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." 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Richmond Magazine on 'Building the Bijou'


Writing for Richmond Magazine about the Bijou Film Center’s first fundraiser, Stephanie Manley provides background:
Parrish and Rea, who are both deeply involved in the arts community in Richmond, have focused much of their careers on film. (Rea was manager of the Biograph Theatre and Parrish co-founded the James River Film Society).

In addition to constructing their own theater, Parrish and Rea decided that attaching it to a café would create a more successful business. The partners also frequently returned their discussion to their love of film preservation, which led them to add to their business plan a center devoted to transferring small-format amateur films to digital.
Click here to read the entire article, "Building the Bijou."

On Sunday, September 21, at 6 p.m. the Bijou Film Center will present “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) at the Byrd Theatre.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How Many Previous “Confidentiality Agreements” Have There Been?

Why should members of City Council sign a “confidentiality agreement” to do with Byron Marshall leaving his $181,560-a-year job at City Hall?

To say Mayor Dwight Jones' secrecy policy in this affair stinks to high heaven is obviously an understatement. Hopefully, the Freedom of Information Act will soon allow for taxpayers to better understand Marshall’s mysterious “departure.” 
City Councilwoman Reva M. Trammell said she had not been told anything because she refused to sign.

“I told them it’s going to be a cold day in hell before I sign anything like that,” said Trammell, 8th District. “I think it’s a damn shame that everything we do we’ve got to go sign something to keep the taxpayers of Richmond in the dark.”
Click here to read Graham Moomaw’s “Mayor‘s Office Mum on Marshall Departure” in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Now, on top of knowing why Marshall quit, or was fired, I want to know how many such “confidentiality agreements” have City Council members signed since Mayor Jones took office?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Lohmann: "Cinema Plan Taps Into Downtown's Potential."

Terry Rea and James Parrish in front of Anchor Studios.

In his RT-D piece about the Bijou Film Center concept and the first fundraiser Bill Lohmann writes:
James T. Parrish Jr. and F.T. “Terry” Rea, film fans and co-founders of this venture, have taken the first step toward opening a small, storefront cinema and café in the city’s Arts and Cultural District along Broad Street east of Belvidere.

The independent, nonprofit project is called the Bijou Film Center, and as a kickoff event, the Beatles’ classic, “A Hard Day’s Night,” which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, will be shown at the Byrd Theatre on Sunday, Sept. 21, at 6 p.m.
Click here to read, "Cinema Plan Taps Into Downtown's Potential."

Starting in October, the Bijou Film Center's first workspace will be a basement studio at Anchor Studios in the Arts District.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014


Terry Rea, former manager of the Biograph, and James Parrish,
co-founder of the James River Film Society, are launching their
new Bijou Film Center project with a showing of the 50th
anniversary restored version of the Beatles film,
“A Hard Day’s Night” at the Byrd Theater.

For STYLE Weekly's Fall Arts Preview issue, Brent Baldwin writes:
Parrish attended the last three Art House Convergence gatherings held by the Sundance Institute and notes that 80 percent of the country’s art house cinemas are nonprofits — places such as the Castro and the Roxie in San Francisco, the Austin Film Society in Texas, and the Charles in Baltimore. He’s convinced that Richmond is ready to support a community-based, mission-driven art house cinema.

“We need a place where we can see great little films, a place where we can eat, drink, and talk about these films,” he says. “ A place that helps filmmakers and anyone with a home movie they don’t know what to do with.”
Click here to read the entire article, which explains the Bijou Film Center concept and devotes some ink to the Bijou's first fundraiser.

Click here to visit the Facebook event page for the one-time-only screening of "A Hard Day's Night" on September 21.

-- Photo by Scott Elmquist for STYLE Weekly.

Monday, September 08, 2014

The Strange Case of Gus the Cat

Note: This piece was published by Richmond.com in 2000. 

Though cynical people like to say, “All cats are gray in the dark,” the difference between this and that counts with me. Thus, if for no other purpose than to satisfy my own curiosity, I set out to find the truth about Gus, the cat that had long presided over lower Carytown from his plush basket in a bookstore display window facing the street.


The mystery began in the course of a casual conversation about re-makes of old movies. Film aficionado Ted Salins, a regular among the society of conversationalists who gather at the tables on the sidewalk in front of Coffee & Co., tossed out that the cat living next door in Carytown Books is not the “original” Gus.

Since I’ve known Salins, a writer/filmmaker/house-painter, for a long time, I suspected his charge was a setup for a weak joke. To give him room to operate I asked, “So, this Gus is an impostor?”

“Just like Lassie, several cats have played the role of Gus over the years,” Salins said matter-of-factly.

Until that moment it hadn’t occurred to me that Gus, someone else’s cat, had slowly become important to me over the years. In the past I’ve been told that he’s over 15, maybe pushing 20. Who can say what that is in cat years? He still has a few teeth left.

“You see, in ‘91 I had lost my beloved Skinkywinkydinky in a separation,” Salins went on, as if revealing a dark conspiracy. “When I first saw Gus, I took to him because he reminded me of Skinky. That Gus wouldn't let you touch him. But, this Gus…”

“Ted, this is absolutely the most off-the-wall nonsense you’ve come up with yet,” I accused.

“The place has changed hands a few times since then,” Salins smugly offered. “The problem is each owner falls in love with the cat and keeps it. But since Gus has become an institution in Carytown, each set of new owners has to find another cat that looks like Gus. The switch is made at night in order to preserve the secret. I’ve seen it.”

Before I could say “horsefeathers,” another member of the Carytown intelligentsia, who had just walked up, spoke: “Salins, as usual you’re all wet,” said artist Jay Bohannan. “That is not only the same cat, but Gus is, let’s see, yes, he’s nearly 70. That particular cat is probably the oldest cat this side of the island of Lamu.”

I laughed at Bohannan’s crack and excused myself from the table to let them hash it out. The two of them have been arguing good-naturedly since their VCU art school days in the early ‘70s.

Walking toward my car, Ted’s suggestion of a fraud having been perpetrated on the public bothered me. I felt certain that if somebody had actually installed a faux Gus in the bookstore it would have been all over the street the next day. As I tried to imagine people spiriting nearly identical cats in and out of the back door, in the dead of night, the matter wouldn’t rest.

So I turned around and went into Carytown Books. The shop’s manager, Kelly Justice, who has worked there for six years under three editions of ownership, scoffed at Salins’ charge.

“Anyone who knows Ted, knows he’s a nitwit,” said Ms. Justice with a wry smile. “More likely than not, this is an attempt to raise funds for another one of his documentaries.”

When I told her about Bohannan’s equally outrageous suggestion that Gus was almost a septuagenarian, Justice laughed out loud. “Perhaps Jay and Ted are both trying to hitch their wagons to Gus’ star,” she suggested playfully.

Back outside, Salins and Bohannan were both gone. So I walked east on the block to Bygones, the collectable clothing and memorabilia store known for its artful window displays. Since Maynee Cayton, the shop’s proprietor, is an unofficial historian for the neighborhood, I decided to see what she knew about Gus.

Cayton, who has been at that location for 16 years, said she had some pictures of the block from the ’30s and ‘40s, but she didn’t think she had any shots of a bookstore cat. However, she did remember that when she was a child she saw a gray and white cat in the window of what was then the Beacon Bookstore.

“It was in the late ’60s, I think it was 1967,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “And I’d say it was a young cat. Either way, I can’t believe the feline impersonator story, so maybe it was Gus.”

The next day, Bohannan called on the phone to tell me he had something I needed to see right away. He was mysterious about it and wouldn’t explain what he was talking about, except to say that it was proof of his claim about Gus the Cat.

Unable to let it go, I told him I’d stop by his place to see what proof he had.

Bohannan’s apartment, located between Carytown and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, was an escape from the modern world altogether. It’s furnished in a pleasant mix of practical artifacts and curiosities from yesteryear. The heavy black telephone on his desk was almost as old as Jay. Next to the desk was a turn-of-the-century gramophone. Bohannan, himself, dressed like a character who just stepped out of a Depression-era RKO film, reached into a dog-eared manila folder and pulled out a photograph. When I asked him where he had gotten the picture, purportedly from about 1930, he shrugged.

In such a setting, his evidence of Gus’ longevity took on an eerie authenticity. Sitting in one of Bohannan’s ancient oak chairs, surrounded by his own paintings of scenes from Virginia’s past, I thought I could see the cat he claimed was depicted in the storefront’s window. Why, it even looked like Gus.

Jay told me I could keep the photo, it was just a Xerox copy. What a scoop!

Later, when I looked at the grainy picture at home, I could hardly even see a cat. The next day, back in Carytown, I spoke with several people who hang out or work in the neighborhood. A few actually thought Bohannan’s bizarre contention could be true. Others agreed with Salins.

One man, who refused to be quoted with attribution, said he was sure the original Gus was an orange cat. A woman looked up from her crossword puzzle to note that Bohannan's evidence was at least as good as what she'd seen on the Loch Ness Monster.

Then the whole group of chatty know-it-alls went off on the general topic of conspiracy theories and hoaxes. At the next table a woman in a straw hat started sketching the sidewalk scene.

A few days later, I saw Ted Salins holding court in front of the coffee shop. I told him what Kelly had said about his claim and I showed him Jay’s so-called proof that Gus is ancient.

“The next thing you’re going to tell me is Shakespeare actually wrote all those plays," Ted said mockingly. "Look, it’s not the same cat. Live with it. This Gus is a ringer, maybe three years old.”

Turning around, I looked through the storefront’s glass at good old Gus in his usual spot. He looked comfortable with a new electric heater under the blanket in his basket. It dawned on me that there was a time when Gus used to avoid me, as well. Now he seems happy for me to pet him, briefly.

Pulled back into the spell of the mystery, I wondered, had Gus changed or had I? Gus stared back at me and blinked. Like one of his favorite authors, J. D. Salinger, Gus wasn’t talking.

Gus was smiling as only a cat can; a smile that suggests equal parts of wisdom-of-the-ages and dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers. One obvious truth about Gus the Cat was that he had grown quite accustomed to having a public.


Note: The photo of Gus was taken by Stacy Warner for Richmond.com. On June 19, 2001 a cat alleged to have been the authentic Gus the Cat was found dead in Carytown Books; he was estimated by the bookstore's spokesperson to have been about 18 years old.

Have You Got Your Ticket, Yet?

Click here for more information at the Bijou Backlight. 
Click here to visit the Facebook event page.
Click here to buy tickets online.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

About Advance Tickets to 'A Hard Day's Night'

On September 21 "A Hard Day's Night" (1964)
will be screened at the Byrd Theatre. 

  • The show starts at 6 p.m.
  • Admission is $7 at the box office.
  • Before the day of the show advance tickets are available at Bygones Vintage Clothing and Steady Sounds for $5. 
  • The proceeds of the screening will benefit the Bijou Film Center and the Byrd Theatre Foundation’s “Journey to the Seats.” The film will play one time only. 
  • The after-party at the New York Deli starts at 8:15 p.m., where The Taters will play live; no cover charge. 
  • To visit the event's Facebook page click here

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Sept. 21: 'A Hard Day's Night'

On Sunday, September 21, 2014, the Bijou Film Center will present a classic film followed by some splendid live music to launch its fundraising effort and begin putting the story of its mission before Richmond's movie-loving public.

4 p.m.: Thirsty admirers of the eye-catching Beatlemania window in Bygones will cross the street to take advantage of a special Happy Hour getting underway at Portrait House, 2907 West Cary Street.  It will offer Fab Four fans a selection of themed drink specials at attractive prices.

6:05 p.m.: From the stage in front of the screen at The Byrd Theatre, James Parrish and Terry Rea will introduce the feature attraction, “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964), which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The sound and picture have been newly restored. And, perhaps a wee surprise will be served up. 

6:30 p.m.: “A Hard Day’s Night,” starring the Beatles in their first movie, will be screened. Shot in glorious black and white the motion picture runs 87 minutes.

8:15 p.m.: At the New York Deli, The Taters will start their first of two sets of live music. Drink specials will be available. And, yeah! yeah! yeah! The Taters will do some Beatles-related material.

Admission to the screening will be $7 at the box office. Up until the day of the show, advance tickets will be available for $5 at Bygones Vintage Clothing and Steady Sounds and online at Eventbrite for $5 plus processing fee ($1.27). 

There will be no cover charge at the Portrait House or at the New York Deli -- free admission!  

The proceeds from the screening will be split evenly by the non-profit Byrd Theatre Foundation’s “Journey to the Seats” and the Bijou Film Center (a non-profit work-in-progress).


Click here to visit the Facebook event page.