Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The $3 trillion hanging

President George Bush continues to employ his two-prong strategy to stave off a recession: Ignoring the mounting national debt, Bush calls for more tax cuts for the wealthy, and he adamantly refuses to say the word “recession.”

Moreover, Bush continues to conveniently ignore the effect the war in Iraq is having on the nation's economic picture, pretty much the same way he has conveniently ignored global warming. It seems our president sees everything through an oil-smeared prism.

For those keeping score at home that means the deployment of U.S. forces in Iraq, which each week is driving the nation deeper into debt by the billions, has still not uncovered the weapons of mass destruction Bush saw all over the country five years ago. Nor has it done anything to stabilize the explosive region's politics, or even the price of oil.

What has the oil-centered war in Iraq cost? What will it cost? Click here for a Washington Post piece on that topic.
But beyond this is the cost to the already sputtering U.S. economy. All told, the bill for the Iraq war is likely to top $3 trillion. And that's a conservative estimate.

President Bush tried to sell the American people on the idea that we could have a war with little or no economic sacrifice. Even after the United States went to war, Bush and Congress cut taxes, especially on the rich -- even though the United States already had a massive deficit. So the war had to be funded by more borrowing ... The long-term burden of paying for the conflicts will curtail the country's ability to tackle other urgent problems, no matter who wins the presidency in November.
So, just as Bush said the war would be easy and cheap, and Iraq would pay much of the expense of it with its oil revenues, and the surge would work like a charm, now, with the same conviction, he refuses to say “recession.” The only people being fooled by such blind-to-reality rhetoric are those who choose to be fooled by it, or perhaps those who are making a nice profit with the status quo.

At this point, it appears the price of oil will continue to climb until it reaches its true value in today’s marketplace, according to the way capitalism works.

So, it appears the only thing American taxpayers have gotten for their money -- much of it borrowed -- which has been spent on toppling Iraq’s government, destroying its infrastructure, rebuilding its infrastructure and chasing hooligan terrorists, is that Saddam Hussein has been hung by his neck until he was dead.

Does a 'gas tax holiday' make sense?

Sen. John McCain and Sen. Hillary Clinton are running in tandem, once again, having called for a “gas tax holiday” this summer. The concept would suspend the federal government's 18.4-cent-a-gallon tax on gasoline and its 24.4-cent diesel tax, between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Sen. Barack Obama has said it will not accomplish much, so he is opposed to it.

Estimates say that the “holiday” could cost the government about $10 billion in lost revenue. By not agreeing with this tax-relief proposal that has to sound good to voters, what is Obama saying?

The Washington Post looks into the proposal with its “Adding Up the Benefit Of Pennies at the Pump.”
According to James Hamilton, a professor of economics at the University of California at San Diego, the benefits of a temporary tax moratorium would probably go to oil companies rather than consumers. He said states that suspend gas taxes are able to respond to rising demand more efficiently than the country as a whole, because gasoline supplies can be easily transferred from one state to another.
Click here to read the entire piece.

Hey, if it looks like a pandering campaign ploy, if it quacks like a pandering campaign ploy...

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Redskins bolster receiving corps with draft

After trading down from the 21st position, the Washington Redskins selected Devin Thomas, who was the first wide receiver taken in the 2008 NFL draft as the 34th player, overall, which was the third pick of the second round. Thomas, 6-1, 218, played just one year at Michigan State, after transferring there from the junior college ranks.

Washington drafted two other pass-catchers with its other second-round picks, which were both acquired from Atlanta in the trade. Fred Davis, a tight end from Southern Cal, 6-3, 247, was the 48th player tapped; Malcolm Kelly, a wide receiver from Oklahoma, 6-3, 219, was the 51st draft pick.

Later on SportsCenter, in summing up the first two rounds, ESPN's creepy draft guru Mel Kiper declared the Redskins the winner of Day One’s drafting maneuvers. Tomorrow afternoon rounds three through seven will take place.

Casey Husband at Redskins.com writes about Thomas:
The rise that Devin Thomas has made in the past year or so has been described as "meteoric." As we now know, Thomas didn't develop into a first-round selection in the 2008 NFL Draft. In fact, no wide receiver did. But Thomas, selected by the Redskins early Saturday evening with the 34th overall pick, is regarded as a promising player who showed dramatic improvement throughout his college career at Michigan State.
Click here to read rest of his article.

Update: For info on Day Two click here.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Grant's new deal at VCU


According to Mike Harris at VCU, the university announced today that it has reached an agreement in principle to extend (it now runs through the 2013-14 season.) and upgrade the terms of Anthony Grant's contract.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch's unnamed sources have said what follows about what compensation Grant will receive:

“...$700,000 with an annuity of $100,000. Perks and performance bonuses could push Grant’s paycheck past $850,000.”

Click here to read the article.

“I am thrilled that we are extending Anthony’s contract, as well as providing him an increased financial package,” VCU's athletic director Norwood Teague said. “His impact on our basketball program has been outstanding and it is our intention for Coach Grant to serve as our head men’s basketball coach for many years.”

VCU's president Dr. Eugene Trani said, “Coach Grant has had a significant positive impact on the entire university, not just athletics. We have tremendous confidence in what he will be able to do going forward.”

“My family and I are extremely grateful for the confidence and commitment shown to us by Dr. Trani, Norwood and the entire VCU and Richmond communities,” Grant said. “I am excited, honored and privileged to be a part of the present and future of VCU and the City of Richmond.”

“Coaches the caliber of Anthony Grant are rare,” Teague said. “We’re glad to have him and we look forward to a long association with him.”

-- Photo by F.T. Rea

Gregg Wetzel's 'Straight Wages" published


Gregg Wetzel (pictured above), known mostly in these parts as the rock ‘n’ roll piano player for the old Good Humor Band, has written a novel -- “Straight Wages.” It was published in paperback on Mar. 3, 2008, by PublishAmerica.

“My novel “Straight Wages” is now available,” said Wetzel by email. “It’s fun for the entire family! All of my obsessions plus plenty of ribaldry and casual violence.”

For more background on Wetzel, who moved from Richmond to Nashville in the mid-1980s, click here to read a story about him (and his old Humoroid sidekick Mike McAdam) that SLANTblog ran on Dec. 8, 2007 (on the occasion of the 27th anniversary of the death of John Lennon).

This blurb about the plot of "Straight Wages" is at Amazon.com:

“In the not-so-swinging ’60s of the small coal-mining towns in central Pennsylvania, three bored young men spend their time joy riding in stolen Chevrolets and drinking beer. When their robbery of a coastal New Jersey business goes terribly wrong, their pursuit by a determined and dangerous employer is the basis for Straight Wages. By turns comically absurd and darkly malevolent, it is inhabited by memorable characters and its vision is quirky and uniquely American.”

-- Photo by Artie Probst (circa 1990)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Maynor says he's staying at VCU

According to Mike Harris, Assistant Athletic Director at VCU, Eric Maynor, the Rams' all-conference point guard has decided to stay in school for his senior season. That, instead of declaring for the NBA draft to be held in June.

Maynor averaged 17.9 points, 4.2 rebounds and 5.5 assists over his junior season, which was good enough for him to be have been selected as the CAA’s Player of the Year.

“After discussing things with my family, I have decided I want to stay in school,” Maynor said. “I’m honored that people think I have the ability to consider a professional career but it is in my best interests to stay. There is a lot more I want to accomplish here.”

It remains a mystery at this desk why anyone took the rumor seriously that Maynor might leave, to submit his name for the pro draft. As good as he has been over his last two years, he surely needs to play another year of college ball.

And, by the way, he is a good student; Maynor made the CAA's 2007-08 All-Academic team, too.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Mondo Softball

With the 29th Biograph softball reunion on the horizon (Sat., May 3, click here for details), here's a flashback to a 1990 newspaper article that includes some Biograph history, as well as softball nostalgia:
Richmond News Leader
Date: 07-05-1990
Byline: Paul Woody

Years ago when Terry Rea was manager of the now defunct Biograph Theatre, he organized a softball team for the Fan League. But this wasn't just any team. This team had two illegal French aliens.

"One spoke no English at all," Rea said. "Neither had ever seen a baseball game. But they went out to a yard sale, found some funky `50s uniforms and they were a laugh riot."

The Biograph team also had a life-size, cardboard figure of Mr. Natural, a comic-book character created by R. Crumb of Zap Comics. Rea and his teammates took Mr. Natural to every game. They would carry him onto the field and chant to him.

"Some thought it was funny," Rea said. "Some thought we were mocking them. Some thought we were mocking the game."

All Rea was trying to do was enjoy a little softball and make the team and the league, "a rolling comedy show," he said. "I'm not sure everybody on the team was 100 percent behind me on that."

Rea began playing softball in 1976, but now, at the age of 42, he's in semi-retirement.

"I try in the offseason to lower my expectations, but I'm losing my game faster than I can lower my expectations," Rea said. "That drives everyone out of the game except the most fanatic."

Rea, however, is hardly done with softball. In fact, he may be contributing more to the game than he ever did as a player. Rea, a freelance graphic artist by trade, is the originator, host and creative force behind "Mondo Softball," a weekly, one-hour talk and call-in show seen Tuesday nights at 9 o'clock on BLAB-TV (Continental Ch. 7, Storer Ch. 8).

Mondo is Italian for "world." Rea took it from the drive-in movies of his youth that were all the rage.

"There were a bunch of `Mondo' films," Rea said. "Then, you started to see it thrown in front of almost anything to give it a bizarre connotation. People just know it has some sort of bizarre edge to it.

"And, of course, I'm using that."

Rea isn't the host of "Mondo Softball."

The host is Mutt deVille, a man of mysterious origin who always wears a baseball cap, sunglasses and softball jersey. Mutt deVille is Rea's alter ego. Mutt deVille was created by Rea as a pen name for the sports writer in Slant, the twice-monthly newsletter of commentary that Rea publishes, writes and edits.

DeVille initially existed to give some diversity to the pages of Slant, "and to create the illusion there was a staff of writers," Rea said. But the more Rea wrote as deVille, the more he liked it.

"My name, and my approach to things, like anyone who stays in his hometown long enough, carries a certain amount of baggage with it," Rea said. "I could move more freely as Mutt deVille.

"When I decided to do a show and it was a sports show, it seemed like a good idea to use Mutt. That led to the idea that Mutt should become a character and the time I was on camera should be a performance. Mutt is a device to make me feel at ease on stage."

"Mondo Softball" is not like any other show you'll see on BLAB. It's a one-hour play, softball as kitsch. It's part news -- standings, results and tournament highlights provided by Paul Joyce, the `field' reporter and a veteran local player -- part conversation with a guest, questions from callers and wisecracks, subtle humor and outright gags whenever possible. It's clever, and it's as entertaining as a show on recreational softball can be.

Rea said he has borrowed from shows he's seen. From the "Tonight Show," Rea took the idea that Johnny Carson is at his best and funniest when things go wrong.

"Part of live TV is that there are a lot of glitches," Rea said. "I've tried to incorporate the production values of an old `50s sci-fi movie and try to go with whatever goes wrong."

Each week, there is a great uproar over the magic word. If a caller says the word, he or she receives a $20 gift certificate from a local restaurant. The magic word is straight out of "You Bet Your Life" with the late Groucho Marx. In that show, it was called the secret word.

"If you're going to steal, steal from the best," Rea said.

Part of the attraction of "Mondo Softball" is that you can never be sure what will happen next.

"I think some people watch shows on BLAB just to see if the set will fall over," Rea said.

Rea brings a unique element of surprise to the screen. He isn't afraid to take a chance or play a little joke. When he was manager of the Biograph, a repertory theatre located near Virginia Commonwealth University, Rea once offered free admission to "The Devil and Miss Jones."

The line for the show, which most believed to be a well-known X-rated movie, stretched around the 800 block of West Grace Street. But the X-rated movie was "The Devil in Miss Jones." "The Devil and Miss Jones" was a 1941 comedy.

"Most people thought it was funny," Rea said. "But you always have some who get mad about something like that."

"Mondo Softball" has something of the same problem. Hard-core softball players don't always appreciate Rea's attempts at humor.

"I've heard some don't like Mutt's approach," Rea said. "But that's the reason Paul is there. Overall, though, the reaction I get is that they (the hardcore players) like Mutt."

BLAB-TV likes Mutt so much that another show already is in the works. "Mondo Pops," covering everything from sports to who knows what will premier this fall. It should be an interesting experience. Who knows, maybe even Mr. Natural will make an appearance.

Note: The photo below shows the 1980 Biograph Naturals, as shot by Phil Trumbo, using Artie Probst's camera.
Not wanting to steal Mr. Natural from his creator, R. Crumb, we made sure to get written permission from the artist to use the character as the Biograph Natural's official mascot. The five-foot-tall foamcore Mr. Natural proved to be somewhat baffling, even galling, to some of the Biograph's opponents, so we made the most of it.

'Fairness' as a word, not an idea


If you don’t have much soul left and you know it,
you still got soul.

-- Charles Bukowski (1920-94; depicted above)

“That’s not fair!” is a commonly-used phrase, employed more and more by those expressing some measure of disappointment about something that didn’t turn their way.

Yet, when uttered these days it usually has little or nothing to do with the actual issue of “fairness,” or whatever is seen as its opposite. That, while in days gone by, complaining about a lack of fairness usually had to do with equality issues, calls for the leveling of playing fields.

Now it’s mostly a spontaneous exclamation meaning the speaker’s expectations weren’t met. As so many young people have become fond of saying, “That’s not fair!” for precisely that reason, it’s a phrase that sometimes grates on my geezer ears.

In a nutshell, here’s what “fair” means, as defined by Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary:

Marked by impartiality and honesty; just; conforming with the established rules.

Although being fair is an aspect of honesty, this piece isn’t about all the elements of integrity. After all, a thief or a liar can still be fair. The focus for this rant is on how little playing fair seems to matter, this far into the age of postmodernism.

Historically, battling “unfairness” has been at the heart of righteous social movements. Key to dismantling the laws that perpetuated the Jim Crow Era’s institutionalized racism were legal arguments that pointed at guarantees all American citizens were supposed to have, not just some. Those arguments called upon the government itself to stop facilitating “unfairness” to do with how public funds are spent.

The stubborn Massive Resisters' defense of segregation in Virginia's public schools 50 years ago was based on another affront to the definition of a word; in this case it was the word “equal.”

Their catchphrase, “Separate but equal,” was swept into history’s dustbin of doubletalk, because any fair judge could see that in practice, “separate,” inevitably meant, “unequal.”

Thus, the Supreme Court unanimously said that maintaining separate public schools for black students and white students wasn’t fair to the taxpaying black families whose children were attending what were clearly substandard public schools.

Which means frivolous, disingenuous calls for fairness tend to undermine legitimate calls for it. Calling “not fair!” when one doesn’t actually mean it, is not unlike crying “wolf” in the Aesop’s Fable about a mischievous boy sounding false alarms.

Even more twisted in today’s hyper-partisan political atmosphere is the expectation we hear expressed by propagandists-for-hire that it’s reasonable to expect judges to be capable of seeing beyond their own political proclivities, in presiding over cases that cut along ideological lines. Such opportunistic accusations flung at the professional integrity of judges, in general, surely is having a corrosive effect on our entire system of justice.

Of course, having a major television network use the word “fair” to promote its warped news presentations as “fair and balanced” -- in a beyond cynical, Newspeak fashion -- makes a rather sick joke out of what constitutes an honest effort to be fair.

Speaking of jokes, comedian Stephen Colbert, of The Colbert Report, coined a new term in 2005 -- “truthiness” -- that continues to speak volumes on the way authenticity and integrity have become archaic concepts to many who labor at the business of disseminating political information, whether they are working for a publisher or a politician.

As a fellow writer recently said to me about a prominent local politician, "He believes in words, not ideas."

True fairness can stem from the randomness of nature, or it can flow from the adherence to agreed-upon standards. Time-honored precepts, such as evenhandedness and respect for the dignity of others, were at the heart of launching our country’s experiment in democracy. They have provided a guiding light for each new generation, to do a better job of applying those precepts ... until such lofty notions began to seem out-of-style.

Now it seems we have a generation of Americans that is struggling to understand their meaning and their purpose. Every time someone tortures the meaning of the word “fair,” we take another little step toward the day it will mean nothing.

Moreover, if everyday Americans lose track of what’s left of their willingness, their capacity to try to be fair -- whether they are acting as members of a family, or a neighborhood, or some sort of team -- then whatever is left of our society’s collective soul may be what turns up missing in the long run.

-- Words and art by F.T. Rea

Friday, April 18, 2008

Missing silverware found in Mayor's pocket

In yet another puzzling turn, Mayor Doug Wilder’s office confirmed today in a terse email that his dry cleaner had indeed found the ancient Governor’s Mansion silverware that mysteriously disappeared in 1992, during Wilder’s term as governor. Furthermore, the nearly-100-year-old service for 24 has been returned.

Would-be attempts to reach anyone at City Hall to answer questions on these amazing revelations have so far been unsuccessful.

Off the record, a source close to unnamed members of Wilder’s staff said Hizzoner (pictured above) had sent an old sharkskin suit out to be cleaned. Whereupon, someone at the dry cleaning operation discovered the ornate set of silver eating tools in a coat pocket.

The same source suggested Wilder never looked in the side pockets of his jackets, and plenty of people knew that, so there’s no telling who could have stashed the knives, forks, spoons, corncob holders, and so forth, in one of them ... or why.

-- Words and photo by F.T. Rea

Thursday, April 17, 2008

No more debates, please

Last night's debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on ABC may not have helped many undecided Democrats, but it surely did answer one question -- can there be too many debates?

The answer is "yes!"

Neither candidate put their best foot forward. Both seemed to be concerned mostly with damage control. The two questioners were annoying. It was a waste of time. Let's hope it was the last debate between Democratic presidential hopefuls this year.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Prevarication or fiscal shenanigans?

Prior to his term as mayor of Richmond, L. Douglas Wilder’s strong suit was said to have been his “fiscally conservative” approach to running a government. He was supposed to have been good with money matters. In no small part, he was elected to put Richmond’s fiscal house in order.

Since Wilder’s election he has disappointed some who voted for him, precisely because he has not lived up to the reputation of being good with money matters. Now comes the most recent problem over money.

Richmond Times-Dispatch writer Michael Paul Williams cuts Mayor Wilder no slack in his most recent column, “Double standard at City Hall.”
Ben Johnson, the city's director of emergency management, accepted a $500-a-month car allowance for 34 months while driving a city vehicle. This cost him his job.

In the meantime, Mayor L. Douglas Wilder received an even larger car stipend -- $700 a month -- while being provided with a vehicle by a city police security unit.

The mayor will apparently avoid any penalty, based on his pledge to reimburse the city. Johnson was afforded no such opportunity.
So far, Wilder’s explanation of how he could receive an improper $700-a-month payment from the City of Richmond for over three years has been that he didn’t notice it.

Well, some people don’t believe that could be possible. But isn’t this story one of those that is damning either way?

Either his explanation is less than the truth, or it means that Mayor Wilder, his accountant and his staff could all overlook some $25,000 in payments to him that he was never entitled to receive. Are we really expected to believe Wilder never looked at one of his paycheck's stub, or his income tax forms?

It seems to me, either it’s a lie, or it’s surely something other than fiscal responsibility.

-- Words and art by F.T. Rea

The erosion of trust in Clinton’s honesty

A friend of mine who is a staunch supporter of Barack Obama watches the cable news channels and reads about the campaign every day. She frets over the potential of each primary and debate to do injury to Obama’s campaign. The ranting Reverend Wright episode upset her for days, even after Obama’s rather praiseworthy explanation soothed many of his other ardent supporters.

So, the recent “bitter” gaffe, where, in a private meeting in San Francisco, Obama spoke awkwardly about his view of why some folks in small Rustbelt towns “cling” to certain traditions, has had her in a near-tizzy.

And, it’s no wonder. The press, which has been supplying most of the oxygen to the life-support system that has kept Hillary Clinton’s campaign from dying its natural death based the delegate count, has been reporting the story -- Bittergate? -- as if Obama had said something as bad as ... well, as bad as Hillary Clinton’s bragging, invented claims about ducking sniper fire in Bosnia.

Fortunately, there are still some elements of the working press that aren’t devoted exclusively to promoting Obama’s poorly-worded observation about the way some voters in economically depressed areas do actually feel. Today’s Washington Post has a story about how a lot of people are feeling about Clinton’s honesty.
Lost in the Hillary Rodham Clinton campaign's aggressive attacks on Barack Obama in recent days is a deep and enduring problem that threatens to undercut any inroads Clinton has made in her struggle to overtake him in the Democratic presidential race: She has lost trust among voters, a majority of whom now view her as dishonest.

Her advisers’ efforts to deal with the problem -- by having her acknowledge her mistakes and crack self-deprecating jokes -- do not seem to have succeeded. Privately, the aides admit that the recent controversy over her claim to have ducked sniper fire on a trip to Bosnia probably made things worse.

Clinton is viewed as “honest and trustworthy” by just 39 percent of Americans, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, compared with 52 percent in May 2006. Nearly six in 10 said in the new poll that she is not honest and trustworthy...
Click here to read the entire article.

Therefore, this post is for my friend and all the others on the Obama bandwagon who may be worrying too much about Clinton’s ability to somehow steal the Democratic nomination by bashing Obama as a closet Muslim, or as a guy who goes to the wrong Christian church, or as not ready to be commander-in-chief, or as an elitist, or whatever comes next.

Yes, Clinton’s desperate, dirtball tactics are being noticed. And, her baggage is getting heavier all the time.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Apologies upon demand


In politics, today is no different than any other day. Once again the landscape is littered with lame demands from the deeply offended for apologies. They are calls based on outrage, however contrived, that frequently/predictability become news stories.

It seems the surest way to create a news event out of thin air is to call upon a politician, especially a campaigning politician, to apologize.

The second surest way may be to call upon a talking head, even if the professional talker is mostly a comedian, to apologize to all parties the demander/propagandist says have been offended. An entertaining variation on the theme is to try to force an apology out of an over-the-top surrogate.

The planted story goes through its predictable cycle, which usually plays out something like this:

The Demander: Sir, I demand an apology. When you said, “War is hell,” you demeaned every single young American in uniform today, particularly those serving on the Iraqi battlefield of this nation’s War on Terror. You were saying they’ve gone to hell, which is to say they do not deserve to go to heaven. Who are you to judge?

The Offender: What in heaven’s name are you talking about? “War is hell,” is a quote from General William Tecumseh Sherman.

The Demander: That’s your opinion.

The Offender: OK. I regret accidentally offending anyone who agrees with you, if it is actually true that they were offended.

The Demander: If? I demand you apologize for issuing an insulting apology, and I also call upon you to apologize to Maria Shriver Schwarzenegger.

The Offender: What’s she got to do with this?

The Demander: When you say “war is hell” it has to remind her of the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, because that was the title of the war movie he slipped into a Dallas theater to see, after he alone shot President Kennedy. Why do you hate poor Maria and the rest of the Kennedy family?

The Offender: How about I just hate Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movies?

The Demander: Your un-apology apologies reek of sarcasm, which is outrageously disrespectful of our troops in Iraq, and brave veterans such as President Bush.

The Offender: Does saying, “war is the h-word,” make it any better? How about “war is heck?”

The Demander: The hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” should convince you that saying war is hell, while we are engaged in righteous war against heathen terrorists is tantamount to blasphemous treason.

The Offender: How about I say “war is so dangerous it can be hell-like?”

The Demander: You’d be emboldening the enemy.

The Offender: To hell with the enemy!

The Demander: Better.

-- Words and art by F.T. Rea

Grant not going to LSU

Good news for VCU men's basketball fans: What has been regarded by many observers as the most serious threat to lure Rams head coach Anthony Grant away from the Broad Street-based program apparently ended today, as indicated by this headline from AP: “LSU chooses Johnson as basketball coach.”

LSU was expected to introduce Stanford’s Trent Johnson, who led the Cardinal to the round of 16 in this year’s NCAA tournament, as its new coach Thursday — the day he had been scheduled to meet with Stanford’s athletic director to discuss a new contract…

Click here to read the rest of the story.

Remember when the local hoops know-it-alls were saying Grant would surely leave VCU, to take one of the two Southeastern Conference openings, either at LSU or South Carolina?

Now both of those jobs have been filled and Grant has simply kept doing his job at VCU, while making no comments to the press about any other positions at any other schools.


Image area 8.5 inches by 10.5 inches; ink, paint and color pencils on paper
Art by F.T. Rea

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Documenting the last season

Local baseball fans might want to look over a new blog that is documenting what is expected to be the last season for the Richmond Braves at The Diamond. It’s called The Last Season!

At The Last Season! there are stories about the players and the games, plus some polls in which to participate.
What do you prefer, The Diamond Duck or The Diamond Gopher? Vote and let us know what you think. Oh and please share with us your most memorable Diamond Duck story!
Click here to visit The Last Season!

Fan restaurants of yesteryear

It seems some folks like to remember old dives, eateries and clubs that were once a part of the Fan District's restaurant scene. A recent post on the topic has drawn some extra interest.

So, to have more fun with that premise, here is a list of ten such establishments. The reader's job is say where the places were, and of course, say whatever they like about what they remember about them. Where were these Fan District businesses that served food and drink located?:
  • Andy's Camelot Room?
  • The Back Door?
  • The Briefcase?
  • Chelf's Drug Store?
  • The Fan Grill?
  • Go-Nella's?
  • The Lamplighter?
  • One-on-One?
  • Rockitz?
  • The Step Down?

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Five favorite defunct Fan restaurants

Grace Place ad in SLANT (circa 1991)

In a discussion yesterday afternoon at Chiocca’s, as the Mets vs. Braves game played out on television, a small group of baby boomers spent a few minutes naming the local restaurants we missed the most. Once the list got too long, we narrowed it down to the five most-missed that were located within the borders of Richmond's Fan District when they were open (Broad St. to the north, Belvidere the the east, Cary to the south and North Boulevard to the west).

My own alphabetical list of the five Fan District eateries for which I'm still carrying a torch is as follows:

  • Grace Place at 826 W. Grace St.
  • John & Norman’s at 2525 Hanover Ave.
  • J.W. Rayle at Cary and Pine Sts.
  • Mad King Ludwig’s at 907 W. Grace St.
  • The Texas-Wisconsin Border Cafe at 1501 W. Main St.

Readers are invited to use the comments section to suggest other Fan District restaurants that should be added to our list of the favorite-but-no-longer-existing. Two other fond favorites were suggested to me in a subsequent conversation -- the original Village Restaurant; the Chesterfield Tea Room.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Richmond leading nation in 'citizen journalism'

Last week, the following report from was received by email from Jeff South, Associate Professor School of Mass Communications, Virginia Commonwealth University. It is being reprinted with his permission:
Greetings from LA, where I am at "Media Re:Public," a conference convened by the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. The focus here is on participatory media -- especially citizen journalism. And guess which city ranked No. 1 for citizen journalism Web sites?

Richmond, by far and away.

In fact, I'm at a session right now about a report that the Project for Excellence in Journalism has just completed on such sites. It says:

Richmond, Virginia, was the most developed community of citizen journalism sites in the sample. Richmond has 16 citizen journalism sites, 10 of which were citizen neighborhood news sites, two were neighborhood blog sites, two were blog sites that addressed the Richmond area, one was a news aggregator for Richmond, and one was a blog aggregation site. Of particular interest are the neighborhood sites that have very similar “About Us” statements and that link to each other.

According to a statement on the Greater Fulton News, the neighborhood sites can be traced to John Murden, who set up the Church Hill People’s News in August 2004. The Greater Fulton News, which was established with a grant from the New Voice Program at the J-Lab with help from Richmond news media, wrote: “The programming and format of this site is based on work by John Murden, who started Richmond’s first community news blog, Church Hill People’s News, and who has helped launch other community news blogs in the Richmond area.”

One of the scholars who wrote the report is Margaret Duffy of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Moments ago, she said, "Richmond, Virginia, we found, is just a hotbed of citizen journalism."

So kudos to John, Ross, Terry, Bill and the other pioneers of citizen journalism in Richmond -- and to the leaders at the Fulton Hill Neighborhood Resource Center and all of the other people who have helped build such vibrant news blogs.

Better hit send -- I'm supposed to speak next. If you want to know more about the conference, [click here].

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Wilder won’t run for mayor

While others continue to watch for clues and listen for rumors, let’s cut to the chase: It says here that L. Douglas Wilder will choose not to run for a second four-year term as mayor of Richmond, Virginia.

My prediction is not based on any inside information. It’s just a gut feeling from years of watching for Doug Wilder’s tricky clues and listening to intriguing rumors about him. In a nutshell, he will opt out because it will be his best option.

At the top of the heap of reasons for Wilder not to run is that this time he could lose.

In 2004, when Wilder campaigned to become Richmond’s first strong mayor in over half a century, everyone knew it was an absolute lock he would win the citywide election. He carried every district. This time, no matter how many times it’s said Wilder will be the favorite to win, again, should he run, he could lose to a good candidate.

In 2008, the tide of good will that swept Wilder into office has receded and left the landscape littered with puzzling episodes of his bumbling and bullying. Wilder’s amazing 80 percent landslide’s mandate in 2004 has mostly been squandered. The disappointment some of his former supporters feel about all that wasted opportunity is easy to hear in happy hour discussions about local politics.

In spite of his legions of diehard supporters, as a 77-year-old candidate, Doug Wilder would be vulnerable. This time, he could lose to a talented candidate with the capacity to overshadow any other contenders. It would take a well-financed, well-executed campaign, but as it stands today it could happen.

However, this analysis/speculation isn’t to promote a particular personality, so it won’t offer any examples of who might be best suited to play this role.

No, what’s being predicted here is that Wilder, who has lost a few steps in his game, still has the savvy to recognize that his running for reelection will hardly be the cakewalk it was four years ago. Moreover, he knows that some simmering stories to do with handling money -- supposedly his strong suit -- are likely to dog him in the months to come.

With his use of special funds earmarked for relief to do with the Battery Park floods, to pay the expenses for his failed eviction of the School Board from City Hall -- as a candidate -- Wilder will find himself having to tell voters over and over again why that shouldn’t be viewed as some level of malfeasance.

Then there is the matter of money that apparently disappeared from his 1989 gubernatorial campaign, which has put Wilder in an awkward position. A new campaign law commands him to account for that money in order to get on the ballot again. As his son stands somewhere near the middle of this bubbling brouhaha, Wilder might rather not go through that process. This where’s-the-money? story probably has much less sizzle if Wilder simply walks off the active political stage under his own power.

Other questions about his use of public funds are out there, but the biggest problem Wilder has is probably those steps he has lost. A younger, more charming version of Doug Wilder -- in the General Assembly and as governor -- could bully others and make them like it. He’d slap them on the back and have them dancing to his tune ... that is, after they stooped to kiss his ring.

As far as how he has performed as mayor, in the last four years Wilder has been long on pointing the accusing finger and short on producing solutions to this city’s problems. His perpetual battles with other elected officials have made a lot of wind and noise, while fixing nothing.

Perhaps the baseball stadium issue, which had the Atlanta Braves on hold for years before they finally hung up in January, has been most emblematic of Mayor Wilder’s ineptitude as a problem-solver. While the Braves cooled their heels waiting for leadership in Richmond to lead, speculation for where to locate a new ballpark bounced pinball-like from one part of town to another.

The Friday Fiasco at City Hall is surely the most damning item on Wilder’s list of mistakes as mayor. The mounting legal tab to defend him for those mean-spirited shenanigans is drawing more attention. The taxpayers will have to pay that tab.

Then again, if Wilder retires he can probably do so gracefully, because a lot of people would be happier to dwell on his long career of praiseworthy achievements, rather than his uneven performance as mayor. He could hop aboard the Barack Obama bandwagon and have fun traveling to speak in support of the most likely Democratic nominee for president.

So, look for Hizzoner to keep everyone guessing for as long as he can, to reduce the time he’ll be regarded as a lame duck, then announce at the last minute he will not seek a second term. After which, he’ll have a great time keeping everybody guessing, waiting to see who he might endorse as his successor.

Still, a prediction is just a guess. In the weeks to come we’ll actually see if the 77-year-old version of Doug Wilder still has enough of his political acumen left to know better than to risk winding up his political career as just another sloppy palooka who stayed too long at the party.

-- 30 --

-- Words and art by F.T. Rea

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Pranks for the Memories

My first good look at what was to become Richmond's version of a repertory cinema, the Biograph Theatre, was in July of 1971. At that point it was a few cinderblocks in a hole in the ground. Having gotten a tip the DeeCee owners were considering hiring a local manager, I went to the construction site chasing the opportunity.

A couple of months later I was offered what seemed then to be the best job in the Fan District. The adventure that followed went far beyond any expectations I might have had, at age 23, about becoming the manager of the Biograph Theatre.

On the evening of February 11, 1972, the new venture at 814 West Grace Street was launched with a gem of a party. The local press was all over it. The first feature presented was a delightful French war-mocking comedy -- “King of Hearts” (1966). On Richmond’s newest silver screen, Genevieve Bujold was dazzling opposite the droll Alan Bates. In the lobby, as flashbulbs popped the dry champagne flowed steadily.

During the ‘60s, college film societies thrived. Knowing film was cool; it could get you laid. By the ‘70s, many of the kids who had grown up on television worshiped classic movies, some had become connoisseurs of the moving image. Popular culture, in general, was becoming a subject for serious study on campus for the first time.

So it was the fashion of the day elevated many foreign movies, certain American classics, and selected underground films above their more accessible, current-release, Hollywood counterparts. In that pre-cable TV age, much of the mainstream domestic product was viewed by the film buff in-crowd as laughingly naive or hopelessly corrupt.

Although none of them had any prior experience in Show Biz a group of five men, then in their mid-30s, opened Georgetown’s Biograph Theatre (1967-96) in 1967. They were trendy, smart guys and at least one of them knew a lot about foreign films and film history. They caught a wave. A few years later those same young owners were successful, confident and looking to expand. In Richmond’s Fan District they thought they had found a perfect situation for a second repertory-style cinema, another Biograph.

Local players, filthy rich Morgan Massey and deal-maker Graham “Squirrel” Pembrooke, built the Biograph building from scratch for the Georgetown group. Significantly, Pembroke managed to get a 20-year lease for $3,000-a-month rent guaranteed by a federal program for at-risk neighborhoods, in case the edgy concept didn’t fly and the operators went belly up. Thus, when the Biograph closed in 1987 the building’s owners were then able to collect the rent from Uncle Sam until 1992.

Knowing they could walk away easily, if the business fizzled, the Biograph’s creators -- chiefly David Levy (who later owned The Key on Wisconsin in Georgetown) and Alan Rubin -- inked the deal and borrowed money to buy a load of very used seats and projection booth equipment, which included ancient Peerless carbon arc lamps to back up a pair of rugged Simplex 35 mm projectors.

Biograph programs, printed schedules with film notes, covered about six weeks each. Double features were the staple. Program No. 1 was heavy on documentaries, featuring the work of de Antonio and Pennebaker, among others. Also on that program were several films by revered European directors, including Antonioni, Costa-Gavras, Fellini, and Polanski.

After the opening flurry, with long lines to every show, it was somewhat surprising and disappointing when the crowds shrank dramatically in the third and fourth months of operation. As VCU students were a substantial portion of theater’s initial crowd, the slump was chalked off to exams and summer vacation.

In that context, the first summer of operation was opened to experimentation aimed at drawing customers from beyond the borders of the immediate neighborhood. The brightest light in the mix of celluloid offerings was just such an experiment that caught on -- Friday and Saturday midnight shows.

By trial and error, the way of drawing a late crowd was gleaned from experience. Most importantly, we learned it took an offbeat movie that lent itself to promotion; early 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).

With significant input from the theater’s promotion-savvy assistant manager, local Hall-of-Fame bartender and Rock ‘n’ Roll promoter, Chuck Wrenn, off-the-wall ad campaigns were designed in-house to set the tone for the somewhat anti-establishment movies that seemed to work best. There were two essential elements to those promotions -- wacky radio spots on WGOE, a popular AM station aimed directly at the hippie listening audience, and distinctive handbills posted in strategic locations. Dave DeWitt, now the widely read guru of hot food, produced the radio commercials, many of which were rather humorous in their day.

In the September “Performance” (1970), an overwrought but well-crafted musical melodrama -- starring Mick Jagger -- packed the place a couple of weekends in a row. Then a campy, docu-drama called “Reefer Madness” (1936) sold out four consecutive weekends. Sometimes nearly as many people were turned away as could be seated.


To follow “Reefer Madness” what was then a little-known X-rated comedy, “Deep Throat” (1972), was booked. As the feature ran only an hour, master prankster Luis Bunuel's surrealistic classic “An Andalusian Dog” (1929) was added to the bill, just for grins. (If anybody else ever ran that double feature, well, I didn't hear about it.)

A couple of weeks after “Deep Throat” began playing in Richmond it got busted in Manhattan. The national media became fascinated with the film. Its star, Linda Lovelace, actually appeared on network TV talk shows. Watching Johnny Carson tiptoe around the premise of her celebrated “talent” made for some giggly early-‘70s television.

To be sure of getting in to see the show, patrons began showing up an hour early. Standing in line on the sidewalk for the Biograph’s midnight show became a party as some brought libation to liven up the wait. There were nights the line resembled a tailgating scene at a pro football game. A band of Jesus Freaks frequently stood across the street issuing bullhorn-amplified warnings to the drinking, eating, smoking folks in line.

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

Its grosses conveniently made up for the disappointing box office generated by an eight-week package of venerable European classics, including ten titles by the celebrated Ingmar Bergman. The same package of art house workhorses -- we bicycled prints back and forth -- played extremely well at the Biograph in Georgetown, underlining what was becoming a painfully underestimated contrast between the two markets.

Then, even more telling, over the spring a series of imported first-run movies crashed and burned. The centerpiece of the festival was the premiere of the popular Bunuel masterpiece “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972). In what we regarded as a coup, gambling it would win the award, we booked it in advance to open in Richmond two days after the 1973 Oscars were to be handed out.

We guessed right, it took the Oscar in for Best Foreign Film, but it flopped in Richmond anyway.

Management was more than bummed out, we were shocked. Money had been put up in advance to secure a print, which was in demand because it was doing brisk business in many cities. The failure of this particular festival forced a serious reassessment of what had been the original plan.

To stay alive the Biograph needed to make adjustments.


After much fretting on the phone line between “M” Street and Grace Street the Faustian deal was struck -- another film from Throat’s director, Gerard Damiano, was booked. However, this time the film’s distributor imposed terms that called for “The Devil in Miss Jones” (1973) to play as a first-run picture at regular show times, rather than as a midnight-only attraction.

At this point no one could have anticipated what we were setting in motion by agreeing to expand the availability of “adult movies” beyond a midnight audience. For the first time, the promotional copy for an XXX-rated feature was included on a Biograph program and in newspaper ads.

The circus began when an aggressive young TV newsman took Biograph Program No. 12 to the City’s new Commonwealth’s Attorney, Aubrey Davis. The reporter asked Davis what his office was going to do about the Biograph’s brazen plan to run such a notorious film, especially in light of the then-freshly-minted “Miller Decision” on obscenity by the Supreme Court.

Eventually, the provocateur got what he wanted from the newly appointed prosecutor -- a quote that would fly as an anti-smut soundbite. The other local broadcasters jumped on the bandwagon the next day. By the lazy mid-summer evening “The Devil in Miss Jones” opened it had already become a well-covered local story.

Every show sold out and a wild ride had begun.

Matinees were added the next day. On the third day all the matinees sold out, too. The WRVA-AM traffic-copter hovered over the Biograph in drive time, giving live updates on the length of the line waiting to get into the theater. The airborne announcer helpfully reminded his listeners of the remaining show times for that night.

Well, that did it: The following morning a local circuit court judge asked for a personal look at what was clearly the talk-of-the-town.

Management cooperated with his honor's wishes and schlepped the print down to Neighborhood Theaters’ Downtown private screening room, so he could avoid being seen entering the Biograph in its bohemian neighborhood.

As Judge James M. Lumpkin admittedly hadn’t been out to see a movie in a theater since the 1950s, this goofy/sleazy stag film rubbed him in the worst way. Red-faced after the screening, the judge looked at David Levy and me like we were from Mars, maybe Pluto.

Lumpkin promptly filed a complaint to the Commonwealth's Attorney and issued a Temporary Restraining Order, himself, in an attempt to halt further showings. The next day a press conference was staged in the theater’s lobby to make an announcement.

Every news-gathering outfit in town bought the premise and sent a representative. They acted as if what was obviously a publicity stunt was actually 24-carat news, because it served their purpose to play along. Yes, I went to school on that. After Dave DeWitt -- who represented the theater as its ad agent -- introduced yours truly to the working press, a prepared statement was read for the cameras and microphones. The gist of it was that based on the demand, the crusading Biograph would fight the TRO in court and ‘The Devil in Miss Jones” was being held over for a second week.

During the lively Q & A session that followed, when Dave scolded an eager scribe for going too far with a follow-up question, it was tough to hold back the laughing fit that would have surely broken the spell.

The Devil's spectacular run ended at nine days. It grossed $40,000. Technically, the legal action was against the movie, itself, rather than anyone at the Biograph. The trial opened on Halloween day. Judge Lumpkin, whose original complaint to the Commonwealth’s Attorney had set the process in motion, served as the trial judge, too.

Objections to that quizzical affront to justice fell on the determined Judge Lumpkin’s stone cold deaf ears. On November 13, 1973, Lumpkin put all on notice: If you dare to exhibit this “filth” to the public, then stand by for certain criminal prosecution. Effectively, “The Devil” was banned in Richmond.


The plot was hatched in early January 1974. It was after-hours in the Biograph's office, next to the projection booth on the second story. Having finished the box-office paperwork, your narrator was browsing through a stack of newly acquired 16mm film catalogues, and probably enjoying a cold Pabst Blue Ribbon. The scent of recently-burned marijuana may have been in the air.

A particular entry -- ‘The Devil and Miss Jones” -- jumped off the page. Instantly, it was obvious that the title for that 1941 RKO light comedy had been the inspiration for the X-rated movie’s title. It should be noted that the public had yet to be subjected to the endless puns and referential lowbrowisms the skinflick industry would later use for titles. This was still in what might be called the seminal days of the adult picture business.

The plan called for using the upcoming second anniversary as camouflage. Wise guy DeWitt and the theater’s resourceful assistant manager, Bernie Hall, were in on the early scheming. Then, in a deft stroke -- suggested by owner Alan Rubin -- a Disney nature short subject, “Beaver Valley” (1950), was added to the bill.

Obviously, the stunt’s biggest problem was security. The whole scheme rested on the precarious notion that the one-word difference in the titles wouldn’t be noticed. The conspirators, who by this time included the entire staff, all accepted that the slightest whiff of a ruse could be our undoing. Thus, absolutely no one could be told anything.

The theater announced in a press release that its second anniversary birthday party would offer a free admission show. The provocative two titles were listed matter-of-factly; free beer and birthday cake would be available as long as they lasted. Somehow, a rumor began to circulate that the Biograph might be out-maneuvering the grasp of the court’s decree by not charging admission.

The rumor found its way into legit print. That was sweet.

The busy staff fielded all inquires, in person or over the telephone, by politely stating, “We can only tell you the titles and the show times. Yes, the admission will be free. No further details are available.”

The evening before the event the phones rang off the hook. Reporters were snooping about, asking questions. Yet, up until the last minute no one outside our tight circle appeared to catch on to what we were actually up to. Amazing as it may sound, the caper’s security was airtight.

It was, in truth, absolutely beautiful teamwork.

The line began forming before lunch. As the afternoon wore on and the thousands lined up, it was suggested more than once that we could eventually have a riot on our hands. What would happen? Nobody knew. The box-office for the 6:30 p.m. show opened at 6 p.m. By then the line stretched more than three-quarters around the block. It took a full half-hour to fill our 500-seat auditorium. We turned away at least six or seven times that number.

The sense of anticipation in the air was electric. Once the cat sprang from the bag ... well, actually it was a beaver, then some otters, some in that night’s crowd said they thought it was a wonderful occasion. Still, right away about a third of them left to go to a bar. The rest stayed on through the short.

Maybe about a third of the house stayed all the way through the feature. There were several people who said it was the funniest thing that had ever happened in Richmond. Of course, a few got angry. But since everything was free there was only so much they could say.

Meanwhile, a thoroughly amused press corps was filing its reports on the hoax. The wire services promptly picked up the story, as did the broadcast networks. The rush that came from living in the eye of that day’s storm was exhilarating, to say the least. Gloating over the utter success of the gag, as the staff and assorted friends finished off the second keg, was as good as it gets in the prank business.


The next day CBS News ran a story on the stunt. NPR’s All Things Considered went so far as to compare the Biograph's wee prank to Orson Welles’ mammoth 1938 radio hoax. Also the next day, the Biograph returned to business as usual with an Andy Warhol double feature.

The staff went back to work on “Matinee Madcap,” a 16mm film project in production. VCU film professor Trent Nicholas, then one of the theater’s ushers and later an assistant manager, shared the directing credit with me. The rest of the staff and many friends of the Biograph appeared as players. The plot, calling for a good deal of slapstick chase-scene footage, set the action in the movie theater, itself.

Although post-prank life seemed to fall back into a familiar routine, big changes were on the horizon. With Watergate revelations in the air and the Vietnam War ending, the intense interest in politics and social causes on American campuses began to evaporate. In 1974 “streaking” replaced anti-war demonstrations as the students’ favorite expression of defiance.

Six months after the theater’s second anniversary splash, the same month that President Nixon resigned, the Biograph closed down for a month to be converted into a twin cinema.

Automating the change-overs from one 35mm projector to the other was essential to controlling costs. Among other things that meant xenon lamps, high intensity bulbs that could be ignited by switches, had to replace our out-of-date, manually operated carbon arc system.

On the day the exchange was made I got to see the same scene with the two light sources. The light from two burning carbon rods was white and gave the picture depth and sparkle. Xenon light was slightly yellow and flat.

The manager’s job at the Biograph became more complicated with two screens to fill with flickering light. The theater’s mission became steadily less clear. After the summer of 1974, every aspect of what had seemed to be life’s absolutes became steadily less clear for the dreamer who thought he had the best job in the Fan.

-- 30 --

-- Word and photos by F.T. Rea