Thursday, June 26, 2014

1974's Riots and Turning Points


Note: At the Biograph Theatre 1974 was the year of the "Devil in/and Miss Jones" prank, staged on the theater's second anniversary in February. It was also the year a 16mm film, "Matinee Madcap," was produced at the Biograph. Then the theater suddenly benefited from a lucky quirk of business and played several of Paramount's top first-run pictures. But in spite of early good fortune, some years turn out to be more about unexpected upheaval and the resulting detours. 1974 ended with increasing uncertainties weighing heavily on the operation of Richmond's only repertory cinema. 

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The most obvious change in the air in 1974 was the unraveling of the presidency of Richard Nixon. While that was happening the culture shifted. Tastes in music, clothes, politics, movies, drugs, and you-name-it, took off in new directions. Among other things, it was also the year in which social causes went out of style for most of the baby boomers.

Going into 1974, no one would have guessed the most popular gesture of group defiance on campus -- the protest march -- would morph into spontaneous gatherings to cheer on naked people, as they ran by. Yet, in the spring of 1974, streaking on college campuses became a national phenomenon.

Richmond’s police chief, Frank Duling, announced that his department would not tolerate streakers running around in the city’s streets, alleys, etc. He didn’t care whether they were students, or not. But the VCU police department said if it took place on campus, streaking was a university matter and would be dealt with by its personnel.

The relationship between Richmond and VCU was somewhat awkward in this period. Leading up to this point, there had been a series of confrontational incidents on, or near, the VCU campus. Perhaps the most bitterly remembered of them occurred on Oct. 12, 1970, after Allen Ginsberg spoke at the VCU gym. The city police used overkill force to break up a street party in the area of the 1100 blocks of Grove Ave. and Park Ave. Debris was thrown, a cop was hit by a brick and police dogs were set loose in the crowd. 

So, leading up what happened on the 800 block of W. Franklin St. on the night of March 19, 1974, Richmond’s police department had some history with what might have been characterized as the anti-establishment crowd based in the lower Fan District.

Several groups of streakers had made runs before four naked kids rode down Franklin in a convertible at about 10 p.m. The crowd of 150-to-200 cheered as the motorized streakers waved. The mood was festive. I know this firsthand, because I was in that crowd. This scene played out a block from the Biograph Theatre and I had walked over to the commotion with Biograph usher Trent Nicholas to see what would happen.

Seconds later a group of some 50 uniformed policemen stormed in on small motorbikes and in squad cars from every direction to arrest those four streakers in the car. The crowd booed and yelled in protest. No VCU cops seemed to be involved.

After a lull in the action, the Richmond cops inexplicably charged into the assembled bystanders. A few of those bystanders were dragged into the middle of the street. One kid was knocked off of his bicycle and slammed repeatedly against the fender and hood of a police car. Others were beaten with clubs or flashlights.

The Richmond cops were acting like Brits in Belfast or Derry, free to abuse the gathering, at will. That the unprovoked brutality was about terrorizing fad-driven streakers on a college campus made it all the more absurd -- 17 people were arrested. Most of them were bystanders, not streakers. I had not seen anything quite like it before. As it turned it it was a prelude.

The war between Richmond's partying hippies and its police force escalated beyond all previous clashes at the Cherry Blossom Music Festival (which was headlined by the Steve Miller Band and Boz Scaggs) on April 27, 1974, at City Stadium. When police officers attempted to arrest some pot-smoking members of the audience, things got out of hand. My knowledge of this incident came from witnesses and news reports.

Several police cars were destroyed in what turned into a four-hour battle. In all, 76 people were arrested. This melee put the kibosh on any outdoor rock 'n' roll shows in Richmond, with alcohol available, for several years.

Back to the streakers on campus angle: Richmond's city manager, Bill Leidinger, promised me there would be an investigation into the conduct of the local police on Franklin St. on March 19 by an outside organization.

In exchange for that promise, I didn't go to the press with some volatile charges being made by a guy who said he had photos of the beatings. Unfortunately, he may have talked about them too much. He showed up at the theater, claiming the prints and negatives had been stolen from his car — while he was in a store, briefly — on his way to deliver them to me. It was strange; I had offered to put the stuff in the theater’s safe, because he told me he felt paranoid about it. The cat got so scared he left town.

Leidinger did not make good on his promise. Eventually, Richmond's police department held an in-house investigation of its own dirty doings on Franklin St. The investigators found the department had done nothing wrong.

Trusting Leidinger was a mistake I regret.

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1974 was a great year for movies, too. At the Biograph we premiered “Chinatown,” a superb film about corruption. We got it and several other mainstream Hollywood productions that year, including "The Conversation," because Paramount and Neighborhood Theatres were having a feud. "Chinatown" is still my all-time favorite feature. Here are some other noteworthy events that happened during 1974:

Jan. 2: To conserve on gasoline President Richard Nixon signed a bill mandating a 55 mph speed limit, coast-to-coast. Imagine the over-the-top reactions from Republicans if President Barack Obama did the same thing today. 

Feb. 4: Patty Hurst was abducted; eight days later the Symbionese Liberation Army told the extremely well-to-do Hurst family it had to give $230 million in food aid to the poor.

Feb. 11: Richmond's Biograph celebrated its second anniversary with free movies and free beer. Too late to line up, thousands who wanted to be in on the happening were turned away.  

Mar. 2: Nixon was named by a federal grand jury as a co-conspirator in the Watergate cover-up. At this point it was still hard to see that he wouldn't last out the year.

Apr. 8: Playing for the Atlanta Braves outfielder Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record with his 715th round-tripper. Later we found out about the death threats Aaron had received leading up to his feat. The name of the all-time home run leader, who broke Aaron's record will not be mentioned in these pages.

Apr. 15: According to photographic evidence Patty “Tania” Hurst seemed to be helping her captors rob a bank at gunpoint. Nobody knew what to make of it.

May 15: Richmond-based A.H. Robins Co. yielded to pressure from the feds to take its contraceptive device, the Dalkon Shield, off the market.

June 28: "Chinatown" opened at the Biograph Theatre. Walsh: “I don’t know -- the traffic was pretty loud. I only heard one thing -- apple core.”

July 1: Argentina’s President Juan Peron died. His wife, Isabel, took over, which eventually lead to a Broadway musical -- "Evita".

July 27: The House Judiciary Committee voted 27-11 to impeach Nixon. Three days later the Supreme Court said Nixon had to surrender tape recordings of White House meetings that had been sought by the Watergate investigation’s special prosecutor. At this point it was possible to see that Nixon's presidency was in a death spiral.  

Aug. 8: Nixon resigned in disgrace; President Gerald Ford was sworn in. Subsequently millions of hippies stayed too long at the party to celebrate Nixon's downfall.

Aug. 12: The Biograph closed to be converted by a 24-hour-a-day construction crew into a twin cinema in four weeks. The after-hours Liar's Poker games were the stuff of legends.

Sept. 8: Ford pardoned Nixon, which all but sealed Ford’s defeat when he ran for reelection in 1976.

Oct. 29: Muhammad Ali regained the world heavyweight boxing crown he had lost by refusing to be drafted into the army in 1967. In Zaire, Ali defeated the heavily favored champion George Forman by a knockout in the eighth round. 

Nov. 13: Yasir Arafat, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, addressed the UN with a pistol strapped to his waist. Supporters of Israel cringed. Israel's enemies puffed up their chests. Lovers of peace weren't necessarily encouraged. Lovers of dignity hoped for the best.

Dec. 12: Georgia governor Jimmy Carter announced he would run for president. Nobody noticed. Outside of his immediate circle of friends and advisers, who could have imagined it would matter?

Words and art by F.T. Rea. All rights reserved.

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