Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The 1982 Handbill Art Show

Starting with the second anniversary, the Biograph Theatre’s birthdays always meant a party. Some of the celebrations were promoted and open to the public, others were small affairs for the staff and friends. Former staff members were always encouraged to attend, so the parties served as reunions, too.

On Friday, February 12, 1982, the Biograph celebrated its 10th anniversary with a party that surrounded the Richmond premiere of “My Dinner With Andre.” It was especially fitting, because the artsy film had been shot for the most part in Richmond.

To prepare for the occasion we did some touch-up work on the big collage in the hallway to Theatre No. 1 and the entire lobby got a new paint job. To make the party more fun we brought in the caterer who had prepared the dinner for the characters featured in the film, Chris Gibbs (a friend), to serve our $25-per-head guests exactly the same dish. The whole shebang was a benefit for VCU’s Anderson Gallery.

Each day of the shooting of the Louis Malle movie in the old Jefferson Hotel -- it was closed at the time, soon to be renovated -- Gibbs had shown up with a platter full of Cornish game hens and bowls of wild rice, etc. That's what the actors, Wally Shawn and Andre Gregory, had for dinner in the movie’s imaginary restaurant, supposedly in New York City.

About a year-and-a-half before the Biograph’s movie premiere party had been imagined, I had gone with Gibbs to the set, to see how it all looked. For each scene, the production crew had to pick apart the fresh sets of meals to make them look eaten/aged to the point that they fit the timing in the story.


While putting the party together with the Biograph’s staff, Gibbs and the Anderson Gallery was a lot of work, it was also a lot of fun. Fortunately, the Biograph’s owners in DeeCee were 99 percent behind such promotions. For me, it was the sort of special project that I loved, even as my passion for the day-to-day routine of operating a movie theater was slowly dissolving into a blur.

Later that same year another special project appeared, to become my raison d'être for months. Although it was a big distraction from my duty to find solutions for the cinema’s endemic problems, winning the “handbill case” still stands as my favorite singular achievement as manager of the Biograph.

In my thinking, first it was about free speech. I had long admired freedom-of-speech heroes and people who fought censorship, so I was eager to do my bit. In a more practical sense, it was also about defending a promotional tool I had relied upon for 10 years. So, it was about keeping the theater open. From experience I knew eye-catching handbills posted on certain utility poles and in particular shop windows were vital to promoting our smorgasbord of attractions, especially midnight shows.

In the larger picture, culturally, it was Rock ‘n’ Rollers vs. Yuppies. The Fan District Association was dead set against handbills promoting nightlife. Prompted by that civic association’s pressure, the City of Richmond officially proclaimed the matter to be strictly about trash.

So, early in 1982, City Council tweaked the statutes about posting notices in the public way. Then the police department began cracking down directly on those who posted handbills. Not so much the notices posted about yard sales or lost dogs. No, the focus was strictly on flyers promoting entertainment.

After noting the arrests of fellow handbillers, musicians who played in popular bands, David Stover (Prevaricators) and Charles Williams (Good Guys), I decided to confront the situation. While some other promoters in the Fan District chose to let the crackdown stop them, I simply went about my routine handbilling rounds, as I had since 1972.

Which led to an 8½-by-11-inch paper poster for “The Atomic Café,” which opened on June 24, 1982, becoming evidence. When a cop brought the flyer to the Biograph, to issue us a warning, I freely admitted to having posted it on a utility pole. So, he handed me a summons to appear in General District Court.

Subsequently, I told my bosses it would cost the Biograph nothing in legal fees, but that I wanted to fight the City of Richmond on freedom of speech grounds. I assured them a couple of my friends who were lawyers would handle the defense.

The study of laws and decisions about free speech and using the public way for the common good became my obsession. Scheming about how to present the argument filled my head for the next four months. First, I wanted the court to see an important context -- our society tolerates all sorts of signage on utility poles, because the messages are considered useful.

Then, I wanted to convince a judge that once you considered all the handbills in the neighborhood around VCU, as a whole, it could be seen as an information system. It was a system that some people were relying on for information, just as others might rely on newspapers obtained from a box sitting on public sidewalk.

One person might read the entertainment section in a local periodical, another person might glance at the utility poles in their neighborhood, to read the posters touting live music shows or poetry readings.

To gather plenty of good examples to use as evidence, we had a handbill art show at the Biograph. On October 5, some 450 flyers, posted on black foam core panels, hung in the theater’s lobby. In all, there were probably three dozen, or so, different artists represented. A group of impromptu art experts acted as judges to select the best five of the show. Naturally, there was a keg of beer on hand to grease the wheels of progress.

One of Phil Trumbo’s Orthotones (later Orthotonics) handbills was named Best in Show. Most people who knew much about the handbill artists in the Fan would have said Trumbo was top dog, so it was a popular decision by the judges. Trumbo would later testify at the trial as a “handbill expert.”

Two of the handbill art show judges from that night also served as expert witnesses at the trial. They were: Gerald Donato and David Manning White. Donato was an art professor at VCU; White was the retired head of the mass communications department at VCU. The best 100 of the handbills from the show went to court as evidence.

After all was said and done, we won. On Saturday, November 6, the Frank Green-penned story about winning the handbill case was draped stylishly across the top of the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s front page.
In dismissing the case, the judge (Jose R. Davila) appears to have opened the question of the enforceability of the city law used by police to combat the proliferation of advertising and other signs on utility poles and other “fixtures” in “public ways.”

The case concerned the seemingly simple issue of the allegedly illegal posting of a handbill. But before it was over, the proceedings touched on topics that included free speech, soup cans, and nuclear energy, and invoked names of such diverse personalities as Andy Warhol and the city’s public safety director.

Rea’s attorneys, John G. Colan and Stuart R. Kaplan, argued the city ordinance was unconstitutional because it violated Rea’s right of freedom of speech.

Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney William Bray argued that Rea had means of expressing himself and of advertising the movies other than the posting of handbills on public property.

Davila did not rule the city ordinance unconstitutional, but he dismissed the charge despite the defense’s concession that Rea had the handbills posted.

Without elaborating, Davila said he was concerned about the use of the term “public way” in the ordinance.

“The city, the GRTC, VCU, churches, the Boys Club and all the candidates use the public’s utility poles to post their signs. They know as well as the general public that there is nothing pretty about a naked pole. Handbills pose no danger to anyone. Is free speech only for some?” Rea asked in a handbill he had printed up before yesterday’s trial.

So I walked. We probably had a little party, but I don‘t remember.

A month or so later, I began planning the Biograph’s 11th anniversary program, which would feature Abel Gance’s restored masterpiece, “Napoleon” (1927). That would prove to be the last special project, the last anniversary party that I planned for the Biograph ... while it was still open.

Stay tuned...


cabin rental luray va said...

Thanks for sharing this post. It is wonderful to share past experiences and ready worthwhile article to read.

George McKay said...

Did not know this landmark film movie was filmed in Richmond! The things you learn browsing the blogworld...

George McKay said...

Oops. Edit out the word "film" in my previous comment.