Thursday, January 30, 2014

They’re going to have to prove we were communicating.

McDonnell: For us to have been in cahoots they’re going to have to prove we were communicating. Do you know MY wife?
-- by F.T. Rea

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Goosing the Squawkers

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union performance last night was smooth.

Not that I think it was a great speech, soaring rhetoric, etc. It was just enough of this, and of that. He touched all the bases. He seemed pleasantly confident, rather than confrontational. Still, with his phrasing, he seemed to be having fun making the Republicans have to stand up to applaud for things they didn’t want to ... but they had to.

And, it seems to me Obama deliberately gave the rightwing extremists enough fresh material to keep them squawking well into the time for March Madness and the spring thaw.

In my view that was high on his list of goals with that annual ceremonial address to Congress. What I saw unveiled last night was a confident strategy to provoke the most ambitious and vociferous of Republican squawkers.

Q: Other than it might be fun, why would the usually cautious president want to provoke them?

A: The White House has figured out that the whole Tea Party era has stopped accumulating momentum. It's bogging down. It’s fizzling out.

Pick you metaphor, culture-wise, the crazy rightwingers have had their day. It all peaked at some number -- I'd guess maybe 28-to-30 percent of the voters. It’s on its way back to being the hardcore 15-to-20 percent thing it used to be. Now the angry take-the-country-back phenomenon's popularity is getting smaller in the rear-view mirror.

That's one of the most important takeaways from the Democratic sweep in Virginia.

While what I’m asserting may not be clear to most people yet, I think it will be sooner than you might imagine. In politics, things can change fast.

Anyway, happy to blow off the chance I could be wrong, what I took away from Obama’s speech was that the White House is going to pursue a provocative course that is bound to goose the squawkers. Rather than waste any more time trying to find common or middle ground with them, Obama is going to do things to provoke them into coming after him with their rhetoric -- mean-spirited blather that sounds stale.

Some will call for shutting down the government, again. Some will call for sabotaging the economy by playing debt ceiling games, again. Some will call for Obama’s impeachment, again. All of which will seem warmed-over, at best. Something new?

Maybe legal action over his executive orders?

So I'm suggesting Obama and his advisors have decided to help the fizzling process along by goosing the squawkers. Which should make more young voters, female voters and minority voters see the Tea Party/Fox News mindset in an increasingly more unfavorable light. When it seemed fresh, five years ago, that was one thing. Now it comes off as just more empty hype.

Not a solution.

Just squawk.  

Of course, in politics, when you can do the right thing, make your opponents act like fools, and help your party win elections in November, well, that’s a slam-dunk. Why wouldn’t you do it? Not bad for a guy who's usually a jump-shooter.

Perfect strategy for the coming March Madness season.

Like Obama, it’s smooth. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

McAuliffe stiff-arms Marshall

When it comes to Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s decision to walk away from defending the commonwealth’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, it's easy enough to understand why Republicans are squawking.

Squawk is part of their brand.

What’s hard to understand is why so many modern Republicans seem happy to jump on every sputtering bandwagon that comes along to squeeze whatever they can out of a moment. But it comes at the expense of soon looking bad … soon, and for a long time.

Democrats should encourage Republicans to squawk away.

And, by turning down State Sen. Bob Marshall’s request to appoint a special council to defend the amendment Gov. Terry McAuliffe is showing his savvy grasp of the moment. No doubt, he heard some advice to oblige Marshall, who was the biggest pusher of the 2006 charter change. It would look more bipartisan, it would entail little risk, so why not?

Instead, the savvy new governor politely still-armed Marshall. After all, this amendment never should have been there, in the first place. In 2006 it was a tactical gimmick. It was put on the ballot chiefly to goose conservative turnout in the election; now it seems poised to be put to sleep.

Ironically, the supposed chief beneficiary of the GOP's election-year strategy, George Allen, was too busy putting his own career as a senator to sleep. 

Once again, Republicans posing for a group picture of themselves making their case for being throwbacks to the bad old days. They seem blithely unaware that the caption under the photo is going to read:
They were among the politicians in 2014 who, like their flinty forebears in the '60s, stood defiantly on the wrong side of history.
In the not so distant future, Bob Marshall and his ilk are going to be seen by young voters as looking like villains in old news photos. Pictures in the same souvenir box with photos of Bull Connor and Strom Thurmond, padlocked public schools, open fire hoses, snarling police dogs, burned out churches and clippings of Richmond News Leader editorials.

Young voters, liberal or conservative on other issues, just aren’t going to be willing to support politicians devoted to resisting change on this front.

And, Byrd Machine-reenactor Bob Marshall doesn’t give a hoot about them.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The John Warner Endorsement

Former-Sen. John Warner has crossed the partisan aisle to endorse the man who filled his shoes in the US Senate, Mark Warner. 


Here’s a SLANTblog piece from Sept. 1, 2007, that I wrote when John Warner announced he would not seek reelection: 

John Warner: good-natured, unflappable and unbeatable
Yesterday, Virginia’s Senator John Warner ended speculation over whether he plans to campaign in 2008 to hold onto his seat in the U.S. Senate. Standing before the Rotunda at the University of Virginia, Warner announced that he will not seek a sixth term, choosing instead to retire on Jan. 6, 2009.

At 80 years old, surely Warner deserves a less hectic schedule. Among his comments, the white-haired veteran of World War II (Navy) and the Korean War (Marines) said, “How fortunate, how blessed I have been.”

Well, he’s not the only one.

The citizens of Virginia have been fortunate to have had Sen. John Warner representing their interests since 1979. Although Warner has been a moderate-to-conservative Republican, both in his expressed views and with his voting record, he has not let GOP political hacks push him into violating his own standards to play team ball.

Thus, at times Warner moved decisively to scuttle the campaigns of Republicans he saw as unworthy of his fellow Virginians’ support. Following his leadership, the voters rejected an extremist, Mike Farris (1993), and an opportunist, Oliver North (1994). Thus, owing much to Warner's efforts, Virginians were spared from being represented in high office by a rather mean-spirited religious crackpot, on the one part, and a traitorous smirking wiseass, on the other.

Of course, since those days some on the GOP fringe have hammered Warner as a RINO (Republican in name only). Yes, that crowd has tried more than once to unseat him. That, while Warner has remained good natured, unflappable and unbeatable.

And, in spite of how many times I have disagreed with Warner’s positions on other matters -- including his past support of Bush’s policy in Iraq -- still, I must say thank you, Senator. Thanks for the thoughtful, measured way you have carried yourself over the last 28 years in office.

Alas, it seems Sen. Warner is one of the last of a dying breed doing the people’s business inside the beltway -- a courteous representative of the people who actually does his own thinking. The list of those who want his job brings to mind that Warner’s successor will be hard pressed to live up to the standard he has set.

-- Art by F.T. Rea

Thursday, January 23, 2014

How many Virginia teams are going to the Big Dance?

Speculation about college basketball is fun for hoops junkies in July. It’s mandatory in January. Which inevitably leads to guessing the number of Virginia schools that will go to the NCAA postseason tournament by way of an invitation. Speculating about who might win conference tournaments is too much of a reach.

Conference affiliations?

There are four schools in the Big South. Three are in the Atlantic 10. Two are in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Colonial Athletic Association and Mid-Eastern. One plays in Conference USA.

If the selection committee had to make its choices today, only two programs would probably get bids to the field of 68 based on their records. A third team would be on the bubble. That, with 14 D-I programs in the commonwealth.

As of today Virginia has the best RPI, according to CBS Sports. The Cavaliers (14-5, 5-1 in ACC) are sitting at No. 22. Next is VCU (15-4, 3-1 in A-10) at No. 37. After pulling out of brief slumps both have played well recently. 

Richmond (13-6, 3-1 in A-10) is the team on the bubble at No. 52. The Spiders still could shoulder their way in with some good road wins.

All the way down at No. 178, the next on the RPI list is Wm. & Mary (10-7, 2-2 in CAA). With 351 D-I programs that means the Tribe stands in the lower half of them.

While ODU (9-9, 3-0 in Conf. USA) is currently leading its league, at No. 180, to put dancing shoes on in March the Monarchs will need to win their conference tournament.

After this the picture only gets more dismal. There’s really no point in bringing any other teams into this discussion. But as we all know, a late-blooming team can upset the field in March and qualify by winning its conference's tournament. That's why they play the games.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Why support the Binding Referendum Project?

After 10 years of squabbling over one revamped stadium plan and another a referendum in November could solve this nettlesome problem for good.

Last summer City Council voted 6-3 against holding an “advisory” referendum on election day. The other way to get a referendum on the ballot bypasses City Council. Rather than a mere show of voter sentiment the result would be “binding.” Among other things, that path involves getting many petitions signed by voters registered in Richmond.

That path also scares politicians of all stripes.

The first exploratory meeting to discuss developing this strategy was held in December. Another will be announced soon on Facebook and elsewhere. The effort to put together an ad hoc group to do the necessary legwork is being called the Binding Referendum Project. It is hoped this effort will lead to giving Richmond’s voters a chance to finally weigh in on this issue.

There is a list of reasons for wanting to prevent the building of a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. Regardless of why one is against it, if the issue gets on the ballot those opposing such a stadium will win. And, yes, Mayor Jones knows that.

Go to Referendum? Bring It On! for more info.

Recollections in High Contrast

Snow brings back memories. When we see the way snow makes the world around us resemble a high contrast black and white photograph, we can't help but connect to when we saw that distinctive look before. It's a look we don't see every year in Richmond, Virginia.

We remember when a happy puppy first encountered snow. We remember snowball fights and the raised-glass revelry in crowded Fan District bars. We remember particular people we associate with yesteryear's snowy landscapes.

In the winter of 1958-59 I had just turned 11. Buster was probably six or seven months old when he saw his first snow. He was a white mutt, supposedly he had some Spitz in him. Watching him rooting in the snow, barking at it, rolling in it, was hilarious. He seemed to absolutely love the smell and feel of snow.

Maybe the best snowball shot I ever made was in the early '80s on West Grace Street. Rebby Sharp and I were across the street from the Biograph Theatre, ducked down behind some parked cars. It was after dark but I can't say how late it was. There was a snowfall underway and it was sticking. Rebby and I were battling some friends, who were in front of Don's Hot Nuts, next door to the cinema, which I managed in those days.

Rebby and her band, the Orthotonics, used to practice sometimes in the theater's large auditorium during off hours. Some of Rebby's fans might not have known it, but she wasn't a bad athlete; she pitched for the Biograph's women's softball team had a decent throwing arm.

When some snowballs thumped off of Donald Cooper's peculiar bright green candy business storefront, he came out on his porch to tell the snowball fighters to scram. As everyone associated with the Biograph knew Cooper to be an utter pest and the worst neighbor in the world, there was no need for a plan.

Rebby threw first. My throw left with dispatch a split second later. Both were superbly well put shots. When Cooper extended his hand to block Rebby's incoming snowball it shattered to shower him. Then my throw hit him square in the face ... ba-da-bing!

Cooper abruptly quit his stance and retired for the night.

The best rides in the snow I can remember were at Libby Hill Park. In the late-'70s and early-'80s I spent a lot of time up there. Used to play Frisbee-golf in that park quite a bit. And, there were a few heavy snows in that same period, which drew thrill-riders to what was then called the Slide of Death.

We rode inflated inner tubes from the top of a series of hills in the sloped park down to Main Street below. When the snow was right those tubes went airborne at least a couple of times; the fast ride was quite exhilarating.

There was a particular time that stands out. Dennison Macdonald, who died in 1984, had hosed down the first hill, so it would freeze in the frigid air and make the track as slick and quick as greased lightning.

Eventually, the run to the bottom got so fast you had to be drunk to take the risk of riding, which wasn't a problem for those of us standing around a fire-barrel passing a bottle of Bushmills around between wild rides.

Chuck Wrenn still lives across the street from the launching point of the old Slide of Death. After a snowfall last year he and I laughed about that night. We recalled the sight of Duck Baker pretending he was going to ride a shaggy dog down the chute. Duck had us laughing so hard, it's still funny some 35 years later.

Of course, you had to be there ... in the snow ... drinking Bushmills.

-- 30 --

-- Words and photo by F.T. Rea

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Most Benign Buzz

Looks like the momentum for legalizing pot is picking up steam. Wait until the studies come out that say the most talented young people are moving to weed-friendly states. That will goose change along even more.

Smart Republicans could leap ahead of the story and make it their progressive issue. They would finally be doing something to accept the inevitable and not appear to be in the way of progress.

Savvy Republicans could frame the marijuana-reform issue as one about personal freedom. They could also tout its tax-revenue-producing potential, so maybe other taxes could go down. They might even say out loud that it would be smart for government to make the most benign drugs more accessible, in a legal sense, than the most dangerous drugs. But they won’t do it.

In a party that only looks backward, today's Republicans don't seem to have the luxury of straying from the party line, to focus on the future.

So Democrats will be left to get the marijuana-reform thing done slowly, state-by-state, over the next decade. And, some poor fool will be the last guy to go to jail for weed possession. 

In 1966 at boot camp (Great Lakes, IL): Robitussin (obtained from sick bay) mixed with a 7 Up was the preferred cocktail. Don’t remember drinking it but I can’t say I didn‘t. In the Navy I heard guys say they had caught a buzz from drinking something they extracted from shoe polish. Never known anybody who admitted to drinking hair tonic, but I’ve come upon the telltale evidence of it in an apartment house hallway.

No doubt, some people will do almost anything to escape their haunts, or at least round off the edges of what hurts the most. Then there are the legal but potentially lethal mood medicines people buy at pharmacies and liquor stores.

So, regardless of their legal status, what do you want from your medicinal substance?

Maybe pot isn’t your cup of tea, but when it comes to real harm-to-society and honest-risk-to-the-user, from what I’ve seen there’s no more benign buzz available than a righteous marijuana high.

This isn't something that needs presidential leadership. Every state should have marijuana legalization bills before their legislatures in 2014. Virginia?

This change is long overdue. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Can the Rams Adjust?

VCU Rams fans may not like it, but "HAVOC" isn't scaring good teams like it might have in previous seasons. Rather than merely facing their opponents on the floor each game, the Rams (13-4, 1-1 in A-10) are battling expectations.

What’s wrong? Don’t the Rams still have Shaka Smart, the most talked about young head coach in college basketball?

Yes they do. Smart even lives in the Fan District.

Doesn’t VCU still have the Peppas, best pep band in the land?

Yes, and they’re as good as ever.

Aren't the local wags still saying this year’s ten or eleven guys who get regular playing time are the best, athleticism-wise, ever to put on VCU uniforms?

I’m still hearing that unprovable claim at happy hour.

Unfortunately, none of those factors mean the current basketball team will ever jell into a cohesive unit. Every season has its own chemistry, or lack thereof. So storm clouds are beginning to gather around the Siegel Center on West Broad Street.

Before a single game had been played VCU was sitting at No. 14 in the AP Poll. Likewise, in the preseason the Rams were named as most likely to succeed in the Atlantic 10. Because living up to lofty preseason rankings can’t be as easy as wearing the underdog label, this could be Shaka Smart's most challenging season as a head coach.

In Smart’s four previous seasons on the bench he has taken VCU to unprecedented accomplishments. Now we’ll see how good he is at fixing problems, in the short-term and for down the road. Smart’s HAVOC concept worked like a charm when his players saw themselves as underrated. With supposedly better talent can HAVOC still deliver when his players fear they are overrated?

Can carrying a catchy trademark slogan over, from one year to the next, wear it out? 

After 17 games this year's squad has looked good at times but eye-popping highlight reel material doesn't necessarily win games. And, sometimes young and gifted athletes, who are too sure for their own good they're going to the NBA, can be harder to coach in the moment.

Here's what VCU doesn't have this year: The half-court defense and senior leadership of Darius Theus; the three-point threat and senior leadership of Troy Daniels. Their contributions to last year's 27-9 record were more important than some boosters may have understood when looking at this year's potential.  

Yes, beating bad teams may be easier than ever now. But with 14 regular season tilts to go, some of the problems that have been exposed aren't easily fixed. There are some brutal road-game assignments coming up. So don’t be surprised if VCU struggles to win just seven or eight on its remaining slate.

The Rams schedule is as follows:

Jan. 18 (home): Duquesne (8-7)
Jan. 22 (away): Dayton (13-4)
Jan. 25 (away): La Salle (10-6)
Jan. 29 (home): Fordham (7-9)
Feb. 1 (home): Richmond (11-6)
Feb. 6 (home): Rhode Island (9-9)
Feb. 8 (away): St Joe’s (11-5)
Feb. 12 (home): Geo. Wash. (14-3) rematch!
Feb. 15 (away): Saint Louis (16-2)
Feb. 21 (away): UMass (15-1)
Feb. 27 (away): Fordham
Mar. 1 (home): Saint Louis
Mar. 6 (away): Richmond
Mar. 8 (home): St. Bonaventure (11-6)

Say they win eight. A 21-10 record would probably have them on the periphery of the bubble-talk. They would likely need one or maybe two wins in Brooklyn to be in the running for an at-large invitation.

For the Rams, getting into the Big Dance this time may be more about selfless role-playing and togetherness. Against good teams it may be less about relying on the frenzied play of last year's trademark slogan. In the next seven weeks, plus, we'll see how this story turns out. That’s why they play the games.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Devils & the Details

Note: The photo of the Biograph Theatre was snapped by a Richmond Newspapers photographer a few days before the building received its distinctive bright yellow paint-job. It was about a month before its February of 1972 opening. 


On a pretty day in July of 1971 I went to a construction site on the north side of the 800 block of West Grace Street. It was mostly a big hole in the orange ground between two old brick houses. A friend had tipped me off that she’d heard the owners of the movie theater set to rise from that hole were looking for a manager who could write about movies. Most importantly, she said they wanted to hire a promotion-savvy local guy.

Chasing the sparkle of that opportunity I met David Levy at the construction site. He was the Harvard-trained attorney who managed the Biograph Theatre at 2819 M Street in Washington. D.C.

Levy was one of a group of five men who had opened Georgetown’s Biograph in what had previously been a car dealership in 1967. Although none of them had any experience in show biz, they were smart young movie lovers whose timing had been impeccable -- they caught a pop culture wave. The golden age of repertory cinema was waxing and they picked the right town. 

With their success in DeeCee a few years later they were looking to expand. In Richmond’s Fan District they thought they had discovered the perfect neighborhood for a second repertory-style cinema.

A pair of local players, energy magnate Morgan Massey and real estate deal-maker Graham “Squirrel” Pembroke, acquired the land. They agreed to build a cinderblock building just a stone’s throw from VCU’s academic campus for the Biograph partners to rent. The cinema's owners had decided to use the same longtime cinema-related name in Richmond as they had in Georgetown. If it was good enough for D.W. Griffith it was good enough for them a second time.

Some 10 weeks after my first meeting with Levy he offered me the manager’s position. I don’t remember how many competitors he said I beat out, but I can remember trying not to reveal just how thrilling the news was. At 23-years-old, I couldn’t imagine there was a better job to be had in the Fan District. At the time I was working for a radio station, so I had to keep it a secret for a while.

Levy and I got along well right away and we became friends who trusted one another. He and his partners were all about 10 years my senior.

Three years after Richmond Professional Institute and the Medical College of Virginia had merged to become Virginia Commonwealth University in 1968, there were few signs of the dramatic impact the university would eventually have on Richmond. Although film societies were thriving on campus in 1971, the school was offering little in the way of classes about movies or filmmaking. A few professors occasionally showed artsy short films in their classes.

Mostly, independent and foreign features didn’t come to Richmond. So, in 1971, the coming of the Biograph Theatre to Grace Street offered hope to optimistic film buffs that even in conservative Richmond the times were indeed a-changing.

My manager’s gig lasted until the summer of 1983. Grace Street’s Biograph Theatre closed four years later. A hundred miles to the north the Biograph on M Street closed in 1996. David Levy died in 2004.

In 2014 there’s a noodles eatery in same building that once housed the repertory cinema I managed for 139 months. Now it’s the oldest building on the block.


On the evening of Friday, February 11, 1972, the venture was launched with a gem of a party. In the lobby the dry champagne flowed steadily as the tuxedo-wearers and those outfitted in hippie garb happily mingled. A trendy art show was hanging on the walls. The local press was all over what was an important event for that bohemian commercial strip. The feature we presented to the invited guests was a delightful French war-mocking comedy — “King of Hearts” (1966); Genevieve Bujold was dazzling opposite the droll Alan Bates.

With splashy news stories about the party trumpeting our arrival the next night we opened for business with a double feature: “King of Hearts“ was paired with “A Thousand Clowns“ (1965). Every show sold out. 

The Biograph’s printed schedule, Program No. 1 was heavy on documentaries. It featured the work of Emile de Antonio and D.A. Pennebaker, among others. Also on that program, which had no particular theme, were several titles by popular European directors, including Michaelangelo Antonioni, Costa-Gavras, Federico Fellini, and Roman Polanski.

Like the first one, which offered mostly double features, each of the next few programs covered about six weeks.

Baby boomers who had grown up watching old movies on television had learned to worship important movie directors. Knowing film was cool; it could get you laid.

The fashion of the day elevated certain foreign movies, selected American classics, a few films from the underground scene, etc., to a level above most of their more accessible Hollywood counterparts. As I read everything I could find about what was popular, film-wise, in New York and San Francisco I learned the in-crowd viewed most of Hollywood’s then-current products as either laughingly naive or hopelessly corrupt.

Or both.

What my job would eventually teach me was how few people in Richmond actually saw it that way in 1972. After the opening flurry of interest in the new movie theater, with long lines to nearly every show, it was surprising to me when the crowds shrank dramatically in the months that followed.

As VCU students had been a substantial portion of the theater’s initial crowd the slump was chalked off to warm weather, exams and then summer vacation. In that context the first summer of operation was opened to experimentation aimed at drawing customers from beyond the immediate neighborhood.

That gave me an opportunity to do more with a project Levy had put me in charge of developing, using radio to promote it -- Friday and Saturday midnight shows.

By trial and error we learned it took an offbeat movie that lent itself to promotion. Early midnight show successes were “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), “Yellow Submarine” (1968), “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” (1971), and an underground twin bill of “Chafed Elbows” (1967) and “Scorpio Rising” (1964).

With significant input from the theater’s assistant manager, Chuck Wrenn, who was a natural promoter, off-the-wall ad campaigns were designed in-house. There were two essential elements to those promotions:

1. Wacky radio spots had to be created and run on WGOE, a popular AM station aimed directly at the hippie listening audience.

2. Distinctive handbills needed to be posted on utility poles, bulletin boards and in shop windows in high-traffic locations.

Dave DeWitt produced the radio commercials. In his studio, Dave and I frequently collaborated on the making of those spots over six packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Most of the time we went for levity, even cheap laughs. Dave was masterful at producing radio commercials; the best I‘ve ever met.

Now DeWitt lives in New Mexico and is known as the Pope of Peppers. He has written dozens of cookbooks and countless articles about food. 

On September 13, 1972, a George McGovern-for-president benefit was staged at the Biograph. Former Gov. Doug Wilder, then a state senator, spoke. We showed "Millhouse" (1971), a documentary that put President Richard Nixon in a bad light.

Yes, I had been warned that taking sides in politics was dead wrong for a show business entity in Richmond. Taking the liberal side only made it worse. But the two most active partners who were my bosses, Levy and Alan Rubin, who was a geologist turned artist, were delighted with the notion of doing the benefit. They were used to doing much the same up there. So with the full backing of the boys in DeeCee I never hesitated to reveal my left-leaning stances on anything political. 

Also in September “Performance” (1970), a somewhat overwrought but well-crafted musical melodrama -- starring Mick Jagger -- packed the house at midnight three weekends in a row. Then a campy, docu-drama called “Reefer Madness” (1936) sold out four consecutive weekends.

The midnight shows were going over like gangbusters. To follow “Reefer Madness” what was then a little-known X-rated comedy, “Deep Throat” (1972), was booked as a midnight show. While we had played a few films that were X-rated, this was our first step across the line to hardcore porn. 

As “Deep Throat” ran only an hour, master prankster Luis Buñuel’s surrealistic classic short film (16 minutes), “Un Chien Andalou” (1929), was added to the bill, just for grins. Although I can’t remember whose idea it was to play “Deep Throat” in the first place, it may have been mine. But I’m pretty sure it was Levy who wanted to add “Un Chien Andalou” to the bill.

It should be noted that like "Deep Throat," Buñuel’s first film, was also called totally obscene in its day. Still, this may have been the only time that particular pair of outlaw flicks ever shared a billing ... anywhere.

A few weeks after “Deep Throat” began playing in Richmond, a judge in Manhattan ruled it was obscene. Suddenly the national media became fascinated with it. The star of "Deep Throat," Linda Lovelace, appeared on network TV talk shows. Watching Johnny Carson pussyfoot around the premise of her celebrated “talent” made for some giggly moments.

Eventually, to be sure of getting in to see this midnight show, patrons began showing up as much as an hour before show time. Standing in line on the brick sidewalk for the spicy midnight show frequently turned into a party. There were nights the line resembled a tailgating scene at a pro football game. A determined band of Jesus Freaks took to standing across the street to issue bullhorn-amplified warnings of hellfire to the patrons waiting in the midnight show line that stretched west on Grace Street. It only added to the scene.

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

The midnight show’s grosses conveniently made up for the disappointing performance of an eight-week program of venerable European classics at regular hours. It included ten titles by the celebrated Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman. The same package of art house workhorses played extremely well up in Georgetown, underlining what was becoming a painfully underestimated contrast in the two markets.

Even more telling, over the early spring of 1973 a series of imported first-run movies crashed and burned. The centerpiece of the festival was the premiere of the Buñuel masterpiece, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972). In what Levy and I then regarded as a coup, gambling it would win the Best Foreign Film Academy Award, he booked it in advance to open in Richmond two or three days after the Oscars were to be handed out.

We had guessed right, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” took the Oscar, but it flopped in Richmond. The one-year-old cinema’s management team was more than bummed out.

We were stunned by the extent of our miscalculation.

Money had been put up in advance to secure a print, which was in demand because it was doing brisk business in most other cities. The failure of this particular booking and the festival that surrounded it finally forced a serious reassessment of what had been the original plan. The Georgetown Biograph couldn’t prop up its Richmond counterpart forever.

To stay alive Richmond’s Biograph needed to make adjustments in it’s booking philosophy. After much fretting on the phone line between M Street and Grace Street the Faustian deal was struck -- another film was booked that had been made by the director of “Deep Throat,” Gerard Damiano. Significantly, this time the picture's distributor imposed terms calling for “The Devil in Miss Jones” (1973) to play as a first-run picture at regular show times, every night, rather than as a midnight-only attraction.

At this point no one could have anticipated what we were setting in motion by agreeing to expand the availability of “adult movies” beyond the midnight hour. As we hadn't been promoting our midnight shows in the same way we did our regular fare, for the first time the title and promotional copy for a skin flick was included on a Biograph program.

Then an aggressive young TV newsman took Biograph Program No. 12 to Richmond's new Commonwealth’s Attorney, Aubrey Davis. The reporter asked Davis what his office was going to do about the Biograph’s brazen plan to run such a notorious film, especially in light of the then-freshly-minted Miller Decision on obscenity by the Supreme Court. (Miller basically allowed communities to set their own standards for obscenity.)

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

Once again I saw what publicity could do. Every show sold out and a wild ride began. Matinees were added the next day.

On the third day all the matinees sold out, too. By the fourth day the WRVA-AM traffic-copter was hovering over the Biograph in drive time, giving live updates on the length of the line waiting to get into the theater. The airborne announcer helpfully reminded his listeners of the upcoming show times.

Well, that did it!

The following morning a local circuit court judge asked for a personal look at what was clearly the talk of the town. Management cooperated with his honor’s wishes and the print was schlepped down to Neighborhood Theaters’ private screening room, at 9th and Main Streets, for the convenience of the judge.

As Judge James M. Lumpkin admittedly hadn’t been out to see a movie in a theater since sometime in the 1950s, this particular moving picture rubbed him in the worst way. Literally red-faced after the screening, the outraged judge looked at Levy and me like we were from Mars.

Maybe Pluto.

Lumpkin promptly filed a complaint with the Commonwealth’s Attorney and set a date for issuing a Temporary Restraining Order, to halt further showings as soon as possible.

The next day a press conference was staged in the Biograph’s lobby to make an announcement.

Every news-gathering outfit in town bought the premise and sent a representative. They acted as if what was obviously a publicity stunt was news because it served their purpose to play along. After DeWitt -- who was then representing the theater as its ad agent -- laid out the ground rules and introduced me to the working press, I read a prepared statement for the cameras and microphones. (No record of this performance is known to exist.)

The gist of it was that based on demand -- sellout crowds -- the crusading Biograph planned to fight the TRO in court. Furthermore, the first-run engagement of “The Devil in Miss Jones” would be extended -- it was being held over for a second week.

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

The TRO stuck, because Judge Lumpkin still had all the say-so. “The Devil in Miss Jones” grossed about $40,000 in the momentous nine-day run the injunction halted. Technically, the legal action was against the movie, itself, rather than anyone at the Biograph. Which obviously suited me just fine.

The trial opened on Halloween Day. Lumpkin served as the trial judge too. I was surprised that the person whose original complaint to the Commonwealth’s Attorney had set the whole process in motion could then hear the case. Objections to that affront to justice fell on Lumpkin’s deaf ears.

On November 13, 1973, Lumpkin put all on notice: If you dare to exhibit this “filth” to the public, then stand by for certain criminal prosecution. So it was that “The Devil” was banned by a judge in Richmond, Virginia.

The plot to answer the judge's decree was hatched in early January of 1974 in the office on the second story, next to the projection booth. Having finished the box-office paperwork, or whatever, I was browsing through a stack of newly acquired 16mm film catalogs.

As it was after-hours, the scent of recently-burned marijuana may have been in the air when a particular entry -- “The Devil and Miss Jones” -- jumped off the page. It was instantly obvious to me the title for that 1941 RKO light comedy had been the inspiration for the banned X-rated movie’s title -- “The Devil in Miss Jones.”

It should be noted that the public had yet to be subjected to the endless puns and referential lowbrowisms the skin-flick industry would eventually use for titles. This was still in what might be called the seminal days of the adult picture business. Culturally, because there was still a blur in the line between edgy underground films and outright porn the somewhat oxymoronic term "porno chic" was in currency. It didn't last long.

The prank's plan called for using the upcoming second anniversary as camouflage. Early on, DeWitt and the theater’s resourceful assistant manager, Bernie Hall, were in on the scheming/brainstorming in the office. Then, in a deft stroke -- suggested by Alan Rubin over the phone -- a Disney nature short subject, “Beaver Valley” (1950), was added to the birthday program, to flesh it out.

The stunt’s biggest problem was security. The whole scheme rested on the precarious notion that the one-word difference in the two titles, which spoke of the Devil's proximity to Miss Jones, simply wouldn’t be noticed. It was something like hiding in plain sight. We believed people would see what they wanted to see, but the staff fully understood the slightest whiff of a ruse would mean our undoing.

Thus, absolutely no one outside our group could be told anything. No one.

The Biograph announced in a press release on DeWitt’s ad agency letterhead that its upcoming second anniversary celebration would offer a free admission show. The titles, “The Devil and Miss Jones” and “Beaver Valley,” were listed with no accompanying film notes. Birthday cake would be free, too!

Somehow, a rumor began to circulate that the Biograph might be outmaneuvering the court’s decree by not charging admission. The helpful rumor found its way into print -- the street gossip section of The Richmond Mercury. I don't know if they knew what was really going on, or not.

The busier-than-ever staff fielded all inquires, in person or over the telephone, by politely reciting the official spiel, which amounted to: “We can tell you the titles and the show times. The admission will be free. No further details are available.”

The evening before the event the phones were ringing off the hook. Reporters were snooping about. One, in particular, stuck around trying to claw his way toward the key to the mystery. In the lobby, as I manned my familiar post at the turnstile, in a conspiratorial tone he said: “It has something to do with the title, doesn‘t it?”

Uh-oh! He was getting too close. To fend him off I decided to take a chance.

So, talking like one spy to another, I told the newsman that what was going to happen the next day would be a far better news story than a story of spoiling it the day before -- that is, if there really is a trick of a sort in the works.

Gambling that it would work, I asked him to leave it alone and trust that once it all unfolded he wouldn't regret it. Fortunately, he agreed to say nothing and he kept his word. His identity must remain a secret.

Up until the box office opened no one else outside our tight circle appeared to have an inkling of what was about to happen. Amazing as it may sound, the caper’s security was airtight. It was absolutely beautiful teamwork!


On the day of the event the staff decorated the lobby with streamers and balloons. We laid out the birthday cake. We tested the open keg of beer, just to make sure it was good enough for the patrons waiting in line to drink. Spurred on by hopes the Biograph was about to defy a court order, by lunch time the end of the line along Grace Street was already reaching Chelf's Drug Store -- which meant about 500 people.

It was suggested to me that we could eventually have a riot on our hands. What would happen if we lost control of the situation?

Nobody knew. That’s what made it so exhilarating!

My collaborators on the staff that one-of-a-kind night on the job were: Bernie Hall (assistant manager); Karen Dale, Anne Peet and Cherie Watson (cashiers); Tom Campagnoli and Trent Nicholas (ushers); Gary Fisher (projectionist). Some dressed up in costumes. Trent wore a Nixon mask. In case trouble broke out he wanted to be able to take it off and disappear into the lynch mob.  

The box-office for the 6:30 p.m. show opened at 6 p.m. By then the line of humanity stretched almost completely around the block. It took every bit of a half-hour to fill our 500-seat auditorium. We turned away at least six or seven times that number.

The sense of anticipation in the air was electric as the house lights in the auditorium began to fade. Outside, on the sidewalk, many of those who couldn't get in to the first show stayed in line for the second show at 9 p.m.

The prank unfolded in layers. Some caught on and left while “Beaver Valley” was running. Most stayed through the first few minutes of “The Devil in Miss Jones.” Only about a third of the crowd remained in their seats through both movies. Afterward, there were lots of folks who said it was the funniest prank that had ever happened in Richmond.

Of course, a few hardheads got peeved. But since admission had been free, as well as the beer and cake, well, there was only so much they could say.

Even though those in line for the second show were told about the hoax by people leaving the first show, the second show packed the house, too. By then it seemed a lot of people just wanted to be in on a unique event, to see what would happen and be able to (honestly) say they were there. 

The rush that came from living in the eye of that day’s storm of activity was intense, to say the least. After the second show emptied out, gloating over the utter success of the gag, as the staff and assorted friends finished off the second keg, was as good as it gets in the prank business.

Meanwhile, thoroughly amused reporters were filing their stories on what had happened at the Biograph. The next day wire services and broadcast networks picked up the story. We returned to business as usual with an Andy Warhol double feature.

A few days later NPR’s All Things Considered went so far as to compare the Biograph’s second anniversary prank to Orson Welles’ mammoth 1938 radio hoax. Which was fun to hear, but I had the good sense to tell the interviewer that in comparison our stunt was "strictly small potatoes."

Congratulatory mail came in from all over the country. Six months later the Biograph closed down for a month to be converted into a twin cinema. With two screens to fill the manager’s job became more complicated. As an independent exhibitor, prank or no prank, it wasn’t always easy to rent enough product to fill two screens. The repertory “mission” become increasingly blurred over the next few years. 

Thinking back about what an effort it took just to keep the Biograph's doors open in those days, now it seems like it was all sort of an elaborate stunt … pranks for the memories.

-- 30 --

Monday, January 06, 2014

The Dogtown Hero

Fiction by F. T. Rea

June 3, 1959: A lean boy with sandy hair and blue-gray eyes, 11-year-old Roscoe Swift lived in a nine-room stucco house with his mother's parents. The 40-year-old house was in Dogtown, south of Richmond proper.

Roscoe's grandfather was an architect. His grandmother taught children to play the piano. Their yard had two apple trees, a cherry tree, a plum tree and three grape vines in it.   

His mother lived in her studio apartment over a garage that accommodated two cars and his grandfather's seldom used workshop. It was about 30 yards from the house. She was a sometime freelance commercial artist who preferred to work at night and sleep in the day. No one referred to her drinking ways as "alcoholism." When the weather didn't suit her she wouldn't venture outside what she called her "carriage house."

Everybody else called it a "garage." There were spells when Roscoe wouldn’t see his mother for the better part of a week. 

When Roscoe was two years old his mother and father had split up. His father went back in the Army and subsequently died in a helicopter crash somewhere in Korea. Since his mother refused to talk about his father -- she had destroyed all photographs of him right after their separation -- the boy's blurry picture of the dead man had been pulled out of the air.

When his mother wasn't within earshot his grandmother would sometimes say, "Your dad had a wonderful smile." His grandfather had told him his father had been a "pretty damn good outfielder" when he was Army, which had frequently gotten him preferential treatment from the brass.

Two or three times Roscoe had heard his grandfather say with a chuckle, "Don't know much about what else your father did during the war, but he played on the same baseball field with some pros."

When he imagined his father, rather than in a military uniform, Roscoe usually saw him in a Depression Era baseball uniform, like what he'd seen Lou Gehrig and Dizzy Dean wearing in newsreels.

For as long as he could remember Roscoe had been in training to be a hero. It wasn’t something he talked about much, but it was usually close to the heart of his striving. He was a strong reader and had already inhaled many a biography and adventure story about heroic figures. To steel his nerves he had tested himself with daredevil stunts. He wasn't one to back down from a fistfight. At camp the summer before he had won a National Rifle Association Sharpshooter patch, which he kept with other treasures in a cigar box, hidden where nobody would find it.

On this day the most significant test of Roscoe's mettle had arrived: he was playing the biggest baseball game of his career. Remembering the lucky Ted Williams baseball card he’d slipped into his back pocket before he’d left for school, Roscoe looked at the blue sky and smiled ever so slightly.

Mostly, school was easy for Roscoe. He took pride in being able to turn in a paper first and get every question right. His difficulties in school stemmed from his class clown inclinations and his quick temper. Good grades in conduct weren't a given.

He liked reading about history and he enjoyed drawing, especially cartoons. But Roscoe hated being indoors in good weather. Baseball was mattered most to him. During baseball season, using the box scores in the morning newspaper, he routinely calculated the up-to-date batting averages of his favorite Major League players before he went to school.

Two of the fifth-grade classes had finished the season tied, forcing a playoff game to decide the championship. Following lunch, all four fifth-grade classes at Gittes Creek Elementary had been given the afternoon to watch the two teams settle the issue. Which was a treat, because all the previous games had been played during recess.

Students with no taste for baseball had the option of watching a black and white 16 mm documentary film about Jamestown's 350th anniversary. Thus, there was a pretty good crowd for the title game.

With one out, Roscoe's side was two runs down. As he took his practice swings, he reminded again himself of the situation -- bottom of the last inning, men on first and third. "No grounder," he said to himself, as he knocked red dust off his canvas sneakers with the bat ... as if they were baseball spikes.

A group of some 20 men, fathers, uncles and a couple of former minor league ballplayers from the surrounding neighborhood added a measure of authenticity to the crowd. Girls from the two classes in the championship game were acting as cheerleaders. No one could remember that ever happening before, but it suited Roscoe just fine.

In 1959 baseball was still unquestionably America's National Pastime. In Dogtown even fifth-grade baseball in the last week of school was important.

Swift stood in the batter's box on the first base side of home-plate. Originally trained as a right-hander, he had decided that if Ted Williams -- the best hitter in the game -- batted left-handed that was good enough for him. Besides, to Roscoe, for some reason a good southpaw swing looked better. He’d been practicing batting left-handed for a couple of months in neighborhood pickup games. Finally, the switch had to be tested in a situation with something more on the line.

Standing crouched and barely touching first base, Roscoe’s best friend on the team, Bake, cheered him on. "Pick out a good one. Hit your pitch, Number 9."

Even though the boys weren't wearing uniforms with numbers on them, during games most of the starters on Roscoe's team called one another by the numbers they would be wearing. Since Bake's favorite player was Willie Mays, he was called Number 24.   

However, a couple of Roscoe's teammates were imploring him from the bench to bat right-handed, like usual, since everything was at stake. Butterflies the size of eagles disquieted Roscoe's stomach, but he had made up his mind to take the chance.

Stepping out of the box, the Roscoe took three slow and deliberate practice swings. He looked at the crowd standing along the third base line. The cheerleaders for his side were chanting, "Ros-coe, Ros-coe, he's our man. If he can't do it, nobody can!"

His grandfather, who had taken the afternoon off for the first time in Roscoe's memory, stood in the shade of an ancient oak tree with the other men. Peering under the flat brim of his straw hat Rocsoe's first baseball coach stoically watched the action, as only he could.

The other team's cheerleaders and classmates booed and hooted at Roscoe from the first base line. He dug in and did his best to put them out of his mind. However, there was a particular girl with a strawberry-blonde ponytail and lively blue-green eyes cheering for the other team. Her name was Susie and he never failed to notice her.

The best thing to say to Susie never came to mind when she was near. Sometimes she made him feel short of breath. So Roscoe watched her from a distance ... frequently with a sense of longing that baffled him. Although Susie was calling for his team to lose, that very second, he was sure glad she was there.

Back in the box, Roscoe shifted most of his weight to his back foot and turned his front foot thirty degrees toward first base. Relaxing his hands, he jutted his chin out and squinted like he was aiming a 22 rifle.

The pitcher threw the first pitch outside and in the dirt. It got by the catcher. But the ground rules didn't allow stealing bases, so the guys on base stayed where they were. Sure the next pitch would be across the plate, Roscoe leaned back and prepared to cut the ball in half.

With the infielders behind him chattering like magpies, the hurler went into his stretch and fired the ball. Roscoe liked the pitch and took a big roundhouse swing.


He nearly lost his balance as the sudden explosion of laughter from his opponents and their classmates pierced Roscoe's armor of concentration. Nonetheless, he didn't look at anyone on either baseline. He knew he'd shut his eyes as he'd swung the bat.

Roscoe felt his cheeks flush as he pulled his baseball cap's brim down on his brow. Again, he relaxed his wrists and fingers.

"It only takes one to hit it!" Bellowed his grandfather through cupped hands.

Roscoe leaned away from the pitcher, to put more weight on his back foot. He remembered to take a deep breath, which he let out slowly as the pitcher confidently cut loose with another fastball. Swinging from his heels, Roscoe rolled his wrists just exactly as his weight shifted toward the pitch. The batter tagged the ball sweetly.


The ball left the infield with dispatch. After clearing the leaping second baseman's glove by two feet it took a sharp nosedive and evenly split the closing distance between the right and center fielders. The pair frantically chased the top-spinning sphere down the grassy slope.

The utter perfection of the bat’s perfectly timed kiss on the horsehide's sweetest spot resonated through his body. The sudden furor Roscoe heard seemed like it was far away. He ran like a monster was chasing him. As he made his turn toward third base the ball plopped into the trickle of a creek that bordered the schoolyard. Rounding third, he caught up with Bake.

"Slow down, man," Bake advised over his shoulder with a sarcastic chuckle. "Those goons haven't even found it yet."

Roscoe's euphoric classmates were jumping around wildly. His grandfather beamed as he waved his hat back and forth over his head. Teammates, suddenly champions, were pounding him on his back as he crossed home plate.

Meanwhile, Roscoe's capacity to comprehend the intensity of the moment was red-lining. He looked at Susie on the quiet side of the field. The way her head tilted to the side, the position of her limbs, something about her stance, or gesture, made him feel disoriented. It was as though he was viewing the event from a number of different angles, simultaneously. He felt both inside and outside the scenario.

Roscoe's mind raced as everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. Straining to pull all the elements together, to grasp all he was sensing, he heard an explosion.


Then he felt a strange calm. All he surveyed seemed vivid and in its place.

As Roscoe crossed home plate, it occurred to him that he hadn’t loped around the bases, a la Teddy Ballgame. Maybe he could have, but he'd been far too excited to feign nonchalance. More importantly, Roscoe had remembered to not tip his cap. If the batting king and ace fighter pilot of the Korean War, Ted Williams, never tipped his cap to the public on his home run trot -- which he never did -- that was good enough for Roscoe, too.

Roscoe felt like he was soaring, somewhere up above all of his dark doubts. He was in a place where heroes don't have have to tip their caps to anyone. Meanwhile, Susie had vanished.

Later on, Roscoe realized no one else had heard the explosion. Although that made no sense to him he promptly dropped the subject and stashed that mystery in the same hidden space with an accumulating stack of guilty haunts and some developing theories.

Still, the moment's hero believed the memory of just how it felt when he hit that baseball perfectly would never leave him.

*   *   *

All rights reserved by the author. The Dogtown Hero with its accompanying illustration are part of a series of stories called Detached. Three remaining stories will be added, eventually. Links to the five others which have been finished 
are below:

Central Time
A Perfect Rainy Day
Maybe Rosebud 
The Freelancer's Worth
Cross-Eyed Mona

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Paradise Unvarnished

Note: This piece was first published in SLANT in 1991.

No talent. It wasn’t easy to stomach. The public had no use for his abstract expressionist paintings. They were too big for most walls. He’d be a has-been, except he never was. 

Uncle Dudley’s letter was still in his pocket. It said, “Come home to run the restaurant, or it’s going on the block February 1st. It’s time you should make a living, already. Either way, Rebus, I’m retiring." Could Rebus leave Key West? Face real winters?

 The temporary life of the aspiring artist/bartender/cab driver is better suited to the young Turk, still waiting for his ship to come in. Meanwhile, this old Turk hadn’t had a new idea in years. His opinion was stale. Out of schemes, Rebus sighed, polished off his beer and reached for another.

Dudley’s ultimatum. This was his ship coming in? After all the years of sweat and turpentine it looked more like a dinghy.

Like so many before him, Rebus had believed that once he finally got old enough to dwell on anything other than getting laid, his serious work would inevitably emerge.

On the road in South Carolina, he could see the plain truth. The artist scheme might have gotten more traction if he’d been half as talented as he’d been horny ... and maybe if he'd made smaller paintings.

--  Art and copy by F.T. Rea