Friday, August 11, 2017

Biograph Times

by F.T. Rea 
with notes by Rebus

The Intro 

Note from Rebus: “Have a good time,” was one of my first lines on a Biograph midnight show handbill. By the end of the initial year of operation that same ambiguous advice had been established as the movie theater's slogan/motto and I had become the Biograph's official cartoon spokesdog. 

My name is Rebus. If you're wondering what my name means, a rebus is a puzzle that uses graphic symbols for the sounds of syllables. For example, if the viewer sees a line drawing of a person's open eye. Then a plus sign. Then the letter “C” and another plus sign, followed by the letter “U.” Decoded, that rather simple rebus puzzle means, “I see you.” 

In the illustration above, that's me as I appeared in a Richmond Times-Dispatch OpEd piece published in January of 2015. If I look vaguely familiar, but you can't place why, you may have seen one of my breakthrough appearances in comic strips in the Commonwealth Times’ special all-comics issues of Fan Free Funnies in 1973. Or maybe you saw me on any number of posters promoting rock ‘n‘ roll shows, or various other schemes. 

First at the Biograph, then afterward in countless projects, I’ve worked for the guy who wrote the stories that follow my comments here. F.T. Rea, who goes by Terry, likes to say he keeps me around because I’m a lucky charm. Well, I know Rea is a little superstitious, but I think it has more to do with real charm. Although his memory is getting more fuzzy every day, the boss is still smart enough to know that most folks have always liked me better than they liked him. 

Naturally, I told him to put more funny stuff in these Biograph Times stories. But Rea rarely listens to me these days. Mistake. Now that he sees himself as more of a writer than a cartoonist, take it from me – he doesn’t spend all that much time at his old drawing table, anymore. Another mistake.


Part One: The First Year

In the fall of 1971 the chance to become the Biograph Theatre's first manager was offered to me. That opportunity blossomed some five weeks before my 24th birthday. Of course, I accepted and soon the role fit like a glove. In those salad days promoting the Biograph and protecting it from whatever threats came along became an overshadowing mission. For some observers who dealt with my various gimmicks and antics, back then, that job was the horse I rode in on. 

Naturally, selected events, such as opening nights for important first-run movies and a few of the parties, stand out because of the colorful stories they spawned. Consequently, in some cases my memory of a particular occasion may lean more than it should on how I've told the story, or heard it told. But I'll try my best to avoid being a pusher of fake history.

More about those stories later, but when I pause to remember being in that building, I frequently recall being alone at my desk in the second floor office. Maybe reading about films, old and new, or writing a radio commercial. Alone at my drawing table, designing a program or handbill. For what it's worth I can still feel the mood of sitting in the dark auditorium in the after-hours, alone, feeling my youth passing.

About four months after being told I'd won the competition for the best job in the Fan District – maybe a hundred people applied for the position – on February 12, 1972, Richmond's Biograph opened for business at 814 West Grace Street. Programming-wise, our plan – as shown by our bill of fare listed on Program No. 1 – borrowed entirely from a list of art house workhorses that had played well at the Biograph in Georgetown.

My bosses called our method of operation “repertory cinema.” Now the term seems to be interchangeable “revival cinema.” However, when I managed the Biograph, “repertory” was intended to mean a clever mix – a smorgasbord of good movies, old and new. As we weren't part of a theater chain, we had little clout with the distributors, so we were obliged to scramble to book whatever product we could to fill the screen.

My bosses and folks supposedly in the know in Richmond all seemed to be buying the wishful thought that the little bohemian commercial strip that surrounded the Biograph was about to become a second Georgetown. So on that first day of business, I had no sense of how different Richmond would prove to be from D.C., movie-market-wise.

Yes, dear reader, there was a lot to be learned. 


Note from Rebus: Since the mid-'60s Rea had felt drawn to the beer-fueled, bohemian nightlife scene on West Grace Street. As the theater was being built, in 1971, a few friends were already running or working at businesses in that little commercial strip. So Rea was delighted to be parachuting into the middle of Richmond's most happening nightlife scene.  

To be continued.