Sunday, May 29, 2005

Downing St. Memo

Michigan Democrat John Conyers, who served on the famous committee that voted to impeach President Richard Nixon in 1974, was elected in 2004 to his 20th term in the House. Using his web site to get signatures on a letter to President George Bush, Conyers is causing a stir with his campaign to pressure today’s sitting president to fess up about his bogus justifications for invading Iraq. To read the letter, the first paragraph of which is below, click on this link.

“We the undersigned write because of our concern regarding recent disclosures of a Downing Street Memo in the London Times, comprising the minutes of a meeting of Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top advisers. These minutes indicate that the United States and Great Britain agreed, by the summer of 2002, to attack Iraq, well before the invasion and before you even sought Congressional authority to engage in military action, and that U.S. officials were deliberately manipulating intelligence to justify the war.”

Friday, May 27, 2005

Wall of Buses

by F. T. Rea

The entire White House grounds and Lafayette Park were surrounded by DeeCee transit system buses, parked snugly end-to-end. Cops in radical-looking riot gear were stationed inside the bus-wall perimeter every few yards. As the gathering Baby Boomers were funneled into the designated demonstration area -- the grassy ellipse south of the White House -- the temperature had already reached the upper 90s before noon that blue-skied Saturday.

On May 9, 1970, the hot still air heightened the mounting sense that anything could happen.

Why not? The previous Monday four students had been shot to death on Kent state's campus during a Vietnam War protest rally. Three days later two more students were killed at Jackson State. Unlike the other large anti-war demonstrations, which were planned for months, this time it all happened spontaneously. Those on-campus killings moved many who had never marched in protest or support of anything before to drop what they were doing and set out for Washington, D.C. to live in the moment.

Some of the more experienced hands had come out prepared with provisions for a long day. Even more had not. Estimates ranged widely but most reports characterized the size of the crowd at well over 100,000. Home-made signs were everywhere, including occasional pro-war placards that denounced the protesters. The smell of pot burning gave the gathering a Rock 'n' Roll festive feel, too, as a series of speakers took turns ranting over the massive sound system of Woodstock proportions.

Behind the podium a black man was lashed Christ-like to a huge cross, perhaps to dramatize to the largely white crowd who was doing most of the dying in Vietnam. As a convoy of military vehicles suddenly drove into the area the crowd booed. When it turned out the troops were bringing in water for the thirsty the booing stopped. Dehydration was a problem.

After the last speaker the police stood by watching thousands of chanting citizens, most of them under 25 -- filled with righteous indignation -- spill out of the park to stretch a line of humanity around the wall of buses. No effort was made to prevent the mob from marching into the streets which had already been blocked off. The march flowed north, then west, from one block to the next. Long lenses peered down from the roofs of those distinctive squat DeeCee buildings downtown.

Untold numbers of fully-outfitted soldiers were crammed into basements, visible in the doorways, awaiting further orders. Until that day's bizarre uncertainty most of them had probably been glad to be anywhere other than Vietnam. A cheer went up from the marchers when a determined kid managed to get on top of a bus to wave a Viet Cong flag.

The cops quickly hauled the flag-waver off but a commotion ensued and the scent of tear gas spiced the air. Hippies who had been wading in a fountain to cool off scaled a statue to get a better look, as I snapped pictures with my new 35mm single lens reflex.

The next day I was back in Richmond for yet another gathering of my generation. Staged in Monroe Park, Cool-Aid Sunday featured live music and various information booths and displays were set up, aimed at helping young people with their troubles. They included the Fan Free Clinic, Jewish Family Services, Rubicon (a dry-out clinic for drug-users), the local Registrar’s office, Planned Parenthood, Crossroads Coffeehouse, etc.

Although it was not a political rally, the crowd assembled in Monroe Park, while smaller, was similar in character to the one in Washington. No one was seriously injured at Saturday’s tense anti-war demonstration. Then, ironically, a 17-year-old boy -- Wilmer Curtis Donivan Jr. -- was killed on Sunday in the park in Richmond when a four-tiered cast iron fountain he had scaled suddenly toppled.

It seems I took no pictures on Sunday, the 10th, but the photograph of Donivan falling to his death that ran on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch on the Monday that followed is one I’ll never forget. No doubt, the momentum from the extraordinary week which preceded that fateful Sunday in Monroe Park was in the air as Donivan opted to climb that old fountain, not unlike other hippies in DeeCee the day before.

It set the scene.

In 1970 the USA was becoming ever more bitterly divided over the Vietnam War, and living in the moment was killing off the young and unlucky wherever they were.

(Photo Credit: F. T. Rea, 1970)

-- 30 --

Bandwagon or Boondoggle?

"...And now I'm back to let you know
I can really shake 'em down"

-- from "Do You Love Me" by Berry Gordy, Jr. (1962)

by F. T. Rea

Have you been Downtown lately? Seen as wallowing in despair only a few years ago, Richmond’s downtown has several major construction projects in various stages of being realized. Mammoth department store Thalhimers, a hub of the retail whirl that dominated that landscape for most of the 20th century, is gone. Most of the failed 6th Street Marketplace -- a bitter symbol of Downtown Richmond’s more recent period of decline, folly and official malfeasance -- has been swept away, too.

A new federal courthouse is being built at 7th and Broad Streets. To the west, the refurbishing of one old theater is underway and three more live-stage venues are slated to be constructed. There’s a plan to convert what was the Miller and Rhoads department store into a hotel. The John Marshall Hotel building is on its way to becoming a luxury apartment complex. Corporate giant Philip Morris is poised to create a $300 million research center a few blocks north of Broad. Looking eastward, with trains chugging through Main Street Station, once again, some see the shoehorning of a new baseball stadium into Shockoe Bottom as doable.

This piece will deal only with Mayor L. Douglas Wilder’s high profile refusal to hop onboard what was once thought to be an unstoppable theater-building bandwagon of the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation.

The VPAF is already in the process of renovating the Carpenter Center (formerly the Loew’s), to the tune of $28 million. The total price tag on the VPAF vision for a spectacular new performing arts center to open in 2007 on the Thalhimers block is $93 million. It calls for building three new stages -- a performance hall, a community playhouse and a jazz club -- on the old Thalhimers site. That figure above doesn’t include what the same outfit wants to spend on renovating three other old theaters -- the National, the Landmark (formerly the Mosque) and the Empire.

As the VPAF plans (see rest heavily on convincing the Commonwealth of Virginia and the City of Richmond to throw large sums into the kitty, elected officials should take an interest in how that nonprofit organization raises and handles money. As well, how wise the VPAF was in developing its original strategy is still a proper matter for them to scrutinize.

Accordingly, Mayor Wilder has asked the VPAF some questions that its president, former adman Brad Armstrong, has done an awkward job of answering. That Armstrong gave the appearance of resenting being asked at all seems odd, even worrisome.

Speaking of being worried, I still wonder how much the VPAF knows about the business side of the performing arts game. The one VPAF official with actual hands-on show biz experience, Joel Katz (formerly the Carpenter Center’s general manager), was fired recently. After the sudden dismissal of Katz is better understood, and it ought to be, someone -- perhaps Hizzoner? -- ought to ask the VPAF just what it actually knows about establishing or operating theaters. Who's left with any industry experience?

Note: I ran a movie theater (the Biograph) for nearly 12 years. Back then, every week, I listened dozens of helpful movie-goers tell me just how to run the place better and, of course, which movies to play. So, I'm familiar with the idea that lots of people imagine they know how to operate a theater without any experience in the entertainment business.

Here are a few more questions: What kind of town has Richmond been, with regard to the business side of entertainment? How well do plays and other touring attractions gross here, as compared to other cities? What do national promoters and movie distributors think of the Richmond market? Since cutting edge, ambitious nightlife venues here have tended to crash and burn in recent decades, what has the VPAF done to understand the whys? How well does it understand why smart private money has avoided building new theaters or night clubs in that same neighborhood for decades? This matters!

There’s a volunteer watchdog organization in town, Save Richmond (see, which asserts that the VPAF all but ignored input from most of the local pros -- the folks who have worked in Richmond’s entertainment industry as the talent, the producers, the bookers, and so forth. If that’s true, it’s not a good sign.

Armstrong’s position that Richmond ought to stay with the original program, even though his organization’s fundraising performance failed to meet its published goals, may have been good enough for those on City Council. But it obviously struck Mayor Wilder as presumptuous.

At this point -- all blue sky stories aside -- doesn’t the VPAF have a fallback plan? Is this really an all-or-nothing situation? Can’t we finish up one theater, fill it up a few times, pay some bills. Then, perhaps, we build a second theater, etc.

The VPAF has done such a poor job of selling this deal to John Q. Public -- who may not easily imagine himself attending an opera or symphony show -- that it’s difficult to weigh what real merit aspects of the plan might have. The concept of establishing a modern theater/night club district in that area, where it thrived 100 years ago, doesn't seem wrongheaded.

However, if you made that same area an enterprise zone where Richmond's stifling seven percent admissions tax wasn't scraped off the top of ticket sold, private money might be easier to find. That tax has played a hidden but significant role in hobbling theaters and clubs for a long time.

A glance at the VPAF’s board, which includes familiar names such as Bliley, Cantor, Markel, Massey, Reynolds, Robins, Rosenthal, Scott, Thalhimer and Ukrop offers some insight as to why Armstrong might think he can trump Wilder's moves. But since the well-heeled arts-lovers who support the VPAF’s four state-of-the-art stages on one block concept don’t seem to want to risk much of their own money, the VPAF still needs a lot of public money -- the voters’ money.

So far, City Council has decided to stay on the build-it-and-they-will-come bandwagon. This bunch doesn’t seem to grasp that with 80 percent of the voters behind him, as long as Wilder successfully positions himself as moving to prevent another 6th Street Marketplace-like boondoggle then his foes' chances in the court of public opinion aren't all that good.

This imbroglio shouldn't be about supporting art, or not, so much as it should be about what constitutes proper planning. If the focus of concern moves from money to bona fide know-how, watch out standing too close to the sputtering VPAF bandwagon. As more fat cats and wannabes jump off of it, one of them might land on you.

-- 30 --