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. 

*

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.

*

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.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Throwback Sense of Entitlement

In the comments under published articles about politics and in Facebook posts about the same, it’s easy to find conservatives playing games with labels and twisting history to suit themselves. Frequently the authors of such comments enjoy pretending the two major political parties are the same entities they were in the 1950s. Of course to play along with that game one must ignore the effect the conservative migration to the GOP since then has had on the makeup of the two parties.

Today it would not be easy to find a place for Nelson Rockefeller in the Republican Party. Likewise, Harry Byrd, Sr., would not fit comfortably in today’s Democratic Party.  

Let’s get real: regardless of their party labels, the truth is it was conservatives who worked to deny voting rights to citizens along ethnic lines in the Jim Crow era, and they‘re still trying to do it today. It was conservatives who opposed Social Security and Medicare when they were instituted. And, today whether they wear labels that say Republican, Tea Party or Libertarian, it’s conservatives who still oppose those programs. Don't forget, it’s still conservatives who scoff at protecting the environment, too.

Thinking their causes were righteous, conservatives who supported blacklisting and segregation 60 years ago felt entitled to label their opponents as communists and traitors. Labels come and go like other styles, but that wicked sense of entitlement hasn’t changed much. So opposing the Affordable Care Act, by telling lies about it, is as easy as pie.

The conservatives who call Barack Obama names warmed over from the ’50s are walking in the footsteps of Strom Thurmond, who at various times called himself a Democrat, a Dixiecrat and a Republican. Following Thurmond’s prickly example is one thing, but matching his outrageous sense of entitlement might be a reach for the most mean-spirited and vociferous of today’s conservatives.

And speaking of conservative icons, one of the funniest aspects of the label game in 2014 is that some of Ronald Reagan’s actual policies, transplanted into today’s rightwing milieu, would likely earn him the label of RINO (Republican in name only).

-- My Reagan caricature (1987)

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Birth of the Blockbuster: Or How Margot Kidder Made My Day


The movie business changed during the summer of 1975. A new style of creating, promoting and exhibiting feature films was established when “Jaws” opened in 465 theaters and became a box office smash.

Typically, in those days, major releases opened initially in the most popular movie houses in a handful of large cities. Which meant the advertising buys were all local. The unprecedented marketing strategy for “Jaws” required enormous confidence, because its distributor had to spend millions on national advertising and strike at least 465 prints of the film.

Before that summer was over “Jaws” had already broken all-time Hollywood box office records.

Washington D.C. was a regional hub for film distribution. Part of the strategy for releasing “Jaws” was that the distributor, Universal, chose not to screen the film for bookers and exhibitors in the usual way. Ordinarily, a feature about to be released would be shown a couple of times in a small screening room downtown; it was run by the National Association of Theater Owners and seated about 50 people. Bookers for theater chains would see the new films to help them weigh how much money should be bid for the rights to exhibit the picture in a given market. But security on admission wasn't all that tight, so any industry insider, entertainment writer, etc. might have been in the audience on a given day.

At this time I managed the Biograph Theatre on Grace Street in Richmond. My bosses were located in Georgetown and I saw several movies in the DeeCee screening room over the 12 years I worked for the guys who oversaw the Biograph on "M" Street.

The prior-to-premiere screenings of “Jaws” took place about a month before it was to open. It was shown to theater owners and their guests in selected cinemas in maybe a dozen cities on the same night. As I remember it, in DeeCee the function was at the old Ontario.

As a treat my bosses gave me four of their allotment of tickets to the special screening of “Jaws.” My ex, Valerie, and I were part of a full house and the show itself went over like gangbusters. The rather jaded audience shrieked at appropriate times and applauded as the movie’s closing credits were lighting up the screen.

Not only was I knocked out by the presentation, I came back to Richmond convinced “Jaws” would be a gold mine. It was the slickest monster movie I’d even seen. The next day I tried to talk my bosses into borrowing a lot of money to put up a big cash-in-advance bid on “Jaws.”

Ordinarily, such a picture would play at the dominant theater chain’s flagship house. I wanted to bet everything we could borrow to steal the picture by out-bidding Neighborhood Theatres, Inc., for the Richmond market. I even convinced a branch bank manager to try to help us borrow the dough.

Well, we didn’t get the money, but it was privately satisfying seeing “Jaws” open on June 20, 1975, and go on to set new records for its box office grosses. Its unprecedented success put its director, Steven Spielberg, on the map.

After “Jaws” everybody in Hollywood rushed out to try to duplicate the way the producers and distributors had handled it. Thus, in 1975, the age of Hollywood-produced summer blockbusters with massive ad campaigns and widespread releases began.

Another thing “Jaws” did was make guys who were sometimes too self-absorbed, like me, feel intimidated by Spielberg’s outrageous success at such a tender age. I can still remember reading that he was younger than me.

Although I actually had a great job for a 27-year-old movie-lover, it offered no direct connection to filmmaking. At this time I had one nine-minute film and one 30-second television commercial, both shot in 16mm, to my credit. 1975’s Boy Wonder, Steven Spielberg, made me feel like I was on the wrong track.

Fast-forward 34 years to when I watched a BBC-produced documentary, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood,” about filmmaking in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Made in 2003, it was thoroughly entertaining (I saw it on Turner Movie Classics in 2009). Directors and other players from that time were interviewed.

Among those who made comments in the documentary were Tony Bill, Karen Black, Peter Bogdanovich, Roger Corman, Richard Dreyfuss, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, László Kovács, Kris Kristofferson, Arthur Penn and Cybill Shepherd.

Dreyfuss, who was one of the stars of "Jaws," spoke of attending one of those pre-release screenings. He said he got caught up in the experience of seeing it for the first time in a crowded theater, because he totally forgot himself as the actor on the screen.

Actress Margot Kidder (best known for her Lois Lane portrayals in the Superman series of movies) appeared on camera several times. She made a joke out of how Spielberg had begun to fib about his age, once he became famous. She had known him before his sudden notoriety, so she noticed it when he went from being older than her to being younger. Kidder claimed Spielberg was fudging his birth date by a couple of years.

Well, flashing back on my silly jealousy to do with Spielberg’s rise to stardom, when he was supposedly younger than me, I had to laugh out loud. Then I looked Spielberg’s age up; he’s older than both Margot and me.

So, I Googled around and found some old articles about “Jaws” and Spielberg. Yes, it looks like Kidder was right. Back in the ‘70s, perhaps to play up the Boy Wonder aspect of the story, Spielberg’s birth date was being massaged. Somewhere along the line, since then, it looks like it got straightened out.

Laughing at one’s own foolishness is usually a healthy exercise. Yes, and when the laugh had been waiting over three decades to be realized, it was all the sweeter.

After all, nothing has ever been more integral to Hollywood’s special way of doing business -- before or after “Jaws” -- than making up fibs, especially about one’s age.

*   *   *

This story is part of a series called Biograph Times. All rights reserved by F.T. Rea

Friday, June 13, 2014

Addicted to Choice

Note: A version of this piece was published by STYLE Weekly in 2004.

John Lennon illustration by 
Mike Lormand (1984)

"Whatever gets you through the night 'salright, 'salright
It's your money or life 'salright, 'salright”
 -- John Lennon

Obsessions, compulsions and addictions have always been in play. Now we see a somewhat new twist in driven behavior: In a time of plenty, many Americans seem to have become addicted to the act of choosing between this and that. This group has unwittingly developed what amounts to a jones for choosing from a smorgasbord of options.

Yet, as with any buzz, when it subsides the anxious feelings it allayed return with a vengeance. Thus, choice addicts find themselves living in a continuous loop of making choices in order to cope with their habit. This is beyond consuming, it's about choosing.

Of course Madison Avenue, the great facilitator of this shop-’til-you-drop scenario, has long depicted “choice” as utter bliss: Come and get 'em! These limited-edition widgets come in five, I say five, designer colors.

Choice has also been a hot political buzzword for some time. To a person wanting to express a belief that a woman is absolutely entitled to opt for an abortion, choice is a useful word for a slogan. It implies that ending the pregnancy is a matter of a person having dominion over her own body, rather than submitting to an authority claiming to represent society’s collective will. Of course, those calling for “choice” in this case see the individual’s right to choose an abortion as trumping whatever damage, if any, might be done to society by the abortion.

The notion that it should be fine for any citizen to pull his tax money out of the funding of public education, in order to finance sending his own child to private school, has been called “choice” by its advocates. While this argument appears to be resting on a convenient logic, it ignores the long-held American tenet that everyone in the community has a stake in public education, regardless of how many children they have.

In both cases, the sloganeers show a telling awareness of the lure the word “choice” has today. Perhaps this is due to some new collective sense of powerlessness in the air. Or maybe the scam aspect of selling folks their own freedom is as old as dirt.

In “One-Dimensional Man,” German-born philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) warned us in the 1960s about illusions of freedom: 
Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear.
Marcuse’s keen eye saw the counterfeit aspect of the processed brand of freedom wielders of easy credit felt, even then, as they exercised their prerogative to select one set of time-payment obligations over another. But Marcuse’s hard-nosed take on what he saw as controls over modern society is out of style today. Still, his view of how language is predictably used by a few of us to manipulate the rest of us remains as valuable as ever. Propaganda works better than ever.

French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord’s (1754-1838) words on the topic of language remain crisp today. Talleyrand offered: 
Speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts.
British philosopher/mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) went further: 
Speech was given to man to prevent thought.
OK, so tricky lingo has long been used to shape perception. However, as a true believer in the unfettered streaming marketplace of ideas, I expect tortured language and agenda-driven slogans to come and go. My point is that the act of choosing should not be so highly valued that it comes at the expense of appreciating what happens after the choice is made.

Some folks put a lot of store in choosing the perfect mate. They shop, and they shop, but from what I’ve seen, it's what couples actually do, after their choice/commitment, that has more to do with the success of the relationship than anything else. Of course, some just keep shopping, vows or not. They can’t stop shopping and choosing.

Can constantly switching TV channels for hours be a more satisfying experience than watching one interesting program? Well, the answer probably depends on whether you value what comes after the choice. After all, in order to be able to surf 200 channels, as opposed to only 50 or 100, customers gladly pay extra, although many of them never watch any program in its entirety.

Much of television’s most popular programming feeds its audience a steady flow of information about people who happily act as if they have genuine clout -- rich celebrities who cavort about with enough bread to buy anything. Then, quite conveniently, every few minutes, commercials interrupt the program to offer the viewer a chance to unjitter his jones by calling a phone number, or getting online.

Choices! Schmoices! Anytime your options are limited to what’s on a menu that was put together by someone else, by choosing from that prepared list you are surrendering some control to the list-maker.

And, the mountain of disposable schmidgets grows, evermore, as choice addicts cast off yesterday’s tarnished urge, to grab after today's sparkling urge ... just to get through the night.

-- 30 --

Third Party Devotees, It’s Time for Something New

In the 1800s the Whigs lasted 20-some years and then were tossed into the dustbin of history. Issues and political movements come and go. In 1948 the Dixiecrats had their boomlet. 

In the 1970s, even into the ’80s, to me it made some sense to be a Libertarian. They were for self-reliance; they were conservatives against war. Some of their other ideas appealed to me, too. In the last 20 years, with most people who call themselves Libertarians consistently voting Republican, the Libertarian movement has been assimilated. Its original philosophy has become an anachronism in the political milieu.

In the 1990s, to advance the cause of the Greens, it made sense to back Ralph Nader as a presidential candidate. In 2004 voting for Nader seemed more stubborn than loyal; it seemed more foolish than progressive.

The gun-toting Libertarians of 2014, who are marching to the beat of the perpetually angry Tea Party, bear little resemblance to their forerunners. It's time for today's sincere Libertarians, who aren't actually cloaked Republicans, to do more than merely try to sabotage major party candidacies. Sorry, sabotage isn’t a solution. It isn’t a philosophy or a plan to accomplish anything. It's mostly noise.

It's high time for authentic Libertarians to pack up their good intentions and walk away from the mean-spirited rightwing extremists with which they have little in common. Yes, third party devotees, it’s time for something new.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Was It the Beauty of Accountability that Slayed the Beast?

Today I’m seeing conservatives blowing off the suggestion that Cantor’s loss was in any part due to the open primary factor allowing non-Republicans to vote. Including Democrats. Usually, when there’s evidence of even a little bit of crossover voting in a primary, the supporters for the establishment candidate squawk like it was a crime.

This time, so far, not so much. So let's look at some numbers:

According to the results posted by the State Board of Elections, Dave Brat won in the Seventh District by 11 points. Parts of nine counties are in that district, as well as part of Richmond‘s West End (west of I-95).

In the doing, Brat carried Chesterfield (10%), Goochland (9%), Hanover (36%), Henrico (7%), Louisa (11%) and New Kent (25%).

Cantor carried Culpepper (2%), Orange (22%), City of Richmond (9%) and Spotsylvania (8%).

Although I haven’t looked at the individual precinct totals, it doesn’t seem the numbers above suggest that raw ideology or a single issue were the only factors in Cantor‘s defeat. If Brat’s win was entirely due to his Tea Party credentials, why wouldn’t Orange support the candidate perceived to be the most conservative? Do Republicans in Orange care so much less about Cantor's immigration reform stance than those in Hanover? 

Likewise, why wouldn’t the suburbs of Richmond support the man portrayed as more moderate/establishment? Losing in Chesterfield and Henrico had to have shocked Cantor.

It looks to me like the effort to get Democrats and independents to vote in the primary was an important factor. Hopefully, once the exit poll results come in and some analysis is done, we'll have a clearer picture of how this stunning upset happened.

After seven terms, I do know that Cantor was widely seen as standing for little more than his own accumulation of power in the House. So, at this point I have to say I'm glad Cantor lost and maybe something akin to accountability won. And, I'm looking forward to what the experts will be saying a week from now about why.  

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Monday, June 02, 2014

The Bottom Line

The locals who seem vehemently against a baseball stadium referendum don’t really fear it would unleash anarchy. Although Richmond’s last citizen-initiated referendum was in 2003, they squawk with practiced passion that we just can’t have one on every disputed issue. In truth, most of those who oppose giving John Q. Public some say-so about this longstanding dispute know they would lose. So the squawkers turn Chicken Little about an avalanche of anarchy tumbling upon us. 

Whether they support Mayor Dwight Jones' so-called “revitalization” plan, or not, all nine members of City Council have to at least suspect a majority of Richmonders don‘t want Shockoe Stadium. They must know the Flying Squirrels fans, the majority of which are suburbanites, prefer the Boulevard location for a stadium. But the mayor’s squawking team doesn’t care -- some of them even say Richmonders ought not to be bothered to cater to the whims of rubes living in the surrounding counties. That, even if those are the very baseball fans needed to fill the stadium for the games, most of which are played at night. 

Whether it’s put on the ballot by way of a petition drive, or an act of the majority on Council, a referendum on the fate of Shockoe Stadium is the only satisfying way to resolve this dispute that has bedeviled 27 different members of City Council over the last decade.

Rather than leave this third edition of a bad scheme to die by a five-to-four vote, only to rise again next year, members of Council who want to settle this for good, and move on to other business, should support putting a referendum on November’s ballot. The voters are going to remember which of them said -- let the people decide. Likewise, the voters will remember who tried to shove something down their throats.  

With a referendum on the ballot in the fall, both sides -- all sides! -- of this debate would have a chance to present their case. Subsequently, I bet the turnout on Election Day would be huge. And, of course, some political players don't always like big turnouts.

Nonetheless, when the result comes out two- or three-to-one against baseball in the Bottom that will drive the proverbial wooden stake into Shockoe Stadium's heart. If I’m wrong, and the mayor’s side prevails, then I’ll live with that result without squawking.