Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Time Warping, Again

 This photo of Larry Rohr riding through the Biograph's larger 
auditorium on was shot on March 1, 1980.
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 — is said to have begun 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 rather 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 culture phenomenon was still flying below the radar for most of America.

We had already asked Fox, the distributor, about playing it but were told there weren't any prints available. Then a trip to LA in May of that year boosted my interest in the film. I was fascinated with what I was told about what was happening out there with “Rocky Horror.” I told my bosses in Georgetown what I'd learned and we decided to try harder to book it. Their former partner, David Levy, had beaten them to it for the D.C. market; it had recently started playing at The Key.

Once again, our inquiry to the distributor hit a roadblock. With all of the existing prints of the movie still 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 movie 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 simply 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 about 20 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 they expected. Still, it was more than enough to alert the fanatics who had already been going to D.C. 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” (1965) during its first-run engagement at the Willow Lawn. 

March 1, 1980.

That night Porter and I were both dressed in tuxedos (as pictured above). 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 at the top of the page) 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 some nagging what-ifs about 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 the context of the times, 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 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.

-- Photos by Ernie Brooks

-- 30 --

Monday, December 11, 2017

Remembering Rozanne Epps (1922-2008)

Photo from STYLE Weekly
Note: The remembrance below was originally posted here on SLANTblog nine years ago (Nov. 20, 2008), shortly after the death of Rozanne Epps (pictured right). 

After watching the excellent new HBO documentary, "The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee," I had a telephone conversation in which I rambled onto citing the importance of having good editors (in the old days), and now ... which eventually led to mentioning Rozanne as an example of a skilled editor that I loved working with. So I decided to re-post this brief tribute to a person who deserves to be remembered well.   
Rozanne Epps led a full life before she died at the age of 86 on Sunday. For over 20 years she worked at STYLE Weekly, going back to the days when Lorna Wyckoff was still its publisher. I knew of her long before her days at STYLE, because of her noteworthy career at VCU. (Click here for background in the STYLE obituary.) And, I knew her as Garrett Epps' mother. I knew him only casually when he was a member of the staff at the Richmond Mercury, along with Frank Rich, Harry Stein, Glenn Frankel and others in the early-70s.
But my only real association with her began in 1999, when she accepted one piece I submitted to STYLE and sent me to Richmond.com with the other. The one that ran as a Back Page piece was about baseball. The one that began my relationship with Richmond.com was about the closing of the Texas Wisconsin Border Cafe.

Over the years since, STYLE, and especially Richmond.com, have published a lot of my work. So, I'm grateful to her for that good turn. However, what I got from her as an editor is why I'm writing this remembrance. Rozanne taught me to be a better writer. She did that with good humor and fairness. It was always fun to exchange emails and talk on the telephone with her.

So, to those who knew her far better than I did, yes, we are all lucky we knew Rozanne Epps.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Texas 71, VCU 67

Tues., Dec. 5, 2017: It was the 105th consecutive sell-out crowd for the home-standing VCU Rams. ESPN2 was in the house, so a national television audience had also watched the Texas Longhorns build a 19-point lead with 11:59 left in the game.

Then VCU went on a run and there were moments it got as loud as I've heard it at the Siegel Center. OK, maybe it was louder when the Rams beat the Louisville Cardinals, on Nov. 19, 1999, the night the first game was played in that arena. I'm not sure.

At the 3:52 mark VCU took its only lead in the game: VCU 63, Texas 62.

For the next two-and-a-half minutes neither team scored. Then the visitors pulled ahead and went on to win what was a first class college basketball game. Indeed, both teams left it all on the floor.  

Final score: Texas 71, VCU 67.

The Rams senior forward, Justin Tillman, led all scorers with 22 points. Tillman also grabbed 10 rebounds. Much of the game he was working against Texas forward Mohamed Bamba, the 7-foot-tall freshman phenom with the monster wingspan. Bamba blocked 4 shots, changed several others and got 13 boards to match his 13 points. He is widely expected to be a lottery pick in the next NBA draft.

Anyway, after the game in the media room, it was packed with sports writers, broadcasters and others who have access. Hoops fan Stuart Siegel was there; he frequently is. So were Dr. Eugene Trani (VCU President Emeritus) and his wife, Lois. VCU's Coach Mike Rhoades faced the assembled press. He did his usual fine job of handling the ordeal.

After Rhoades cleared out, Shaka Smart sat in the hot seat. Smart seemed eager to say, "This is a special place to play a basketball game." He also seemed tired.

When Smart was through answering questions the reporters started to pack up and leave. Dr. Trani approached Smart and the two had a warm but brief conversation. So I snapped a quick shot of them with my cell phone. Then Trani asked me to take a photo of the three of them. I was happy to document the moment.

The Washington Post also covered the scene with a nice feature article by Dan Steinberg.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Person of the Year?

If this happens no one will be more surprised than Rebus. 
Oh, and Donald Trump, of course.


Monday, December 04, 2017

Rea's Rams Report: No. 3

Shaka Smart returns to Richmond on Dec. 5, when his 
Texas Longhorns will face the VCU Rams at the Siegel 
Center. ESPN2 will carry the telecast (7 p.m.).

VCU's senior forward Justin Tillman has been named Atlantic 10 Conference Co-Player of the Week. He shares the award with George Washington's senior guard Yuta Watanabe.

In leading the Rams to two wins last week,  Appalachian State (85-72) and Old Dominion (82-75), Tillman averaged 24.5 points and 6 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-8 forward's 28 points (10 for 13 from the floor) against ODU on Saturday was a career-high. For the season, Tillman is averaging a team-high 15.5 points per game.

The Rams (5-3) next game is on Tues., Dec. 5, when they will host Shaka Smart's Texas Longhorns (5-2) at the Siegel Center. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.

To read my STYLE Weekly preview of the Texas vs VCU tilt, with background on Smart and VCU head coach Mike Rhoades, click here.

 -- Photo from VCU.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Stretch

Note: This piece was originally published by STYLE Weekly on Oct. 4, 1999. 


With the turning of the leaves, The Fan District of Richmond, Va., will again be transformed into a living impressionistic cityscape. As they always do, the season’s wistful breezes will facilitate reflection.

All of which leads to the fact that yet another baseball season has come and gone. After 6,783 games, the last game ever has been played at Detroit’s fabled Tiger Stadium. The Giants and the Astros will be playing in new parks next season, as well. The World Series, first played in 1903, will soon be upon us. Although baseball’s claim as the National Pastime may no longer hold up, the colorful lore generated by the magic of events at baseball parks probably outweighs that of all the other sports, put together.

In the mid-1950s I began going to the Richmond V's (for Virginians) games at Parker Field with my grandfather. Probably saw my first game when I was about seven. Naturally, I eagerly drank in all I could of the atmosphere, especially the stories told about legendary players and discussions on the strategy of the game.

As I got older I began going to games with my friends, most of whom played baseball. We usually took our baseball gloves with us to the game. We’d go early so we could watch the V’s warm up. As often as possible we talked with the players. If one of them remembered your name it was a source of pride. When we cheered the heroics we witnessed and rose for the seventh inning stretch and stayed until the last out, regardless of the score, it was tantamount to exercising religious rites.

A few seasons before they tore Parker Field down (it was dismantled in 1984 and in its place stands The Diamond), I experienced one last thrill at the old ballpark. This was when my daughter, Katey, was about seven years old.

The home team by then — as it is now — was the Braves. Katey, her mother and I were sitting in box seats as guests of neighbors who had gotten comps from a radio station. It was probably Katey’s first trip to Parker Field.

The spectacle itself was interesting to her for a while. As it was a night game, the bright lights were dazzling. The roar of the crowd was exhilarating. Being old enough to go along on such an outing, instead of staying at home with a baby sitter, was a boost to her morale. Nonetheless, by the middle of the game Katey (pictured above at about the age of this story) was getting tired of sitting still and bored with baseball.

During the sixth inning it fell to me to entertain, or at least restrain her, so the others could enjoy the game. I tried telling her more about the object of baseball, hoping that would help her pay some attention to the game.

That didn’t work for very long. She was soon climbing across seats again and this time she knocked a man’s beer into his lap. As the visiting team began their turn at bat, in the top of the seventh, I got an idea and asked Katey if she wanted to see some magic. Of course she did.

Then I got her to promise to be good if I showed her a magic trick. She agreed to the terms. Making sure she alone could hear me, I pulled her in close and whispered my instructions.

The gist of it was that she and I, using our combined powers of concentration, were going to make everyone in the ballpark stand up at the same time. Katey was thrilled at the mere prospect of such a feat. I told her to face the ongoing game, close her eyes, and begin thinking about making the crowd stand up.

After the visiting team made their third out, I cupped my hand to her ear and reminded her to think, “stand up, stand up …”

As baseball fans know, when the home team comes to bat in the bottom of the seventh inning everyone stands up, ostensibly to stretch their legs. It’s a longtime tradition called “the seventh inning stretch.” There’s a mention of the practice in a report about a Cincinnati Red Stockings (baseball’s first professional team) game that took place in 1869.

Tradition aside — when Katey turned around, opened her big blue eyes and saw thousands of people standing up — it was pure magic in her book.

No one in the group gave me away when she explained what we had just done. As I remember it, she stayed true to her word and was well-behaved the rest of the game. It was a few years later that Katey confronted me, having learned how the trick worked. We still laugh about it.

Some sports fans today complain that baseball games are too slow and meandering. While I admit baseball has its lulls, nonetheless there are textures and layers of information present at baseball parks that are just too subtle and ephemeral for the lens of a TV camera to capture. To appreciate them you have to be there. You have to bother to notice.

Sometimes there’s even a hint of magic in the air.

-- Words and photo by F.T. Rea
– 30 –

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Rea's Rams Report: No. 2

Kyle Guy drives past Malik Crowfield
Good storytellers know "discovery" is a device that can magnify the power of a message embedded in the plot. That's why they sometimes allow their readers/viewers to discover keys to unlocking the mystery. Of course, a little subtle foreshadowing can help goose the process of discovering. In real life, we also know plenty of people seem to have more faith in what they've figured out, for themselves, than they do in whatever they've been told.

OK, four games into the season, Coach Mike Rhoades' 2017-18 VCU Rams team has had the opportunity to discover, firsthand, something important to most D-I teams striving to achieve their goals. Having lost two consecutive games, both against teams that will likely be in the postseason conversation in March – UVA's 'Hoos and Marquette's Golden Eagles – and the Rams should have seen that summer league defense usually won't beat such teams.

No doubt, this is something Coach Rhoades has already mentioned more than a few times in team practices. So, do his players – 10 of which have only played four games in black and gold – need to lose more games to see the truth clearly?

As Col. Nathan R. Jessep (Jack Nicholson) suggested memorably, in "A Few Good Men" (1992), maybe these young and talented Rams can't handle the truth ... yet. We'll soon see. VCU has two more games in Hawaii to start proving to themselves they are getting better.
  • Can these Rams change to playing a withering full-court defense, time and again, without fouling too much? 
  • Around the backboard, before poising to out-jump everybody, can they remember to first box out? 
  • Can they deflect more passes and dive for more loose balls on the floor? Can they be more aggressive on defense, take more chances?
In a nutshell, when can Rhodes' Rams start becoming a team capable of playing intense defense, as a unit, for a game's 40 minutes? That, rather than being five guys running around the floor in the same uniforms?

Next tilt: Maui Invitational: Tues., Nov. 21, at 4 p.m: VCU (2-2) vs. California (2-2) on ESPN2. 

Update: The Rams raced to 26-point lead at the half. Then coasted to the win: VCU 83, Cal 69.

-- Photo from VCU

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Rea's Rams Report: No. 1

Justin Tillman with the smooth jumper
over Noah Horchler

Monday night at the Siegel Center VCU's senior power forward, Justin Tillman, schooled the visiting University of North Florida Ospreys on what a bona fide Atlantic 10 preseason poll first team pick looks like, up close. Tillman scored 27 points (on 13-for-17 shooting from the field). He also grabbed eight boards and blocked a couple of shots.

Still, the Rams had to score the last seven points of the game to win it by 10 points: VCU 95, NF 85.

That victory moved the Rams to a 2-0 record. VCU's undefeated status will be severely tested on Friday, when the University of Virginia Cavaliers visit the Rams' West Broad Street home court (4 p.m.; CBSSN). The game will be VCU's 102nd consecutive sell-out. The Cavs, with their stingy Pack Line defense, are also sitting at 2-0.

It's worth noting that Virginia has held its two opponents this season to 48 and 49 points. VCU, with its explosive offense, has scored 94 and 95 points. Something's got to give. However, with Virginia's reputation for running a painfully deliberate offense the pace of the game could well be a key factor for the winner. The Rams will surely want to play faster than the Cavs.

Still, fast or slow, VCU has to outscore Virginia. That likely means the Rams will have to limit the points scored by three players, in particular: 6-foot-5-inch senior guard Devon Hall; 6-foot-2-inch sophomore guard Kyle Guy; 7-foot-1-inch freshman forward Jay Huff.

Two games into the 2017-18 season two pleasant surprises about new VCU players are: Sophomore transfer Issac Vann, a small forward, was billed as a potent addition to the Rams offense. While he's shown flashes that back that up, Vann been one of the better defensive players. Freshman power forward Sean Mobley has shown good court sense as well as a pair of good hands. Look for them to get more playing time.

The overall athleticism of Coach Mike Rhoades' young squad is impressive, but that's been more in evidence when the Rams have the ball. On Friday VCU's defense will probably be tested more than it has been this season. 

-- Photo from VCU

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Yo! Thanks for the Memories

The Big Guys at the BIOGRAPH 45 party (Feb. 11, 2017).
My involvement with the Bijou Film Center was bookended by gala events celebrating the 40th and 45th birthdays of Richmond's semi-legendary repertory cinema, the Biograph Theatre (1972-87). At both gatherings those on hand shared in the Biograph's long-admired "have a good time" spirit.

As it was for those two happy occasions, again it was a pleasure working with James Parrish on The Bijou's four special screenings at the Byrd Theatre with after-parties at the New York Deli. Likewise, the two live music events at Hardywood, the second of which included the culmination of The Bijou's initial membership drive. It was an effort that brought in over 400 members, we billed the celebration as our "Leap of Faith" party.

The Leap of Faith party at Hardywood (Apr. 16, 2016).
Riding the momentum of those six successful shows expectations waxed. However, it wasn't long before some loose ends began to unravel. Consequently, with good intentions aplenty, some costly bad decisions were made that led to what I saw as a blurring of what had been our oft-stated mission.

After two months of shows on weekends at 304 E. Broad St., it was already apparent to me the crowds that had turned out to Bijou Presents happenings at The Byrd and Hardywood were not about to follow us to that location – not soon enough, anyway.

As my enthusiasm for operating that downtown screening room waned, for various reasons, my co-founder's role in the scheme of things faded from The Bijou picture like an iris wipe. Nonetheless, I'm glad I got to present what was a programming encore, of a sort, for me.

To help folks cope with their inauguration day blues, a gem of a film festival was assembled. Four art house workhorses were presented as a pair of double features. The “Facing Fascism:Time Capsules” mini-fest ran over two weekends (Jan. 19-29, 2017). Susan Greenbaum kicked it off with a heartwarming live performance of "This Land Is Your Land" for a handful of attendees. I introduced each of the politically-savvy classics with a little spiel to provide context. Later on, listening to a college student explain to me why "Z" (1969) still seems relevant today was an unexpected reward I appreciated. 

A couple of weeks after the Biograph 45 party's nostalgia flashback (on Feb. 11, 2017), my affiliation with the Bijou experiment expired. The operation of the screening room went on until the volunteer-run Bijou pulled the plug on Broad Street (Sept. 30, 2017).

For those who mean to adapt and carry on with the quest it's back to the drawing board. For me, looking back, it was a lot of fun participating in the design and promotion of those Bijou special events mentioned above.

Dreaming up and executing the "Hamburgers" campaign to promote “Entertainment” (2015) was a highlight for me. Having Chuck Wrenn in on it, the stunt took on a caper feeling that carried me back to my salad days. It was delightful seeing all the old friends that presenting those shows at The Byrd and Hardywood flushed out. Making some new friends along the way was a bonus treat.
One of a series of 'Hamburgers' (2.67' by 4') 
 created in the basement at Anchor 
Studios by a team of artists.
Once again, it appears I have retired from show biz. Thus, this is a good time for me to say thank you to all of The Bijou's volunteers, members and supporters of all stripes. Thanks for helping to create some new fond memories. And, I hope those who have done The Bijou favors, one way or another, feel the same way.

For the upcoming holiday season and the new year, naturally, I wish the Bijou Film Center and its friends good fortune.

– Terry

-- Photos: Big Guys and Hamburger by me. Hardywood by Katey Knox. 

Thursday, November 09, 2017

From Benedictine to West Point

From Benedictine to West Point
by F.T. Rea (Sept. 2004 issue of FiftyPlus)

Fresh out of Virginia Military Institute, Bobby Ross took on his first mission as a football coach in 1959. Benedictine High School’s dynamic athletic director, Warren Rutledge, hired the 22-year-old Ross coming off of a stellar athletic career at Benedictine and VMI. Now, forty-five years later, it seems the last mission of Ross’ distinguished coaching career -- which includes a college national championship and a trip to the Super Bowl -- will be to restore a measure of dignity to the pigskin program at the United States Military Academy.

Ross’ predecessor at West Point, Todd Berry, posted a 5-42 record before he was mercifully relieved of command in the midst of last season, a campaign in which Army eventually lost all thirteen of its scheduled games

Ross, at 67, obviously has his work cut out for him.

Some say this mission can’t be accomplished in the money-driven, brave new world of so-called amateur sports. How can he attract today’s top athletes to such an academically challenging institution, with a five-year military commitment in a time of war to follow? Others suggest that Ross, himself, is simply out-of-date.

Fine: Coach Ross is at ease operating as the underdog. Yes, and looking beyond the “0-13” and the “67,” Ross and West Point seem to be a perfect fit in many ways. Perhaps most importantly, right now they need one another.

The search committee that lured Ross out of retirement knew that its situation called for more than just a smart, tough-minded football coach. It cried out for a man who understood the Academy’s military-based system, who could hit the ground running. Having worn the cadet uniforms of both Benedictine and VMI, and coached at The Citadel, Ross certainly knows his way around a cadet corps.

Thus, with a natural grasp of the importance of tradition at West Point, Ross is accentuating the positive. “Coaching at a place like this,” he said, “is college football in its purest form. No compromises are made here.”

Ross’ most recent stint as a head coach was in the National Football League with the Detroit Lions. Two-thirds of the way through the 2000 season, his fourth in Detroit, Ross announced he was stepping down, due to mounting health concerns. Cynics assumed he was burned out. Truth be told, his decision was precipitated by the reappearance of painful blood clots in his right leg (his father had suffered from similar problems, and eventually lost both of his legs).

Why did a man who shouldn’t have anything to prove come out of a comfortable retirement? With a clarity that might well flow from being accustomed to fielding the same questions repeatedly, Ross answered politely: “I felt like I had a lot of energy. Then the competitive instincts were returning.”

When Ross speaks of football, his voice reveals little about his state of mind. It’s his business, after all, and he sounds much like the thoughtful professional. On the other hand, when he talks about Chiocca’s, a restaurant in Richmond’s Benedictine neighborhood -- “The best roast beef sandwich I've ever had!” -- or afternoon walks through the same neighborhood, where his wife grew up, or when he reminisces about old ballfields such as Hotchkiss, near where he grew up, and the diamond in Byrd Park where Benedictine used to play its home games, his warmth for his hometown is unrestrained

“I love Richmond,” said Ross, with his unchanged Richmond accent. “It's my home, and always will be.”

Ross and his wife, Alice, have five children and fifteen grandchildren. His son Kevin, who graduated from the Naval Academy in 1988, is now on his father’s staff, serving as Army’s offensive coordinator.

Asked about Bobby Ross, Benedictine's current athletic director, Barry Gibrall, pointed out that Ross has often helped the school, sometimes under a veil of anonymity. While he was serving on the school’s Board of Trustees, for instance, Ross noticed the Cadets football uniforms weren’t all precisely the same shade of green. Ross fixed it, but typically, he wanted no credit.

"The new renovations, state-of-the-art locker room and weight room, are a direct result of Coach Ross’ generosity,” Gibrall added. “He tears up when he remembers where he came from. He’s a Highland Park guy who has gone far. He doesn’t forget it.”

In recognition of this strong bond, last May Benedictine named its Goochland County football field Robert J. “Bobby” Ross Stadium. Gibrall said that Ross was surprised and characteristically humble about the announcement, saying he didn’t deserve it.

Gibrall, who played his football at Benedictine in the early-sixties, chuckled. “No one deserves it more! His name was the only one that came up.”

“He’s the greatest human being I've known in my life,” said Johnny Siewers, who played on the Benedictine basketball team with Ross for two seasons. “He never did anything wrong.”

Siewers, who keeps regular office hours at his family’s business, Siewers Lumber, recalled what an outstanding athlete his friend was in high school. Ross was named to All-City teams in football (as quarterback), basketball (as point guard) and baseball (as shortstop), according to Siewers. “He was quiet, had a lot of natural ability, desire, and heart, but he was injury-prone because he played too hard.”

Ross remains close with Siewers and several other men with whom he played sports as a boy. A group of them meets every July Fourth at Siewers’ place on the York River. And, when Ross coached the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX, he invited six of his old Richmond pals, along with their wives, to the game.

In 1959 Ross married his high school sweetheart and graduated from VMI with a bachelor of arts degree. Following that one-season stint at Benedictine the same year, he left Richmond to serve his active-duty obligation as an officer in the U.S. Army’s Third Armored Cavalry Regiment. As it was during the Berlin Wall crisis, the six-month active-duty-option that might have been available was not, so coaching football had to wait.

Once his U.S. Army duty was done in 1962, Ross wrote every school system in Virginia asking for a job coaching high school football. He landed on his feet in Colonial Heights. And in 1965, his first assistant’s job at the collegiate level took him back to VMI. Ross’ other stops as an assistant coach at the college level were at The College of William & Mary, Rice University (in Houston, Texas), and the University of Maryland.

Ross’ first college head coaching job was at The Citadel, where he stayed for five seasons (1973-77). While he didn’t post a winning record (24-31-0) there, Ross took advantage of his first opportunity to be the boss by hiring an amazingly bright group of young assistants. Included on that list are no less than five current head coaches of note: Frank Beamer (Virginia Tech), Sylvester Crooms (Mississippi State), Ralph Friedgen (Maryland), Jimmye Laycock (William & Mary) and Cal McCombs (VMI).

“I had him [Ross] as a position-coach as a player,” said Laycock, referring to when he played football at William & Mary in the late-sixties. About his tenure as an assistant coach under Ross, Laycock added, “He gave me a tremendous break and a tremendous foundation, as far as how to be a coach. Bobby Ross is a great person to talk with, and emulate. I never hesitate to call him.”

Beamer recalled a particular day at The Citadel: “During one meeting, I remember going over how we were going to play a pass coverage. I was talking about it in general terms. Coach Ross said, ‘Let’s stop and when you come back this afternoon let’s be very specific. Exactly how many yards off hash are you going to be?’ From that time on, I learned you take care of all the details in coaching, and he does that very well.”

Ross left The Citadel in 1978 to spend four years as an assistant coach with the Kansas City Chiefs, then returned to college football to become head coach at Maryland. Ross subsequently led the Terrapins to three consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference championships (1983-85). In 1986 he took charge of Georgia Tech’s program. Four years later the Yellow Jackets were co-national champions.

Moving back to the NFL in 1992, Ross retooled the perennial also-ran San Diego Chargers, leading them to Super Bowl XXIX, the only NFL championship appearance in franchise history. In 1997 he left San Diego, rather than cave in to management’s wishes and fire four of his assistant coaches.

Ross injected, “I didn’t feel it was justified. It was in my contract to have say-so over hiring and firing. I've only fired one coach in my life.”

Three years of retirement in Lexington, Virginia, however, had Ross thinking about getting back into the game. Then his name surfaced as a possible candidate for the head coaching job at Duke. As treatment had his health problem under control his wife encouraged him to consider a comeback. When the West Point possibility opened up, her enthusiasm for that opportunity weighed on his decision.

On December, 9, 2003, USMA officials announced that Bobby Ross had accepted an offer to become Army’s 34th head football coach. He inked a pact that purportedly pays him over $600,000 per year, almost three times what former coach Berry is said to have earned. Interestingly, the money was put together by the Association of Graduates, an alumni group, which means that Ross is officially an independent contractor being paid by private donations.

To this new mission Ross takes with him a well-honed gift for leadership that apparently has always been there. Even in grade school, it’s said, he was the leader of the pack, a sentiment echoed by Johnny Siewers: “His success in coaching, everywhere he’s been, is based on his being able to take the best players and make leaders out of them.”

“Bobby Ross is a successful coach because he is very detailed,” said Beamer, “he’s very knowledgeable, and he cares a lot about his players and coaches.”

Laughing off a question about goals for Army this season, Ross deadpanned, “Our program lost by 20.76 points per game [last year], we’ve got to get so we lose better.” Then he added, “We’ve got to get some wins.”

“I'm so glad he’s back,” said Laycock. “He’s straightforward; we need people like him in coaching.”

Wearing a favorite shirt, one that pays tribute to the late Warren Rutledge’s 949 basketball wins at Benedictine, the ever-loyal Ross said with sincerity, “Warren was a great man to work for, and with.”

Ross had seventy-five freshmen turn out in perfect weather for the first official football practice on August 9 at Howze Field. Army may have been humiliated in its last game (Navy 34, Army 6), but a new enthusiasm for football appears to be taking root along the banks of the Hudson River - which can’t come as much of a surprise to his colleagues, Laycock and Beamer, or any of Ross’ old teammates at Benedictine.

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Friday, October 27, 2017

Too Many Secrets

Camelot at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave lasted 1,036 days. For the children in school on Nov. 22, 1963, the murder of President John F. Kennedy was stunning in a way nothing has been since.

On Nov. 24, 1963 a live national television audience witnessed the murder of the assassination’s prime suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald. There was no doubt that Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub operator, was the trigger-man. What made him do it is still being questioned.

Shortly after JFK’s death, columnist Mary McGrory expressed her dark feelings to Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “We’ll never laugh again.”

Moynihan, who was an Assistant Secretary of Labor then, famously replied, “Heavens, Mary, we’ll laugh again. It’s just that we’ll never be young again.”

The cynicism spawned by the cloaked-in-secrecy aftermath of the JFK assassination has tinted everything baby boomers have seen since that November. Everything.

However, I’m not at all convinced there had to have been a complicated conspiracy to kill the president and cover up the tracks. After he was dead, just because some people deliberately obscured related information, we don't necessarily know why they did it. In some cases it was probably people trying to cover asses, hither and yon, for a myriad of reasons. On the other hand, I’m not saying there was no conspiracy that led up to the murder of President Kennedy.

We don't know and now it appears we'll never know. The much-ballyhooed release of assassination-related papers with secrets that have been locked away from public scrutiny for over 50 years has been put on hold ... until April, 2018. Good luck.  

For this piece I’m skipping past the argument over whether Oswald acted alone. Not going to speculate about whether Oswald was a dupe, or one of the greatest marksman who ever lived. The point to this screed is that the secrecy that rushed in to obscure what happened in November of 1963 poisoned the American culture in a way that we need to recognize, so we can learn from it today.

Tomorrow we ought to do something about it. Official secrets open doors to conspiracy theories. Withholding the truth invites liars to fill the void with what serves their agenda. 

The President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, known as the Warren Commission, published its report on Sept. 24, 1964: Oswald was found to have been a lone wolf assassin. Which immediately unleashed the questioning of the Commission’s findings. Was its famous “single bullet theory,” which had one projectile traveling circuitously through two victims, great sleuthing?

Or was it an unbelievable reach?


In 1965 gunmen murdered Malcolm X in an auditorium in Manhattan. Three years later Martin Luther King was killed on a motel balcony in Memphis by a sniper. Two months after that assassination, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down in a Los Angeles hotel.

Unfortunately, the official stories on those three shootings were widely disbelieved, too. In the ‘60s more public scrutiny of how those assassination probes were conducted might have led to different conclusions. More importantly, even if more sunlight into those probes failed to produce different outcomes, at least Americans might have felt better about the good faith of the processes.

Instead, it seemed then the authorities generally believed the citizenry didn't really have a right to see the whole truth, and nothing-but-the-truth. Too often it seems to have been decided on high that the public was better off not knowing some things, as if we were all children.

Of course, such secrecy can hide everyday malfeasance, as well. Shielding the citizenry from such information is the sort of thinking that went with world wars, with spies lucking about. In the 1960s the public expected its government to routinely withhold all sorts of secrets.

At long last, it took the rudest of revelations to snap many Americans out of blithely tolerating an over-abundance of secrecy:
  • The My Lai Massacre horrors.
  • The publishing of the Pentagon Papers.
  • The Watergate Scandal hearings.
  • The Iran-Contra Scandal hearings.
  • The bogus justification for invading Iraq. 
As those events paraded by, America steadily morphed into a nation of cynics. Now, those of us who recognize the damage that's been done by official lies know better. We know we were wrong to ever have accepted such skullduggery in the name of keeping America safe.

Today, to trust official conclusions, we need to see into the investigations. That means more public hearings. In the age of Trumpism, for democracy to have a chance of working properly, we need to know whose money is behind this or that politician. We, the people, can’t allow the fundraising and sausage-making to continue to be done in the dark.

Moreover, in 2017, Americans have no privacy. Our government(s) and plenty of large corporations already know mostly all they want to know about us. They monitor our moves as a matter of course. With calls for more security getting louder that's not going to change. Still, don't we need more scrutiny of our elected leaders' moves?


In 1997 Sen. Moynihan’s book, “Secrecy: The American Experience,” was published. In the opening chapter he wrote:
In the United States, secrecy is an institution of the administrative state that developed during the great conflicts of the twentieth century. It is distinctive primarily in that it is all but unexamined. There is a formidable literature on regulation of the public mode, virtually none on secrecy. Rather, there is a considerable literature, but it is mostly secret. Indeed, the modes of secrecy remain for the most part -- well, secret.
On inquiry there are regularities: patterns that fit well enough with what we have learned about other forms of regulation. But there has been so little inquiry that the actors involved seem hardly to know the set roles they play. Most important, they seem never to know the damage they can do. This is something more than inconveniencing to the citizen. At times, in the name of national security, secrecy has put that very security in harm's way.
Fifty-four years after the murder that we baby boomers can still feel in our guts, it’s high time to stop tolerating unnecessary secrecy in government at all levels. Sunlight could discourage more of the same. Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote: 
"Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."
Single bullet theory, you say?

Great name for a band.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Wake up, Democrats!

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam
You'd think that after Hillary Clinton's shocking defeat in 2016, owing in some part to a lack of support by disaffected Democrats, that in Virginia we wouldn't have many good Democrats threatening to turn their backs on the campaign of Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam … simply because they can't agree with him on every issue.

Wake up, Democrats!

Without the possibility of facing a Northam veto the trendy Republicans in the General Assembly will stampede to the right. The far right. Even the alt-right.

An Ed Gillespie victory on November 7 would stoke President Donald Trump's momentum and embolden his obnoxious fans. Yes, picture Trump's most obstreperous devotees even more emboldened than they are now.


When Northam talks about Confederate monuments he should avoid sounding like just another guy jumping on a bandwagon. There's probably no smart reason for any Democratic candidates in 2017 to make the suddenly-complicated Confederate memorials issue central to their campaign. Right now, it cuts in too many different directions.

For Northam, saying he'd personally rather see Confederate memorials displayed in museums or other special places that provide context is smart. It avoids striking an angry pose. Adding that the decisions about such matters should probably be made at the local level sounds plain and reasonable.

Note: I'd love to see a citywide referendum in Richmond on whether or not to 86 the Jefferson Davis memorial on Monument Avenue. It's a graffiti magnet and that's not likely to stop.

Furthermore, Northam should say it's not a governor's place to tell any Virginians what they ought to think of the monuments, but it is a governor's duty to facilitate the airing out of the genuine history that surrounds those artifacts. 


Democratic candidates in Virginia and elsewhere need to avoid using too many national talking points, crafted by flacks who listened with one ear to focus groups. Such rhetoric/copy sounds so processed and boring in 2017. Each campaign needs to be tailor-made to its district or state. Yes, it's more work. Don't be lazy.

Democrats, in general, should not take on the white supremacists as their national enemy, Candidates should fight each campaign for it own issues. No doubt, that will sometimes entail denouncing an opponent as an alt-right tool. 

If it's true, say it. However, to take on the whole movement as an opponent, head-on, promotes what is still a fringe phenomenon that's trying to grow itself. Why help it? Better to let surrogates and pundits address the puny but blustery alt-right movement directly.

Note: When I say “puny” I don't mean the white nationalists, et al, aren't dangerous. They are.


The Democratic Party ought to be the party that says it's OK for NFL players to take a knee during the pre-game National Anthem. It should be the party that says the players' cause is righteous – not intended to be disrespectful to the military, etc. Good Democrats ought to affirm that the gesture itself is about calling for justice. On top of that it does no harm ... unless you're looking to take offense.

That said, the Democratic Party cannot be the party that says every player must take a knee. It can't be the party that condemns people who object to the taking-a-knee gesture. The folks who don't support the protesting players are just as entitled to speak out as anyone else.

Fighting Trumpism with ideology is a mistake. Democrats should be about seeing through the fog of propaganda – seeing reality, seeing the truth. 

Democratic candidates should promise that a properly-run government will be careful with its words and its deeds, that such a government will live up to its promises. Democrats ought to pledge to work for social justice and the commonweal.

Going forward, for Democrats to win more elections they must stop insulting everyone who won't identify as a liberal, or a progressive. Face it, we are living in post-ideology times. What we need in 2017 is an honest, competent government. In anxious times, we need calmness.


Over the last few years trust in America's institutions seems to have been withering at an alarming rate, which has stimulated a thirst for authenticity. Memorably, the cover of the April 3, 2017, issue of TIME posed the question: “Is truth dead?”

TIME's question seemed to be about current events. We were just ten weeks into the Trump presidency; the question seemed to have been prompted in great part by the fake news charges and controversies that had been orbiting around President Donald Trump's campaign and then his White House.

My best effort to answer the question on that TIME cover references a 45-year-old gangster flick. Like the bullet-riddled Vito Corleone (as played by Marlon Brando), the gravely injured Truth is sleeping fretfully in a private hospital room. Alone.

Mysteriously, Truth's guards have gone missing ... uh-oh.

Wake up, Democrats. Truth needs to be protected, right now.


Bottom line: Ralph Northam should take advantage of each and every opportunity to remind the voters that he will never be Donald Trump's houseboy... 

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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

'The Vietnam War' series is top shelf TV

Like millions of people I've been watching the splendid new Ken Burns documentary, “The Vietnam War.” It has me put me in a trance, at times. 

Remembering more vividly what living through 1968 – what a year! – was like has stirred and jostled memories of both headline-making consequential events and trivial sidebars. Of course, in this context the music makes all the feelings stronger. 

Then there have been the revelations. Yes, you might learn something, I have. 

One thing watching the first six episodes has done is to remind me of how wrapped up I was in 1983 watching the documentary that aired on PBS then, “Vietnam: A Television History." As it was, I was living in a sort of trance much of the time that fall, 34 years ago. By then I was old enough to appreciate how much that war changed the USA.

Note: You can watch all the episodes of the new PBS doc by Burns online

Friday, September 22, 2017

In Search of Brer Rabbit

Below the reader will see a feature article about Daryl Cumber Dance that I wrote in 2003. It was published by a Richmond magazine called FiftyPlus. At that time Dance was an English professor at the University of Richmond. She has written extensively about African-American folklore.


Unbeknownst to the slave traders transporting their kidnapped human cargo from Africa to the New World, there was a stowaway on-board. Folklore scholars tell us that Brer Rabbit made his way across the Atlantic Ocean, hidden in the minds of shackled men and women on their way to a life that might as well have been on another planet.

Impish Brer Rabbit is just one of the fascinating characters from African American folklore who appeal to University of Richmond English professor Daryl Cumber Dance.

In Dance’s newest book, "From My People: 400 Years of African American Folklore," she has fashioned an eclectic collection of African American folklore, music lyrics, art, toasts, proverbs, riddles, and superstitions.

“What I’m doing is capturing a certain tradition, in print,” she said of her 736-page anthology, published last year by W. W. Norton.

That “certain tradition” was a subculture that in its time relied entirely on the spoken word of storytellers, or griots (pronounced gree-oh). After all, it was illegal during extended parts of America’s slavery era to even teach Negroes how to read and write.

In "From My People," next to her collection of yarns featuring mythical characters, such as Brer Rabbit, the Signifying Monkey, and Stagolee, Dance includes thought-provoking samples of the words of well-known black figures, including Ralph Ellison, Jelly Roll Morton, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Then, too, there’s a chapter on Soul Food, with plenty of useful recipes.

While Brer Rabbit made it to America’s shores in the memories of slaves, Dance pointed out, it was Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908), author of the Uncle Remus stories, who brought Brer Rabbit to the reading public.

Slaves told him those stories, featuring animals blessed or cursed with human-like traits, when he was a boy. Uncle Remus, the kindly yarn-spinner, was Harris’s invention. Significantly, the stories were written in a style he asserted was the dialect spoken by slaves in his youth. Harris also underlined the universal nature of stories concerning subjugated underdogs and their struggle for survival with dignity intact.

Dance happily subscribes to the basic idea expressed by mythology guru Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), when he held forth, in his authoritative writings on storytelling in ancient civilizations, that fables about heroes and their transforming quests are more similar than not.

Now, well after the days of Harris’ Uncle Remus, the study of folklore has become quite important to historians and anthropologists. Then, too, folklore can also be seen as the forerunner to today’s popular culture of magazines, movies, popular music and broadcasting.

The word “toast” is among the interesting terms Dance examines in From My People. As she explains, toasts were artful rants presented from the point of view of a powerful black man. They began to be a popular form of expression/entertainment in urban neighborhoods around the turn of the century. They were always bawdy.

“A clean version of a toast is not a toast,” said Dance, eyebrows raised.

She struggled with how to include such material in From My People. Nonetheless, Chapter Nine contains some traditional toasts, including Stagolee.

If that title has a familiar ring to it, that’s because there is a raft of songs out there about a gun-toting Stagolee, or Stagger Lee. New Orleans singer/songwriter Professor Longhair did his take on it, “Stag O Lee,” in 1974. There was also Lloyd Price’s big hit, “Stagger Lee,” in 1959. Still, Mississippi John Hurt’s version of the song, “Stack O'Lee Blues,” in 1928, is considered the definitive version.

Deciding the book needed some examples of traditional toasts in it, while also wanting to make it accessible to young readers, Dance compromised her long-held belief in absolute authenticity, to do with wording. She crafted a few substitute terms, here and there, hoping to retain the original toast’s meaning and verve.

As a toast, Stagolee probably originated in turn-of-the-century Memphis. It may well have been based on a real murder. Eventually the songs came, with all the variations on the same theme. Today, it’s easy to imagine the bloody saga of Stagolee and Billy presented with a hip hop treatment.

“Rap is an outgrowth of the toast,” said Dance. “Things find ways of going on.”

That apt observation sheds light on such acts as the legendary Last Poets. Their first performances in New York City in 1968, of what many popular culture aficionados see now as seminal rap music, could also be seen as bringing the long-established tradition of the toast forth for a new generation.

Born in Richmond in 1938, Daryl Cumber grew up on land in nearby Charles City County that her free black ancestors of the Brown family owned in the time of legalized slavery in Virginia. Of course, if any of those pre-Civil War ancestors traveled, they were well advised to carry their precious free papers with them, to be able to prove their status. The regional tradition that kept most folks close to home had its roots in reason.

Dance’s father was a jointer at the shipyard in Newport News. He also built and owned a beer garden called the Shanty Inn. It was a no-frills place with a jukebox where the black men and women who lived in the county gathered to wet their whistles and socialize. At first he kept his day job, but eventually he began working full-time at his own business, once it began to thrive.

The Shanty Inn wasn’t a wild roadhouse or whiskey-serving speakeasy, Dance said. Still, young Daryl wasn’t permitted to go inside during business hours. She was nine years old when her father died of a heart attack, at the age of 36.

As a girl, Dance expected to become a teacher. “I always wrote,” she said with a laugh and a sigh. “I had the nerve to send a play to a radio show [called] ‘Dr. Christian’.”

Although she may have thought about becoming a lawyer, as her grandfather was, in her bucolic 1950s world women didn’t study law.

“In my family, women taught,” said Dance, who attended Ruthville High School, which had been named for a great-great aunt, Ruth Brown. Daryl Cumber went on to Virginia State College, where she majored in English, and in 1956 she began her teaching career at Armstrong High School in Richmond.

Two years later she married Warren C. Dance, a teacher who is now retired from Richmond Public Schools; he also served on the adjunct faculties of J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College and Virginia Union University. The union of life-long teachers has produced three children (two sons and a daughter), who, in turn, have produced two grandchildren, so far.

Speaking of family, From My People is dedicated to “my son Allen Cumber Dance, a bright, handsome, generous, and supportive individual who would make any mother proud, but an inveterate Trickster, who almost always makes me worry a little but laugh a lot.”

Dance returned to Virginia State to get an M.A., which was followed by a doctorate in English from the University of Virginia. She has received a couple of Ford Foundation Fellowships, three Southern Fellowships Fund grants, two National Endowment for the Humanities grants, a Fulbright research grant, a grant from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, and other honors too numerous to list in this space.

Ten years ago, after teaching at Virginia State University, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Virginia Commonwealth University, she became a member of the English Department faculty at the University of Richmond.

Dance now has eight books to her credit. Her first, Shuckin' and Jivin': Folklore from Contemporary Black Americans (1978), established her as an emerging figure in the folklore field. Subsequent books have dealt with a variety of subjects, including Caribbean folkore and African American women’s humor.

Long Gone: The Mecklenburg Six and the Theme of Escape in Black Folklore, published in 1987, buffed her reputation not only as a dauntless researcher, but also as a scholar who was willing to weigh in on controversial matters and deal with them evenhandedly.

With an unflinching directness, Dance sought to demonstrate how the audacious 1984 escape from a maximum-security prison’s death row by the two infamous Briley brothers (and four accomplices) fell into a well-established template of tales about the authorities searching for black men on the lam.

The crimes of Linwood and James Briley (both were eventually executed) were not the book’s issue. Their much-storied last gasp of freedom was. The mainstream media’s high-profile accounts of the escape and subsequent sightings of the escapees - many of which were more hysterical than they were accurate - stoked the myth-making machine, spawning songs, stories, and all sorts of curious Briley brothers’ memorabilia. However, their crimes, carried out in Richmond, were so gruesome that some in the area couldn’t countenance the notion that such wretched men should be written about in any way, other than to condemn them.

Dance was surprised at how many people, officials and private citizens alike, attempted to frustrate her project. Nonetheless, the scholar pressed on. In the book she mentions that a good number of people also went out of their way to help her overcome contrived obstacles.

Tall and graceful in manner, Daryl Cumber Dance brings a rare combination of tools to her work. Her curiosity and integrity don’t stumble over one another. She intuitively blends her researcher’s need to seek the authentic, with her chosen role of editor/translator of an arcane language from another age. In the doing, Dance uses those colorful expressions to paint an American history with what amounts to an impressionistic style.

Yet, her very Southern-seeming modesty makes her laugh softly and shrug off the suggestion that she should be called a “historian,” a “folklorist,” or even, a “writer.”

“I haven’t written novels,” said the English professor in her Ryland Hall office.

What about the seeming contradiction of an expert on the folk culture established by generations of slaves, and their descendants, on tweedy Richmond’s West End campus?

“Richmond is beginning to be a different school than what people think,” replied Dance.

Throughout her enlightening examination of an American history that has been largely ignored by traditional historians, Dance uses the words Negro, Colored, Black, and African-American with equal ease. She explains that she chooses the term that was appropriate in the era to which she is referring.

In fact, Dance seems completely at ease with all sorts of words that ruffle feathers. And, she seems just as at ease in her own mahogany-colored skin. That has to be part of her success as a researcher. It’s easy to imagine that strangers would be disarmed by her gentle curiosity and trust her with their stories.

While Brer Rabbit was shanghaied, once he returned to land he was far too slippery to be held down for long. He freely hopped from one generation to the next. Trials and tribulations came and went, but Brer’s dignity was crushproof.

“The story of our history, as African Americans,” said Daryl Cumber Dance, “is just beginning to be told.”

-- 30 --

From Yeats to Greene to Stone

As a professor, Balcomb Greene
is said to have had a significant 
influence on Andy Warhol.
Revved up over an English class assignment to write a paper on "The Second Coming," by W. B. Yeats, I stayed up all night crafting it, and thought I had hit a home run. The professor, an awkward, gangly sort of fellow in his mid-20s, gave me a “C” on it.

Well, I just had to ask him to explain to me what was wrong with the paper. In a private conference he told me my analysis of the poem didn't jibe with the accepted school of thought on what Yeats was saying. While admitting my writing and analytical technique were fine, he nervously explained that I was simply wrong in my conclusions, no matter how well-stated my case might have been.

That sort of pissed me off, so I told him I thought that ambiguity could imply multiple meanings, and it deliberately invited alternative interpretations. Rather than defend his stance the man suddenly grabbed his face and broke into tears.

The sobbing professor went into a monologue on the shambles his life had fallen into. His personal life! Worst of all, he said, his deferral had just been denied by Selective Service, so he would soon be drafted.

He was wearing a pitiful brown suit. His thinning beige hair was oiled flat against his scalp. My anger over the bad grade turned into disgust. As I remember it, I walked out of his office to keep from telling him what I thought. Now I regret my impatience and feel sorry for the poor schlemiel.

Still, when the offer came at the end of the semester to expand my part-time job to full-time, I took the leap. My chief duty was to schlep visiting scholars around Virginia from one university campus to the next in a big black Lincoln.

Each week, under the auspices of the University Center in Virginia -- a consortium of Virginia colleges and universities -- there was a new scholar in a different field. Somebody had to drive them to lectures, dinners, convocations and to hotels throughout the week. For the spring semester of 1969 that was me.

Naturally, in the crisscrossing of Virginia, the wiseguy driver and the actually wise scholars had a lot of time to talk. Some of them kept to themselves, mostly. Others were quite chatty, in several cases we got along well and had great talks.

Three of them stand out as having been the best company on the road: Daniel Callahan (then-writer/editor at Commonweal Magazine), Henry D. Aiken (writer/philosophy professor) and Balcomb Greene (artist/philosopher and art history professor).

Callahan challenged me to think more thoroughly about situational ethics and morality. He was happy I was reading the books of Herman Hesse and others. He turned me on to “One Dimensional Man,” by Herbert Marcuse.

Callahan was quite curious about my experiences taking LSD, we talked about drugs and religion. Click here to read about him.

Aiken (1912-‘82) was then the chairman of the philosophy department at Brandeis University, he loved a debate. He was used to holding his own against the likes of William F. Buckley. Talking with him about everything under the sun in the wee hours, I first acquired a taste for good Scotch whiskey (which I haven't tasted in years).
From a ‘pragmatic’ point of view, political philosophy is a monster, and whenever it has been taken seriously, the consequence, almost invariably, has been revolution, war, and eventually, the police state.

-- Henry D. Aiken
Aiken, like Callahan, agreed to help me with a project I told them about. Inspired by popular new magazines like Ramparts, Avant-Garde, Rolling Stone, etc., at 21-years-old, I wanted to jump straight into magazine publishing, with no experience, ASAP.

That dream stayed on the back burner for 16 years, until the first issue of SLANT came out in 1985. How I went about designing SLANT to be a small magazine, mostly featuring the work of its publisher, flowed in great part from my brief association with Balcomb Greene (1904-90). Of the rent-a-scholars I met, he was easily the funniest.

The son of a Methodist minister, Greene grew up in small towns in the Midwest. He studied philosophy at Syracuse University, psychology at the University of Vienna and English at Columbia University. Then he switched to art, having been influenced by his first wife, Gertrude Glass, an artist he had married in 1926. He became a founder of the avant-garde group known as American Abstract Artists in 1936.

After World War II, just as abstract art was gaining acceptance, Greene radically changed his style. He began painting in a more figurative, yet dreamy, style that fractured time. Click here,
and here, to read about Greene and see examples of his work.

One day I’ll write a piece about the visit to Sweetbriar with Greene. It was a hoot collaborating with him, to have some fun putting on the blue-haired art ladies of that venerable institution. This time my mention of him is to get this piece to I.F. Stone. It was Greene who gave me a subscription to I.F. Stone’s Weekly.

I.F. “Izzy” Stone (1907-89) was an independent journalist in a way few have ever been. In the 1960s his weekly newsletter was a powerful voice challenging the government’s propaganda about the war in Vietnam. Click here to read about Stone, and here.
"All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out."
-- I.F. Stone
Stone remains one of my heroes. At my best, over the years, I have emulated him in my own small ways. Thank you for the schooling, Professor Greene.

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