Saturday, May 18, 2019

A Goddess in the Fan District in 1989

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Built by art students, on May 30, 1989, the Goddess of Democracy was erected in Tiananmen Square as a symbol of their call for democratic reforms in China. The gathering protest in Tiananmen Square had begun in mid-April; tension was mounting. Subsequently, on June 4, following orders, 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 protesters that had remained to the end, in defiance. As the drama played out on television, via satellite, the events shocked the world.

As their art student counterparts in China had been murdered in the shadow of their 33-foot-tall sculpture, in Richmond a group of VCU-affiliated artists heard the call of inspiration to stand with those who had fallen. The impromptu team of the willing and able worked for the next couple of days to give form to their tribute to the courage of those who had perished for the sake of freedom of expression.

While the project was not sponsored by the school, wisely, VCU did nothing to discourage the gesture. 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 ago, facing Main Street, it stood as a memorial for about a month in front of the student center. CNN had a report on it, as did many other news agencies. Its image was on front pages of newspapers all over the world.

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The June 16 -30, 1989 issue of SLANT ran a story about building 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 placards on sticks that surrounded the sculpture (see the photos) were added a few days after the Goddess was completed. 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 situation. Like, was the stubborn and heavy-handed Chinese government standing 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 spectrum of left-to-right thinking? It seems authoritarian regimes are what they are, regardless of how else they wish to be viewed.

The Goddess of Democracy on VCU’s campus in the spring of 1989 was the most successful piece of guerilla art this scribbler can remember having seen firsthand.

-- Photos by F.T. Rea

Friday, May 10, 2019

Time-Warping, Again

by F.T. Rea

Intro:

In 1955 RKO, which had just changed hands, became the first major Hollywood studio to sell the exhibition rights to its library of feature films to television. Consequently, my early baby boomer generation grew up watching that studio's well-crafted black and white movies on TV. RKO plays a cameo role, of a sort, in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975).

That particular campy send-up of old science fiction and monster flicks is by far the most significant midnight show attraction of all-time. As such, it needs its own chapter in a proper chronicle of the times at the Biograph Theatre in Richmond, Virginia – a repertory cinema I managed from its opening in early-1972 until mid-1983.

 This photo of Larry Rohr riding up the aisle during a 
midnight screening of the "The Rocky Horror 
Picture Show" was shot on Mar. 1, 1980. 

At Midnight Only: 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show' 

"The Rocky Horror Picture Show" was adapted from the British kitsch-celebrating, gender-bending stage musical, “The Rocky Horror Show.” The film version was released by 20th Century Fox in September of 1975.

The play was written in the early-1970s; it opened in London in 1973. Its thin plot cashed in on the time's freedom to pursue pleasure, borrowed somewhat from the hippies' liberating trope – “if it feels good, do it.” Yet, to Fox's distribution bosses, the movie was weird in a way that made it difficult to pigeonhole, marketing-wise. Which couldn't have helped in the promotion for its early first-run engagements.

While “Rocky Horror,” the film, became popular during what might now be seen as the punk era, it wasn't really connected to the aesthetic of punk's defiant nonchalance. Style-wise, its music, written by the play's author, Richard O'Brien, was sort of a bubble-gum knockoff of early rock 'n' roll, fused with a measure of glam rock. Overall, as pop music goes, the songs didn't expand any boundaries. Nonetheless, in the context of the movie the music had it own charm. It was surely no worse than some of the stuff offered in Hollywood musicals of the 1950s.

Anyway, for whatever reasons, in its original release the film was a flop at the box office. It didn't please critics, either. So Fox pulled it from distribution and put “Rocky Horror” on the shelf. No one could have anticipated the one-of-a-kind cult following it would eventually gather as a midnight show.

Note: “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”: 100 minutes. Color. Directed by Jim Sharman (who had also directed the play). Cast: Tim Curry (as Dr. Frank-N-Furter), Susan Sarandon (as Janet), Barry Bostwick (as Brad), Richard O'Brien (as Riff Raff), Patricia Quinn (as Magenta), Nell Campbell (as Columbia), Meat Loaf (as Eddie), Peter Hinwood (as Rocky).

About a year after its original release the second life for “Rocky Horror” is said to have begun at the legendary Waverly Theater (now the IFC Center) in Greenwich Village. At midnight screenings a few audience members began calling out sarcastic comeback lines to the film's action and dialogue.

The funniest remarks were appreciated, imitated, then eventually topped by an attendee at a subsequent screening. Thus, it wasn't originally some adman's brainchild. It just happened.

It should also be noted that midnight shows had been popular in New York City since the late-'60s. As well, they had been running at cinemas in other cities and some college towns for a good four or five years. If a midnight screening went well, at any movie theater, routinely, it might be held over to the next Friday and Saturday. So the midnight show format had already been developed and established when “Rocky Horror” came along.

In the Richmond Biograph's first couple of years of operation midnight show screenings frequently helped keep the lights on. Some of the midnight show features that were popular enough to run for multiple weekends then were: “Performance” (1970); “Reefer Madness” (1936); “Deep Throat” (1972) w/ “The Andalusian Dog” (1929); “Night of the Living Dead” (1968); “El Topo” (1970); “Putney Swope” (1969); “Magical Mystery Tour” (1967). They were promoted using handbills (small posters) and radio spots on WGOE-AM.

During 1977 at the Waverly the role the audience played in the midnight shows enlarged to make the screenings into events with costumes and choreography, as the traditional wall between the screen and the viewers continued dissolving. When the unprecedented interaction between audience and screen jumped from Manhattan to other markets where “Rocky Horror” was playing as a midnight show, such as Austin and Los Angeles, the phenomenon became even more puzzling.

By the winter of 1977/78 “Rocky Horror” was playing to enthusiastic crowds in several cities. Yet, curiously, it had not caught on at others. What would eventually become a popular culture marvel was still flying below the radar for most of America.

As the spring of '78 approached, Alan Rubin, one of my two bosses at the Biograph in Georgetown, asked Fox once again about booking it for Richmond's Biograph. It was already playing at the rival Key Theatre in Georgetown, because Rubin's ex-partner, David Levy, had beaten him to the punch. But Alan was told there still weren't any prints available.

Then, during a trip to Los Angles in May, I heard about the elaborate goings-on at the Tiffany Theatre to do with “Rocky Horror.” Upon my return to Richmond I told Alan and his partner, Lenny Poryles, what I'd learned about its growing popularity in LA. Subsequently, during a conference call with one of the guys at Fox, Alan, Lenny and I were told there was just no enthusiasm at his end for the picture’s prospects in Richmond.

To be fair, in those days Richmond was generally seen by most movie distributors as a weak market – not a place to waste resources. Besides, no one at Fox seemed to understand why the audience participation following for the picture had blossomed in the first place, or more importantly – what was making the movie's cult following catch on in some cities, but not at all in others. So they were holding off on ordering any new prints. Which meant there was no telling how long we might have to wait. It does seem funny now to recall how unconvinced the Fox folks were they had something that was new and old rules didn't apply.

Alan, Lenny and I continued our telephone conversation after the distributor's representative got off the line. That led us to agreeing to a plan: We would offer to front the cost of a new 35mm print, some $5,000, as I remember it, which would stand as an advance against standard film rental fees. There were two provisos: 1. The Biograph would continue hold the exclusive rights to exhibit “Rocky Horror” in the Richmond market as long as we held onto that print. 2. That I would promote it as I saw fit, creating my own materials, rather than rely on Fox's standard press kit stuff (which I was accustomed to doing when situations called for it).

When we called the Fox distributor's office back, it went smoothly. With nothing to lose, they went for the deal. After all, if anything, the Biograph had earned a reputation for being a good venue for midnight shows.

Next, for research, I questioned a couple of publicity people at Fox a little more about how it had been promoted in various situations. Strangely, there was no consensus about what had prompted the successes or failures. However, Fox had encouraged a few exhibitors to call for attendees who would recite certain lines and dance in the aisles, etc. But when they tried to prime the pump in that way it hadn't worked.

After viewing the film, I decided it would be better not to over-promote it. That way there would be less risk of drawing the sort of general audience which might include too many unsatisfied customers – folks who might leave the theater bad-mouthing it. My strategy called for first getting the attention of the kids who had already been seeing “Rocky Horror” screenings at the Waverly or the Key, as well as a few of the most determined of local taste-makers who must see anything edgy first, so they can opine about it.

Accordingly, at WGOE's studio I produced a radio commercial using about 20 seconds of the film's signature song, “Time Warp.” The only ad copy came at the very end with a tag line. The listener heard my voice say, “Get in the act … midnight at the Biograph.”

There was no explanation of what the music was, or what the 30-second spot was even about. At that time the soundtrack for “Rocky Horror” still hadn't become all that well known. The hook was that the spot didn't offer listeners as much information as they expected, which hopefully added somewhat to its underground allure. The same less-is-more approach was used in the print materials.

The Floor Show

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” opened in Richmond on June 30, 1978. It drew a decent crowd, but it was well short of a sell-out. Some of those who attended did occasionally call out wisecrack lines. Most did not. As I recall, a handful of people dressed up in costumes. As hoped, over the next few weeks a following for “Rocky Horror” steadily grew, as did the audience participation.

At the center of that following was a troupe that became the regulars who turned midnight screenings into performance-art adventures. John Porter, a VCU theater major, emerged as the leader of that group; they called themselves the Floor Show. Outfitted in his Frank-N-Furter get-up, Porter missed few, if any, midnight screenings for the next couple of years.

Plenty of crazy things happened in dealing with the “Rocky Horror” audience twice a week. There was the Saturday night an entire full house was thrown out, because some bare-chested roughnecks had run amuck. They were hosing down the crowd, using our fire extinguishers. Fights were underway. So after a stern warning from me to the crowd, to stop-or-else did no good, I pulled the plug. One by one, they all got their money back.

Interestingly, after that night we never had much trouble with violence to do with “Rocky Horror” again. The Floor Show kids helped to monitor the situation, to make it uncool to go too far. Porter’s leadership was a key to keeping it fun, but not out of control. For his part, John was given a lifetime pass to the Biograph.

There was no stranger episode than the night a man breathed his last, as he sat in the small auditorium (Theatre No. 2) watching “F.I.S.T” (1978). Yes, that lame Sylvester Stallone vehicle was hard to watch, but who knew it could be lethal?

Sitting upright in an aisle seat the dead man’s expressionless face offered no clues to his final thoughts. His eyes were open. He was about 30, which was my age.

The rescue squad guys jerked him out of his seat and threw him onto the floor. As jolts of electricity shot through the dead man’s body, down in Theater No. 1 “Rocky Horror” was on the Biograph’s larger screen delighting the audience. Walking back and forth between the two auditoriums, absorbing the bizarre juxtaposition of those scenes in the same building, was a strange trip, to say the least.

A brief item about the death appeared in the newspaper. It said he had been in bad health. Don't remember his name.

Looking on the bright side, after six-and-a-half years of showing screwball comedies, French New Wave films, rock 'n' roll movies, film noirs, and so forth, the Biograph had earned the chance to have what any theater needs to become fully-fledged – a ghost.

Chasing Dignity

On one of those busy nights early in the run of “Rocky Horror (I can't be sure of the date) a battle broke out in the middle of West Grace Street in front of the theater. Rocks, bottles and whatnot were flying back and forth between two factions of young men. Both squads consisted of four or five participants.

As I later discovered, the fight was between members of a VCU fraternity and an Oregon Hill crew. The most alarming angle of the fraught incident was that it was unfolding a perilous 30 yards from the Cinemascopic, all-glass front of the Biograph. Yikes!

The box office had just closed and the cashier was in the midst of count-up duties. At the same time a small group of friends was in the lobby. Some of them were my Biograph Swordfish softball teammates. A few of us were playing a pinball machine. As the manager of the theater I felt obliged to fend off the danger. Accordingly, I asked the cashier to call the cops and opened one of the twin exit doors, to step onto the sidewalk and yell at the kids.

In so many words I told them to scram. As an incentive I mentioned the cops were already on the way. That was good enough for the frat-boy team. They scampered off.

Meanwhile, rather than pursue their enemies the Oregon Hill gang simply switched over to aiming their missiles at me. A rock hit the curb. A tumbling bottle shattered on the sidewalk, which prompted me to duck back inside.

A second or two later an incoming piece of red brick crashed through the door's lowest glass panel. It struck my right shin. That particular moment of this story stands out sharply in my memory.

There were seven, maybe eight men running in the impromptu posse of employees and pinball players that went after the scattering hooligans. However, my focus was totally on the guy who had plunked me. I chased him as he headed west. Suddenly hemmed in by three of us in a public parking lot at the intersection of Shafer and Grace, he faked one way, then cut to the other.

When his traction gave way in the gravel paving he stumbled to regain his balance. That was when I tackled him by the legs. The others in his group got away.

With some help from my friends – two of them held his arms – we marched the brick-thrower back toward the theater. During that trek I suppose there was some conversation. Don't recall any of what was said, but something the captured culprit said as we passed Grace Place (an excellent vegetarian restaurant) provoked one guy in my group to punch him in the jaw without warning.

One of the policemen in the assembled group of cops in front of the theater sarcastically complimented the puncher for his prisoner-escorting “technique.” Shortly thereafter the punchee was hauled off in the paddy wagon. Back in the lobby I told the puncher he had overreached in hitting the kid unnecessarily, especially while he was helpless.

Caught off-guard by my reaction, my softball teammate laughed. He disagreed, saying essentially that his summary punishment would likely be the only price the guy would ever pay for his assault. Another in the group quickly agreed with him. Others saw it my way, or said nothing.

Then we probably resumed the ongoing pinball game. More importantly, it's quite likely I went across the lobby to the theater's refrigerator in a closet and pulled out enough cans of cold beer to say, “thank you” to each member of the posse.

They had helped protect the Biograph from a menace. And, yes, it was satisfying to have at least caught the one who had just bloodied my shin.

It wasn’t long after that night I found myself poring over a 1931 essay by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Echoes of the Jazz Age.” Here is the last paragraph of that evocative piece:
“…Now once more the belt is tight and we summon the proper expression of horror as we look back at our wasted youth. Sometimes, though, there is a ghostly rumble among the drums, an asthmatic whisper in the trombones that swings me back into the early twenties when we drank wood alcohol and every day in every way grew better and better, and there was a first abortive shortening of the skirts, and girls all looked alike in sweater dresses, and people you didn’t want to know said ‘Yes, we have no bananas,’ and it seemed only a question of a few years before the older people would step aside and let the world be run by those who saw things as they were — and it all seems rosy and romantic to us who were young then, because we will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings any more.”
During that reading, seated at my desk in the theater's office, it hit me that the shattering of the Biograph's glass door had been the sound to accompany the hippie era ending. Its trends, causes and distinctive styles had arrived in the late-'60s and they soon would be seen as nostalgia. In some ways the hippie decade had been similar to the Roaring ’20s.

Moreover, the peace-loving, pot-smoking, anti-establishment elements of my generation hadn't changed the world all that much in enduring ways. Ending the Vietnam War and getting rid of Nixon just hadn't solved as many problems as our slogans had promised.

In the summer of '78, it was also time to admit to myself the neighborhood surrounding the Biograph was getting meaner. Which made little sense, even at the time, since it was adjacent to VCU's burgeoning academic campus. Still, for whatever reason the university didn't seem to care then, or for years after this.

A month later, in the General District Court I agreed to a proposal to drop the assault charge, provided the brick-thrower was convicted of a misdemeanor for breaking the glass and that he would reimburse us for the cost of the repairs. A payment schedule was set up.

As we spoke several times after that day in court I came to see the 19-year-old “hooligan” wasn’t really such a bad guy. His payments were made on a timely basis. With his last payment he asked for the name of the man who’d punched him.

While withholding the name, I agreed with him that regardless of my friend's intentions his adrenaline-fueled punch had mostly been a cheap shot. With the money aspect of the debt paid, we shook hands.

Debt and Irony

About a year later, during a Wednesday matinee the Biograph cashier, Gussie Armeniox, was counting a stack of one dollar bills when an opportunistic thief snatched them from her hands. Although I was only a few feet away, behind the candy counter in the lobby, my back was turned. When I looked around, it was alarming to see the robber bolting out the front door. Gussie's wide-eyed, frightened look was unforgettable. It boosted the intensity of the sense of violation.

As I got to the sidewalk the thief was already a half-a-block away. Nonetheless, in spite of his foot speed it turned out he wasn't so good at avoiding capture. Instead of just running to the west, to put plenty of distance between us, he ducked between the buildings, trying to hide. He did it a couple of times, then, when I would find him and get close, he'd take off again.

During the chasing and searching I received some unexpected help from a total stranger. A young man slammed on his brakes and jumped out of his pickup truck. After that reinforcement it took less than five minutes to corner the thief in the men's room of a fast food restaurant. By then a policeman in a cruiser had showed up. Fortunately, that meant I didn't have to go into that men's room to drag the perpetrator out. The cops did it for me.

Of course, I thanked the volunteer and asked him why he’d stopped to help out. He told me he knew I was the Biograph’s manager, because a buddy of his had recently pointed me out to him. His friend?

It was the same Oregon Hill street-fighter I’d tackled a year before. My assistant thief-chaser said his friend told him the story about the broken glass and the assault charge being dropped. Then he said I'd dealt fairly with him. Consequently, a favor was owed to me.

Before he got back in his truck, my collaborator said that in his neighborhood the guys tend to stick together. Thus, he had supported me in my time of need, because of his friend’s debt. I was grateful and flabbergasted.

It now seems to me the sort of obligation he felt and acted upon has been evaporating out of the culture for some time, maybe since the time of this chase scene. The thief turned out to be a repeat offender, so the judge gave him six months for stealing 37 dollar bills.

Looking back on this story what connects those two chase scenes has become increasingly more satisfying. No doubt, that’s partly because in dealing with bad luck and other ordinary tests of character, too many times I’ve done nothing to brag about – even the wrong thing.

Maybe in this two-part adventure I came close to getting it right. In my view, both chases had something to do with pursuing justice and preserving something. Dignity perhaps.

The Exploding Motorcycle

On Friday, March 1, 1980, with its 88th consecutive week, “Rocky Horror” established a new record for longevity in Richmond. It broke the record of 87 weeks, established by “The Sound of Music” (1965), during its first-run engagement at the Willow Lawn Theater.

To celebrate Porter and I dressed in tuxedos to stand before the full house. He held up a “Sound of Music” soundtrack album and I smashed it with a hammer. It went over quite well.
The record-breaking ceremony prior to the screening.
In a nice touch to underline the special night‘s theme, a couple of the regulars came dressed as Julie Andrews. The late Carole Kass, the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s sweetheart of a entertainment writer/movie critic, wrote up a nice feature on what was basically hokum.

That same night Larry Rohr rode his motorcycle through the auditorium’s aisles at the point in the movie when Meat Loaf’s character in the film, Eddie, rides his motorcycle. Rohr’s careful but noisy rides happened only on a few special occasions, such as the record-breaking night. Fortunately, nothing bad ever happened.

A few months later, I had a dream that the motorcycle exploded and blew the roof off of the theater. The nightmare scared me so much the motorcycle rides were discontinued. Anyway, that's what I told people about why we stopped. Yes, now it seems crazy as hell that I ever facilitated such risky shenanigans. Maybe I was somewhat carried away by the aforementioned wide-open permission that went along with the '70s.

With no more motorcycle rides, various Floor Show members sometimes rode a tricycle up and down the aisles. The way members of that group adapted playfully to whatever was said or done in previous weeks was an integral aspect of the fun. They were like players in a story that had new chapters being written for it, on the fly, each weekend.

However, while “Rocky Horror” had an underground cachet in the first year, even the second, eventually its status began to go sour. That was especially so in the eyes of the staff and Biograph regulars who hung out there. The rice, toast and all sorts of other stuff that got tossed around had to be cleaned up each and every time by the grumbling janitors, who naturally grew to detest the movie. To keep the peace they got “Rocky Horror” bonuses — a few extra bucks for their weekend shifts.

Once into the winter of 1980/81 the turnout for the screenings of “Rocky Horror” began a gradual withering. By then many of the originals had stopped coming every weekend. Much of the audience seemed to be made up of sightseers from the suburbs. The fast crowd in the artsy, black leather jacket scene were ignoring it, although the movie was still doing enough business to justify holding onto that original print.

In the summer of 1982 “Rocky Horror” celebrated its fourth anniversary at the Biograph. That same summer, for Program No. 60, I booked a six-week festival offering 12 RKO double features.

The Biograph's record-setting midnight show run of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” ended on June 25, 1983. Although it had helped pay the rent ($3,000 a month), no one was happier to see that well-used 35mm print shipped out than those of us who had lived warped by the “Rocky Horror” experience for five years.

Outro:

In the Biograph lobby I always got a kick out of listening to enthusiastic new film buffs tell me why the old movie he or she had just watched was cool. Still cool! Of course, in agreeing with them I was just doing my job. Anywhere, any time, stimulating a greater appreciation of good films made in previous times was an important aspect of the manager's duties. I've never gotten over it.

Speaking of time warps, here are the titles for that 1982 RKO fest, listed in the order in which they played: “Top Hat” (1935) and “Damsel in Distress” (1936); “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1939) and “The Informer” (1935); “King Kong” (1933) and “Mighty Joe Young” (1949); “Suspicion” (1941) and “They Live By Night” (1948); “Sylvia Scarlett” (1936) and “Mister Blandings Builds His Dream House” (1948); “Murder My Sweet” (1945) and “Macao” (1952); “The Mexican Spitfire” (1939) and “Room Service” (1938); “Journey Into Fear” (1942) and “This Land Is Mine” (1943); “The Thing” (1951) and “Cat People” (1942); “The Boy With Green Hair” (1948) and “Woman on the Beach” (1947); “Citizen Kane” (1941) and “Fort Apache” (1948); “The Curse of the Cat People” (1944) and “The Body Snatcher” (1945).

--  Photos by Ernie Brooks

30 –

Thursday, May 09, 2019

The Power of Repetition

We expect the lights to come on when we flick on the wall switch. With usually brief weather-related exceptions, we've learned that's a reasonable expectation in Richmond, Virginia. We've been conditioned by repetition.

Upon seeing anything happen in the same way, time after time, naturally we tend to expect the pattern to continue. For the sake of keeping order we generally rely upon those patterns.

Lock her up!

When we watch college basketball games on television, we expect timeouts to interrupt the live action approximately every four minutes. Then we expect a series of commercials to play out during the break. The same goes for between innings of Major League Baseball games. Experience has conditioned fans of such sports to expect those predictable breaks, chock-full of ads, to last long enough to replenish game-watching supplies from the kitchen without missing a second of the game.

Well, some folks like to argue about how much influence such repetition has on any one individual, but the advertising industry knows that repetition is money in the bank. The repetition of logos, slogans, jingles, claims, etc., aimed at the target audience, sells the ad agencies' clients' products. There's no doubt whatsoever about that. With repetition comes normalization.

No collusion!

Speaking of normalization, give a thought to how many television programs most of us have watched, including movies, that have featured stories with con artists as the charming protagonists. No need to name a list of them, we've all rooted for the scamming rouges to get away with it too many times to count.

My angle here is that in the marketplace of ideas, the repeated words and images have a decided advantage. The significance of repetition in advertising was taught to me by a man named Lee Jackoway. He was a master salesman, veteran broadcaster, and my boss at WRNL-AM in 1971.

Lock her up!

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

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

No collusion!

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

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

Lock her up!

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

OK, if repetition works so well in television’s advertising, why would repetition fail to sell whatever messages stem from the rest of its fare? Television has taught many of its viewers that guns will solve problems. Think of how many shootings of threatening bad men the average American has watched on TV.

No collusion!

So why wouldn't a president's words repeated, ad nauseam, brainwash his devoted fans, like Pavlov's dogs. They have come to expect the repetition of slogans and are comforted by them.

Thus, for Democrats to now try to unwash all the brains that have been saturated by Trump's repeated phrases and folderol is mostly a waste of time. Moreover, arguing with one of his trained lap dogs at happy hour or on Facebook just won't hasten Trump's departure from the White House. Democrats simply need to focus on efforts aimed at turning out the vote.

Lock her up!

Woof! 


-- 30 --


Thursday, May 02, 2019

The Birth of the Blockbuster: Or How Margot Kidder Made My Day

The movie business changed during the summer of 1975, which was my fourth summertime serving as manager of the Biograph Theatre in Richmond. As it happened a new style of creating, promoting and exhibiting feature films was minted when “Jaws” opened on June 20 on 465 screens and became a box office smash.

In those days major releases typically opened in the most popular movie houses in a handful of large cities. It was simply the way it had always been done and that meant the advertising buys were all local. 

So the unprecedented marketing strategy for “Jaws” required enormous confidence in the new scheme. Its distributor, Universal, not only had to spend millions on national advertising, it also had to strike enough prints of the film to serve all of the theaters playing the film in simultaneous runs. Before the summer was over "Jaws” had already broken some all-time Hollywood box office records. 

Washington D.C. was a regional hub for film distribution. Part of the strategy for releasing “Jaws” was that Universal chose not to screen the film for booking agents and exhibitors in the usual way.

Ordinarily, a feature about to be released would be shown a couple of times in a small screening room downtown. Run by the National Association of Theater Owners, it seated about 50 people. Bookers for theater chains would see the new films to help them weigh how much money should be bid, if any, for the rights to exhibit the picture in a given market. But security on admission wasn't tight, so any industry insider, entertainment writer, etc. might have been in the audience on a given day.

My bosses were located in Georgetown and I saw several movies in the D.C. screening room over the nearly-12 years I worked for the guys who oversaw the Biograph on "M" Street.

The prior-to-premiere screenings of “Jaws” took place a few weeks before it was to open. It was shown to theater owners and their guests in selected cinemas in maybe a dozen cities. As I remember it, the screenings were all on the same night. 

As a treat my bosses gave me four of their allotment of tickets to the special screening of “Jaws” at the old Ontario in DC. My ex, Valerie, and I were part of a full house; the show itself went over like gangbusters. The audience shrieked at appropriate times and applauded as the movie’s closing credits were lighting up the screen.

Not only was I knocked out by the presentation, I came back to Richmond convinced “Jaws” would be a gold mine. It was the slickest monster movie I’d even seen. The next day, still caught up in that mania, I tried to talk my bosses into borrowing a lot of money to support a bid on “Jaws” that would include a substantial cash advance.

That summer I wanted to bet everything we could borrow to out-bid Neighborhood Theatres for the Richmond market. I even convinced a neighborhood branch bank manager to try to help us borrow the dough. 

Well, we didn’t get the money, but it was privately satisfying upon seeing that “Jaws” went on to set new records for its box office grosses. Its unprecedented success put its director, Steven Spielberg, on the map.

After “Jaws” Hollywood hustlers aplenty rushed out to try to duplicate the formula its producers and distributors had used. Thus, in 1975, the age of summer blockbusters with massive ad campaigns and widespread releases began.

Another thing “Jaws” did was make young men who were sometimes too self-absorbed feel intimidated by Spielberg’s outrageous success at such a tender age. I can still remember reading that he was younger than me.

Although I had a great job for a 27-year-old movie-lover who liked to work without a lot of supervision, it offered no direct connection to filmmaking. At this time I had one nine-minute film and one animated sequence in a 30-second television commercial, both shot in 16mm, to my credit. 1975’s Boy Wonder, Steven Spielberg, made me feel like I was on the wrong track. That might have been the first time I gave much thought to how and when to leave the Biograph. 

Fast-forward 34 years to when I watched a BBC-produced documentary, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood,” about filmmaking in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Directors and other players from that time were interviewed. Made in 2003, it was thoroughly entertaining. I saw it on Turner Classic Movies in 2009.

Among those who made comments in the documentary were Tony Bill, Karen Black, Peter Bogdanovich, Roger Corman, Richard Dreyfuss, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, László Kovács, Kris Kristofferson, Arthur Penn and Cybill Shepherd.

Dreyfuss, who was one of the stars of "Jaws," spoke of attending one of those pre-release screenings. He said he got caught up in the experience of seeing it for the first time in a crowded theater; he totally forgot himself as the actor on the screen. 

Actress Margot Kidder (best known for her Lois Lane portrayals in the Superman series of movies and who died today) appeared on camera several times. She made a joke out of how Spielberg had begun to fib about his age, once he became famous. She had known him before his sudden notoriety, so she noticed it when he went from being older than her to being younger. Kidder claimed Spielberg was fudging his birth date by a couple of years. 

Well, flashing back on my absurd jealousy to do with Spielberg’s rise to stardom, when he was supposedly younger than me, I had to laugh out loud. Then I looked up Spielberg’s age; he’s older than both Margot (who has since died) and me.

So, I searched for more on the age-change and found some old articles about “Jaws” and Spielberg. Yes, it looks like Kidder was right. Back in the ‘70s, perhaps to play up the Boy Wonder aspect of the story, Spielberg’s birth date was being massaged. Somewhere along the line, since then, it looks like it got straightened out.

Laughing at one’s own foolishness is usually a healthy exercise. Yes, and when the laugh had been waiting over three decades to be realized, it was all the sweeter.

After all, nothing has ever been more integral to Hollywood’s special way of doing business -- before or after “Jaws” -- than making up fibs, especially about one’s age.

*   *   *

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

As a term, The Resistance is old hat

For lack of a better term, The Resistance was what we came to call a spontaneous, unprecedented reaction to 2016's presidential election. The outpourings of marchers who took to the streets in the days after the election and then the inauguration were amazing.

The Women's March on Jan. 21, 2017, with the pink, knitted “pussy hats” on display was uplifting for millions of Americans who felt like they'd been sucker punched by the election of Donald Trump. It helped inspire record numbers of women to run for public office.

At the time, the word “resistance” felt apt enough as a label for the phenomenon. Via social media the label functioned almost like a slogan and it gave folks a feeling of solidarity that was a balm. It felt good for some millions of progressives and anti-Trumpists of whatever stripe to be a part of something – The Resistance – even if there was no consensus for a plan of action.

Yet, rather than planning, eventually it seems to me The Resistance turned into being about getting outraged over Trump's every dishonest, mean or foolish utterance ... and expressing one's outrage on social media. Furthermore, in my view selecting “resistance” for a label was simply bad wordsmithing from the start.

Maybe, for me, "resistance" still has a negative connotation, because of the Byrd Machine's Massive Resistance pro-segregation movement in Virginia during the 1950s and '60s. But I confess that I soon put my initial reaction to the warmed-over word aside and accepted it as a handy label to stick on what looked like an endless loop of a collective outrage.

Now, upon further review, I'm going back and trusting my first take. Plus, now the word “resistance” just sounds way too 2017. It has outlived its usefulness to Democrats. Just today I heard a supposedly progressive pundit use the term The Resistance, as if it is a banner under which to march toward 2020's elections. I cringed. Words matter.

-- 30 --

Monday, April 15, 2019

Some Biograph-Centric FDSL History

The Biograph Naturals in 1980. (Original photo by Phil Trumbo.)

Referred to as the “hippie league” by softball players who played in the polyester-clad softball world governed by recreation and parks departments, the Fan District Softball League had its own style, which leaned toward cotton, silk-screened T-shirts. Its games were played on “open fields,” rather than in softball complexes with fences. Among other things that meant the Fan League featured a style that put more emphasis on defensive play, rather than simply a home-run derby, with big-bellied Bubbas trotting around the bases.

It also meant the league’s activities received less scrutiny by authorities outside of itself, which was viewed then as a good thing.

The somewhat unorthodox Fan League bubbled up out of the pop culture ooze of the summer of 1973, which was the heyday of WGOE, the daytime AM radio station that then dominated the Fan District in a way that's never been equaled. Its sound could be heard in the shops and on the sidewalks of the bohemian commercial strip of West Grace Street, adjacent to Virginia Commonwealth University. Anyway, it was WGOE that set what eventually became the Fan League in motion, when its promotional softball team of deejays and a few ringers -- the ‘Nads -- played a few games against impromptu squads representing a few regular advertisers on the station, mostly bars.

By the next summer teams began to jell into rosters, but there was no formal schedule. Fields were still being commandeered, rather than secured by arrangement with any proper authority.

By 1975 the name Fan District Softball League had come into use and the six-team organization had its first commissioner — Van “Hook” Shepherd. Cassell’s Upholstery beat the Bamboo Cafe in a one-game playoff for the first season’s championship finale. The four other teams in the league that inaugural season were the Back Door, Sea Dream Leather, Uptop Sub Shop and WGOE.

In 1976, in addition to the regular season the league staged two tournaments. Teams representing the Biograph Theatre, Hababas, J.W. Rayle, deTreville, the Pinheads (the VCU sculpture department and friends) and the Rainbow Inn were formed in 1976.

As the years wore on more bars, and whatnot, came and went. During the first decade of summers of the league’s existence, next to the music and bar scene, softball-related activities were at the heart of the Baby Boomer-driven culture in the Fan District.

Unlike most softball leagues in those days, the FDSL usually had lots of fans at its games. Of course, the kegs of beer that were around — which meant free beer — probably had something to do with that. The freewheeling FDSL was also the only organized-yet-independent softball league in the Richmond area.

Thus, the Fan League governed itself, made its own schedule, cut its own deal with the umpires, etc. It remained so through its last season in 1994.

*

On the first Saturday of May, every year since 1980, a softball reunion is held. Anyone who ever played on one of the Biograph softball teams from any year has been welcome, along with their families, friends, etc.

Serendipitously, that first reunion/old timers game was staged on the afternoon in which the Kentucky Derby would be run. The game was played at Thomas Jefferson HS. Afterward, most of us went to the Track Restaurant to join a Derby-watching party already underway.

The reunion subsequently became an institution and it’s been Derby Day ever since. Over the years, the game has moved around to various locations. Several of the guys at the most recent gathering were teammates of mine in 1976, the first summer of organized softball at the Biograph.

We called our team the Swordfish, after a joke in a Marx Brothers movie. That first year the Swordfish played a schedule that was not set in advance. Instead, our practice was to challenge established teams to play us for a keg of beer.

The lucky Swordfish won 15 games of the 17 we played that initial season. In spite of having few experienced softball players on a roster made up of employees, old friends and a few film buffs -- including two French guys who'd never seen a baseball game -- we probably won half of those keg games by coming from behind in late innings.

Typically, our opponents saw themselves as more experienced/athletically superior, which only made it more fun when they bumbled their way into handing us the victory. That first year, it was uncanny how often those supposedly better teams seemed willing to overplay their hands.

Now, having played and observed a lot of organized softball, I know that virgin Swordfish squad was absolutely charmed. In any sport, it was the loosest team with which I’ve ever been associated.

Both of the Swordfish’s losses came in extreme situations. The first was the championship game of one of the two tournaments we entered. Yes, we won the other one.

The second was played inside the walls of the old state penitentiary. Located at Belvidere and Spring Streets, the fortress prison loomed over the rocky falls of the James River for nearly 200 years (it was demolished in the early-1990s).

As it happened the guy in charge of recreation at the pen frequented J.W. Rayle, a popular bar of the era, located at Pine and Cary. During a conversation there he asked me if the Biograph team — I played outfield and served as the coach — would consider taking on the prison’s softball team on a Saturday afternoon. Chuck Wrenn, the bar manager at Rayle, had already told the guy the restaurant's team would do it. So I went along with it, too.

As it turned out the first date the prison guy set up was canceled, due to something about a small riot.

OK.

A couple of weeks later the Swordfish entered the Big House. To get into the prison yard we had to go through a process, which included a cursory search. We had been told to bring nothing in our pockets.

As we worked our way through the ancient passageways, sets of bars were unlocked and then locked behind us. Each of us got a stamp on our hands that could only be seen under a special light. Someone asked what would happen if the ink got wiped off, inadvertently, during the game. He was told that was not a good idea.

OK.

The umpire for the games — Rayle played the prison team first, then the Biograph -- was Dennis “Dr. Death” Johnson, a rather high-profile Fan District character, at the time, who played on yet another team. Among other things, Johnson did some professional wrestling, so he was good as hamming up the umpire's role.

The fence in left field was the same high brick wall that ran along Belvidere Street. It was only about 230 to 240 feet from home plate. Yet, because of its height, maybe 30 feet, a lot of hard-hit balls caromed off of it. What would have been a routine fly ball on most fields was a home run there. It was a red brick version of Boston’s Green Monster.

The prison team, known as the Raiders, was quite good at launching softballs over that towering brick wall. They seemed to have an unlimited budget for softballs, too. Under the supervision of watchful guards, about a hundred other prisoners seated in stands cheered for the home team. Actually, they cheered the loudest for good plays in the field and sliding collisions on the base paths.

During a conversation with a couple of my teammates behind the backstop, I referred to the home team as “the prisoners.” Our opponents’ coach, who was within earshot, immediately stepped toward me. Like his teammates, he was wearing a typical softball uniform of that era with “Raiders” printed across the chest in a script and a number on the back.

“Call us the Raiders,” he advised, somewhat sternly, as he pointed to an awkward-looking mural on the prison wall that said, “Home of the Raiders.” It looked like a jailhouse tattoo, blown up large.

OK ... it was obvious, I had made a faux pas.

“While we are on this ball-field, we’re not The Prisoners,” he said with, ahem, conviction. “We’re the Raiders.”

“Raiders,” I said. “Right.”

“And, all our games ... are home games,” he deadpanned.

We all laughed, grateful the tension had been broken. The Raiders coach patted me on the back and thanked us for being there, for agreeing to play them.

In a tight, high-scoring affair the Raiders prevailed. Johnson knew how to play to the crowd with his calls, too. Afterward, I was glad the Swordfish had met the Raiders. And, I was glad to leave them, too. Located smack dab in the middle of Richmond that prison was a perpetual nightmare in our midst. 

In terms of winning and losing, the Biograph teams that played on in the FDSL through 1994 never found anything close to the success that first year's team knew. Still, popups and bad hops aside, I'll wager most of the guys from the 1976 team remember more details about their meeting with the Raiders than many of the games we won playing at Chandler Ballfield, the home of the "hippie league" for 18 years.

*
In 1978 the league expanded to 12 teams. That's the year the FDSL began throwing a party draped around its All-Star Game, in the middle of each season. Each summer in mid- to late-June, the stars of the Mars Division played the stars of the Jupiter Division. As I remember it, Buddy Noble came up with the notion of using planets for the names of the two six-team divisions.

The method for selecting the all-stars varied with the year. Occasionally there were votes held, more times there were caucuses of the bossiest guys; the best teams always put more men on those squads. Other times, each manger just named three players from his team. No matter how it was done, popularity, or the lack of it, always influenced the results. 

In 1980, blonde bombshell Donna Parker and the aforementioned Dennis Johnson made a memorable appearance at one of the All-Star Games at Chandler Ballfield. The ever-outrageous Johnson was dressed in his Dr. Death mask and wrestling costume. His date was outfitted in a black leather bikini. Space limitations don't allow for elaboration at this time, but Johnson left town soon afterward.

In 1982, the Bamboo Cafe went through the regular season undefeated, 33-0, but lost to its bitter rival, Hababas, in the finals of the playoffs. Throughout the decade of the '80s one of those two outfits won the playoffs every time.  

For several years during the ‘80s the all-star exhibition/party was staged at the Colombian Center in Henrico County. That era had the largest turnouts for the annual event, as between 200 and 300 people paid five bucks each to attend. Once admitted the beer was free and the food was plentiful.

 In the foreground: Artie Probst, Fitz Marston and Paul Sobel at the 
1985 All-Star Game at the Colombian Center.  

One particularly hot day for the party, according to the Budweiser truck guy, the attendees went through 22 kegs of beer. Figuring 200 beer drinkers, do the math.

For music, a couple of years Chuck Wrenn deejayed the parties. In 1986 the Motovators played live. The softball games were played on what was a field always in poor shape -- rocks in the infield and overgrown clumps of weeds in the outfield. We played with a rule against sliding on the base paths, to prevent injuries. The late Pudy Stallard was once called out, when, out of habit, he slid into second to beat a throw from the outfield.   

In 1987 and ’88 the food contest was at the center of festivities. Each team put out a spread to share and the consumers voted for the best of them. Some teams went to great lengths to coordinate their overall entry, others simply had people bring out covered dishes and whatnot.

The most talked about of all the efforts was the 3rd Street Diner’s 100 pound hamburger in ‘88. The beef was packed into a giant patty at the Diner. It was hauled around with great care, so as not to break it apart. The huge bun was put together at the Tobacco Company and baked in one of its large ovens.

Cooking the burger on an open grill at the picnic site turned out to be the best part of the ordeal. There must have been 25 experts and assistant experts standing around that grill, opining on how to go about doing the the job. The burger itself was a good eight inches thick. The flipping of the thing, to cook it all the way through -- without having it fall apart -- turned out to be an engineering task.

After all the kibitzing, it was done without mishap, much to the delight of one and all. A spontaneous celebration ensued ... smoke-um-if-ya-got-um. 

The FDSL also established its Hall of Fame in 1986. The first class was elected by the 12-team outfit’s designated franchise representatives. To be eligible then one had to have retired from play and considered to be among the founders. Ten names were selected as the first class of Hall-of-Famers.

The same rule held true in 1987, when six new names were put on the plaque. However, by 1988, a few of those who had been inducted into the Hall had un-retired.

So, in 1988, eligibility to the Hall was opened up to anyone who seemed deserving. Those already in got to vote, as well. Nine new members were selected. The meetings to select new inductees were always quite lively, as were most FDSL meetings, the voting process was probably no more twisted than any hall of fame’s way of choosing new names.

For 1989 six additional names were added. The class of ‘90 included seven names, and in ‘92 the last five names were tacked on. In all, 41 players and two umpires were tapped. The list leans heavily toward those who made significant contributions to the league's lore in its early years.

Those men who were inducted into the FDSL’s Hall between 1986 and 1992 are as follows: Ricardo Adams, Herbie Atkinson, Howard Awad, Boogie Bailey, Yogi Bair, Jay Barrows, Otto Brauer, Ernie Brooks, Hank Brown, Bobby Cassell, Jack Colan, Willie Collins, Dickie deTreville, Jack deTreville, Henry Ford, Danny Gammon, Donald Greshham, James Jackson, Dennis Johnson, Mike Kittle, Leo Koury, Jim Letizia, Junie Loving, Tony Martin, Kenny Meyer, Cliff Mowells, Buddy Noble, Randy Noble, Henry Pollard, Artie Probst, Terry Rea, John Richardson, Jerry Robinson, Larry Rohr, Billy Snead, Jim Story, Hook Shepherd, Pudy Stallard, Durwood Usry, Jumpy White, Barry Winn, Chuck Wrenn.

At this writing, by my count, 10 guys on the list above have died (I may not have this completely up to date), with Howard Awad being the most recent to pass away. 

As an organization, the Fan District Softball League lasted 20 years, which was a wonder in itself. There are plenty of true stories from those years that are almost unbelievable. 

-- 30 --

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Rhoades' Army

Here's my take on VCU's men's basketball team's weekend that was and its much-anticipated weekend ahead in the limelight of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament. It was written for Style Weekly.

In recent years VCU has grown accustomed to participating in that postseason tournament. The Rams are making their 17th NCAA appearance, overall, and this year's bid is the eighth of the past nine seasons.

Accordingly, in the East Region on Fri., Mar. 22, at approximately 9:40 p.m., VCU's Rams (25-7) will meet the Knights of the University of Central Florida (23-8).

The game will mark Rams' second-year head coach Mike Rhoades' first trip to the Big Dance as VCU's skipper. It will take place at the Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C. CBS will carry the broadcast.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Restoring Confidence

Final score in Brooklyn: Rhode Island 75, VCU 70.

The loss sent Coach Mike Rhoades' (pictured left) team home from the A-10 tournament early, to shake it off and prepare for their first game in the NCAA tournament.

Given the loss of Marcus Evans (left leg injury), VCU's all-conference point guard and top scorer, somebody had to step up. Marcus Santos-Silva did exactly that: 26 pts./22 reb. Unfortunately, some of his teammates couldn't seem to get over seeing Evans helped off the court in pain.

However, VCU still should not have allowed a clunky team that averaged 67.6 points per game during the regular season, playing against opponents with defenses inferior to VCU's, to score 75 points in a postseason tournament tilt. Period.

*

The VCU Rams were brimming over with confidence during their 12-game winning streak to finish off the regualr season. It was obvious in their performances during those games and in post-game interviews. The kids were having a good time and it showed -- but not in a bad way.

Following VCU's frustrating loss in Brooklyn the Rams head coach is now being called upon to restore his team's confidence in itself. Its confidence that the coach's "army" scheme not only worked in the regular season it actually has them prepared -- as a team that uses 12 players in most games -- to fill into the gaps, to get better and move on.

Playing without Evans in VCU's first game in the NCAA tournament will change the chemistry of the Rams offense, but the math is simple. It will mean other capable players have to hunt for shots.

Going into this season, coming off of last season, Rhoades resolved that VCU's half-court defense would be much better this year: “We're going to guard people and going to stop people.”

If VCU can get it's swagger back in gear, its feared overplaying defense can hold a good team that's never seen the Rams defense before to a score in the 50s.

That's how to win the next game with the Rams top scorer unavailable. Now Coach Rhoades has a job to do. It's the job he was born to do.

-- 30 --

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Woody Drake's Yearbook Picture

On Nov. 8, 1992, the revenge-driven crime spree ended as the man I remembered as Drake the Flake blew out his brains with a .32 caliber revolver. In the 11 hours before taking his own life Lynwood C. "Woody" Drake III had shot and killed six people, wounded a seventh and beaten a former landlady with a blackjack.

It had been over 20 years since I saw him last; it was in the lobby of the movie theater I then managed, the Biograph Theatre. Still, when I saw the AP photo of him in the Richmond Times-Dispatch 27 years ago, Drake was instantly recognizable.

More about Woody Drake later, but it should come as no surprise to most film buffs that sometimes there is a dark side to the business of doing business after the sun goes down. Some saw the Biograph (1972-87) as a movie-themed clubhouse. For others it was a place to hide from reality. So, like any business, sometimes unexpected things happened; sometimes things just went wrong.

*

There were crazy, street people who would sometimes cause trouble. Although nearly everyone who worked at the Biograph during my almost-12-year-stint as its manager was on the up-and-up, there were a couple of rotten apples. As I hired both of them, I have to take the blame there. But those are stories for another time.

Then there were the customers. One man died in the Biograph. His last seconds spent among the living were spent watching "FIST" (1978), starring Sylvester Stallone, in an aisle seat in the small auditorium -- Theatre No. 2.

Yes, the movie was bad, but who knew it was THAT bad?

At the time I was 30 years old. The dean man was about my age. His man 's face was expressionless. His eyes were open. As the rescue squad guys shot jolts of electricity into his heart, his body flopped around on the floor like a fish out of water. Meanwhile, down in Theater No. 1 "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" was on the screen delighting its usual crowd of costumed screwballs.

There was the night someone fired five shots of high-powered ammo through one of the back door exits into Theatre No. 1. Five bullets came through the door's two quarter-inch steel plates to splinter seats. This all happened just as the crowd was exiting the auditorium, at about 11:30 p.m. It seemed no one caught on to what was happening. Amazingly, no one was hit. Later the police were baffled, leaving us to speculate as to why it happened.

Another night, a rat died in the Coca-Cola drain and clogged it up. Not knowing about the rat, and thinking I knew what to do to clear the clogged drain, I poured a powerful drain-clearing liquid -- we called it "Tampax Dynamite" -- directly into the problem.

Soon a foul-smelling liquid started bubbling and backing up all over the lobby's carpet. A flooding mess ensued. It ran everybody out of there on a busy Saturday night. We had to replace the carpet.

*

Back to Drake: The news stories reported that Drake, who fancied himself as an actor, had compiled a long list of people he intended to pay back, someday. Drake wore theatrical grease paint on his face when he committed his murders. As the cops were closing in on him Drake punched his own ticket to hell.

From what I found out Drake's childhood was straight out of a horror movie. Apparently he was always a problem to those around him. The photo above -- it was a publicity shot he used to apply for work as an actor -- ran in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on November 16, 1992. What follows are excerpts of a piece I wrote for SLANT a couple of weeks later.
...The November 16th edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch carried Mark Holmberg's sad and sensational story of Woody Drake. As usual, Holmberg did a good job with a bizarre subject. In case you missed the news: Lynwood Drake, who grew up in Richmond, murdered six people in California on November 8. Then he turned the gun on himself. His tortured suicide note cited revenge as the motive.
An especially troubling aspect of Holmberg's account was that those Richmonders who remembered the 43 year old Drake weren't at all surprised at the startling news. Nor was I. My memory of the man goes back to the early days of the Biograph Theatre (1972). At the time I managed the West Grace Street cinema. So the unpleasant task of dealing with Drake fell to me.
Owing to his talent for nuisance, the staff dubbed him 'Drake the Flake.' Although he resembled many of the hippie-style hustlers of the times, it was his ineptness at putting over the scam that set him apart. Every time he darkened our door there was trouble. If he didn't try to beat us out of the price of admission or popcorn, there would be a problem in the auditorium. And without fail, his ruse would be transparent. Then, when confronted, he'd go into a fit of denial that implied a threat.

Eventually that led to the incident in Shafer Court (on VCU's campus) when he choked a female student [Susan Kuney] who worked at the Biograph.
That evening he showed up at the theater to see the movie, just like nothing had happened. Shoving his way past those in line, he demanded to be admitted next.
An argument ensued that became the last straw. Drake the Flake was physically removed from the building, tossed onto Grace Street, and banned from the Biograph.
The next day, Drake made his final appearance at the Biograph. He ran in through the lobby's exit doors and issued a finger-pointing death threat to your narrator. Although I tried to act unruffled by the incident, it made me more than a little uncomfortable. In spite of the anger of his words, there was an emptiness in his eyes. In that moment he had pulled me into his world. It was scary and memorable.
Using a fine turn of phrase, Holmberg suggested that, "Whatever poisoned the heart of Woody Drake happened in Richmond..."
If you want more evidence of the origins of the poisoning, take the time to look him up in his high school yearbooks (Thomas Jefferson 1967/68). Pay particular attention to the odd expression in his eyes. Looking at Drake’s old yearbook photos reminded me of a line in the movie 'Silence of the Lambs.' In reference to the serial-killer who was being sought by the FBI throughout the film, Dr. Lechter (a psychiatrist turned murderer himself) tells an investigator that such a man is not born; he is created.
There is no doubt in my mind. Someone close to Woody Drake, when he was a child, systematically destroyed his soul. So while we can avert our eyes from the painful truth, we basically know where the poison is administered to the Drake the Flakes of the world.
Yes, we do. The assembly line for such monsters runs through their homes. The story went that Drake liked to beat up women. After I literally threw him out of the Biograph and he disappeared, several people told us stories about various females he had hurt.

Shortly before Drake ended his wretched life, he woke up a 60-year-old woman by smacking her in the head with a blackjack. She scrambled to hide under her bed and lived to tell the story.

-- 30 --

Saturday, February 09, 2019

Looking Before Leaping Still Pays in 2019


On Friday, February 1, Virginia's blackface scandal dropped on the Governor's Mansion (pictured above) like a bomb from the sky. On social media the calls for Gov. Ralph Northam to resign erupted so quickly it almost suggested that some of those expressing their outrage had been poised to pounce.

To those demanding Northam's departure from the Governor's Mansion, immediately, it seemed the existence of the now infamous photograph of two costumed people posing – one in blackface, the other in a white-robed, masked KKK get-up – was sufficient to close the book on Northam's term in office. No need to hear the governor's explanation.

To make matters worse, on Saturday afternoon Gov. Northam stood before the gathered press to awkwardly withdraw a significant aspect of what had been his Friday night apology. Without fully explaining why he had originally admitted to being one of the two pictured in the 1984 photo, he claimed he had determined (through a tortured process) that he had been wrong to say he was in that snapshot ... because he wasn't.

When Northam went on to volunteer that in 1984 he had indeed painted his face black for a dance contest costume in Texas, well, it did little to rescue the moment for him. Watching that bizarre presser was simultaneously stunning and laughable. To say the governor's panic-driven alibi strained credulity is an understatement.

Looking at all-star photographer Jay Paul's telling photos of the reactions in the room, it seemed even the jaded working press was aghast. Afterward, there were way more questions than there had been before Northam steeped before the microphones. Therefore, at that point, man oh man, I was sure Northam's goose was cooked.

Now I have to say maybe I was wrong. Furthermore, maybe a lot of us in Virginia should stop rushing to pronounce our judgments cooked up by Facebook feeding frenzies.

Democrats who had seemed rather delighted with the prospect of Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax ascending to the governor's position were then sucker-punched by the sexual assault charge that surfaced against him. Those who wondered, what the hell could be next? got their answer in the form of Atty. Gen. Mark Herring's bewildering and somewhat tardy admission that he'd worn a blackface costume in his college days.

For me, that was when it all began to feel surreal. Then came another charge against Fairfax from a second woman. This time it was rape. With that thickening of the plot, it seemed Fairfax might turn out to be the first big shot Democratic politician to walk the plank.

Meanwhile, a week later, it's looking like Northam is still determined to try to ride it out. At least he hasn't been charged with a crime. One thing for sure, there's no template, no playbook, to guide him or any of us.

So who knows? Crazy as it might sound, once the dust settles maybe we'll be in a better place. How could that be?

Maybe by then we'll have learned more about the racism in Virginia (and elsewhere) that's still festering below the surface. The racism that, by habit, too many white people conveniently ignore. I know I've thought more about the cruelty of blackface than ever before. Seeing its shameful place in the Jim Crow era, rather than dwelling on its strange place – fetishistic? – in show business history, was edifying for me. Maybe for others, too.

On top of that, we Virginians may also have caught an instructive glimpse of what might be wrought by living angry and outraged all the time, with zero tolerance and no sense of proportionality.

Obviously, we need to hear the plain truth from these office holders, ASAP. Let's see what additional background information emerges and let's see how each of them handles his own fitness crisis. At this point, I'll withhold my demands. Instead, I'll try to use what I've learned to see each development more clearly for what it is in its context.

Bottom line: Yes, dear reader, it still pays to look before leaping.

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Monday, January 21, 2019

VCU Men's Basketball Team is Now Drawing Notice

Today's projections from CBS Sports for NCAA March Madness brackets have Saint Louis getting the A-10's automatic bid and VCU getting an at-large invitation (First Four). Remember, this is just some guy's (Jerry Palm) predictions.

Five teams the Rams have already faced are also on the list of 68. They are Temple, St. John's, Hofstra, Texas and Virginia. Yes, it helps that the Rams beat three of them. Smart VCU fans should hope that entire group does well from here on.

Meanwhile, Saint Louis is the only team VCU still stands to play (Feb. 26 at the Siegel Center) that is on today's list of likely invitees. With so many games left to play, obviously these projections will probably change, maybe a lot, over the next six weeks. 

So, for the most part, all this means to Rams fans is that VCU's body of work is getting noticed. My take on this is that at 13-5 the Rams have now shrugged off the mediocre seventh-in-the-A-10, prediction (from the A-10 media) they started the 2018/19 season out saddled with. Perhaps they were underestimated? Or are they maybe overachieving?

VCU's current RPI is No. 31. The Rams' NET rating today is 51.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Purity or Expansion

My opinion? Of course I'll weigh in. 
A fair-minded observer would have to say the Democratic Party picked up some momentum from the 2018 elections. What should Democrats do within their own ranks to best use that momentum?

Should they expand the party by welcoming a variety of opinions and encouraging people to express themselves? Or should Democrats circle the wagons, refine their message to a couple of good catch-phrases and then insist upon messaging loyalty from the top on down the line?

Democrats who want more than anything else to win the next presidential election need to think it over and discuss it. Soon the leaders of the party should be deciding between policies designed to start reshaping the party in just one of two directions:
1. Expand the party by taking in more people, all around its current periphery. Campaign in every district and encourage all anti-Trumpists to hop on the bandwagon. 

2. Force the party to be more uniformly "progressive" by moving to the left on as many issues as feasible. Campaign for big turnouts in targeted states. 
It says here you can't really do both, simultaneously. At least not convincingly.

Here's what planners have to ask themselves: Does moving significantly to the left energize more voters than it turns off? Does going hard left recruit enough new voters to outnumber the old voters it leaves behind?

On Nov. 6, 2018, I was delighted to see Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez win. Since then, watching her confound her detractors has been fun. Now I hope she and other socialist-leaning liberals will be successful in convincing lots of other Democrats to move the party to the left on a number of issues.

Likewise, I hope state legislatures become more liberal. Remember, in Virginia both houses of the General Assembly are up for election on Nov. 5, 2019.

OK, I see the notion of purging so-called “moderates” or “Clintonistas,” from the Democratic Party, as a mistake. Punishing well-meaning people because they won't change fast enough is frequently a mistake.

Meanwhile, some "progressives" have been adamantly defending the sort of rough language they used to complain about Trump using. To them, saying "fuck," on the record -- as have Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Beto O'Rourke recently – should nowadays be heard as evidence of one's "passion."

Passion? Really?

Hey, I'm not the word police, but on this matter I have to call out hypocrisy. Which doesn't help when you're trying to appear to be more credible than your opponents.

For what it's worth, I think the 2020 presidential election will be much more about truth and trustworthiness than it will be about ideology. Therefore, on election day 2020, I think a lot more voters will go for a presidential candidate they believe is most trustworthy. That instead of the one who promises to satisfy their wish list.

Maybe I'm wrong. I hope not.

Summing up, I think Democrats should let their members and representatives follow their ideological hearts and speak honestly about their thinking. If that means there is no one "national message" for the whole party, then fine. They can disagree about some issues, as long as they all agree that honesty in all things and adherence to the rule of law are valued above all else.

Bottom line: In 2020 a righteous agenda will be served by sending a trustworthy Democrat, who listens to advice from wise heads, to the White House to clean up Trump's mess.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Five Film Favorites: Newspapers

by F.T. Rea
Legendary editor Ben Bradlee at the Washington Post.

This installment of Five Film Favorites offers a special challenge. It touches on two industries I've poured years of my time and toil into – the movie business and periodical publishing. It's also challenging, because, from what I can tell, after the field is properly narrowed with some rules, the remaining list of outstanding flicks about newspapering isn't as long as one might expect.

Then again, this list is isn't about declaring what I think are probably the five greatest films in the category. Instead, it's about favorite films. My favorites, today. Next week the list could change.

About those rules for this column: “Citizen Kane” (1941) isn't on my list this time. Here's why: Rather than focusing on Charles Foster Kane, the publisher or editor, etc., it's really more about Kane, the vain empire-builder who must dominate all he surveys. That and the lonely Kane, who has a fetish for collecting objects. Although it has been one of my all-time favorite films since forever this time around it doesn't make the cut. Rules.

“The Parallax View” (1974) is well worth watching again. Nonetheless, it's more a political thriller with a dauntless reporter for a protagonist. It's not a look at the people who put out a newspaper and how they do it. Accordingly, this means a ton of movies, good and bad, are being ruled out for this particular list since they rely too much on cliché-ridden variations of the independent-minded reporter being a fist-fighting, tough-guy detective.

So, in addition to being about films with interesting stories to tell about good characters, this list is about appreciating what it takes to assemble the staff, gather the news properly, write and edit the copy on deadline, design the pages, sell the ads, run the presses and circulate the newspaper. In alphabetical order, here are my five favorite films about newspapers:
  • All the President's Men” (1976): Color. 138 minutes. Directed by Alan J. Pakula. Cast: Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Hal Holbrook, Jason Robards, Jack Warden. Note: In covering a story about unusual burglars getting caught breaking into the Democratic Party's headquarters, which was in the Watergate building, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Hoffman) find some loose ends. Following up, they begin an investigative journey that eventually hastens the collapse of the Nixon presidency.
  • Between the Lines” (1977): Color. 101 Minutes. Directed by Joan Micklin Silver. Cast: John Heard, Lindsay Crouse, Jeff Goldblum, Jill Eikenberry, Gwen Welles, Michael J. Pollard. Note: As the 1970s wound down the alternative periodicals that had thrived in the late-'60s and early-'70s began to go out of style. And, the baby boomer staffers for such publications were getting older. This film reveals the conflicts they faced and the angst they felt as the culture was changing and their time for being carefree and cool was running out.
  • Deadline U.S.A.” (1952): Black and white. 87 minutes. Directed by Richard Brooks. Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ethel Barrymore, Kim Hunter, Ed Begley, Paul Stevens. Note: Bogart is the embattled editor of a large daily newspaper that's about to be sold off to tabloid-publishing interests that will pull the plug on it. It's interesting to see that some of the problems large newspapers have struggled with in the last 20 years of decline seem to go back much further than the age of the Internet. This film's noirish style and somewhat corny plot actually holds up pretty well.
  • Newspaperman:The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee” (2017): In this documentary black and white and color still images, as well as movie footage are presented. 90 minutes. Directed by John Maggio. Note: Among those seen and heard (as themselves) are: Ben Bradlee, Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, Tom Brokaw, Sally Quinn, Jim Lehrer. Most folks are at least somewhat aware of Bradlee's pivotal role as the editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate scandal (See "All the President's Men"). However, Bradlee's life story, before and after that episode, is well worth knowing more about.
  • Spotlight” (2015): Color. 129 minutes. Directed by Tom McCarthy. Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci. Note: In 2001 investigating the Catholic Church for charges of facilitating the sexual abuse of children, many children – in Boston! – posed quite a problem for the Boston Globe. This view of the methodology of the editors and reporters doing their jobs properly is as good as it gets. The revelation of the powerful forces against them is brutally unsparing.
By the way, another rule I usually apply to movies selected to be on Five Film Favorites lists is that I must have seen the picture more than once. It's a good rule. Accordingly, I just watched “Spotlight” again recently, so I could include it. It's a well-crafted film.

These five movies do a good job of presenting pictures of inky newspaper people, on the job, publishing – always on deadline! – what Washington Post publisher Phil Graham liked to call,“the first rough draft of history.”


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