Saturday, April 20, 2013

Rep. Nate Bell: 'Boston liberals spent the night cowering'

Yesterday, as the intense manhunt for a Boston Marathon bombing suspect was ongoing, a smugly porcine member of the Arkansas state legislature, Rep. Nate Bell, posed a question (via Twitter) about “liberals” that was surely on the minds of some of his fellow Republicans: “I wonder how many Boston liberals spent the night cowering in their homes wishing they had an AR-15 with a high-capacity magazine?”

Click here to read more about Bell's quip at Boston Magazine.

Bell's barbed rhetorical question represents exactly how too many pushy people believe the modern political game should be played. They are constantly on the make; always poised to capture what’s in the air and promptly twist it out of shape. They know that if it bleeds it ledes, and then later they can always say, "Oops, I hope no one took offense."

Yes, Democrats do it, as well as Republicans. But with Republicans, particularly on guns issues, their apparent tone deafness has sometimes been rather startling. Wisecracking about fresh tragedies is guaranteed to upset people who are still in shock, still grieving. It will always get a reaction from those who care about the victims.

Yes, some people enjoy provoking such reactions ... then pretending it wasn't their aim. Some people like to pull the wings off of bugs, too.

So, I think Bell was busting what he saw as cool move -- issuing a bon mot! -- hoping to delight lots of Republican tweetsters and gun nuts who see the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre as a great thinker and a hero. And, who generally love to see Bostonians ridiculed.

Bell did what plenty of right-wing pundits and politicians do on a regular basis: He said the snarkiest thing he could think of to say about his enemies. Then he hoisted a glass to share the naughty giggle with his colleagues and admirers. Then, of course, he issued a non-apology apology, full of winks and nods, and snorts.

Tennessee’s Sen. Rand Paul’s acrid comment about the Newtown families, “In some cases, I think the president has used them as props,” is another recent example of what seems to me to be a calculated tone deafness by a Republican talking about guns.

Paul knows that when the reporters come back to ask him about an apology/restatement, it routinely means a followup story will be written. The second article will allow him to water down the original snark, while the most important message has already been received by the extremists.  

However, in Bell’s case, when he used the word, “cowering,” he went further than Paul and he crossed a line, or maybe jumped over a ditch. That was in the hate-in-your-face style of the Westboro Baptist Church funeral demonstrators.

The giggling Mr. Bell deserves to be hounded out of public office. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Infamy in the Senate

Formerly a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Gabby Giffords is also a recovering victim of a massacre. Today the U.S. Senate pissed her off.
This defeat is only the latest chapter of what I’ve always known would be a long, hard haul. Our democracy’s history is littered with names we neither remember nor celebrate — people who stood in the way of progress while protecting the powerful. On Wednesday, a number of senators voted to join that list.
Click here to read all of Gabby's blistering New York Times OpEd piece that reacts to the Republican-led filibuster to block a vote on gun legislation that most Americans seem to favor. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Millsaps on Jackie Robinson

Sept. 22, 1947 issue of Time

Since I was only nine when Hall-of-Famer Jackie Robinson retired, it took years before I could begin to understand what he meant to so many people in Richmond, people who mostly lived in the parts of town I knew little about, then.

As a kid I was a New York Yankees fan. My excuse is they had a Triple A farm club here between 1954 and 1964. Without question, I pulled for the Richmond Virginians, or V's, for short. As the Yankees played in the American League, to me, Robinson was mostly another player for the National League enemy Brooklyn Dodgers.

At that age, although I was a devout baseball fan, there was just no way I could fully grasp what Robinson had accomplished in breaking the color line in 1947. In truth, I’m still learning about what a genuine hero Robinson was during the baseball season that was played over eight years before Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott put Martin Luther King, Jr. on the map.

“To Neet, Dodger Ranked a Source of Pride,” is an elegant sports remembrance. It was crafted by one of the best sportswriters I’ve known, Bill Millsaps. To commemorate the 60th anniversary of Robinson's debut with the Dodgers, it was published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2007. 
“...As young children, we didn’t know a lot about Neet, except we knew she was a wonderfully gentle soul. We knew she and her husband Glenzon lived over in The Ridges on the other side of the Southern Railroad tracks, that they raised a family of four children, that they were people of deep religious faith, and that Neet answered most questions one of two ways: ‘Yessum’ and ‘Nome.’ To say that Neet kept her feelings and opinions under wraps is to say that the Grand Canyon is a very big ditch. Then Jackie Robinson came to the major leagues 60 years ago today as a member of the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers, and Neet couldn’t hide her pride.”

Click here to read the entire piece.

Before serving as the executive editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch (he retired in 2005), Millsaps was the sports editor of that same newspaper 1973-91. And, he wrote on sports, regularly.

By the way, now I'm strictly a National League fan, and I routinely root for anybody to beat the Yankees.


Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Billy Roast ... Perhaps

Billy Snead's pals roasted him at the Biograph Theatre softball team's 30th annual Derby Day reunion party on May 2, 2009. At the time some of us also wanted to celebrate our friend Billy's applause-worthy stiff-arming of leukemia. The video below documents the roasting.

Always a stalwart about attending the Derby Day reunion, Billy Snead (pictured above in 1992) couldn't make it to last year's 33rd edition of the party in 2012. The cancer had returned; he died on the day after, May 6th.

The video footage from 2009's Derby Day get-together was shot using a borrowed digital camera with no tripod (camera sitting on a table), no lights, with whatever sound was in the air (including a brief rainstorm). Nonetheless, rough as it might be, this short film manages to capture a natural celebration of camaraderie that is uplifting.

The music, "Bill's Journey," is by Bill Blue. It was used with his permission.

To read some very funny stories Billy wrote about his salad days growing up in the Fan District click here.

For information about this year''s party on May 4th, go to the Facebook event page here

Saturday, April 06, 2013

The Zism and Dancing Doodles

Note from Rebus: The image of the zism (depicted right) came to Rea in a time when he was at loose ends. After nearly 12 years of devotion to keeping the Biograph open, upon leaving his job as its manager he was on the lookout for something new. Or maybe it was something he had lost along the way. 

Yet, after years of being immersed in a pretend world of movie scenes, rather than seeking enlightenment, or focusing on learning a useful trade, Rea went deeper into living in an imaginary realm. Which led to him making up his own ism. 


In the spring of 1983 the Biograph Theatre's owners, based in Georgetown, could see the bad trends from a hundred miles away. The deterioration of the commercial neighborhood surrounding the theater was obvious. Baby boomers in their 30s were moving out of the Fan District. The growing impact cable television was having on repertory cinemas, in general, was depressing. There were other problems,too, including what the owners saw as a bloated payroll.

In May they almost sold their struggling independent twin cinema to a chain. When the potential buyer refused to accept responsibility for all of the Richmond Biograph's debts, the deal fell apart.

Those few days of anxiety-ridden uncertainty, when it appeared everything I'd worked for was about to disappear like a puff of smoke, scared the hell out of me.   

Which made me see that my persona was resting entirely on the platform my peach of a job had provided for me. It was who and what I was perceived as being. I lived it 24-hours-a-day. There was no other job like it in Richmond. Which also meant, one way or another, most of the favors that had tumbled my way since 1972 had traveled across that same platform.   

It was a high-profile position in a rather small world. And, in my tortured frame of mind it was also a trap that had me in its grip. The painful truth that I hadn't been a particularly good manager for most of the previous year also weighed on me. After stewing in my juices for a few weeks, dwelling on such darkly-tinted thinking, I lurched to  a decision -- continuing to be terrified of losing my job was simply intolerable.

Consequently, for the first time, just closing the door and walking away from the Biograph began to seem to be my best option. My divorce had just become final and my then-girlfriend, Tana, thought I had gotten stale keeping the same job too long. In spite of how crazy it seems now, having no plan for how to make a living scared me less than staying on.

Thus, for reasons good and bad and fantasizing I would solve whatever money problems popped up with my willpower, I took the plunge and resigned.

Caught up in a mania, I promptly sat down in my downtown apartment on Franklin Street and created a three-page, hand-lettered resume ... with 'toons for illustrations. Then I mailed off a batch of them to apply for jobs that looked attractive to me. In some cases they just went to organizations I admired, without applying for a particular opening.

Awaiting all the new opportunities, I seriously set about making some new art -- stuff that would have nothing to do with selling classic double features or midnight shows. I worked on depicting what a couple of my childhood recurring dreams looked like. I also tried to do some writing but became frustrated with the process.  

Naturally, it was disappointing when the interviews and offers I was sure would flow my way from sending out those goofy resumes never happened.

At this time I was acting as the art director for Throttle (magazine) and I hosted a weekly show on Color Radio. Neither of those time-eating responsibilities paid a nickel. However, I also sold and produced advertisements for both entities, which did bring in a little money. Very little. So, I began the process of shrinking my lifestyle -- selling off old collectible stuff, cool objects I had acquired in fatter times.

As the summer passed I drew some comic strips, made a series of small paintings featuring Rebus (like the one to the left), and I put together a couple of collages (that I later destroyed). A large abstract painting was also produced (which I still have). In the doing of all that I designed a logo-looking graphic to represent movement through time and dimensions.

With an eye always on sarcasm and mockery I called my new gimmick a “zism,” to label it as the symbol of the last ism, the inevitable final system of beliefs and conclusions that would assimilate all the previous isms in history -- a perfect postmodern ism, as chock-full of mysterious hokum as any of them.

The zism's look was inspired by the 1920s constructivist movement in the USSR and 1930s cartoons, especially those created  by Max Fleischer -- Popeye, Betty Boop, etc. In my view it suggested both structure and spontaneity.

In truth, the zism was a mindless doodle drawing that I played with and refined over time. As I then considered doodles to be my most natural way of drawing that meant the zism was also about truth. The first published zism, along with some gesture drawings of little dancing pairs, appeared on the cover of Throttle's December 1984 issue.  

Eventually, I had to draw zisms on handbills and put them up on utility poles to see what would happen. In the spring of 1985 I posted a series of “Zism” handbills. They featured cartoons, photos, off-the-wall questions and sayings … and zisms. I liked drawing them. The handbill pictured below was No. 2.
In a droll way I thought the twirling symbol, representing anything you wanted it to, was funny.


Maybe that was just more proof of how unhinged I was in this period. And, speaking of unhinged, a dislocated ankle put me on crutches and ended the handbill series. It also made me concentrate on writing, again, in the weeks that followed the injury. I designed the first issue of SLANT, a 16-pager. I also made four large collages on plywood panels. The largest of them was installed in the 3rd Street Diner. 

Then, in the spring of 1986, I started stapling issues of SLANT -- this time front-and-back, two-page handbills -- to selected utility poles twice a week.

In part, that was done to protest the City of Richmond’s renewed crackdown on fliers. I also wanted to establish that a periodical’s legitimacy could be in the eyes of the beholder. In the course of that oblique mission I fell in love with publishing. Then SLANT came down off the poles to go through several changes in format over the next eight years, or so.

The doodle-like drawings of couples dancing made a comeback in 1986. By then I had named them Dancing Doodles. They were used to fill the variable small space that remained open at the end of the pasting up of an issue of SLANT. The space to be filled was usually about an inch or an inch-and-a-half tall.

In printer's parlance the Dancing Doodles were used as dingbats. Drawing them was the fun part of the paste-up chore I always saved for last. They were drawn quickly without a plan; each mark was simply a reaction to the last. Those little Dancing Doodle drawings were further attempts at depicting structure and spontaneity moving in harmony -- sort of like what a good jam session is made of.

After a year or so, I stopped putting the Dancing Doodles in SLANT, as the 'zine matured and got tighter in its layout. I was surprised but pleased when I got some complaints.

In the mid-1990s I made a few paintings of dancing couples, maybe a half-dozen. Again, I was thinking about the righteousness of doodles. These pieces were larger and more involved than what had come before. A few prints of them sold, cheaply, then I put them on the back burner again. Dancing Doodle No. 3 (approximately 8" by 10"), seen below, was part of that series.

Friday, April 05, 2013

The Underdog Room

Carl W. Hutchins (1924-2006) was a professional boxer in his youth. He claimed to have been a contender in his day. Most people called him “Piggy.”

Piggy Hutchins was known by three generations of Richmonders. They were locals of a certain stride, folks who ate, drank and shared their lives in his restaurants. Piggy’s most loyal customers tended to use his dives/eateries as a clubhouse … except when a feud kept one of them away for a while.

A corner restaurant called “Piggy’s,” located at Mulberry and Cary (where the Cary St. Cafe is now), began the series of places he would own. The Attaché, at 5816 W. Broad St., was the last of them; it closed down in 2002.

Eighteen years ago I was associated for a short stint with the legendary Attaché (although for some reason Piggy was calling it William Henry’s that year). A money crisis pushed me across the Henrico County line, inquiring after a bartender position that was listed in the newspaper's want ads. That afternoon I met the one and only Piggy Hutchins. I had known him only by reputation before.

After a pleasant chat with Piggy, I suspected there was no bartender job open. Nonetheless, Piggy’s older brother, Pete, and Bill, a nephew, gave me a tour of the decidedly suburban split-level facility -- the restaurant itself, the after-hours club on the upper story and the basement tavern. They explained that Piggy was really looking for an idea more than someone else to put on the payroll. He had advertised the job to attract someone who'd give him a new scheme.

Well, I needed money, and fast. So that’s exactly when a concept of how to use the basement space came to me in a flash.

Like characters in a Damon Runyon story, we all sat at the main table to cut a deal over draft beer and coffee. I explained how it could work. Right away, Piggy liked it that I volunteered to take on the promotional costs and booking duties, that I wanted only a cut of the bar receipts -- no guarantees. Plus, I got tips as the bartender on duty. And, Piggy liked telling his war stories to a writer.

As it happened, I left the place that day nurturing an absurd notion that became the Underdog Room. For three nights a week, I presented stand-up comics and live music in the basement, which had a boxer's heavy bag hanging in it, leftover from when Piggy still worked out and trained young boxers in that space.

To kick off the Underdog Room era, I booked the Vibra-Turks. Some of them were usually known as the Bop Cats. The Vibra-Turks were: Mike Moore (bass); Gary Fralin (keyboard); Lindy Fralin (guitar); Stuart Grimes (drums); Jim Wark (guitar). In one way of looking at it, we had a band with a fake name playing in a room with a fake name.

Nonetheless, a good break, publicity-wise, helped the handbills flush out enough barflies and aging scenesters to make for a good-sized audience. When Piggy came downstairs he liked the look of the crowd, he seemed to even liked the Vibra-turks. But some members of his staff members remained unsure about the direction of things.

On Thursdays it was comedy night. Usually seven or eight comics would show up. My old friend, John Porter, served as the emcee/recruiter. The performers split the cash from a cheap cover charge and drank beer for free. Hoping to establish to new venue, several of the the area's comedians stopped by to do a few minutes on most Thursdays.

On Friday and Saturday nights a band played, usually the same band on both nights. The bands would take what came in at the door, but as the weeks wore on, getting my Fan District nightlife friends to venture into Henrico County grew more difficult. As the take at the door shriveled, from one week to the next, I gradually ran through the established acts I could easily persuade to give the Underdog Room a try.     

The Scariens, a local performance-art/rock 'n' roll act, stretched the culture clash aspect of my shaky gig to pieces. Piggy and his Attaché crowd of regulars were utterly baffled by the Scariens, who sometimes seemed to baffle themselves, too. They were led by another old friend, Ronnie Soffee.

To make matters more fractious, some of the comedians seemed to rub Piggy's confidants the wrong way; to say they didn't get the jokes is an understatement. After almost four months of it, I came to my senses and bailed out.

Leaving Palookaville on good terms, I limped back to the Fan. It had been fun working with the comedians and musicians in such an off-the-wall situation. And, getting to know Piggy, to the extent that I did, was like living in a low-budget film noir picture from the late-1940s. 

Thursday, April 04, 2013

The Tipping Point for Shockoe Bottom Baseball

Note: This piece was published by on June 18, 2009. For whatever reasons, the once-dead-and-buried notion of stuffing a baseball park into Shockoe Bottom has been reanimated. So here's a look at my take on how it all ended, abruptly, four years ago.


The Tipping Point for Shockoe Bottom Baseball
by F.T. Rea

The air of inevitability that once hovered over the Highwoods Properties/Richmond Baseball Club plan to build a new baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom is gone.

The story of where professional baseball ought to be played in Richmond has taken many a turn over the last decade. Longtime Richmonders can’t remember another squabble quite like the one between supporters of building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom and those opposed it.

While of many of those among the opposition prefer their baseball on the Boulevard, still others see baseball itself as relatively unimportant to Richmond’s future, when compared to The City's infrastucture needs, schools, etc.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch ran an article on Monday about purple martins roosting in trees in Shockoe Bottom and online readers criticized/mocked the newspaper, “environmental whackos,” “anti-development crusaders,” former Mayor Doug Wilder, Mayor Dwight Jones and you-name-it.

Over the last eight months the comments space under most online newspaper and magazine articles about baseball in Richmond has included the same sort of over-the-top comments from partisan readers, who either boost or bash Shockoe Bottom or the Boulevard with practiced passion.

In the blogosphere it has been the same; if anything, the tone has been worse. That many of such comments were crafted under the cloak of anonymity hasn’t done much for the civility of the discussions.

After all the news stories saying the purchase was close, closer, closest -- RBC, headed up by Bryan Bostic, came up short of money to purchase the Connecticut Defenders by the June 1 deadline the team’s owner had set. With the news of the collapse of Bostic’s effort to buy the Defenders the momentum for keeping baseball on the Boulevard has picked up.

We read that other teams are interested in moving to Richmond. A new plan to refurbish the 24-year-old Diamond has surfaced: Opening Day Partners says it can do the job for $28 million.

Somewhat ironically, this newest plan bears a noticeable resemblance to the $18.5 million agreement that would have given the old ballpark a makeover after the 2004 season was completed by the Richmond Braves. That plan had The City, the owners of  the R-Braves and the surrounding counties all participating in paying for the facility.

Now the Shockoe Center project, as designed by Highwoods Properties, is up in the air. Highwoods’ spokesman, Paul Kreckman, has said repeatedly that without the baseball stadium component his company will just walk away from the entire $783 million scheme it has presented for developing both Shockoe Bottom and the area just south of the Diamond. 

Kreckman reaffirmed that position on May 12 at the Richmond Times-Dispatch Public Square Forum, conducted by the newspaper’s publisher Tom Silvestri.

To the extent the Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium concept is truly fizzling, the tipping point may well have been the night of that RT-D forum. After the four invited speakers made their presentations, a two-to-one majority of the audience members who spoke weighed in against baseball in Shockoe Bottom. Applause indicated a split along the same line.

Although the politicians in attendance had little or nothing to say, they surely saw a roomful of voters. And, they certainly heard a laundry list of sensible reasons why NOT to shoehorn a baseball stadium into Shockoe Bottom.

In addition to being way outnumbered, as far as the attendance went, another part of what underlined the weakness of Highwoods/RBC position was how fairly the forum was conducted. Silvestri’s calm evenhandedness offered a sharp contrast to those individuals who said things that were off-the-wall, or perhaps less than forthright.

After all the hyperventilating in comments under baseball stories, the thinking that Richmond was evenly divided on whether to build a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom was revealed to be an illusion -- poof!

No doubt, that illusion had been fostered in some part by the aforementioned online comments, which allowed a handful of determined downtown baseball boosters to appear to be many more, in numbers, than they really were.

Everyone who bothered to attend the May 12th forum saw the plain truth in the bright lights -- one side of the debate had turned out a lot more warm bodies than the other. Over and over, they heard fellow citizens questioning the veracity of what Kreckman and Bostic were saying. The doubts became contagious. If any of Bostic's would-be investors were in the room that couldn't have helped his cause. 

If it had been a baseball game the score would have been something like Boulevard 9, Shockoe Bottom 2.

-- 30 --

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

From Yeats to Greene to Stone

Balcomb Greene
Revved up over an English class assignment to write a paper on "The Second Coming," by W. B. Yeats, I stayed up all night crafting it, and thought I had hit a home run. The professor, an awkward, gangly sort of fellow in his late-20s, gave me a “C” on it.

Well, I just had to ask him to explain to me what was wrong with the paper. In a private conference he told me my analysis of the poem didn't jibe with the accepted school of thought on what Yeats was saying. While admitting my writing and analytical technique were fine, he nervously explained that I was simply wrong in my conclusions, no matter how well-stated my case might have been.

That sort of pissed me off, so I told him I thought that ambiguity could imply multiple meanings, and it deliberately invited alternative interpretations. Rather than defend as his stance the man suddenly grabbed his face and broke into tears.

The sobbing professor went into a monologue on the shambles his life had fallen into. His personal life! Worst of all, he said, his deferral had just been denied by Selective Service, so he would soon be drafted.

He was wearing a pitiful brown suit. His thinning beige hair was oiled flat against his scalp. My anger over the bad grade turned into disgust. As I remember it, I walked out of his office to keep from telling him what I thought.

Now, four decades later, I regret my impatience and feel sorry for the poor schlemiel. Still, when the offer came at the end of the semester to expand my part-time job to full-time, I took the leap. My chief duty was to schlep visiting scholars around Virginia from one university campus to the next in a big black Lincoln.

Each week, under the auspices of the University Center in Virginia -- a consortium of Virginia colleges and universities -- there was a new scholar in a different field. Somebody had to drive them to lectures, dinners, convocations and to hotels throughout the week. For one whole semester that was me.

Naturally, in the crisscrossing of Virginia, the wiseguy driver and the actually wise scholars had a lot of time to talk. Some of them kept to themselves, mostly. Others were quite chatty, in several cases we got along well and had great talks.

Three of them stand out as having been the best company on the road: Daniel Callahan (then-writer/editor at Commonweal Magazine), Henry D. Aiken (writer/philosophy professor) and Balcomb Greene (artist/philosopher and art history professor).

Callahan challenged me to think more thoroughly about situational ethics and morality. He was happy I was reading the books of Herman Hesse and others. He turned me on to “One Dimensional Man,” by Herbert Marcuse.

Callahan was quite curious about my experiences taking LSD, we talked about drugs and religion. Click here to read about him.

Aiken (1912-‘82) was then the chairman of the philosophy department at Brandeis University, he loved a debate. He was used to holding his own against the likes of William F. Buckley. Talking with him about everything under the sun in the wee hours, I first acquired a taste for good Scotch whiskey (which I haven't tasted in many a year).
From a ‘pragmatic’ point of view, political philosophy is a monster, and whenever it has been taken seriously, the consequence, almost invariably, has been revolution, war, and eventually, the police state.

-- Henry D. Aiken
Aiken, like Callahan, agreed to help me with a project I told them about. Inspired by popular new magazines Ramparts, Avant-Garde, Rolling Stone, etc. -- at 21-years-old -- I wanted to jump straight into magazine publishing, with no experience, ASAP.

That dream stayed on the back burner for 16 years, until the first issue of SLANT came out in 1985. How I went about designing SLANT to be a small magazine, mostly featuring the work of its publisher, flowed in great part from my brief association with Balcomb Greene (1904-90). Of the rent-a-scholars I met, he was easily the funniest.

The son of a Methodist minister, Greene grew up in small towns in the Midwest. He studied philosophy at Syracuse University, psychology at the University of Vienna and English at Columbia University. Then he switched to art, having been influenced by his first wife, Gertrude Glass, an artist he had married in 1926. He became a founder of the avant-garde group known as American Abstract Artists in 1936.

After World War II, just as abstract art was gaining acceptance, Greene radically changed his style. He began painting in a more figurative, yet dreamy, style that fractured time. Click here,
and here, to read about Greene and see examples of his work.

One day I’ll write a piece about the visit to Sweetbriar with Greene. It was a hoot collaborating with him, to have some fun putting on the blue-haired art ladies of that venerable institution. This time my mention of him is to get this piece to I.F. Stone. It was Greene who gave me a subscription to I.F. Stone’s Weekly.

I.F. “Izzy” Stone (1907-89) was an independent journalist in a way few have ever been. In the 1960s his weekly newsletter was a powerful voice challenging the government’s propaganda about the war in Vietnam. Click here to read about Stone, and here.
"All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out."
-- I.F. Stone
Stone remains one of my heroes. At my best, over the years, I have emulated him in my own small ways. Thank you for the schooling, Professor Greene.

-- 30 --