Feb. 6, 1994
"Wild card Rea never planned to play with a full deck"
by Sibella Connor
Provided your corset isn’t laced too tightly, you could probably understand that F.T. Rea’s artwork is actually a sort of extended Public Service Announcement. Granted, it’s not your regular P.S.A. -- rarely politically correct or even serious. But then, precious little is regular with this irreverent artist and writer.
In one sentence, Rea’s P.S.A. might go like this: “Don’t believe everything you read.”
Fair enough, it would seem.
But given the reaction his ideas -- appearing most frequently in the alternative periodical The Slant -- have received over the years, it would appear Richmond has more than its fair share of lungs grown accustomed to shallow breathing.
The fact is, not everyone enjoys reading Rea’s rambunctious little paper. His essays, which range from obituaries of the city’s more disaffected souls to discussions of TV violence, have led some people to call him a crackpot. A loony. Some weird guy living in the Fan who should shut up and get a job, for Pete’s sake.
Well, take a deep breath, Richmond, because Rea’s delivering another corset-popper.
“Slant Legends” is a deck of 12 cards with the faces of Richmond’s famous, infamous, and virtually unknown. Landing in several local bookstores last month, the $10 deck of “Legends” has already earned the mixed reaction Rea has come to expect.
“Some people really like them,” he said. “Other people sort of look at them and walk away scratching their heads.”
In addition to the obvious Virginia celebrities such as former Gov. Doug Wilder, Rea has tossed in a few oddball characters, friends he thinks should be celebrities -- a disc jockey, a guitar player and a “wizard.”
Each 2-by-3-inch card is signed by the artist and laminated for long life, although the legends themselves may hope the cards meet an early demise. Rea’s drawings verge on unflattering caricature, while the explanatory notes offer biographic tags nobody’s bragging about.
Joe Morrissey’s hyperkinetic eyebrows bounce above the identifier “Embattled Dude.” Richmond City Councilman Roy West looks nearly demonic, and has been labeled “Councilmanic Windbag.” And lawyer and BLAB-TV owner Michael Morchower has the face of a homely basset hound, with one word as explanation: “Mouthpiece.”
“I just like to tease people,” said Rea, sitting in his tidy Fan apartment.
Most of the “legends” first appeared in Slant, the biweekly broadsheet Rea has single-handedly cranked out since 1985. The Slant serves up Rea’s many splendored takes on the world, from what happened in Richmond last week to what happened years ago in Beirut.
It also offers Rea, 46, a place to show his art. But his Slant portraits usually have more words than what’s on the cards -- more words or more ammo, depending on how you look at it. For instance, Gov. George Allen pops up in the Legends deck with a simple tongue-in-cheeker: “Intellectual/Governor.”
But his grinning portrait in Slant after last November’s election carried the following quote: “...And finally, I want to thank those Democrats who helped so much -- Doug Wilder, Patricia Cornwell, and whoever dressed Mary Sue in that K mart Maggie Thatcher look.”
The jab is vintage Rea. Artist as gadfly.
In between scraping by as a graphic artist and publishing Slant, Rea has heard the disparaging words, Get a job.
“Even my good friends tell me that all the time, ‘Why don’t you get a job?’ Well I had a job for a long time, and to tell you the truth, I apply for jobs I think I’m qualified for all the time, part-time PR and things like that. And I don’t know, they never hire me. I guess I’m just not the corporate type.”
From all appearances though, it’d be hard to peg Rea as counter-culture. He looks like anything but the merry prankster, with his professorial demeanor and his dress code out a 1940s movie. Most often, he can be seen nattily attired in shirt and tie, his brown hair clipped short.
“I’ve never had a radical appearance,” he said. “Even during the hippie years, I never had long hair. Of course, that’s probably the Richmond in me.”
He can never resist another jab.
The city provides ample material for Rea, who’s known as Terry. But after awhile it becomes clear his relationship with the city is love-hate. Like so many gadflies, Rea bothers the sacred cow mostly because he cares about it. After all, he’s never left.
“I was raised in an offbeat fashion by my grandparents, my mother and the streets,” he said. During the 1960s, he attended Thomas Jefferson High School, but never saw the final ceremonies.
“I fled rather than graduated,” he said, laughing. “But when I went to school, I went to Thomas Jefferson. I had a very hard time sitting down for more than 10 minutes at a time. Consequently, I was tossed out of school on a regular basis.”
He bounced around Richmond for several years, landing odd jobs, then leaving them. At one point, he sold advertising for a radio station. Then in 1972, Rea found the Biograph Theatre on West Grace Street. It was a match made in heaven. A movie buff of the biggest sort, Rea appeared made [to manage] the [new] arthouse theater.
In his apartment, Hollywood biographies and film lore line his bookshelves -- not to mention the strange convolutions of his brain. Searching to explain certain situations, Rea often uses a scene from a movie -- “You know when John Wayne turns and says ... You know how Aubrey Hepburn looked in ‘Sabrina?’”
Run on a shoestring budget, the Biograph was modeled after a Georgetown theater by the same name. During the day there were Truffaut and Bergman films. And after awhile, there was porno after midnight.
“We did it to make money,” Rea said.
Along with its eclectic cinematic showings, the Biograph grew infamous for its personality, in large part due to Rea’s ring-leadership. In the summer of 1973, a Richmond civil court banned the Biograph from showing the porno movie “The Devil in Miss Jones.” Using the new yardstick sent down by the U.S. Supreme Court, judge and jury decreed the film violated the contemporary community standards of obscenity.
Four months later, the Biograph was celebrating its two-year anniversary. Rea wanted to give the public a present, so he offered free admission to anyone who wanted to see “The Devil and Miss Jones,” with the short feature “Beaver Valley.”
Five thousand people showed up for the several hundred seats in the theater. A radio helicopter circled the air above Grace Street, reporting on the line that stretched around the block. When the lights went down, not everyone in the audience was delighted to discover that “Beaver Valley” was a Disney documentary on river animals. Nor were they dancing in the aisles about the prepositional distinction that separated the banned porno flick and the 1941 black-and-white classic starring Robert Cummings -- a preposition that placed Miss Jones in vastly different proximities to the devil.
“Actually, there were people who thought they were seeing the censored version of the skin flick,” Rea said.
In the lobby, the laughing manager served cake and beer, thoroughly enjoying the joke with those patrons who could take it. Like most of Rea’s pranks, however, politics lurked near the punchline.
“Part of my point was, by whose community standards was this deemed naughty? I mean, five thousand people showed up to see what they thought was a porno flick, so you tell me whose community we’re talking about. Besides I had to come up with schemes like that to make people pay attention to the theater. We had no money for advertising.”
About the same time the Biograph was tossing banana peels on the pavement, Rea helped organize the Fan District Softball League. It was, typical of the Fan, a mixture of human types. Professionals, students, offbeat artists. Rea’s team quickly became known for its left-field mentality and underhanded tactics.
It included two guys from Europe who spoke no English and had no idea what softball was. Also on the roster was a life-size cardboard cutout of Mr. Natural, the hitchhiking cartoon character created by R. Crumb. Of course, not everyone appreciated the humor. But -- also, of course -- Rea milked it for all it was worth. He created a newsletter for the league, recording team statistics and standings.
“I made most of it up,” he said.
Softball in part explains why Leo Koury made the “Slant Legends” deck.
Koury remained on the FBI’s Most Wanted List for many years. And for many years, lived in Richmond. The [wanted] poster said Koury was “sought in connection with shooting murders of two individuals and attempted contract murder of three others, and conspiracy to kidnap an individual for substantial ransom payment.”
Koury was never caught, and died several years ago in San Diego, where he lived under an assumed name and worked at a convenience store. In the Legends’ deck, his card reads: “Umpire/Escape Artist.”
“Leo Koury was a softball umpire for our league,” Rea explained. “That’s how I knew him. He was the only one who put up with the Fan District league. He seemed like a very nice man, and actually if you asked a lot of people around here, you would get a full rainbow of perceptions, people who thought he was evil and people who thought he was wonderful. It depends on how you knew him.”
Rea’s softball antics eventually led him to BLAB-TV, the local public access channel. He hosted a sports sendup called “Mondo Softball,” which starred Rea’s athletic alter ego, Mutt DeVille (Rea dressed as a jock).
After Mondo Softball came "Mondo City," another sendup, this one devoted to popular culture. Both shows were almost too weird to be believed. In fact, “Mondo City” got so weird it went down in flames soon after a guest appearance by the rock/theatric group GWAR.
Rea recalled an “unusually provocative phone call from a female” coming in during the show, and a cameraman, who thought his camera wasn’t transmitting, zoomed in for a close-up of a GWAR costume -- the part of the costume bearing a rather sizable, anatomically unambiguous male body part.
Suddenly, somebody hit a switch. The camera came on. And the view of the penis was sent around the city, followed by some graphic discussion of it. Corset strings popped. And Michael Morchower, the station’s owner (and Slant Legend) issued formal apologies repeatedly.
“There were apologies all over the place,” Rea said. “But actually BLAB milked it for all the publicity they could get while protesting that they didn’t like it. It’s my understanding that the tape is a collector’s item among a certain set.”
“Actually,” he continued, “I don’t think that anybody got that upset over that. I’m sure Mike Morchower has seen worse than that. Have you ever seen his show?”
Morchower is the host of a weekly call-in show on legal matters, “Lawlines.”
“Take a look at that show and see if you think I’m being unkind.”
“Mondo City” survived the GWAR fiasco, but Rea’s rowdy heart had fled. The gadfly got swatted too hard.
“I got scared. I stayed away from the edge for a while and the next few shows just weren’t there. So I said, forget it.”
Would he consider doing it again?
“I would consider almost anything.”
As an aside -- perhaps -- Slant recently explained BLAB’s call letters: “Babbling Locals and Blowhards.” Rea did not exempt himself from categorization.
In 1984, Rea ran for Richmond City Council. “Predictably, I lost,” he wrote several years later in an issue of Slant. But the essay recounting his run in the 5th District was a winner. It represents the best of Slant, with writing that ranges from pungent to poignant.
He wrote: “Meeting the candidates, who ranged from soup to nuts, was a trip.” And he went on to describe the world of single-person candidacy, with Rea motoring to beleaguered housing projects like Gilpin Court to post fliers announcing his candidacy.
“Prior to my days as a candidate, Gilpin Court had been just another vague, scary place on the map,” he wrote.
Pounding the pavement with his staple gun and sneakers, he was soon joined by a group of neighborhood kids who followed him through Gilpin Court and distributed fliers. After all the other kids had grown bored “with the goofy white guy,” one boy remained with Rea.
“In an effort to be friendly, I tried to engage him in conversation,”
“That tactic met with little success. As we were finishing the last section to be covered (with leaflets), I asked him a question that had gone over well with children in other parts of town. ‘What’s the best thing and the worst thing about your neighborhood?’
“He stopped and stared through me. Although I felt uncomfortable about it, I repeated the question after a moment.
“Then he replied. His words hit hard, but he spoke without emotion.
‘Ain’t no best thing.’”
When asked about the candidacy, Rea sighed. “I found out real fast that I’m better off on the outside throwing my mudballs and making my comments than I am in the limelight and under the scrutiny that a political candidate lives with.”
“I think people want their political candidates a little more restrained than I’ve been. I’m not saying that’s the way it should be, but that’s the way it is.”
Rain or shine, poor or just dead broke, Rea continues to publish The Slant, cranking out the essays, paying tribute to the people and things he likes and dislikes, then fielding all calls for his head. He’s also branching out with more art work, which will be on display at Coffee & Co in Carytown this month. Somebody will always have something to say about Rea.
“I’ve always gotten wild reactions,” he said.
“Sometimes I can laugh it off. Other times, it’s more difficult. What’s bothered me more than anything is the hate mail and the strange characters who come out of the woodwork and think something I’ve written in The Slant is speaking to them in a special way.
“That’s just one more reason why I use a post office box.”
He distributes The Slant himself, dropping off 3,000 copies at about 90 places from Carytown to Shockoe Bottom. It’s on these distribution runs that Rea sometimes gets some of his best feedback.
“One time in the Fan Market, I was delivering a batch of The Slants and I was setting them down by the checkout,” he said. “A woman reached down and picked up a copy. She was in her late 50s, if I had to guess. Maybe a legal secretary. And she couldn’t have had any idea that the guy delivering those things was the same guy who wrote it.”
“She said to checkout guy, ‘You know why I read this?’ She waited for an answer, stuffing the periodical in her bag. Then she said: ‘Because it makes me feel less crazy.’”
Looking up at her, Rea thought one thing: “Boy, I must be doing my job.”