Friday, March 23, 2012

Discovering the Fan

Note from Rebus: In the spring of 1973 an ad hoc group of 21 Fan District merchants in the VCU area cooperated for a one-time-only promotion that went over quite well. It was called Discover the Fan. To enlarge the handbill click on my nose. 


After what had been a dreary winter-like spell, on April 14 the weather was absolutely spectacular. For that Saturday afternoon, 41 years ago, the sidewalks of the 800 and 900 blocks of West Grace Street and environs were packed with people. For the Discover the Fan promotion the streets were not closed, which meant motorized traffic was slowed to a crawl. Grace was a one-way street heading west in those days.

There were thousands of ordinary-looking people milling about having a good time. Many of them seemed like tourists. Live music was presented. Hundreds of helium-filled balloons and free prizes donated by the merchants were given away. Children with balloons gave the neighborhood an altogether different look. For one bright day the bohemian strip known for its leftover beatniks and colorful hippies looked more like a county fair than the hodgepodge of shops and beer halls it actually was. 

The handbill above (done by yours truly), with its list of participating businesses, provides a snapshot of the area in what was probably the zenith of the hippie age. Some of the characters who ran those businesses were rather interesting, but hardheaded folks. Getting them to agree to do anything in unison was not easy.

At the time of this event I had been the manager of the Biograph Theatre for a little over a year and the promotion itself was my project. While many people participated in putting it together, it couldn't have happened without the help of Dave DeWitt and Chuck Wrenn.

Below is a piece about Discover the Fan, written by columnist Shelley Rolfe, who lived only three blocks from the Biograph:
Shelley Rolfe’s
By the Way
Richmond Times-Dispatch (April, 16, 1973)

It was breakfast time and the high command for Discover the Fan Day had, with proper regard for the inner man, moved its final planning meeting from the Biograph Theater to Lum’s Restaurant. Breakfast tastes ran a gamut. Eggs with beer. Eggs with orange juice. H-hour -- the operations plan had set it for noon -- was less than three hours away. Neither beer nor orange juice was being gulped nervously.

Terry Rea, manager of the Biograph and the extravaganza’s impresario, was reciting a last-minute, mental things-to-do list. There was the vigilante committee, which would gather up the beer and soft drink cans and bottles that invariably infest the fronts of the shops in the 800 and 900 blocks of W. Grace St., focus area of the discovery.

The city police had promised a dragnet to sweep away the winos who also invariably litter the neighborhood. The day had bloomed crisp and sunny, the first dry Saturday since Groundhog Day. “I knew it wouldn’t rain,” Rea said with the brash confidence of the young. “Lots of young businessmen around here,” a beer drinker at another table said. The free enterprise system lives.

REA WAS assigning duties for the committee that would rope off two Virginia Commonwealth University parking lots that would serve as the setting for a fashion show and band concert. The committee to blow up balloons, with the aid of a cylinder of helium [sic]. One thousand balloons in a shrieking variety of colors. “If we only get 500 kids... two to a customer,” Rea said cheerfully.

“I need more people,” said the balloon task force leader.

Twenty-one businesses were involved in the project. Each of them had contributed prizes, and gift certificates had been put into plastic Easter eggs. An egg hunt would be part of the day, and Rea had a message for the committee that would be tucking the eggs away: “Don’t put them in obvious places, but don’t put them were people can get hurt looking for them.”

“We talked about doing this last summer but we never got it together,” Rea said. There had been fresh talk in late February, early March, and it had become airborne. The 21 businesses had anted up $1,500 for advertising, which was handled by Dave DeWitt, proprietor of a new just-out-of-the-Fan, small, idea-oriented agency.

“Demographically, we were aiming for people between 25 and 34,” Rea said. There had been newspaper advertising and spots on youth-oriented radio stations. “We had a surplus late in the week...” Rea said. The decision was made to have a Saturday morning splurge on radio station WRVA. “Hey,” said a late arrival, “I heard Alden Aaroe talking about it.”

“We wanted people to see what we have here,” Rea said. “People who probably close their windows and lock their doors when they drive on Grace Street and want to get through here as quickly as possible.”

Well, yes, there must be those who look upon the 800 and 900 blocks as symbolic of the counterculture, as territory alien to their visions of West End and suburban existence. Last November the precinct serving the 800 and 900 blocks went for George McGovern, by two votes. Not a landslide, but, perhaps, a trend.

NOON WAS approaching. Rea and DeWitt set out on an inspection tour. Parking lot ropes were being put into place. Rock music blared from exotically named shops. The balloon committee was still short on manpower. An agent trotted out of a shop to report, “They’ve got 200 customers ...” And how many would they normally have at this hour of a Saturday?
“They wouldn’t be open,” Rea said.

Grace Street was becoming clogged with cars It would become more clogged. Don’t know how many drivers got out of their cars, but, for a while they were a captive audience making at least vicarious discovery.

Also much pedestrian and bicycle on the sidewalks. Merchants talked of espying strangers, of all ages. A white-haired woman held a prize egg in one hand, a balloon in the other. A middle-aged man had rakishly attached a balloon to the bill of his cap.

The fashion show went on to the accompaniment of semijazz music and popping balloons, most of them held by children. Fashions were subdued. A dress evocative of the 1840s. Long skirts. Loudest applause went to a man who paraded across the stage wearing a loud red backpack. Everybody’s urge to escape?

ON GRACE STREET a sword swallower and human pin cushion was on exhibition. No names please. “My mother ...” he said. He wished to be identified only as a member of “Bunkie Brothers Medicine Show.”

Discounted merchandise on sale included 20-yesr-old British Army greatcoats and a book fetchingly titled “Sensuous Massage.” Sales resistance remained firm.

On Harrison Street a sidewalk artist was creating. A wino, who had somehow escaped the dragnet, lurched across the sidewalk art muttering. “Free balloons ...” In a shop a man said, “I want the skimpiest halter you have ... for my wife.”

On an alley paralleling Grace Street, a man holding a hand camera and early on a VCU class assignment was directing actors. One stationed in a huge trash bin. “Waiting for Godot” revisited? The second, carrying a an umbrella in one hand, popcorn in another, approached the bin. A hand darted out for popcorn. “I ran out of film!” screamed the director.

Everything was being done again. The actor in the bin emerged, seized the umbrella and ran. “Chase him,” from the direct. Actor No. 2 did a Keystone Kop-style double take, jumped and ran. A small crowd that had gathered applauded.

LATE IN the day. Traffic still was at a saturation level. Early settlers said the territory hadn’t seen such congestion since the movie, “Deep Throat.” Rea spoke of objectives smashingly achieved. Euphoric talk from him on another day of discovery in September. City Hall would be petitioned to block off Grace Street.

Rolfe's piece described the neighborhood on what was a day like no other, but it still managed to illustrate the era well, time-capsule-wise. None of the participating enterprises for the promotion are still around and open for business. Many of the buildings are gone.

The original scheme for this merchants’ promotion was to reach outside of usual habits. Most of us were accustomed to promoting to hippies, using media aimed at that audience. We wanted to use establishment media to introduce new people to the range of what was available in the neighborhood.

So, we didn’t buy any time on the hippie radio station -- WGOE. That strategy ruffled the station’s general manager, Mike Murray. He wanted a piece of the action, but I told him we didn’t have the money for any more radio time.

So, Murray volunteered to donate the balloons we were planning to give away. He said he wanted to put the radio station’s logo on them.

Well, the day before the promotion I got a box of balloons from Murray. On one side of each was the WGOE logo. On the other, as a little joke, Murray had printed “Blow Me.” I can remember him giggling.

Naturally, those balloons were refused; we had to buy last-minute replacements. There’s a long version to this story, I’m saving for another day.

Subsequently, Murray was fired for his role in bringing on a Federal Communications Commission investigation of the station’s many violations. Many! Later on he wrote a book about this era -- “Radio Daze.” Murray died in 2010. 

Now five-story VCU buildings cast shadows across the canyon that is the 800 block of West Grace Street. An 11-story building is going up on the 900 block.


Note from Rebus: Some of the merchants in the area did cooperate to run other promotions. In 1976 they petitioned the City of Richmond to block off Grace Street. But rather than adding to the level of safety it seemed to invite rowdiness. Or, maybe the times had simply changed. 

For whatever reasons, the level of undiluted success Discover the Fan enjoyed was never equaled.

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