosses would go for some payback with a new contract.

The jellypig rushed into my office the next day with the big news -- he had solved the mystery! In a flurry, he claimed the person responsible for the calls was an old nemesis of his. It was an evil genius who was an electronics expert. He could fool the phone company’s machinery.

It seemed the jellypig's comic book villain had a long history of playing terrible dirty tricks on him, going back to their tortured childhood at the orphanage in Pittsburgh.

Oh brother!

Then, if that wasn’t bad enough, the jellypig told me the guilty one was doing it all for two reasons: One was simply to heap trouble onto the house of the jellypig, who had a wife and kids to support. The other was to hurt your narrator, directly ... since the evil genius knew all.

At this point the jellypig coughed up the breaking news that he had long been harboring a powerful carnal lust for me. Caught up in the moment, the jellypig began to sob, admitting it was all his fault -- he had foolishly shared the vital particulars of his secret craving with the evil one, himself.

OK. I know it makes no sense now, but as I listened to jellypig, along with disgust I began to feel something akin to pity. The selling jellypig assured me that he would do whatever it took to stop the evil genius from bothering me ever again. He begged me, literally on his knees, not to tell his wife or the theater’s owners about any of it.

My mind was reeling and my stomach had turned.

As I told the jellypig to leave the office and let me think, there's no doubt that I should have wondered which one of us was the craziest.
Not surprisingly, the tailspin the Biograph had gone into had become wilder. The theater was loosing money like it hadn’t in several years. As the winter came and went, my spirits sank steadily. It was like being paralyzed so slowly it was almost imperceptible.

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

In the meantime, the owners told me expenses had to be slashed drastically, meaning I had to let some people go. Who and how many was up to me, but salaries had to come in under a certain figure. So I was given a few days to come up with a new plan that had to eliminate at least one of the two guys who had been there the longest.

Shortly thereafter, I was at my desk talking on the phone to a close friend about how I was putting out feelers for another job, because the Biograph was for sale. Without thinking, I gave him my new, unlisted home phone number, which had been put in Tana’s name. When I hung up, it struck me the damned jellypig might have heard me, if his ear had been up to the common drywall between the booth and my office.

My home telephone rang several times that night.

That very night! It was pure hell. Mustering the coldblooded attitude to fire friends to cut costs wasn't within me.

Then there was this -- if I bowed out of the picture it would eliminate the biggest salary burden the theater had. By this point I had developed a couple of mysterious health problems. I literally lost my voice, due to a vocal cord problem.

Plus, the Biograph’s ability to negotiate with the local union would be less encumbered without me around. Good reasons for me to run away from 814 West Grace Street seemed everywhere I looked. With no plan of where I would end up, I suddenly decided to walk away from what I had once seen as the best job in the Fan District.

So I called the owners to tell them of my decision to leave; they also heard about the jellypig business for the first time. The boys in DeeCee were shocked and urged me to reconsider, to take a month off. They had hired me to manage the theater months before it opened it opened in 1972. We’d been through a lot together.

However, I’m sure they were actually quite torn with what to do with their floundering friend. Clearly, at that time I was not the resourceful problem solver I had been for many years. Beyond that, we could all see fashion was turning sharply against what had been a darling of the ‘70s popular culture -- repertory cinemas.

The future for the Biograph looked dicey no matter what I did. The owners agreed with me that the jellypig had to go ... as soon as possible. I remember mentioning that I had gotten him to promise to get psychiatric help in exchange for me not calling the police.

Without much of an explanation to anyone else, I announced to whoever cared that I was moving on and looking forward to a life of new adventures. Movie critic Carole Kass wrote a small article for the Richmond Times-Dispatch noting that I had “retired.”

Over lunch at Stella’s on Harrison St., soon after my barely explained departure from the Biograph, I told a former Biograph co-worker that maybe I had it all coming to me. Maybe the jellypig had just been an agent of karma. I speculated that perhaps my hubris and nonchalance had all but invited ruin.

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

What I couldn’t explain to anyone, because I didn’t understand it myself, was that I just had no confidence. I didn’t know what to do next at any given moment. My gift of gab, such as it had been, was kaput. I stammered. In the middle of a sentence, I would lose my place ... questioning how to end it.

As the summer wore on it turned out the jellypig wasn’t quickly replaced in the Biograph’s booth, which galled me to no end. Apparently the owners were struggling with the union over a new contract.

That’s when I came up with the name “jellypig.” A few weeks after dropping my job like a hot potato I went by the theater to leave off a little drawing for him on the staff message board. It featured a cartoon character I created for the occasion -- the jellypig.

The character was a simple line drawing of a pig-like creature. He was depicted in a scene under a water line, chained to an anchor. He had little x’s for eyes. There were small bubbles coming from his head and drifting toward the water’s surface. The jellypig was almost smiling, he seemed unconcerned with his fate.

The caption read something like, “The jellypig takes a swim,” or “The jellypig’s day at the beach.” That began a short series of similar cartoons, all left off at the Biograph. The others portrayed a suffering jellypig in that same droll tone.

Yes, I did it to get into his head -- let him be scared, for a change.

Although I was no longer in charge of the theater, it was habit for me to have a say in it’s affairs. Which made for some awkward moments, because the jellypig cartoons weren’t funny to anybody but me. It put the new manager, Mike, who had been my assistant manager for five years, in an awkward position.

For about a year I had been doing a Thursday afternoon show on a semi-underground radio station called Color Radio. As a record played, from the studio I spoke on the phone with the jellypig. He was at work. I don’t recall what precipitated the conversation. Anyway, he told me he had blown off the notion of professional counseling. I warned him that he was breaking his bargain. He went on to say that he didn’t need any help, but that maybe I did.

The jellypig revealed to me that he resented the way I had treated him for a long time -- deliberately excluding him from much of the social scene at the theater. He complained bitterly, saying I had stood in the way of his advancement. But in spite of the way I had tried to poison the owners’ minds against him ... eventually, he would convince them to let him manage the Biograph to save money.

For the first time it hit me -- the scheming jellypig’s entire effort had been a “Gaslight” treatment. All that time I’d been playing Ingrid Bergman to his Charles Boyer.

The anger from what I had allowed to happen welled up in that moment. I told the jellypig that after my radio shift ended, I was coming directly to the theater. If he was still there, I’d break both of his legs with a softball bat.

On my way to the Biograph I wondered again who, if anyone, on the staff might have known more about the jellypig's game than they had let on. When I got to the theater the jellypig had called in a replacement and vamoosed. We'll never know what would have happened had he been there.

Maybe I would have broken only one leg.

The terrified jellypig worked a couple more shifts in the booth after that day. Taking no chances, he brought in his children to be there with him, as human shields. Then, wisely, he split ... for good.

Which meant no more jellypig cartoons.


It took my run for a seat on City Council in the spring of 1984 to wrench loose from that unprecedented spell of melancholia. Blowing off my hunch on that first call probably bought me more trouble than any other single mistake I’ve ever made. Tana and I split up in the fall.

All these years later, I wonder if I heard something in that first call. Maybe it was a sound so faint I didn’t know I heard it; almost like subliminal suggestion. Perhaps it was the churning sound of the projection equipment. Although I don’t remember hearing it, it’s the best explanation -- short of parapsychology -- that makes any sense.

My dear grandmother’s advice to trust six-sense hunches now seems like good medicine. Put another way, it simply meant -- trust your own judgment. Believe in yourself. Which might be the best advice I could ever give my own grandchildren.

*

Note from Rebus: By the time the Biograph's pair of screens went dark in December of 1987 many art houses had already closed all over the country. The golden age for repertory cinemas was a fading memory. Months behind on the rent, Richmond's Biograph was seized by its landlord and closed down forever. It was two months shy of its 16th anniversary. The building that housed it is still there; now it's the oldest building on the block.

All rights reserved by the author. For more stories in the Biograph Times 
series by F.T. Rea click here.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Time to Decide

Prior to 2016, I can't remember a political campaign season that featured such damning controversy swirling around a candidate with a genuine chance to win. Nor can I remember when I've followed a political race and remained undecided less than a week before election day. 

No, I'm not talking about the presidential race. This piece is about Richmond's mayoral race.

As far as the presidential campaign is concerned, I will vote for the Democratic Party's nominee. In the spring I voted for Bernie Sanders, because I preferred him. That was then; it was a primary. On election day, choosing between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is easy -- I'm with her. 

Moreover, my hope is that Trump, the Bluster Meister, will set a new record for losing by the widest margin in history. Of course,  I'll settle for a Clinton win no matter how small the margin. Perhaps writer Andy Borowitz has said it best: 
Stopping Trump is a short-term solution. The long-term solution, and it will be more difficult, is fixing the educational system that has created so many people ignorant enough to vote for Trump.
Back to the local scene. The presence of Joe Morrissey on the ballot has injected much of the sizzle into the mayoral race. In April there were nearly 20 wannabe mayors trying to get enough publicity to compete with Morrissey, a feisty little dickens who has been well known to Richmonders for over 25 years. One by one the wannabes failed to gain the needed traction. 

Now, with Jon Baliles having stepped aside, on Nov. 2, we're down to six left standing. However, wags suggest only three of those six have a legit chance to win. In addition to Morrissey they are Jack Berry and Levar Stoney.

Since Baliles had a rather substantial following, if he endorses one of those two anti-Morrisseys that could put Berry or Stoney over the top. But time is running out for such a move to pay off.

In other words, it's generally accepted that three candidates -- Bobby Junes, Michelle Mosby and Lawrence Williams -- have no chance to win. Yet, by stepping down, now, any of that trio could play a role in deciding who will be the next mayor. Whether any of the three will become interested in playing such a role is not known at this desk.

The decision of which mayoral candidate will get my vote is still waiting to be made. I'm glad I had the benefit of the Bijou Salons to help me know three of the candidates a little better. Yet, those sessions with the candidates left me with a dilemma: Do I want to support the man I agree with the most? Or, the man who seems the most qualified, experience-wise? Or the man whose fresh face might best represent a city trying to turn a page on dysfunction at City Hall?

Note: To read about the Bijou Salon, click here. To read about Berry's Bijou Salon appearance click here. To read about Baliles' appearance click here. To read about Stoney's appearance click here.  

The time for deciding is upon us, candidates and voters alike. It's about choosing. 

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Bijou Salon: Levar Stoney

Bijou Salon No. 3 Report

In the Chair: Levar Stoney, mayoral candidate 

Panelists for this session: Chris Dovi, Michael Garrett, Don Harrison, Karen Newton, Reggie Pace, James Parrish, Carrie Stettinius, Gordon Stettinius, Charles Williams, Matt Zoller. 

Host: Terry Rea 

Background: A few weeks ago, during a Facebook discussion about Richmond's nettlesome baseball stadium issue, something interesting occurred. After some messaging back and forth a sit-down meeting with mayoral candidate Jack Berry was arranged. It took place on Oct. 3 in the Bijou Film Center's downtown screening room space. Berry, 62, met with a savvy group of invited citizens for about 90 minutes, to answer questions and discuss various local political issues. Thus the concept of the Bijou Salon was launched. Then, on Oct. 23, Jon Balies, 45, sat in the chair to answer questions and present his vision for Richmond, his home town. 

Oct. 25, 2016: Levar Stoney smiled, rolled up his sleeves and sat down. He seemed to relish the opportunity to present his case to the Bijou Salon panel on hand. As with the Berry and the Baliles sessions, no political beat reporters were invited. No television journalists were invited. No recordings of the confab were allowed. Once again, the conversation went on for about 90 minutes.

Once again, the panel got to ask follow-up questions. The panelists spoke naturally, while sitting around a table, drinking beer (or wine or sodas) and listening. Of course, the candidate did most of the talking.

Stoney spoke frequently of his experience working in Gov. Terry McAuliffe's administration as Sec. of the Commonwealth (2014-16). At 35, Stoney's youth and background in state government help to set him apart from the other two most prominent anti-Morrisseys – Baliles and Berry – who have experience working at and with City Hall.

Stoney asked those listening to him to see his youth and energy as a plus. He pointed at the "system" in City Hall as maybe more of a problem than the personnel. However, when it comes to the task of taking at hard look at some of the entrenched city employees who may have overstayed their welcome, Stoney presented his fresh face in town vantage point as an advantage. He smiled often and confidently.

While criticizing Mayor Dwight Jones for his lackluster performance, in general, Stoney reminded us of how Jones has seemed to an enigmatic presence in recent years. Stoney asserted that he will be a mayor who is accessible and visible.

Of the three candidates who participated in the Bijou Salons, Stoney seemed the least interested in spending taxpayers' money on professional sports. He said he thinks the Redskins will probably leave town sooner than later. He also seemed less convinced than some of his rivals that minor league baseball simply must stay within the confines of the city limits, no matter what.

Concerning the admissions tax issue, Stoney seemed happy enough to see it phased out. Whether he would provide leadership in that area wasn't clear. However, on this topic neither Stoney nor Berry showed the depth of understanding that Baliles revealed.

Indeed, this particular issue flies under the radar for most Richmonders, who have no sense of how that seven percent grab, which the city takes off the top of the price of every ticket sold in Richmond, hobbles show biz to limit our entertainment options (click and scroll down to read an OpEd penned by yours truly). A forward looking city government should take a hard look at what eliminating that tax has done to create entertainment scenes in Austin and Nashville.

In summing up, after three sessions it's obvious that our relaxed atmosphere format allowed for more complete answers than a typical candidates-on-stage forum provides. It seemed the attendees enjoyed the conversation. So much so, in each case some folks lingered to talk about what they had heard and ask one another about their views of this year's fascinating mayoral race.

My thanks go out to the three candidates who took a chance. All three guys came in without handlers. All three appeared to appreciate the opportunity to have a beer and explain their views. Fortunately, we didn't hear all that much canned, sound bite talk. The trio gave me more to think about, as I decide which mayoral candidate will get my vote.

And, my thanks also go out to the panelists for the three sessions. They were: Chris Dovi, Lillie Estes, Barry Fitzgerald, Sasha Waters Freyer, Betty Garrett, Michael Garrett, Don Harrison, Katey Knox, Enjoli Moon, Karen Newton, Reggie Pace, James Parrish, Billy Rice, Markus Schmidt, Nicki Stein, Carrie Stettinius, Gordon Stettinius, Charles Williams, Matt Zoller.

After three "strong mayor" terms (of four years each) that have been disappointing, Richmond needs to finally elect a mayor who can make the strong mayor system work. We need a full-time mayor who can foster the regional cooperation that's vital to solving metro problems. An energetic mayor who can cure the morale problem at City Hall. A mayor who wants to listen to a fair range of voices representing the whole community.

The presumed front-runner Joe Morrissey is clearly the most polarizing of the four candidates who, at this writing, seem to have a chance of winning. Or at least finishing in the top two, to qualify to be in the run-off in December. In the last days before election day, Nov. 8, many of Richmond's voters may still be undecided about the mayoral contest. Maybe this piece will help.

To close: On November 8 please remember to do you duty as a citizen and vote. After that, stay tuned for more news about future Bijou Salons.

-- 30 --

Monday, October 24, 2016

Bijou Salon: Jon Baliles


Bijou Salon No. 2 Report

In the Chair: Jon Baliles, mayoral candidate

Panelists for this session: Barry Fitzgerald, Betty Garrett, Michael Garrett, Don Harrison, Katey Knox, Reggie Pace, James Parrish, Gordon Stettinius, Matt Zoller.

Host: Terry Rea

Background: A few weeks ago, during a Facebook discussion about Richmond's nettlesome baseball stadium issue, something interesting occurred. After some messaging back and forth a sit-down meeting with mayoral candidate Jack Berry was arranged. It took place on Oct. 3 in the Bijou Film Center's downtown screening room space. Berry met with a savvy group of invited citizens for about 90 minutes, to answer questions and discuss various local political issues. Thus the concept of the Bijou Salon was launched.

*

Oct. 23, 2016: Jon Baliles sat in the Bijou Salon chair for a freewheeling discussion of his views. As with the Berry session, no political beat reporters were invited. No television journalists were invited. No recordings of the confab were allowed. Once again, the conversation went on for about 90 minutes. Again, it was more like friends and associates sitting around a table, drinking beer (wine or sodas) and politely taking turns asking questions and making comments.

For the Baliles session, while the candidate did most of the talking, it was striking what a good listener he was. He responded directly to questions. Everyone on hand who had something to say, said it. For the most part, no one was cut off or talked over. Moreover, Baliles' answers didn't seem to be canned talking points. It was refreshing.

Baliles explained the evolution of his view of the baseball stadium issue, in depth. Given the pivotal role he played in scuttling Mayor Dwight Jones' Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium proposal, it was good to hear Baliles talk about his 2014 telephone conversation with his fellow councilman, Charles Samuels, that led to their joint press release. That statement by Baliles and Samuels effectively put the kibosh to the mayor's puzzling, wrongheaded plan to move professional baseball from the Boulevard to the Bottom.

Baliles also spoke at length about his history of interacting with the arts community, especially with the mural project he and artist Ed Trask headed up. Note: Both Berry and Baliles can talk comfortably and credibly about their associations with Richmond's arts community, but there's a difference. Berry's perspective seems more from the top down, while Baliles' seems more from the bottom up.

When it came to his understanding of the admissions tax issue Baliles showed he has done his homework better than some candidates. Most Richmonders have no sense of how that hidden seven percent tax -- that comes off the top of every ticket sold in Richmond -- acts to truncate our entertainment options, or how it works against show biz, itself. Because he understands its impact, Baliles favors phasing the city's counterproductive admissions tax out, perhaps at a rate of one percent per year, until it's kaput. 

Generally speaking, Baliles showed a noteworthy depth of understanding for each issue discussed. He left me with little doubt about his ability to hit the ground running, should he win. Nonetheless, I am still undecided about which mayoral candidate will get my vote on Nov. 8, because I want to do more listening, myself.

After the first two Bijou Salons, it's already obvious that our relaxed format has allowed for more complete answers than a typical candidates-on-stage forum provides. With several candidates standing before a seated audience, to take turns answering questions with practiced sentences designed to be soundbites, it's hard to get a feel for any particular candidate's range and depth of knowledge, their ability to listen, or their sense of humor.

From what I can tell the panelists seem to have been enjoying their role during the sessions. Overall, they've been fun to do, so far. Mayoral candidate Levar Stoney will sit in the Bijou Salon chair next. My report on that upcoming session will be posted later this week.

30 –

Monday, October 10, 2016

Bijou Salon: Jack Berry

Bijou Salon No. 1 Report

In the Chair: Jack Berry, mayoral candidate

Panelists: Lillie Estes, Sasha Waters Freyer, Betty Garrett, Michael Garrett, Enjoli Moon, James Parrish, Billy Rice, Markus Schmidt, Nicki Stein, Charles Williams, Matt Zoller.

Host: Terry Rea 

During a fairly typical Facebook discussion about Richmond's nettlesome baseball stadium issue something interesting occurred. An offer emerged. After some messaging back and forth a sit-down meeting with mayoral candidate Jack Berry took place on Mon., Oct. 3, in the Bijou Film Center's downtown screening room space. So a week ago Berry met with a savvy group of invited citizens (see list above), to answer questions and discuss various local political issues. 
 
No political beat reporters were invited. No television journalists were invited. No recordings of the confab were allowed. The conversation went on from 7:30 p.m until 9 p.m.

To break the ice, Berry was asked about his high-visibility advocacy for building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. Why did he support the Shockoe Stadium concept so vigorously? And, what had he learned from its failure to gather sufficient support?

When it was announced to the public in December of 2013, Berry explained, he thought the plan for Shockoe Bottom put forth by Mayor Dwight Jones was a good proposal. It seems Berry may still think it was the right thing to do, but what has changed in his mind is that he now better understands what the nature of the opposition was ... and remains. 
 
Thus, Berry admitted to the group sitting around a table that he misjudged what the size of the opposition truly was. It seems that early on he gathered the opposition was mostly a collection of activists, akin to an Occupy/99 percent crowd. Conveniently, Berry thought the majority of Richmonders either supported Jones' plan or were indifferent. He allowed that now he knows better. 
 
Yes, having faced what proved to have been widespread disapproval, coming from different angles, Berry now seems to accept that it was not smart to have stuck with defending Mayor Jones' plan as long as he did. 
 
For my part, I must say I was impressed with Berry's ability to answer questions without playing games. While I may have disagreed with him on several issues, I appreciated his forthrightness. Truth be told, I still disagree with him on plenty, but I have new hope that as mayor, he would be prone to listening to people other than the country club set. 
 
Moreover, Berry seemed fairly relaxed and showed a sense of humor. Not that he made many jokes, but he laughed spontaneously at the laugh-worthy cracks others made.

So, I left the meeting with fresh respect for Jack Berry. He seemed to understand the duties and requirements of the job he is seeking. If he wins, I don't doubt he can handle it. Which would be a big improvement over our current situation at City Hall. Sure, that can probably be said about some number of his opponents, as well. Perhaps one of those opponents will agree to sit in the chair for a Bijou Salon soon.
 
Nonetheless and fortunately, for the sake of the next Bijou Salon, I remain undecided about which mayoral candidate will get my vote on November 8. A more detailed account of the first Bijou Salon will eventually be published.


30 –

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

'The Lovers and the Despot'


On Fri., Oct. 14 and Sat., Oct. 15, in its screening room at 304 E. Broad St., the Bijou Film Center will present a first-run documentary/thriller that's getting a lot of notice since its release last month -- “The Lovers and the Despot.

Admission: $9. No advance tickets.

Friday show times: 7 p.m. and 9:15 p.m.
Saturday show times: 4:15 p.m., 7 p.m. and 9:15 p.m.

The Lovers and the Despot” (2016): Color. 98 minutes. Directed by Robert Cannan and Ross Adam.

Note: In 1978 North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il acted upon his frustration with his country's movie industry, or lack thereof. Ever the film buff, Kim kidnapped a renown director and a beloved actress who were South Korean celebrities. The despot declared them to be his personal filmmakers. The pair was forced to make movies, all the while planning their escape.

No, this isn't the plot of an off-the-wall romp – a fantasy just for laughs. It's the documentary about Shin Sang-ok and his wife, Choi Eun-hee that wowed viewers at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

This real-life romantic thriller/escape saga is essential stranger-than-fiction viewing.” – Justin Change, Variety.


Beer, wine and soft drinks will be for sale. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

It paid to Advertise

The distinctive front windows of the Bearded Bros.,
black lights and Dayglo-painted panels (1969).

When the doorway into show business suddenly opened for me I entered gladly. At the time I had a sales job I wanted to quit. What I wanted was to be a professional cartoonist/writer and eventually get to make films. So selling sandwiches and beer in a dive seemed more like a step in that direction than continuing to sell janitorial supplies.

When a friend, Fred Awad, offered me work at the restaurant he was operating my coat-and-tie job was history. Actually, my coming aboard as a bartender/manager was part of a larger plan we had cooked up to convert what was then a typical blue collar neighborhood beer joint/eatery into the Fan Distict's most happening club.

The restaurant belonged to Fred's parents, who wanted to retire. They had turned it over to their sons, Fred and Howard. The brothers promptly changed the name of place at Allison and West Broad St. from Marconi's to the Bearded Brothers.

Growing beards was easy, but the Awad boys couldn’t agree on how to run the business, so the younger brother, Howard, left to pursue the quest of opening a place of his own.

Meanwhile, Fred and I had become convinced the fun-loving baby boomer crowd in the Fan District needed a place to enjoy cold beer, hot food, live music and a psychedelic light show. That, together with the edgy spectacle of go-go girls -- dancing topless. At this time, in 1969, such bare-chested, except for pasties, dancing was going on in Roanoke. But it had yet to make its way to Richmond.

And, speaking of booming babies, at this time my wife, Valerie, was six months pregnant. Fred’s wife, Mary Ann, was seven months along.

It took us a couple of weeks to paint the interior flat black, build the stage and put the light show apparatus together. We also painted the front window panes that faced Broad Street in Dayglo colors illuminated by black lights.

The rock ‘n’ roll bands went over well and brought in a fresh crowd right away. A local group calling itself Natural Wildlife became a regular attraction. Then it came time to hire the go-go dancers. So a help wanted sign went up in the restaurant.

A few young women came in asking about the dancing job. Eventually, we settled on two. One of them had some experience, the other didn’t. But only the dancer new to the exhibitionism trade could be there for the first night, which we advertised in the local newspaper. I did the ad art; it featured a pen-and-ink rendered silhouette of a female dancer and a new Bearded Brothers logo I had designed.

By 8 p.m. the place was packed, wall-to-wall. We were selling beer like never before. The only problem was that our dancer with her brand new costume, which included tasseled pasties to cover her nipples (ABC Board regulation), was scary late. She hadn’t called, either.

With the crowd clamoring for the dancing aspect of the show to get underway, a woman wearing shades waved to get my attention as I opened a bottle of beer. The joint was so noisy I could barely hear her. In a Brooklyn or maybe Queens accent, she asked something like, “Could you use another dancer?”

Trying to hide my glee, I called Fred over right away. He offered her a fast $50 to alternate sets with the other girl as the band played. She told us she had noticed the ad in a discarded newspaper on the counter of the Greyhound bus station’s coffee shop. She was chewing gum. 

That night’s experience gave me new faith in the power of advertising. The Greyhound Girl even had her costume with her in her suitcase. Fred paid her in advance and suggested that since the other dancer was running late, she could go on as soon as she could get ready.

It all went over like gangbusters. Up on stage, with the lights and music, she danced like the pro she actually was — she had been working along the same lines in Baltimore and appeared to be a trained modern dancer. Natural Wildlife was cooking and the beer taps stayed open.

After the dancer’s first set was over, she put on a robe and found me behind the bar. She laughed, “There ain’t no other girl, is there?”

I paused to shrug and returned her smile, “I don’t know where she is.”

“I’ll need another fifty to go back up there,” she said firmly.

She agreed to do two more half-hour sets and the money was put in her hand without hesitation. Hey, she knew she had rescued the night.

Yes, a hundred bucks was a lot of money, then, but there was no use in quibbling. After that night we never saw her again. Other women were hired, pronto. The show went on but we were never as busy as that first night again.

It became my duty to paint the dancers with Dayglo paint. They'd have vines curling around their arms and legs, stars and stripes on their torsos, etc. But after a few weeks of that, it seemed most of the customers didn't care much about the artsy aspects of topless dancing, such as they were. They preferred bare skin. So, the body painting stopped.

Although painting the dancers was a pleasant enough task, hanging out after work was the best perk of the job, which wasn't always paying as much as I needed to make. Frequently friends/musicians stayed around late, jamming, playing pinball games and smoking pot.

The most notable of the musicians who passed through was Bruce Springsteen, whose band Steel Mill occasionally played in Richmond then. He was a skinny, quiet guy who didn’t stand out as much then as he would later.

When my daughter was born in January the Bearded Brothers scene was lively. Then, as the weather warmed up the crowds began to thin out. Other clubs opened up offering live music, some of which were closer to VCU. Gradually, the restaurant began to drift back toward being what it had been before it had been painted black.

Later, in the spring, I had to look for a real job again. Eventually, Fred's mother took the place back over. About a year later Howard Awad opened up Hababas on the 900 block of W. Grace St., where he had a lot of fun making large money (1971-84) serving cold beer and playing canned music on his popular bar’s monster sized stereo.

The topless go-go girl thing morphed into a form of entertainment aimed at an entirely different type of crowd. Truth be told, since the time of the Bearded Brothers I've never had much interest in the places that feature topless dancing.

A few months later I got a sales job at WRNL, a radio station then owned by Richmond Newspapers. Once again I learned it paid to advertise. And, on that job I did my first professional writing, when I began penning commercials and dreaming up promotions for my advertising clients.

Although I saved copies of the aforementioned newspaper ad and the logo I did for Natural Wildlife handbills, I haven't seen either of them for a long time. The only souvenirs from my first awkward stint in show biz are a few black and white photographs, like the shot above of the Bearded Brothers' front windows.


All rights reserved by the author.