Friday, May 13, 2016

3 Living in the Moment


 "Tin soldiers and Nixon coming ... Four dead in Ohio"

April 30, 1970: President Richard Nixon announced on television that he had authorized the invasion of Cambodia. This escalation outraged the burgeoning anti-war movement.

May 4, 1970: Four students were shot to death during an anti-war demonstration on the Kent State campus. They were: Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheue and William Schroeder.

May 9, 1970: Two friends rode from Richmond to Washington D.C. with me in my 1956 baby blue Cadillac. We wanted to be there to protest the specter of the government waging war on students. Other than that, we had no plan. The photos accompanying this piece were taken with my then-new Ricoh 35mm single lens reflex.

As the crowd was being funneled into the grassy ellipse south of the White House, the designated demonstration area, the morning’s temperature had already risen into the mid-90s. The blistering heat added to the growing sense in the air that anything could happen.

The White House grounds and Lafayette Park were surrounded by D.C. 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. Before the program of speakers and singers began, the distinctive smell of burning marijuana gave the gathering a rock ‘n’ roll festival feel.

Unlike the other large anti-war demonstrations of that era, which were planned well in advance, this time it all fell together spontaneously. Many of those who were there had never before marched in protest or support of war, or anything else. Nonetheless, they 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, thousands of citizens marched out of the park area into the streets, 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, the commander-in-chief hiding 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 D.C. buildings. Fully-equipped soldiers could be seen in doorways, awaiting further orders. Many of them must have been afraid they might be ordered to fire upon their fellow Americans.

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 triumphantly. When the cops hauled the flag-waver off a commotion ensued. 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 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 a political rally to protest anything, 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 worked to 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 people 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. In the spring of 1970 living in the moment had the potential to kill off the young and unlucky, wherever they were.

*

-- Words and photos by F.T. Rea

1968's Violence and Humiliation

Dealing With North Korea (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea), for as long as it has existed, has never been easy for the USA. So we have mostly averted our eyes. Concerning the Pueblo Incident, in 1968 so many other shocking things of note happened that it was easy to avert our eyes. Maybe our government should have handled it differently. Maybe there were no good options.

There's no doubt America's armed forces were stretched so thin in 1968 that all options couldn't have been on the table. So 49 years ago America was humiliated by North Korea and we sucked it up.    

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 the USA's 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: In what came to be known as the My Lai Massacre, some 500 Vietnamese villagers -- women, children and old men (animals, too) -- were killed by American soldiers on patrol. 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.

Today, for many of my vintage, 1968 is remembered mostly for its violence, in particular the assassinations. We mostly don't like to remember the Pueblo.

*

2 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.  

4 Biograph First Year


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.    

*

On a pretty day in July of 1971 I went to a construction site on the north side of the 800 block of West Grace Street. It was mostly a big hole in the orange ground between two old brick houses. A friend had tipped me off that she’d heard the owners of the movie theater set to rise from that hole were looking for a manager who could write about movies. Most importantly, she said they wanted to hire a promotion-savvy local guy.

Chasing the sparkle of that opportunity I met David Levy at the construction site. He was the Harvard-trained attorney who managed the Biograph Theatre at 2819 M Street in Washington. D.C.

Levy was one of a group of five men who had opened Georgetown’s Biograph in what had previously been a car dealership in 1967. Although none of them had any experience in show biz, they were smart young movie lovers whose timing had been impeccable -- they caught a pop culture wave. The golden age of repertory cinema was waxing and they picked the right town. 

With their success in DeeCee a few years later they were looking to expand. In Richmond’s Fan District they thought they had discovered the perfect neighborhood for a second repertory-style cinema.

A pair of local players, energy magnate Morgan Massey and real estate deal-maker Graham “Squirrel” Pembroke, acquired the land. They agreed to build a cinderblock building just a stone’s throw from VCU’s academic campus for the Biograph partners to rent. The cinema's owners had decided to use the same longtime cinema-related name in Richmond as they had in Georgetown. If it was good enough for D.W. Griffith it was good enough for them a second time.

Some 10 weeks after my first meeting with Levy he offered me the manager’s position. I don’t remember how many competitors he said I beat out, but I can remember trying not to reveal just how thrilling the news was. At 23-years-old, I couldn’t imagine there was a better job to be had in the Fan District. At the time I was working for a radio station, so I had to keep it a secret for a while.

Levy and I got along well right away and we became friends who trusted one another. He and his partners were all about 10 years my senior.

Three years after Richmond Professional Institute and the Medical College of Virginia had merged to become Virginia Commonwealth University in 1968, there were few signs of the dramatic impact the university would eventually have on Richmond. Although film societies were thriving on campus in 1971, the school was offering little in the way of classes about movies or filmmaking. A few professors occasionally showed artsy short films in their classes.

Mostly, independent and foreign features didn’t come to Richmond. So, in 1971, the coming of the Biograph Theatre to Grace Street offered hope to optimistic film buffs that even in conservative Richmond the times were indeed a-changing.

My manager’s gig lasted until the summer of 1983. Grace Street’s Biograph Theatre closed four years later. A hundred miles to the north the Biograph on M Street closed in 1996. David Levy died in 2004.

In 2014 there’s a noodles eatery in same building that once housed the repertory cinema I managed for 139 months. Now it’s the oldest building on the block.

*

On the evening of Friday, February 11, 1972, the venture was launched with a gem of a party. In the lobby the dry champagne flowed steadily as the tuxedo-wearers and those outfitted in hippie garb happily mingled. A trendy art show was hanging on the walls. The local press was all over what was an important event for that bohemian commercial strip. The feature we presented to the invited guests was a delightful French war-mocking comedy — “King of Hearts” (1966); Genevieve Bujold was dazzling opposite the droll Alan Bates.

With splashy news stories about the party trumpeting our arrival the next night we opened for business with a double feature: “King of Hearts“ was paired with “A Thousand Clowns“ (1965). Every show sold out. 

The Biograph’s printed schedule, Program No. 1 was heavy on documentaries. It featured the work of Emile de Antonio and D.A. Pennebaker, among others. Also on that program, which had no particular theme, were several titles by popular European directors, including Michaelangelo Antonioni, Costa-Gavras, Federico Fellini, and Roman Polanski.

Like the first one, which offered mostly double features, each of the next few programs covered about six weeks.

Baby boomers who had grown up watching old movies on television had learned to worship important movie directors. Knowing film was cool; it could get you laid.

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. As I read everything I could find about what was popular, film-wise, in New York and San Francisco I learned the in-crowd viewed most of Hollywood’s then-current products as either laughingly naive or hopelessly corrupt.

Or both.

What my job would eventually teach me was how few people in Richmond actually saw it that way in 1972. After the opening flurry of interest in the new movie theater, with long lines to nearly every show, it was surprising to me when the crowds shrank dramatically in the months that followed.

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

That gave me an opportunity to do more with a project Levy had put me in charge of developing, using radio to promote it -- Friday and Saturday midnight shows.

*
By trial and error we learned it took an offbeat movie that lent itself to promotion. Early midnight show 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 assistant manager, Chuck Wrenn, who was a natural promoter, off-the-wall ad campaigns were designed in-house. 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 needed to be posted on utility poles, bulletin boards and in shop windows in high-traffic locations.

Dave DeWitt produced the radio commercials. In his studio, Dave and I frequently collaborated on the making of those spots over six packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Most of the time we went for levity, even cheap laughs. Dave was masterful at producing radio commercials; the best I‘ve ever met.

Now DeWitt lives in New Mexico and is known as the Pope of Peppers. He has written dozens of cookbooks and countless articles about food. 

On September 13, 1972, a George McGovern-for-president benefit was staged at the Biograph. Former Gov. Doug Wilder, then a state senator, spoke. We showed "Millhouse" (1971), a documentary that put President Richard Nixon in a bad light.

Yes, I had been warned that taking sides in politics was dead wrong for a show business entity in Richmond. Taking the liberal side only made it worse. But the two most active partners who were my bosses, Levy and Alan Rubin, who was a geologist turned artist, were delighted with the notion of doing the benefit. They were used to doing much the same up there. So with the full backing of the boys in DeeCee I never hesitated to reveal my left-leaning stances on anything political. 

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

The midnight shows were going over like gangbusters. To follow “Reefer Madness” what was then a little-known X-rated comedy, “Deep Throat” (1972), was booked as a midnight show. While we had played a few films that were X-rated, this was our first step across the line to hardcore porn. 

As “Deep Throat” ran only an hour, master prankster Luis Buñuel’s surrealistic classic short film (16 minutes), “Un Chien Andalou” (1929), was added to the bill, just for grins. Although I can’t remember whose idea it was to play “Deep Throat” in the first place, it may have been mine. But I’m pretty sure it was Levy who wanted to add “Un Chien Andalou” to the bill.

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

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

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

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 program of venerable European classics at regular hours. It included ten titles by the celebrated Swedish director, 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.

Even more telling, over the early spring of 1973 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 Best Foreign Film Academy Award, he booked it in advance to open in Richmond two or three days after the Oscars were to be handed out.

We had guessed right, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” took the Oscar, but it flopped in Richmond. The one-year-old cinema’s management team was more than bummed out.

We were stunned by the extent of our miscalculation.

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 finally forced a serious reassessment of what had been the original plan. The Georgetown Biograph couldn’t prop up its Richmond counterpart forever.

6 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.  
  
Rebus was having a bad day; detail from the first Rebus strip in Fan Free Funnies. 

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.

*

Thursday, May 12, 2016

7 Detours

Note from Rebus: At 814 West Grace Street 1974 was a momentous year. "The Devil in/and Miss Jones" prank was staged on the theater's second anniversary, February 11. It packed the 515-seat house and thousands were turned away. The stunt got a lot of press; an interview with Rea was aired on NPR's "All Things Considered." 

Also that month a 16mm film, "Matinee Madcap," was shot with borrowed equipment at the Biograph. It was edited in the theater's office, back when there was still a window in there, through which Rea (and whoever) could watch the movies on the screen. That cool feature was lost when the building was remodeled six months later, changes that becoming a twin cinema necessitated.  

For several months of 1974 Richmond's only repertory cinema benefited nicely from a lucky quirk of business and got to play several of Paramount's top first-run pictures, including two great films: "The Conversation" and "Chinatown." Looking back on that turning point year now -- it was a time of upheaval, marked by gimmicks and detours. 

As the year of changes ended, the nearly-three-year-old movie house -- then with a 285-seat auditorium and a 150-seat auditorium -- was still searching for a programming formula that it could sustain. Stemming from a slipped disc, Rea walked with a limp as he distanced himself from the mania-driven early days of his stint as the Biograph's manager. 

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The most obvious change in the air in 1974 was the unraveling of the presidency of Richard Nixon. While that was happening the culture shifted. Tastes in music, clothes, politics, movies, drugs, and you-name-it, took off in new directions. Among other things, it was also the year in which social causes went out of style for most of the baby boomers.

Going into 1974, no one would have guessed the most popular gesture of group defiance on campus -- the protest march -- would morph into spontaneous gatherings to cheer on naked people, as they ran by. Yet, in the spring of 1974, streaking on college campuses became a national phenomenon.

Richmond’s police chief, Frank Duling, announced that his department would not tolerate streakers running around in the city’s streets, alleys, etc. He didn’t care whether they were students, or not.

In response, the VCU police department said if the streaking took place on campus, it was a university matter and should be dealt with by its personnel -- its own cops. The relationship between Richmond and VCU was still awkward in this period. Leading up to this point, there had been a series of confrontational incidents on, or near, the VCU campus.

Perhaps the most bitterly remembered of them occurred on Oct. 12, 1970. After Allen Ginsberg spoke at the VCU gym a party erupted in the area of the 1100 blocks of Grove Ave. and Park Ave. (The a tiny triangular park that was there then is still there.) For whatever reasons, the city police used brutal tactics to break up the rowdy but peaceful street party. Debris was thrown, a cop was hit by a brick and police dogs were set loose in the crowd. 

So, leading up what happened on the 800 block of W. Franklin St. on the night of March 19, 1974, Richmond’s police department had some history with what might have been characterized as the anti-establishment crowd based in the lower Fan District.

Several groups of streakers had made runs before four naked kids rode down Franklin in a convertible at about 10 p.m. The crowd of 150-to-200 cheered as the motorized streakers waved. The mood was festive. I know this firsthand, because I was in that crowd. This scene played out a block from the Biograph Theatre and I had walked over to the commotion with Biograph usher Trent Nicholas to see what would happen.

Seconds later a group of some 50 uniformed policemen stormed in on small motorbikes and in squad cars from every direction to arrest those four streakers in the car. No VCU cops were involved.

After a lull in the action, the Richmond cops inexplicably charged into the assembled bystanders. A few of those bystanders were dragged into the middle of the street. One kid was knocked off of his bicycle and slammed repeatedly against the fender and hood of a police car. Others were beaten with clubs or flashlights.

The Richmond cops were acting like Brits in Belfast or Derry, free to abuse the gathering, at will. That the unprovoked brutality was about terrorizing fad-driven streakers on a college campus made it all the more absurd -- 17 people were arrested. Most of them were bystanders, not streakers.

In person, I've never seen so many cops go crazy violent. More important, it was without being in response to any threat to people or property. It was a shocking scene.   

Crazy violent cops made bigger news at the Cherry Blossom Music Festival (which was headlined by the Steve Miller Band and Boz Scaggs) on April 27, 1974, at City Stadium. That was where the war between Richmond's partying hippies and its police force escalated beyond all previous clashes. When police officers attempted to arrest pot-smoking members of the audience, things got out of hand. Way out of hand!

Several police cars were destroyed in what turned into a four-hour battle. In all, 76 people were arrested. This unprecedented melee, which I missed, put the kibosh on any outdoor rock 'n' roll shows in Richmond, with alcohol available, for several years.

1974

Jan. 2: To conserve on gasoline President Richard Nixon signed a bill mandating a 55 mph speed limit, coast-to-coast.

Feb. 4: Patty Hearst was abducted; eight days later the Symbionese Liberation Army told the extremely well-to-do Hearst family it had to give $230 million in food aid to the poor.

Feb. 11: Richmond's Biograph celebrated its second anniversary with free movies and free beer and a wee prank. Once all the seats were filled for the 6:30 p.m. show thousands who had lined up around the block were turned away.

Mar. 2: Nixon was named by a federal grand jury as a co-conspirator in the Watergate cover-up. At this point it was still hard to see that he wouldn't last out the year.

Apr. 8: Playing for the Atlanta Braves outfielder Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record with his 715th round-tripper. Later we found out about the death threats Aaron had received leading up to his feat.

Apr. 15: According to photographic evidence Patty “Tania” Hurst seemed to be helping her captors rob a bank at gunpoint. Nobody knew what to make of it.

May 15: Richmond-based A.H. Robins Co. yielded to pressure from the feds to take its contraceptive device, the Dalkon Shield, off the market.

June 28: One of the best films ever made, "Chinatown," premiered at the Biograph Theatre.

July 1: Argentina’s President Juan Peron died. His wife, Isabel, took over, which eventually lead to a Broadway musical -- "Evita".

July 27: The House Judiciary Committee voted 27-11 to impeach Nixon. Three days later the Supreme Court said Nixon had to surrender tape recordings of White House meetings that had been sought by the Watergate investigation’s special prosecutor. Nixon's presidency was in a death spiral.  

Aug. 8: Nixon resigned in disgrace; President Gerald Ford was sworn in. Millions of hippies celebrated Nixon's downfall; some of them stayed too long at the party.

Aug. 12: The Biograph Theatre closed to be converted by a 24-hour-a-day construction crew into a twin cinema in four weeks. The after-hours Liar's Poker games were the stuff of legends.

Sept. 8: Ford pardoned Nixon, which all but sealed Ford’s defeat when he ran for reelection in 1976.

Oct. 29: Muhammad Ali regained the world heavyweight boxing crown he had lost by refusing to be drafted into the army in 1967. In Zaire, Ali defeated the heavily favored champion George Foreman by a knockout in the eighth round. 

Nov. 13: Yasir Arafat, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, addressed the UN with a pistol strapped to his waist. Supporters of Israel cringed. Israel's enemies puffed up their chests. Lovers of peace weren't necessarily encouraged, but hoped for the best.

Dec. 12: Georgia governor Jimmy Carter announced he would run for president. Nobody noticed. Outside of his immediate circle of friends and advisers, who could have imagined it would matter?

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5 Midnight Shows


In the 1970s, during what was the Golden Age of Repertory Cinema, the presenting of midnight show was an integral aspect of the programming for many movie houses of that ilk. Although films are still being shown in theaters at the midnight hour, the cultural significance of such screenings has been in steady decline since the end of the ’70s.

As with most pop fads, there are plenty of reasons why.

Richmond’s long-lost Biograph Theatre might be remembered for many things, some of them good. Most people, who remember it at all, probably flash back onto scenes from favorite films they saw there during its nearly 16 years of operation (1972-87).  

Perhaps the hodgepodge of double features that was central to the format of a repertory cinema had something to do with a sense of postmodern license, I don’t know. Although most of what we did at the Biograph was standard practice in that era for art houses/repertory cinemas, we were somewhat of a trend-setter with regard to the development of midnight shows.

While most of the basic style for what sort of product to exhibit within a repertory format had already been established in the ‘60s, at 814 W. Grace St. we managed to get in on the midnight show phenomenon early enough to have played a small role in shaping America’s love affair with midnight shows in the ’70s.

Of course, late screenings were nothing new when the Biograph opened in February of 1972, and the term “midnight show” had been around forever. Still, the midnight show formula for how to do it consistently had not been established. Something as simple as playing the same program on both Friday and Saturday nights, only at midnight, had not yet been set in stone.

About two months after we opened, an twin bill of so-called "underground" films, “Chafed Elbows” (1966) and “Scorpio Rising” (1964), was the first special late show we presented. I think it actually started at 11:30 p.m. Moving such presentations to midnight soon proved better.

Over our initial year of operation we came to understand the sort of pictures that would work best in that limited role and how to promote them. Although “The Godfather” (1972) was a critical success and a popular film the year the Biograph opened, it was not the sort of movie that would draw a late crowd. “Fritz the Cat” (1972), released the same year — but barely remembered today — was a good draw as a midnight show.

When we premiered “El Topo” (1970) during regular hours in the spring of 1973 it flopped. Later as a midnight show it did well.

A bootleg print of “Animal Crackers” (1930), a Marx Brothers romp that had been out of release for decades, played well at midnight. Some Rock ’n’ Roll movies worked, others didn’t. Same with thrillers and monster flicks. The most successful midnight shows needed a cachet of something slightly forbidden, perhaps underground.

In that light, a Marx Brothers title that couldn’t be seen on television or in a standard movie theater had an extra luster. We rented it from a private collector who had a beautiful 16mm print.

We promoted midnight shows with radio spots on WGOE-AM and with handbills posted on utility poles and in shop windows. We relied on little or no newspaper advertising for midnight shows in the early days. We usually didn’t list them in our regular printed programs, which displayed the titles and some film notes for the movies we exhibited during regular hours.

By showing “Animal Crackers,” we were probably breaking some sort of copyright laws. But the Fan District wasn’t Manhattan or Malibu, so no one who had any interest in the obscure battle over the rights to an old Marx Brothers feature film was likely to notice.

In our first three years of operation we occasionally rented short subjects, old TV shows and feature films from private collectors who acted as distributors. Some titles were in the public domain, which meant no one actually had the “exclusive rights” to the rent out prints of the movie. “Reefer Madness” (1936) was such a title. Others were like “Animal Crackers,” which, due to a legal dispute, wasn’t in general release.

My bosses at the Biograph in Georgetown and I talked about the propriety of showing bootleg prints of films with murky rights issues several times. I came to agree with them that we weren’t denying the artists or the original production company any money. We weren’t denying the rightful distributor a nickel, either.

Instead, we were liberating those films for people to see. Anyway, we didn’t get caught.

A few years later the issues that had kept “Animal Crackers” out of release were resolved. So we booked a nice 35 mm print from the proper distributor. It didn’t perform at the box office nearly as well as it had before, when it was forbidden.

When the Biograph started running midnight shows in 1972 the bars in Richmond closed at midnight, so there was a lot less to do at 12:01 a.m. than when the official cutoff time was extended to 2 a.m. in 1976.

Another reason midnight shows caught on was that drive-in theaters, which had done well in the '50s and '60s, were going out of style fast. Some of the low-budget product they had been exhibiting found a new home as late-night entertainment in hardtop theaters like the Biograph. “Mondo Cane” (1962), “Blood Feast” (1963) and “2,000 Maniacs” (1964) all played as Biograph midnight shows. In the ’80s that sort of movie began to routinely skip a theatrical run and go straight to cable television.


The midnight show craze of the ‘70s could only have flourished then, when baby boomers were in their teens and 20s. It came before cable television was widely available and video rental stores had popped up in nearly every neighborhood. Sometimes, a successful midnight show run came along in the nick of time to pay the rent.

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Once I began to understand more fully what an opportunity my job as manager of the Biograph Theatre offered, I wanted the theater to be a place both detached from its surroundings and a good neighbor; like nothing else in Richmond, but a part of the Fan District’s bohemian milieu.

As a promoter, I wanted the Biograph to have an underdog personality that was likeable beyond whatever movie might be playing that particular day. I suppose an adman today would call all that stuff “branding.”

Still, I learned the hard way that when I made a mistake there would be a price to pay. When the wrong movie was booked, or if I didn’t promote a festival or midnight show properly, it led to losing money. If I hired the wrong person, we all had to live with the negative effect it had on the staff’s morale. As with any team effort, morale was one of the keys to whatever success we hoped to enjoy.   

Too many bad decisions and I could lose the manager’s keys to the funhouse. Learning just how far to push the envelope in Richmond, how to be ahead of the local curve without being too scary to the wrong people, was one of the keys.

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Radio played a large role in the early days at the Biograph Theatre. For a couple of years we had a sweet deal with WGOE-AM, the most popular station for the under-35 set in the Fan District. For 30-second spots we were paying a dollar or two for each airing. 

In the fall of 1973, David Levy, then the most significant managing partner 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” (1972) shipped to me. 

In those days at the Biograph, we used to have after-hours screenings of films we obtained in one way or another. Usually on short notice, the word would go out via the staff and our friends that we would be watching a movie at a certain time. These gatherings were essentially movie parties.

A couple of times it was 16mm boxing films from a private collection. Sometimes films that were in town to play at a film society, or a VCU class, would mysteriously appear in our booth. In those cases the borrowed movies were always returned the next day, 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” at the Biograph, I do remember the gist of my conversation with Levy the next day. After I told him how much I liked the Jamaican movie, he asked me how I would promote it.

Well, I was ready for that question, because I’d done some brainstorming with friends after the screening. So, I told him I’d have an open-to-the-public, sneak preview free showing of the movie. I said I’d use radio only to promote it. He loved the idea.

So, on a Friday morning in November the deejays at WGOE began reading announcements of a free showing of “The Harder They Come” at the Biograph that afternoon at 3 p.m. Then, each time, they would play a song by Jimmy Cliff, the film’s star, or perhaps one by Toots and the Maytals. This pattern was continued maybe three times an hour, for four or five hours, leading up to the screening.

As I recall, some 300 people showed up and they loved the movie. It must be noted that at this time Reggae music hadn’t hit its stride in Richmond, yet. Although it was building a following in America, it was still a year, or so, away from becoming huge, nationally. Of course, Reggae was being heard in Richmond before that screening, but it was clearly still on the periphery of popular culture.

After the audience at the Biograph reacted so well, Levy wanted to book it to run as a regular feature, rather than as a midnight show. In most previous runs in other markets, it 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. Given our confidence in our reading of the test-screening’s effect on the audience, the Biograph’s brain trust decided to try playing it at regular hours. 

It all worked like a charm. While, it didn’t set any records for attendance, “The Harder They Come” returned to play subsequent dates at the Biograph in Georgetown, as well as the one in the Fan.

Levy became a sub-distributor for “The Harder They Come” and 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 became ubiquitous. It crossed over from niche to mainstream. For me, in this case, it was fun being in a position to see -- from the inside, out, to some extent -- how popular culture was developing, flying by the seat of its pants.

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