Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Big Stretch

Note from Rebus: This piece first appeared in STYLE Weekly as a Back Page in 2002. The gracious editor of that page at STYLE in those days sometimes allowed Rea to bury his ledes in mysterious places. 

The Dorothy Parker illustration was done in 2013. 

*

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 at a football game 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-ul,” 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.

Cool has always been elusive, never easy to corral. In the early-1960s, it was essential to grasp that a copycat could never be but so cool.

All rights reserved by the author.  

Friday, March 30, 2012

With 1968 in the Rear-View Mirror

Note from Rebus: In 1968 Rea's brief career in college straddled the transition from Richmond Professional Institute to Virginia Commonwealth University, which was accomplished by the merger of RPI with the Medical College of Virginia. In 1968 few observers, if any, envisioned how much impact VCU's growth would eventually have on Richmond. 

After years of hibernation this story was rewritten in 2012. The illustration was done originally for Richmond.com in 1999. 

*

After no sleep for a couple of nights, while being overcome by a virus, I finally dozed off. Wouldn’t you know it, the ghost of Richard Nixon came to me in a dream. He said he had a message for Mitt Romney.

"Hey, I don't like Romney a bit," I said. So, I told Nixon to quit bothering me, he should just tell Romney himself.

Frowning and shaking his jowls, Nixon said he’d stop pestering me when I promise to never draw another mean caricature of him.

Naturally, I chuckled, “No dice.”

So, Nixon instructed me, “Tell that Romney not to let anybody discourage him from twisting the truth into whatever shape he likes, whenever the hell he feels like it. You tell him that when a Republican President-elect says it during his run for office, it isn't called lying. No sir! It’s called, advertising.”    

Nixon waited for me to laugh. I didn't. Then he wanted to talk about the everlasting genius of his famous Checkers Speech.

To shut his trap, I woke up and ambled toward the bathroom. Covered in sweat, I was hoping my fever had broken.  

Then, walking back toward my bed, I thought about the opinion polls that suggest most Americans are sick and tired of the war in Afghanistan, but they're itching to start a new war with Iran.

No joke.

After the Vietnam War, I foolishly thought I'd never see my country mired in a long, unpopular war again. Of course, before the Bush administration’s power-grabbing reaction to 9/11, I never anticipated such a thing as a never-ending war on a tactic -- the War on Terror.

Thinking about how wrong well-meaning people can be about the justifications of a war reminds me of 1968, a year that began with most Americans supporting their nation’s war in Southeast Asia.

With the still-escalating war in Vietnam as a backdrop, the stormy events of America’s 1968 unfolded the year after San Francisco’s Summer of Love. In 1969 our swashbuckling astronauts first set foot on the moon. My generation remembers 1968 for its wall-to-wall violence.

*

Jan. 23: The USS Pueblo was seized on the high seas by North Korean forces; at least that’s the story I got. At the time I was in the Navy and I had little doubt we would rescue the Pueblo’s crew, even if it meant another war.

Subsequently, as captives, the Pueblo’s 83 men endured an ordeal that was shocking to an American public that had naively thought its Super Power status meant such things could not happen.

Jan. 30: The Tet Offensive began, as the shadowy Viet Cong flexed its muscles and blurred battle lines with simultaneous assaults in many parts of South Vietnam. Even the American embassy in Saigon was attacked.

Mar. 16: Some 500 Vietnamese villagers -- women, children and old men (animals, too) -- were killed by American soldiers on patrol in what came to be known as the My Lai Massacre. However, it would be another 20 months before investigative journalist Seymour Hersh would break the horrifying story of the covered-up massacre, via the Associated Press wire service.

Mar. 31: Facing the burgeoning antiwar-driven campaigns of Sen. Eugene McCarthy and Sen. Robert Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson suddenly withdrew from the presidential race, declining to run for reelection by saying, “I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination...”

Apr. 4: America’s most respected civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots followed in cities coast-to-coast. The bitterness that remained after the dust settled was scary.

In Richmond, it ended an era. Young adventurous whites who followed music could no longer go in the black clubs they had once patronized. No more Sahara Club for me.

May 13: The USA and North Vietnam began a series of negotiations to end the war in Vietnam that came to be known as the Paris Peace Talks. Ironically, as a backdrop, France, itself, was in chaos. Workers and students had shut down much of the country with a series of strikes. The trains weren’t running, the airports were closed, as were schools, etc.

May 24: On the same day I was discharged from the Navy, Father Philip Berrigan and Thomas Lewis (of Artists Concerned About Vietnam) got sentenced to six years for destroying federal property, stemming from an incident where duck blood was poured over draft files at Baltimore’s Selective Service headquarters.

June 3: Artist Andy Warhol nearly died from wounds received from a gunshot fired by Valerie Solanis. She was a sometime writer and one of the many off-beat characters who had occasionally hung out at Warhol’s famous studio, The Factory. 

June 5: Having just won the California primary, Robert Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan in Los Angeles. The hopes of millions that the Vietnam War would end soon died that night. It’s hard to imagine that Richard Nixon would have been able to defeat Kennedy in the general election. Kennedy's death meant the gravy train being enjoyed by big corporations supplying the war effort would continue to chug along.

June 8: James Earl Ray was arrested in London. Eventually, he was convicted of murdering Martin Luther King. Yet, questions about that crime and Ray's role linger today.

July 1: By an act of the General Assembly which was signed by Gov. Mills Godwin, Virginia Commonwealth University was established by a merger that seemed awkward at the time. The School of the Arts the new university inherited from RPI was already the largest professional art school in the country. The Medical College of Virginia was showing the world how to do heart transplants.

July 23: After watching “2001: A Space Odyssey” at the Westhampton Theatre, I saw The Who play live on stage at the Mosque (now the Altria Theater). Looking at the long line to get into the concert, I was quite surprised at how many hippies there were in Richmond. This was in the period the band was into smashing up its equipment to finish off shows.

The acid I took that day served me well.

Aug. 20: Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush what had been a season of renaissance. As it had been with the construction of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis, talk of World War III being one button-push away was commonplace.

Aug. 28: In Chicago the Democratic convention that selected Vice President Hubert Humphrey to top its ticket melted down. With tear gas in the air and blood in the streets 178 demonstrators/bystanders were arrested. Many were roughed up on live television. As cops clubbed citizens in the streets, CBS reporters Mike Wallace and Dan Rather were punched on the convention floor.

Watching the riots surrounding the Democratic convention on television, I began wondering if those who were saying our society was coming unglued might be right. Consequently, for the first time my political ideas were aired out in a newspaper, when my letter to the editor was published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. That experience began a love affair with seeing my name in print.

Oct. 18: At the Summer Olympics at Mexico City, American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the medal ceremony for the 200 meter race. Smith and Carlos wore black gloves (and other symbolic accouterments) for a protest gesture that was widely seen as a “black power” salute.

Nov. 5: Richard Nixon (depicted above) narrowly defeated Hubert Humphrey. Although Humphrey, himself, was for peace, out of loyalty he refused to denounce Johnson’s failing war policy. It cost Humphrey dearly.

Also elected that day was Shirley Chisholm from Brooklyn. She was the first black female to serve in the House of Representatives.

Dec. 21: The first manned space mission to escape Earth’s gravity and orbit the moon began with the launching of Apollo 8.

Dec. 24: After having its way with them for 11 months, torture and mock executions included, North Korea released all of the members of the Pueblo’s crew but kept the ship. The U.S. Navy seemed to blame the Pueblo’s captain, Commander Lloyd M. "Pete" Bucher, for the entire painful fiasco. Mercifully, the Secretary of the Navy called off any official punishment.

After 1968, the general public’s perception of the antiwar movement’s protests as being unpatriotic kaleidoscoped into something else. In June of 1969 LIFE Magazine published “The Faces of the American Dead in Vietnam: One Week’s Toll.” It was a ten-page story that featured photographs and the names of 242 men who had died in the war in one week.

The effect was dramatic. Looking at all those hopeful young faces was too much to bear, especially when everyone knew each coming week was going to claim the lives of another two or three hundred young men.

In 1969 the Hawks' picture of how a victory in Vietnam would look was rapidly fading into a blur. With 1968 in the rear-view mirror, the Doves were beginning to prevail in the propaganda struggle ... the bloody war went on, anyway.


All rights reserved by the author.  

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

It Paid to Advertise


Note from Rebus: This story begins a few weeks after the legendary Woodstock Music & Art Fair took place.

*

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. As I wanted to be a professional cartoonist/writer and eventually make films, selling sandwiches and beer seemed more like a step in that direction than continuing to sell janitorial supplies.

So, when a friend, Fred Awad, offered me work at the restaurant he was operating that put my coat-and-tie job behind me. 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 dive 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.

Fred and I were convinced the burgeoning baby boomer bar crowd in the Fan District needed a place to enjoy cold beer, hot food, live music, a psychedelic light show and the edgy spectacle of go-go girls dancing topless. At this time, in 1969, topless 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.

With the help of a few friends it took us a couple of weeks to paint the interior flat black, build the stage and the light show apparatus together. We also painted the front window panes that faced Broad Street in Dayglo colors and put in 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 and I was making more money than I had in my previous job. 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, I've never had much interest in the places that feature topless dancing since the time of the Bearded Brothers.

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, I did my first professional writing when I began penning commercials and dreaming up promotions for my advertising clients.

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


All rights reserved by the author.  

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

May 9, 1970: Living in the Moment


Note from Rebus: On Thursday, April 30, 1970, President Richard Nixon went on television to announce that he had authorized the invasion of Cambodia. During the Saturday morning nine days later Rea drove his baby blue 1956 Cadillac to the demonstration in Washington D.C. he describes in this story. To document what would play out that day Rea took his new Ricoh 35mm single lens reflex.


Without much in the way of a plan two friends rode the 100 miles with Rea. Thousands of their fellow baby boomers did much the same. For the moment, it was the only place to be. The outpouring came in response to attacks by authorities on anti-war protests that had followed Nixon's announcement. Four students had been shot to death on the Kent State campus; two more students were killed at Jackson State. On Saturday, May 9, the demonstrators' collective sense of outrage was focused on Nixon.

*

The blistering heat added to the growing sense in the air that anything could happen. Before the program of speakers and singers began, as the burgeoning crowd was being funneled into the grassy ellipse south of the White House — the designated demonstration area — the morning’s temperature had already reached the upper 90s.

The White House grounds and Lafayette Park were surrounded by DC transit system buses, parked snugly end-to-end. Cops in riot gear were stationed inside the bus-wall perimeter every few yards.


Estimates ranged widely but most reports characterized the size of the crowd at well over 100,000. In those days crowd-estimators frequently let their politics color their numbers, so there may have been 200,000 there. Home-made signs were everywhere, including a sprinkling of placards that denounced the mostly young war protesters. The smell of burning pot gave the gathering a Rock ‘n’ Roll festival feel, too.

Unlike the other large anti-war demonstrations of that era, which were planned for weeks in advance, if not months, this time it all fell together spontaneously. Many of them had never before marched in protest or support of war, or anything else, had felt moved to drop whatever they were doing, to set out for Washington, D.C. — to live in the moment.

As a convoy of olive drab military vehicles drove into the park area many in the crowd booed. When it turned out the uniformed troops were bringing in bottled water for the thirsty, the booing stopped. Dehydration was a problem that cloudless day.


After the last speaker’s presentation, the ever-present police stood by watching as thousands of citizens spilled out of the park area, to stretch a line of humanity all the way around the wall of buses. The idea in the air was that whether he liked it or not President Richard Nixon, who stayed hidden from view inside the White House, would at least hear the crowd’s anti-war chants.

The demonstration flowed north, then west, from one block to the next. Long lenses peered down from the roofs of those distinctively squat DeeCee buildings. Fully-equipped soldiers were crammed into basements, visible in the doorways, awaiting further orders.

Many of them must have been scared they might be ordered to fire upon their fellow Americans. If they weren't afraid that could happen, who knows what they were thinking?


Hippies who had been wading in a fountain to cool off scaled a statue to get a better look. A few minutes later a cheer went up because a determined kid had managed to get on top of a bus to wave a Viet Cong flag. When the cops hauled the flag-waving disposable hero off, a commotion ensued, briefly ... only to fade into the larger commotion.  

Soon the scent of tear gas spiced the air...


The next day I was back in Richmond for yet another gathering of my generation. Staged in Monroe Park, Cool-Aid Sunday featured plenty of live music. Information booths and displays were set up by the Fan Free Clinic, Jewish Family Services, Rubicon (a dry-out clinic for drug-users), the local Voter Registrar’s office and Planned Parenthood.

Although it was not exactly a political rally the crowd assembled in Monroe Park, while much smaller, was rather similar in its overall look to the one the day before in Washington.

As I remember it, there were no reports about anyone being seriously injured at Saturday’s tense anti-war demonstration. Then, ironically, Wilmer Curtis Donivan Jr. -- a 17-year-old boy -- was killed on Sunday in the park in Richmond, when a four-tier cast iron fountain he had scaled suddenly toppled.

The photograph of Donivan falling to his death that ran on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch on the next day, May 11, 1970, is one I’ll never forget.

No doubt, the convergence of strong feelings from the extraordinary week that had preceded Cool-Aid Sunday had set the scene. Shortly before Donivan fell, I remember seeing him on the fountain, seemingly caught up in much the same spirit as the hippies climbing on statues the day before.

Without that week’s unique momentum Donivan may not have felt quite so moved to demonstrate his conquest of that old fountain. Witnesses said he was rocking it back and forth, just before it crumbled.

The way that Sunday afternoon’s be-in ended with tragedy was burned into the memory of hundreds of young Americans who had gathered outdoors, to celebrate being alive and free to pursue their happiness peacefully.

In those days the USA was becoming ever more bitterly divided over the Vietnam War. Every night on the televised news the death counts were announced -- numbers appeared next to little flags on the screen that represented the armed forces at war. It was a time in which living in the moment was killing off the young and unlucky … wherever they were.

All rights reserved by the author.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Chapter Two: The Devils & the Details


Note from Rebus: A version of this story appeared in SLANT in 1987. It has been rewritten several times. In 2011 a version similar to this one was published by the James River Film Journal.

The avalanche of eye-opening movies that tumbled onto the somewhat cocky, painfully local kid who was the Biograph's first manager was an education for him. That, with some of the new associations Rea made, was an intensive schooling in popular culture. This story spotlights a hell of a prank and some behind-the-scene aspects of the Biograph’s single-auditorium history, before its 1974 makeover into a twin cinema. 

The Biograph opened in an era that seemed ready to give the baby boomers who were becoming adults whatever they wanted.    

*

My first good look at what was to become the Biograph Theatre was in July of 1971. Having gotten a tip from a friend that the DeeCee-based owners were considering the hiring of a local manager, I went to the construction site chasing the opportunity.

That day I met David Levy, one of six men who owned the repertory cinema operation that would be housed in the cinderblock building going up at 814 West Grace Street. Of the six, Levy would prove to have the deepest knowledge of film history, as well as the most hands-on knowledge of how to run a movie theater. At 33, Levy, a Harvard trained lawyer, was 10 years my senior.

A couple of months later I was offered what I saw as the best job in my neighborhood, the Fan District. Without hesitation I decided to quit my job at WRNL, a local radio station. The adventure that followed surely went beyond any expectations I might have had about becoming the manager of the Biograph Theatre.

On the evening of February 11, 1972, the venture was launched with a gem of a party. The feature presented that evening was a delightful French war-mocking comedy — “King of Hearts” (1966); Genevieve Bujold was dazzling opposite the droll Alan Bates.

In the lobby, with its cinemascopic view of Grace Street through a glass front, the dry champagne flowed steadily. A trendy art show was hanging on the lobby walls. Hundreds of equally trendy invited guests were there. The local press was all over what was an important event for that bohemian commercial strip, just a stone's throw from the Virginia Commonwealth University campus.

My stint at the Biograph lasted until the summer of 1983. It would be 37 years before the next new cinema would open in Richmond — Movieland, in February of 2009.

*

During the 1960s, college film societies thrived. Knowing film was cool; it could get you laid. By the 1970s, many of the kids who had grown up watching old movies on television had learned to worship important movie directors.

The fashion of the day elevated certain foreign movies, selected American classics, a few films from the underground scene, etc., to a level above most of their more accessible Hollywood counterparts. Mixed and matched in double features and packaged into little festivals, such was at the heart of a repertory cinema’s style. In that pre-cable TV age, much of the current-release domestic product was viewed by the film aficionado in-crowd as laughingly naive or hopelessly corrupt.

Although none of them had any experience in Show Biz a group of five men, who were all about Levy's age, opened Georgetown’s Biograph Theatre (1967-96) in 1967. They were smart guys who caught a wave. A few years later those same owners (plus one more guy) were looking to expand. In Richmond’s Fan District they thought they had spotted the perfect situation for a second repertory-style cinema in a neighborhood that was being touted then by local boosters as about-to-blossom-into-another-Georgetown.

Local players, filthy rich Morgan Massey and deal-maker Graham “Squirrel” Pembrooke, put up the building from scratch for the Georgetown group. Significantly, Pembroke managed to get a 20-year lease for $3,000-a-month rent guaranteed by a federal program for at-risk neighborhoods, in case the concept didn’t fly.
Thus, when the Biograph closed in 1987 the building’s owners were then able to collect the rent from Uncle Sam until 1992.

Knowing they could walk away easily, if the business fizzled, the new Biograph’s creators — chiefly Levy and Alan Rubin (a geologist turned artist) — inked the deal and borrowed money to buy used seats and projection booth equipment, which included ancient Peerless carbon arc lamps to back up a pair of rugged Simplex 35 mm projectors.

The Biograph’s programs, printed schedules with film notes, covered about six weeks each. Program No. 1 was heavy on documentaries, featuring the work of Emile de Antonio and D.A. Pennebaker, among others. Also on that program were several titles by popular European directors, including Michaelangelo Antonioni, Costa-Gavras, Federico Fellini, and Roman Polanski.

After the opening flurry, with long lines to every show, it was surprising and disappointing when the crowds shrank dramatically in the third and fourth months of operation.

As VCU students were a substantial portion of the theater’s initial crowd the slump was chalked off to exams and summer vacation. In that context the first summer of operation was opened to experimentation aimed at drawing customers from beyond the neighborhood.

The brightest light in our mix of celluloid offerings was a project I had been put in charge of developing — Friday and Saturday midnight shows. Their popularity was waxing.

By trial and error we learned it took an offbeat movie that lent itself to promotion; early successes were “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), “Yellow Submarine” (1968), “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” (1971), and an underground twin bill of “Chafed Elbows” (1967) and “Scorpio Rising” (1964).

With significant input from the theater’s promotion-savvy assistant manager, Chuck Wrenn, off-the-wall ad campaigns were designed in-house to set the tone for the somewhat anti-establishment movies that seemed to perform best at the box office. There were two essential elements to those promotions:

1. Wacky radio spots had to be created and run on WGOE, a popular AM station aimed directly at the hippie listening audience.

2. Distinctive handbills were posted on utility poles and bulletin boards, and in shop windows in high-traffic locations.

Dave DeWitt, now the widely read guru of hot food, produced the radio commercials, many of which were considered to be rather humorous in their day (if I do say so myself). In his studio, Dave and I frequently collaborated on the making of those spots over six packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon.


On September 13 a George McGovern-for-president benefit was staged at the Biograph. Former Gov. Doug Wilder, then a state senator, spoke. We showed "Millhouse," a documentary that put President Richard Nixon in a bad light. Yes, I had been warned by some well-meaning people, supposedly in the know, that taking sides in politics was dead wrong for a show business entity in Richmond. Especially, taking the liberal side.

Happily, my bosses and I blew such advice off and the theater was used over the years lots of times to raise money and awareness for causes.

Also in September “Performance” (1970), an overwrought but well-crafted musical melodrama — starring Mick Jagger — packed the theater at midnight a couple of weekends in a row. Then a campy, docu-drama called “Reefer Madness” (1936) sold out four consecutive weekends.

To follow “Reefer Madness” what was then a little-known X-rated comedy, “Deep Throat” (1972), was booked as a midnight show. As the feature ran only an hour, master prankster Luis Buñuel’s surrealistic classic short film, “Un Chien Andalou” (1929), was added to the bill, just for grins.

Although it should be noted that like "Deep Throat," Buñuel’s first film was also called totally obscene in its day, this may have been the only time that particular pair ever shared a billing ... anywhere.

A few weeks after “Deep Throat” began playing in Richmond, a judge in Manhattan ruled it was obscene and suddenly the national media became fascinated with the film. Its star, Linda Lovelace, appeared on network TV talk shows. Watching Johnny Carson tiptoe around the premise of her celebrated “talent” made for some giggly moments.

Eventually, to be sure of getting in to see the midnight show, patrons began showing up as much as an hour before show time. Standing in line on the sidewalk for the spicy midnight show turned into a party. There were nights the line resembled a tailgating scene at a pro football game. A determined band of Jesus Freaks frequently stood across the street issuing bullhorn-amplified warnings of hellfire to the jolly set waiting in the midnight show line that stretched west on Grace Street.

Playing for 17 consecutive weekends, at midnight only, “Deep Throat” grossed over $30,000. That was more dough than the entire production budget of what was America’s first skin-flick blockbuster.

The midnight show’s grosses conveniently made up for the disappointing performance of an eight-week package of venerable European classics, including ten titles by the celebrated Ingmar Bergman. The same package of art house workhorses played extremely well up in Georgetown, underlining what was becoming a painfully underestimated contrast in the two markets, just 100 miles apart.

Washington was a great movie town, Richmond was not.

Even more telling, over the spring a series of imported first-run movies crashed and burned. The centerpiece of the festival was the premiere of the Buñuel masterpiece, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972). In what Levy and I then regarded as a coup, gambling it would win the award, we booked it in advance to open in Richmond two or three days after the 1973 Oscars were to be handed out. We guessed right, it took the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, but it flopped in Richmond, anyway.

Management was more than bummed out, we were shocked.

Money had been put up in advance to secure a print, which was in demand because it was doing brisk business in most other cities. The failure of this particular booking and the festival that surrounded it forced a serious reassessment of what had been the original plan.

To stay alive Richmond’s Biograph needed to make adjustments.

After much fretting on the phone line between “M” Street and Grace Street the Faustian deal was struck — another film from the director of “Deep Throat,” Gerard Damiano, was booked. However, this time the film’s distributor imposed terms calling for “The Devil in Miss Jones” (1973) to play as a first-run picture at regular show times, rather than as a midnight-only attraction.


At this point no one could have anticipated what we were setting in motion by agreeing to expand the availability of “adult movies” beyond the midnight hour. For the first time, the promotional copy for an XXX-rated feature was included on a Biograph program and in newspaper ads.

Then an aggressive young TV newsman took Biograph Program No. 12 to Richmond's new Commonwealth’s Attorney, Aubrey Davis. The reporter asked Davis what his office was going to do about the Biograph’s brazen plan to run such a notorious film, especially in light of the then-freshly-minted Miller Decision on obscenity by the Supreme Court. (Miller basically allowed communities to set their own standards for obscenity.)

Eventually, the provocateur got what he wanted from the prosecutor — who had been on the job for just a month — a quote that would fly as an anti-smut sound bite. The other local broadcasters jumped on the bandwagon the next day. By the mid-summer evening “The Devil in Miss Jones” opened in Richmond it had already become a well-covered story.

Every show sold out and a wild ride began: Matinees were added the next day. On the third day all the matinees sold out, too. The fourth day the WRVA-AM traffic-copter hovered over the Biograph in drive time, giving live updates on the length of the line waiting to get into the theater. The airborne announcer helpfully reminded his listeners of the remaining show times for that night.

Well, that did it!

The following morning a local circuit court judge asked for a personal look at what was clearly the talk of the town. Management cooperated with his honor’s wishes and the print was schlepped down to Neighborhood Theaters’ private screening room, at 9th and Main Streets, for the convenience of the judge. We assumed he wanted to avoid being seen by curious reporters entering the wicked Biograph.

As Judge James M. Lumpkin admittedly hadn’t been out to see a movie in a theater since sometime in the 1950s, this particular comedy stag film rubbed him in the worst way. Literally red-faced after the screening, the outraged judge looked at Levy and me like we were from Mars, maybe Pluto.

Lumpkin promptly filed a complaint with the Commonwealth’s Attorney and set a date for issuing a Temporary Restraining Order, in an attempt to halt further showings as soon as possible.

The next day a press conference was staged in the theater’s lobby to make an announcement. Every news-gathering outfit in town bought the premise and sent a representative. They acted as if what was obviously a publicity stunt was actually 24-carat news, because it served their purpose to play along. After DeWitt — who was then representing the theater as its ad agent — laid out the ground rules and introduced me to the working press, I read a prepared statement for the cameras and microphones.

The gist of it was that based on demand — sellout crowds — the crusading Biograph planned to fight the TRO in court. Furthermore, the first-run engagement of “The Devil in Miss Jones” would be extended — it would be held over for a second week.

During the lively Q & A session that followed, when Dave scolded an eager scribe for going too far with a follow-up question, it was tough duty holding back the laughing fit that would surely have broken the spell we trying to cast over the reporters.

The TRO stuck, because Lumpkin still had all the say-so. “The Devil in Miss Jones” grossed about $40,000 in the momentous nine-day run the injunction halted.

Technically, the legal action was against the movie, itself, rather than anyone at the Biograph. Which obviously suited me just fine. The trial opened on Halloween Day. Judge Lumpkin, whose original complaint to the Commonwealth’s Attorney had set the process in motion, served as the trial judge, too.

Objections to that quizzical affront to justice fell on Lumpkin’s stone cold deaf ears.

On November 13, 1973, Lumpkin put all on notice: If you dare to exhibit this “filth” to the public, then stand by for certain criminal prosecution. So it was that “The Devil” was banned by a judge in Richmond, Virginia.


The plot to answer the judge's decree was hatched in early January of 1974 in my office, next to the projection booth on the second story. Having finished the box-office paperwork, your truth-telling narrator was browsing through a stack of newly acquired 16mm film catalogs and probably enjoying a cold PBR longneck. As it was after-hours, the scent of recently-burned marijuana may have been in the air when a particular entry — “The Devil and Miss Jones” — jumped off the page.

It was instantly obvious that the title for that 1941 RKO light comedy had been the inspiration for the X-rated movie’s title — “The Devil in Miss Jones.”

It should be noted that the public had yet to be subjected to the endless puns and referential lowbrowisms the skin-flick industry would eventually use for titles. This was still in what might be called the seminal days of the adult picture business.

The plan called for using the upcoming second anniversary as camouflage. DeWitt and the theater’s resourceful assistant manager, Bernie Hall, were in on the early scheming. Then, in a deft stroke — suggested by Alan Rubin — a Disney nature short subject, “Beaver Valley” (1950), was added to the birthday program.

The stunt’s biggest problem was security. The whole scheme rested on the precarious notion that the one-word difference in the two titles, which spoke of the Devil's proximity to Miss Jones, wouldn’t be noticed. It was something like hiding in plain sight. The staff fully understood that the slightest whiff of a ruse would mean our undoing. Thus, absolutely no one outside our group could be told anything.

No one.

Subsequently, the theater announced in a press release on DeWitt’s letterhead that its second anniversary celebration would offer a free admission show. The titles, “The Devil and Miss Jones” and “Beaver Valley,” were listed with no accompanying film notes; free beer and birthday cake would be available as long as they lasted.

Somehow, a rumor began to circulate that the Biograph might be out-maneuvering the grasp of the court’s decree by not charging admission. The rumor found its way into legit print — the street gossip section of The Richmond Mercury. That was sweet.

The busier-than-ever staff fielded all inquires, in person or over the telephone, by politely reciting the official spiel, “We can only tell you the titles and the show times. Yes, the admission will be free. No further details are available.”

The evening before the event the phones were ringing off the hook. The anticipation was fun, reporters were snooping about. One, in particular, seemed to be clawing his way toward the key. In the lobby, as I manned my familiar post at the turnstile, he said to me, “It has to have something to do with the title.”

He was getting too close; to fend him off I had to take a chance. So I told the guy that what was going to happen the next day would be a far better news story than the story of spoiling it the day before ... if there really was a trick to it.

Gambling that it would work, I asked him to leave it alone and trust that once it all unfolded he wouldn't regret it. Fortunately, the newsman said OK and kept his word. His identity must remain a secret.

Up until the box office opened no one else outside our tight circle appeared to have an inkling of what was about to happen. Amazing as it may sound, the caper’s security was airtight. It was absolutely beautiful teamwork!

The line for the Biograph's special anniversary screening/party began forming before lunch. As the afternoon wore on, with thousands of people lining up, it was suggested to me more than once that we could eventually have a riot on our hands. What would happen if we lost control of the situation?

Nobody knew. That’s what made it so exhilarating!

The box-office for the 6:30 p.m. show opened at 6 p.m. By then the line stretched more than three-quarters of the way around the block. It took every bit of a half-hour to fill our 500-seat auditorium. No doubt, we turned away at least six or seven times that number.

The sense of anticipation in the air was electric as the house lights in the auditorium began to fade. Outside, on the sidewalk, hundreds of people stayed in line for the second show at 9 p.m.

As the prank unfolded in layers only about a third of the crowd stayed through both movies. Afterward, there were lots of folks who said it was the funniest thing that had ever happened in Richmond. Of course, a few hard-heads got peeved. But since admission had been free, as well as the beer and cake, well, there was only so much they could say.

The rush that came from living in the eye of that day’s storm was intense, to say the least. Gloating over the utter success of the gag, as the staff and assorted friends finished off the second keg, was as good as it gets in the prank business.

Meanwhile, thoroughly amused reporters were filing their stories on the hoax. The next day wire services and broadcast networks picked up the story. And, the Biograph Theatre returned to business as usual with an Andy Warhol double feature.

*

A few days later NPR’s All Things Considered went so far as to compare the Biograph’s prank to Orson Welles’ mammoth 1938 radio hoax. Which was fun to hear. Fortunately, I had the good sense to tell the interviewer that in comparison our stunt was "strictly small potatoes."

Later that same month the staff went back to work on “Matinee Madcap,” a 16mm film project in production. Trent Nicholas, then one of the theater’s ushers and later an assistant manager, shared the directing credit with me. The rest of the staff and several of the Biograph’s regulars appeared as players. The plot, calling for a good deal of slapstick chase-scene footage, conveniently set all the action in the movie theater.

Although post-prank life seemed to fall back into a familiar routine, big changes were on the horizon. With Watergate revelations in the air and the Vietnam War winding down, the interest in politics and social causes on American campuses began to evaporate. VCU was no different. In the spring of 1974 “streaking” replaced anti-war demonstrations as college students’ favorite expression of defiance.

Six months after the theater’s second anniversary splash, the same month that Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, the Biograph closed down for a month to be converted into a twin cinema. With construction workers toiling 24 hours a day that accomplishment remains a story of extremes, all to itself. Some of them were gobbling up white crosses like they were Sno-Caps or Jujyfruits. The middle-of-the-night Liar's Poker games with 15 guys playing were outrageous. But all that is a story for another day.

After the construction work was completed, with two booths and a hallway between them, automating the change-overs from one 35mm projector to the other was essential to controlling costs. Among other things that necessitated switching to Xenon lamps -- high intensity bulbs that could be ignited by switches -- to replace our out-of-date, manually-operated carbon arc lamps.

Not long after that change David Levy split with his other partners. That left four of the original six Richmond Biograph owners still on board. Levy (who died in 2004) went on to distribute alternative films regionally, plus he bought and operated The Key on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown.

The manager’s job at the Biograph in Richmond became more complicated with two screens to fill. The whole repertory cinema mission was becoming blurred with the passing of time. Following the accumulation of 1974's events, a year of many changes, much of what had appeared to be among life’s absolutes became steadily less clear for the dreamer who had started out believing he could change Richmond by screening great films.

As the edgy punk style began replacing the hippie culture that had ruled the Grace Street strip for the better part of a decade, none of us who were working at the Biograph Theatre had an inkling that the zenith of the repertory cinema era, nationally, was in the rear-view mirror.


In the spirit of a postscript, here's a personal note:

At the press conference in the Biograph’s lobby, I asked for the public to weigh in. Send me your opinions, I entreated my local news audience. I framed it with questions like: Are we right or wrong to fight the Temporary Restraining Order? Is this a freedom of speech issue, or not? Who should decide what movies you can see?

Eventually I got over 100 letters, cards, etc. Some were mailed to the theater, others dropped off. Most were supportive but not all. There were a few letters that were quite entertaining. So, I collected the best of them in an cardboard box (I don't remember what brand of candy came in the box), figuring they might be useful down the road.

Into the same box went clippings about the tumultuous run of “The Devil in Miss Jones” and the Biograph’s news-making days in court. Later on, several stories about the prank from various newspapers from out of town were tossed in.

Then, about a year after the hoopla, the prankster suddenly changed his mind. Caught up in a bad mood — caused in some part by a slipped disc that was dogging me at the time — I sat in my office festering over the idea that no matter how hard I ever worked to put over the greatest art films, most people in Richmond would simply ignore them.

After the twinning of the theater I couldn't watch the movies through a window in my office, anymore. That window was a much-missed advantage to the one-screen setup. A year of prank-driven attaboys had suddenly added up -- I‘d had my fill of it. The annoying thought of being known mostly for my connection to a somewhat creepy, even pretentious, porno movie wasn't setting well with me.

At 26, perhaps I already suspected the Terry Rea of the future might develop an embarrassing tendency to wallow in nostalgia. Just like that, I decided to play a time trick on my future-self by deliberately throwing away those artifacts I’d surely want back … some day.

Perhaps the bitter need my precious Biograph had developed to show trashy movies, in order to be allowed to also show important movies, grossed me out a little extra on that particular winter’s afternoon.

Walking away from the dumpster and crossing the cobblestone alley behind the theater, I laughed at what I had just done; the moment is still vivid.

When I think back about what an effort it took just to keep the Biograph Theatre's doors open in those days, it seems like it was all an elaborate stunt … pranks for the memories.

All rights reserved by the author.   

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Chapter Three: Drake the Flake

Note from Rebus: In 1992 the news from California was shocking. An annoying creep Rea had banned from the Biograph in 1972 had gone on a murder spree. Rea recognized Drake as soon as he saw the photograph in the newspaper. It was a face he had not forgotten.     

*                            

In the first months of operation a series of annoyances led up to Lynwood C. “Woody” Drake being literally thrown out of the Biograph Theatre. Owing to his talent for nuisance, the staff had already dubbed him “Drake the Flake” before he landed chest-first on Grace Street.

Although Drake resembled many of the hippie-style hustlers of the times, it was his ineptness at putting over the scam that set him apart. Every time he darkened our door trouble ensued. If he didn't try to beat us out of the price of admission or a cup of popcorn, there would be a problem of some sort in the auditorium and so forth.

His ruse was usually rather transparent. Then, when confronted, he'd go into a fit of denial that implied a threat. Eventually that led to the incident in Shafer Court, on VCU's campus, when Drake choked a female student, Susan Kuney.

Susan was also a cashier at the Biograph. To be fair to history, I need to mention that Susan had the greatest walk I can remember. She glided across a room in a way that usually caught everyone's attention; it was fun to watch people watching her walk.  

That evening Drake showed up at the theater to see the movie, just like nothing had happened. Shoving his way past those already in line, he demanded to be admitted next. The argument that erupted became the last straw. Drake the Flake was physically removed from the building and he banned from the Biograph. He was the first to gain that distinction.

The next afternoon, as we were about to open for business, Drake made what would be his final appearance at the Biograph. He burst through the lobby's exit doors and ran around the lobby, waving his arms and testifying like a man possessed. He claimed I had no good reason to have humiliated him. Then he stopped suddenly to issue a finger-pointing death threat at me. After that Drake left in a hurry, without any further persuasion from me.  

Although I tried to act unruffled by the incident, it made me uncomfortable. In spite of the blustery anger of Drake's words, there was a disturbing emptiness in his eyes. For a moment he had pulled me into his world of haunts. It was scary and memorable.

Although I never saw Drake again, I did hear a few stories about how he liked to beat up women. So, I felt even more certain I'd done the right thing to run him off. 

On Nov. 8, 1992, 20 years later, a revenge-driven crime spree in California ended, as the troublesome character I remembered as Drake the Flake blew out his brains with a .32 caliber revolver.

Shortly before Drake ended his life, he woke up a 60-year-old woman, a former landlord, by smacking her in the head with a blackjack. She scrambled to hide under her bed and miraculously lived to tell the story. In the 11 hours before taking his own life, Drake, who went to Thomas Jefferson HS in Richmond, had shot and killed six people in a little town in San Luis Obispo County.

The lurid news reports said that Lynwood Drake, who had always fancied himself an actor, had made a list for himself of people he intended to pay back, going all the way back to Virginia. It came as no surprise to read that he had lived through a tortured childhood. Drake wore theatrical grease paint on his face when he committed his murders.

As the swarming cops closed in on him, Drake the Flake squeezed the trigger one last time and punched his own ticket to hell.


All rights reserved by the author.  

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Fan Free Funnies

 

Note from Rebus: During the spring semester of 1973 the student newspaper at Virginia Commonwealth University published three tabloid supplements that were inspired by the underground comix of that age. The first of these issues featured my breakthrough role in an edgy strip in which Rea presented me for the first time as just Rebus, an everyman character apart from the Biograph spokesdog persona.    


*

The timing was perfect for Fan Free Funnies, as this was the zenith of the hippie era in the Fan District neighborhood VCU's academic campus is part of.  

In the Fan, in the early-1970s, there was a group of young, mostly VCU-trained artists, who created paintings and prints in a style that owed much to old animated cartoons. Some of them were also making short films in Super 8 and 16mm and hung out at the Biograph.

Due to his well-honed talent for drawing cartoons, the most obvious of this pack was Phil Trumbo. “We were all influenced by the amazing work of sixties underground cartoonists," said Trumbo, “like Robert Crumb, Rick Griffith, S. Clay Wilson and Trina Robbins.”

R. Crumb was the most celebrated of the underground artists from the days when cartoonists bitterly lampooning the tastes and values of middle class America were having a noticeable impact on popular culture. Spontaneously, Crumb launched the movement in 1968, selling his Zap Comix No. 1 out of a baby carriage on San Francisco sidewalks. 

"Ed Slipek, the editor of VCU's student newspaper, Commonwealth Times, approached me to help create an underground-comix-style supplement,” said Trumbo. “I suppose he contacted me because I had done some independent comics and was exhibiting paintings influenced by comics imagery.” 

Slipek asked each of the invited artists to create a full page, drawn to proportion, in black and white. Some submitted a page of images set within traditional comic strip frames; others wandered into loose, more avant-garde styles.

For me, it meant creating the first strip for Rebus. Before Rebus even had a name, he had been appearing in my flyers touting midnight shows at the Biograph Theatre. I went to school on how R. Crumb used Mr. Natural as a spokesman, sometimes like a carnival barker.  But Rebus wasn't a holy man, he was a schlemiel with a dog's head.

Not long after the first issue of Fan Free Funnies came out, my three-year-old daughter, Katey, asked me a question. Pointing at her most recent birthday card pinned to her bedroom wall -- with Rebus on it -- she asked, “Is Rebus real?”

I shrugged. “What do you mean?”

She said, “Like Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck.”

“Sure,” I said, “Rebus is real. But only the cool people know about him.”

Phil left Richmond in 1984 to pursue a career in animation, which eventually led him to the West Coast and being the Art Director of Entertainment Media at Hidden City Games. Along the way he picked up an Emmy Award for his art direction on Pee Wee’s Playhouse. 

Charles Vess (VCU 1974) was another of the artists who participated in the Fan Free Funnies project, who has made a name as an award-winning illustrator. Vess’ art has been seen in Heavy Metal and National Lampoon. He has worked for comic book publishers such as Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and Epic.

The other featured FFF artists were: Bruce Barnes, Damian Bennett, Eric Bowman, Michael Cody, Jeff Davis, Joanne Fridley, Stanley Garth, Gregg Kemp, John McWillaims, Nancy Mead, Dale Milford, Bill Nelson, Trent Nicholas, Alan R. O’Neal, Ragan Reaves and Verlon Vrana.

“Fan Free Funnies was a really diverse collection, representing vastly different graphic styles and inventive, experimental approaches to sequential storytelling,” said Trumbo.

Note: Scans of the three issues of Fan Free Funnies are available at VCU Libraries Digital Collections.


All rights reserved by the author. 

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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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Screening 'The Harder They Come'

Note from Rebus: As Rea came to the Biograph from the radio business he felt at ease using that medium as a promotional tool. If the movie was about music, all the better. In this case, before the era of giant corporations owning hundreds of stations and programming uniformity, a locally-programmed daytimer's audience made all the difference.   

*

In the fall of 1973, David Levy, then the most active managing partner/owner of the Biograph Theatres in Georgetown and Richmond, asked me to look at a film to evaluate its potential. From time to time he did that for various reasons. In this case he had a new 35mm print of “The Harder They Come” shipped to me. I managed the Biograph in Richmond.

In those days we had frequent after-hours screenings of films we came by, one way or another. Usually on short notice, the word would go out that we would be watching a movie at a certain time. These gatherings were essentially impromptu movie parties. A couple of times it was 1940s and '50s 16mm boxing films from a private collection.

Sometimes prints of films that were in town to play at another venue, say a film society, would mysteriously appear in our booth. In such cases the borrowed flicks were always returned before they were missed ... so I was told.

Although I don’t remember any moments, in particular, from that first screening of “The Harder They Come”, I do recall the gist of my telephone conversation with Levy the next day. After telling him how much I liked the Jamaican movie, he asked me how I would promote it.

Well, I was ready for that question. I had smoked it over thoroughly with a few friends during and after the screening. So, I told David we ought to have a free, open-to-the-public, sneak preview of the movie. Most importantly, we should use radio exclusively to promote the screening. Because of the significance of the radio campaigns for the Biograph's midnight shows, over the last year, he liked the idea right away.

In this time, long before the era of giant corporations owning hundreds of stations, a locally-programmed daytime radio station with a weak signal played a significant role in what success was enjoyed at the Biograph. For a while we had a sweet deal -- a dollar-a-holler -- with WGOE-AM, the most popular station for the under-35 set in the Fan District and environs. In the first half of the 1970s, the station at the top of the dial, 1590, owned the hippie market.

Subsequently, on a Friday morning in November the deejays at WGOE began reading announcements of a free showing of “The Harder They Come” that would take place at the Biograph that afternoon at 3 p.m. Then they would play a cut by Jimmy Cliff, the film’s star, from the soundtrack. This pattern was continued maybe three times an hour, leading up to the time of the screening.

“The Harder They Come” (1972): 120 minutes. Color. Directed by Perry Henzell; Cast: Jimmy Cliff, Janet Bartley, Carl Bradshaw. In this Jamaican production, Cliff plays Ivan, a pop star/criminal on the lam. The music of Cliff, The Maytals, The Melodians and Desmond Dekker is featured.

Of course, Reggae music was being heard in Richmond before our free screening, but it was still on the periphery of popular culture. As I recall, some 300 people showed up for the screening and the movie was extremely well received.

In previous runs in other markets, “The Harder They Come” had been treated more or less as an underground movie. As it was shot in 16mm and blown up to 35mm for its American distribution, it had a grainy, documentary look to it that added to its allure. Upon hearing about the audience's approval, Levy got excited and wanted to book it to run as a regular feature, rather than as a midnight show.

While it didn’t set any records for attendance, “The Harder They Come” did fairly well and returned to play several more dates at the Biograph, at regular hours and as a midnight show. 

Levy became a sub-distributor for “The Harder They Come.” When he rented it to theaters in other cities within his region, he urged them to use the same radio-promoted, free-screening tactic.

Over the next few years Reggae music smoothly crossed over from niche to mainstream to ubiquitous. Bob Marley (1945-81), dead for over 30 years, still has a huge following to this day. Reggae's acceptance opened the door for the popularity of the still-fresh fusion sound of the 2 Tone bands, like The Selecter, The Specials, the (English) Beat, Madness, and so forth, in the early-1980s. 

Forty years ago, watching a virtually unknown low-budget Jamaican film after hours in the Biograph, all that was yet to happen. On that night in 1973 "The Harder They Come" looked and sounded exotic to those assembled in the Biograph's auditorium.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Half-Rubber

Note from Rebus: When there aren't enough guys to field two teams to play baseball, kids will make up a game with it own rules. Half-rubber is one of a thousand-an-one variations on that joyous theme.  

*

An excellent photographer, Jack Leigh (1948-2004), was part of the Biograph Theatre’s staff in 1973. While he worked at the Biograph as an usher, Leigh taught me to play half-rubber, a game he said originated in his home town, Savannah. Half-rubber is a three-man baseball-like game that is played with a broom handle and half of a rubber ball.

Jack eventually moved back to Savannah and produced five books of his photographs, including Oystering, which featured a foreward by James Dickey.

Jack’s best known picture was snapped in 1993, when he was commissioned to shoot the photograph in a Savannah cemetery that would appear on the cover of what became a bestselling book -- “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by John Berendt. Later the same photo was used to promote the movie with the same title.

When I knew him, Jack was earnest and quick-witted. He liked to play chess and talk about movies, and of course -- photography. In his Biograph days he was already a very good photographer.

Once, when we went out shooting pictures together, he snapped his shutter maybe twice. In the same amount of time, a couple of hours, I went through two rolls of Tri-X. The quiet style Jack would use throughout his career was already evident. He eventually authored six books of photographs, including "Oystering," which featured a foreword by James Dickey.

So, to kill time one warm afternoon, as per Jack's instructions I cut a red rubber ball in half and ruined an old broom. Then I crossed the street with Jack and the theater’s assistant manager, Bernie Hall, to learn how to play a new game. At the time there were several vacant lots on Grace Street, across from the Biograph.

It turned out the key to pitching in half-rubber was to throw the half-ball with a side-arm delivery, with the flat part down. That made it curve wildly and soar, somewhat like a Frisbee. Hitting or catching the damn thing was quite another matter.

Oh, and hitting the ball on a bounce was OK, too. In fact, it was better to do so, from a strategic standpoint.

The pitcher threw the half-sphere in the general direction of the batter. If the batter swung and missed, and he usually did miss, the catcher did his best to catch it, which wasn't easy, either. When the catcher did catch it, providing the batter had swung, the batter was out.

Then the pitcher moved to the catching position, and the catcher became the batter, and so forth. Runs were scored in a similar fashion to other home run derby-like games.

But the best reason to play half-rubber, other than the laughs stemming from how foolish we looked dealing with the crazy ball, was the kick that came from hitting it. When we connected with that little red devil it left the broomstick bat like a rocket. Smashing it over the theater and halfway to Broad Street was a gas.



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