Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Night the Earth Stood Still

In December of 1999 the editor at, Richard Foster, asked me to do something on the much-in-the-news Y2K scare. After we talked about it for a few minutes, he was happy to let me play around with a satirical approach. The gig had me filing the story a few days before New Year’s Day, to be published on January 3rd.

This is what I came up with 15 years ago:
The Night the Earth Stood Still
F. T. Rea
Monday, January 03, 2000

To Whom It May Concern: Greetings from the waning hours of 1999 in Richmond, Virginia, USA. And, in case it matters, on Earth.

Sitting at a table outside of Puddn'Heads Coffee House on an Indian Summer morning in November, I read a Y2K paranoia article with smug satisfaction as I consumed my daily dose of black coffee.

When I noticed a woman walk by with a mischievous Jack Russell Terrier at her side, I paused to think - who actually believed that anything significant was going to happen just because another page of the Christian calendar was about to be removed and tossed into the cosmic trash bin of time?

The woman looked a bit like Patricia Neal, which brought to mind "The Day the Earth Stood Still," the 1951 sci-fi classic that anticipated a modern society's panic from the sudden loss of all electricity.

Alas, that was only a few weeks ago. A few weeks ago, when I felt so unconcerned about Y2K bugs.

Now my nonchalance about this Y2K business has evolved into something else. Tonight, sitting at my keyboard on Dec. 16, I've started to get spooked by contemplating what's actually going to go down when zillions of pulsing gizmos sense that we have crossed the border between 1999 and 2000.

While I am anything but knowledgeable about matters pertaining to computers and the Internet, the fact is I use them both all the time. Frankly, I don't like to think about a world without word processing and e-mail.

At this point, I don't even know whether my computer will be of any use to me once we cross the great divide. I've been told on some good authority, there is a chance my old 486 may just seize up.

Of course that's a practical fear. Being a writer, I'm naturally concerned about my livelihood.

What is this I'm reading? You ask.

It's days after Y2K. We all know by now that (pick one) a) the Earth has been reduced to a still-glowing fireball; or b) it was all a big bore and we'll never fall victim to mass-hysteria again.

Well, reader, you're one up on me. The real problem looming as I type these words is that I have no idea that modern civilization isn't going to melt down over this splendidly ironic glitch in the system. I'm still weeks behind you, still left to wonder if the lights really will go out at midnight, Jan. 1, 2000. Still left to wonder if it's possible that our whole deal could go down the drain.

So think of this piece as a quaint time capsule beamed into the future - January, 2000.

Despite my Y2K blues, however, I believe that this article will almost certainly appear online as scheduled. I fully expect that you are sitting in front of your monitor reading this on

Then the laugh will be on all the people who admitted they were preparing for all manner of catastrophe. And, I suppose to some extent that will mean me. Fine. I'll be laughing then too.

I hope.

Nonetheless as I sit here, sipping on a bitter Pale Ale, I have no trouble imagining that roving bands of thugs could be out the first night without electricity. Looters could come out of the woodwork. If our toilets won't flush, our phones don't work, and all forms of mass communication are kaput, people could wig out big time.

Then, anything from the familiar post-apocalyptic menu could happen. Yes, I admit it - I'm getting a little worried.

In fact, I'm not at all sure when, or even if, anyone is actually going to read this. It has already occurred to me that maybe the only real point to my writing these paragraphs is to keep my squirmy consciousness occupied.

For that matter, every time a wordsmith plies his trade there is some leap of faith involved: Yes, it will be published. And yes, someone will read it.

Fetching yet another perfectly chilled ale, it just struck me that, for all I know, the entire power grid has gone down hard by the time you're supposed to be reading this.

And you, my dear reader, you could be someone who has stumbled across this material decades into the future. You could be an archeologist studying the artifacts of what remains of civilization circa 1999.

Or, perhaps you are reading this less than a month into the new millennium.

You are huddled in a icy bunker. Your generator-powered PC's monitor is providing the only light for you to pry open the precious can of beans you found in a pile of rubble.

And, with good reason you are reading this little essay with one eye peeled on the only doorway. Your revolver, as always, is at your side. You still have three bullets left.

You could even be the last human being alive. On the other hand, maybe you are not human at all. You could be from ...

Maybe everything is still, frozen timelessly in place.

OK, calm down.

If that is the case, there still could be one last chance. I know it sounds silly, but try saying the following phrase aloud: "Klaatu Barada Nikto."*

How could it hurt?

"Klaatu Barada Nikto!"

From 1999, this is F. T. Rea, over and out ...
-- 30 --
Note: *The key line from "The Day the Earth Stood Still" that commanded the all-powerful robot Gort to switch the world's machines back on.

A Lucky Break

The 1981-82 Biograph Naturals

Each year the NCAA’s men’s basketball tournament is a blessing during the month of March. It helps get basketball junkies, like me, through those last tedious days of winter.

Of course, to be a junkie in full bloom one must still play the game. Since I quit playing basketball in 1994, I suppose I’ve been a junkie in recovery. Yes, I’ll always miss the way a perfectly-released jump shot felt as it left my fingertips. Nothing has replaced the satisfaction that came from stealing the ball from an opponent, just as he stumbled over his hubris.

The years I spent covering college basketball, as a writer, helped to soothe my basketball jones. Since the improvisational aspect of basketball has always appealed to me, from my seat on press row my inclination was to pay particular attention to players who had a special knack for seizing the moment.

While basketball is in some ways a finesse game, there are brutal truths to be reckoned with. Although I’ve heard people claim that we can’t remember pain, I’ve not completely forgotten what it felt like to dislocate my right ankle on the afternoon of April 20, 1985; I was undercut finishing a one-on-five fast break lay-up. I'd love to say the ball went in the basket, but I don't remember that part.

What I do remember is flopping around on the hardwood, uncontrollably, like a fish out of water for a minute or so. Take it from me, dear reader, popping your foot off the end of your leg hurts way too much to forget -- think James Caan in “Misery” (1990).

Three years before that injury, my then-34-year-old nose was broken in the course of a basketball game. In that time, the Biograph Theatre, which I managed, had a team in a league called the Central Basketball Alliance. Other teams were sponsored by the Track, Soble’s, Hababa’s, the Jade Elephant, etc. Personnel-wise, it was an off-shoot of the Fan District Softball League, with some of the same characters ... and, I do mean characters.

The morning after my nose was bashed in by an opponent’s upwardly thrust elbow, while I was coming down from a failed attempt at snatching a rebound, I went to Stuart Circle Hospital for treatment.

My nose wasn’t just broken, it had been split open at the bridge in three or four directions. The emergency room doc used Super Glue and a butterfly clamp to put it all back together. This was before such glue had been approved for use in this country, so he asked me not to tell anyone what he had done; I hope the statute of limitations has run out.

Then, while I was waiting around in the lobby to sign some papers, my grandmother -- Emily “Villa” Collins Owen -- was wheeled by, stretched out on a hospital bed. As I grew up in her home and was still very close to her, it had the same shock effect as accidentally seeing one’s parent in such an abrupt context.

We spoke briefly. She said she was feeling a little weak from a cold and had decided to spend the night in the hospital. She lived just a few blocks away. Pretending to ignore my gripping sense of panic, I calmly assured Nana (pronounced Ny-nuh) I’d be back during visiting hours, to see how she was doing.

That evening I took my then-12-year-old daughter, Katey, with me to see Nana. The doctor came in her room and told us she’d be fine with a good night’s rest. Katey and I spent a half-hour making our 83-year-old Nana laugh as best she could … feeling a little weak. Six decades before she had trained to be a nurse at that same hospital, which has now been converted into condos.

Nana died later that night; it was in the wee hours of March 5, 1982. Had luck not interposed a fate-changing elbow to my beak, Katey and I probably wouldn’t have had that last visit with her. Which means I have to say the palooka who elbowed me in that basketball game did me a favor. Perhaps in more ways than one.

In order to keep playing in the Biograph’s games in that season, I needed to protect my nose while it healed. So, I got one of those protective aluminum nose-guards I’d seen players wear. It was a primitive version of the clear plastic masks in use today.

As a kid, I saw NBA great Jerry West wearing such a broken-nose-protector when he was playing his college ball at West Virginia. It impressed the 12-year-old version of me to no end; I marveled at how tough and focused West was.

Wearing what was to me a Jerry West mask, I played the rest of the CBA season -- maybe five more games. Now I believe that period was about the best basketball I ever played. Not wanting another whack to the nose made me a little more careful.

The team didn’t lose another game that year; the Biograph Naturals won the league’s championship. It has taken the passing of time for me to realize that in testing my nerve, in a fashion after the way West tested his, I had been living out a dream.

It seems some lucky breaks can only be detected in the rear-view mirror.

-- 30 --

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Napoleon in Manhattan

Abel Gance and Kevin Brownlow in 1967
A chat about old cinemas with a master projection booth technician I met last year brought to mind a special movie-watching experience of mine. Later, I laughed to myself about the related eye-pain memory it had dusted off.

The conversation was with Chapin Cutler. He told me he had worked in the booth at the old Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge in his youth. In my early days as manager at the Biograph I had a few telephone conversations with that famous movie theater’s manager (I don‘t recall his name). Occasionally I talked with my counterparts at repertory cinemas/art houses in other cities about shipping prints back and forth, etc. The Orson Welles was known as a trend-setter.

Cutler also said he was working in the booth at Radio City Music Hall when I saw Abel Gance‘s “Napoleon” on October 24, 1981. He had supervised the installation of the synchronized three-projector system it took to present Gance’s restored 1927 masterpiece in a fashion that was faithful to what Gance had called “polyvision,” which entailed split screen images and other effects, including some color.

The restoration of the film was a great story, itself. It had been a 20-year project supervised by film historian Kevin Brownlow. Then the film, which had been released over the years at various lengths -- with versions that ran over five hours and some than ran under two -- was edited into to a four-hour version by Francis Ford Coppola, whose company, American Zoetrope, released it.

Just as the French filmmaker had originally envisioned, a live orchestra accompanied the silent film. It played a new score that had been written by Carmine Coppola, father of Francis Ford Coppola. The power the music added to the overall experience would be difficult to overstate.

Throughout the 1920s Abel Gance had been seen as a great innovator, even a genius. Then came the mammoth production, “Napoleon,” and its abysmal failure at the box office. It cost a theater a lot of money to install all the equipment it took to present it properly, with three projectors working in unison. So its first run didn’t go well. Talkies soon came along and silent films, no matter how avant-garde, were shelved.

Although he kept working on film-making projects, Gance sometimes spiraled into dark periods of despair. There was a point when he was said to have burned some of the footage from his original cut of “Napoleon.” Who knows what its true running time ought to be? I’ve read accounts that suggest Gance wanted it to run nine hours. And, he wanted to make sequels.

Eventually, Gance became somewhat obsessed with re-editing “Napoleon,” perpetually trying to transform some version of it into an important film that could be watched and appreciated by a wide audience. Some observers must have seen him as a washed up crackpot and anything but a good risk.

To get to Manhattan I drove to DeeCee and took the train to New York. During the Metroliner trip from Union Station to Penn Station I read several Charles Bukowski stories from a paperback edition of “Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness.” It had been purchased at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco eight months earlier that year, but I hadn‘t read much of it since the airplane trip home.

Reading several of Bukowski’s tight, briefly-told tales back-to-back on a fast-moving train really knocked me out. The feeling I had about the story called “The Most Beautiful Woman in Town,” is still easy to conjure up. To top it off, the whole trip was part of a business project -- I was traveling on other people’s money!

My Biograph bosses in Georgetown wanted me to assess the commercial potential for “Napoleon” for smaller markets in the mid-Atlantic region, because they were considering a bold move to become a sub-distributor of the film.

Then, bad luck flung a cinder into my eye during my walk to the theater. When the movie started I couldn’t watch it because I couldn’t get the damn thing out of my eye. It felt like a sharp-edged boulder. Since my mission was to WATCH the movie I had to do something, fast, so I went out to the lobby.

Corny as it sounds I asked the first Radio City Music Hall employee I encountered if there was a doctor in the house.

The answer was, “Yes.”

Hey this was Manhattan. Of course there was a doctor on duty to take care of medical emergencies and yes, to flush blinding cinders out of the patrons’ eyes; although the cinder had packed quite a punch, the thing actually weighed less than a pound.

The movie was spectacular. It was overwhelming. I returned to Richmond more than a little enthusiastic about the possibility of being associated with screening the movie at the Mosque in Richmond and in other large theaters in the region.

Unfortunately, the notion of playing Gance’s greatest film in cities all over the country, accompanied by live orchestras, withered and died. When it went into general release the sound was put on the film in a conventional way. Cinemascope was used to show the triptych effect.

So the deal my bosses had in mind never materialized. Still, the new four-hour version of “Napoleon” did run at the Biograph in February of 1983, to mark the theater’s 11th anniversary. It was still impressive, but not at all what it had been like at my first viewing. At least I got to see the part I had missed before.

Abel Gance died at the age of 92. He had lived long enough to see his reputation as a great filmmaker totally rehabilitated. His death came just three weeks after I saw “Napoleon.” Once again, critics were calling him a genius. Which, to me, represents a happy ending to this meandering story.   

This story is part of a series of stories at Biograph Times
All rights are reserved. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Warren Has Drawn a Line

Sen. Elizabeth Warren is not only a bona fide liberal and a star on the rise, she’s been playing her cards extremely well lately. She’s picked the cause she was born to champion. She’s picked the right time to draw a line on an issue that voters are likely to remember. 

On top of that Warren has been smart enough to bat away all attempts to make her current outspokenness about a particular issue instead about running for president in 2016. This is hardly the best time for Warren to begin striking the limiting pose of a presidential hopeful. (She doesn’t need to.) This way, right now, she owns the Wall Street issue. For Warren to suddenly pivot into a fundraiser mode would be a huge mistake. The line Warren has drawn is clear -- which side are you on?

If Warren eventually does become a candidate for the Democratic nomination, it should happen within the right context. She would be best served by being a late entry, drafted by a nationwide movement. Some aspects of that movement should probably be independent of the Democratic Party.

In other words -- portable. It would be fueled by a burgeoning liberal populism -- get-tough-with-Wall Street and anti-war -- and frustration with the so-called “inevitability” of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. The movement would depend more on social media than establishment media.

Maybe something like that will play out next year. Who knows when Clinton will make her announcement? Maybe other candidates will emerge that will change the dynamics. Next summer we'll have seen what the Republican majority in both houses of Congress will have wrought.

But for right now, with the Senate poised to vote, I’m delighted to see Warren focused on an issue in a way that has the potential to make proper regulation of Wall Street a populist cause modern Democrats will embrace more enthusiastically.

Update (8 p.m.): Warren on the floor of the Senate: "Enough is enough!" 

-- Image from Facebook

Thursday, December 04, 2014

The Head-on-a-Pole Solution

OK, poisoning a schizophrenic in Texas, by way of lethal injection, might satisfy that particular state’s need to deal out old world punishment to the apparently guilty. And, executing a black marketeer in New York, by way of a chokehold, might prompt resisters of arrest to consider being more submissive. Still, as temporarily useful, or perhaps even entertaining, as those executions by the authorities might appear to be, no big problems are addressed in a way that offers any solutions.

However, if I could show you how to solve some of the most daunting problems we face today -- without costing the taxpayers a cent! -- wouldn't you be interested in hearing about it?

Of course you would. My plan would call for just one public execution a year. Its purpose would be to cure diseases, educate the poor, prevent wars, while erasing America's red ink problem. To do all that just one person would be put to death by the federal government each year. Although I'm ordinarily opposed to capital punishment, here's how it would work:

First we would make a list of all the American billionaires. Their names would then be put on a ballot. The ballots and ballot boxes would be put in convenience stores all over the country. The same ballots would be available online, as would virtual ballot boxes. Each citizen, 18 or older, would get to vote for the billionaire they see as the absolute worst super wealthy citizen in the USA.

All year long, we'd all be eligible to vote once a month. The billionaire who gets the most votes for being the most hated billionaire of the lot would be arrested by a SWAT team and executed by guillotine on last second of Dec. 31st.

Naturally, America's cities would bid to stage the execution, like the Olympics, with the money going into the Social Security trust fund. The execution and the mammoth party that would surround it would be carried live on television. Big budget commercials would bring in more dough.

Afterward, the billionaire's head will be put on a tall pole for all to see, where it would stay for one year. Then, for the next new year the new head would go up. Out of respect for the dead, the old head would be turned over to the billionaire's family after its year on a pole is over.

Meanwhile, the rest of the billionaires everywhere would take note, no doubt. They would have a couple of choices to prevent their own head from being selected to be the next to sit atop the people's pole:
  • Turn enough money over to the federal government to escape the list of billionaires. That money could go to public education and building a fast train national railway system.
  • If they want to remain a billionaire, then they need to use their money to do good works and curry favor with voters, especially those who hang around convenience stores or tend to stay online all day.
So, if you are a billionaire, let’s say you’ve got a cool $50 billion, or so. Then you could choose to give away $49.1 billion to get off the hook. Or, you could take a chance on spending a few billion on curing cancer, or AIDS. Or, you could throw some large money at feeding orphans, or on bringing peace to the Mideast. Maybe you’d pick a particular line of work, say all the musicians or artists in a state, and pay their rent for one year.

Busy billionaires would naturally buy lots of ads in magazines and newspapers, to promote what good deeds they’re doing, in order to increase their chances of keeping their heads on their respective shoulders. So, this deal could save our favorite inky wretches from extinction, too.

Accordingly, crime rates would drop. The research for new green-friendly technologies would be fully funded. Better recreational drugs with no hangovers ought to be developed. Every kid who wants a new puppy would get one. And, publishers would have enough money to pay freelance writers a decent fee for their work.

Each year would end with an execution of just one richly deserving person. Each year would start out with a visible symbol atop that special pole, showing everyone why we should be good to one another.

Monday, December 01, 2014

A Tradition Rather Bereft of Honor

While children stretch their faculties to develop their mindsets toward generosity and the appreciation of fair play, it’s also a good idea to encourage them to develop self-control. Self-control greases the wheels of civility, especially when one’s reserves of generosity and honesty might be running low. It also helps to keep the peace, all around.

Likewise, self-control is a trait that helps grown-ups avoid trouble, sometimes. Peace is good.

Beyond self-control, self-regulation is another thing, altogether. Self-regulation is mostly an oxymoron. And, the entities that demand self-regulation the most -- banks, energy companies, police forces, maybe universities, too -- continue to flinch noticeably at every mention of increased scrutiny of their ways of operating.

Hey, I might want to believe chemical companies in pursuit of the almighty dollar aren’t dumping poison into the James River, but given Virginia's history in such matters, I need to know it. Who, other than diehard government-haters, doesn’t want regular testing of the people’s water?

Furthermore, the archaic notion that self-regulating colleges in Virginia ought not to have to report rapes to the police is about as wrongheaded as it gets. Unfortunately, it's a notion recently validated and supported by Virginia lawmakers. 
There, after studying the issue, [the General Assembly] decided not to require colleges to report deaths and rapes to the locality.
Click here to read, “U.Va. Rolling Stone Article Shines New Light on an Old Problem,” by Cheylen Davis.

Although I might like to believe that a code of conduct handed down from one generation to the next promotes a classic sense of honor that is a boon to society, I'm bewildered by U.Va.'s apparent sense of what constitutes "honor" in 2014.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Misogyny as Ideology

When liberals squawk disbelief of what conservatives say about politics that doesn’t surprise me much. The same goes for the other way around. Nothing new. Most of us know that some partisans think their opposites in the game don’t mind lying, when it comes to framing political issues. As a liberal, myself, I happen to think most liberals have a firmer grip on reality than most conservatives, but that’s not really the same thing as honesty or reliability.

As a longtime observer of matters political, I have considered the so-called “war on women” to be mostly a useful slogan to characterize a series of throwback positions taken by right-wingers that, when taken as a whole, could be seen as anti-female. But that view hardly pointed me toward expecting conservatives/Republicans would leap before looking to defend the frat tradition from charges of facilitating gang rape at the University of Virginia.

No, I wanted to believe conservative men love their daughters just as much as do liberal men.

If you’d have asked me a week ago whether this snowballing scandal would divide along ideological lines, knee-jerk-style, I think I would have said something like, not so much, because there will be plenty of conservatives worried about rampant "lawlessness" in Charlottesville. But I would not have said that men who vote Republican will be more likely to doubt women who say they’ve been raped.

Today, I’m absolutely sure of this -- suspending activities at UVa’s frat houses isn’t a matter of punishing the innocent for the crimes of a few. Not at all. It’s a matter of stopping the bleeding … literally. Moreover, when we’re talking about The University’s traditions, shielding gang rapists doesn’t exactly jibe with the concept of living up to an “honor code.”

Given what has come out in the last week, temporarily shutting down fraternity activities, while proper investigations determine which individuals and groups are guilty of what, makes a lot of sense. Not partisan sense. Real sense.

Bottom line: If a goodly number of conservative men in Virginia (and elsewhere) -- can it really be most? -- now feel that defending the archaic institution of college fraternities is more important than getting to the truth in this case, then the “war on women” has been validated as more than a slogan. And, the “war” is being escalated in a most telling way. It substitutes misogyny for ideology.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Behind Closed Doors

In a discussion with a group of friends yesterday, talk of the upcoming ‘Hoos at Hokies football game led to a guy mentioning the now famous Rolling Stone article about UVa, penned by Sabrina Rubin Erdely. As it turned out, I was the only guy in the group who had read the article, but that hardly stopped any of them from expressing disbelief about what they had heard. Although I had planned not to bring it up, I couldn't stay quiet on the topic.

One man laughed and said what others may have been thinking, "I don't need to read it."

After some discussion, it turned out much of their disbelief was based on simply not wanting to accept what they had heard. One guy surprised me by defending the fraternity system, itself, as a worthy part of the overall college experience.

Well, since I was a kid I've always thought the frat-house and sorority culture was weird. At 16, I couldn't grasp how it was cool to beg to be in a social group, to go through a groveling ordeal. Never did it, and I still can't understand why self-respecting people do. Likewise, for a good many years I’ve wondered why modern universities associate themselves with randy social clubs with Greek letters for names.

This morning I read a defense of the Greek scene in comments on Facebook. The defender cited his own membership in a fraternity in his college days, which he remembered fondly. He asserted that his frat brothers weren't rapists and I don't doubt him. 

However, defending the archaic world of college fraternities by saying the vast majority of fraternity members aren’t rapists doesn’t work for me. Not when that vast majority has apparently been helping to perpetuate a system designed to cover up serious crimes under the guise of tradition.

Hey, in the 1960s, I suppose most Ku Klux Klan members didn’t murder freedom riders. Most didn’t bomb churches to kill little girls. But like today’s party-hardy frats, the KKK of 50 years ago operated with the tacit blessing of the people in power. The KKK’s secrecy provided cover for a few people to commit terrible crimes. Expecting the Jim Crow era authorities to turn a blind eye on those crimes, that secret society's membership routinely did the same. Like today's frat boys, the members of the KKK didn’t denounce the sickos in their midst.

If we are to believe what we read in Rolling Stone, and elsewhere -- click here to read Dahlia Lithwick’s excellent analysis in SLATE -- it seems fraternity parties are providing opportunities for serial rapists to operate with cover, behind Rugby Road's closed doors. While most frat bros might cringe at the very thought of a gang rape, nonetheless, they seem to have been systematically averting their eyes from what they don't want to see. That’s a tradition that deserves no defense.

At the very least, sepia-toned memories should not stop folks who want to cast aspersions at the Rolling Stone article’s disturbing charges from taking the time to read it first.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

After 51 Years, It’s Time to Let Sunlight Change Our Ways

Camelot at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave lasted 1,036 days. For the children in school on Nov. 22, 1963, the murder of President John F. Kennedy was stunning in a way nothing has been since.

On Nov. 24, 1963 a live national television audience witnessed the murder of the assassination’s prime suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald. There was no doubt that Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub operator, was the triggerman. What made him do it is still being questioned.

Shortly after JFK’s death, columnist Mary McGrory expressed her dark feelings to Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “We’ll never laugh again.”

Moynihan, who was an Assistant Secretary of Labor then, famously replied, “Heavens, Mary, we’ll laugh again. It’s just that we’ll never be young again.”

The cynicism the cloaked-in-secrecy aftermath of the JFK assassination spawned has tinted everything baby boomers have seen since that November. However, I’m not at all convinced there had to have been a complicated conspiracy to kill the president and cover up the tracks. After he was dead, just because some people deliberately obscured related information, we don't necessarily know why the did it. In some cases it was probably people trying to cover asses, hither and yon, for a myriad of reasons. On the other hand, I’m not saying there was no conspiracy that led up to the murder of President Kennedy.

For this piece I’m skipping past the argument over whether Oswald acted alone. Not going to speculate about whether Oswald was a dupe, or one of the greatest marksman who ever lived. The point to this screed is that the secrecy that rushed in to obscure what happened in November of 1963 poisoned the American culture in a way that we need to recognize, so we can learn from it today.

Tomorrow we need to do something about it.

The President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, known as the Warren Commission, published its report on Sept. 24, 1964: Oswald was found to have been a lone wolf assassin. Which immediately unleashed the questioning of the Commission’s findings. Was its famous “single bullet theory,” which had one projectile traveling circuitously through two victims, great sleuthing? Or was it an unbelievable reach?


In 1965 gunmen murdered Malcolm X in an auditorium in Manhattan. Three years later Martin Luther King was killed on a motel balcony in Memphis by a sniper. Two months after that assassination, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down in a Los Angeles hotel.

Unfortunately, the official stories on those three shootings were widely disbelieved, too. In the ‘60s more public scrutiny of how those assassination probes were conducted might have led to different conclusions. Even if more sunlight into those probes failed to produce different outcomes, at least Americans might have felt better about the good faith of the processes.

Instead, it seemed then the authorities generally believed the citizenry didn't really have a right to see the whole truth, and nothing-but-the-truth. Too often it seems to have been decided that the public was better off not knowing some things, as if we were all children. Of course, such secrecy can hide everyday malfeasance, as well.

Shielding the citizenry from such information is the sort of thinking that went with world wars, with spies lucking about. Therefore the public had come to expect its government to routinely withhold all sorts of secrets. It took the rudest of revelations to snap us out of blithely tolerating an over-abundance of secrecy:
  • The My Lai Massacre horrors.
  • The publishing of the Pentagon Papers.
  • The Watergate Scandal hearings.
  • The Iran-Contra Scandal hearings.
  • The bogus justification for invading Iraq. 
As those events paraded by, America steadily morphed into a nation of cynics. Now, those of us who recognize the damage that's been done by official lies know we were wrong to ever have accepted such skullduggery in the name of keeping America safe.

Today, to trust official conclusions, we need to see into the investigations. That means more public hearings. Now for democracy to have a chance of working properly, we need to know whose money is behind this or that politician. We, the people, can’t allow the fundraising and sausage-making to continue to be done in the dark.

Moreover, in 2014, we, the people, have no privacy. Our governments and plenty of large corporations already know all they want to know about us. They monitor our moves as a matter of course. To level the playing field we need more scrutiny of their moves.


In 1997 Sen. Moynihan’s book, “Secrecy: The American Experience,” was published. In the opening chapter he wrote:
In the United States, secrecy is an institution of the administrative state that developed during the great conflicts of the twentieth century. It is distinctive primarily in that it is all but unexamined. There is a formidable literature on regulation of the public mode, virtually none on secrecy. Rather, there is a considerable literature, but it is mostly secret. Indeed, the modes of secrecy remain for the most part -- well, secret.
On inquiry there are regularities: patterns that fit well enough with what we have learned about other forms of regulation. But there has been so little inquiry that the actors involved seem hardly to know the set roles they play. Most important, they seem never to know the damage they can do. This is something more than inconveniencing to the citizen. At times, in the name of national security, secrecy has put that very security in harm's way.
In the C-SPAN video here Sen. Moynihan and a panel discuss the book in 1998. 

Sunlight should be THE political issue for 2015. Fifty-one years after the murder that we baby boomers can still feel in our guts, it’s high time to stop tolerating unnecessary secrecy in government at all levels.

To bring it home, we Richmonders should start with calling for an end to secret deals cooked up behind closed doors at City Hall. Mayor Dwight Jones has used secrecy shamefully to mislead and abuse his tax-paying constituents. I can tell you from experience that getting information out of Jones top aides, to write an accurate news story or OpEd, has been more than a little difficult at times. The Jones administration has a paranoia about it that's been there from the start.

Sunlight could discourage more of the same. Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote: 
"Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."
Single bullet theory, you say?

Great name for a band.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Is Jones the dumbest mayor Richmond has ever had?

Just got an email from Mayor Dwight Jones. But it wasn’t about the City of Richmond. The email was about supporting Democrats on election day. If you're on the same list of likely Democratic-leaning voters, some of you may have gotten the same missive. While I don’t necessarily mind being reminded of such matters by the Chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, I don‘t see how it properly has anything to do with Jones being the mayor of Richmond.

Here’s the text of the email:

Election Day is almost here. Do you have everything you need in order to vote?
Your 2014 Election Day Checklist: 
  • A valid photo ID
  • Know where to vote
  • A list of Democrats to support
  • A contribution to the Democratic Party of Virginia
So, are you missing anything?

I AM MISSING A FEW THINGS – Then click here right now to fix that.

I AM READY FOR TOMORROW – Share this link on your Facebook page to make sure your friends are ready, too.

When Democrats turn out, we win. Don’t let anything stand in between you and your vote!


Mayor Dwight Jones
Democratic Party of Virginia

PS We’re doing everything we can to turn out Democrats on Tuesday. Do your part and chip in $5, $10, $20 or whatever you can to help us buy last minutes supplies so we can keep at it until the polls are closed.
Unfortunately, I get fundraising emails regularly (every day!) from Democrats. When Vice President Joe Biden is the sender he signs it as being from “Joe.” Likewise, Sen. Mark Warner closes with “Mark,” when his office sends me that sort of a partisan message. That's how it's done. Warner knows the difference between acting as a senator representing all Virginians and acting as a well-known Democrat. 

Although it might seem picky to complain about this, I feel like it fits into a pattern of ineptitude. Jones doesn't seem to have any idea of where his powers and responsibilities as mayor start and stop. Remember his endorsement of the cheesy Loving RVA promotion that was obviously designed to buffalo members of City Council as part of a scheme to enrich certain favored real estate speculators?

At times Jones has seemed to have no sense of propriety, either. Remember when he stiff-armed the student demonstrators at City Hall six months ago? And, his ham-handed self-promotion has been annoying at times. Remember when he had his name put on signs posted at city-financed construction projects, as if he was personally responsible for the work?  

Now, in this case, he is acting simultaneously as Mayor Jones and Chairman Jones. An email with a partisan fundraising request should not appear on its face to be a message from a person acting as an elected official. I don’t know if it violates any laws, but one might think a person of ordinary intelligence who's been an elected official for 20 years would know better. Or, at least he should know enough to hire an adviser who knows better. I could go on, but instead I'll get to the point:

When you add up all the blunders and stupid things he's said, it makes Jones look rather unintelligent. All of which make me wonder if Mayor Dwight Jones qualifies to be the all-time dumbest mayor Richmond has ever had. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Could Foreign Policy Unravel the Inevitability, Again?

Which Virginia senator is the more 
likely Veep candidate in 2016?
My photo (2004)

In 2016, although Virginia will not have a senatorial or gubernatorial contest making headlines, once again it will probably be considered a battleground state in the race for the White House. With no Republicans holding statewide offices it’s hard to say who will emerge as the leader of their effort to put the commonwealth back in the red column. Still, as far as headlines to do with the next presidential election go, it will be the maneuverings of prominent Virginia Democrats that will bear watching the most.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe is a longtime Clinton confidant and can be expected to be playing a high profile role in the campaign of the Democrats’ most likely nominee, Hillary Clinton. My guess is the announcement about her intentions will come in early 2015. Sen. Tim Kaine couldn’t wait, so he’s already endorsed Clinton.

As a former governor, Kaine will probably be high up on Clinton’s possible Veep list, which will keep his name in the news. Sen. Mark Warner, another former governor, will also be on that list.

However, Kaine’s predecessor in the Senate, Jim Webb, may turn out to be the Democrat who will play the most interesting role in this story, at least in the early going. Webb has been appearing on news talk shows promoting the possibility that he might seek the nomination, himself.

On Oct. 5, Webb appeared on Meet the Press to answer questions from Chuck Todd about war and peace, and -- of course -- whether he will challenge Clinton for the nomination. In responding, Webb pointed out that the USA hasn’t really had a clear foreign policy for the last 20 years. Regarding the conflicts of the Arab Spring, Webb cited the lack of a clear articulation of the mission as a factor in mistakes that were made in Libya, when Clinton was Secretary of State. 

Regarding Iraq and Syria, Webb said, “We now have a situation where we're asking these freedom fighters, or whatever you want to call them, who were going after Assad, to help us go after ISIS ... And the elements that are fighting there are very fluid in terms of the people who declare their alliances. I would be willing to bet that we had people at the top of ISIS who actually have been trained by Americans at some point.” 

When asked about running for president, Webb kept his cards close to his vest. For the time being, he appears happy to provoke questions about his aspirations, without feeling obliged to answer them. It's safe to say he wants to force the early discussion within the Democratic Party to include the possibility of a peace candidate. Webb decried America’s Cold War-footing of maintaining military bases in too many places. 

Too much of that sort of talk could a problem for Clinton. Her 2002 vote as a senator, supporting then-President George W. Bush’s plan to invade Iraq, came back to haunt her in 2008. It opened the door for President Barack Obama to wrest the nomination from her.

Then, by serving as Obama’s Secretary of State for four years, it put her in harm‘s way to take the fall for any foreign policy mishaps on her watch. That played out most obviously with the howling aftermath of the 2012 raid in Benghazi. In weighing what she should and shouldn’t say about the current troubles in Iraq and Syria, in particular, Clinton is in a bind. She wants to own as little of what’s most scary in that region as possible. She wants to project a muscularity about her approach to the region that plays as right of Obama. But she doesn’t want to remind voters of her 2002 vote that authorized war in Iraq.

Moreover, I suspect some Democrats who are imagining other candidates are also watching to see how the polling goes in reaction to Webb's points about how and how not to use America's armed forces. With the shape of foreign policy as a front burner issue in 2016, one of the possible alternative candidates could be Massachusetts' Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Yet another might be our own Sen. Warner.

Is Hillary Clinton’s "inevitability" starting to unravel again? Is the first pulling of the thread happening here in Virginia?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Campaign Inkbites: The 1994 Senate Race

In the summer of 1994 O.J. Simpson-related material was on television round-the-clock. Meanwhile, a four-way race political race developed in Virginia, as three candidates emerged to challenge the incumbent Chuck Robb for his seat in the U.S. Senate.

Republican Ollie North was nominated by a convention at the Richmond Coliseum. Former governor Doug Wilder, a Democrat, threw his hat in as an Independent. Finally, Marshall Coleman, a Republican former attorney general and failed gubernatorial candidate, ran as an Independent, too.

Naturally, both Wilder and Coleman were seen immediately as spoilers by many observers. The few members of the national press that weren't assigned to the story of Simpson's soon-to-begin trial were all over the circus-like story of the quartet of candidates in Virginia. Although Robb was the incumbent, North was easily the biggest celebrity in the group. Wilder might have argued that point.

In late August, I issued what was then my fourth set of collectible cards -- “Campaign Inkbites: The ‘94 VA Senate Race.”

After swearing he was in the race 'til the finish, the mercurial Wilder withdrew in October. The wooden Coleman stayed the course, with stubborn Sen. John Warner as his chief backer. North, ever the checkered-shirted dandy, raised and spent over $25 million; what was then a new record for the most ever in a U.S. Senate race ... any state. In the end the awkward Robb outlasted them all and won reelection.

Beneath the 1994 newspaper article about that card collection are scans of 12 of the 15 original cards from the set. With 20 years of dust on the cards, some of my attempts at humor may not work so well now, hopefully the caricatures are still fun to look at. As I produced these cards, it was an interesting challenge to try to write lines for the dialogue balloons that would hold up for a month or two, no matter what the developments.

Right out of the gate, this edition was lucky with publicity, the article reprinted below started it:
Sept. 6, 1994: David Poole and Dwayne Yancey (Virginian-Pilot)
Odds and ends from the past week of Virginia's U.S. Senate campaign: I'll swap you two Doug Wilders for a Tai Collins. The colorful U.S. Senate race has spawned a set of trading cards featuring the four candidates and a host of supporting characters - including the former Miss Virginia who gave a nude massage to Chuck Robb in a New York hotel.

There’s U.S. Sen. John Warner sounding defensive about his hand-picked candidate, Marshall Coleman: “Why should I strain to name an office he hasn't sought, or an abortion stance he hasn't taken? The point is: Marshall isn't Ollie.”

There’s conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh assessing the race: “The choice in Virginia is simple. You’ve got a stained, lap-dog liberal, a bleached and petulant liberal, a fair-weather conservative, and a genuine, world-class hero.”

There’s political pundit Larry Sabato reporting on the latest poll results: “Fifty-one percent said the race is so embarrassing they plan to leave the state.”
The “Campaign Inkbites” are the brainchild of F.T. Rea, a Richmond artist who a decade ago issued a similar deck of cards commemorating a massive death-row escape at Mecklenberg Correctional Center [by the notorious Briley brothers and four others]. The set of 15 Senate cards is available at Biff’s bookstore [also at Chickens, the snack bar in the State Capitol] in Richmond for $12 a pack.

The most unflattering likeness in the set is that of Sabato, whose green skin gives him the look of a vampire.

“Ironically, he’s my best customer,” Rea said of Sabato. “He bought 12
Then an AP story written by Martha Slud ran. Lots of newspapers (1, 2, 3) picked it up and printed various versions of it. Some ran the whole piece, as shown below, others edited it down. Click on the cards or the article to enlarge them.
Then came a five-minute report on the card set by Bob Woodruff that appeared on CNN. Previously, Woodruff had done a report on earlier card project of mine. As it happened, I just happened to run into him and he asked what I was up to. All that led to political memorabilia collectors from far and wide buying the cards through the mail.

All of this led to STYLE Weekly asking me to do a cover and a five-page spread of cartoons on the same campaign (Oct. 18, 1994).

It was a wild ride.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Hillary Clinton vs. the Howlers

When President Barrack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize five years ago lots of people howled. Most of them were Republicans.

Democrats mostly smiled. At that point, it hadn't become clear that as the Tea Party's influence on the GOP grew it would have most Republicans howling reflexively, like Pavlov’s dogs, at every single move Obama would make. 

It may not be making much news now, but the anti-war wing of the Democratic Party is coalescing. Obama campaigned in 2008 as a peace candidate; he promised to bring the troops home. And, although he has pulled a lot of American military personnel out of Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama’s continued willingness to bomb installations and people in the Middle East troubles plenty of peace-loving Democrats. Consequently, almost six years in, the murkiness of Obama’s foreign policy has now been criticized roundly by conservatives, liberals and whatever else you‘ve got.

Many Democrats who applauded Obama’s prize-winning five years have been disappointed by his failure to deliver on his promise to close the prison at Gitmo, and horrified by his administration's use of drones. In 2014 the anti-war wing of the Democratic Party is coalescing.

Obama campaigned in 2008 as a peace candidate; he promised to bring the troops home. And, although he has pulled a lot of American military personnel out of Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama’s continued willingness to bomb installations and people in the Middle East has not set well with plenty of peace-loving Democrats. So, almost six years in, Obama’s foreign policy has been criticized roundly by conservatives, liberals and whatever else you‘ve got. Its murkiness troubles some people who continue to support the president.

As much as the beheading videos have put pressure on Obama to lash out at ISIS, they may be more of a problem for Hillary Clinton. Her 2002 vote as a senator, supporting then-President George W. Bush’s plan to invade Iraq, came back to haunt her in 2008. It opened the door for Obama to wrest the nomination from her. By serving as Obama’s Secretary of State for four years, it put her in harm‘s way to take the fall for any foreign policy mishaps on her watch. That played out most obviously with the aftermath of the 2012 raid in Benghazi. More howling.

With the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (1922-91) in the rear-view mirror for over 20 years, America still has military bases all over the world. As part of her presidential campaign, is Hillary Clinton going to map out how Uncle Sam  is going to move away from being the world's policeman. One day, she might win a Nobel Peace Prize if she does take the risk to say that, and then follows through on it.

Or, to try to get elected, will Clinton choose to follow suit and rattle the saber with more inside-the-beltway doubletalk about fighting a never-ending war on terror? If she does, the challenges will come from the right and the left.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Unplugged: Waking Up the Day After

Note: I wrote the piece that follows for a special post-Isabel collection of stories for STYLE Weekly in 2003. My photo.

On the Friday morning after Hurricane Isabel blew through town (Sept. 19, 2003), the sky was blue and the air smelled clean. The residents of the Fan District, at the heart of Richmond, Va., woke from an uneasy sleep. Day One of the unplugged life was underway.

Before the worst of the storm passed, about midnight, Isabel tossed huge trees around like a handful of pickup sticks. Power lines snapped. Cars were crushed. Roofs caved in and basements flooded. As the shocking devastation dealt out by the previous night’s onslaught of wind and rain was revealed to the stunned urbanites in the Fan, so too did the reality of widespread electricity deprivation.

Still, faced with all sorts of uncertainty and disconnected from the doings in the rest of the world, many wandering the streets like zombies on that morning faced the immediate problem that there was no hot coffee to be had.

For hundreds of his neighbors, Manny Mendez, owner of Kuba Kuba, took care of the coffee shortage on that surreal morning. Boiling water on the restaurant’s gas stove and pouring it over sacks (improvised coffee filters) in a big colander, Mendez and his staff doled out tasty Cuban coffee to anyone who stopped by.

While opportunists in other parts of town were marking up prices on candles, batteries, ice, generators and anything else for which the supply was short and the demand was great, Kuba Kuba was pouring strong coffee for one and all at no charge — free!

“What are we going to do [under these circumstances], charge people for coffee?” Mendez asked rhetorically with a shrug.

When word got around that Kuba Kuba — at Park Avenue and Lombardy Street — had hot coffee, the crowd on the sidewalk outside the small restaurant swelled. Into the afternoon the size of the gathering fluctuated between 20 and 40 people at a time. Many neighbors met for the first time. By the time the coffee-making effort shut down in mid-afternoon, 100 gallons of free coffee had been served in paper cups.

By then several of Manny’s tables were on the sidewalk, with chairs arranged around them. Out came the boxes of dominoes.

The marathon dominoes scene continued for hours under the lights of a borrowed generator. Players sat in for a while, then sat out. Neighbors appeared with what they had in the way of libation. They swapped stories and the laughter from what had become an impromptu party drove off the demons that lurked in the eerie darkness, only 50 yards away.

Dominoes shark Manny Mendez was all of sx years old when he boarded an airplane with a one-way ticket to a totally uncertain future in the United States. In 1968, for people such as the Mendez family, getting out of Cuba was worth the risk of fleeing into the unknown.

The day little Manny left Cuba, his father was thought to be in Spain, as he had been deported. His mother was crestfallen when told that there were no flights going to Spain on the day her family was offered its chance to flee what Cuba had become. Recently released from 13 months of confinement at an agricultural labor colony, she opted to board the Red Cross-sponsored Freedom Flight for wherever it was going.

On Aug. 2, 1968, that airplane took Judith Mendez and her two children, Manny and his sister, Judy, away from Cuba. It landed in Florida. Upon touching down, Judith Mendez called her relatives, who lived in Richmond, to tell them the good news.

To her surprise she was told her husband, Manuel, was already in Richmond.

After a spell in an apartment building at Harrison Street and Park Avenue, the Mendez family moved to the 3400 block of Cutshaw Avenue, where several other Cuban families had settled. There was one car, a ’56 Chevy owned by his uncle, for the whole group to share.

Manny’s father had been an accountant in Cuba; in Richmond his first job title was “janitor.” As time passed, Manuel Mendez improved his situation and became a leader of the growing Cuban community in Richmond by making regular trips to Washington, D.C., to buy the essentials for Latin cooking and other imported goods unavailable in Richmond.

“Papi, how often did we used to lose power in Cuba?” Manny asked of his father during one of the dominoes games.

In his distinctive accent, with the timing of a polished raconteur, Manny’s father rolled the “r” as he said, “Oh, about two or three times … a night!”

Those gathered laughed, having instantly gained a wider perspective of coping with bad luck. Manny’s mother and the Cuban employees of Kuba Kuba laughed the loudest. Then, too, that may account for why Kuba Kuba routinely carries candles for sale along with other sundries.

The dominoes party broke up about 1:30 a.m. Most of the crowd returned to homes without power — with strange noises in the anxious quiet — no televisions, no Internet, and refrigerators full of risky food. No doubt, some of those dominoes players that unusual night carried away a new appreciation for people who can handle hardship with grace. Some may have even gained a new sense of how it must be in places where millions do without power, in one way or another, most of the time.

-- 30 --

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

And, I Don't Mean Donuts

To make the scam work, Mayor Jones has promised a slavery museum will be adjacent to the new baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom and a massive shopping center will appear on the Boulevard. Not to mention -- new jobs galore. Now he’s throwing in a children’s hospital.

To be against Hizzoner’s plan for a Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium has been/is being seen by supporters of the mayor’s plan as tantamount to opposing all those goodies and more. Like, who wants to sick kids go untreated? So far, Jones hasn't announced whether unlimited free donuts will be available at Shockoe Stadium. Nor has he publicly said who he might support in 2016 as his replacement at the mayor's desk.

Some of Jones' backers seem to be able to squint and see him as Gov. Terry McAuliffe's replacement, next time around ... especially, if he can make the scam work and further enrich the right people.

Truth be told, it has never mattered to the mayor's supporters whether the voters wanted to back his Shockoe Stadium scheme.

From those on the mayor’s bandwagon we've heard the chuckles, "So what?"

To those aboard the bandwagon, it has never mattered what the many citizens who have wanted to protect Shockoe Bottom from such a wrongheaded development have said, either.

Their whispers have been audible, "What can they do?"

Nor has it ever seemed to matter what most baseball fans preferred, either.

We've read the comments boosters for Shockoe Stadium have written under related articles, "Like, who cares what a bunch of rubes, mostly from the suburbs, want?"

One gets the idea that those on the bandwagon think they can simply mint a bunch of new fans, to replace those who will refuse to go to Shockoe Stadium. For the last year, all that has really mattered in the mayor's camp has been lining up the needed votes on City Council, to facilitate ramming it all down our throats ... and, I don't mean donuts.

Convincing one or two members of City Council to sell out is what the LovingRVA campaign was all about. It sought to create an air of inevitability. And, when you look back over the last year's stream of double-talk from City Hall, flipping a Council member or two is precisely what all the arm-twisting and plan-revising over Jones' so-called “revitalization” proposal has been about.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Chuck Wrenn: Rock 'n' Roll Impresario

FiftyPlus, October 2002
By F.T. Rea

Detail from a postcard-style invitation to Chuck Wrenn’s
40th birthday party on the James River. My art (1985). 
Note: This magazine feature was written 12 years ago by yours truly.

Twenty-two years ago, when it was generally accepted that large-scale outdoor rock ‘n’ roll events couldn’t be staged in Richmond, Chuck Wrenn put three fully-amplified bands, including the impeccably authentic Memphis Rockabilly Band, on a flatbed trailer in the cobblestone alley behind his back yard. It was the fourth edition of High on the Hog, Church Hill’s live music and pork-worshiping festival.

The 1980 event featured a serendipitous, career-defining moment for Wrenn. It began raining. Rather than lose momentum by shutting off the electricity and waiting out the downpour, host/emcee Wrenn broke out rolls of heavy-gauge transparent plastic. Soon, with the help of many happy hands, he had improvised a canopy to protect the stage and cover part of the yard. In effect, he wrapped the whole shebang.

Yes, the show went on. With electric guitars wailing in defiance of the chilly rainstorm, the sense of common purpose felt by one and all was remarkable. And, Richmond’s best-known bartender and most indomitable impresario was emerging as the arbiter of what was valid to a generation of Richmond’s musicians and nightlife aficionados.
To this day, when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll, Chuck Wrenn remains Richmond’s kahuna.


Charles E. “Chuck” Wrenn began his love affair with show business in 1964 at the Cary Street Coffeehouse, with its open microphone for folksingers and the like. Then a senior at Hermitage High School, Chuck eventually slid into playing with an amalgam of enthusiasts known as the North Pine Street Jug Band.

Pat Jagoda, organizer of a couple of reunions of the coffee-house gang, was also in high school (Douglas Freeman) when she discovered the small folkie scene emerging in what is now Carytown. Today, Jagoda books talent for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' fabulously successful live music series called Jumpin’, a concept that Chuck helped set in motion in the ‘80s by booking the bands for its first three years.

“Chuck has remained true to those very first experiences and brought an amazing group of people into the musical circle for audiences to experience,” Jagoda says. “What has become even stronger since those early years is his passion for music.”

Next, as a fine-art student at Richmond Professional Institute (RPI was the predecessor to Virginia Commonwealth University), Chuck became fascinated with the shifting breeze of popular culture coming from San Francisco, particularly the seminal psychedelic shows at the Fillmore Auditorium. On August 4, 1967, to present their own version of a Happening with music and lights, he and two friends rented Tantilla Gardens on West Broad Street.

The band, put together for the occasion by Ron Courtney, was called Actual Mushroom. The light show was essentially Chuck and fellow art student Eric Bowman using an overhead projector with various props. Chuck’s underground-comix-style art on the handbill touted the promised spectacle as the “first psychedelic dance in Virginia.”

“We sold out, but we lost money,” recalls Chuck. “Yep, been losing money ever since.”

Chuck worked construction jobs and served 3.2 beer in student dives on Grace Street to make money during college. Then, in a Fan District garage, he started a business assembling custom-made stretched canvases called the Square Deal Stretcher Shop.


After VCU, Chuck and his wife, Myra, lived on Cape Cod for about a year. He took work as a maintenance man at a seaside national park while she learned to be a bartender, a trade difficult to pick up in Richmond. The concept of serving cocktails, or what had been coined “liquor by the drink,” was still new to Virginia. People had been accustomed to doing their away-from-home drinking in exclusive clubs, neighborhood beer joints, and shot houses (unlicensed bars on the wrong side of the tracks).

When he re-turned to Richmond in 1972, Chuck signed on to become one of the original staff members of the Biograph Theatre, located a block from the VCU campus. Having been chairman of the student film society at VCU, the role of assistant manger at the town’s new repertory cinema fit like a glove. Chuck’s promotional savvy contributed much to the establishment of the midnight show as a staple for the plucky Biograph over its 15-year run (1972-87).

Myra took a bartending job at Poor Richard’s, the city’s first downtown watering hole that had a Georgetown air about it. In the fall of 1973 Wrenn left the movie business to become his wife’s trainee, hoping to learn what he saw as a useful skill in changing times.

Today, Chuck’s first wife and bartending instructor, Myra Daleng, is director of dance in the University of Richmond's Department of Theatre and Dance.

A year later Chuck became head bartender at J. W. Rayle, where he eventually began booking local rock ‘n’ roll bands, hoping to attract customers. It worked. Wood-paneled, with lots of stained glass, Rayle (located at Pine and Cary Streets, on the site of what is now a VCU dormitory), was a huge hit. But it came and went like a comet (1974-77).

In 1978 Chuck began renovating a 100-year-old house on East Franklin Street, which connected him to a new part of town and a lively set of baby-boomer neighbors, who the year before had staged a small neighborhood party they dubbed High on the Hog. Chuck’s band, Faded Rose, graced the second edition, also attended by a small contingent of neighbors and friends.

Chuck’s self-styled role with High on the Hog -- booking bands, serving as emcee, and fronting his own group (later the Megatonz) -- was essential to building what became a mammoth annual party. Anticipating the seventh edition of High on the Hog in 1983, it became clear to its planners that the party had outgrown its location in the alley. But the event had become so popular that it was time to go legit. So with the City’s blessing, it moved across the street to Libby Hill Park.

After nearly a decade of frowning on mixing amplified rock ‘n’ roll with fresh air and beer, Richmond’s official stance had changed. Thus the door was opened for Jumpin‘, Friday Cheers, and the other mainstream music events that are now commonplace in Richmond.

Among the many acts to have appeared on High on the Hog’s stage in the public park, three notables are Billy Price and the Keystone Rhythm Band (1983 and ‘85), NRBQ (1987), and Marcia Ball (2001). On October 12, 2002, High on the Hog No. 26 will feature Julie Johnson and NRG Krysis, plus others. Admission, as always, is free.


In 1982 Chuck began a 14-year partnership with friend Barry Gottlieb. In character as Rockin' Daddy (Wrenn) and Mad Dog (Gottlieb), they wisecracked and gave out the scoop on entertainment essentials to 2,500 callers per week, via recordings on a bank of telephone answering machines. The enterprise was known as the Rockline.

“We normally did it [the three-times-a-week tapings] in the morning,” says Gottlieb, now a San Francisco-based writer. “Remember, he usually closed whatever bar he was working at, so he came in after only a few hours sleep. We were efficient, goofy, had fun, rarely if ever did a retake.”

In the mid-‘80s Chuck began putting shows together (in various locations) for Duck Baker, a chum from his Cary Street Coffeehouse days and today a world-class jazz guitarist. Because Baker (still not a rich celebrity) was living in San Francisco or various parts of Europe, those gigs helped to pay for his trips home.

Similarly, while working at Bird in Hand, a Shockoe Bottom restaurant/club in the late-‘80s, Chuck began presenting reunion shows of the Good Humor Band near Christmastime. During the late-‘70s and early-‘80s, that Richmond-based group was one of the most popular touring rock bands on the East Coast. In 1983 they disbanded, and most of the musicians relocated to Nashville.

“I moved from Richmond nearly twenty years ago,” says Mike McAdam, the band’s lead guitarist and founder. “Whenever I visit, I always see my Mom, and I always go have a beer with Wrenn. It confirms the fact that Richmond is still my home. Come to think of it, my Mom and Chuck are nearly the same age. Jeez, I hope they didn’t date in high school, or anything.”


In 1992 Chuck became a partner in a new Shockoe Bottom venture called the Moondance Saloon. Due to the stresses of the nightclub business, the original partnership soon fell apart. He took a beating, money-wise, but new partners appeared, Chuck shrugged off his losses, and the show went on.

Manny Mendez, one of the new partners, ran the Moondance kitchen until he left to open his own restaurant, Kuba Kuba, located in the Fan District. Of working next to Chuck for years, Mendez says, “He made it fun! You’re having more fun than the people you’re serving. He never has anything mean to say.”

However, even Chuck’s determination and expertise couldn’t reverse a trend that had the Bottom evolving into a loud, randy, and youth-oriented milieu that intimidated many of the graying music lovers who had made up a significant part of his crowd.

On top of that, the two-headed monster of red tape, the City’s and the Commonwealth’s (ABC Board), persistently hobbled his gritty efforts to keep what was the favorite stage of area musicians from going dark. When the Moondance closed in 1999, Chuck was lucky to get out with his shirt.

Fortunately, at the same time Michael Britt, owner of Poe’s Pub, was looking for a bartender with a following. Since then Chuck has worked at Poe's, located at the foot of Libby Hill Park, doing basically the same thing he’s done for more than twenty-five years: pouring drinks and booking bands. Now he can walk home from work.

Ever the optimist, Chuck took his third trip down the aisle on April 1, 2002. And, for the first time he has become a father. Chuck's wife, Hollie, gave birth to their daughter, Eliza Marie Wrenn, on May 9.

“Chuck has taken like a duck to water to fatherhood” says Hollie, who received an art history degree from VCU in 1995. “He keeps her when I need a break, or go to work. He probably changes more diapers than I do.”

Hollie worked as a waitress at the Moondance and upon Mendez’s departure ran the kitchen. She says Eliza has already been to several live music shows. “Eliza, like most babies, I think, loves music,” says Hollie. “She listens to everything I do, from the Ramones to Mozart. She gets very excited and kicks her legs and moves herself all around.”

Chuck’s reaction to midlife fatherhood? He answers, perceptively: “Rather than changing my life, it’s been a wonderful addition.”


How does a silver-haired, bushy-eyebrowed 57-year-old who got his show biz start in a jug band keep up with the latest? Must he follow Britney Spears’ latest warblings, or which titles are climbing the hip-hop charts?

No, he doesn’t. “I book and promote what I understand, what I like,” he says with a smile. And so it continues. The region’s veteran musicians, whether they play rhythm and blues, bluegrass, or an esoteric genre of rock ‘n’ roll, can hardly remember a time when they didn’t rely on gigs that Chuck provided, in one way or another. Craig Evans and Billy Ray Hatley are two of them.

“I don’t know a musician around who has a bad word about him,” says Evans, who plays with The Taters, “which is quite a testimonial for someone in his position.”

“Without Chuck there are a lot of people and bands that would not have gotten their first gig,” adds Hatley, of Billy Ray Hatley & the Showdogs.

Mike McAdam, who has recorded and toured with a number of nationally renown acts says, “He has single-handedly kept true rock ‘n’ roll alive in Richmond.”

When Chuck started putting bands on stage at J. W. Rayles in the mid-'70s, there was no rock ‘n’ roll scene in Richmond, only garage bands playing at private parties. Good musicians left town. In the years since, no one has done more to change that than Chuck Wrenn.

But for his efforts, it’s unlikely he’ll ever get the key to the city.

Chuck shrugs off his triumphs and defeats by snapping off a telling quip about his near legendary career managing Richmond’s night life: “Every night was Saturday night, every morning was Monday.”

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Time-Warping, Again

On March 1, 1980, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” broke the record 
of “The Sound of Music” for the longest-running movie in Richmond. 
This photo of Larry Rohr riding through the auditorium that night was 
shot by Ernie Brooks.
In 1975 “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” produced by Lou Adler, was released by 20th Century Fox. Adapted from the British gender-bending stage musical, “The Rocky Horror Show,” the movie died at the box office. The critics didn’t particularly like it, either.

The odd-ball story of the movie’s second life — as the cult midnight show king of all-time — began at the Waverly Theater in Manhattan, when during the spring of 1977 audience members began calling out sarcastic comeback lines at the screen. It became a game to make up new and better lines.

Later that same year the unprecedented interaction between audience and screen jumped to other cities, where “Rocky Horror” was also playing as a midnight show — chiefly, Austin and Los Angeles. Cheap props and campy costumes mimicking those in the film appeared.

So, by the spring of 1978 “Rocky Horror” was playing to wildly enthusiastic crowds in a few midnight show bookings. Yet, curiously, it had not done well at others. At this point, what would eventually become an unprecedented pop phenomenon was still flying below the radar for most of America.

A trip to LA in May of that year boosted my interest in the film. As manager of the Biograph, I was fascinated with the potential of “Rocky Horror,” as were my bosses at the Biograph in Georgetown. Their former partner, David Levy, had already booked it for The Key, to lock up the DeeCee market.

Our inquiry hit a roadblock. With all of the existing prints of the movie already in use, the brass at Fox felt unwilling to risk money on striking any more prints to cater to a weird fad that might fizzle any time; there was no enthusiasm for the picture’s prospects in Richmond.

In those days Richmond was generally seen by most distributors as a weak market — not a place to waste resources. Besides, no one at Fox seemed to understand why the audience participation following for the picture had started, or what was making it catch on in some places, but not in others.

Over the telephone, I was told we would have to wait for a print to become available; there was no telling how long that would be.

So, sensing the moment might pass us by, we got creative. The Biograph offered to front the cost of a new print to be made, which would stand as an advance against film rental (35 percent of the box office take). For that consideration we wanted a guarantee from the distributor that we would have the exclusive rights to exhibit “Rocky Horror” in the Richmond market, as long we held onto that same print and paid Fox the film rental due.

Fox went for the deal. Based on the quirky success of the movie in the cities where it was playing well, I decided to use a concept that had worked with other cult films at the Biograph — let the audience “discover” the movie. Don’t over-promote it and draw the sort of general audience that might include too many people who could leave the theater bad-mouthing it.

Instead, the strategy called for attracting the taste-makers, the ones who must see everything on opening night, to see it first. Their endorsement would spread the good word. Accordingly, I produced radio spots using 20-some seconds of the “Time Warp” cut on the soundtrack to run on WGOE-AM. The only ad copy came at the very end. The listener heard my voice say, “Get in the act … midnight at the Biograph.”

There was no explanation of what the music was, or what the ad was even about. We put out a handbill with a pencil drawing of Riff Raff — a character in the movie — against a black background, with the distinctive dripping blood title in red. The “Get in the Act” theme was repeated. The hook was that none of it gave the listener/reader as much information as he expected. Still, it was more than enough to alert the fanatics who had already been going to DeeCee or New York to see it.

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” opened June 30, 1978 and drew an enthusiastic crowd, but it was far short of a sell-out. Some of those who attended called out wisecrack lines, to respond to the movie’s dialogue. Most did not. A handful of people dressed in costumes drawn from characters in the movie.

In the next few weeks a devoted following for the rock ‘n’ roll send-up of science fiction and horror flicks snowballed. At the center of that following was a regular troupe who became the costumed singers and dancers that turned each midnight screening into a performance art adventure.

John Porter, a VCU theater major, emerged as the leader of that group; they called themselves The Floorshow. Dressed in his Frankenfurter get-up, Porter missed few, if any, midnight screenings at the Biograph for the next couple of years.

There were a lot of crazy things that happened in the years of babysitting “Rocky Horror.“ Among them was the Saturday night we threw out the entire full house, because so many people had gone wild; bare-chested rednecks were hosing the crowd down with our fire extinguishers. Fights were underway when we shut down the projector and the movie slowly ground to a halt. Everybody got their money back.

Interestingly, after that melodramatic stunt, we never had much trouble with violence to do with “Rocky Horror” again.

However, there was no stranger night than when about six weeks into the run, a man in his 30s breathed his last, as he sat in the small auditorium watching “F.I.S.T.” Yes, that Sylvester Stallone vehicle was particularly lame, but who knew it was potentially lethal?

The dead man’s face was expressionless … he just expired.

When the rescue squad guys got there they jerked him out of his chair and onto the floor. As jolts of electricity were shot through the dead man’s body, down in Theater No. 1 “Rocky Horror“ was on the Biograph’s larger screen delighting a packed house.

The audience had no idea of what was going on elsewhere in the building. A couple of times, I walked back and forth between the two scenes, feeling the bizarre juxtaposition.

Learning just how much to allow the performers to do, what limits were practical or necessary, came with experience. Porter’s leadership of the regulars was a key to keeping it fun, but not out of control. For his part John was given a lifetime pass to the Biograph.

On Friday, March 1, 1980, with its 88th consecutive week, “Rocky Horror” established a new record for longevity in Richmond. It broke the record of 87 weeks, established by “The Sound of Music” at the Willow Lawn in the 1960s.

That night Porter and I were both dressed in tuxedos. In front of the full house he held up a “Sound of Music” soundtrack album. I smashed it with a hammer, which went over quite well with the folks on hand. A couple of the regulars came dressed as Julie Andrews, in a nice touch to underline the special night‘s theme.

The late Carole Kass, the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s sweetheart of a entertainment writer/movie critic, wrote up a nice feature on what was basically hokum. 

That same night Larry Rohr, as seen in the photo above, rode his motorcycle through the auditorium’s aisles at the point in the story when Meatloaf’s character in the film, Eddie, rides his motorcycle. 

Rohr’s careful but noisy rides happened only on a few special occasions, like the record breaking night. Nothing bad ever happened. One time, after we had just barely dodged the fire marshal, to get Larry in position at the proper time — which underlined the what-ifs of what we were doing — I had a dream that the Biograph exploded. The nightmare scared me so much about the danger of the stunt that the motorcycle rides were discontinued.

Afterwards, one of the Floorshow members occasionally rode a tricycle through. Now, of course, it seems crazy as hell that I ever facilitated such shenanigans. In context, well over three decades ago, it was just another part of living out the theater’s slogan/motto — Have a Good Time.

While “Rocky Horror” had an underground cachet in the first year or so of its run, its status eventually changed in the staff’s eyes. Rice, toast and all sorts of other stuff that got tossed around — never at the screen! — had to be cleaned up each and every time by the grumbling janitors, who grew to detest the movie. To keep the peace they got “Rocky Horror” bonuses — a few extra bucks for their weekend shifts.

Once into the third year of the Friday and Saturday midnight screenings the demand began to wither. By then much of the audience seemed to be tourists from the suburbs … any city’s suburbs. The Fan District’s fast crowd in the punk rock scene mostly ignored it. The shows didn’t usually sell out, anymore, but they continued to do enough business to justify holding onto that original print.

No doubt, some number of lifelong friendships stem from the nights the kids were dancing to the Time Warp in the aisles at the Biograph; the five-year run of “Rocky Horror” ended on June 25, 1983.


Note: This story is part of a collection of stories called "Biograph Times."