Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What's an Institute for Contemporary Art supposed to look like? And, why?

Click on any of my ICA photos to enlarge them.


Since its 2014 ground-breaking, Virginia Commonwealth University's Institute for Contemporary Art, at the southwest corner of Belvidere and Broad Streets, has been a work-in-progress to be observed by one and all. The ICA will open to the public with an all-day party on Apr. 21, 2018.

The ICA's first show, Declaration, features work from 34 artists. It will be up through Sept. 9, 2018. In the coming months this varied exhibition will hardly be confused with traditional art shows we might have seen at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, such as those offering depictions of bowls of fruit or portraits of dandified monarchs.

Yesterday I took an hour to walk through the airy new gallery space and glance at the art. What follows won't be a review of the art I saw. Nor will it be a criticism of the Fan District's striking new building. Still, I will take this opportunity to mention one particular notion that occurred to me while I was there.

Before I get to that point, I have to say the ICA is sitting on familiar turf. Having lived in the Fan District for most of my life it will be fascinating to watch the impact the ICA is bound to have on the old neighborhood. In the last 25 years, like it or not, with all of its new and refurbished buildings, especially on Broad St., VCU's architectural footprint on the heart of Virginia's capital city has become noteworthy.

However, this new building, designed by Steven Holl, promises to overshadow all of that. Like many Richmonders, when I saw the first artist's drawings of how the ICA would look, yes, I wondered about it. Why? Yet, since then I've deliberately tried not to form an opinion of its appearance.

Like, why rush to judgment? Instead, I decided to trust Joe Seipel and wait to see what I think when it's done. (Full disclosure: Joe is an old friend.) Reading and hearing lots of opinions concerning the ICA's somewhat eccentric look has only made me more determined to wait. So watching its progress, as I rode by on my bike, hasn't been a matter of trying to confirm a love or hate for how it has looked at various stages of its construction.

So now, having looked it over, inside and out – only briefly – I am happy to say I like the unusual-looking building and I love what I now envision it will do for VCU and my home town. What answers, call-and-response-wise, will it inspire?

Now I want to pass on something about the occasional angles and curves of the rooms inside the building that occurred to me, just yesterday, right before I left the ICA: The designer, Holl, has created a context for the displays that makes the art, itself, stand out more. 

Dig it: our expectation, upon entering a conventional art gallery, has been that we will see everything framed by straight lines. Rectangles everywhere: the paintings in frames, objects in glass boxes, the galleries themselves with their vertical and horizontal lines. Right angles. The ceilings. The floors. The walls. 

This isn't to say that all that has been wrong. But what Holl has done escapes some of those expectations. So, to me, the random curves and angles of the interior of the ICA, of the rooms large and small, make the pieces of art seem less confined, perhaps liberated. More eye-popping!

Thus, in a way I hadn't anticipated, this building's form is following function. While I won't suggest that Holl intended this factor from the get-go, or that he didn't, I do think it will gradually become more evident to other observers that it's true. 

Bottom line: Go to the party on Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and see what you think.

 

-- 30 --

Friday, April 13, 2018

1993: SLANT Forum

After the article below, written by Charles Slack (Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jan., 31, 1993), my concept for conducting discussions in a coffee shop was briefly adapted to radio. It lasted only a couple of months, because the advertising time was too hard to sell; especially for a guy who was burning out as an advertising salesman.

The way it worked was that I bought the hour from WTVR and then brokered the 30- and 60-second time slots I sold for advertising. But the merchants I tied to sell that commercial time to mostly wouldn't believe a topical talk-show could be successful without a clearly right-wing, or left-wing, host dominating it.

My thinking was that it was more interesting if the host was more a provocateur than a partisan. But the potential clients would tell me that while they liked the show, they still thought most listeners would prefer a different kind of show. Some of them didn't see the need for the live audience in a restaurant; they told me the public would rather to hear a know-it-all insulting callers on the telephone.

In retrospect, they were probably right, but that wasn't what I wanted to do.

While it lasted, doing the SLANT Forum show live -- with an opinionated audience on hand -- was great fun. Katey, my daughter, was in on it as a regular commentator. The programs were staged at Coffee & Co. in Carytown and World Cup on Robinson St. I still have tapes of them.

SLANT FORUM: TALK ABOUT A GREAT IDEA: 'INFORMATION PARTY' REDISCOVERS LOST ART OF CONVERSATION 
This is the MTV generation, right? Generation X. Raised on "The Brady Bunch." Life reduced to sound bite. Conversation is as old-fashioned as doctors' house calls and the milkman delivering a pint of cream to your door. Everybody knows that nobody talks anymore.

Then what are the 30 or so patrons of The Bidder's Suite on West Grace Street, many in their early 20s, doing here on a Monday night with the music turned down?

As it turns out, they've paid a 99-cent cover charge for the sole purpose of doing what everyone says people just don't do anymore -- having a conversation. Welcome to the Slant Forum, billed as an "Information Party."

At the microphone is F.T. "Terry" Rea, publisher of Slant, one of the city's longest-running alternative publications. Some of the topics are straight out of the headlines -- date rape, gun control, gays in the military. Others take a lighter look at popular culture.

Rea says the idea came to him late at night. He jotted down a few notes. "When the idea hit me, I got very excited. The next day I looked at my notes. I was still excited."

That being his acid test for ideas conceived in the dead of night. He contacted his friends at The Bidder's Suite, a coffee house/restaurant/ bar on West Grace Street. The restaurant was closed on Monday nights. How about opening it up for weekly discussion nights? Rea would charge the 99-cent cover, the restaurant would serve its usual menu of sandwiches, appetizers, coffee and drinks.

"I'm from the `60s generation," says Linda Beales, who owns the restaurant with her son, Jame-Paul Owens. Ms. Beales says she'd like the place to capture the atmosphere of coffeehouses that flourished around the country in the `60s.

The Bidder's Suite already features poetry readings and acoustic guitars. So why not discussions? Rea and The Bidder's Suite vow to hold the discussion nights each Monday as long as interest is sufficient.

A little after 8 p.m., Rea gets the evening under way with a trivia contest and the first of three pre-set discussion topics. If you've followed Slant magazine's iconoclastic take on Richmond life but never met Rea, you expect the 45-year-old to look sort of funky, with long hair, perhaps, a full beard, and a T-shirt with some anti-establishment slogan.

Instead, Rea appears with short hair, button-down shirt and a striped sweater. He looks more like a schoolteacher than a rebel. And that's exactly his function in these discussions. He's like a teacher -- one of those cool ones who lets the kids express themselves without fear of reprisal.

Except it's better than a classroom here, according to patron Paul Hudert, a student at VCU. "You get to voice your opinion. It's more personal."

Hudert's friend, Lisa Clayton, says she prefers the give and take of the discussion over simply absorbing facts from the media. "The media give you one opinion. They tell me the same thing over and over." The first subject Rea has selected for the evening is "anti-classics," meaning those aspects of popular culture that seem prevalent today but are destined for history's dustbin with the likes of the Hula Hoop and Pet Rocks.

The discussion starts promisingly, but soon degenerates into a personal listing by patrons of likes and dislikes. Smoking is on the way out, one patron declares. Anti-smokers are on the way out, says another. When the subject runs out of steam, Rea declares a short recess, then returns with a discussion about what Bill Clinton should do with Saddam Hussein.

What follows is a literate, informed debate with opinion ranging from lay off the Iraqis to finish the job that George Bush started. Gregory Maitland, who has served in the Army and is now a cook at The Bidder's Suite, was working the night the first forum was held in December. He was so intrigued by the discussion that he requested Monday nights off and has returned every week to participate.

Maitland says he comes "not just to state my opinions, but to hear others." He believes, "We're in a new age, from `This is what I think and that's all that matters' to `What's your opinion?'"

Many of the participants are regulars, but new faces have been appearing each week, Rea says.

VCU students Amy McGahan and Hugh Apple dropped in after seeing a Slant ad posted in another restaurant.

Ms. McGahan says, "The thought of people coming together and talking seemed really cool. It's encouraging. You get so tired of watching TV and going to the movies."

Though the crowd leaned toward students in their early 20s, the mix is not limited by age. Gayle Carson, who returned to college after leaving 20 years ago, says, "I'm one of those people who like to voice an opinion.

"Even though we've had some intense discussions, it's never gotten to the point that it's beyond polite conversation."

Monday, April 02, 2018

A Lucky Break

The 1981-82 Biograph Naturals, CBA champions.

During the month of March, each year, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is a blessing. The surprises and suspenseful moments of the games help get basketball junkies, like me, through those last tedious days of winter. Every March, as my favorite teams are eliminated and my brackets crumble, I cling to the notion that by the time of the two Final Four games, at least the warm weather will have arrived..

Of course, to be a junkie in full bloom one must still play the game. Since I quit playing basketball in 1994, I suppose I’ve been a junkie in recovery. Yes, I’ll always miss the way a perfectly-released jump shot felt as it left my fingertips. Nothing in my life has replaced the satisfaction that came from stealing the ball from an opponent, just as he stumbles over his hubris. It's especially nice when you get to shoot an uncontested layup, as a result -- providing, of course, you don't miss the snowbird.

The years I've spent covering college basketball, as a writer, have helped to soothe my basketball jones. Since the improvisational aspect of basketball has always appealed to me, from a seat on press row it's fun to watch particular players who have a special knack for seizing the moment. If it's a player you've seen plenty of, sometimes, from the expression on his face, you can sense what he's about to do.

While basketball is in some ways a finesse game, injury-wise, if you play enough of it there are some brutal truths it will inevitably serve up. Although I’ve heard people claim that we can’t remember pain, I have not forgotten what it felt like to dislocate my right ankle on the afternoon of April 20, 1985; I was undercut finishing a one-on-five fast break layup.

While I'd love to say the ball went in the basket, I don't remember that part. What I do remember is flopping around on the hardwood floor, uncontrollably, like a fish out of water. Take it from me, dear reader, popping your foot off the end of your leg hurts way too much to forget -- think James Caan in “Misery” (1990).

But this story is about another injury. On March 4, 1982, my then-34-year-old nose was broken during the course of a basketball game. In that time, the Biograph Theatre, which I managed, had a men's team in a league called the Central Basketball Alliance. Other teams were sponsored by the Track, Soble’s, Hababa’s, the Jade Elephant, etc. Personnel-wise, the CBA was an off-shoot of the Fan District Softball League, with some of the same characters.

The morning after my nose was bashed in by an opponent’s upwardly thrust elbow, while I was coming down from a failed attempt at snatching a rebound, I went to Stuart Circle Hospital for treatment.

My nose wasn’t just broken, it had been split open at the bridge in three or four directions. The emergency room doc used Super Glue and a butterfly clamp to put it all back together. This was before such glue had been approved for use in this country, so he asked me not to tell anyone what he had done; I hope the statute of limitations has run out.

Then, after getting an X-ray the next day, I was waiting around in the hospital lobby to sign some papers and my grandmother -- Emily “Villa” Collins Owen -- was wheeled by. She was stretched out on a hospital bed. As I grew up in her home and was still very close to her, it had the same panic impact as seeing one’s parent in such an abrupt context.

We spoke briefly. She said she was feeling a little weak from a cold and had decided to spend the night in the hospital. She lived just a few blocks away. Pretending to ignore my gripping sense of panic, I calmly assured Nana (pronounced Ny-nuh) I’d be back during visiting hours, to see how she was doing.

That evening I took my then-12-year-old daughter, Katey, with me to see Nana. The doctor came in her room and told us she’d be fine with a good night’s rest. Katey and I spent a half-hour making our 83-year-old Nana laugh as best she could ... feeling a little weak.

Six decades before this she had trained to be a nurse at that same hospital, which has now been converted into condos. Nana died later that night; it was in the wee hours of the morning that followed.

Had luck not interposed a fate-changing elbow to my beak, Katey and I may not have had that last precious visit with Nana. Knowing my grandmother, I'm not at all sure she would have let anybody know she was in the hospital. At least, not right away.

Which means I have to say the palooka who elbowed me in that basketball game did me a favor. Perhaps in more ways than one.

You see, in order to keep playing in the Biograph’s games in that season, I needed to protect my nose while it healed. So, I got one of those protective aluminum nose-guards I’d seen players wear. It was a primitive version of the clear plastic masks in use today.

As a kid, I saw future-NBA great Jerry West wearing such a broken-nose-protector when he was playing his college ball at West Virginia. It impressed the 12-year-old version of me to no end; I marveled at how tough and focused West was.

So, wearing what was to me a Jerry West mask, I played the rest of the CBA season -- maybe five more games. Now I believe that period was about the best basketball I ever played. Not wanting another whack to the nose made me a little more careful, maybe more purposeful. Which, apparently, was just what my game had been needing. 

Our team didn’t lose another game that year; the Biograph Naturals won the league’s championship. In looking back on those weeks after my grandmother's death, I can easily see that in testing my nerve, in a fashion after the way West had tested his, in the spring of 1982 I was living out a boyhood dream. Some of the game's lucky breaks can only be detected in the rear-view mirror.

-- 30 --

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Smooth Noir (1992)


Here's a flashback to an issue of SLANT 26 years ago. It was published when the infamous Joe Camel ad campaign was still popular, so I had to weigh in. In this time the USA's tobacco industry was still riding high ... but not for long. In August of 1992 the art above appeared over the text below:
It's Happy Hour. Rebus starts the Lamberts, Hendricks and Ross tape that he had selected to kick off his shift. In walks his first customer.

It's Joe Camel, smooth matchbook celebrity.

Although Rebus recognizes him immediately, even without his makeup, he doesn't call attention to it. Joe looks like he would rather not be bothered.

Joe: Two shots of Cuervo Gold. No fruit. No salt.

Rebus: Hey pal, if it's been that kind of day, let me buy the first one. It's the...

Joe: THAT kind of day? Yeah, I guess it's been about as bad a day as ... forget it.

The bar's only customer slaps the first empty glass down onto the cold marble as Rebus turns the stereo's volume up a notch.

Joe: The tests came back. It's the Big C. I'm doomed. It's too late to operate. Just like that -- cancer. Kaput!

Rebus: Well, er, in that case, I'll spring for the second one, too.

Joe: Thanks.

Rebus: How about a sandwich?

Joe: A sandwich?

Rebus: Sure. Like something to eat. We've got a killer cold meatloaf sandwich, or...

Joe: Cancer of the hump.

Rebus: The hump?

Joe: They said my five-pack-a-day habit probably had nothing to do with...

Rebus: I didn't even know you had a hump. Like, it never shows in the commercials.

Joe: I wear a corset. We all do. It's part of the act. The Mad Ave. geniuses want smooth camels, not hunchbacks. Hey, let me tell ya, they tighten those babies down with a torque wrench.

Rebus: I won't say anything about it.

Joe: I'm not hungry. How 'bout another shooter?

Rebus: Sure, ah, did the doctor, er...

Joe: Did they say how, how long I've got?

Rebus: Yeah and no offense meant.

Joe: Maybe a week.

Rebus: Cancer of the hump! What a bad break.

Joe: I deserve it.

Rebus: Hey, nobody deserves hump cancer. Not even...

Joe: I do man. I'm paying the price for selling my soul to the devil. All those kids.

Rebus: Kids?

Joe: Innocent children that Joe F. Camel suckered into smoking the product. It's karma.

Rebus: You didn't invent cigarettes.

Joe: Above all else, be smooth. Don't you want to be the smoothest dude?

Rebus: Come on Joe, kids are going to smoke cigarettes regardless of...

Joe: Maybe, but this campaign was slick. They brought in behavioral voodoo scientists.

Rebus: Joe, it's not your fault. You've just been dealt a bad hand. Joe, ah, that is your real name?

Joe: What's in a name? What's real? Way back, maybe before your time, people knew me as Clyde. Since then I've...

Rebus: Right! Clyde. I knew you looked familiar. Yeah, you worked with a cat named Ahab the Arab. But, now you look, like, ah, wider.

Joe: You're talking 30 years since that gig. Who hasn't put on a little weight?

Rebus: I can dig it. But it's still not your fault if a kid smokes. Everybody's got to earn a living. You're like Tony the Tiger or Ronald McDonald, or...

Joe: No! I knew it was wrong. I went to the meetings. I knew the marketing strategy. We were going after third-graders. It was sick.

Rebus: So, what are you going to do?

Joe: Get drunk, then make a plan.

Rebus: Good move. Ready for another?

Joe: I wonder if strapping my hump down made the cancer, ah...

Rebus: Maybe it's never too late to beat the devil. They made you a celebrity; call a press conference. Go public with it. Confess! Drop a dime on the subliminal sleazemeisters.

Joe: Do you really think people would listen?

Rebus: The Marlboro Man went clean.

Joe: You're right! I knew getting drunk was a good idea. Hand me that telephone. I'll do it. I'll blow the lid off the...

Rebus: That's the spirit!

Joe: I've got work to do; call my agent. And, you know what?

Rebus: Chicken-butt!

Joe: Let me try one of those meatloaf sandwiches. And, some coffee.

Rebus opens his eyes. The dream was OK until that business about the meatloaf sandwich. Not to mention the stupid chicken-butt joke.

He gets out of bed and walks toward the bathroom. On the way, Rebus remembers the Joe Camel jacket draped over the chair by the door. A steady customer had given it to him at the bar. He picks it up and throws it into the trash can next to the toilet.

Rebus: Sorry Clyde, I'm not taking any chances.

-- Fini --

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Richmond's Bloody Interregnum


A ballot box was stolen from this Jackson Ward
building 147 years ago. Now it houses Gallery 5.

When I hear stubborn politicians talking about absolutely refusing to compromise with their opponents, it brings to mind what tragedy can flow from such foolishness. When we hear angry activists talking about “second amendment solutions,” it should remind us of how supposedly civilized peoples have sometimes lost their moorings. In its long history Richmond has had its share of bloody "solutions."

It was ten-and-a-half years ago that Richmond’s government seemed to be turning against itself by splitting into pieces. That happened with the Friday Night Fiasco (Sept. 21, 2007). But, if the reader thinks that strange stunt, engineered by then-Mayor Doug Wilder — to evict local public school officials from City Hall — was unprecedented, in that it had the local government at odds with itself, then please read on.

That little tiff was a trifle compared to what happened in these parts in 1870-71. What follows is a glance at the outcome of an instance that encouraged a feud to take root. It's a scary example of what can happen when people lose confidence in the results of elections and shrug off legitimate court rulings.

The Bloody Interregnum was the name that stuck to the politics-gone-wrong brouhaha over whether George Chahoon or Henry K. Ellyson was the lawful mayor of Richmond. When the five-year military occupation of Virginia following the Civil War ended on January 26, 1870, Gov. Gilbert C. Walker promptly appointed a new City Council for Richmond. That body in turn selected Henry K. Ellyson, publisher of The Dispatch — forerunner to today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch — as the city’s mayor.

However, George Chahoon, who had served as mayor during the last two years of Reconstruction, refused to recognize the validity of the process. Although the transplanted New Yorker had a considerable following around town, he was seen by Ellyson’s backers as a usurper of a sort. After all, Chahoon had served at the pleasure of the military overlords.

When neither man nor his followers would back off something had to give. The city fractured. As positions solidified, the split became a chasm. Two separate city governments were created by the process. There were two police departments, two City Halls, etc. Brawls became commonplace as the supporters of both mayors sought to press their case on every street corner. Chaos, with gun-play aplenty, ensued.

Notably, in spite of the fact that Richmond served as the capital of the Confederacy during a portion of the Civil War, it was not without its Union sympathizers. In fact, Richmond was quite divided on the topic of secession before the war. During and after the war there were substantial elements present that could have been characterized as pro-Union.

Like the USA’s 2000 presidential election, in 1870 the impasse found its way into court. On April 27, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals met to hear arguments from the two camps on the third floor of the state Capitol building.

The anxious citizens shouldered onto the balcony to witness the spectacle. Under all the weight the balcony collapsed and crashed onto the hapless spectators below. Widely known as The Capitol Disaster, when the smoke cleared the tragedy left 62 people dead and 251 injured.

Two days later, the court reconvened at City Hall. In due time, a verdict favorable to Ellyson was returned. A month later, a citywide election took place. But no clear winner emerged from that exercise, either.

This time the contentiousness stemmed from the disappearance of a ballot box from a precinct friendly to Chahoon. Same as ever, both sides traded more accusations. Although Ellyson was certified as the winner by the election board, he declined to serve because the election results were tainted, therefore inconclusive. Thus, the battle raged on.

Eventually Chahoon left town to avoid facing the consequences of several felony indictments — supposedly of a nonpolitical nature — that had been heaped upon him. For his part, Ellyson grew weary of the struggle and withdrew from the race.

The impasse was broken on July 1, 1871, with the election of Anthony Keily as the one and only mayor of the exhausted city of Richmond. Some of the actions of those who were most caught up in the 17 months of The Bloody Interregnum left stains that perpetuated grudges in Richmond for generations to come.

As a child growing up in Richmond, I heard adventure tales from my grandfather about this bizarre time. He claimed his salty old Uncle George, who was a sheriff (somewhere), among other things, told him that most men in Richmond carried guns on the street in those wild days, much like what we’ve seen in western movies.

Formal duels and spontaneous gunfights were not unusual in Richmond in that time. The Bloody Interregnum was set in motion by hardheaded people. In those days many Richmonders came to see only what supported their preconceived points of view. Blinded by prejudices and driven by insatiable desires to win, neither side was willing to compromise or recognize any authority.  

During that reckless spell of 17 months too many folks followed the hot-headed trouble-makers willing to lose everything, just to get their way. Those trouble-makers have their counterparts today. 

-- 30 --

Warnings and Protests Ignored

"I don't listen to focus groups."
In March of 2003, in dismissing the protests of millions in other countries who demonstrated against the invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush said, "I don't listen to focus groups."

So don't believe the history revisionists who say everyone believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that it was itching to share with al Qaeda. I believed the UN weapons inspection team headed up by Hans Blix, who said there were no such stashes of weapons. 

So did a lot of other people, including Sen. Robert Byrd (1917-2010). 

Byrd will be remembered for many things. Among them, he was the longest serving senator (1959-2010). Fifteen years ago, on the eve of a war, Byrd's words of warning were blown off by the deceitful hawks in the Bush administration. 

Byrd was cast by war mongers as an old goat out of touch with the times. His brief, passionate speech delivered on the floor of the U.S. Senate on March 19, 2003 makes for a particularly interesting read now, in light of all we've learned since that time.

Here are Sen. Byrd's words of advice that Congress and President Bush ignored:

I believe in this beautiful country. I have studied its roots and gloried in the wisdom of its magnificent Constitution. I have marveled at the wisdom of its founders and framers. Generation after generation of Americans has understood the lofty ideals that underlie our great Republic. I have been inspired by the story of their sacrifice and their strength.

But, today I weep for my country. I have watched the events of recent months with a heavy, heavy heart. No more is the image of America one of a strong, yet benevolent peacekeeper. The image of America has changed. Around the globe, our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions are questioned.

Instead of reasoning with those with whom we disagree, we demand obedience or threaten recrimination. Instead of isolating Saddam Hussein, we seem to have isolated ourselves. We proclaim a new doctrine of preemption which is understood by few and feared by many. We say that the United States has the right to turn its firepower on any corner of the globe which might be suspect in the war on terrorism. We assert that right without the sanction of any international body. As a result, the world has become a much more dangerous place.

We flaunt our superpower status with arrogance. We treat UN Security Council members like ingrates who offend our princely dignity by lifting their heads from the carpet. Valuable alliances are split.

After war has ended, the United States will have to rebuild much more than the country of Iraq. We will have to rebuild America's image around the globe.

The case this Administration tries to make to justify its fixation with war is tainted by charges of falsified documents and circumstantial evidence. We cannot convince the world of the necessity of this war for one simple reason. This is a war of choice.

There is no credible information to connect Saddam Hussein to 9/11. The twin towers fell because a world-wide terrorist group, Al Qaeda, with cells in over 60 nations, struck at our wealth and our influence by turning our own planes into missiles, one of which would likely have slammed into the dome of this beautiful Capitol except for the brave sacrifice of the passengers on board.

The brutality seen on September 11th and in other terrorist attacks we have witnessed around the globe are the violent and desperate efforts by extremists to stop the daily encroachment of western values upon their cultures. That is what we fight. It is a force not confined to borders. It is a shadowy entity with many faces, many names, and many addresses.

But, this Administration has directed all of the anger, fear, and grief which emerged from the ashes of the twin towers and the twisted metal of the Pentagon towards a tangible villain, one we can see and hate and attack. And villain he is. But, he is the wrong villain. And this is the wrong war. If we attack Saddam Hussein, we will probably drive him from power. But, the zeal of our friends to assist our global war on terrorism may have already taken flight.

The general unease surrounding this war is not just due to "orange alert." There is a pervasive sense of rush and risk and too many questions unanswered. How long will we be in Iraq? What will be the cost? What is the ultimate mission? How great is the danger at home?

A pall has fallen over the Senate Chamber. We avoid our solemn duty to debate the one topic on the minds of all Americans, even while scores of thousands of our sons and daughters faithfully do their duty in Iraq.

What is happening to this country? When did we become a nation which ignores and berates our friends? When did we decide to risk undermining international order by adopting a radical and doctrinaire approach to using our awesome military might? How can we abandon diplomatic efforts when the turmoil in the world cries out for diplomacy?

Why can this President not seem to see that America's true power lies not in its will to intimidate, but in its ability to inspire?

War appears inevitable. But, I continue to hope that the cloud will lift. Perhaps Saddam will yet turn tail and run. Perhaps reason will somehow still prevail. I along with millions of Americans will pray for the safety of our troops, for the innocent civilians in Iraq, and for the security of our homeland. May God continue to bless the United States of America in the troubled days ahead, and may we somehow recapture the vision which for the present eludes us.
-- Illustration (2000 for Richmond.com) by F.T. Rea

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Picasso and Powell

In February of 1981 I saw Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” with my then-11-year-old daughter. When the Museum of Modern Art’s elevator doors opened the sight of the 25-foot wide masterpiece was so stunning the doors began to close before the spell was broken.

Picasso's “Guernica”

A few months later, upon the 100-year anniversary of Picasso’s birth, history’s most celebrated piece of anti-war art was packed up and sent to the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, Spain. However, a large copy of “Guernica” hangs on the second floor of the United Nations building -- a tapestry donated to the U.N. by Nelson Rockefeller’s estate in 1985.

On the occasion of then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s February 5, 2003, presentation, underlining his president’s impatience with U.N. members seeking to avoid or delay war in Iraq, the tapestry was completely covered by a blue drape. Powell, or somebody on his staff, apparently realized that even a replica of that particular piece had to be avoided as a backdrop of any photographs of him on that fateful day.

Ten years after the invasion of Iraq, I wonder how much of what Powell said that day he knew then had been ginned up by propagandists in the Bush administration. And, I wonder how much of what he said he believed was true.

*

In some ways little has changed at the heart of arguments concerning war and occupation since France’s army -- as driven by the empire-building vision of Napoleon Bonaparte -- was an occupying force in Spain.

Overwhelmed by the brutality of France’s campaign of terror to crush the Spanish will to resist, Francisco Goya (1746-1828) -- a well-connected artist who had much to lose -- took it upon himself to remove the romantic veil of glory which had always been draped over paintings of war in European art. Documenting what he saw of war, firsthand, the images Goya hurled at viewers of his paintings and prints radically departed from tradition.

Instead of heroic glorification Goya offered horrific gore. The art world hasn’t been the same since.

Following in Goya’s footsteps artists such as Honore Daumier (1808-1879), Georges Rouault (1871-1959), Frans Masereel (1889-1971), Otto Dix (1892-1969), among many others, created still more haunting images illustrating the grittier aspects of modern war. In the midst of the Spanish Civil War, with the storm clouds of World War II gathering, Spaniard Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) created “Guernica.”

On April 27, 1937, to field test state-of the-art equipment, Adolf Hitler loaned a portion of Germany’s air force, the Condor Legion, to a fellow fascist dictator -- Spain’s Francisco Franco. The mission: to bomb a small town a few miles inland from the Gulf of Biscay; a Basque village that had no strategic value whatsoever.

The result: utter terror.

Bombs rained on Guernica for over three hours; cold-blooded machine gunners mowed down the poor souls who fled into the surrounding fields.

Four days later with grim photographs of mutilated corpses on the front pages of French newspapers a million outraged Parisians took to their streets to protest the bombing of Guernica.

That same day Picasso, who was in Paris, dropped everything else and began sketching studies for what became “Guernica.” As Spain’s government-in-exile had already commissioned him to create a mural for its pavilion in the upcoming Paris World’s Fair, the inspired artist already had the perfect place to exhibit his statement -- a shades-of-gray, cartoonish composition made up of a terrified huddle of people and animals.

When the fair closed “Guernica” needed a home. Not only was the Spain of Generalissimo Franco out of the question, Picasso decided it wouldn’t be safe anywhere in Europe. He was probably right. Thus, the huge canvas was shipped to the USA and eventually wound up calling MOMA its home until 1981.

*

Colin Powell, a former four-star general, who, unlike some of Bush’s hawkish neoconservative experts, knew war firsthand, from the inside out. It seems the Secretary knew something about art history, as well. Six weeks before the invasion of Iraq, he apparently retained a firm grasp on the potential of “Guernica” to cast a bitterly ironic light upon his history-making utterances.

That, while he may have lost his grip on what had been his honor. Instead of resigning because he disagreed with the Bush policy, Powell said, “We also have satellite photos that indicate that banned materials have recently been moved from a number of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction facilities...”

Now, 15 years after the invasion of Iraq, Powell lives with the memory of the strategic blue drape that was thrown over “Guernica,” and the symbolic blue drape that he helped to throw over the truth.

-- 30 --

Thursday, March 08, 2018

A-10 Conference Tournament Notes

Point guard Johnny Williams at the Siegel Center.
Game No. 3

Final Score: VCU 77, Dayton 72.

The lede: Trailing Dayton 70-65 with 3:16 remaining, VCU finished the game off with a 12-to-2 run, to advance to the A-10 tournament's quarterfinals.

Box score: Here.

Inside the Scoring:
  • Johnny Williams was clutch; just when it mattered most, he hit the go-ahead basket. On 5-of-6 shooting from the field Williams scored 14 points, two of which came on a falling down, left-handed scooping-type shot in front of the basket ... with 58 seconds left in the game. 
  • Four other Rams scored in double figures led by Justin Tillman's team-high 15 points and 10 rebounds. De'Riante Jenkins and Sean Mobley racked up 11 points, each. 
  • VCU's bench outscored Dayton's bench, 16-7. 
  • The Rams had a 12-8 advantage in points off of turnovers.
For the record:
  • VCU committed a season-low seven turnovers in the win.
  • After a slow start Tillman went on to get his 17th double-double of the season. 
  • VCU's all-time record in A-10 tournament action is now 13-4.
H/T to VCU's Chris Kowalczyk for the data. Photo also from VCU.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Relentless


Justin Tillman, No. 4, demonstrates the proper boxing out technique. Photo from VCU.
Justin Tillman will play his last scheduled game at the Siegel Center tonight. He's currently sitting at No. 4 on the Rams all-time list of rebounders. He's behind Ren Watson, Kendrick Warren and Juvonte Reddic, but he should pass Reddic before he plays his last game in black and gold.
Tillman is the Rams senior forward who leads the team in scoring and rebounding. At 6-foot-8, with his quickness, he's a match-up nightmare for opponents. ESPN has cited him as one of the top 25 players in college basketball. Through 29 games, Tillman has averaged 19.3 points and 9.6 rebounds per outing.

"The most difficult aspect of guarding Tillman is how quickly he executes his post moves," says Chris Mooney, head coach at the University of Richmond. "He is shooting the ball almost immediately upon catching it in the low post. It is essentially impossible to double team him."
Here's the link to my piece on VCU's top score and rebounder.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Banjo Conmen

Note: This was written in 2012. 

Upon hearing the news of Earl Scruggs’ death earlier this year (Mar. 28, 2012), my thoughts went straight to a 36-year-old memory connected to a movie that played for two weeks at the Biograph Theatre (which I managed at the time) in January of 1976. The film was “Banjoman” (1975).

As “Banjoman” had only been in release for a couple of months when it played at the Biograph, the two young independent producers/filmmakers/distributors of the movie starring Earl Scruggs said they were learning the distribution business on the fly. When their 105-minute movie opened at the Biograph they were there, too ... they had brought the 35mm print with them. It was their monster-sized sound system that we used to present the film to our patrons.

The filmmakers were my age (I was 28 at this time). And, I almost think there was a third guy, but I’m not sure. My bosses in D.C. had booked the film sometime after meeting one (or more) of the filmmakers in a social situation; I don‘t remember the details.

Traditional distributors, like Paramount, Warner Bros., and so forth, generally shipped the prints of their films by way of a courier accustomed to handling them. Although it was unusual for people to travel with a print of a movie in the trunk of their car, it was not unprecedented. As an independent exhibitor the Biograph booked product from various sources that large movie chains would have routinely ignored.

“Banjoman” was just such a situation and its distributors actually hung around at the theater during screenings. They seemed like nice enough guys.    

The first clue: It was unusual when my bosses had me pay those guys directly in cash from box office receipts. But it was not my job to question it. We even advanced them some money against anticipated receipts, when they had to leave after the first week to work in another city. That surprised me but I don't remember if I said so. 

Since they didn’t have much in the way of pressbook materials, ad slicks, etc., I created the Biograph’s display advertisements for the newspaper. I used stills from the film that I had half-toned. Then I had some type set and pasted it all up. That led to me agreeing to create similar materials for them to use in other cities. We agreed upon my price. It was something like $250, plus what it cost me to produce a stack of different sized ad slicks for them to use in the future.

At that point I think they had two other prints of their movie (with sound systems) working on the road. We kept in touch by telephone. They were anxious to get their new promotional materials from me for their other play-dates. So I did a rush job for them which they said they greatly appreciated.

Then came the day to ship their print and sound system to them in another city. The run at the Biograph was over. When the truck driver came by the theater he told me his helper wasn’t with him, so he said I needed to put the equipment on his truck. Well, at the time, I was the only one in the building and I was nursing a slipped disc in my lower back.

Unless I wanted to be laid-up for a spell, I couldn’t lift the stuff. When the driver asked me how long it would take to get somebody there, to do the lifting, it annoyed me.

Therefore, I told the driver it was his job to get that junk on the truck, just to come back the next day with a helper. Yet, as I spoke with him I suddenly had a hunch that something was wrong. 

The truck driver shrugged and said, OK, he’d come back tomorrow. When I told one of the “Banjoman” guys what had happened, he said there was still plenty of time to get the equipment set up for the next engagement. So shipping it out the next day would be fine.

The second clue: Later that same day the mailman delivered a bank notice that a $200 check they had written to me had bounced. Uh-oh!

At this point, in addition to that check, they owed me another $600, or so, most of which I owed to a printer. And, they owed the Biograph maybe another $300, or so, because in the second week of their film’s run it didn’t live up to expectations. It failed to cover the advance in rental they had received.

By coincidence, I talked with my friend Dave DeWitt right after I got the rubber check in the mail. Dave had moved from Richmond to Albuquerque about a year earlier. At this time he was hosting a late night movie program on television there.

When I told Dave about the check and about my hunch not to ship the equipment, he said he’d heard of the guys who had produced "Banjoman." He told me he wanted to do a little checking up on them.

No more clues necessary: Dave called back soon to tell me the jokers I’d been dealing with had left a trail of angry people behind them out in the West, back when they were shooting concert footage of Scruggs' tour. It seemed they had found ways to do a lot of things without paying up front. They had also ripped off a movie theater that had played "Banjoman," just a month before.

After that unsettling news I told the guys who had been conning me that until they settled up, I was keeping their sound equipment and print of "Banjoman." They threatened me with legal action. After a couple of months with no word from them I sold off their sound equipment, it was the sort of stuff a band might use.

Then some time later, maybe another couple of months, I was indeed served with legal papers. By way of a local attorney they sued me for about $90,000. Don't remember how that figure was generated. I laughed and offered their lawyer the print of the film and about $800, which was what the equipment brought in, minus what they had owed the boys in D.C. and me.

Over the telephone line the Banjo Conmen huffed and puffed again. I went ahead handed over to the attorney their print of "Banjoman." After a few weeks of silence, they agreed to take the $800. In my view, they were lucky to get that. My guess is most of that dough went to their local attorney. Or maybe they somehow stiffed him and moved on.

Never heard another word from those guys. Ever since this oddball episode, when I hear Earl Scruggs’ banjo, I usually can't help but think of the weaselly Banjo Conmen. RIP, Earl.      

-- 30 --

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Biograph Times: Chapter Two




Note: This is the second chapter of Biograph Times, a work in progress that will hopefully become a book.

Midnight Shows

In the 1970s, during what some film aficionados call "the golden age of repertory cinema," double features ruled. Perhaps the hodgepodge of double features that was central to the format of a repertory cinema had something to do with a sense of postmodern license to combine disparate elements. The presenting of midnight shows was also an integral aspect of the programming for many such movie houses.

Although films are still being shown in theaters at the midnight hour, the cultural significance of such screenings has been in steady decline since the end of the '70s. While most of what was done at the Biograph was standard practice in that era for art houses/repertory cinemas, it was somewhat of a trend-setter with regard to the methodology of promoting and presenting midnight shows.

The formula for how to do it consistently had yet to be codified when a twin bill of so-called "underground" films, “Chafed Elbows” (1966) and “Scorpio Rising” (1964), was the first special late-night attraction we presented. On April 7, 1972, the show actually started at 11:30 p.m. and was called a "late show." 

Over our initial year of operation I came to understand the sort of pictures that would appeal to the late crowd. So although “The Godfather” (1972) was a critical success and a popular film the year the Biograph opened, it was not the sort of movie that would draw an audience at midnight. On the other hand, “Fritz the Cat” (1972), released the same year — but barely remembered today — was a good draw. When we premiered “El Topo” (1970) during regular hours in the spring of 1973 it flopped. Later as a midnight show it did well.

A 16mm bootleg print of “Animal Crackers” (1930), a Marx Brothers romp that had been out of release for decades, played well at midnight. Some rock ’n’ roll movies worked, others didn’t. Same with thrillers and monster flicks. The most successful midnight shows needed a cachet of something slightly forbidden -- maybe not allowed during regular hours.

In that light, a Marx Brothers title that couldn’t be seen on television or in a standard movie theater had an extra luster. We rented it from a private collector who had a beautiful 16mm print.

We promoted midnight shows with radio spots on WGOE-AM and with handbills posted on utility poles and in shop windows. We relied on little or no newspaper advertising for midnight shows in the early days. We usually didn’t list them in our regular printed programs, which displayed the titles and some film notes for the movies we exhibited during regular hours.

By showing “Animal Crackers,” we may have been breaking some sort of copyright laws. But the Fan District wasn’t Manhattan or Malibu, so no one who had any interest in the obscure battle over the rights to an old Marx Brothers feature film was likely to notice.

In the first couple of years of operation we occasionally rented short subjects, old TV shows and even feature films from private collectors who acted as distributors. Some titles were in the public domain, which meant no one actually had the “exclusive rights” to the rent out prints of the movie. “Reefer Madness” (1936) was such a title. Others were like “Animal Crackers,” which, due to a legal dispute, wasn’t in general release.

My bosses at the Biograph in Georgetown and I talked about the propriety of showing bootleg prints of films with murky rights issues several times. I came to agree with them that we weren’t denying the artists, or rightful distributors any money. Instead, they saw it as liberating those films for people to see. Anyway, we didn’t get caught.

A few years later the issues that had kept “Animal Crackers” out of release were resolved. So we booked a nice 35mm print from the proper distributor. It didn’t perform at the box office nearly as well as it had before, when it was forbidden.

When the Biograph started running midnight shows in 1972 the bars in Richmond closed at midnight, so there was a lot less to do at 12:01 a.m. than when the official cutoff time was extended to 2 a.m. in 1976.

Another reason midnight shows caught on when they did was that drive-in theaters, which had done well in the '50s and '60s, were going out of style fast. Some of the low-budget product they had been exhibiting found a new home as late-night entertainment in hardtop theaters. “Mondo Cane” (1962), “Blood Feast” (1963) and “2,000 Maniacs” (1964) all played as Biograph midnight shows. Once into the ’80s that sort of movie began to routinely go straight to video, skipping a theatrical run.

By the time we booked “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” in June of 1978, going to a midnight show was no longer seen as an exotic thing to do in Richmond. Multiplexes in the suburbs ran them all the time. Which ironically made the timing perfect for a kitschy spoof of/tribute to trashy rock ‘n’ roll and monster movies to become the all-time greatest midnight show draw.

The midnight show craze of the ‘70s could only have flourished then, when baby boomers were in their teens and 20s. It came before cable television was widely available and video rental stores had popped up in nearly every neighborhood.

Sometimes, a successful midnight show run came along in the nick of time to pay the Biograph's rent. On the other hand, as a promoter, there were times when I bit off more than I could chew.

On October 22, 1982, “The Honeymoon Killers” (1969) opened as a midnight show. I had seen it somewhere and become convinced it would appeal to the same crowd that loved absurd comedies by Luis Buñuel and Robert Altman, plus those who had adored previously popular midnight shows, such as “Eraserhead” (1977), or “Harold and Maude” (1971).

A droll murder spree movie in black and white, “The Honeymoon Killers” fell flat. Unlike most people, I saw it as a comedy. Mostly, nobody else saw it at all.


After-Hours Screenings

Still of Jimmy Cliff as Ivan.
In the fall of 1973, David Levy, then the most active managing partner/owner of the Biograph Theatres in Georgetown and Richmond, asked me to look at a film to evaluate its potential. From time to time he did that for various reasons. In this case he had a new 35mm print of “The Harder They Come” shipped to me.

In those days we had frequent after-hours screenings of films we came by, one way or another. Usually on short notice, the word would go out that we would be watching a movie at a certain time. These gatherings were essentially impromptu movie parties. A couple of times it was 1940s and '50s 16mm boxing films from a private collection.

Sometimes prints of films that were in town to play at another venue, say a film society, would mysteriously appear in our booth. In such cases the borrowed flicks were always returned before they were missed ... so I was told.

Although I don’t remember any moments, in particular, from that first screening of “The Harder They Come”, I do recall the gist of my telephone conversation with Levy the next day. After telling him how much I liked the Jamaican movie, he asked me how I would promote it.

Well, I was ready for that question. I had smoked it over thoroughly with a few friends during and after the screening. So, I told David we ought to have a free, open-to-the-public, sneak preview of the movie. Most importantly, we should use radio exclusively to promote the screening. Because of the significance of the radio campaigns for the Biograph's midnight shows, over the last year, he liked the idea right away.

In this time, long before the era of giant corporations owning hundreds of stations, a locally-programmed daytime radio station with a weak signal played a significant role in what success was enjoyed at the Biograph. For a while we had a sweet deal -- a dollar-a-holler -- with WGOE-AM, the most popular station for the under-35 set in the Fan District and environs. In the first half of the 1970s, the station at the top of the dial, 1590, owned the hippie market. 

Subsequently, on a Friday morning in November the DJs at WGOE began reading announcements of a free showing of “The Harder They Come” that would take place at the Biograph that afternoon at 3 p.m. Then they would play a cut by Jimmy Cliff, the film’s star, from the soundtrack. This pattern was continued maybe three times an hour, leading up to the time of the screening.

Note: “The Harder They Come” (1972): 120 minutes. Color. Directed by Perry Henzell; Cast: Jimmy Cliff, Janet Bartley, Carl Bradshaw. In this Jamaican production, Cliff plays Ivan, a pop star/criminal on the lam. The music of Cliff, The Maytals, The Melodians and Desmond Dekker is featured.

Of course, Reggae music was being heard in Richmond before our free screening, but it was still on the periphery of popular culture. As I recall, some 300 people showed up for the screening and the movie was extremely well received.

In previous runs in other markets, “The Harder They Come” had been treated more or less as an underground movie. As it was shot in 16mm and blown up to 35mm for its American distribution, it had a grainy, documentary look to it that added to its allure. Upon hearing about the test-audience's approval, Levy got excited and wanted to book it to run as a regular feature, rather than as a midnight show.

While it didn’t set any records for attendance, “The Harder They Come” did fairly well and returned to play several more dates at the Biograph, at regular hours and as a midnight show. 

Levy became a sub-distributor for “The Harder They Come.” When he rented it to theaters in other cities within his region, he advised them to use the same radio-promoted, free-screening tactic.

In 1973, watching a virtually unknown low-budget Jamaican film after operating hours in the Biograph had seemed edgy, almost exotic. That night we had no idea how popular Reggae music was about to become.

Over the next few years Reggae music smoothly crossed over from niche to mainstream to ubiquitous. Bob Marley (1945-81), dead for over 30 years, still has a huge following to this day. Reggae's acceptance opened the door for the popularity of the still-fresh fusion sound of the 2 Tone bands, like The Selecter, The Specials, the (English) Beat, Madness, and so forth, in the early-1980s.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Biograph Times: Chapter One: The First Year

by F.T. Rea 

The First Year: Over 200 Titles 

Note: The second of my three bosses, while I was manager of Richmond's Biograph Theatre, died on Tuesday. Lenny Poryles drew his last breath on Feb. 6, 2018, at his home in Arbonne-La-Forêt, France. He was 81. In addition to being an insightful and reliable person to work with, Lenny was a warm and generous man. RIP, Lenny.

About six weeks before its Feb. 11, 1972, opening gala this wide-angle view of The Biograph was captured by a Richmond News Leader photographer. It was snapped late in 1971, a few days before the new building at 814 W. Grace St. received its distinctive bright yellow paint-job.

*

On what I remember as a bright morning, it was in early July of 1971, I went to a construction site on the north side of the 800 block of West Grace Street. Mostly, it was a big hole in the orange dirt between two old brick houses.

A friend had tipped me off that she’d been told the owners of the movie house set to rise from that hole were looking for a manager who knew something about movies and could write about them. She also said they were hoping to hire a local guy. Chasing the sparkle of that opportunity I met David Levy at the construction site.

Levy was the Harvard-trained attorney who managed the Biograph Theatre at 2819 M Street in Washington. D.C. He was one of a group of five men who, in 1967, had opened Georgetown’s Biograph in what had previously been a car dealership.

Although none of them had any experience in show biz, they were hip young movie lovers whose timing had been impeccable -- they caught a pop culture wave. The golden age of repertory cinema was waxing and those original partners happened to be living in what was the perfect town for their venture. They did well right away.

With their success in D.C. to encourage them, a few years later the same five, plus one, were looking to expand. In Richmond’s Fan District they thought they had discovered just the right neighborhood for a second repertory-style cinema, again using split weeks and double features. In this style of calendar house programming one usually adheres to a published schedule. So if a movie draws well, instead of holding it over you bring it back soon.

A pair of local players, energy magnate Morgan Massey and real estate deal-maker Graham “Squirrel” Pembroke, acquired the land. They agreed to build a cinder block building to house a single-auditorium cinema just a stone’s throw from Virginia Commonwealth University’s academic campus for the entrepreneurs from D.C. to rent. The "boys in D.C." had to pay for the projection booth equipment, the turnstile (we used tokens, rather than tickets) and the seats, some 515 of them.

At the time I was working for a radio station, WRNL, so I gave Levy tapes of some humorous radio commercials I had made for what had been successful promotions. About 10 weeks after that first meeting with Levy I was offered the manager’s position for the new Biograph.

Can't recall all that much about that day, except I was told I beat out a lot of competition. Oddly, what I do remember clearly is a brief flash of me sitting in my living room, trying to be nonchalant, so as to not to reveal just how thrilled I was at getting that offer. In truth, at 23-years-old, I could hardly imagine a better job for me existed, at least not in the Fan District. 

This all happened three years after Richmond Professional Institute and the Medical College of Virginia merged to become VCU in 1968. In the fall of 1971 there were few signs of the dramatic impact the new university would eventually have on Richmond. Although a couple of film societies were thriving on campus in that time, other than local film critic Carole Kass' History of Motion Pictures class, the school itself was offering little in the way of classes about movies or filmmaking.

There were a few VCU professors who occasionally showed artsy short films in their classes. Mostly, independent and foreign features didn’t come to Richmond. So, in 1971, the coming of the Biograph Theatre to Grace Street was great news to local film buffs. Generally, it was seen as another sign the neighborhood's nightlife scene was becoming more attractive to the young adult market. 

Levy and I got along well right away. We became friends who trusted one another. He and his partners were all about 10 years my senior.

My manager’s job lasted until the summer of 1983. Owing to unpaid rent Grace Street’s Biograph Theatre was seized by the landlord four years later. A hundred miles to the north, the Biograph on M Street closed in 1996. David Levy died in 2004.

In 2018 there’s a noodles eatery in same building that once housed the repertory cinema I managed for 139 months. Now it’s the oldest building on the block.

*

On the evening of Friday, February 11, 1972, the adventure got off the ground with a gem of a party. In the lobby the dry champagne flowed steadily, as the tuxedo-wearers and colorfully outfitted hippies mingled happily. A trendy art show was hanging on the walls. The local press was all over what was an important event for that bohemian commercial strip.

The feature we presented to over 300 invited guests was a delightful French war-mocking comedy — “King of Hearts” (1966); Genevieve Bujold was dazzling opposite the droll Alan Bates. With splashy news and television stories about the party trumpeting the Biograph's arrival the next night we opened for business with a cool double feature: “King of Hearts“ was paired with “A Thousand Clowns“ (1965). Every show sold out.

The owning partners were all there for the first-ever Biograph party. Other than the projectionist, Howard Powers -- who was supplied by the local operators union -- I had hired the theater's opening night's staff: The cashiers were Cathy Chapman and Susan Eskey. The ushers were Bernie Hall and Chuck Wrenn. A few weeks later Chuck was promoted to assistant manager and Susan Kuney was hired as a third cashier. I think Joe Bumiller replaced Chuck as an usher.  

The Biograph’s printed schedule, Program No. 1, was heavy on documentaries. It featured the work of Emile de Antonio and D.A. Pennebaker, among others. Also on that program, which had no particular theme, were several titles by popular European directors, including Michaelangelo Antonioni, Costa-Gavras, Federico Fellini, and Roman Polanski.

Like the first one, which offered mostly double features, each of the next several programs covered about six weeks. At this point Alan Rubin, who worked in the Georgetown office, did all the mechanical art for those programs, as he had been doing for the D.C. Biograph. In the initial months he and Levy made the programming decisions, with me throwing in my two-cents worth.

Baby boomers who had grown up watching old movies on television had learned to worship important movie directors. Within a certain set, knowing film was cool; it could get you laid. The fashion of the day elevated certain foreign movies, selected American classics, a few films from the underground scene, etc., to a level above most of their more accessible Hollywood counterparts.

In reading everything I could find about which films were respected and popular, especially in New York and San Francisco, it was easy to gather that the in-crowd viewed most of Hollywood’s then-current product as either laughingly naive or hopelessly corrupt. Or both. Perhaps most admired of all foreign films were those considered to be part of the French New Wave, which began as the '50s ended with the early features made by Louis Malle, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.

What the first year on the job would teach me was how few people in Richmond really wanted to see the best imported films in that time. After the opening flurry of interest in the new movie theater, with long lines to nearly every show, it was surprising to me when the crowds shrank dramatically in the months that followed. Which showed me how important that run-up to the opening publicity had been.

As VCU students had been a substantial portion of the theater’s initial crowd the slump was chalked off to warm weather, exams and then summer vacation. In that context the first summer of operation was opened to experimentation aimed at drawing more customers from beyond the immediate neighborhood. That gave me an opportunity to do more with a project my bosses had put me in charge of developing, Friday and Saturday midnight shows -- using radio in particular to promote them.

By trial and error I learned quickly that movies that lent themselves to attention-getting promotion performed better at the box office. Early midnight show successes were “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), “Yellow Submarine” (1968), “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” (1971), and an underground twin bill of “Chafed Elbows” (1967) and “Scorpio Rising” (1964). Most of the failures have been forgotten.

With significant input from Chuck, the theater’s well-known assistant manager, quirky non-traditional ad campaigns were designed in-house. Chuck's help with developing the style we used for choosing these late shows and promoting them effectively can't be overstated. 

We learned there were two essential elements to midnight show promotions: 1. Wacky radio spots had to be created and run on WGOE, a popular AM station aimed directly at the hippie listening audience. 2. I made distinctive handbills that were posted on utility poles, bulletin boards and in shop windows in high-traffic locations. Both elements had to show a sense of humor. 

Dave DeWitt produced the radio commercials. We happily shared the copy-writing chore. In his studio, Dave and I frequently collaborated on the making of those spots with an ample supply of cold Pabst Blue Ribbons and whatnot. Most of the time we went for levity, even cheap laughs. Dave had a classic announcer's voice and he was quite masterful at physically crafting radio commercials. He was more of a nitpicker for perfection than I was, so we made a good team.

On September 13, 1972, a George McGovern-for-president benefit was staged at the Biograph. Former Gov. Doug Wilder, then a state senator, spoke. We showed "Millhouse" (1971), a documentary that put President Richard Nixon in a bad light.

Yes, I was warned that taking sides in politics was dead wrong for a show business entity in Richmond. Taking the liberal side only made it worse. But the two most active partners who were my bosses, Levy and Rubin, who was a geologist turned artist, were delighted with the notion of doing the benefit. They were used to doing much the same up there. So with the full backing of the boys in D.C. I never hesitated to reveal my left-leaning stances on anything political.  

Also in September “Performance” (1970), a somewhat overwrought but well-crafted musical melodrama -- starring Mick Jagger -- packed the house at midnight three weekends in a row. Then a campy, docu-drama called “Reefer Madness” (1936) sold out four consecutive weekends.

The midnight shows were going over like gangbusters. To follow “Reefer Madness” what was then a little-known X-rated comedy, “Deep Throat” (1972), was booked as a midnight show. By then the Georgetown Biograph was experimenting with playing naughty midnight shows. In Richmond, we had played a handful of films that had earned an X-rating, they had been more artsy than they were vulgar. This was our first step across the line to hardcore porn.

*

As “Deep Throat” ran only an hour, master prankster Luis Buñuel’s surrealistic classic short film (16 minutes), “Un Chien Andalou” (1929), was added to the bill, just for grins. It should be noted that like "Deep Throat," Buñuel’s first film, was also called totally obscene in its day. Still, this may have been the only time that particular pair of outlaw flicks ever shared a billing ... anywhere.

A few weeks after “Deep Throat” began playing in Richmond, a judge in Manhattan ruled it was obscene. Suddenly the national media became fascinated with it. The star of "Deep Throat," Linda Lovelace, appeared on network TV talk shows. Watching Johnny Carson pussyfoot around the premise of her celebrated “talent” made for some giggly moments.

Eventually, to be sure of getting in to see this midnight show, patrons began showing up as much as an hour before show time. Standing in line on the brick sidewalk for the spicy midnight show frequently turned into a party. There were nights the line resembled a tailgating scene at a pro football game. A determined band of Jesus Freaks took to standing across the street to issue bullhorn-amplified warnings of hellfire to the patrons waiting in the midnight show line that stretched west on Grace Street. It only added to the scene.

Playing for 17 consecutive weekends, at midnight only, “Deep Throat” grossed over $30,000. That was more dough than the entire production budget of what was America’s first skin-flick blockbuster.

The midnight show’s grosses conveniently made up for the disappointing performance of an eight-week program of venerable European classics at regular hours. It included ten titles by the celebrated Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman. The same package of art house workhorses played extremely well up in Georgetown, underlining what was becoming a painfully underestimated contrast in the two markets.

On the theater's first anniversary I made a list of all the titles we had presented. A few noteworthy shorts films were on the list, such as Chris Marker's "La Jetée" (1962), but I omitted most shorts. The list, which I had printed as a flyer to hand out, was over 200 titles long.

In 52 weeks, to establish what we were, the Biograph had presented over 200 different films, some in a couple of runs. Split weeks with doubles features, plus midnight shows, chewed up a lot of product. By the end of the first year Levy, Rubin and I knew we needed to make some changes in our programming.

The Fan District was not becoming Georgetown and in spite of what some folks were predicting, maybe it never would. To be successful in Richmond we realized we had to do more to cultivate the audience here to appreciate the sort of films we loved and most wanted to present. And, in the meantime, we had to figure out how to stop losing money at an alarming rate.

To start, maybe fewer old Bergman flicks.

*

Here's a small sample of the first year's avalanche of sweet double features. In this case I chose to have 12 double features on the list, because that's typically what was on one of the Biograph's calendar style programs in the first year of operation:

Feb. 12-14, 1972: 
“King of Hearts” (1966): Color. Directed by Philippe de Broca. Cast: Alan Bates, Geneviève Bujold, Pierre Brasseur. Note: The first movie to play at the Biograph was a zany French comedy, set amid the harsh but crazy realities of too much World War I.
“A Thousand Clowns” (1965): B&W. Directed by Fred Coe. Cast: Jason Robards, Barbara Harris, Martin Balsam. Note: A social worker investigates the rules-bending circumstances in which a boy lives with his iconoclastic uncle, an unemployed writer.

Feb. 21-23, 1972:
“Z”  (1969): Color. Directed by Costa-Gavras. Cast: Yves Montand, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Irene Papas. Note: A political assassination’s cover-up in Greece spawns a compelling based-on-truth whodunit, with sudden plot twists, all told at a furious pace.
"The Battle of Algiers" (1966): B&W. Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. Note: This account of the cruel tactics employed by both warring sides during the Algerian revolution is part documentary, part staged suspenseful recreation. Unforgettable.

Mar. 17-20, 1972: 
“Gimme Shelter” (1970): Color. Directed by Albert Maysles and David Maysles.  Performers: The Rolling Stones, the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Tina Turner and more. Note: A documentary with much concert footage and one murder.
“T.A.M.I. Show” (1964): B&W. Directed by Steve Binder. Performers: the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, the Supremes, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Lesley Gore and more appear in concert footage.

Apr. 12-13, 1972:
"Bell Du Jour" (1967): Color. Director: Luis Buñuel. Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli. Note: Beautiful Severine loves her successful husband. With him she’s frigid. Her kinky fantasies lead her to the oldest profession … only by day.
"A Man and a Woman" (1966): Color. Director: Claude Lelouche. Cast: Anouk Aimée, Jean-Louis Trintignan. Note: A widower and a widow meet by chance at their childrens' boarding school. As the struggle to deal with their attraction to one another, neither has gotten over their loss.  

June 1-7, 1972: 
“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1969): Color. Directed by Robert Altman. Cast: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie. Note: With Altman, the routine gambling, prostitution and power struggles in the Old West take on a different sort of look. More grit. Less glory. All random.
"Klute" (1971): Color. Directed by Alan J. Pakula. Cast: Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Roy Scheider. Note: Fonda grabbed a Best Actress Oscar for her convincing portrayal of a damaged prostitute who helps a dogged private detective solve a complicated missing person case.

June 14-18, 1972:
“Putney Swope” (1969): Both B&W and color. Directed by Robert Downey Sr. Cast: Stan Gottlieb, Allen Garfield, Archie Russell. Note: This strange but hilarious send-up of Madison Avenue was Downey’s effort to crossover from underground to legit. Probably his most accessible work.
"Trash" (1970): Color. Director: Paul Morrissey. Cast: Joe Dallesandro, Holly Woodlawn. Note: It was billed as "Andy Warhol's Trash," as he was credited with being the producer of Morrissey's series of undergroundish films. This one reveals the down-and-out urban lifestyle of an oddball couple.

June 29-July 2, 1972: 
"Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964): B&W. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens. Note: This nuke-mocking black comedy raised eyebrows at the height of the Cold War. Still a laugh riot.
 “M.A.S.H.” (1970): Color. Directed by Robert Altman. Cast: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Sally Kellerman. Note: This cynical comedy about doctoring too close to the pointless battles of the Korean War is much funnier than the long-running TV show that followed it.

Sept. 21-24, 1972:
"Citizen Kane" (1941): B&W. Directed by Orson Welles. Cast: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore. Note: The meaning of a powerful, lonely man’s last word enlarges into a mystery. Flashbacks reveal a large life driven by lusts and obsessions. As American as it gets. 
"The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942): B&W. Directed by Orson Welles. Cast: Tim Holt, Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter. Note. This truncated-by-the studio version of what the indulgent director intended follows the meandering story of a prominent family's fortunes.  

Oct. 9-11, 1972:
“The Third Man” (1949): B&W. Directed by Carol Reed. Cast: Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alida Valli. Note: This elegant film noir mystery, set in crumbling post-war Vienna, is pleasing to the eye and stylishly cynical. Hey, no heroes here, but great music. 
"Breathless" (1960): B&W. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg. Note: An opportunistic thief on the lam becomes irresistible to a pretty American journalism student in Paris. Uh-oh, the guy is dangerous. How long can living in the moment last?

Nov. 17-19, 1972:
“Duck Soup” (1933): B&W. Directed by Leo McCarey. Cast: The Four Marx Brothers (Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo), Margaret Dumont. Note: With Rufus T. Firefly as dictator of Freedonia and flush from a fat loan from Mrs. Teasdale, what could hilariously go wrong? How about war?
"Horse Feathers" (1932): B&W. Directed by Norman McLeod. Cast: The Four Marx Brothers, Thelma Todd. Note: The Biograph's secret password that opened doors was "swordfish." The scene that spawned that tradition is in this gag-filled send-up of on-campus life and football.

Dec. 7-10, 1972: 
“The Producers” (1968): Color. Directed by Mel Brooks. Cast: Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Kenneth Mars, Dick Shawn. Note: Brooks’ first feature film laughed at Nazis with what was a fresh audacity. Mostel and Wilder are so funny it ought to be illegal.
“The Graduate (1967): Color. Directed by Mike Nichols. Cast: Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Katherine Ross. Note: The mores of upper middle class life in the '60s are laid bare, as a recent college graduate's idleness leads to an affair with the beautiful, but wrong older woman.

Jan. 25-28, 1973:
"The Conformist" (1971): Color. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, Gastone Moschin. Note: A visually stunning look at fascist Italy, with Mussolini in power and old class distinctions melting away. Betrayal is in the air.
 “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” (1971): Color. Directed by Vittorio De Sica. Cast: Dominique Sanda, Lino Capolicchio, Fabio Testi. Note: With WWII approaching, why did wealthy, well educated Jews stay too long in Germany and Italy? This film provides some answers.
 
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