Friday, April 05, 2013

The Underdog Room

Carl W. Hutchins (1924-2006) was a professional boxer in his youth. He claimed to have been a contender in his day. Most people called him “Piggy.”

Piggy Hutchins was known by three generations of Richmonders. They were locals of a certain stride, folks who ate, drank and shared their lives in his restaurants. Piggy’s most loyal customers tended to use his dives/eateries as a clubhouse … except when a feud kept one of them away for a while.

A corner restaurant called “Piggy’s,” located at Mulberry and Cary (where the Cary St. Cafe is now), began the series of places he would own. The Attaché, at 5816 W. Broad St., was the last of them; it closed down in 2002.

Eighteen years ago I was associated for a short stint with the legendary Attaché (although for some reason Piggy was calling it William Henry’s that year). A money crisis pushed me across the Henrico County line, inquiring after a bartender position that was listed in the newspaper's want ads. That afternoon I met the one and only Piggy Hutchins. I had known him only by reputation before.

After a pleasant chat with Piggy, I suspected there was no bartender job open. Nonetheless, Piggy’s older brother, Pete, and Bill, a nephew, gave me a tour of the decidedly suburban split-level facility -- the restaurant itself, the after-hours club on the upper story and the basement tavern. They explained that Piggy was really looking for an idea more than someone else to put on the payroll. He had advertised the job to attract someone who'd give him a new scheme.

Well, I needed money, and fast. So that’s exactly when a concept of how to use the basement space came to me in a flash.

Like characters in a Damon Runyon story, we all sat at the main table to cut a deal over draft beer and coffee. I explained how it could work. Right away, Piggy liked it that I volunteered to take on the promotional costs and booking duties, that I wanted only a cut of the bar receipts -- no guarantees. Plus, I got tips as the bartender on duty. And, Piggy liked telling his war stories to a writer.

As it happened, I left the place that day nurturing an absurd notion that became the Underdog Room. For three nights a week, I presented stand-up comics and live music in the basement, which had a boxer's heavy bag hanging in it, leftover from when Piggy still worked out and trained young boxers in that space.

To kick off the Underdog Room era, I booked the Vibra-Turks. Some of them were usually known as the Bop Cats. The Vibra-Turks were: Mike Moore (bass); Gary Fralin (keyboard); Lindy Fralin (guitar); Stuart Grimes (drums); Jim Wark (guitar). In one way of looking at it, we had a band with a fake name playing in a room with a fake name.

Nonetheless, a good break, publicity-wise, helped the handbills flush out enough barflies and aging scenesters to make for a good-sized audience. When Piggy came downstairs he liked the look of the crowd, he seemed to even liked the Vibra-turks. But some members of his staff members remained unsure about the direction of things.

On Thursdays it was comedy night. Usually seven or eight comics would show up. My old friend, John Porter, served as the emcee/recruiter. The performers split the cash from a cheap cover charge and drank beer for free. Hoping to establish to new venue, several of the the area's comedians stopped by to do a few minutes on most Thursdays.

On Friday and Saturday nights a band played, usually the same band on both nights. The bands would take what came in at the door, but as the weeks wore on, getting my Fan District nightlife friends to venture into Henrico County grew more difficult. As the take at the door shriveled, from one week to the next, I gradually ran through the established acts I could easily persuade to give the Underdog Room a try.     

The Scariens, a local performance-art/rock 'n' roll act, stretched the culture clash aspect of my shaky gig to pieces. Piggy and his Attaché crowd of regulars were utterly baffled by the Scariens, who sometimes seemed to baffle themselves, too. They were led by another old friend, Ronnie Soffee.

To make matters more fractious, some of the comedians seemed to rub Piggy's confidants the wrong way; to say they didn't get the jokes is an understatement. After almost four months of it, I came to my senses and bailed out.

Leaving Palookaville on good terms, I limped back to the Fan. It had been fun working with the comedians and musicians in such an off-the-wall situation. And, getting to know Piggy, to the extent that I did, was like living in a low-budget film noir picture from the late-1940s. 

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