Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The Jellypig

By F.T. Rea

Note from Rebus: The little painting to the right was the third in a series Rea did in 1983 to amuse his mischievous girlfriend. In each of them I got killed off in a different way. In the summer of 1983, it was generally assumed that Rea had quit his job on a sudden whim. In truth, the mysterious process had been anything but sudden. 

In 1997, feeling challenged by F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Crack-Up," Rea first attempted to write an account of his departure from the Biograph. As it required laying bare some of his troubles with what he calls "melancholia," it wasn't such an easy project to execute. This version of the story was put together in 2007. The weird telephone piece below was made and photographed by Rea shortly after he walked away from the Biograph. 



When one divines the presence of a specific person in connection with some unexplained occurrence, without any tangible evidence of their involvement, what real trust should one put in such raw instinct?

How much of a hunch is a flash of extraordinary perception? How much is imagination?

In a high contrast crisis, doubting a hunch could get somebody killed. But in everyday life’s ambiguous gray scale of propriety, how much can anyone afford to put at risk strictly on intuition? Hey, if you shoot a guy based on your gut feeling that he was about to kill someone else, with no corroborative evidence, you’re going to need a good lawyer.

The torturous story of why I left my longtime job as manager of the Biograph Theatre began with a ringing telephone on an Indian Summer afternoon in 1981 that I remember all too well. I put the Sunday newspaper aside to pick up the receiver and said, “Hello.”

There was no reply. At that moment there was no reason to think it was more than a wrong number or a malfunction on the line. Yet, after listening to a creepy silence for half a minute and repeating “hello” a few times, I sensed I knew the person at the other end of the line.

As I hung up that mysterious feeling was replaced by a flicker of a thought that named a specific person. Then the notion faded into a queasy sensation that made me go outside for some fresh air. For an instant I thought I knew something there was no plain way for me to know. Moreover, I didn’t want to know it.

My grandmother had told me a thousand times to never go against a hunch. Had I have discussed it with her she would have said a clear message from what she would have called my “inner voice” should always trump all else.

Instead of seeking her counsel I asked only myself: “Why would that person call me, to hang on the line and say nothing?” It made no sense. So, I tried to study the hunch, to examine its basis.

As I walked toward the closest bar, the Village, I was already caught in an undertow that would eventually carry my spirit far away from everything that had mattered to me.

Now I know that my grandmother understood something I was yet to learn -- a hunch is a bolt from the blue that cannot be gathered and investigated. It can’t be revisited like a conclusion. A true hunch can only be felt once.

Yet, for a number of reasons it was easier for me to view my inconvenient hunch as counterfeit. A few weeks later, by the time the calls had become routine, the whole concept of believing in hunches was on its way to the same place as beliefs in the Tooth Fairy and Heaven. A grown man, a man of reason, needed to rise above all such superstitions.

The caller never spoke. Usually, I hung up right away. Sometimes I’d listen as hard as I could for a while, trying to hear a telltale sound. The reader should note that telephone answering machines, while available then, were not yet cheap. Most people did not have one at this time.


After a haphazard year-and-a-half of one-night stands and such, following the break-up of my ten-year marriage, at this same time I had a new girlfriend. Tana was long-legged and sarcastic; she could be very distracting. She was a fine art major who waitressed part-time at one of the strip’s busiest saloons, the Jade Elephant. My apartment was just two blocks from there and she stayed over at my place about half the time, so she knew about the calls.

Tana was the only person who knew anything about it for a long time. She was sworn to secrecy. Mostly, I just let Tana distract me.

Quite sensibly, she urged me to contact the authorities, or at least to get an unlisted phone number. Offering no real explanation, I wasn’t comfortable with either option. Playing my cards close to the vest, I simply acted as if it didn’t really bother me. At this point she didn’t know about the hunch. We spent a lot of time riding our bicycles and playing Frisbee-golf.

As I rummage through my memory of this time period now the images are smeared and spooky. I stayed high more than before. For sure, I’ve forgotten a lot of it.

A few months later my nose was broken in a basketball game, and by pure coincidence I saw my grandmother on a stretcher at the hospital while I was there. Feeling weak, she had checked herself in. Nana died before dawn: March 5, 1982.

Later that morning, when I went to her apartment to see after her affairs, she had already packed everything up. She left notes on pieces of cardboard taped to furniture about her important papers and what to do with everything. A few days later my daughter and I sprinkled Nana's ashes into a creek in Orange County; it was a place she had played when she was a little girl.

Unmercifully, the stalking telephone calls became more frequent. Wherever I went, home, office, or someone else’s place, the phone would ring. Then there would be that same diabolical silence, no matter who answered.

Anxiety had become my familiar companion, although I didn’t know then to call it by that name. While I surely needed to do something decisive about the telephone problem, the energy just couldn’t be mustered.

If someone had told me I was sinking deeper and deeper into a major depression, well, I would have laughed it off -- I was too cocky to be depressed. In my view, then, depression was an affliction of people who were bored. It never occurred to me that pure confidence was leaking out of my psyche, spilling away forever.

Unfortunately, my narrow view of the problem centered around the mystery of who and why.



Part of the persona I had created and projected in my role as the Biograph’s manager was that everything came easily to me. I liked to hide any hard work or struggle from the public, even the staff at times. While I might have wrestled with the artwork for a Midnight Show handbill for days, I would act as if it had been dashed off in an hour.

Looking back on it now, I’d say that pose was part of a cool image I wanted to project for the theater, itself, too.

Living inside such a pretend world -- within a pretend world -- rather than seeing the debilitating effect the telephone monster was having on me, I saw only clues. My strategy was to outlast the caller, to close in like a hard-boiled movie sleuth without ever letting anyone know it was getting to me.

Since the calls started around the time I began seeing Tana, it seemed plausible it could have to do with her. Maybe an old boyfriend? Also, there was my own ex -- maybe one of her new squeezes? Maybe my rather eccentric brother (who died in 2005)? Beyond those obvious possibilities, I poured over the smallest details of each and every personal relationship.

As a theater manager, my movie detective training told me it had to be someone with a powerful grudge, so I created a list of prime suspects.

Misunderstandings with disgruntled former employees were combed through, rivals from various battles I’d fought over the years were considered. And, there were people I had hurt, out of just being careless. It became my habit to question the motives of those around me at every turn. In sly ways, they were all tested.

As I examined my history, searching through any details that could have set a grudge in motion, a new picture of Terry Rea began to emerge. I found reasons for guilt that had never occurred to me before. When I looked in the mirror, I began to see a different man, a self-centered phony.

It was as if I had discovered a secret, grotesque portrait of what was left of my soul, hanging in the attic, like Oscar Wilde’s character -- Dorian Gray.

Then my old yellow Volvo wagon was rifled. A few personal things were taken but they didn’t touch the stereo. When my office at the theater was burglarized, my glasses and a photograph of me were stolen. Of course, I saw those crimes as connected to the phone calls.

Tired of the ordeal and frustrated with me, Tana had been imploring me to have the calls traced. In late September, I finally agreed to do it. A woman who worked for the telephone company told me I had to keep a precise record of the times of all the calls, and I had to agree to prosecute the guilty party if he was discovered. Although it had been nearly a year, I was still holding the mystery close to me and hadn’t mentioned it to anyone at the theater.

As the telephone company’s pin register gadgetry soon revealed, there was good reason for that.

One way or another, I managed to get information out of the telephone company lady without actually getting on board with the police part of it. The bottom line was this -- there were two numbers on the list of traced calls that coincided with nearly all the calls on my record. One was a pay phone in Goochland County, the other was the Biograph’s number.

Several of those calls were placed from the theater, well after it had closed. After looking at the record of the work schedule from the previous weeks, one employee had worked the late shift on each night a call came from the building after hours. Not coincidentally, this same man was the only person who lived in Goochland, twenty miles away.

Most importantly, it was the same man revealed by my original hunch -- he was the projectionist at the Biograph. Now I refer to the culprit only as the “jellypig.”

Why jellypig?

Let’s just say he had a porcine, yet gelatinous way about him. I prefer to avoid using his real name because it suits me. People who are familiar with the cast of characters in this tangled story still know his name. That’s enough for me.

Nonetheless, while all the circumstantial evidence pointed at only one man the thought of wrongfully accusing a person of such a terrible thing was still unbearable to me.

So, I continued to stew in my own juices.



In November, I decided to move, to flee Grace Street for a new pad further downtown on Franklin Street. At a staff meeting, I revealed aspects of the stalking I had been enduring. I explained that for a while, I would not get a new home telephone. They were also told I had proof of who was actually behind the calls, but I said nothing about any of the calls having been made from the theater. Most importantly, I left them to guess at the villain’s identity.

Why?

Truth is, I don’t remember. Perhaps I was hoping to scare the jellypig and make him slink away.

Although the calls at my home ceased to be a problem, a week or so later a weird note was left in my car. Why that became the last straw I don’t know ... but it was.

The following afternoon, when no one else was in the building, I called the jellypig into my office. Sitting at my desk, I looked him in the eye and calmly lowered the boom. It was like living in a black and white B movie. None of it seemed real.

He looked scared and flatly denied it. So, I told him about the traced phone calls. That news deflated him; he collapsed into himself. The bulbous jellypig stared blankly at the floor. Then he insisted that someone ... somebody had to be framing him.

I was flabbergasted!

It hadn’t even occurred to me that he would simply lie in the face of such a strong case. To get him out of my sight I told him he had one day to come up with a better story, or the owners of the theater would be told and he’d be turned over to the cops. I can’t remember what I said would happen if he came clean. Most likely, I was still hoping he’d just go away.

Maybe I didn’t have a plan.

The problem with just firing the jellypig right on the spot was that replacing him wouldn’t be so easy. Since late-1980, the Biograph had been operating as a non-union house. Because of an ongoing dispute with the local operators union, I was hiring our projectionists directly off the street.

As it happened, our original projectionist developed a problem with the local union over some internal politics. Later, his rivals took over. They fought. He got steamed and walked out. Which prompted the union to tell me to bar him from the booth. Although I was uncomfortable going against the union, politically, I felt standing by the individual I had worked with for eight years was the right thing to do.

The union’s reaction was to pull its men off the job. This eventually led to me hiring the man who became the jellypig to be a back-up projectionist. For reasons I can’t recall, he was then at odds with the union, too, so he was willing to work at the Biograph in spite of the official boycott.

Subsequently, our full-time projectionist -- whose squabble had created the problem -- left to take a job with another theater that had also broken with the union. Which made it look like the whole town might follow our example and go non-union. Naturally, that put me in an even worse light with the union brass, who blamed me personally.

The jellypig seemed qualified to run the booth, so the easiest thing to do was promote him to full-time when the opening came about. Although I ’d never really checked up on him, like I usually did when I hired people, I put him in charge of the two projection booths.

So, if I fired the jellypig -- summarily and on the spot -- the Biograph didn’t have as many options as it should have, owing to the fact there was a very limited pool of qualified projectionists readily available to a non-union house. We had trained an usher to be backup, but he wasn’t ready to run the whole operation.

It seemed I had little choice but to get in touch with the union for a replacement. Since the theater was in a slump, it was a bad time for operating expenses to go up, and I expected the union bosses would go for some payback with a new contract.

The jellypig rushed into my office the next day with the big news -- he had solved the mystery! In a flurry, he claimed the person responsible for the calls was an old nemesis of his. It was an evil genius who was an electronics expert. He could fool the phone company’s machinery.

It seemed the jellypig's comic book villain had a long history of playing terrible dirty tricks on him, going back to their tortured childhood at the orphanage in Pittsburgh.

Oh brother!

Then, if that wasn’t bad enough, the jellypig told me the guilty one was doing it all for two reasons: One was simply to heap trouble onto the house of the jellypig, who had a wife and kids to support. The other was to hurt your narrator, directly ... since the evil genius knew all.

At this point the jellypig coughed up the breaking news that he had long been harboring a powerful carnal lust for me. Caught up in the moment, the jellypig began to sob, admitting it was all his fault -- he had foolishly shared the vital particulars of his secret craving with the evil one, himself.

OK. I know it makes no sense now, but as I listened to jellypig, along with disgust I began to feel something akin to pity. The selling jellypig assured me that he would do whatever it took to stop the evil genius from bothering me ever again. He begged me, literally on his knees, not to tell his wife or the theater’s owners about any of it.

My mind was reeling and my stomach had turned.

As I told the jellypig to leave the office and let me think, there's no doubt that I should have wondered which one of us was the craziest.
Not surprisingly, the tailspin the Biograph had gone into had become wilder. The theater was loosing money like it hadn’t in several years. As the winter came and went, my spirits sank steadily. It was like being paralyzed so slowly it was almost imperceptible.

During the spring, the two managing partners frequently brought up the subject of selling the Richmond Biograph, which scared me to no end.

In the meantime, the owners told me expenses had to be slashed drastically, meaning I had to let some people go. Who and how many was up to me, but salaries had to come in under a certain figure. So I was given a few days to come up with a new plan that had to eliminate at least one of the two guys who had been there the longest.

Shortly thereafter, I was at my desk talking on the phone to a close friend about how I was putting out feelers for another job, because the Biograph was for sale. Without thinking, I gave him my new, unlisted home phone number, which had been put in Tana’s name. When I hung up, it struck me the damned jellypig might have heard me, if his ear had been up to the common drywall between the booth and my office.

My home telephone rang several times that night.

That very night! It was pure hell. Mustering the coldblooded attitude to fire friends to cut costs wasn't within me.

Then there was this -- if I bowed out of the picture it would eliminate the biggest salary burden the theater had. By this point I had developed a couple of mysterious health problems. I literally lost my voice, due to a vocal cord problem.

Plus, the Biograph’s ability to negotiate with the local union would be less encumbered without me around. Good reasons for me to run away from 814 West Grace Street seemed everywhere I looked. With no plan of where I would end up, I suddenly decided to walk away from what I had once seen as the best job in the Fan District.

So I called the owners to tell them of my decision to leave; they also heard about the jellypig business for the first time. The boys in DeeCee were shocked and urged me to reconsider, to take a month off. They had hired me to manage the theater months before it opened it opened in 1972. We’d been through a lot together.

However, I’m sure they were actually quite torn with what to do with their floundering friend. Clearly, at that time I was not the resourceful problem solver I had been for many years. Beyond that, we could all see fashion was turning sharply against what had been a darling of the ‘70s popular culture -- repertory cinemas.

The future for the Biograph looked dicey no matter what I did. The owners agreed with me that the jellypig had to go ... as soon as possible. I remember mentioning that I had gotten him to promise to get psychiatric help in exchange for me not calling the police.

Without much of an explanation to anyone else, I announced to whoever cared that I was moving on and looking forward to a life of new adventures. Movie critic Carole Kass wrote a small article for the Richmond Times-Dispatch noting that I had “retired.”

Over lunch at Stella’s on Harrison St., soon after my barely explained departure from the Biograph, I told a former Biograph co-worker that maybe I had it all coming to me. Maybe the jellypig had just been an agent of karma. I speculated that perhaps my hubris and nonchalance had all but invited ruin.

She got so angry she walked out of the restaurant. At the time I couldn’t grasp what her reaction meant.

What I couldn’t explain to anyone, because I didn’t understand it myself, was that I just had no confidence. I didn’t know what to do next at any given moment. My gift of gab, such as it had been, was kaput. I stammered. In the middle of a sentence, I would lose my place ... questioning how to end it.

As the summer wore on it turned out the jellypig wasn’t quickly replaced in the Biograph’s booth, which galled me to no end. Apparently the owners were struggling with the union over a new contract.

That’s when I came up with the name “jellypig.” A few weeks after dropping my job like a hot potato I went by the theater to leave off a little drawing for him on the staff message board. It featured a cartoon character I created for the occasion -- the jellypig.

The character was a simple line drawing of a pig-like creature. He was depicted in a scene under a water line, chained to an anchor. He had little x’s for eyes. There were small bubbles coming from his head and drifting toward the water’s surface. The jellypig was almost smiling, he seemed unconcerned with his fate.

The caption read something like, “The jellypig takes a swim,” or “The jellypig’s day at the beach.” That began a short series of similar cartoons, all left off at the Biograph. The others portrayed a suffering jellypig in that same droll tone.

Yes, I did it to get into his head -- let him be scared, for a change.

Although I was no longer in charge of the theater, it was habit for me to have a say in it’s affairs. Which made for some awkward moments, because the jellypig cartoons weren’t funny to anybody but me. It put the new manager, Mike, who had been my assistant manager for five years, in an awkward position.

For about a year I had been doing a Thursday afternoon show on a semi-underground radio station called Color Radio. As a record played, from the studio I spoke on the phone with the jellypig. He was at work. I don’t recall what precipitated the conversation. Anyway, he told me he had blown off the notion of professional counseling. I warned him that he was breaking his bargain. He went on to say that he didn’t need any help, but that maybe I did.

The jellypig revealed to me that he resented the way I had treated him for a long time -- deliberately excluding him from much of the social scene at the theater. He complained bitterly, saying I had stood in the way of his advancement. But in spite of the way I had tried to poison the owners’ minds against him ... eventually, he would convince them to let him manage the Biograph to save money.

For the first time it hit me -- the scheming jellypig’s entire effort had been a “Gaslight” treatment. All that time I’d been playing Ingrid Bergman to his Charles Boyer.

The anger from what I had allowed to happen welled up in that moment. I told the jellypig that after my radio shift ended, I was coming directly to the theater. If he was still there, I’d break both of his legs with a softball bat.

On my way to the Biograph I wondered again who, if anyone, on the staff might have known more about the jellypig's game than they had let on. When I got to the theater the jellypig had called in a replacement and vamoosed. We'll never know what would have happened had he been there.

Maybe I would have broken only one leg.

The terrified jellypig worked a couple more shifts in the booth after that day. Taking no chances, he brought in his children to be there with him, as human shields. Then, wisely, he split ... for good.

Which meant no more jellypig cartoons.


It took my run for a seat on City Council in the spring of 1984 to wrench loose from that unprecedented spell of melancholia. Blowing off my hunch on that first call probably bought me more trouble than any other single mistake I’ve ever made. Tana and I split up in the fall.

All these years later, I wonder if I heard something in that first call. Maybe it was a sound so faint I didn’t know I heard it; almost like subliminal suggestion. Perhaps it was the churning sound of the projection equipment. Although I don’t remember hearing it, it’s the best explanation -- short of parapsychology -- that makes any sense.

My dear grandmother’s advice to trust six-sense hunches now seems like good medicine. Put another way, it simply meant -- trust your own judgment. Believe in yourself. Which might be the best advice I could ever give my own grandchildren.

*

Note from Rebus: By the time the Biograph's pair of screens went dark in December of 1987 many art houses had already closed all over the country. The golden age for repertory cinemas was a fading memory. Months behind on the rent, Richmond's Biograph was seized by its landlord and closed down forever. It was two months shy of its 16th anniversary. The building that housed it is still there; now it's the oldest building on the block.

All rights reserved by the author. For more stories in the Biograph Times 
series by F.T. Rea click here.

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