Saturday, October 31, 2015

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.

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-ohaIkmTZU_0/TYOKL0YuoAI/AAAAAAAAAxw/v5kt5utrTbc/s1600/gusstacywarner.jpg

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.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Literature on Film


One of the more popular themes for a program of double features at the Biograph Theatre (1972-87) was Literature on Film; movies that were adapted from existing works of literature. The first time we used that hook was in this 1977 festival which did quite well at the box office.

On the flip side of the program (not seen) the following twin bills were listed: "Of Human Bondage" and "Lolita"; "Slaughterhouse 5" and "Ulysses"; "Anna Kaenina" and "Dr. Zchivago"; "Little Women" and "David Copperfield"; "The Stranger" and "Steppenwolf"; "Stage Door" and "Alice Adams"; "Grapes of Wrath" and "Les Miserables" and tha, tha, that's all folks.

(Click on the program itself to enlarge it.)







Saturday, October 24, 2015

Bijou presents: 'Entertainment' screening at The Byrd on Nov. 8

The Bijou Film Center, VCU's Institute for Contemporary Art and the Virginia Film Office will present "Entertainment" at the Byrd Theatre. After creating stirs at various film festivals, including the Sundance, "Entertainment" is about to have its theatrical first run begin in New York City. Please note that five days prior to that premiere in the Big Apple, its "pre-premiere" will take place in Richmond on Sun., Nov. 8. The show starts at 6:30 p.m.

Following a special happy hour gathering at the Portrait House (5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.), across the street from The Byrd, Richmond's own Rick Alverson -- the director of "Entertainment" -- will be on hand to introduce the film.

Admission: Tickets at the box office will be $10.00. Advance tickets are available online at Eventbrite for $7.00 (plus a processing fee of $1.38) each. Paper advance tickets will be available for $7.00 (cash or check) at Bygones Vintage Clothing and Steady Sounds until the day of the show.

The After-Party will unfold at the New York Deli following the screening. It will feature a live comedy showcase, which will be hosted by Herschel Stratego. As a special treat, the protagonist in the film, The Comedian, aka Neil Hamburger (as played by Gregg Turkington), will appear on that program. Admission will be free.

"Entertainment" (2015): Color. 110 minutes. Directed by Rick Alverson. Cast: Gregg Turkington, John C. Reilly, Tye Sheridan, Michael Cera. Note: The film's protagonist is an abrasive comedian who hurls his absurd material at small audiences in bleak dives in forgotten towns. The laughs come more from the situations than the jokes. As it mocks our expectations, "Entertainment" is a compelling odyssey. Occasionally, it's laugh-out-loud funny. For viewers who've enjoyed the rather unconventional work of directors such as Robert Bresson, Luis Buñuel and David Lynch, Alverson's new flick could be about to shoulder its way onto their top ten lists. Love it, or hate it, "Entertainment" is a bona fide "art movie" that is probably destined to become a cult classic.

The Mission of The Bijou is to establish the nonprofit film center in Richmond, Virginia, the centerpiece of which will be a small independent cinema. We will strive to present the best of the artsy first-run independent and imported films available. Those engagements will be sandwiched between short runs of selected classics. Beyond the exhibition of our gourmet film fare, we hope to be a friend to Richmonders interested in the preserving of old films and the making of new films.

More info is available at the Facebook event page.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Flashback: Virginia's 1994 Senate Race

In the summer of 1994 O.J. Simpson-related material was on television round-the-clock. Meanwhile, a four-way race political race developed in Virginia, as three candidates emerged to challenge the incumbent Chuck Robb for his seat in the U.S. Senate.

Republican Ollie North was nominated by a convention at the Richmond Coliseum. Former governor Doug Wilder, a Democrat, threw his hat in as an Independent. Finally, Marshall Coleman, a Republican former attorney general and failed gubernatorial candidate, ran as an Independent, too.

Naturally, both Wilder and Coleman were seen immediately as spoilers by many observers. The few members of the national press that weren't assigned to the story of Simpson's soon-to-begin trial were all over the circus-like story of the quartet of candidates in Virginia. Although Robb was the incumbent, North was easily the biggest celebrity in the group. Wilder might have argued that point.

In late August, I issued what was then my fourth set of collectible cards -- “Campaign Inkbites: The ‘94 VA Senate Race.”

After swearing he was in the race 'til the finish, the mercurial Wilder withdrew in October. The wooden Coleman stayed the course, with stubborn Sen. John Warner as his chief backer. North, ever the checkered-shirted dandy, raised and spent over $25 million; what was then a new record for the most ever in a U.S. Senate race ... any state. In the end the awkward Robb outlasted them all and won reelection.

Beneath the 1994 newspaper article about that card collection are scans of 12 of the 15 original cards from the set. With 21 years of dust on the cards, some of my attempts at humor may not work so well now, hopefully the caricatures are still fun to look at. As I produced these cards, it was an interesting challenge to try to write lines for the dialogue balloons that would hold up for a month or two, no matter what the developments.

Right out of the gate, this edition was lucky with publicity, the article reprinted below started it:
Sept. 6, 1994: David Poole and Dwayne Yancey (Virginian-Pilot)
Odds and ends from the past week of Virginia's U.S. Senate campaign: I'll swap you two Doug Wilders for a Tai Collins. The colorful U.S. Senate race has spawned a set of trading cards featuring the four candidates and a host of supporting characters - including the former Miss Virginia who gave a nude massage to Chuck Robb in a New York hotel.

There’s U.S. Sen. John Warner sounding defensive about his hand-picked candidate, Marshall Coleman: “Why should I strain to name an office he hasn't sought, or an abortion stance he hasn't taken? The point is: Marshall isn't Ollie.”

There’s conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh assessing the race: “The choice in Virginia is simple. You’ve got a stained, lap-dog liberal, a bleached and petulant liberal, a fair-weather conservative, and a genuine, world-class hero.”


There’s political pundit Larry Sabato reporting on the latest poll results: “Fifty-one percent said the race is so embarrassing they plan to leave the state.”
The “Campaign Inkbites” are the brainchild of F.T. Rea, a Richmond artist who a decade ago issued a similar deck of cards commemorating a massive death-row escape at Mecklenberg Correctional Center [by the notorious Briley brothers and four others]. The set of 15 Senate cards is available at Biff’s bookstore [also at Chickens, the snack bar in the State Capitol] in Richmond for $12 a pack.

The most unflattering likeness in the set is that of Sabato, whose green skin gives him the look of a vampire.

“Ironically, he’s my best customer,” Rea said of Sabato. “He bought 12
packs.”
Then an AP story written by Martha Slud ran. Lots of newspapers (1, 2) picked it up and printed various versions of it. Some ran the whole piece, as shown below, others edited it down.
Then came a five-minute report on the card set by Bob Woodruff that appeared on CNN.

Previously, Woodruff had done a report on earlier card project of mine. As it happened, I just happened to run into him and he asked what I was up to. All that publicity prompted political memorabilia collectors from far and wide to buy the cards through the mail.

STYLE Weekly then asked me to do a cover and a five-page spread of cartoons on the same campaign. That feature ran in the Oct. 18, 1994, issue.

It was a wild ride.

*

Note: Click on any of the cards or the article to enlarge them.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Blood Isn't Just Red

Each time we ask basically the same questions: Why is it almost always a young white male? Did the mayhem stem from a humiliating rejection? Was it television or video games that made an already disturbed individual into a crazy shooter? The Internet? What role did his family life play in bending his mind? Were the words of crackpot celebrities rattling around in the shooter's head? Did a dog tell him to do it?

Sorry, I can't offer a conclusive answer. But pretending that people do things, even strange things, for a single reason doesn't usually get us closer to the truth. Searching for an overriding motive for spraying bullets into a schoolroom or a movie theater -- some clue to make sense of it -- doesn't usually lead to any sort of satisfaction .... but to ease our pain we always look, anyway.

Will we ever really understand how someone could do such a thing? I doubt it, but our common sense tells us there's something in America's culture that has been contributing to these massacres. Certainly, the availability of the rapid-fire weapons facilitates the slaughter, but what else can be said to be a common denominator? 

The piece that follows was published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch on its May 1, 1999 OpEd Page. The point it makes about the long-term effects of repeated violent images on television still seems apt to me.
Blood Isn’t Just Red
by F.T. Rea

Television has dominated the American cultural landscape for the past 50 years. A boon to modern life in many ways, television is nonetheless transmitting an endless stream of cruel and bloody images into everyone’s head.

However, if you’re still waiting for absolute proof that a steady diet of video violence can be harmful to the viewer, forget it. We’ll all be dead before such a thing can be proven. This is a common sense call that can and should be made without benefit of dueling experts. Short of blinding denial, any serious person can see that the influence television has on young minds is among the factors playing a role in the crime statistics.

How significant that role has been/is can be debated.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m as dedicated to protecting freedom of speech as the next guy. So perish the thought that I’m calling for the government to regulate violence on television. It’s not a matter of preventing a particular scene, or act, from being aired. The problem is that the flow of virtual mayhem is constant.

Eventually splattered blood becomes ambient: just another option for the art director.

My angle here is that in the marketplace of ideas, the repeated image has a decided advantage. The significance of repetition in advertising was taught to me over 25 years ago by a man named Lee Jackoway. He was a master salesman, veteran broadcaster, and my boss at WRNL-AM. And, like many in the advertising business, he enjoyed holding court and telling war stories.

He had found me struggling with the writing of some copy for a radio commercial. At the time he asked me a few questions and let it go. But later, in front of a group of salesmen and disc jockeys, Jackoway explained to his audience what I was doing was wrong. Basically, he said that instead of stretching to write good copy, the real effort should be focused on selling the client more time, so the ad spot would get additional exposure.

Essentially, Jackoway told us to forget about trying to be the next Stan Freeberg. Forget about cute copy and far-flung schemes. What matters is results. If you know the target audience and you have the right vehicle to reach it, then all you have to do is saturate that audience. If you hit that target often enough, the results are money in the bank.

Jackoway told us most of the large money spent on production went to satisfying the ego of the client, or to promoting the ad agency’s creativity. While he might have oversimplified the way ad biz works to make his point, my experience with media has brought me to the same bottom line: When all else fails, saturation works.

Take it from me, dear reader, it doesn’t matter how much you think you’re ignoring the commercials that are beamed your way; more often than not repetition bores the message into your head. Ask the average self-absorbed consumer why he chooses a particular motor oil or breakfast cereal, and chances are he’ll claim the thousands of commercials he paid no heed had nothing to do with his choices.

Meanwhile, good old Lee Jackoway knows that same chump is pouring Pennzoil on his Frosted Flakes because he has been influenced by aggressive advertising all day long, every day.

OK, if repetition works so well in television’s advertising, why would repetition fail to sell whatever messages stem from the rest of its fare? When you consider all the murders, all the rapes, all the malevolence that television dishes out 24 hours a day, it adds up. It has to.

What to do?

I have to believe that if the sponsors of the worst, most pointless violent programs felt the sting of a boycott from time to time, they would react. Check your history; boycotts work.

It’s not as though advertisers are intrinsically evil. No, they are merely trying to reach their target audience as cheaply as possible. The company that produces a commercial has no real interest in pickling your child’s brain with violence; it just wants to reach the kid with a promotional message.

If enough consumers eschew worthless programs and stop buying the products that sponsor them, the advertiser will change its strategy. It really is that simple.

As we all know: A day passes whether anything is accomplished or not. Well, parents, a childhood passes, too, whether anything of value is learned or not.

Maybe television is blocking your child off from a lesson that needs to be learned firsthand -- in the real world where blood isn’t just red, it’s wet.

-- 30 --

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Remembering High on the Hog 1977-2006

Note: This piece was originally published by Brick Weekly in 2007.  

Memphis Rockabilly Band (and impresario Chuck Wrenn)
on the HOTH stage in Libby Hill Park for the last time.

Due  to the intrusion of an all-day downpour, last year’s edition of High on the Hog, No. 30, was a soggy affair. Two of the bands scheduled couldn’t play under the circumstances. Yet, in spite of the stormy weather, the Bopcats and the Memphis Rockabilly Band performed using a scaled down sound system. Tarps were lashed to the sides and back of the stage to block the wind-driven rain.

A few party stalwarts danced in the mud with umbrellas. The show went on … but perhaps for the last time.

“It was a Nor’easterner that settled over Richmond,” said the longtime director of matters musical, Chuck Wrenn. “We’ll see what the future brings.”

Meanwhile, there certainly will be no High on the Hog 31 this year.

So, the director of matters porcine, Larry Ham, won’t be slathering his Carolina red vinegar basting sauce over slow-cooking pork this Saturday in Libby Hill Park. Moreover, it seems likely that High on the Hog—which for three decades has served a generation as a reliable reunion party—has probably happened for the last time.

The heavy losses sustained from last year’s fizzler meant the handful of friends/neighbors who have staged and financially backed HOTH since its inception took a bath in red ink ... the rainy day fund was wiped out.

Going back to HOTH’s origins, other than Ham, among Wrenn’s chief co-conspirators have been: Bobby Long, Dave O’Kelly, John Cochran, Randy Smith and Steve McKay. For such veterans last year’s weather had to bring to mind another rainy day, 26 years before. 1980 was the year they significantly enlarged the plan for what had originally been a small annual neighborhood party.

Three rousing rock n’ roll bands played on a flatbed trailer in the cobblestone alley behind Wrenn’s 2808 East Franklin Street back yard for what was the then-largest HOTH crowd ever.

Yet, this was a time when one couldn’t get a permit from the proper authorities for such an event. Amplified rock simply wasn’t allowed at outdoor shindigs in Richmond, most especially on public property. So, in a sense HOTH 4 was flying below, or perhaps above, the radar. For whatever reason the cops on the beat chose not to bust it.

When it suddenly began raining in 1980, rather than lose momentum by shutting off the electricity and clearing the stage—to wait out the downpour—Wrenn broke out his staple gun and large rolls of heavy-gauge transparent plastic. With the help of volunteers an awning was hastily improvised to keep the rain off the stage. A portion of the yard closest to it was also protected, somewhat.

Then, with the electric guitars of Don’ Ax Me ... Bitch wailing in defiance of the chilly rainstorm, the sense of common purpose felt by those dancing in the mud was unforgettable. The full potential of live rock n’ roll music to simultaneously express both lamentation and celebration was realized.

In 1983 HOTH had outgrown its alley venue, so it shifted gears and moved into the park across the street. The throwdown even went legit. Subsequently, HOTH’s rollicking success and noteworthy lack of trouble planted the seeds for Jumpin’ in July, Friday Cheers and the outdoor music festivals that have blossomed since.

The HOTH record for beer sales on a Saturday afternoon still stands at 209 kegs; it was some time in the early ‘90s, according to Chuck. At its peak, it took some 350 volunteers to chop the pork, serve the beer, tend the stage, etc. Each year volunteers got a new HOTH T-shirt for their trouble; extras were sold to the public. There have been 25 different models.

What was a beloved local gospel group, The Silver Stars, holds the record for most HOTH appearances with 10 (1987-‘96). The Memphis Rockabilly Band played the gig seven times (1980, ‘81, ‘84-‘87, ‘06).

“The Silver Stars, we got every year we could ... until they died,” Wrenn recalled.

What were locally-based bands with multiple appearances include: The Bopcats, The Good Humor Band, Billy Ray Hatley’s bands, Page Wilson with Reckless Abandon and The Wall-O-Matics. Maybe the three most noteworthy national acts were: Billy Price and the Keystone Rhythm Band in ‘83 and ‘85; NRBQ in ‘87; Marcia Ball in ‘01.

Presented with the prospect that HOTH has run it course, a smiling Chuck Wrenn offered familiar advice, “Don’t forget to have a good time.”

Those coveted laminated backstage credentials, which meant free beer to the wearer, will probably be selling on eBay soon. Who knows what T-shirts will eventually be worth?

Appropriately, as it stands now, the last band to perform was the impeccably authentic Memphis Rockabilly Band. Although it was unplanned, they were the perfect act to play an encore for 30 years of smiles ... one last fast dance in the mud.

-- Word and photo by F.T. Rea