Wednesday, July 13, 2005


As a VCU fine arts student in the early-80s Tana Dubbe became a familiar face around the Biograph. She was partial to the European first run pictures and Marx Bros. films. Tana played on a co-ed Biograph softball team (1981) and was an excellent Frisbee-golfer, a sport played regularly by several on the theater's staff.

After moving to Manhattan in the mid-'80s Dubbe eventually became a professional photographer, studying under the legendary Eddie Adams. Since then she has moved to the West Coast and earned some interesting movie credits in recent years.

(Photo Credit: F. T. Rea)


For the staff a workhorse of a time-killer between shows, during lulls, was making top ten lists and comparing them. We listed our favorite films of all-time, or our top ten westerns, or film noirs, etc. Here's a current list of my favorite ten titles that were Richmond premeires (still in their first-run bookings) when they were screened at the theater during my tenure:

1. Chinatown (1974)
2. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
3. The Conformist (1971)
4. The Conversation (1974)
5. Seven Beauties (1976)
6. Amarcord (1974)
7. Wiseblood (1979)
8. Bread and Chocolate (1978)
9. Napoleon (1927) This was the restored version which came out in 1981
10. My American Uncle (1981)

And, with no apologies, here's my list of the ten weirdest movies that I presented, with the actual date they opened at the Biograph in parenthesis:

1. Honeymoon Killers (10/22/82)
Eraserhead (2/16/79)
3. Fingers (2/8/80)
4. Eyes of Hell (3/16/73)
5. Heart of Glass (4/26/82)
El Topo (5/25/73)
7. Freaks (3/31/72)
8. Thundercrack! (11/26/76)
9. Greaser's Palace (5/5/73)
Pink Flamingos (7/18/73)

Thursday, July 07, 2005

staff: Gussie Armenoix

In the hallway with the huge collage made up of movie posters, etc., which ran from the lobby to Theatre No. 1 (the larger of the two auditoriums), longtime cashier Gussie Armenoix struck a fetching patriotic pose during one of the many costume party situations that played out inside the Biograph (circa 1976, photographer unknown).

The second picture of doll-faced Gussie standing behind the candy counter is from 1977, it was shot by Ernie Brooks. She worked at the theater, with time off to travel sometimes, from 1975 through about 1980.

It would be a genuine treat to hear from Gussie, to know she's OK. If you know how to reach her, please let her know.

films: repertory festivals

One of the more popular themes for a program of double features was Literature on Film; movies that were adapted from existing works of literature. The first time we used that hook was in this 1977 festival which did quite well at the box office. (As with any of the art/photos on this page, click on the progarm itself to enlarge it.)

On the flip side of the program (not seen) the following twin bills were listed: "Of Human Bondage" and "Lolita"; "Slaughterhouse 5" and "Ulysses"; "Anna Kaenina" and "Dr. Zchivago"; "Little Women" and "David Copperfield"; "The Stranger" and "Steppenwolf"; "Stage Door" and "Alice Adams"; "Grapes of Wrath" and "Les Miserables" and tha, tha, that's all folks.


Danny Brisbane captured this image of three young men in their element at the softball field behind John Marshall High School, where the 1977 Fan District Invitational Tournament was staged. Brisbane was on the J. W. Rayle roster, as was Chuck Wrenn, on the left. Biograph manager Terry Rea's teammate, Larry Rohr, is on the right.

In the 1976-78 seasons the Biograph softball team's nickname was the Swordfish. From 1979-83 the team was called the Naturals. (The story of the changing is for another time.) After that the softball team was taken over by new management and the nicknames it bestowed upon the franchise -- Peckers, X-Peckers, Phantoms, etc. -- came and went, blurring into the sunset.

Another of Brisbane's photos at John Marshall in 1977 shows the late Jim Letizia, a popular DJ at WGOE-AM, smiling and enjoying a beer with a couple of the Back Door Bombers.

Brisbane's camera also preserved this quiet scene depicting seven members of the shy and retiring Hababas softball team. Starting at the lower left and working clockwise, they are: Buzz Montsinger; Otto Brauer; Dave Chapman; Darryl Cohen; Cliff Mowells; the owner of Hababas, a legendary beer joint (1971-84) on West Grace Street, Howard Awad; Chuck Jeffries.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005


This was a 1974 handbill for a planned all-nighter. In developing the institution the Midnite Show was for several years we had to learn on the fly what would work, or not. Which called for trial and error.

This movie marathon, all night event was promoted in the same manner we used for Midnite Shows -- a handbill campaign in the Fan District and tailor-made radio spots on WGOE-AM.

Well, as it turned out, five flicks was overkill and all night got old at 4 a.m. The turnout was lackluster. From that we learned midnight was cool, all night was too much. So we went back to Midnite Shows.

Hey, trial and error only pays off when you knew when to quit.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005


The late Jim Bradford frequented the Biograph. He was good enough to send two of his former VCU film society chairmen, both fine arts majors, to the Biograph with his strong endorsement. Bradford was an art professor and then served as faculty advisor to the most active film society on campus. Fortunately, for the Biograph, I hired both guys: Chuck Wrenn and Trent Nicholas. Both became assistant mangers. Both are known for their senses of humor.

Bradford could be funny, too. He went on to become one of the three original partners at the legendary Texas-Wisconsin Border Cafe (1982-99). Many a time standing around the Border’s old “power corner” I watched Bradford on his favorite bar stool -- who was a knowledgeable film buff, perhaps scholar -- sandbagging some blowhard who was talking about this director, or that film. Inevitably, he'd catch my eye and sure enough, there would be that outrageously mischievous look that was his trademark.

Bradford figured I knew the speaker was full of baloney, and he couldn’t resist having a silent collaborator. But he would never let on, so neither would I. It was fun to watch him encouraging the expert to go on proving his depth of knowledge, and, of course, making more of a fool of himself.

Artist/teacher/bar-owner Jim Bradford, who died in 1997, enjoyed a private laugh as much as anyone I’ve known.
(Illustration by F. T. Rea)

Monday, July 04, 2005


J. W. Rayle (1976)

The Fan District Softball League. Now there's a subject that ought to have its own blog, one day. J. W. Rayle (above). Hababas. The Back Door. The Bamboo Cafe. Joe's Inn. Buddy's. The Jade Elephant, and then there was a squad known as Arnold's Pinheads.

Like Rayle, the Biograph entered the organized softball world in 1976. Although the theater itself eventually closed in 1987, the softball team kept going. When the Fan League folded up in 1994, the Biograph softball team, such as it was, moved to another league and continued fielding a team through 2004. This year the run ended. But the Biograph's annual softball reunion game on Derby Day went on same as it ever was...
(Photo Credit: maybe Artie Probst using a delayed shutter)
Artist/musician Rebby Sharp took a healthy cut at the ball on the diamond at Clarke Springs School. Who knows? Maybe she hit it.

Sharp pitched for the Biograph women's softball team, a spunky group of art girls who dubbed themselves the Estrojets. Rebby also was a founding member of the art rock/jazz fusion band known as the Orthotonics, the Richmond band with the most original sound and the best handbills in that era.

As it turned out, the 'Jets' only opponent that summer was the Jade Elephant, a squad made up of waitresses, bartenders and a few female regulars at the bar. It was fun watching the underdog Biograph team win both games in 1981, which proved to be their only year of play.

A key performer for the Jade, Yvonne Wyer (pictured right), stood in the batter's box ready to hit a pitch from Rebby.

(Photos: Chuck Wrenn)
The Biograph Swordfish, as pictured right, were no more than a month from their first practice session when they shocked one and all by coming in second place in the ten-team field of the 1976 Fan District League Invitational. That year we formed in May and played as an independent club, not yet in the Fan League.

In the second tournament in which we played, after the conclusion of the league's regular season, we won the championship, defeating J.W. Rayle. The event ended abruptly, when Stew Whitham hit a line drive home run in the bottom of the seventh inning.

Yes, our luck was in gear that summer. Although the records from that first season were lost, by best estimate the Swordfish played 17 games that had an umpire, several with kegs on beer on the line. We won 15 of them. With two French guys on the squad (kneeling in front), who had no idea what they were doing, the 'Fish had arrived on the softball scene like the circus come to town.
Here's a group of happy Biograph Naturals (left) at John Marshall in 1982. From left to right they are: Mike "Scooter" Jones, Mike "Cookie" Kittle, Terry Rea, Mike "Dutch" Perlstein and Wayne Settle. Rea and Perlstein are pointing to a display of Mr. Natural's supposed axioms for the team to follow that Perlstein created.

(The photographer was probably Tana Dubbe.)

stories: Banned for Life

On Nov. 8, 1992, the revenge-driven crime spree ended as the man I remembered as Drake the Flake blew out his brains with a .32 caliber revolver. In the 11 hours before taking his own life Woody Drake had shot and killed six people, wounded a seventh and beaten a former landlady with a blackjack.

It had been over 20 years since I saw him last. It was in the lobby of the Biograph Theatre.

It should come as no surprise to most film buffs that sometimes there is a dark side to the business of doing business after dark. While some saw the Biograph (1972-87) as a beacon in the night, for others it was a place to hide out from a sad reality. Like any business, sometimes things just went wrong.

Customers could be difficult every now and then, especially at midnight shows. There were crazy street people who would sometimes cause trouble. Although nearly everyone who worked at the Biograph during my nearly 12-year stint as its manager was on the up-and-up, there were a couple of rotten apples. As I hired both of them, I have to take the blame there. But those are stories for another time.

There was a night someone fired high-powered ammo through one of the back exits into Theatre No. 1. Five bullets came through a back door's two quarter-inch steel plates to splinter seats. Amazingly, no one was hit. It happened just as the crowd was exiting the auditorium, about 11:30 p.m., and it seemed no one even caught on to what was happening.

Later the police were baffled, leaving us to speculate as to why it happened.

A rat died in the Coca-Cola drain once and clogged it up. Not knowing about the rat, and thinking I knew what to do, I poured a powerful drain clearing liquid -- we called it Tampax Dynamite -- into the problem. It wasn't long before a foul-smelling liquid started bubbling and backing up all over the lobby's carpet. A flooding mess ensued that ran everybody out of there on a Saturday night.

Anyway, in the first months of operation at 814 W. Grace St. there was the series of annoyances that led up to Woody Drake being literally thrown out of the Biograph and "banned for life." The photo above -- it was a publicity shot he used to apply for work as an actor -- ran in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on November 16, 1992. What follows are excerpts of a piece I wrote for SLANT a couple of weeks later:
...The November 16th edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch carried Mark Holmberg's sad and sensational story of Woody Drake. As usual, Holmberg did a good job with a bizarre subject. In case you missed the news: Lynwood Drake, who grew up in Richmond, murdered six people in California on November 8. Then he turned the gun on himself. His tortured suicide note cited revenge as the motive.

An especially troubling aspect of Holmberg's account was that those Richmonders who remembered the 43 year old Drake weren't at all surprised at the startling news. Nor was I. My memory of the man goes back to the early days of the Biograph Theatre (1972). At the time I managed the West Grace Street cinema. So the unpleasant task of dealing with Drake fell to me.

Owing to his talent for nuisance, the staff dubbed him 'Drake the Flake.' Although he 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 there was trouble. If he didn't try to beat us out of the price of admission or popcorn, there would be a problem in the auditorium. And without fail, his ruse would be 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 he choked a female student, Susan Kuney, who worked at the Biograph.

That evening he showed up at the theater to see the movie, just like nothing had happened. Shoving his way past those in line, he demanded to be admitted next. An argument ensued that became the last straw. Drake the Flake was physically removed from the building, tossed onto Grace Street, and banned from the Biograph for life.

The next day, Drake made his final appearance at the Biograph. He ran in through the lobby's exit doors and issued a finger-pointing death threat to your narrator. Although I tried to act unruffled by the incident, it made me more than a little uncomfortable. In spite of the anger of his words, there was an emptiness in his eyes. In that moment he had pulled me into his world. It was scary and memorable.

Using a fine turn of phrase, Holmberg suggested that, "Whatever poisoned the heart of Woody Drake happened in Richmond..."

If you want more evidence of the origins of the poisoning, take the time to look him up in his high school yearbooks (Thomas Jefferson 1967/68). Pay particular attention to the odd expression in his eyes. Looking at Drake’s old yearbook photos reminded me of a line in the movie 'Silence of the Lambs.' In reference to the serial-killer who was being sought by the FBI throughout the film, Dr. Lechter (a psychiatrist turned murderer himself) tells an investigator that such a man is not born; he is created.

There is no doubt in my mind. Someone close to Lynwood Drake III, when he was a child, systematically destroyed his soul. So while we can avert our eyes from the painful truth, we basically know where the poison is administered to the Woody Drakes of the world.
Yes, we do. The assembly line for such monsters runs through their homes. Apparently he was always a problem to those around him. The story goes that Woody Drake liked to beat up women. After I threw him out of the Biograph and he disappeared, several people told us stories about various females he had hurt. No doubt, there was a reason why he hated women.

Shortly before Drake ended his wretched life, he woke up a 60-year-old woman by smacking her in the head with a blackjack. She scrambled to hide under her bed and lived to tell the story.

The news stories reported that Drake, who always had fancied himself as an actor, had made up a long list of people he intended to pay back. The man who had a childhood straight out of a horror movie wore theatrical grease paint on his face when he committed his murders. As the cops were closing in on him Drake punched his own ticket to hell.

-- 30 --

staff: Cathy Schultz

Cathy Schultz was a cashier at the Biograph between 1974 and 1978. Schultz, a VCU-trained artist, had a sparkling sense of humor.

If we decided to kill a little time by putting a wallet stuffed with play money on the sidewalk in front of the theater tied to a long line of filament -- so we could watch through the front windows, to jerk the line at just the right time to make the chump jump -- Cathy often seemed the one who enjoyed it the most.
(Photo Credit: F. T. Rea)

Sunday, July 03, 2005


There was a time when the Biograph’s printed film programs, with scraps of art and comments about the upcoming double features, were stuck to refrigerators all over the Fan.

Usually about 5,000 of them were run off and we made damn sure they got around. Each edition covered a period of time, usually six to eight weeks. The paper was cheap and the ink was black.

In the early years most of the programs, the flats themselves, were put together by Alan Rubin in Georgetown. At that same time local manager Terry Rea was creating the handbills for Midnite Shows and theater's newspaper ads. From 1977, through his departure in 1983, Rea designed the repertory programs, as well.

Program 50 was a best-of-repertory festival that ran in 1979.

staff: David Levy

Harvard-trained attorney David Levy was probably the most film-savvy of the original Georgetown owners. In the late-'60s he served as the first manager of "M" Street's Biograph, which lasted 29 years (1967-96). In 1974 Levy split with his partners to become a film distributor and to operate the Key Theatre on Wisconsin Avenue. That Levy's bold thinking about film and promotion -- not to mention politics -- was all over the early days of both Biographs is undeniable.
David Levy
(family photo)
Washington Post (September 17, 2004): "S. David Levy, 67, who helped found the Biograph Theatre and was co-owner of the Key Theatre, which kept alternative cinema alive in Washington for decades, died Sept. 15 at Washington Hospital Center. He had chronic leukemia for more than 20 years. A film fan since law school, Mr. Levy held several jobs in the legal profession early in his career but dashed them for a chance to start a movie house. With his four partners, including two lawyers, he founded the Biograph at 2819 M St. NW in what was once an auto salesroom."

Click here to read the obituary.

Saturday, July 02, 2005


Alan Rubin, one of the theater's six original owners, all of whom lived in DeeCee, is shown in the lobby with Richmond Times-Dispatch movie critic/entertainment writer the late Carole Kass. They (pictured right) were part of the crowd at the theater's 1974 second anniversary celebration, which featured the "Devil in/and Miss Jones" prank.

Rubin was/is an artist, so he in particular got a kick out of the chance we were taking with such a stunt. It was quite a night, for more on that see the history below -- Biograph Times; Part One, for the story of the prank that had thousands of Richmonders in line on Grace St. to see a banned movie, but it didn't go as they expected.

That night most of the staff wore costumes to get in the spirit, or perhaps to hide their identities, in case they needed to make a fast get-away. The hoax/performance art went swimmingly. Then, afterwards, no one had gotten hurt and we posed willingly for a group gloating.

Yes, the rush from pulling that one off was mind-expanding. The problem was -- then what?

Photo Credit: Gary Fisher

staff: Mike Jones

Click here to read the STYLE Weekly article about film professor (at VCU and Randolph-Macon) Mike Jones. Jones was hired in 1976 to be an usher at the Biograph. He later was promoted to assistant manager. After Terry Rea resigned Jones managed the cinema (with Tom Campagnoli) from July 1983 until it closed in December of 1987. Today Jones is the president of the Richmond Moving Image Coop.


This shot in the lobby from the spring of 1981 shows three happy waitresses from the nearby lounge, the Jade Elephant. Such company was always welcome.

The trio had probably dropped by the theater after work to help out with the traditional killing off of a keg of beer their restaurant's softball team, the Hens, had lost to their biggest rival, the Biograph Naturals. It was a tradition because the hapless Hens lost every game they played against the thirsty Naturals. Ouch!
(Photo Credit: Larry Rohr)

staff: Jack Leigh

Jack Leigh, who died in 2004, was part of the Biograph’s staff in late-1973/early-1974. He was earnest and quick-witted. Jack liked to play chess and talk about movies, and of course -- photography. In those days he was already a very good photographer. The quiet style he would use throughout his career was already evident. He authored six books of photographs, including Oystering, which featured a foreward by James Dickey.

Leigh introduced me to Half-Rubber, a three-man baseball-like game that he said orginated in his hometown, Savannah. It was played with a broom handle and half of a red rubber ball. At the time there were several vacant lots across from the theater, so one afternoon I crossed Grace Street with Jack and assistant manager Bernie Hall to try Half-Rubber.

The key to pitching was to throw the ball side-arm with the flat part down to make it curve and soar somewhat like a Frisbee. Hitting or catching it was quite another matter. The pitcher threw the half-ball in the general direction of the batter, who tried to hit it. If he missed, and he usually did, the catcher did his best to catch it, which wasn't easy either. When the catcher did catch it, if the batter had swung he was out. Then the pitcher moved to the catching position, and the catcher became the batter, and so forth.

But the best reason to play -- other than the laughs stemming from how foolish we looked -- was the kick that came from hitting it. When we connected with that little red devil it left the bat like a rocket.

The following is from Leigh's gallery’s web site:
In 1993 Leigh was commissioned to create a photograph for the book cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. The book became an international best seller and the photograph is Leigh's most famous and widely recognized image.
Click here to visit the gallery.

staff: Brett Lewis

Biograph cashier Brett Lewis (circa 1981) on the 800 block of West Grace Street in a rather red Ford Falcon. She left for Manhattan in the early-'80s and I have no iea what has happened to her. Anybody know?

Because the Biograph Theatre was seen as a cool place to work by a certain set, lots of applications came in when there was an opening on the staff, which wasn’t all that often. Our motto was -- Have a Good Time. While many lifelong friendships were forged in the Biograph Theatre, hopefully, this blog will prove useful in reconnecting some people who worked at/hung out at Richmond’s Repertory Cinema who have scattered. Readers comments are welcome.
(Photo credit: F. T. Rea)

staff: Chuck Wrenn

Chuck Wrenn was the original assistant manager at the Biograph in 1972. He is shown here in October 2004 with his oldest daughter, Eliza. Move over James Brown. The new hardest working man in show business has got to be Chuck Wrenn.

Click here to read a feature article in FiftyPlus about Wrenn that was penned by F. T. Rea

(Photo Credit: F. T. Rea)


The Biograph opened in 1972 with a party. In addition to the film fare it was known for its full tilt parties, usually after-hours. This handbill was for Lit Fuse Production’s third New Year's party, staged in the theater.

Lit Fuse was Chuck Wrenn and Terry Rea. For this one the glass windows in the lobby were wisely covered with brown paper to hide the goings on from people on the street. The bands, including Wrenn's band -- the Megatonz -- played in the large auditorium while various movies filled the screen all night in the small auditorium to bring in 1982.

Subsequently, on doctor's orders, this was the last of Lit Fuse's New Years Eve productions.

Friday, July 01, 2005


Shortstop Preston Creasey (left) and pitcher Larry Rohr were teammates in 1976 on the Biograph's first softball team, the Swordfish, which had two French softball players on its roster.

Rain or shine the party, softball game or not, has unfolded since 1980 without fail. The teammates are shown here relaxing in the shade at the Biograph's 26th annual Derby Day softball reunion, which was held on May 7, 2005 at Thompson Middle School in one of the more polite sections of Dogtown.

And, speaking of dogs, the eye-catching platter of gourmet hot dogs (shown to the right) did not last long on Derby Day. Who could resist?

As this presentation so vividly illustrates, the competition among the players and their respective squeezes to bring out top shelf food to one-up the other guy is every bit as keen as the competition on the softball field.

(Photo Credit: F. T. Rea)

The annual Derby Day (always the first Saturday in May) softball reunion in 2000 ended just as the first one did 20 years before, drinking mint juleps mixed by Chris Lyles, as the Kentucky Derby played out on a little portable TV at The Track restaurant in Carytown.
Biograph Naturals 1980

Not wanting to steal Mr. Natural from his creator, R. Crumb, we made sure to get written permission from the artist to use the character as the Biograph Natural's official mascot. The five-foot-tall foamcore Mr. Natural proved to be somewhat baffling, even galling, to some of the Biograph's opponents, so we made the most of it.
(Photo: Phil Trumbo)


As the 8th anniversay reunion party (1980) wound down old friends who had worked at the Biograph, or still did, and who were still awake, shared a light moment behind the candy counter in the lobby. From left-to-right they are Cassandra Cossitt, Trent Nicholas, Bernie Hall and Tom Campagnoli.

In the background is the door to the popcorn storage and lost-and-found departments. The ladder that we used to change the letters on the marquee was kept in there, too. It was customary at that time to post any articles we could find that put disco music in a bad light on the door. We called it the Anti-Disco Door and movie patrons enjoyed bringing us stuff for it.
Photo Credit: F. T. Rea

Update: A second photo of Cassandra from the same era, which was sent in by former Biograph usher/projectionist David Giles, is below.