Friday, August 19, 2016

It paid to Advertise

The distinctive front windows of the Bearded Bros.,
black lights and Dayglo-painted panels (1969).

When the doorway into show business suddenly opened for me I entered gladly. At the time I had a sales job I wanted to quit. What I wanted was to be a professional cartoonist/writer and eventually get to make films. So selling sandwiches and beer in a dive seemed more like a step in that direction than continuing to sell janitorial supplies.

When a friend, Fred Awad, offered me work at the restaurant he was operating my coat-and-tie job was history. Actually, my coming aboard as a bartender/manager was part of a larger plan we had cooked up to convert what was then a typical blue collar neighborhood beer joint/eatery into the Fan Distict's most happening club.

The restaurant belonged to Fred's parents, who wanted to retire. They had turned it over to their sons, Fred and Howard. The brothers promptly changed the name of place at Allison and West Broad St. from Marconi's to the Bearded Brothers.

Growing beards was easy, but the Awad boys couldn’t agree on how to run the business, so the younger brother, Howard, left to pursue the quest of opening a place of his own.

Meanwhile, Fred and I had become convinced the fun-loving baby boomer crowd in the Fan District needed a place to enjoy cold beer, hot food, live music and a psychedelic light show. That, together with the edgy spectacle of go-go girls -- dancing topless. At this time, in 1969, such bare-chested, except for pasties, dancing was going on in Roanoke. But it had yet to make its way to Richmond.

And, speaking of booming babies, at this time my wife, Valerie, was six months pregnant. Fred’s wife, Mary Ann, was seven months along.

It took us a couple of weeks to paint the interior flat black, build the stage and put the light show apparatus together. We also painted the front window panes that faced Broad Street in Dayglo colors illuminated by black lights.

The rock ‘n’ roll bands went over well and brought in a fresh crowd right away. A local group calling itself Natural Wildlife became a regular attraction. Then it came time to hire the go-go dancers. So a help wanted sign went up in the restaurant.

A few young women came in asking about the dancing job. Eventually, we settled on two. One of them had some experience, the other didn’t. But only the dancer new to the exhibitionism trade could be there for the first night, which we advertised in the local newspaper. I did the ad art; it featured a pen-and-ink rendered silhouette of a female dancer and a new Bearded Brothers logo I had designed.

By 8 p.m. the place was packed, wall-to-wall. We were selling beer like never before. The only problem was that our dancer with her brand new costume, which included tasseled pasties to cover her nipples (ABC Board regulation), was scary late. She hadn’t called, either.

With the crowd clamoring for the dancing aspect of the show to get underway, a woman wearing shades waved to get my attention as I opened a bottle of beer. The joint was so noisy I could barely hear her. In a Brooklyn or maybe Queens accent, she asked something like, “Could you use another dancer?”

Trying to hide my glee, I called Fred over right away. He offered her a fast $50 to alternate sets with the other girl as the band played. She told us she had noticed the ad in a discarded newspaper on the counter of the Greyhound bus station’s coffee shop. She was chewing gum. 

That night’s experience gave me new faith in the power of advertising. The Greyhound Girl even had her costume with her in her suitcase. Fred paid her in advance and suggested that since the other dancer was running late, she could go on as soon as she could get ready.

It all went over like gangbusters. Up on stage, with the lights and music, she danced like the pro she actually was — she had been working along the same lines in Baltimore and appeared to be a trained modern dancer. Natural Wildlife was cooking and the beer taps stayed open.

After the dancer’s first set was over, she put on a robe and found me behind the bar. She laughed, “There ain’t no other girl, is there?”

I paused to shrug and returned her smile, “I don’t know where she is.”

“I’ll need another fifty to go back up there,” she said firmly.

She agreed to do two more half-hour sets and the money was put in her hand without hesitation. Hey, she knew she had rescued the night.

Yes, a hundred bucks was a lot of money, then, but there was no use in quibbling. After that night we never saw her again. Other women were hired, pronto. The show went on but we were never as busy as that first night again.

It became my duty to paint the dancers with Dayglo paint. They'd have vines curling around their arms and legs, stars and stripes on their torsos, etc. But after a few weeks of that, it seemed most of the customers didn't care much about the artsy aspects of topless dancing, such as they were. They preferred bare skin. So, the body painting stopped.

Although painting the dancers was a pleasant enough task, hanging out after work was the best perk of the job, which wasn't always paying as much as I needed to make. Frequently friends/musicians stayed around late, jamming, playing pinball games and smoking pot.

The most notable of the musicians who passed through was Bruce Springsteen, whose band Steel Mill occasionally played in Richmond then. He was a skinny, quiet guy who didn’t stand out as much then as he would later.

When my daughter was born in January the Bearded Brothers scene was lively. Then, as the weather warmed up the crowds began to thin out. Other clubs opened up offering live music, some of which were closer to VCU. Gradually, the restaurant began to drift back toward being what it had been before it had been painted black.

Later, in the spring, I had to look for a real job again. Eventually, Fred's mother took the place back over. About a year later Howard Awad opened up Hababas on the 900 block of W. Grace St., where he had a lot of fun making large money (1971-84) serving cold beer and playing canned music on his popular bar’s monster sized stereo.

The topless go-go girl thing morphed into a form of entertainment aimed at an entirely different type of crowd. Truth be told, since the time of the Bearded Brothers I've never had much interest in the places that feature topless dancing.

A few months later I got a sales job at WRNL, a radio station then owned by Richmond Newspapers. Once again I learned it paid to advertise. And, on that job I did my first professional writing, when I began penning commercials and dreaming up promotions for my advertising clients.

Although I saved copies of the aforementioned newspaper ad and the logo I did for Natural Wildlife handbills, I haven't seen either of them for a long time. The only souvenirs from my first awkward stint in show biz are a few black and white photographs, like the shot above of the Bearded Brothers' front windows.

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