In the middle of the 20th century, officialdom in Virginia’s capital city used its powers to make it more difficult to offer entertainment to the public for profit. Laws and taxes were the tools. The unabashed racism that drove much policy 50 years ago was at the heart of why that strategy was set in motion.
Before World War II, Richmond was widely known for the vibrancy of its entertainment scene. The largest concentration of theaters and restaurants was downtown.
In the 1950s, with the Massive Resistance movement dominating Virginia’s politics, a social/political agenda entered the picture. The same guys who worked to prevent desegregation in public education decided that public entertainment should be discouraged, too. The same guys who wanted to keep blacks and whites drinking water from separate fountains, also wanted to see nightlife in Richmond confined mostly to private clubs.
In those days, cocktails -- liquor by the drink -- were only available in segregated, private bottle clubs and off-the-record speakeasies.
The Byrd Machine’s brain-trust did not want black students and white students matriculating together. And, it sure as hell didn’t want them dancing to rock ’n’ roll music together in public spaces. Some readers may not remember how much the bizarre anti-rock ’n’ roll movement of that era was fueled by fears to do with race.
In Virginia it got more difficult to get a license to serve alcohol to the public -- even beer -- and in the same room allow dancing. Operating under the direction of political appointees, the Alcohol Beverage Control agency had an all-powerful police force that could put licensees out of business, anytime.
So, a simple thing like a couple of girls swaying to the sound of a popular tune, as they stood next to a jukebox scanning its menu, could get an otherwise law-abiding restaurant busted for permitting dancing without the proper license.
Even in recent years, ABC agents have been regularly assigned to duties that amounted to undercover police work -- sometimes setting up their licensees to break a rule, then busting them.
When an ABC agent shined a flashlight into a restaurant, to spy on the owner sitting at his bar after he had closed and locked the doors -- at 3 a.m.! -- the agent should have had a compelling reason for such an intrusion. The owner was doing paperwork, alone, with an open beer bottle on the bar.
It's hard to say who was being protected from what, when the restaurant’s ABC license was suspended. This is part of the story of what killed off a rock ‘n’ roll stage 10 years ago.
ABC needs to be replaced with a modern entity that regulates commerce to do with alcohol and leaves police work to the police department.
In the ‘50s Richmond also raised its admissions tax on entertainment tickets sold to the public. It’s now set at seven percent.
However, since this tax comes off the top, the show’s producer/promoter surrenders that seven percent, even when the show fails at the box office. Hungry for revenue, Richmond takes its seven-cents gouge from every dollar spent on a seat for movies, basketball games, live music or travelogues.
Over the years, like the dog that didn’t bark, the touring company shows and pop concerts that have skipped Richmond -- because of its extra tax -- just didn’t happen.
Before they finally went belly-up, few fans who lament the loss of pet venues like the Flood Zone, the Biograph Theatre and the Moondance Saloon ever knew how much the management of those places struggled with the local establishment’s anti-show business red tape. Beyond the clubs and theaters that closed, what about those that never got off the drawing board?
Movieland, the first new movie theater (17 screens) to open within the city limits since the old Biograph in 1972, is presently coughing up seven percent of its box office take. Its competitors in the surrounding counties are paying zero admissions tax.
Of course the tax collectors will tell you Richmond needs that money. But, it seems nobody at City Hall wonders enough about how much money in other taxes would flow into the system from new businesses if that bad tax went away. Richmond’s extra tax on entertainment had plenty to do with that 37-year gap between new cinemas being built in town.
Richmond’s City Council needs to wake up and realize the counterproductive admission tax is yesterday’s wrong policy, warmed over.
Some wags and washed up impresarios think our fair city would have already had a busy theater/nightlife scene downtown 10 or 20 years ago -- sans large public money -- if the ABC board and the city, itself, had just gotten out of the way.
Perhaps now, more by habit than for any nefarious reason, Richmond’s anti-good times attitude -- leftover from another time -- lingers yet in City Hall. It walks the corridors like a zombie.
Richmond needs sensible policies that aren’t stuck in yesterday’s mud of bad attitude. It most certainly does not need publicly-owned theaters.
Note: The piece above, penned by yours truly, was originally published under the title "The Show Mustn't Go On" by Richmond.com on May 7, 2009.