Friday, June 04, 2021

1989: The Fan District's Goddess of Democracy

May 30, 1989: As a symbol of their call for democratic reforms in China, the original Goddess of Democracy was built by art students who erected it in Tiananmen Square. The gathering protest on that site had begun in mid-April; tension was mounting. 

Subsequently, on June 4, following orders, elements of the People’s Liberation Army put an end to the demonstration. Mayhem ensued. Although reports varied widely, hundreds, if not thousands, were killed. 

Made of chicken wire and plaster the Goddess was destroyed during the brutal routing of the determined protesters who had remained to the end, in defiance. As the drama played out on television, via satellite, those events shocked the world.

In Richmond, as their art student counterparts in China were being murdered in the shadow of their 33-foot-tall sculpture, a group of local artists heard the call of inspiration to stand in support of those who had fallen. The impromptu team of the willing and able -- VCU-affiliated artists -- worked for the next couple of days to give form to their tribute to courage. The courage of those who had risked it all for the sake of freedom of expression.

While the ad hoc undertaking was not sponsored by the university, wisely, VCU didn't play it safe and discourage the gesture. Maybe the university's top dogs decided that it was a natural outgrowth from having a world class art school. Richmond’s Goddess of Democracy (pictured above and below) stood the same height and was made of the same basic materials as the one in China had been. Thirty-two years ago, facing the 900 block of West Main Street, it stood as a memorial for about a month in front of the student center. Eventually, weather was its undoing.

While it stood CNN had a report on it, as did many other news agencies. Its image was on front pages of newspapers all over the world.

The June 16 -30, 1989 issue of SLANT ran a story about construction and display of the Goddess. It included mention of a handbill that I found posted at the site of the VCU memorial. Here's a portion of the text that appeared on that small poster: 
On May 13, 1989, Beijing University students began an occupation of Tiananmen Square to call for democratic reforms and an end to official corruption. The ensuing peaceful and often festive protest drew world attention and gained support from the citizens and workers of Beijing. On Sunday, June 4, at 3:30 [a.m.] Chinese time, troops of the 27th Division of the People’s Liberation Army entered the square with orders to disperse the students. At approximately 6 a.m. these same troops attacked the protestors with automatic weapons, tanks, and bayonets. According to government estimates only 300 students were killed, but local medical estimates put the death toll between 500 and 1,000.
The brutal suppression of unarmed students by a powerful totalitarian government has moved the world’s conscience. Many of the Tiananmen victims were art students who aspired to same basic freedoms which we enjoy daily. As American artists we cannot overlook, and we must never forget, the suffering and sacrifice of our brothers and sisters in Beijing. Their peaceful struggle was a cry for human rights everywhere, and their symbol, the Goddess of Democracy, was the highest artistic tribute they could pay to humanity’s noblest ideal -- freedom.
The little red-on-white placards on sticks that surrounded the sculpture (seen in the photos) were added a few days after the Fan District's Goddess was completed. To say the piece was thought-provoking is quite an understatement. As far as I know, nobody made a penny out of it. 

Thinking back on it, this episode was also a good illustration of how the traditional left and right, liberal and conservative, characterizations of all things political don’t always do justice to the truth of a given situation. For instance, was the stubborn and heavy-handed Chinese government situated to the right, or to the left, of the upstart students calling for reform?

When communists are the conservatives clinging to the old way, how does that play out on a straight line spectrum of left-to-right thinking? It seems to me authoritarian regimes are what they are, regardless of how else they wish to be viewed from the outside.

Until what happened to the pedestal of the Robert E. Lee Monument in 2020, the Goddess of Democracy on VCU’s campus in the early-summer of 1989 was the most successful piece of guerilla art this scribbler had ever seen firsthand. Both happened spontaneously in my neighborhood, the Fan. 

-- 30 --

-- Photos by F.T. Rea

Monday, May 31, 2021

Can It Happen Here?

Can it happen here?

Could Democracy, itself, collapse and allow a Sinclair Lewis style authoritarian dystopia to fall into place in the USA? Can 2021's variant of fascism overwhelm this country's ability to fend off such threats?

Well, scattered among us, there have always been villains who wanted to have it all. Greed-driven people who've longed to operate as they pleased, with the impunity a cheater loves. Cruel bullies who get off on provoking fear in others. 

Likewise, there have always been loners and perpetual victims who hated the federal government so much that storming the Capitol building would sound like fun. Throw in the gangs, such as the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, maybe some new wave Confederates, etc. And, for that matter, fascism has been lurking in the shadows in this country since the 1930s. After all, fascists and gangsters have a lot in common. So, the ingredients of the January 6th mob have been with us for a long time. They have been waiting to be gathered and directed.

Moreover, before Trump came along what had been holding those villains in check, for the most part, had been our society's time-honored cultural and legal systems. Now those systems are being tested, perhaps more than any time since the Depression, when Lewis' alarming novel, "It Can't Happen Here", was published. 

Maybe the 1/6 insurrection stunt, wrapped in a riot, embedded in a Trump rally, was the Mad Don's parting shot. Or, maybe it will turn out to have been a scary preview of worse things to come. Still, either way, we can't say there was no warning for what happened in D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021.

In a Mar. 14, 2019 interview Trump said: "I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad."

Part of the Trumpist bandwagon's allure is that it seems to be offering the aforementioned villains the chance to have it all. The opportunity to have the privileges of the MAGA In-Crowd, once loyalists have installed in all positions of power. 

"Law enforcement, military, construction workers, Bikers for Trump ... They travel all over the country .... They’ve been great," Trump said. "But these are tough people ... But they’re peaceful people, and antifa and all — they’d better hope they stay that way." 

At this point, Trumpism is obviously appealing to a lot of goons with a grudge. Whether Trump's vulgar style is attracting new followers faster than it is losing them is something I can't say.

-- 30 --

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Addicted to Choice

Note: A version of this piece I penned in 2004 was published by STYLE Weekly in that year. Regarding the premise, not all that much has changed.

*

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

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

Of course Madison Avenue, the great facilitator of this shoppin' 'round the clock scenario, has long depicted “choice” as utter bliss. Choice has also been a hot political buzzword for some time. 

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

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

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

In “One-Dimensional Man,” German-born philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) warned us in the 1960s about illusions of freedom: 

Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear.
Marcuse’s keen eye saw the counterfeit aspect of the processed brand of freedom wielders of easy credit felt, even then, as they exercised their prerogative to select one set of time-payment obligations over another. Marcuse laughed at a man feeling free to choose between a new Ford or Chevrolet, then being chained to years of monthly payments. But Marcuse’s hard-nosed take on what he saw as controls over modern society is out of style today. Still, his view of how language is predictably used by a few of us to manipulate the rest of us remains as valuable as ever. Propaganda works better than ever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- 30 --

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Biograph Times: 1974: A Year of Change

 
The last American last combat troops left Vietnam in 1973. Since the horrors of the Vietnam War had loomed over our political and cultural landscape for a decade, in 1974 the absence of war made for a different vibe. During 1974 a lot changed in the U.S.A. Probably more changes than most years. However, of the many changes that were in the air during 1974, the one that stayed at the top of the news was the steady unraveling of Richard Nixon's presidency.
 
With the turning of those two tortured pages of history the zenith of the hippie era itself was behind us. During '74 styles in music, politics, movies, drugs, clothes, hairdos and you-name-it, began moving in different directions. 
 
For my demographic group, the 20-somethings, the temptation to celebrate having been right about Vietnam and Nixon was irresistible. So it was an excellent time for a party. Maybe in an empty warehouse or an art studio ... at least, that's how I remember it ... looking back through the compression of a long lens.
 
*   
 
While some of 1974's changes were fairly predictable, others seemed to come from out of the blue. For instance, not many of us foresaw the most popular gesture of civil disobedience and group defiance on campus during the '60s and early-'70s -- the protest march -- would mutate into impromptu gatherings to cheer for naked people running by. Well, in the spring of '74, streaking on college campuses suddenly became a national phenomenon. 
 
It seemed most folks laughed off the streaking fad, or they just didn't care much. Yet, some people were outraged into quivering fits by it. Naturally, such reactions inspired some adventurous young people in the Fan District to get in the act.
 
However, after hearing about incidents of streaking on Virginia Commonwealth University's campus, Richmond’s police chief, Frank S. Duling, told the media that his department would not tolerate streaking on the city’s streets, in the alleys, etc. He promised to do his duty to rid the city of the threat streaking posed.  
 
Then a VCU spokesperson insisted that if the streaking occurs on campus, that would be a university matter. So it would be properly dealt with by its own police personnel. 
 
Truth be told, the relationship between the City of Richmond and VCU was still working itself out in 1974. VCU had been growing by leaps and bounds in the time since its 1968 creation, by way of the merger of Richmond Professional Institute and the Medial College of Virginia. All that sudden growth was rubbing some Richmonders the wrong way.
 
It should be remembered that VCU's academic campus had some busy (and still has) city streets running though it. Thus, it wasn't altogether clear to everyone just who ought to have the say-so over the university's exhibitionist students playing on those city streets and sidewalks.

Moreover, leading up to this point, there had been a series of the-cops-vs-the-kids skirmishes in the lower Fan District, on or near the VCU campus. The most bitterly remembered of them occurred after Allen Ginsberg spoke at the VCU gym on Oct. 12, 1970. Reports I've read and the many firsthand accounts I've heard have agreed that the city police used overkill force to break up what was essentially a spontaneous outdoor after-party in the vicinity of N. Harrison St, where Grove Ave. and Park Ave. converge. 
 
Hell broke loose. Debris was thrown. It was said a cop was hit by a flying piece of brick. K-9 dogs were unleashed upon the crowd. It was a turf war mess. Then there were lots of resentments to do with the increased pot busts in the neighborhood, frequently facilitated by the squealing of undercover narcs. 
 
There were other lesser clashes in the neighborhood. Anyway, grudges were held. So, leading up to the incident described below, which played out three-and-a-half years later,  there was a troubled history . 
 
By about 10 p.m. of March 19, 1974, several small groups of streakers had already made some quick runs on the streets, sidewalks and between buildings near the intersection of Shafer and Franklin Streets. Cops on patrol rode by a few times, but took no action. 
 
At first... 

Then four young adults slowly rode along of the 800 block of W. Franklin in a convertible and stole the show. As they stood up in the middle of the block -- as naked as jaybirds -- and waved, the crowd of some 150 spectators cheered. 
 
At this point the prevailing mood was quite festive. Peaceful, too. Because I was in that crowd when the convertible passed by, I know this firsthand. It all happened just a block from the Biograph Theatre, on Grace St., where I worked. Trent Nicholas, also on the theater's staff, and I had noticed the commotion and walked over to see what would happen.

Then a group of maybe 60-to-70 city policemen zoomed into the scene on small motorbikes and in squad cars. They were executing what appeared to be a planned raid. They wasted no time in arresting the four streakers in the convertible. The crowd booed.  
 
After a lull in the action, several uniformed policemen suddenly charged into the assembled spectators on the sidewalks and lawns on either side of Franklin St. Other than the crowd booing the cops for arresting the streakers, I don't remember any particular provocation for that abrupt change. A few of the bystanders were randomly seized, dragged into the middle of the street, roughed up and thrown into paddy wagons. 
 
One kid, close to where I was standing, was shoved from his bicycle to the curb. Two cops grabbed him and slammed him several times against the front fender of a police car in the middle of the street. By then the crowd was scattering. A few unlucky bystanders were beaten with clubs or flashlights.  
 
What set the cops off that night on Franklin St. is still a mystery to me. Maybe they were following orders. I didn't stick around to ask. By the way, as I remember it, VCU cops were conspicuous by their absence.
 
Two weeks later, in Los Angeles, a man named Robert Opel streaked across the stage of the 46th Academy Awards ceremony at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. On the live broadcast, as Opel ran by, flashing a peace sign with his hand, the upstaged host, David Niven, promptly jabbed: "The only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings."

Other Noteworthy Events in 1974

Jan. 2: To conserve precious gasoline in an oil shortage crisis, President Richard Nixon signed a new federal law, mandating a 55 mph speed limit, coast-to-coast. (Imagine how that would go over today!)
 
Jan. 12: After narrowly defeating Henry Howell in the general election, Mills Godwin was sworn in for his second term as governor of Virginia. He had been elected governor as a Democrat in 1965. It turned out, he was the last of the string of Byrd Machine Democrats to serve as governor (1966-'70). In 1973, for his second term, Godwin ran as a Republican. 
 
In this time it was fashionable for conservative Southern Democrats to cross over, to sit other side of the aisle. Virginia's Republican Party, which had previously been the more liberal of the Commonwealth's two parties on some issues, suddenly absorbed a flock of right-wing politicians who had once been a part of the deplorable Massive Resistance movement that had fought the integration of Virginia's public schools. 
   
Feb. 4: Patty Hearst was abducted. Eight days later a group calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army told the extremely well-to-do Hearst family it had to cough up $230 million in food aid to the poor.

Feb. 11: Richmond's Biograph Theatre celebrated its second anniversary with free movies, free beer and a wee prank, of a sort. Once all the seats were filled for the 6:30 p.m. show -- "The Devil and Miss Jones" and "Beaver Valley" -- thousands who had lined up were turned away. 
 
A couple of hundred simply stayed in line, to be sure of getting into the 9 p.m. show. When the essential details of the prank reached them, as they waited, some left once they heard no skin flicks were being screened. Others stayed for the second show, anyway.
 
Mar. 2: President Nixon was named as a "co-conspirator" in the Watergate cover-up by a federal grand jury. Later on the public learned about how damn crazy Nixon got in his last months in office. Yet, at this point in the story, it was still hard to see that he wasn't going to last out the year.

Mar. 29: After flying by and photographing Venus in February, the Mariner 10 reached its closest point to Mercury. Photos of Mercury beamed back to NASA revealed a barren landscape not unlike the Earth's moon.
 
Apr. 8: Playing for the Atlanta Braves, outfielder Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s supposedly "unbreakable" career home run record with his 715th round-tripper. Eventually, the public was told about the many sick messages, including death threats, Aaron had received from the public leading up to his feat. Once again, we could plainly see that for some dyed-in-the-wool racists nothing would ever change.

Apr. 15: According to photographic evidence Patty “Tania” Hurst seemed to be helping her captors rob a bank at gunpoint. It was hard to know what to make of it. Tania?

April 27: At the Cherry Blossom Music Festival, staged at Richmond's City Stadium, club-wielding peace officers and pissed off hippies made national news. Headlined by the Steve Miller Band and Boz Scaggs that well-attended event (which I did not attend) turned out to be when the feud between the two groups finally boiled over. Accounts said things got totally out of hand when police officers attempted to arrest some pot-smoking members of the festival's audience. 
 
Several police cars were destroyed during what turned into a four-hour battle. A friend shot some color 16mm film of the scene that looked like news footage from a third world country. In all, 76 people were arrested. The fallout from this unprecedented melee put the kibosh on any outdoor rock 'n' roll shows in Richmond -- with alcohol available on the site -- for several years. 
 
May 10: A great offbeat thriller, "The Conversation," began a two-week run. The booking was owing to a lucky quirk of business that allowed the Biograph, an independent cinema, to play several of Paramount's top first-run pictures that year. Paramount (the distributor) and Neighborhood Theatres (the dominant local chain) weren't speaking for a few months.
 
May 15: Richmond-based A.H. Robins Co. yielded to pressure from the feds to take its contraceptive device, the Dalkon Shield, off the market.

May 17: A tongue-in-cheek article published in New Times, penned by Nina Totenberg, listed the 10 dumbest people in Congress. Virginia's Sen. William Scott was put atop the list. A week later Scott called a press conference to deny the charge. Scott: "I'm not a dunce." 
 
June 28: "Chinatown," another Paramount first-run picture, premiered at the Biograph. It ran five weeks. The games the staff played using lines from the movie were plentiful and a lot of fun. During that five-week run it became my all-time favorite movie. It still is. 
 
My favorite line in "Chinatown" is spoken by Noah Cross (John Huston): "'Course I'm respectable. I'm old. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough."
 
July 27: The House Judiciary Committee voted 27-11 to impeach Nixon. Three days later the Supreme Court said Nixon had to surrender tape recordings of White House meetings that had been sought by the Watergate investigation’s special prosecutor. While Nixon's presidency was surely in a death spiral he continued to vow that he would never resign.  

Aug. 9: Nixon resigned. Gerald Ford was immediately sworn in as president. 

Aug. 12: The Biograph Theatre closed for four weeks to be converted into a rather awkward twin cinema. The work was done by a chemically-fueled, round-the-clock construction crew. The Liar's Poker games in the middle of the night were the stuff of legends.

Sept. 8: Ford pardoned Nixon, which didn't come as much of a surprise, but it still frustrated a lot of people who wanted to see him to face the music.

Oct. 29: Muhammad Ali regained the world heavyweight boxing crown he had lost by refusing to be drafted into the army in 1967. In Zaire, Ali defeated the heavily favored champion, George Foreman, by a knockout in the eighth round. 

Nov. 13: Yasir Arafat, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, addressed the UN with a pistol strapped to his waist. Supporters of Israel cringed. Israel's enemies puffed up their chests. Lovers of peace weren't necessarily encouraged, but hoped for the best.

Nov. 24: The 3.2 million-year-old skeleton of an early human ancestor was discovered in Ethiopia. The scientists who found it named the skeleton, “Lucy.”

Dec. 10: "Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones," a first-run concert film, began a four-week engagement at the Biograph in No. 1 (the larger auditorium). A special sound system was brought in to beef up the surround sound to rock 'n' roll concert level. 
 
Dec. 19: The former governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, a moderate Republican, was sworn in as Vice President.  

Dec. 28: The last published Billboard Top 100 list of 1974 revealed that the No. 1 pop single of the year was Barbra Streisand's "The Way We Were." 

*

1974 Note 1: During 1974, Richmond's Biograph made a lot of news, local and elsewhere. That process revealed to me just how much most of the local press seemed to want to help the Biograph succeed. In any city advertising and media pros tended to like art house cinemas. The same went for college art and communications professors. To that community we were the risk-taking good guys of the local film scene. 
 
Thus, after three years of learning on the fly how to manage Richmond's repertory cinema(s), I could see that to succeed at the box office often enough to keep the place open in the years ahead, I probably had to get better at helping that community to help us.   
 
1974 Note 2: Of the three partners who worked in the Biograph offices in Georgetown, the one I knew the best was David Levy. In early-1974 he split, to go his own way. Levy soon began operating his own cinema, also in Georgetown, The Key. 
 
1974 Note 3: In late-February of 1974 Trent Nicholas and I shot the 16mm footage that went into "Matinee Madcap." We used borrowed equipment (shout-out to Mike Moore). 
 
Trent played the protagonist, a harmless pauper trying to sneak into the cinema. Bernie Hall played the dutiful usher/schlemeil, determined to stop the freeloader. Others on the theater's staff and several friends played various supporting roles and served as extras. A nine-minute black-and-white comedy, it was styled after the classic silent two-reelers of the 1920s.  
 
It was basically a string of gags held together by the thinnest of plots. All of the film's action was shot at the theater. It ends on the sidewalk in front of the theater with a brief homage to Charlie Chaplin.
 
Over the next couple of weeks I edited it in the theater's office. Then, in a few more weeks, with me kibbitzing, Dave DeWitt added the sound track in his studio; for the sound we "sampled" a bunch of different pop music snippets. The style we used borrowed from what we had developed producing a bunch of goofy radio spots promoting the Biograph's midnight shows.
 
In the next several years that followed, "Matinee Madcap" was screened at the Biograph countless times. It was screened at a film festival in D.C. and received brief praise from critic Tom Shales in the Washington Post. Brief.
 
-- 30 --

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Living in the Moment

 "Tin soldiers and Nixon coming ... Four dead in Ohio"

April 30, 1970: President Richard Nixon announced on television that he had authorized the invasion of Cambodia. This border-crossing escalation outraged many in the anti-war movement.

May 4, 1970: During an anti-war demonstration on the Kent State campus, elements of the Ohio National Guard shot four students to death. Those victims were: Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder. Nine others were injured.

May 9, 1970: Two friends rode with me from Richmond to Washington D.C. in my 1956 baby blue Cadillac. We made that 100-mile trip to see firsthand what sort of protest would erupt in reaction to the sudden specter of a college campus becoming a war zone. Other than that I don't think we had a clear plan. The photos accompanying the text of this piece were taken with my then-new Ricoh 35mm single lens reflex.
 
*

As the crowd was being funneled into the grassy ellipse south of the White House, the designated demonstration area, the morning’s temperature had already surged into the 90s. The clinging heat added to the growing sense in the air that anything could happen. Anything?

The White House grounds and Lafayette Park were surrounded by D.C. Transit System buses, parked snugly end-to-end. Looking through the bus windows I could see that inside the bus wall perimeter, every few yards, there was a cop in riot gear stationed -- standing ready to deal with anyone who dared to climb across the wall of buses.  

 
Estimates ranged widely but most reports characterized the size of the crowd at well over 100,000. In those days crowd-estimators frequently let their politics color their numbers, so partisans generally seemed to pick the number that suited them. 
 
Home-made signs were everywhere, including a sprinkling of placards that denounced the mostly-young throng of war protesters. Before the program of speakers and singers began, the smell of burning marijuana was already lending its distinctive fragrance to the atmosphere, giving the politically-driven gathering the feel of an outdoor rock ‘n’ roll festival. So it's worth noting that this was nearly nine months after the legendary Woodstock Music and Art Fair.

Unlike most of the large anti-war demonstrations of that era, which were planned well in advance, this time it all seemed to fall together rather spontaneously. From what I could tell from conversations, it appeared a good many in the crowd had never before marched in protest or support of war, or anything else. Nonetheless, this time, for whatever reasons, they had heard the call to head for Washington, D.C. — to live in the moment.

*
 
As a convoy of olive drab military vehicles drove into the park area many in the crowd booed. When it turned out the uniformed troops were bringing in bottled water for the thirsty, the booing gradually subsided. Dehydration was a problem that cloudless day.

After the last speaker’s presentation, thousands of attendees marched out of the park area into the streets. There was talk of stretching a line of humanity all the way around the line of buses. Whether he liked it, or not, the commander-in-chief, reportedly inside the White House, would surely hear the crowd’s anti-war chants.

The demonstration flowed north, then west, from one block to the next. Long lenses peered down from the tops of those distinctively squat D.C. buildings. Fully-equipped-for-battle soldiers could be seen in doorways, awaiting further orders. With the tragedy at Kent State fresh in their minds, many of them must have been afraid they might be ordered to fire upon their fellow Americans. 

Hippies who had been wading in a fountain to cool off scaled a statue to get a better look. A few minutes later a cheer went up. A determined kid had managed to get on top of a bus to wave a Viet Cong flag triumphantly. But it didn't last long.

When the cops hauled the flag-waver off a commotion ensued. Soon the scent of tear gas spiced the air, which kept the protesters moving...

*

May 10, 1970: The next day in Richmond I was in Monroe Park for yet another well-attended event. It was Mother's Day and what was called "Cool-Aid Sunday" featured live music, information booths and displays that were set up by various organizations. They included the Fan Free Clinic, Jewish Family Services, Rubicon (a dry-out clinic for drug-abusers), the local Voter Registrar’s office and Planned Parenthood. 
 
Although it was not a political rally to protest anything, the crowd assembled in Monroe Park -- while much smaller -- was similar to the one the day before in its overall look. As I remember it, other than some heat related dizzy spells, I don't think there were reports about anyone being killed or seriously injured at Saturday’s anti-war demonstration in D.C.
 
Then, a 17-year-old boy was killed on Sunday in the park in Richmond, when a four-tier cast iron fountain he had scaled suddenly toppled. The news photograph of Wilmer Curtis Donivan Jr. falling to his death that ran on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch on the next morning, May 11, 1970, is one I’ll never forget.

No doubt, the convergence of strong feelings from the extraordinary week that had preceded Cool-Aid Sunday had helped to set the happening scene. Shortly before Donivan fell, I remember seeing him on the fountain, seemingly caught up in much the same spirit as the hippies climbing on statues in a fountain in D.C. the day before.

Without that week’s revved up anti-establishment momentum, Donivan may not have felt quite so moved to show off his conquest of that old fountain. Witnesses said he was rocking it back and forth, just before it crumbled.

*
 
That day's pleasant animating tone ended abruptly with a visit from the Grim Reaper. If Donivan's luck had been different on May 10, 1970, he might be 68 now. 
 
In the days that followed those random deaths on Kent State's campus and the one in Monroe Park -- along generational and cultural lines -- Americans became even more bitterly divided over the Department of Defense's unclear war policy in what was then called "Indochina."  
 
Every night on the televised network news, reports of the updated death counts were presented. The latest totals, representing the unlucky, appeared next to little flags on the screen. That rather matter-of-fact style of presentation looked something like the score of a ball game. 
 
*

The fountain (without water) in Monroe Park on May 9, 2021

 -- 30 --

-- Words and photos by F.T. Rea

Monday, May 03, 2021

Remembering 1968, Forgetting the Pueblo

The USS Pueblo
For as long as it has existed, dealing with North Korea (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea) has never been easy for the U.S.A. So, since the end of the Korean War (1950-53), other than watching Robert Altman's "M*A*S*H" (1970) and then later the television show, we have mostly averted our eyes. With regard to the Pueblo Incident, in 1968 so many other shocking things happened it became easy to look away.

Maybe our government should have handled North Korea's piracy differently. Then, too, maybe there were really no good options. No doubt, America's armed forces were stretched so thin in 1968 that all options weren't on the table. So 53 years ago, 15 years after the end of the Korean War, America was humiliated by North Korea. And we sucked it up, pretending there was nothing to see.

From Smithsonian.com:
The Johnson administration considered several risky courses of action to retaliate for the Pueblo seizure. They included a blockade of North Korean ports, air strikes on military targets, an attack across the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas, a phony intelligence leak to the Soviets that the United States planned to attack North Korea, and a "show of force" by U.S. naval and air units outside the port of Wonsan, where the Pueblo was being held.

Click here to read the entire article in the Smithsonian.

Jan. 23: The USS Pueblo was seized on the high seas by North Korean forces; at least that’s the story the U.S. Department of Defense told. (Where the Pueblo was is disputed.) Subsequently, as captives, the Pueblo’s 83 men endured an ordeal that was shocking to an American public that had naively thought its Super Power status meant such things could not happen.

Jan. 30: The Tet Offensive began, as the shadowy Viet Cong flexed its muscles and blurred battle lines with simultaneous assaults in many parts of South Vietnam. Even the American embassy in Saigon was attacked.

Mar. 16: In what came to be known as the My Lai Massacre, some 500 Vietnamese villagers -- women, children and old men (animals, too) -- were killed by American soldiers on patrol. However, it would be another 20 months before investigative journalist Seymour Hersh would break the horrifying story of the covered-up massacre, via the Associated Press wire service.

Mar. 31: Facing the burgeoning antiwar-driven campaigns of Sen. Eugene McCarthy and Sen. Robert Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson suddenly withdrew from the presidential race, declining to run for reelection by saying, “I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination...”

Apr. 4: America’s most respected civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots followed in cities coast-to-coast. Collectively, this assassination marked a particular turning point for my generation, to do with race. For instance, in Richmond, culturally, it ended an era. Young adventurous whites who followed rhythm and blues music could no longer go in the black clubs they had once patronized. (No more Sahara Club for me.)

May 13: The U.S.A. and North Vietnam began a series of negotiations to end the war in Vietnam that came to be known as the Paris Peace Talks. Ironically, as a backdrop, France, itself, was in chaos. Workers and students had shut down much of the country with a series of strikes. The trains weren’t running, the airports were closed, as were schools, etc.

May 24: Father Philip Berrigan and Thomas Lewis (of Artists Concerned About Vietnam) were sentenced to six years behind bars for destroying federal property, stemming from an incident where duck blood was poured over draft files at Baltimore’s Selective Service headquarters.

June 3: Artist Andy Warhol nearly died from wounds received from a gunshot fired by Valerie Solanis. She was a sometime writer and one of the many off-beat characters who had occasionally hung out at Warhol’s famous studio, the Factory, where aluminum foil served as wallpaper.

June 5: Having just won the California primary, Robert Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan in Los Angeles. The hopes of millions that the Vietnam War would end soon died that night. It’s still hard to imagine that Richard Nixon would have been able to defeat Kennedy in the general election. Kennedy's death meant the gravy train being enjoyed by big corporations supplying the war effort would continue to chug along.

June 8: James Earl Ray was arrested in London. Eventually, he was convicted of murdering Martin Luther King. Yet, questions about that crime and Ray's role linger today.

July 1: By an act of the General Assembly which was signed by Gov. Mills Godwin, Virginia Commonwealth University was established by a merger that seemed awkward at the time. The School of the Arts the new university inherited from RPI was already the largest professional art school in the country. The Medical College of Virginia was showing the world how to do heart transplants.

July 23: After watching “2001: A Space Odyssey” at the Westhampton Theatre, I saw The Who play live on stage at the Mosque (now the Altria Theater). Looking at the long line to get into the concert, I was surprised at how many hippies there were in Richmond. This was in the period the band was into smashing up its equipment to finish off shows. (The acid I took an hour before seeing the movie served me well that day.)

Aug. 20: Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush what had been a season of renaissance. As it had been with the construction of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis, talk of World War III being one button-push away was commonplace.

Aug. 28: In Chicago the Democratic convention that selected Vice President Hubert Humphrey to top its ticket melted down. With tear gas in the air and blood in the streets 178 demonstrators/bystanders were arrested. Many were roughed up on live television. As cops clubbed citizens in the streets, CBS reporters Mike Wallace and Dan Rather were punched on the convention floor. To many bewildered Americans, perhaps for the first time, it seemed possible that our society was coming unglued. 

Oct. 18: At the Summer Olympics at Mexico City, American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the medal ceremony for the 200 meter race. Smith and Carlos wore black gloves (and other symbolic accouterments) for a protest gesture that was widely seen as a “black power” salute.

Nov. 5: Richard Nixon narrowly defeated Hubert Humphrey. Although Humphrey, himself, was for peace, out of loyalty, he refused to denounce Johnson’s failing war policy. Disillusioned liberals stayed at home and it cost Humphrey, dearly. Also elected that day was Shirley Chisholm from Brooklyn. She was the first black female to serve in the House of Representatives.

Dec. 21: The first manned space mission to escape Earth’s gravity and orbit the moon began with the launching of Apollo 8.

Dec. 24: After having its way with them for 11 months, torture and mock executions included, North Korea released all of the members of the Pueblo’s crew but kept the ship. The U.S. Navy seemed to blame the Pueblo’s captain, Commander Lloyd M. "Pete" Bucher, for the entire fiasco. Mercifully, the Secretary of the Navy called off any official punishment.

Today, for many of my vintage, 1968 is remembered mostly for its daunting explosions of violence, in particular the assassinations. We Americans have never liked remembering the Pueblo.

*

 -- Words by F.T. Rea. The Pueblo image was stolen from the Internet

Sunday, May 02, 2021

Hauling Scholars

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 most of the night crafting it, and thought I had hit a home run. The  professor, an awkward sort of fellow in his mid-20s, gave me a “C” on it.

Well, I more than a little surprised, so I just had to ask him to explain to me what was wrong with the paper. In a 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. That maybe it deliberately invited alternative interpretations. Rather than defend his stance the man suddenly grabbed his face and broke into tears. Then 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 original irritation over the bad grade gradually 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, soon afterward, when the offer came 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 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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Saturday, May 01, 2021

Biograph Derby Day Party Postponed (Again)

The most recent Derby Day Party happened in 2019.

Last year, because of COVID-19, there was no Biograph Derby Day party. That broke the string of such gatherings that began in 1980. This year, once again, due to pandemic concerns, no Derby Day party will be staged on the first Saturday in May. 

However, perhaps in July, a reunion party will happen (stay tuned). In the meantime, click on this link to see some Fan District Softball League history, as well as some Derby Day memories. 

Speaking of memories, the group photo above was snapped by Dutch Perlstein during what was the 40th Derby Day party; it was held at the home of Wendy Andriot and Larry Rohr.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Happy 4/20


This whimsical team photo of the 1980 Biograph Naturals was snapped by Phil Trumbo (using Artie Probst's camera) at the Fan District Softball League's home field, Chandler Ballfield. As far as what this image means or what it has to do with 4/20, or what 4/20 might have had to do with the Fan League. Well, Mr. Natural was the Biograph's team mascot. In 1980 we actually obtained written permission from R.Crumb to use his character in that role. And, ah ... never mind. 

Friday, April 16, 2021

1990's Mondo Softball

 

Note: The video above is a 30-second promo for a weekly local cable television program I hosted in 1990. Using highlights footage from the show, I edited it and wrote the copy. Hank Brown did the music. The narrator voice is that of my old girlfriend, Gayle Carden (now Hudert).
 
Below you can see sportswriter Paul Woody's column about Mondo Softball. I suppose you could call it review, of a sort.
REA GIVES BIZARRE EDGE TO BLAB'S 'MONDO SOFTBALL'
Richmond News Leader Date: 07-05-1990
Byline: Paul Woody
Years ago, when Terry Rea was manager of the now defunct Biograph Theatre, he organized a softball team for the Fan League. But this wasn't just any team. This team had two illegal French aliens.
"One spoke no English at all," Rea said. "Neither had ever seen a baseball game. But they went out to a yard sale, found some funky `50s uniforms and they were a laugh riot."
The Biograph team also had a life-size, cardboard figure of Mr. Natural, a comic-book character created by R. Crumb of Zap Comics. Rea and his teammates took Mr. Natural to every game. They would carry him onto the field and chant to him.

"Some thought it was funny," Rea said. "Some thought we were mocking them. Some thought we were mocking the game."
All Rea was trying to do was enjoy a little softball and make the team and the league, "a rolling comedy show," he said. "I'm not sure everybody on the team was 100 percent behind me on that."
Rea began playing softball in 1976, but now, at the age of 42, he's in semi-retirement. "I try in the offseason to lower my expectations, but I'm losing my game faster than I can lower my expectations," Rea said. "That drives everyone out of the game except the most fanatic."

Rea, however, is hardly done with softball. In fact, he may be contributing more to the game than he ever did as a player. Rea, a freelance graphic artist by trade, is the originator, host and creative force behind "Mondo Softball," a weekly, one-hour talk and call-in show seen Tuesday nights at 9 o'clock on BLAB-TV (Continental Ch. 7, Storer Ch. 8).
Mondo is Italian for "world." Rea took it from the drive-in movies of his youth that were all the rage. "There were a bunch of `Mondo' films," Rea said. "Then, you started to see it thrown in front of almost anything to give it a bizarre connotation. People just know it has some sort of bizarre edge to it. "And, of course, I'm using that."
Rea isn't the host of "Mondo Softball." The host is Mutt deVille, a man of mysterious origin who always wears a baseball cap, sunglasses and softball jersey. Mutt deVille is Rea's alter ego.
Mutt deVille was created by Rea as a pen name for the sports writer in Slant, the twice-monthly newsletter of commentary that Rea publishes, writes and edits. DeVille initially existed to give some diversity to the pages of Slant, "and to create the illusion there was a staff of writers," Rea said. But the more Rea wrote as deVille, the more he liked it.
"My name, and my approach to things, like anyone who stays in his hometown long enough, carries a certain amount of baggage with it," Rea said, "I could move more freely as Mutt deVille.
"When I decided to do a show and it was a sports show, it seemed like a good idea to use Mutt. That led to the idea that Mutt should become a character and the time I was on camera should be a performance. Mutt is a device to make me feel at ease on stage."
"Mondo Softball" is not like any other show you'll see on BLAB. It's a one-hour play, softball as kitsch. It's part news -- standings, results and tournament highlights provided by Paul Joyce, the `field' reporter and a veteran local player -- part conversation with a guest, questions from callers and wisecracks, subtle humor and outright gags whenever possible. It's clever, and it's as entertaining as a show on recreational softball can be.
Rea said he has borrowed from shows he's seen. From the "Tonight Show," Rea took the idea that Johnny Carson is at his best and funniest when things go wrong.
"Part of live TV is that there are a lot of glitches," Rea said. "I've tried to incorporate the production values of an old `50s sci-fi movie and try to go with whatever goes wrong." Each week, there is a great uproar over the magic word.
If a caller says the word, he or she receives a $20 gift certificate from a local restaurant. The magic word is straight out of "You Bet Your Life" with the late Groucho Marx. In that show, it was called the secret word.
"If you're going to steal, steal from the best," Rea said.
Part of the attraction of "Mondo Softball" is that you can never be sure what will happen next. "I think some people watch shows on BLAB just to see if the set will fall over," Rea said. Rea brings a unique element of surprise to the screen. He isn't afraid to take a chance or play a little joke.
When he was manager of the Biograph, a repertory theatre located near Virginia Commonwealth University, Rea once offered free admission to "The Devil and Miss Jones." The line for the show, which most believed to be a well-known X-rated movie, stretched around the 800 block of West Grace Street. But the X-rated movie was "The Devil in Miss Jones." "The Devil and Miss Jones" was a 1941 comedy.
"Most people thought it was funny," Rea said. "But you always have some who get mad about something like that." "Mondo Softball" has something of the same problem.
Hard-core softball players don't always appreciate Rea's attempts at humor. "I've heard some don't like Mutt's approach," Rea said. "But that's the reason Paul is there. Overall, though, the reaction I get is that they (the hardcore players) like Mutt."
BLAB-TV likes Mutt so much that another show already is in the works. "Mondo Pops," [which actually became Mondo City] covering everything from sports to who knows what will premier this fall. It should be an interesting experience. Who knows, maybe even Mr. Natural will make an appearance.

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Banjoman Conmen

 

Upon hearing the news of musician Earl Scruggs’ death, on Mar. 28, 2012, my thoughts went straight to a then-36-year-old memory connected to a Scruggs documentary that played for two weeks in January of 1976 at the Biograph Theatre (which I managed at the time). 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 told me 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. They also brought with them the monster-sized sound system that was used to present the film to our patrons.

The filmmakers/distributors 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 of that occasion.

Traditional distributors, like Paramount, Warner Bros., UA, and so forth, generally shipped the prints of their films by way of a courier accustomed to handling film shipping cans. Although it was unusual for distributors 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 ... at first.    

The first clue: It was unusual when my bosses had me pay those guys their cut of the first week's gross  directly in cash from box office receipts. But it was not my job to question it. Then, when they had to leave after the first week to work in another city, we also advanced them some money against anticipated receipts. 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 and I had some type set and pasted it all up. That led to me agreeing to create similar materials for the "Banjoman" guys 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 other cities. 

At that point I think they had two other prints of their movie (with sound systems) working on the road in the Southeast. 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 rather heavy 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 to delay shipping 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.

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 they huffed and puffed again. At this point I handed over to the local 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 that 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 Banjoman Conmen. RIP, Earl.      

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