Friday, February 28, 2014

Who's Against Democracy?

When a high-profile controversy flaps in the breeze, unresolved for a decade, it can take on a life of its own. So it has been for Richmond’s dilemma concerning where minor league baseball should be played. 

For many Richmonders the baseball stadium issue has become frustrating in a way unlike any other they can remember. It hasn't been difficult to get the idea that a few hungry developers have been intimidating local officials to acquiesce to their wishes. 

When the stadium brouhaha started 10 years ago, for me, the thing that stood out was the talk about professional baseball coming from folks who seemed to know little about it. Gradually that morphed into how wrongheaded the baseball in the Bottom concept was, from a practicality standpoint. Maybe John McEnroe said it best, "You cannot be serious!

Then it got to be more about Shockoe Bottom’s remarkable history; I grew up in this town and recent revelations about the slave market have amazed me. I've come to understand that what was buried in Shockoe Bottom after the Civil War was deliberately covered up. It's turned out to be another layer of denial. How in good conscience can we go on averting our eyes from what really happened in those slave jails? From how many there were?

Now, for me, it’s come down to being about democracy, too. Maybe that's the trump card in this game.

You see, on this issue I’ve become convinced the local politicians aren’t speaking for the people that voted them into office. And, they know it. It's hardly unfair to say the PR team pushing the scheme to shoehorn a stadium into the Bottom isn't speaking for anything but money -- quick money. Nor do I think most voters can identify with the sort of full-time activists who not only oppose baseball in the Bottom, they oppose everything any government does and relentlessly spew derision at any convenient politician.

The combination of all those voices, all trying to speak over one another, has become a numbing cacophony. It has become a pestering wall of noise in our lives. Given that, when it comes to the stadium issue, who is now speaking for John Q. Public? 

A binding referendum would speak for those who care enough to vote. Put it on the ballot and let all the campaigners push for their side as hard as they like. Only such a referendum on whether to build a stadium in Shockoe Bottom, or not, can settle this matter in a satisfying way.

With a referendum on the ballot the school children in Richmond would have a splendid opportunity to learn a civics lesson about what it really takes to keep a democracy working properly.

Generally speaking, politicians don't like referendums that come up from citizens' groups. In Richmond they've made it hard to do. Nonetheless, while it won't be easy to get the question on the ballot in November, it can be done. In Virginia citizens can write laws. It will take a serious petition-signing campaign to drive a stake into the heart of baseball in the Bottom. But it can be done.

And, if the baseball in the Bottom forces swell up and get the majority of the votes, I won't like it, but the will of the people is a righteous thing. Moreover, I'm not scared.

OK. Who's against democracy? 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

'The Gold Standard: High on the Hog, 1977-2006'

High on the Hog 25 (2001). Photo by Chuck Wrenn.

STYLE Weekly's annual music issue is out now. My contribution to this overview of local music history is: "The Gold Standard: High on the Hog, 1977-2006." Click here to read it.

Click here to see the entire cover story package with stories from several writers.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Blue's 'Mojolation' is a tonic

This has been a brutal winter in Richmond and with the short days some of us don’t need more reasons to be depressed. The last snow event here (Jan. 29) knocked out my electricity and heat all night. The temperature outside was in the single digits!

When the power was restored at about 7 a.m., the temperature in my pad was in the 40s. It took nearly all day to get the chill out of my old bones.

A couple of days later, when I read an email that suddenly made me laugh at some of my vexations, I decided to get to work on an art project I’d been putting off. Which led me to the best decision of the afternoon -- I put Bill Blue’s new CD, “Mojolation,” on my Bose Acoustic Wave.

It was like a tonic. The gritty music from Key West was just what I needed to invoke a productive mini mania. Ended up playing it a second time, then -- speaking of Blue -- I took a Pabst Blue Ribbon break.

As I’m writing this, my favorite cuts are “It’s Gotta Change,” “Brand New Man” and “Who Let That Stranger In?” But a couple of the others are growing on me.

Bill’s new 11-song CD is quite well produced. The sidemen do a fine job. Moreover, it’s the work of a fully formed artist who's not trying to be anything he isn't, just to put out a commercial recording. After decades of gigging in saloons, Bill may well have put together a breakthrough hit album.

Since I’ve got a political cartoon to work on, I’m letting “Mojolation” take my mind off of the damn wintry-mix-of-the-century that -- oy vey! -- is supposedly heading my way. Listening to the "Guitar Whore" cut right now.


Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Flashback: Thanks, Aimee

Note: This piece was first published 14 years ago by (Feb. 16, 2000).  


Anniversaries are knives that can cut both ways. Although we may raise the glass to remember certain events, sometimes we end up drinking to forget. Since I tend to dwell on the calendar more than I should, last Friday afternoon I was in a somber mood.

Then, shortly after 4 p.m., I received an e-mail from a friend who lives in D.C. Until then, I hadn't realized that I had been fretting all day over the notion that I was alone in remembering that it was the Biograph Theatre's 28th anniversary. Upon looking at the e-mail, I smiled.

On Feb.11, 1972, the Biograph Theatre at 814 W. Grace St. was set in motion by a gem of a party. The first feature presentation was a French war-mocking comedy, "King of Hearts" (1966). On the screen, Genevieve Bujold was dazzling opposite the droll Alan Bates. In the lobby, the Fan District's version of the beautiful people were assembled. The champagne flowed and the flashbulbs popped.

As the new cinema house's first manager, at 24, this yarn's recounter was convinced he had the best job in town.

Repertory movie theaters such as the Biograph became popular in large cities and college towns in the late '60s and early '70s. The fashion of the era, driven by a film-buff in-crowd, elevated many foreign movies, certain American classics, and selected underground films above their current-release Hollywood counterparts. A repertory cinema's regulars viewed most of the product coming out of Hollywood then as naïve or corrupt.

For me, the gig lasted nearly 12 years, including five years of Rocky Horror midnight shows. Four years after my departure, seven years after the arrival of cable TV in Richmond, the Biograph's screen went dark in December '87. Times had changed and the theater could no longer pay its way.

But in that little independent cinema's heyday, Feb. 11 meant something to those familiar with the nightlife in the VCU area. The Biograph's second anniversary was the party that established the occasion of the theater's birthday as a date to mark on the calendar. That was the year of The Devil Prank.

Following a circuit court judge's well-publicized banning of a skin flick, "The Devil in Miss Jones" (1973), we booked an old RKO light comedy with a similar title - "The Devil and Miss Jones" (1941) for a one-day event.

A press release announced that the theater was throwing a party to celebrate the anniversary of its opening day, admission would be free, and the titles of the movies were listed. (A Disney nature short subject - entitled "Beaver Valley" - was added to flesh out the program.)

As planned, no one at the theater answered any questions from the public or the media about the nature of the shows. The people who didn't notice the difference in the two titles merely were left to assume whatever they liked.

On the day of the party the staff decorated the lobby with streamers and balloons, laid out the birthday cake, and tested the open keg of beer. Spurred on by news reports of the Biograph's supposed intention to defy a court order, hundreds were in line by lunch time.

By show time, 6:30 p.m., the line of humanity stretched almost completely around the block. Thousands of people were waiting to see a notorious X-rated movie without knowing a Jean Arthur/Bob Cummings comedy was going to be shown instead.

The atmosphere was electric when I unlocked the box office. Only the first 500 in line could be admitted because that was the auditorium's seating capacity. Contrary to what I had expected, the audience didn't all get the joke at once. The realization came in waves.

Most of those who got inside enjoyed the night, one way or another. The movies had to be funnier in that context than ever before, as long as you could laugh at yourself. To wash down the taste of the hoax, free beer was available.

Of course, there were a few people who were still miffed, but so many more loved being in on such a massive joke that the grumbles hardly mattered.

The story of the stunt hit the wire services and it appeared in newspapers all over the country. NPR did a piece on it. Needless to say, the frothy publicity only added to the luster of what was truly a unique night.

In subsequent years, the occasion of the annual party served as a reunion for everyone who had ever worked or hung out at the theater. Sometimes special films were brought in for a screening, or a band would play after hours.

Another anniversary that was rather unusual was the tenth. In 1982, a Louis Malle film that had been shot in the Jefferson Hotel was in its initial release. We booked the picture to open on Feb. 11 and combined with VCU's Anderson Gallery to stage a party that served as a benefit for the art gallery.

"My Dinner with Andre" was a movie about two friends talking over dinner. The actual meal they ate in the movie was provided by a local caterer named Chris Gibbs. He also created restaurants such as Gatsby's, Fifth Avenue, and Winston Churchill's. Each day of the movie's shooting schedule, the flamboyant Gibbs would show up at the set with another batch of Cornish Hens and wild rice for the actors to pick over as they spoke their lines.

For our party, Gibbs served the art movie/art gallery patrons the same dinner as the actors on the screen were having. It went over like gangbusters. The local media ate it up, which of course validated the notion that a good time was had by one and all.

Naturally, since then, the theater closed and the tradition has atrophied. There was a small party for the 20th anniversary even though the cinema's screens had long been dark.

Back to the e-mail that made my day - here's how it worked: A few weeks ago, Style Weekly ran an interview with singer/songwriter Aimee Mann, a Richmond native and former lead singer of the '80s New Wave band 'Til Tuesday. The article mentioned her recent success with the song "Save Me" from the movie "Magnolia." Among her fond memories of Richmond, she spoke of having enjoyed going to the Biograph as a teenager.

Aimee looks familiar, but I don't really remember her from her Open High School days (in the late '70s). I sent the article to the friend I mentioned, Ernie Brooks, because I knew he was enthusiastic about "Magnolia."

Brooks, a regular at the Biograph in the '70s, subsequently attended Mann's recent performance at the Birchmere in Alexandria. During a break, he presented her with an almost never-worn Biograph T-shirt from his collection.

Ernie claims she was nearly overwhelmed by his gesture. However, in spite of what my experience tells me about such stories, I'm choosing to believe him.

In turn, she autographed a copy of her "Magnolia" CD for him. Ernie then e-mailed me a scan of it attached to an account of his conversation with Aimee.

On the cover art she had written - "To the Biograph, many memories, Love Aimee."

Upon seeing her simple message, my frame of mind changed instantly. Instead of letting mid-February's inevitable dreariness continue to bum me out, it even occurred to me how lucky I was to have been in on the adventure the Biograph was.

Because of a quirky art-movie connection, facilitated by way of an old friend of the Biograph, a willowy blond from the past beamed me a pleasant mood swing: a virtual happy anniversary present.

Thanks, Aimee. And congratulations on your Best Original Song Oscar nomination for "Save Me." I'll be watching to see what you are wearing on Oscar presentation night.

Ain't life grand?

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