Friday, March 30, 2007

Biograph Times

by F. T. Rea
What was once proudly billed as Richmond’s Repertory Cinema opened in 1972 with a flourish. It closed some 15 years later without ceremony. What follows is an overview of its story, seen mostly through a prism of affection and edited by the merciful memory loss of its original manager.

It’s also a writer’s memoir about his salad days, 1972 through the mid-1980s in Richmond’s Fan District. That was an era in which your narrator had himself a fine perch on which to view the popular culture that flowed through the neighborhood in which a new urban university, Virginia Commonwealth University, found itself.

As much as any entity in its time, the Biograph Theatre provided a place for the music, art and politics of that age to collide and connect.

Part One: Short Subjects

Rebus the Spokesdog

Rebus was the Biograph’s official spokesdog. Drawn by yours truly he made his initial appearance on a midnight show handbill in our first year of operation (1972). He later appeared in comic strips published by VCU's student newspaper, The Commonwealth Times, which morphed into an all-comics tabloid called “Fan Free Funnies” for three issues in the spring of 1973.

In the 1970s a circle of young Fan District artists was drawing cartoons, making short animated films and even creating large cartoon-style paintings. Inspired by “underground comix,” there was a scene, of sorts. Phil Trumbo was the most celebrated artist/filmmaker of that scene at the time.

An interesting artifact of this time, which was produced by Trumbo and his partner Steve Segal, was "Futuropolis" (1984), a pixilated mini-feature that had three Biograph employees appearing in roles -- Cathy Schultz, Tom Campagnoli and Cassandra Cossitt.

Anyway, in such a make-believe world, Rebus was a minor celebrity ‘toon, perhaps along the lines of local pitchman who appears on TV frequently selling sofas, promoting community events, etc. He continued to pop up on Biograph handbills and programs all during my tenure as the Biograph Theatre’s manager. He also was happy to help out with other projects, such as my 1980s Rock ‘n’ Roll promotions with former Biograph assistant manager Chuck Wrenn; we called our partnership Lit Fuse Productions.

Rebus made a comeback in a series of ‘toons in SLANT (1985-94), doing some of his best work. As well, he has appeared on various posters, calendars and T-shirts. etc., I’ve produced over the years since.

* *

Cat People

In its day RKO was known for its ability to produce well-crafted, sometimes artsy or offbeat features using a smaller budget than the other so-called major studios. Nonetheless, it was almost always in trouble, financially. Founded in 1929, RKO stopped making movies in 1953 and eventually sold its lot and production facilities to television’s Desilu Productions.Twenty-five summers ago I booked a festival of 24 titles to play at the Biograph, all from RKO, which still operated then as a distributor of its original library.

The 12 double features in this festival were: “Top Hat” (1935) and “Damsel in Distress” (1936); “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1939) and “The Informer” (1935); “King Kong” (1933) and “Mighty Joe Young” (1949); “Suspicion” (1941) and “The Live By Night” (1948); “Sylvia Scarlett” (1936) and “Mister Blandings Builds His Dream House” (1948); “Murder My Sweet” (1945) and “Macao” (1952); “The Mexican Spitfire” (1939) and “Room Service” (1938); “Journey Into Fear” (1942) and “This Land Is Mine” (1943); “The Thing” (1951) and “Cat People” (1942); “The Boy With Green Hair” (1948) and “Woman on the Beach” (1947); “Citizen Kane” (1941) and “Fort Apache” (1948); “The Curse of the Cat People” (1944) and “The Body Snatcher” (1945).

One feature, “Cat People” -- which was later remade as a vehicle to present a young Nastassja Kinski’s lithe form in all its glory -- was a low-budget black-and-white thriller. Unlike the remake, the original was a lean and subtle production that left much to the viewer’s imagination. Still, any film of that genre can be disturbing to a sensitive viewer.

For some reason “Cat People” got under one such viewer’s skin. He was a solitary man who walked around the VCU neighborhood during the day. He stayed in some sort of subsidized group home at night. Night or day, he was always medicated to the hilt. At the theater we used to let him in free. Then, of course, he would complain about everything. We laughed about him, and imitated him, when he wasn’t there. But we treated him with respect when he was, always at matinees.

Anyway, the movie scared him. “Are there really any cat people?” he would ask, in his distinctive, almost cartoon way of speaking.

“No,” he would be assured. Then a few minutes later he would ask again, his hands would flex and twitch, his eyes would wander. Same answer. Then he’d take his free popcorn and go into the dark auditorium to watch the movie for a while.

Well, I saw him recently. He’s totally gray now, he must be at least in his mid-60s. He still walks around the neighborhood, with his strange gait. There are no movie theaters in the Fan District now. When I created the image above -- of a cat named Zeke in a coat and tie -- for a calendar in 1996, I thought of that same man, and smiled. I bet he still remembers that movie.

Yes, sometimes, there are cat people. But they aren’t all mean. Some of them just look at you, like they know something you don’t know.

* *

Discovering the Fan

On April 14, 1973 the weather was absolutely spectacular. For that Saturday afternoon the 800 and 900 blocks of West Grace Street, and environs, were packed with foot traffic, like never before.

Hundreds of free helium balloons were being handed out. Hundreds of free prize coupons, tucked into plastic Easter eggs, had been hidden and were being discovered. Live music was in the air. There was a fashion show on a stage in a parking lot. Most of the merchants were featuring attractive specials and/or discounts. The event had a busy carnival atmosphere that was in no way threatening.

Nobody could remember when anything quite like it had been done before in that neighborhood of the Fan District. On that day an ad hoc group of 21 merchants cooperated for a one-time-only promotion that went over quite well -- “Discover the Fan.” Below is a piece about this event, written by the late Shelley Rolfe:

Shelley Rolfe’s

By the Way
Richmond Times-Dispatch (April, 16, 1973)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, yes, there must be those who look upon the 800 and 90 blocks as symbolic of the counterculture, as territory alien to their visions of West End and suburban existence. Last November the precinct serving the 800 and 900 blocks went for George McGovern, by two votes. Not a landslide, but, perhaps, a trend.

NOON WAS approaching. Rea and DeWitt set out on an inspection tour. Parking lot ropes were being put into place. Rock music blared from exotically named shops. The balloon committee was still short on manpower. An agent trotted out of a shop to report, “They’ve got 200 customers ...”

And how many would they normally have at this hour of a Saturday? “They wouldn’t be open,” Rea said.

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

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

The fashion show went on to the accompaniment of semijazz music and popping balloons, most of them held by children. Fashions were subdued. A dress evocative of the 1940s. Long skirts. Loudest applause went to a man who paraded across the stage wearing a loud red backpack. Everybody’s urge to escape?

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

To read the rest of the story, click here for "Biograph Times."

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