Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Five Favorites for 2015

Looking back on 2015, as years have gone, it was a better year than some. Watching my friends growing old was startling, at times. Still, it beats burying them. For me, the year that is about to end has been busier than any in a good while. That's chiefly because of my work to do with the Bijou Film Center.

Mostly because of The Bijou, I've met a lot of people and made some new friends over the year. That's been quite a departure from recent years. At 68, with so many of my memories fading into the mists, I've found the challenge that new friends have presented to be invigorating. And I discovered that stretching to navigate those challenges could be fun, even comforting. Maybe I didn't know if I could still stretch.

On top of that, it's been a pleasant surprise to learn firsthand – in some cases learning from new friends – how much Richmond has evolved, culturally, since my old days managing the Biograph, publishing Slant, etc. For that reason, as much as anything else, it's no stretch for me to be optimistic about The Bijou's chances to become more than an imaginary cinema.

As an artist/writer who likes to see his signature and byline in print, fortunately I've had plenty of years when I sold more work. But I've also endured the gloom of years in which I was less productive and sold less. Of the pieces I created in 2015, not counting stuff associated with The Bijou, here are my five favorites:

"Cream Pies for Bullies: The Importance of Satire" (my suggested title was "Avoiding Dead Wrong") was published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Jan. 25. My illustration accompanied the text. 
In such a world without maybes, should we now be denouncing the murderers of cartoonists in Paris? Or should we be denouncing the insulting work of irresponsible provocateurs who bent the wrong people out of shape?
Click here to read it.

"Brand Wringing" (my suggested title was "To Havoc, or Not To...") was published by Style Weekly on April 14.

This one is about Will Wade, VCU's basketball coach, and the pressure on him to extend "Havoc" as a slogan/motto/brand for the Rams style of play. Click here to read it.

"Maybe We Should Wrap Those Monuments" (my suggested title was "About Those Monuments") was published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Jun. 27.

In light of simmering controversies in other parts of the country, to do with Confederate memorials and flags, etc., this one is about Richmond's Confederate heroes monuments on Monument Ave -- propaganda in bronze. Click here to read it.

"The Bluster Meister" (my title was used) was published by Style Weekly on July 21. My illustration accompanied the text.  
Like a movie monster created by a mad scientist, the candidate that Donald Trump has become was created semi-unwittingly by mischievous ultra-conservative Republicans who’ve relished annoying Democrats to distraction for the last six and a half years. Naturally, when the monster came alive, its creators marveled at their work and assumed they could control the creature when the time came for it.
Click here to read it. 

"Bernie's Bandwagon" (my title "Bernie's Bandwagon" was used in the paper edition, but not online) was published by Style Weekly on Sept. 29. My illustration accompanied the text.

This one looks at the presidential race with summer in the rear-view mirror. Mostly it's about Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, with a little bit of Donald Trump thrown in. Had to put a dash of Trump in there so people would read it. By autumn the Bluster Meister had grown into a monster that was dominating nearly every news story about the race. Click here to read it.

From my drawing table and keyboard to you, dear viewer/reader -- Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Drive Trump Off Before It's Too Late


Rank and file Republicans are rapidly approaching decision time: Is their dislike for Democrats – Barack Obama, in particular – going to lead them into allowing Donald Trump (depicted above) to destroy their chances of electing a Republican president, 11 months from now?

If the leadership of the party permits him to dominate the early primaries, THEN they try to cobble together a Stop Trump coalition, in March or April, it may be too late to avoid a virtual bloodbath in November.

Not so much too late to stop Trump from getting the nomination, which I suspect he can't accomplish. No. Too late to keep his poisonous bluster from dooming the GOP to losing not only the White House, but also control of Congress.

The all-out battle to run Trump out of the Republican Party needs start now. In my view it's a campaign that needs to have been won before springtime sets in. His threat to go third party simply must be laughed off. If Trump wants to spend millions of his own money, just to punish Republicans and win nothing, let him do it.

No doubt Trump will continue to make such threats, but will he really follow though? Plus, reaping-what-you-sow-wise, it's fair to say the Republicans have it coming to them. The extreme rhetoric of their more vociferous, mean-spirited spokespersons in recent years surely set the table for an opportunist like Trump to do exactly what he's been doing.

If the leaders of that movement to drive Trump off do face the music, ASAP, and succeed in a timely fashion, they will look like brave heroes to many people – not just reasonable Republicans, but a lot of people who follow politics. On the other hand, if Republican leaders remain scared of Trump's bluster -- imagine his speech at the convention -- the losses their party could sustain in November could set some new records.

-- words and art by F.T. Rea

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Eric E: Jukebox of Americana

Note: After attending the memorial ceremony for a friend, a man known to many of his fans as Eric E., 12 years ago, I wrote the piece that follows for Richmond.com:

RICHMOND, VA (August 19, 2003): The horns wailed as they entered the Arthur Ashe Center. At about 12:30 p.m. a brass New Orleans-style procession playing "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" led the family, friends and fans of the late L. Eric "Rick" Stanley into the memorial ceremony.

It was a service for the deejay known to his local listeners as Eric E. Stanley died on August 12, 2003.

The program billed the occasion as a "celebration of life." What followed the procession, two hours-plus of music and colorful Rick Stanley anecdotes with a somewhat restrained dose of old-time religion, lived up to the billing.

Many of the faces in the crowd of approximately 1,500 were familiar to anyone who has followed the live music scene in Richmond over the last 20-some years. Interestingly, for a city reputed to be trapped in habits that separate blacks from whites, Stanley once again demonstrated his unique ability to appeal to both sides of Broad Street.

Eric Stanley, who was 53 when cancer took his life, was the host and producer of the Bebop, Boogie, & Blues Review, a radio show of his own invention that was heard most recently on WJMO-105.7FM on Sunday nights. As well, he was a promoter/producer of many live shows.

Stanley's bright-eyed daughter, Erin Stanley, closed her remarks with her father's trademark radio sign-off: "Gotta go ... gotta go."

Tears flowed – of course they did – but the overall mood in the room was decidedly upbeat. Stanley's presence was symbolized throughout the cavernous space by photographs and other traditional remembrances on display, which included his own harmonica – a Hohner Pro Harp, a 10-hole diatonic with black cover-plates.

For the recessional the musicians played "When the Saints Go Marching In" to lead the gathering into the sunlight.

Those who were so disposed went to the closest restaurant/bar, Dabney's, where a lively reception ensued, and lingered. No doubt, it was a crowd Rick Stanley would have enjoyed being a part of.

His silent black harmonica was there.

*

Note: A year-and-a-half before that ceremony I wrote this profile of Rick Stanley for
Fifty Plus, a local magazine.

Eric E: Jukebox of Americana

By F. T. Rea


FEBRUARY 2002: Richmond’s Eric E is a jukebox of colorful anecdotes about American music. Push any button and out comes another of his takes on some aspect of the music he has found in his midst. Then you get a set that might include a mix of Jazz, Blues, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Rhythm & Blues, Zydeco, Rockabilly, Country & Western, Hip Hop, Soul, Gospel, or Du-Wop. You name it.

Otherwise known as Eric E. Stanley, Eric E has made a lifelong study of American working-man’s music styles and the connections between them. His understanding of those integral connections -- synapses between genres -- lies at the core of his own authentic style.

All that said, Stanley is on the air, again, with a better-than-ever version of his trademark radio show: the Bebop Boogie & Blues Revue. He’s back after dodging a bullet that came at him out of blue -- prostate cancer. After a routine test alerted him to his situation, he was basically out of the game for a year.

With that ordeal behind him, what comes out of his listeners’ speakers on Sunday nights, between 7 p.m. and midnight, is the Eric E jukebox of Americana. His free-association decision of what recording to play next can be as improvised as a jazz musician landing on just the right note and quirky pause to justify the experimental riff he just played.

Seamlessly, Eric E moves from Jimi Hendrix to Patsy Cline to Muddy Waters to Li’l Ronnie and the Grand Dukes to Stanley Turentine, all, without worrying about why.

In an age of ubiquitous ticky-tacky radio programming, Stanley’s variety-oriented ideas can’t be packaged into a standard format. Thus, his current arrangement with WJMO, 105.7FM, allows him to do as he pleases with the five-hour block of time. He not only hosts the show and selects the music, but he also arranges for the program’s underwriting. In effect, Eric E. is his own boss.

The product, the Bebop Boogie & Blues Revue, is an utter delight. Typical of the Eric E style, he also does the commercials live. With no canned hype, the ads come off more as endorsements than intrusions. At this writing, BB&BR’s five sponsorships, one for each hour, are the Richmond Jazz Society, Plan 9 Music, Kuba Kuba restaurant, the Commercial Taphouse, and Creole Arts.

“If you advertise with me, I’m going in your business,” says Stanley. “If I haven’t been in the place, I don’t accept the ad.”

The Path to Radio

As a child, Eric Stanley spent as much time as he could at his aunt’s restaurant, a spacious old log-house with a stone fireplace. The Hilltop Restaurant, located on US Route 1 in Ashland, catered mostly to a rural black clientele. In the summer he’d cook hamburgers and do what he could to seem useful.

The Hilltop featured live entertainment, mostly acts from what was known as the Chitlin’ Circuit. Down in the basement, Stanley’s uncle poured off-the-record shots of liquor. Fascinated with the raw music and the natural scene surrounding it, Ricky -- a skinny kid with glasses -- soaked up all he could from traveling bluesmen such as Jimmy Reed and Elmore James.

Sometimes Reed would baby-sit for precocious Ricky (who tended to ask too many questions) when his aunt and uncle were running errands for the business. “I remember it from the late '50s to early '60s,” says Stanley with his easy smile. Of the legendary Reed, Stanley recalls: “He’d give me a quarter for the vibrating [lounge] chair, drink whiskey from a little bottle, and play his guitar.”

Stanley’s favorite hit tunes from his childhood? Off the top of his head he answers, “‘In the Still of the Night,’ ‘It’s All in the Game,’ and ‘Twist and Shout,’ the Isley Brothers version.”

During his high school days, playing drums and harmonica in bands, together with performing as a dancing drum major, Stanley leaned that he enjoyed performing in front of a crowd. That yen would resurface.

In 1968, after Stanley finished Virginia Randolph, he went on to study advertising at Virginia Commonwealth University for a couple of years. For the next nine years he was away from the Richmond area, for the most part, studying Early Childhood Education at Bowie State College in Maryland and working as a day-care teacher in Washington. It was during his period in D.C. that he fell into broadcasting.

A friend was hosting a radio program with commentary about prison life. He helped her with the project and began playing some jazz here and there to broaden the narrowly focused show’s appeal. That led to Eric Stanley’s first program of his own, a 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. gig on WPFW-FM.

Color Radio

In 1979 Stanley returned to Richmond, and in 1982, while managing a Reggae band, Awareness Art Ensemble, he found his way to Color Radio. “I got involved with Color Radio because Charles Williams, of the Good Guys band [bass guitar], called and told me they were starting a station on Continental Cablevision and I should get involved,” says Stanley.

Color Radio (1982-84) was the sound heard behind cable television company’s static color-bar test pattern on Channel 36. The station was started by alternative music enthusiasts who were, for the most part, neophyte broadcasters. Some had had experience at college stations.

The sound traveled by phone line from a makeshift studio over Plan 9 record store in Carytown to Continental, which sent the signal out on its lines. The DJs were invited volunteers -- several were musicians -- and they essentially played and said whatever they liked.

The eclectic, spontaneous style Stanley developed then is what he has used when he could ever since. He dubbed his show, “The Frontline -- 360 degrees of Ba-Lack Music.” Stanley closed each show with what has become his signature sign-off as Eric E, the performer: “Gotta go … Gotta go.”

From WANT to WVGO

In the radio business some things change fast, others never change. One day you’re the toast of the town. The next week your front door key doesn’t work because the station’s locks have been changed; you’ve been sacked. Eric Stanley, like anyone who has hung around for any time in the radio biz, has been buffeted about by a variety of stations through all sorts of changes in ownership and format.

The story of how he came to his present gig on Sunday nights picks up in 1988, when WRNL, 910-AM, hired Eric Stanley to host an oldies midday show. Later, he expanded into Saturday nights, with an R&B-oriented oldies show.

In 1990 Harriet McLeod, popular music writer for the Richmond News Leader wrote:
Stanley, music director since January, has set out to make it [WRNL] Richmond’s funkiest radio station, adding to the oldies format B-sides, album cuts, tunes that never charted in the era when sales in black-owned record stores, and often sales of black artists, weren’t counted for the charts. Stanley draws much of his playlist from a personal collection of 5,000 albums, singles, tapes, CDs.
His move to WRXL-FM marked the beginning of the Bebop Boogie & Blues Revue, which Eric E hosted on Sunday nights. Although it was Blues-based, this time he got the freedom to do something closer to what he had done with his Color Radio show. At this point he called his format “free-form.”

Among other things freeform meant taking risks in stride. In speaking of two of his favorite musicians, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Stanley says, “The ones [musicians] who got the most respect took chances.”

His next move, in 1992, was to WVGO, 106.5-FM. The new station positioned itself as an alternative to "classic rock" and took the Richmond market by storm. Soon Stanley was recognized widely for his amazing crossover success: in other words, a black radio personality appealing to a white audience. Suddenly he was everywhere; hosting live events for the station and the darling of local entertainment writers.

On the air Eric E pushed the envelope, even for a station with a so-called “alternative” format. In addition to his “almost anything but opera” style of presentation he made a point of playing the recordings of local acts, too; such as Boy O Boy, the Good Guys and Theories of the Old School.

In 1994, having acted as DJ/host of a blues night at Mulligan’s Sports Bar for five years, he moved his act to Memphis Bar & Grill in Shockoe Bottom. There he played records and presented live music on Wednesday night for two years. But in October of 1995 the wind shifted in the market once again. Eric E and WVGO went their separate ways. And the next year he moved his live version of Bebop Boogie & Blues Revue to the Moondance Saloon. At this point he was also busy doing voice-overs for commercials and acting as a consultant and/or executive producer for several area bands' recording projects.

Diagnosis and Recovery

Over the years the resourceful Eric Stanley has worked a number of jobs to fill in and around his show business activities. It was in one of those situations that he suddenly learned of a totally unexpected problem. A screening for prostate cancer, conducted through his workplace, Haley Pontiac, revealed that he had no viable option to surgery, which took place in July of 2000.

Since this meant no work for a lengthy spell and his insurance was inadequate to cover all the ramifications, money problems loomed, not to mention the natural worry about his prognosis. Although these were dark days, there was a shaft of light at the end of the tunnel.

Enter two friends: Marilyn Marable and Lee Pillsbury. Overnight they organized a benefit show at Alley Katz, a Shockoe Bottom live stage. The all-star lineup included; Plunky & Oneness, Rene Marie, Jazz Poets Society, Bio Ritmo, The Deprogrammers/Good Guys (a combination of the two bands), Car Bomb, Inc., The Nighthawks, Helel, and Fighting Gravity.

Of the night of the Alley Katz extravaganza, Stanley says: "The most humbling thing was when they put that benefit on."

Today, cancer free and undergoing no cancer-related treatment, he laughs at an unflattering photograph of a somewhat wan-looking Eric E that accompanied an article about the benefit. "When I saw that picture of me I thought I was dying."

Since then the American Cancer Society has approached him about acting as a spokesman for the organization, speaking to groups of men on the importance of testing.

“Since I’m exercising and eating better, I may be healthier than I was,” says the ever upbeat Stanley. “Last year, I was diagnosed and treated for cancer. Thanks to God, a real good woman [the previously mentioned Marilyn Marable], a good doctor, and the mojo [a green bag of mysterious herbs, bone powder and who-knows-what? he picked up in New Orleans years ago] I keep in my pocket, I'm still here and laughing at you."

Sunday Night Live

Now that Eric E is back in the saddle, the last Arbitron ratings book [as of this writing] reported that the Bebop Boogie & Blues Revue had already shot to a close second to WCDX-FM, Power 92, in his time-slot, among listeners in the 25-to-54 demographic.

So instead of complaining about how lame radio in Richmond can be, the reader is advised to tune in to Eric E for an escape from the ordinary. On top of its entertainment value, his show is not unlike a class in music history. Yes, Stanley sounds very much the professor as he explains, for example, how Muddy Waters put together the traditional electrified blues ensemble of two guitars, drums and harmonica, with piano on occasion.

In fact, Professor Eric E is teaching a class, American Music: Blues, Hip Hop, Jazz, and Rock 'n' Roll, at St. Catherine’s School this semester. So the young ladies on Grove Avenue, nestled up to the Country Club of Virginia, are learning how Chuck Berry took Country & Western songs and gave them a Blues shuffle-beat in order to become a Rock ‘n’ Roll pioneer.

Those private school students will also be exposed to Eric E. Stanley’s well-honed thoughts on the power of music to reach across cultural barriers. Of music’s ability to bring people of different backgrounds together he says: “Many times it’s the hammer that breaks the wall down.”

From the Hilltop Restaurant, by way of countless hours of platter-spinning air-time, Eric Stanley, 52-years-old on February 26 (a birthday he shares with music legends Fats Domino and Johnny Cash), is at the top of his game, again.

Meanwhile, as the former hamburger flipper and dancing drum major would no doubt say at this point, “Gotta go … gotta go.”

-- 30 --

-- Photo by Al Wekelo

Tipping Point for Poison Rhetoric?

"You take that back!" says a red-faced boy, as he pushes up his sleeves. His command is directed at a smirking kid, who just lobbed an insulting remark his way. They're facing one another on an asphalt basketball court, surrounded by a forming circle of witnesses. "Take it back!"

Trouble is, nothing we say can ever be taken back. As much as we might want to unsay words, adults know it can't really be done. We can be truly sorry we said those damn words. We can apologize until we're blue in the face. We can claim our words were misunderstood. So what?

Words can't be unsaid. Moreover, adults also know the reckless use of words, whether it's a blunder or it's designed to inflame a situation, can get people killed. So, regardless of our beliefs and philosophies, there's really no point in pretending we don't all know that.

Thus, when unscrupulous right-wing politicians on-the-make inflamed their most unstable followers – by demonizing Planned Parenthood, using bogus videos and rhetoric like, “baby parts” – they knew it amounted to throwing lit matches at an open box of cherry bombs.

Of course, beyond words used recklessly, manipulative language and is nothing new. French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord’s (1754-1838) words on the topic of language remain crisp today. Talleyrand offered: “Speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts.”

Talleyrand's wisdom recognized the artful use of language. Using words to throw gasoline on a fire is different. In the new millennium the raw meanness of words we routinely see/hear strung together, to express political and religious ideas, seems to be escalating. Civility is becoming a quaint notion.

The outrageously insulting comments that regularly appear under any editorial or article published about politics have been accepted as a sign of the times. Then throw in all the insults that flash before our eyes on social media. It's hard to see much good in the role those modern ways of venting anger play in our lives. 

When it comes to flinging poison rhetoric to and fro into public discourse, as a society, are we getting close to reaching a tipping point? Since we know words can't be taken back, can the poisonous rhetoric keep getting more potent without it delivering us to a day of reckoning? With mass murders becoming daily occurrences, can it get any worse?

Of course it can. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Save the Diamond Breakthrough?

Ed. Note: Can't say whether this will turn out to be a real breakthrough, or just another level of discordancy. But I'm glad somebody outside of City Hall has continued to work on a plan that makes sense for the neighborhood The Diamond is a part of now, and for the rest of the city, as well.

Owned by Richmond's citizens, The Diamond is far too great of an asset to sweep away without such a plan. The Flying Squirrels made a mistake when they backed Mayor Dwight Jones' rejected plan to build a ballpark, etc., in Shockoe Bottom. Now the management of the Squirrels obviously regrets it. Still, no one should hold that against them too much. Their arms were being twisted. The push for Baseball in the Bottom twisted a lot of arms before it crashed and burned.

Now the Squirrels want to stay on the Boulevard. That seems to be what baseball fans prefer. And, for what it's worth I support that concept ... for now. As far as how important minor league baseball really is to the whole community, well, maybe that's what ought to be considered -- maybe even voted upon -- before we commit to spending a lot of money on it down the road. Anyway, I got this info in the form of a press release, by way of email today.

SAVE THE DIAMOND COMMITTEE
Media Announcement
Nov. 24, 2015, For Immediate Release 
Richmond Group Announces Plan To Transform The Diamond and Spark Economic Development In Surrounding North Boulevard Area (Richmond, Va.)

Calling itself “The Save The Diamond Committee,” a local group of citizens, architects, and developers has created a proposal – Live. Work. Play Ball. A New Vision for North Boulevard – to transform the existing Diamond baseball stadium into a 21st century minor-league ballpark. The proposal also includes a multi-use development plan for the contiguous 50 +/- acres that can provide needed significant tax revenue to the City of Richmond.

Committee representatives – Harry H. Warner, Jr, committee chairman, Randy Holmes of Glavé & Holmes, and Steve Terrill of AECOM – will present the plans and ideas to the media and the public on Wed., Dec. 2, 2015, 2 p.m., at the Richmond Public Library auditorium, 101 E. Franklin St. 
Contact: Harry H. Warner, Jr., (804) 357-8157; NewBoulevardVision@Outlook.com

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Five Film Favorites: French Films

From 'Breathless'

My trips to France have been vicarious: words written by others, pictures created by others. For the most part, what I know -- or think I know -- about France has been gathered and presented to me by filmmakers. Moreover, a good part of what I know -- or think I know -- about good movies has been shaped by countless hours spent watching French films.

Like many baby boomers who grew up loving movies, once I discovered foreign films the French New Wave films exerted a big influence on me. So, for me, the memories of Paris that were stirred up by the terrorist attacks on Nov. 13, 2015, weren't based on times I actually spent there, soaking up the milieu.

Instead, films I've loved have been brought to mind. Today, Nov. 14, 2015, my five favorite French feature films are as follows:

“The 400 Blows” (1959): B&W. Directed by François Truffaut. Cast: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claire Maurier, Albert Rémy. Note: This story’s deft portrayal of a brave boy’s yearning for dignity in an indifferent world kicked in the door for the New Wave’s filmmakers.

"Breathless" (1960): B&W. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg. Note: An opportunistic thief on the lam becomes irresistible to a pretty American journalism student in Paris. Uh-oh, the guy is dangerous. How long can it last?

"Day for Night" (1973): Color. Directed by François Truffaut. Cast: Jacqueline Bisset, Valentina Cortese, François Truffaut. Note: An engaging look at the process of making of a movie, with the private lives of the cast and crew intermingling with the production.

"The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" (1972): Color. Directed by Luis Buñuel. Cast: Fernando Rey, Paul Frankeur, Delphine Seyrig. Note: Probably prankster Buñuel’s most accessible film, this dream within a joke, within a dream, sparkles with its dry wit.

“Lacombe, Lucien” (1974): Color. Directed by Louis Malle. Cast: Pierre Blaise, Auroe Clement, Holger Lowenadler. Note: How does a naive, nihilistic teenager in France, just looking for a way to fit in, end up running with the Nazi invaders? Hey, why not?

That list of sweet flicks includes only feature-length movies. But today I just can't resist mentioning two of my favorite short films that happen to be French:

“La Jetée” (1962): B&W. Directed by Chris Marker. Cast: Davos Hanich, Hélène Chatelain, Jen Négroni. Note: A stunning example of how less can be way more. This short New Wave classic about memory, imagination, longing and time is unforgettable.

“The Red Balloon” (1956): Color. Directed by Albert Lamorisse. Cast: Pascal Lamorisse, Sabine Lamorisse, Georges Sellier. Note: Using little dialogue, this utterly charming 34-minute French fantasy follows a boy and his balloon friend along the streets of Paris.

From 'The Red Balloon'

To wind up, allow me to quote Rick Blaine (played by Humphrey Bogart), the protagonist in "Casablanca" (1942). Speaking to Ilsa Lund (played by Ingrid Bergman), Rick says: "We'll always have Paris."

Indeed. 

*

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Cheaters


A Veterans Day Remembrance: This 1916 photograph of my grandfather, Frank W. Owen (1893-1968), was shot when he was in the Richmond Light Infantry Blues. At the time he was stationed in Brownsville, Texas, as part of a contingent called up and assigned to protect the border. Mexican revolutionary/bandit Pancho Villa had been crossing over to raid small towns ... or so it was said. The next year the Richmond Blues were thrown into WWI in France. 

The story below is about my grandfather. It's set in the summer of 1959. I wrote it 25 years ago for SLANT. A version of it was later published in STYLE Weekly in 2000.

The Cheaters
by F.T. Rea
Having devoted countless hours to competitive sports and games of all sorts, nothing in that realm is quite as galling to this grizzled scribbler as the cheater’s averted eye of denial, or the practiced tones of his shameless spiel.
In the middle of a pick-up basketball game, or a friendly Frisbee-golf round, too often, my barbed outspokenness over what I have perceived as deliberate cheating has ruffled feathers. Alas, it's my nature. I can't help it any more than a watchful blue jay can resist dive-bombing an alley cat.

The reader might wonder about whether I'm overcompensating for dishonest aspects of myself, or if I could be dwelling on memories of feeling cheated out of something dear.

OK, fair enough, I don't deny any of that. Still, truth be told, it mostly goes back to a particular afternoon's mischief gone wrong.

*

A blue-collar architect with the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway for decades, my maternal grandfather, Frank Wingo Owen was a natural entertainer. Blessed with a resonant baritone/bass voice, he began singing professionally in his teens and continued performing, as a soloist and with barbershop quartets, into his mid-60s.

Shortly after his retirement, at 65, the lifelong grip on good health he had enjoyed failed; an infection he picked up during a routine hernia surgery at a VA hospital nearly killed him. It left him with no sense of touch in his extremities. Once he got some of his strength back, he found comfort in returning to his role as umpire of the baseball games played in his yard by the neighborhood's boys. He couldn't stand up behind home plate, anymore, but he did alright sitting in the shade of the plum tree, some 25 feet away.

This was the summer he taught me, along with a few of my friends, the fundamentals of poker. To learn the game we didn’t play for real money. Each player got so many poker chips. If his chips ran out, he became a spectator.

The poker professor said he’d never let us beat him, claiming he owed it to the game itself to win if he could, which he always did. Woven throughout his lessons on betting strategy were stories about poker hands and football games from his cavalry days, serving with the Richmond Blues during World War I.

As likely as not, the stories he told would end up underlining points he saw as standards: He challenged us to expose the true coward at the heart of every bully. "Punch him in the nose," he'd chuckle, "and even if you get whipped he'll never bother you again." In team sports, the success of the team trumped all else. Moreover, withholding one’s best effort in any game, no matter the score, was beyond the pale.

Such lazy afternoons came and went so easily that summer there was no way then, at 11, I could have appreciated how precious they would seem looking back on them.

On the other hand, there were occasions he would make it tough on me. Especially when he spotted a boy breaking the yard's rules or playing dirty. It was more than a little embarrassing when he would wave his cane and bellow his rulings. For flagrant violations, or protesting his call too much, he barred the guilty boy from the yard for a day or two.

F. W. Owen’s hard-edged opinions about fair play, and looking directly in the eye at whatever comes along, were not particularly modern. Nor were they always easy for know-it-all adolescent boys to swallow.

Predictably, the day came when a plot was hatched. We decided to see if artful subterfuge could beat him at poker just once. The conspirators practiced in secret for hours, passing cards under the table with bare feet and developing signals. It was accepted that we would not get away with it for long, but to pull it off for a few hands would be pure fun.

Following baseball, with the post-game watermelon consumed, I fetched the cards and chips. Then the four card sharks moved in to put the caper in play.

To our amazement, the plan went off smoothly. After hands of what we saw as sly tricks we went blatant, expecting/needing to get caught, so we could gloat over having tricked the great master. Later, as he told the boys' favorite story -- the one about a Spanish women who bit him on the arm at a train station in France -- one-eyed jacks tucked between dirty toes were being passed under the table.

Then the joy began to drain out of the adventure. With semi-secret gestures I called the ruse off. A couple of hands were played with no shenanigans but he ran out of chips, anyway.

Head bowed, he sighed, “Today I can’t win for loosing; you boys are just too good for me.” Utterly dependent on his cane for balance he slowly walked into the shadows toward the back porch. It was agonizing.

The game was over; we were no longer pranksters. We were cheaters.

As he carefully negotiated the steps, my last chance to save the day came and went without a syllable out of me to set the record straight. It was hard to believe that he hadn’t seen what we were doing, but my guilt burned so deeply I didn't wonder enough about that, then.

*

My grandfather didn’t play poker with us again. He went on umpiring, and telling his salty stories afterwards over watermelon. We tried playing poker the same way without him, but it didn’t work; the value the chips had magically represented was gone. The boys had outgrown poker without real money on the line.

Although I thought about that afternoon's shame many times before he died nine years later, neither of us ever mentioned it. For my part, when I tried to bring it up, to clear the air, the words always stuck in my throat.

Eventually, I grew to become as intolerant of petty cheating as F.W. Owen was in his day, maybe even more so. And, as it was for him, the blue jay has always been my favorite bird.
-- 30 --

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Crybaby Candidates


Hard to blame voters of the Republican persuasion for being grumpy. They're being asked to believe their roster of presidential hopefuls are tougher than Democrats, especially Hillary Clinton.

Clinton undergoes a marathon of questioning at the most recent Benghazi investigation by the House. Much of it was a rather mean-spirited stunt designed to put her in a bad light. She handles it all and emerges looking patient, well-seasoned and totally prepared to serve as president. 


Meanwhile, like pouting children, the aforementioned Republican candidates complain about a few minutes of aggressive questioning by reporters. Donald Trump, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, et al, are pissed off at everybody! The media. The Democrats. Their own national committee's leadership. And, of course, at each other. 

Hard to see such candidates as looking tough, or prepared, when they're so busy being crybabies. So, to me, it's hardly surprising that conservative voters are grumpy. But it is funny.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Strange Case of Gus the Cat

Note: This piece was published by Richmond.com in 2000. 

Though cynical people like to say, “All cats are gray in the dark,” the difference between this and that counts with me. Thus, if for no other purpose than to satisfy my own curiosity, I set out to find the truth about Gus, the cat that had long presided over lower Carytown from his plush basket in a bookstore display window facing the street.

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-ohaIkmTZU_0/TYOKL0YuoAI/AAAAAAAAAxw/v5kt5utrTbc/s1600/gusstacywarner.jpg

The mystery began in the course of a casual conversation about re-makes of old movies. Film aficionado Ted Salins, a regular among the society of conversationalists who gather at the tables on the sidewalk in front of Coffee & Co., tossed out that the cat living next door in Carytown Books is not the “original” Gus.

Since I’ve known Salins, a writer/filmmaker/house-painter, for a long time, I suspected his charge was a setup for a weak joke. To give him room to operate I asked, “So, this Gus is an impostor?”

“Just like Lassie, several cats have played the role of Gus over the years,” Salins said matter-of-factly.

Until that moment it hadn’t occurred to me that Gus, someone else’s cat, had slowly become important to me over the years. In the past I’ve been told that he’s over 15, maybe pushing 20. Who can say what that is in cat years? He still has a few teeth left.

“You see, in ‘91 I had lost my beloved Skinkywinkydinky in a separation,” Salins went on, as if revealing a dark conspiracy. “When I first saw Gus, I took to him because he reminded me of Skinky. That Gus wouldn't let you touch him. But, this Gus…”

“Ted, this is absolutely the most off-the-wall nonsense you’ve come up with yet,” I accused.

“The place has changed hands a few times since then,” Salins smugly offered. “The problem is each owner falls in love with the cat and keeps it. But since Gus has become an institution in Carytown, each set of new owners has to find another cat that looks like Gus. The switch is made at night in order to preserve the secret. I’ve seen it.”

Before I could say “horsefeathers,” another member of the Carytown intelligentsia, who had just walked up, spoke: “Salins, as usual you’re all wet,” said artist Jay Bohannan. “That is not only the same cat, but Gus is, let’s see, yes, he’s nearly 70. That particular cat is probably the oldest cat this side of the island of Lamu.”

I laughed at Bohannan’s crack and excused myself from the table to let them hash it out. The two of them have been arguing good-naturedly since their VCU art school days in the early ‘70s.

Walking toward my car, Ted’s suggestion of a fraud having been perpetrated on the public bothered me. I felt certain that if somebody had actually installed a faux Gus in the bookstore it would have been all over the street the next day. As I tried to imagine people spiriting nearly identical cats in and out of the back door, in the dead of night, the matter wouldn’t rest.

So I turned around and went into Carytown Books. The shop’s manager, Kelly Justice, who has worked there for six years under three editions of ownership, scoffed at Salins’ charge.

“Anyone who knows Ted, knows he’s a nitwit,” said Ms. Justice with a wry smile. “More likely than not, this is an attempt to raise funds for another one of his documentaries.”

When I told her about Bohannan’s equally outrageous suggestion that Gus was almost a septuagenarian, Justice laughed out loud. “Perhaps Jay and Ted are both trying to hitch their wagons to Gus’ star,” she suggested playfully.

Back outside, Salins and Bohannan were both gone. So I walked east on the block to Bygones, the collectable clothing and memorabilia store known for its artful window displays. Since Maynee Cayton, the shop’s proprietor, is an unofficial historian for the neighborhood, I decided to see what she knew about Gus.

Cayton, who has been at that location for 16 years, said she had some pictures of the block from the ’30s and ‘40s, but she didn’t think she had any shots of a bookstore cat. However, she did remember that when she was a child she saw a gray and white cat in the window of what was then the Beacon Bookstore.

“It was in the late ’60s, I think it was 1967,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “And I’d say it was a young cat. Either way, I can’t believe the feline impersonator story, so maybe it was Gus.”

The next day, Bohannan called on the phone to tell me he had something I needed to see right away. He was mysterious about it and wouldn’t explain what he was talking about, except to say that it was proof of his claim about Gus the Cat.

Unable to let it go, I told him I’d stop by his place to see what proof he had.

Bohannan’s apartment, located between Carytown and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, was an escape from the modern world altogether. It’s furnished in a pleasant mix of practical artifacts and curiosities from yesteryear. The heavy black telephone on his desk was almost as old as Jay. Next to the desk was a turn-of-the-century gramophone. Bohannan, himself, dressed like a character who just stepped out of a Depression-era RKO film, reached into a dog-eared manila folder and pulled out a photograph. When I asked him where he had gotten the picture, purportedly from about 1930, he shrugged.

In such a setting, his evidence of Gus’ longevity took on an eerie authenticity. Sitting in one of Bohannan’s ancient oak chairs, surrounded by his own paintings of scenes from Virginia’s past, I thought I could see the cat he claimed was depicted in the storefront’s window. Why, it even looked like Gus.

Jay told me I could keep the photo, it was just a Xerox copy. What a scoop!

Later, when I looked at the grainy picture at home, I could hardly even see a cat. The next day, back in Carytown, I spoke with several people who hang out or work in the neighborhood. A few actually thought Bohannan’s bizarre contention could be true. Others agreed with Salins.

One man, who refused to be quoted with attribution, said he was sure the original Gus was an orange cat. A woman looked up from her crossword puzzle to note that Bohannan's evidence was at least as good as what she'd seen on the Loch Ness Monster.

Then the whole group of chatty know-it-alls went off on the general topic of conspiracy theories and hoaxes. At the next table a woman in a straw hat started sketching the sidewalk scene.

A few days later, I saw Ted Salins holding court in front of the coffee shop. I told him what Kelly had said about his claim and I showed him Jay’s so-called proof that Gus is ancient.

“The next thing you’re going to tell me is Shakespeare actually wrote all those plays," Ted said mockingly. "Look, it’s not the same cat. Live with it. This Gus is a ringer, maybe three years old.”

Turning around, I looked through the storefront’s glass at good old Gus in his usual spot. He looked comfortable with a new electric heater under the blanket in his basket. It dawned on me that there was a time when Gus used to avoid me, as well. Now he seems happy for me to pet him, briefly.

Pulled back into the spell of the mystery, I wondered, had Gus changed or had I? Gus stared back at me and blinked. Like one of his favorite authors, J. D. Salinger, Gus wasn’t talking.

Gus was smiling as only a cat can; a smile that suggests equal parts of wisdom-of-the-ages and dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers. One obvious truth about Gus the Cat was that he had grown quite accustomed to having a public.

*

Note: The photo of Gus was taken by Stacy Warner for Richmond.com. On June 19, 2001 a cat alleged to have been the authentic Gus the Cat was found dead in Carytown Books; he was estimated by the bookstore's spokesperson to have been about 18 years old.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Literature on Film


One of the more popular themes for a program of double features at the Biograph Theatre (1972-87) was Literature on Film; movies that were adapted from existing works of literature. The first time we used that hook was in this 1977 festival which did quite well at the box office.

On the flip side of the program (not seen) the following twin bills were listed: "Of Human Bondage" and "Lolita"; "Slaughterhouse 5" and "Ulysses"; "Anna Kaenina" and "Dr. Zchivago"; "Little Women" and "David Copperfield"; "The Stranger" and "Steppenwolf"; "Stage Door" and "Alice Adams"; "Grapes of Wrath" and "Les Miserables" and tha, tha, that's all folks.

(Click on the program itself to enlarge it.)







Saturday, October 24, 2015

Bijou presents: 'Entertainment' screening at The Byrd on Nov. 8

The Bijou Film Center, VCU's Institute for Contemporary Art and the Virginia Film Office will present "Entertainment" at the Byrd Theatre. After creating stirs at various film festivals, including the Sundance, "Entertainment" is about to have its theatrical first run begin in New York City. Please note that five days prior to that premiere in the Big Apple, its "pre-premiere" will take place in Richmond on Sun., Nov. 8. The show starts at 6:30 p.m.

Following a special happy hour gathering at the Portrait House (5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.), across the street from The Byrd, Richmond's own Rick Alverson -- the director of "Entertainment" -- will be on hand to introduce the film.

Admission: Tickets at the box office will be $10.00. Advance tickets are available online at Eventbrite for $7.00 (plus a processing fee of $1.38) each. Paper advance tickets will be available for $7.00 (cash or check) at Bygones Vintage Clothing and Steady Sounds until the day of the show.

The After-Party will unfold at the New York Deli following the screening. It will feature a live comedy showcase, which will be hosted by Herschel Stratego. As a special treat, the protagonist in the film, The Comedian, aka Neil Hamburger (as played by Gregg Turkington), will appear on that program. Admission will be free.

"Entertainment" (2015): Color. 110 minutes. Directed by Rick Alverson. Cast: Gregg Turkington, John C. Reilly, Tye Sheridan, Michael Cera. Note: The film's protagonist is an abrasive comedian who hurls his absurd material at small audiences in bleak dives in forgotten towns. The laughs come more from the situations than the jokes. As it mocks our expectations, "Entertainment" is a compelling odyssey. Occasionally, it's laugh-out-loud funny. For viewers who've enjoyed the rather unconventional work of directors such as Robert Bresson, Luis Buñuel and David Lynch, Alverson's new flick could be about to shoulder its way onto their top ten lists. Love it, or hate it, "Entertainment" is a bona fide "art movie" that is probably destined to become a cult classic.

The Mission of The Bijou is to establish the nonprofit film center in Richmond, Virginia, the centerpiece of which will be a small independent cinema. We will strive to present the best of the artsy first-run independent and imported films available. Those engagements will be sandwiched between short runs of selected classics. Beyond the exhibition of our gourmet film fare, we hope to be a friend to Richmonders interested in the preserving of old films and the making of new films.

More info is available at the Facebook event page.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Flashback: Virginia's 1994 Senate Race

In the summer of 1994 O.J. Simpson-related material was on television round-the-clock. Meanwhile, a four-way race political race developed in Virginia, as three candidates emerged to challenge the incumbent Chuck Robb for his seat in the U.S. Senate.

Republican Ollie North was nominated by a convention at the Richmond Coliseum. Former governor Doug Wilder, a Democrat, threw his hat in as an Independent. Finally, Marshall Coleman, a Republican former attorney general and failed gubernatorial candidate, ran as an Independent, too.

Naturally, both Wilder and Coleman were seen immediately as spoilers by many observers. The few members of the national press that weren't assigned to the story of Simpson's soon-to-begin trial were all over the circus-like story of the quartet of candidates in Virginia. Although Robb was the incumbent, North was easily the biggest celebrity in the group. Wilder might have argued that point.

In late August, I issued what was then my fourth set of collectible cards -- “Campaign Inkbites: The ‘94 VA Senate Race.”

After swearing he was in the race 'til the finish, the mercurial Wilder withdrew in October. The wooden Coleman stayed the course, with stubborn Sen. John Warner as his chief backer. North, ever the checkered-shirted dandy, raised and spent over $25 million; what was then a new record for the most ever in a U.S. Senate race ... any state. In the end the awkward Robb outlasted them all and won reelection.

Beneath the 1994 newspaper article about that card collection are scans of 12 of the 15 original cards from the set. With 21 years of dust on the cards, some of my attempts at humor may not work so well now, hopefully the caricatures are still fun to look at. As I produced these cards, it was an interesting challenge to try to write lines for the dialogue balloons that would hold up for a month or two, no matter what the developments.

Right out of the gate, this edition was lucky with publicity, the article reprinted below started it:
Sept. 6, 1994: David Poole and Dwayne Yancey (Virginian-Pilot)
Odds and ends from the past week of Virginia's U.S. Senate campaign: I'll swap you two Doug Wilders for a Tai Collins. The colorful U.S. Senate race has spawned a set of trading cards featuring the four candidates and a host of supporting characters - including the former Miss Virginia who gave a nude massage to Chuck Robb in a New York hotel.

There’s U.S. Sen. John Warner sounding defensive about his hand-picked candidate, Marshall Coleman: “Why should I strain to name an office he hasn't sought, or an abortion stance he hasn't taken? The point is: Marshall isn't Ollie.”

There’s conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh assessing the race: “The choice in Virginia is simple. You’ve got a stained, lap-dog liberal, a bleached and petulant liberal, a fair-weather conservative, and a genuine, world-class hero.”


There’s political pundit Larry Sabato reporting on the latest poll results: “Fifty-one percent said the race is so embarrassing they plan to leave the state.”
The “Campaign Inkbites” are the brainchild of F.T. Rea, a Richmond artist who a decade ago issued a similar deck of cards commemorating a massive death-row escape at Mecklenberg Correctional Center [by the notorious Briley brothers and four others]. The set of 15 Senate cards is available at Biff’s bookstore [also at Chickens, the snack bar in the State Capitol] in Richmond for $12 a pack.

The most unflattering likeness in the set is that of Sabato, whose green skin gives him the look of a vampire.

“Ironically, he’s my best customer,” Rea said of Sabato. “He bought 12
packs.”
Then an AP story written by Martha Slud ran. Lots of newspapers (1, 2) picked it up and printed various versions of it. Some ran the whole piece, as shown below, others edited it down.
Then came a five-minute report on the card set by Bob Woodruff that appeared on CNN.

Previously, Woodruff had done a report on earlier card project of mine. As it happened, I just happened to run into him and he asked what I was up to. All that publicity prompted political memorabilia collectors from far and wide to buy the cards through the mail.

STYLE Weekly then asked me to do a cover and a five-page spread of cartoons on the same campaign. That feature ran in the Oct. 18, 1994, issue.

It was a wild ride.

*

Note: Click on any of the cards or the article to enlarge them.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Blood Isn't Just Red

Each time we ask basically the same questions: Why is it almost always a young white male? Did the mayhem stem from a humiliating rejection? Was it television or video games that made an already disturbed individual into a crazy shooter? The Internet? What role did his family life play in bending his mind? Were the words of crackpot celebrities rattling around in the shooter's head? Did a dog tell him to do it?

Sorry, I can't offer a conclusive answer. But pretending that people do things, even strange things, for a single reason doesn't usually get us closer to the truth. Searching for an overriding motive for spraying bullets into a schoolroom or a movie theater -- some clue to make sense of it -- doesn't usually lead to any sort of satisfaction .... but to ease our pain we always look, anyway.

Will we ever really understand how someone could do such a thing? I doubt it, but our common sense tells us there's something in America's culture that has been contributing to these massacres. Certainly, the availability of the rapid-fire weapons facilitates the slaughter, but what else can be said to be a common denominator? 

The piece that follows was published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch on its May 1, 1999 OpEd Page. The point it makes about the long-term effects of repeated violent images on television still seems apt to me.
Blood Isn’t Just Red
by F.T. Rea

Television has dominated the American cultural landscape for the past 50 years. A boon to modern life in many ways, television is nonetheless transmitting an endless stream of cruel and bloody images into everyone’s head.

However, if you’re still waiting for absolute proof that a steady diet of video violence can be harmful to the viewer, forget it. We’ll all be dead before such a thing can be proven. This is a common sense call that can and should be made without benefit of dueling experts. Short of blinding denial, any serious person can see that the influence television has on young minds is among the factors playing a role in the crime statistics.

How significant that role has been/is can be debated.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m as dedicated to protecting freedom of speech as the next guy. So perish the thought that I’m calling for the government to regulate violence on television. It’s not a matter of preventing a particular scene, or act, from being aired. The problem is that the flow of virtual mayhem is constant.

Eventually splattered blood becomes ambient: just another option for the art director.

My angle here is that in the marketplace of ideas, the repeated image has a decided advantage. The significance of repetition in advertising was taught to me over 25 years ago by a man named Lee Jackoway. He was a master salesman, veteran broadcaster, and my boss at WRNL-AM. And, like many in the advertising business, he enjoyed holding court and telling war stories.

He had 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 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. If you hit that target often enough, the results are money in the bank.

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.

Meanwhile, good old Lee Jackoway knows 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? When you consider all the murders, all the rapes, all the malevolence that television dishes out 24 hours a day, it adds up. It has to.

What to do?

I have to believe that if the sponsors of the worst, most pointless violent programs felt the sting of a boycott from time to time, they would react. Check your history; boycotts work.

It’s not as though advertisers are intrinsically evil. No, they are merely trying to reach their target audience as cheaply as possible. The company that produces a commercial has no real interest in pickling your child’s brain with violence; it just wants to reach the kid with a promotional message.

If enough consumers eschew worthless programs and stop buying the products that sponsor them, the advertiser will change its strategy. It really is that simple.

As we all know: A day passes whether anything is accomplished or not. Well, parents, a childhood passes, too, whether anything of value is learned or not.

Maybe television is blocking your child off from a lesson that needs to be learned firsthand -- in the real world where blood isn’t just red, it’s wet.

-- 30 --

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Remembering High on the Hog 1977-2006

Note: This piece was originally published by Brick Weekly in 2007.  

Memphis Rockabilly Band (and impresario Chuck Wrenn)
on the HOTH stage in Libby Hill Park for the last time.

Due  to the intrusion of an all-day downpour, last year’s edition of High on the Hog, No. 30, was a soggy affair. Two of the bands scheduled couldn’t play under the circumstances. Yet, in spite of the stormy weather, the Bopcats and the Memphis Rockabilly Band performed using a scaled down sound system. Tarps were lashed to the sides and back of the stage to block the wind-driven rain.

A few party stalwarts danced in the mud with umbrellas. The show went on … but perhaps for the last time.

“It was a Nor’easterner that settled over Richmond,” said the longtime director of matters musical, Chuck Wrenn. “We’ll see what the future brings.”

Meanwhile, there certainly will be no High on the Hog 31 this year.

So, the director of matters porcine, Larry Ham, won’t be slathering his Carolina red vinegar basting sauce over slow-cooking pork this Saturday in Libby Hill Park. Moreover, it seems likely that High on the Hog—which for three decades has served a generation as a reliable reunion party—has probably happened for the last time.

The heavy losses sustained from last year’s fizzler meant the handful of friends/neighbors who have staged and financially backed HOTH since its inception took a bath in red ink ... the rainy day fund was wiped out.

Going back to HOTH’s origins, other than Ham, among Wrenn’s chief co-conspirators have been: Bobby Long, Dave O’Kelly, John Cochran, Randy Smith and Steve McKay. For such veterans last year’s weather had to bring to mind another rainy day, 26 years before. 1980 was the year they significantly enlarged the plan for what had originally been a small annual neighborhood party.

Three rousing rock n’ roll bands played on a flatbed trailer in the cobblestone alley behind Wrenn’s 2808 East Franklin Street back yard for what was the then-largest HOTH crowd ever.

Yet, this was a time when one couldn’t get a permit from the proper authorities for such an event. Amplified rock simply wasn’t allowed at outdoor shindigs in Richmond, most especially on public property. So, in a sense HOTH 4 was flying below, or perhaps above, the radar. For whatever reason the cops on the beat chose not to bust it.

When it suddenly began raining in 1980, rather than lose momentum by shutting off the electricity and clearing the stage—to wait out the downpour—Wrenn broke out his staple gun and large rolls of heavy-gauge transparent plastic. With the help of volunteers an awning was hastily improvised to keep the rain off the stage. A portion of the yard closest to it was also protected, somewhat.

Then, with the electric guitars of Don’ Ax Me ... Bitch wailing in defiance of the chilly rainstorm, the sense of common purpose felt by those dancing in the mud was unforgettable. The full potential of live rock n’ roll music to simultaneously express both lamentation and celebration was realized.

In 1983 HOTH had outgrown its alley venue, so it shifted gears and moved into the park across the street. The throwdown even went legit. Subsequently, HOTH’s rollicking success and noteworthy lack of trouble planted the seeds for Jumpin’ in July, Friday Cheers and the outdoor music festivals that have blossomed since.

The HOTH record for beer sales on a Saturday afternoon still stands at 209 kegs; it was some time in the early ‘90s, according to Chuck. At its peak, it took some 350 volunteers to chop the pork, serve the beer, tend the stage, etc. Each year volunteers got a new HOTH T-shirt for their trouble; extras were sold to the public. There have been 25 different models.

What was a beloved local gospel group, The Silver Stars, holds the record for most HOTH appearances with 10 (1987-‘96). The Memphis Rockabilly Band played the gig seven times (1980, ‘81, ‘84-‘87, ‘06).

“The Silver Stars, we got every year we could ... until they died,” Wrenn recalled.

What were locally-based bands with multiple appearances include: The Bopcats, The Good Humor Band, Billy Ray Hatley’s bands, Page Wilson with Reckless Abandon and The Wall-O-Matics. Maybe the three most noteworthy national acts were: Billy Price and the Keystone Rhythm Band in ‘83 and ‘85; NRBQ in ‘87; Marcia Ball in ‘01.

Presented with the prospect that HOTH has run it course, a smiling Chuck Wrenn offered familiar advice, “Don’t forget to have a good time.”

Those coveted laminated backstage credentials, which meant free beer to the wearer, will probably be selling on eBay soon. Who knows what T-shirts will eventually be worth?

Appropriately, as it stands now, the last band to perform was the impeccably authentic Memphis Rockabilly Band. Although it was unplanned, they were the perfect act to play an encore for 30 years of smiles ... one last fast dance in the mud.

-- Word and photo by F.T. Rea

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Big Stretch


Note: This piece first appeared in STYLE Weekly as a Back Page in 2002.



*
  
The prototype was assembled during a lull in seventh grade shop class. After tying some 15 rubber bands together to make a chain, a collaborator held one end of the contraption as I stepped back to stretch it out for a test. Squinting to sight along the taut line to take proper aim, finally, I let go.

The whole thing gathered itself and shot past the holder. The released tip struck a target smartly, several feet beyond the holder. While the satisfaction I felt was a rush, the encouragement from the boys who witnessed that launching felt transforming.

Through a pleasant sequence of trial-and-error experiments, it was soon determined how to best maximize distance and accuracy. Once guys across the room were getting popped with the bitter end of my brainchild -- dubbed The Stretch -- the spitballs that routinely flew around classrooms in 1961 at Albert H. Hill Junior High -- were strictly old news.

A couple of days later, uncharacteristically, I appeared on the schoolyard an hour before the first bell. Inside a brown paper bag I had was an updated version of my invention. This one was some 60 links long -- the Big Stretch. No one at school had seen it and I was only too happy to change that.

Once the Big Stretch was tested on the schoolyard, demonstrating its amazing new range, boys were soon shoving one another aside just to act as holders. Most of the time I did the shooting. Occasionally, one of the guys from my inner circle was permitted to be the shooter. As the wonder whizzed by it made such a splendid noise that just standing close by the holder was a thrill, too. On the asphalt playground behind the yellow brick school building an enthusiastic throng cheered each flight.

The Big Stretch went on to make an appearance at an afternoon football game, where its operators established to the delight of the audience that cheerleaders on the sideline could be zapped on their bouncing butts with impunity from more than 25 yards away. After a couple of days of demonstrations around the neighborhood and at Willow Lawn shopping center, again, I significantly lengthened the chain of rubber bands.

But the new version -- about 100 rubber bands long -- proved too heavy for its own good. It was not as accurate or powerful as the previous model. Then came the morning a couple of beefy ninth-grade football players weren’t content with taking a single turn with the new Big Stretch. Although there was a line behind them they demanded another go.

Surrounded by seventh-grade devotees of the Big Stretch, I stood my ground and refused. But my fair-weather entourage was useless in a pinch. Faced with no good options, I fled with my claim-to-fame in hand. In short order I was cornered and pounded until the determined thieves got the loot they wanted. They fooled around for a while trying to hit their buddies with it. Eventually, several rubber bands broke and the Big Stretch was literally pulled to pieces and scattered.

By then my nose had stopped bleeding, so I gathered my dignity and shrugged off the whole affair, as best I could. I chose not to make another version of the Big Stretch. A couple of other kids copied it, but nobody seemed to care. Just as abruptly as it had gotten underway, the connected-rubber-band craze ran out of gas at Hill School.

It was over.

At that time the slang meaning of “cool” had an underground cachet which has been stretched out of shape since. We’re told the concept of cool, and the term itself, seeped out of the early bebop scene in Manhattan in the ‘40s. That may be, but to me the same delightful sense of spontaneity and understated defiance seems abundantly evident in forms of expression that predate the Dizzy Gillespie/Thelonious Monk era at Minton’s, on 118th Street.

Wasn’t that Round Table scene at the Algonquin Hotel, back in the ‘20s, something akin to cool? If Dorothy Parker wasn’t cool, who the hell was? (Of course, I mean on paper, not necessarily in her day-to-day deportment.) And, in the decades that preceded the advent of bebop jazz, surely modern art -- with its cubism, surrealism, constructivism, and so forth -- was laying down some of the rules for what became known as cool.

Cool’s zenith had probably been passed by the time I became enamored with the Beats, via national magazines. Widespread exposure and cool were more or less incompatible. Significantly, cool -- with its ability to be flippant and profound in the same gesture -- rose and fell without the encouragement of the ruling class. Underdogs invented cool out of thin air. It was a style that was beyond what money could buy.

The artful grasping of a moment’s unique truth was cool. However, just as the one-time-only perfect notes blown in a jam session can’t be duplicated, authentic cool was difficult to harness; even more difficult to mass-produce.

By the ‘70s, the mobs of hippies attuned to stadium rock ‘n’ roll shrugged nothing off. Cool was probably too subtle for them to appreciate. The Disco craze ignored cool. Punk Rockers searched for it in all the wrong places, then caught a buzz and gave up.

Eventually, in targeting self-absorbed Baby Boomers as a market, Madison Avenue promoted everything under the sun -- including schmaltz, and worse -- as cool. The expression subsequently lost its moorings and dissolved into the soup of mainstream vernacular.

Time tends to stretch slang expressions thin as they are assimilated; pronunciations and definitions come and go. Since then, when people say, “ku-wul,” usually it's to express their ordinary approval of routine things.

The process of becoming cool, then popular, pulled The Big Stretch to pieces. Once the experimental aspect of it was over it got old, like any worn out joke. Then it began to play as just another showoff gimmick, which was something less-than-cool, even to seventh-graders a long time ago.
-- 30 --

-- Photo of Albert H. Hill Middle School from RVA Schools

Friday, September 18, 2015

Richmond's Handbill War


Note: The clipping above is from Throttle magazine's July 1982 issue.


*

In 1982 the City of Richmond tweaked its City Code to crack down on the posting of unauthorized messages on fixtures in the public way. With a focus on the Fan District, policemen pulled handbills from utility poles and charged who they held responsible for posting the handbill with violating the new statutes.

On June 28 of that same year, David Stover, a photographer and part-time usher at the Biograph Theatre, was ordered by a General District Court judge, R.W. Duling, to pay a $25 fine. Stover’s misdemeanor conviction stemmed from promoting a gig for his band, The Prevaricators. He admitted to having stapled copies of a letter-sized promotional flier to utility poles.

In the weeks before Stover’s court date others in bands had been fined for committing the same crime. In the early-80s Richmond’s live music scene was probably the strongest it had been in decades, but the crackdown suddenly had most clubs and bands afraid to rely on handbill campaigns to promote their shows. As fliers were the main promotional tool for most of the Rock 'n' Roll shows the crackdown threatened to throw a wet blanket over the aforementioned live music scene.

As the manager of the Biograph, I had been using the same sort of handbills on a regular basis for 10 years to promote that repertory cinema’s fare, in particular the midnight shows. Xerography had made the cost of a short run of little posters much more affordable. So, I wasn’t about to give up such a reliable and inexpensive method of promotion without a fight.

It felt to me like the City of Richmond was not only trampling on my freedom of speech rights, but it was trying to destroy the nightlife scene the Biograph was part of in the Fan District. The local authorities appeared to be trying to scrub away what some in Richmond had come to see as an undesirable element -- much of which was affiliated with VCU. 

Given those thoughts, I decided to go on stapling fliers to utility poles, more or less to invite a bust.

It wasn’t long before a polite cop showed up at the Biograph with a flier for the movie we were playing, “The Atomic Café.” He said he had removed it from a pole in the neighborhood. I admitted to putting it up and was issued a summons. Due to procedural delays, it took over four months for my day in court to arrive.

Which was fortunate, because I used that time window to build my case.

In a larger sense, it was another battle in a conflict we have come to know as the Culture War, which has been dragging on since the late-1960s. In part, the crackdown was blowback from the resentment some property owners in the Fan felt toward VCU’s growing presence. In 1982 the look associated with Punk Rock -- how the kids dressed, as well as their art -- was just as off-putting to some conservative old folks and Yuppies as the amplified sound of the music, itself. 

Consequently, the Fan District Association of that era was dead set against irreverent handbills that promoted edgy happenings in the Fan. Prompted by that civic association’s pressure, the City of Richmond said the whole mess was mostly about trash -- fliers stapled to poles were officially branded as litter. 

So, I started reading about similar situations in other places, cases that involved using fixtures in the public way, such as utility poles. I found some useful precedents that backed up my thinking. Plus, I began to read about and look at political art and outlaw art, down through history, more than ever.

The study of laws and decisions about free speech and the use of public property 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 essential context -- our society tolerates all sorts of signage on utility poles, because the messages are considered useful and the practice works.

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 young people were relying on for information, just the same as others might rely on newspapers obtained from a box sitting on public sidewalk.

After all, what right did the newspaper company have to block the public sidewalk with its box full of information, including a lot of advertising? What allowed for that?

One person might read the entertainment section in a local newspaper. Another person might look to the utility poles in their neighborhood, to read the posters touting live music shows or poetry readings. Some would trust the information found in a newspaper. Others might put more faith in the handbills posted on certain poles they walk past regularly. 

The only reason privately owned utility poles had ever been allowed to impose on public property, in the first place, was that electricity and telephone lines had been seen as serving the commonweal. So, why not use the bottom of the same poles as kiosks?   

Somewhere along the line, I told my bosses it would cost them nothing in legal fees. A couple of my friends who were on the theater's softball team, who were also pretty good lawyers, would handle the defense.


To gather plenty of good examples of handbills to use as evidence, we had an art show at the Biograph (see flier above). On October 5, some 450 fliers, posted on black foam core panels, were hung in the theater’s lobby. In all, there were probably three or four dozen different artists represented. A group of friends acted as impromptu art expert judges to select the best five of the show.

Naturally, there was a keg of beer on hand to grease the wheels of progress.

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 were later taken to court as evidence.

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.
*

Thus, on November 5, 1982, I witnessed a fascinating scene in which an age-old question — what is art? — was hashed out in front of a patient judge, who seemed to thoroughly enjoy the parade of exhibits and witnesses the defense attorneys put before him. The room was packed with observers, which included plenty of gypsy musicians, film buffs and art students wearing paint-speckled dungarees.

Trumbo testified at the trial as a handbill expert, to explain how to make a handbill and why they were used by promoters of entertainment. He also described how the music and art associated with the bands and clubs were all part of the same scene that flowed out of the neighborhood's university.

My defense attorneys attacked the wording of the city's statute I was charged with violating as “overreaching.” They asserted on my behalf that it was my right to post the handbill, plus the public had a right to see it. The prosecution called the handbill, “litter.”

The judge was reminded that history-wise, handbills predate newspapers. Furthermore, we asserted that some of the cheaply printed posters, a natural byproduct of having a university with a burgeoning art school in the neighborhood, were worthwhile art.

At a crucial moment, Donato was being grilled by the prosecutor. The Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney, William B. Bray, asked the witness if the humble piece of paper in his hand, the offending handbill, could actually be “art.”

“Probably,” shrugged the prof. “Why not?”

The stubborn prosecutor grumbled, reasserting that it was no better than trash in the gutter. Having grown weary of the artsy, high-brow vernacular being slung around by the witnesses, the prosecutor tried one last time to make Donato look foolish.

As Warhol’s soup cans had just been mentioned by the art expert, the prosecutor asked something like, “If you were in an alley and happened upon a pile of debris spilled out from a tipped-over trashcan, could that display be art, too?”

“Well,” said the artist, pausing momentarily for effect, “that would depend on who tipped the can over.”

Donato’s punch line was perfectly delivered. The courtroom erupted into laughter. Even the judge had to fight off a smile.

The crestfallen prosecutor gave up; he had lost the case. Although I got a kick out of the crack, too, I’ve always thought the City’s mouthpiece missed an opportunity to hit the ball back across the net.

“Sir, let me get this right,” he might have said, “are you saying the difference between art and randomly-strewn garbage is simply a matter of whose hand touched it; that the actual appearance of the objects, taken as a whole, is not the true test? Would you have us believe that without credentials, such as yours, one is ill-equipped to determine the difference ordinary trash and fine art?”

A smarter lawyer could well have exploited that angle.

Still, the prosecutor’s premise/strategy that an expert witness could be compelled to rise up to brand a handbill for a movie, a green piece of paper with black ink on it, as “un-art” was absurd. So, Donato, who was a wily artist if there ever was one, probably would have one-upped the buttoned-down lawyer, no matter what.

Perhaps the question should not have been — how can you tell fake art from real art? Any town is full of bad art, mediocre art and good art. Name your poison.

The better question to ask is whether the art is pleasing to the eye, thought-provoking or useful. Then you become the expert witness.

However, when it comes to great art, it still depends on who tips the can over.
*

The next day the story about winning the handbill case was draped stylishly across the top of the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
‘Atomic Café’ handbill case is still clouded
By Frank Green
Sat., Nov. 6, 1982

Though the case has ended, the fallout from “The Atomic Café” may not be over.

Richmond District Court Judge Jose R. Davila Jr. dismissed a charge yesterday against Terry Rea, the manager of the Biograph Theater, who allegedly posted handbills advertising the movie “The Atomic Café” on some utility poles in the Fan in June…

…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 the 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’s ordinance was unconstitutional because it violated Rea’s right of freedom of speech…

…“The city, 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.   
Later that Saturday Richmond’s afternoon daily, the Richmond News Leader, carried this story:
Art or litter? Judge rules handbills not in ‘public way’
by Frank Donnelly
Nov. 6, 1982

One man’s art may be another man’s litter, but the real question was whether it blocks the “public way.”

Terry Rea, manager of the Biograph Theatre in Richmond, was charged in June with obstructing a city sidewalk when he posted handbills on utility poles in the Fan District.

Rea’s attorneys, eliciting testimony on mass media and art from several professors at Virginia Commonwealth University, argued yesterday that the city law limited their client’s freedom of speech.

However, Richmond General District Judge Jose R. Davila, Jr., said the issue came down to whether the posters obstructed the public way, and he ruled that the commonwealth’s attorney’s office failed to prove they did.

Davila dismissed the charge against the manager of the theater but stopped short of finding the city law unconstitutional, which also had been requested by Rea’s attorney’s.

The city now must decide whether to find a better legal argument to defend the city law or to revise it, officials said. The law is used by the police to combat excessive advertising in the public way, which is defined as any place open to the public, such as a street or sidewalk.

“The poles were perfectly clean this morning,” Capt. Robert T. Millikin, Jr., said about the possible impact of the decision. “Between you and me, I don’t know what they’ll [sic] going to look like between now and tonight.”

For the last year, Fan District residents have complained to police about the the unsightliness caused by posters on trees and utility poles, Millikin said. The police asked businesses in June to stop posting the handbills and most businesses did so, he said.

Rea said he always has relied on handbills as an inexpensive but effective way to advertise movies at the theater, which specializes in the showing of avant-garde movies. Two weeks later, he was charged with a misdemeanor after posting advertisements for the anti-nuclear power movie, “The Atomic Cafe.”

The manager was charged under a law that states: “It shall be unlawful for any persons to obstruct or use a public way for advertising, promotional or solicitation purposes or for any purpose connected therewith ... by placing attacking [sic] or maintaining a sign on or to a fixture (such as a utility pole) ...”

Rea’s attorneys, Stuart R. Kaplan and John G. Colan, contended in court that the posters did not obstruct the public way, and the arresting officer agreed with them.

“It was nothing anyone would trip over,” Patrolman James P. Gilliam said about the posters.

The attorneys also argued that the city law abridged Rea’s freedom of speech by denying him one possible way to advertise.

David M. White, a former VCU professor of mass communication and author of 20 books on the media. said handbills are a unique form of communication. The theater could advertise in newspapers but the cost was prohibitive, he said.

Jerry Donato, an associate VCU professor of fine arts, said that posters in the Fan District contained both art and messages. “The Atomic Cafe” posters, which contained the slogan, “A hot spot in a Cold War,” criticized the use of nuclear power, he said.

Asked by assistant commonwealth’s attorney William B. Bray whether a bunch of soup cans on the ground is art, Donato replied, “It depends on who arranged them.”

The courtroom, which held about 30 artists and supporters of the theater, erupted into laughter.

Bray said purpose of the statute was to prevent littering but agreed that another reason was to prevent obstruction of the public way. The posting of handbills could block the public way by falling off of a utility pole and causing pedestrians to slip, he said. The posting of the advertisements caused a hardship for the police, which sometimes had to take down the posters, Millikin said.

“This ties my men up,” he said. “We have more important things to do, God knows.”

Rea and his attorneys said they were happy with the decision although they wished Davila had gone farther and ruled the city law unconstitutional.

“I’m glad there are no criminal charges against me,” said Rea, who will continue to post the handbills. “But I wish the judge had gone further and ordered the statute to be unconstitutional. I don’t whether I’m safe.”

Before the trial, Rea had argued, “The handbill posted in the public way is a unique and vital form of communication. Production and distribution is direct, swift and cheap.”

That message was printed on a handbill.
*

In 1985, Richmond once again passed new laws forbidding unauthorized fliers on utility poles. Another crackdown ensued.

This time it spawned a reaction from several of the Fan District’s handbill artists, musicians and promoters -- activists who called themselves the Fan Handbill Association.

Eventually, this issue prompted me to design a two-page, twice-a-week magazine, SLANT, made to be stapled to utility poles. There were cartoons, stories and ads. But that’s another story for another day.