The Blue Raccoon

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Surfin' Safari: An irregular continuing series of how you got washed up. Here.
From the depths of the Sitemeter...

raccoon in blue shoes..... here.

raccoon in corner picture

raccoon and porn.... here (don't worry, it's work safe --and naughtier in the Netherlands.)

...And the winner for the most educational search:

The Whig Party chose the raccoon as its

-I always thought raccoons would make for good politicians. They're always stealing and washing their hands of the whole thing. Can't think of a recent third party with a symbol that was quite as identifitable. Ross Perot doesn't count as a mascot even though he kept running away. Besides, he bought--and sold-- the Magna Carta. There's a layer of symbolism here about the foundation of democratic freedom going up for sale to the highest bidder, but, I'll leave you, billion-eyed audience, to do that particular heavy lifting.

And, well, OK, since you asked. Here's a wee picture of Jenny McCarthy in a bikini to close out this edition of Blue Raccoon: Surfin' Safari. [If I could find a picture of a person on a surfboard while using a laptop, I'd use that instead.]

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Burdens of Being a Burgher In Richmond: Assorted points to ponder and the gruesome march of purblind doomsters

The Burghers of Calais, completed in 1888 by Auguste Rodin, via

"I have not shown them grouped in a triumphant apotheosis, such a glorification of their heroism would not have corresponded to anything real. On the contrary, I have, as it were, threaded them one behind the other, because in the indecision of that last inner combat which ensues between their cause and their fear of dying, each of them is isolated in front of his conscience. They are still questioning themselves to know if they have the strength to accomplish the supreme sacrifice — their soul pushes them onward, but their feet refuse to walk. They drag themselves along painfully, as much because of the feebleness to which famine has reduced them as because of the terrifying nature of the sacrifice … If I have succeeded in showing how much the body, weakened by the most cruel sufferings, still holds on to life, how much power it still has over the spirit that is consumed with bravery, I congratulate myself on not having remained beneath the noble theme I have dealt with." --Rodin

No, nobody in the city's government is headed for execution--legal injunction, maybe--but random citizens sitting on their front porch are getting shot and killed. Such is life here right here in River City.


• Why does the Richmond City School Board pay rent, whatever it is, whether $10 [what City Council preferred] or $580,000 [at City Hall] or $605,000 [purported, for 3600 W. Broad St.] a year? This bears some looking into, especially since the Richmond Times-Dispatch pointed out that in neighboring regional localities, this is not the case. How common is this arrangement? The education departments are, after all, functions of civic administration. Taxes are paid to support them--why is Richmond's paying moneys back to the city for its own offices? How is this handled in other cities and states?

• In a previous entry, the statements of Richmond School Board member Carol Wolf: "Go ahead and arrest me," and that of citizen Sababu Sanyika, "Who’s going to uphold the constitution and the rule of law in this city?” were singled out beause it is doubtful any more memorable public utterances will be made here until the end of 2007. One should've anticipated Councilman Marty Jewell, though, a putative supporter of the Governor-Mayor, who in his characteristic unvarnished manner desribed the events of Friday: "It was just butt-ugly."

• The mayor at-large is not a bad idea. The system works if the person who heads it is rational and broad-minded and possessive of wit and clarity of reason.

• Ikia M. Goodman, 25, was killed by a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting while sitting on the front porch of her mother's Tifton Court, South Richmond house. How many systems of society and culture failed to lead to his tragic occurrence -- and one that is repeated in Richmond until the steady drone of death makes no impression upon us?

• On August 29-30, six nuclear missiles were loaded onto a bomber and flown from the Air Force Base in Minot, N.D, across the country to Barksdale, La., and for 36 hours were outside of command-and-control. That is, nobody in the Air Force knew the exact whereabouts of these bombs. A friend during a party on Saturday night mentioned this incident to me, and I kind of dismissed the notion, as he's fond of Interweb rumors and consiracies. I said, probably frowning, "How's this sourced?" Well. Sunday morning, the story occupied prime real estate on the front page of the Washington Post. If you haven't already, you can read about this real and strange and scary situation here and here.

The unfunny part about this is that the Post reported that Air Force officials kept the story buried, though one document stated, "No press interest ancticipated."

I pair this up with recent reports--Ron Rosenbaum mentioned it in an August 31 Slate article--of the resumption of strategic bomber flights by Russia. What this means isn't clear; or whether those bombers are even carrying warheads. It could be just an expensive ploy Putin is playing to prove his willingness to expore brinkmanship is bigger than everybody else's.

Rosenbaum further says -- as if this alone isn't enough to have you peering with a squinted eyes into the sky at the sound of low-flying jets - that during the 1980s the Soviets activated a kind of Dr. Strangelove-esque doomsday arrangement of bombs, "And there is no evidence Putin's Russia has deactivated the system."

"The details of this top-secret Soviet system were first revealed in 1993 by Bruce G. Blair, a former American ICBM launch control officer, now one of the country's foremost experts on Russian arms. Fearing that a sneak attack by American submarine-launched missiles might take Moscow out in 13 minutes, the Soviet leadership had authorized the construction of an automated communication network, reinforced to withstand a nuclear strike. At its heart was a computer system similar to the one in Dr. Strangelove. Its code name was Perimetr. It went fully operational in January 1985. It is still in place."

There's more on this story on Rosenbaum's blog, here.

Meanwhile, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed Columbia University's Department of History, after much to-ing and fro-ing about whether he should be allowed. Last time I looked, this is a democracy, and any idiot can say whatever he damn well pleases and is protected by law to make a fool out of himself. You can read the whole thing here.

I am so tired of religious zealots appealing to the base fears of people in order to promote themselves into positions of power. The world is too complicated and dangerous a place to allow these people to continue and set up the circumstances of global extinction that they want to hurry us into.

That said, don't see this as appeasement, but what makes the U.S. a exception among nations in terms of personal expression; that is, if you overlook illegal wiretapping and extraordinary rendition.

Finally, we should all take a look at the Burmese Buddhist monks who've been marching for days, bare-foot and unarmed to protest government policies there. Compare this image to Rodin's burghers above, "
the indecision of that last inner combat which ensues between their cause and their fear of dying...their soul pushes them onward, but their feet refuse to walk." Here are men of faith who are trying to accomplish a transition of power without firing a shot or giving a speech or loading up a nuke.

Via --Asia.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Dismemberment Plan

Matthias Grunewald didn't realize that in 1510 he was
describing recent events at Richmond City Hall.

To hear the exasperated and put-upon-sounding Governor-Mayor on Jimmy Barrett's WRVA morning program this ayem, the confusion at City Hall is all just a real estate transaction gone awry. The School Board--says Wilder--takes up too much room at City Hall in outsized proportion to the schools and children that the education division administrates. The School Board has no lease and has--so Wilder and his camp explain--no boilerplate arrangement with the City of Richmond for occupation of its five floors of offices that began in 1972.

Wilder wants other offices, like Economic Development, returned to the fold. Some members of the billion-eyed audience may reall that ED was in 2000 spun out and put in the Maggie Walker Business and Technology Center, 501 E. Franklin St., with the Industrial Development Authority and the non-profit business incubator known as Advantech.

This was back in the day, as the kids say, when John Woodward ran the city's ED and came across as one of the few people in Richmond who knew what they were talking about. Here was a guy who could've gone anywhere, but he carried unabashed allegiances to Richmond, so, of course, the Governor-Mayor ejected him from the game. Woodward is in Atlanta, now, doing quite well, thank you, as Director of Foreign Investment for the City of Atlanta Department of Economic Development. Slacker.

Councilman Bill Pantele sought to create a small business incubator in a dinged-up downtown office building. From a development point of view, seemed to make sense to have new enterprises, the IDA and ED all in one place.

For the past two years, the Governor-Mayor has had other plans, and wants to kick the education department up the street to 3600 W. Broad St., the former Seaboard Railway Building.

[Historical aside: this massive Scott's Addition office builidng was designed by James William Breed (1911-1973). While with Baskervill & Son, he also created the elegant brass grille depicting eight significant personalities in the advancement of medicine, from Hippocrates to Joseph Lister, on the Medical College of Virginia West Hospital. Breed also designed Richmond Memorial Hospital and the Robert Shaw Controls building near Willow Lawn, the latter he considered his masterpiece. He was a Modernist, but not without a sense of humor; 3600 was supposed to look like a caboose for Southern Railway, and when you pass by the builidng on 195 or stand on a Scott's Addition rooftop and take in the view, you can see Breed's wit at work. Breed also designed the decorative wood grill, of cherry and mahogany, to cover the organ pipes of the Richmond Christian Science Church on Monument Avenue.]

So it was that I read the tempering and mediating views of Jon Baliles at River City Rapids, who says, in summary, that the media needs a time out and that this wasn't a coup.

The Governor-Mayor didn't violate the circuit court judge's orders and proceed with moving the School Board offices. Though if they'd shown up at 3600 with their piles of boxes, they wouldn't have been able to gain entry. Nobody on the School Board was given keys. Balisles does see that at the very least, Wilder violated a city ordinance allowing the School Board to remain in City Hall, but the courts now must determine if the ordinance applies under the new regime.

To my mind, In the awful and absurd zero sum game of politics in this nation these days, the maneuver of the Governor-Mayor was, at best, ham-fisted and unpleasant, and, at worst, unconstitutional. He committed a public blunder in that he angred vocal opponents and bullied the media. Then there's that whole idiotic naming of names against Council President Bill Pantele, which is just...inexcusable.

Wilder doesn't care what any of us thinks. He cares about poses and drama. So, he's moved up a timetable from November about who has control of City Hall. But at what aesthetic and psychic cost -- never mind the money. What unfortunate impression has his bollixed overreaching made on those who live here and view Richmond from beyond?

Full disclosure: Through the past several years I wrote and advocated for the direct election of a mayor and the need for a chief executive who would provide a face and voice for the city, a person in whom people could see the emobdiment of Richmond's aspirations and the better aspects of our city's character. I also wanted a decisive but fair leader who could create coalitions and make compromises in the name of getting things done and moving Richmond into a 21st century released from its 20th century baggage of race and economic injustice. That would mean empaneling a dynamic group of advisors from across the spectrums of politics and philosophies and letting them reimagine what this city could become. I wanted us as Richmonders to strut with pride at what was happening at City Hall, not hide our eyes in shame at newspaper headlines and blaring television coverage.

I wanted to vote for a dragon-slayer, not the dragon; I sought a much-needed shake up at City Hall, not a shake down, my expectations were for an unexpected exhiliration about our city's government, not a disheartening and demoralizing debacle. My idea was to restore to Richmond the idea of a civic and cultural beacon; not a mediocre melodrama funded by tax dollars.

I'd hoped for someone who'd addres the Dilllon Rule (and more of it here) and the ridiculous city-county split that is perpetuated by the General Assembly that prevents metropolitan and regional unificaiton. The concept is often used as a boogey man by county adminsitrations -- and Wilder doesn't help matters much. And I so hoped that he would have an opposite effect. He's had no vision, "City of the Future," or no, he's just engaged in turf fights and mud-slinging while claiming this was what the people of Richmond elected him to accomplish.

I wanted somebody like Charleston, S.C.'s Joe Riley to emerge out of the sudden opportunity for Richmond to govern herself. Charleston now has a unique challenge: Riley has been mayor for almost 30 years--he is the longest serving mayor in the nation's history--and is so well liked and competent, that the fear is that electoral politics won't provide another like him, and Charleston may want to return to a City Manager/weak mayor government (!)

But as a friend of mine counseled me a few years ago, who knew City Hall and the system here, be careful what you ask for. He asked me to look around: where was this potential healer-uniter-leader that I sought? Where in the field could he or she be found? If Richmond would be willing to support someone left of center, or--scratch and forget that-- even get excited about somebody with half a clue, instead of becoming infatuated by over-used tropes and applause-line rhetoric. Mind you, I still support the mayor-at-large -- just not this one.

His Excellency said this morning, I thought in rather interesting way, that if City Council doesn't want him vested with the authority of running City Hall, then they need to get sombody else. It was one of this throw-away lines, but, maybe he's right. But for now, we're stuck with him, just like we are with another resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

You know, people complain about Richmond's old system of courtesy--which was often used to deflect from real bad things that were allowed to occur and also prevented actual tough decisions and discussion--but in this case, we could use some of that politesse. This brusque kicking around of people and the dismissal of their complaints is no way to run a municipality, and I dare say, I'm not the only one thinking so on this fair Monday.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

High Noon At City Hall

Gary Cooper walks the street alone; via The Sheila Variations,
a grand compendium of cinematic criticism, lore and appreciation.

"Go ahead and arrest me." -- Carol Wolf, Richmond School Board member, staring down the mayor's gendarmes at City Hall, Friday, Sept. 21, 2007, after the group was barricaded in City Hall for an hour then not permitted to have a public meeting.

“Who’s going to uphold the constitution and the rule of law in this city?” -- Sababu Sanyika, a Richmond citizen, asking a very good question, after police refused him entry into City Hall.

I don't know what the remainder of the year holds for the people and the people's government of the City of Richmond, but these two quotes, as reported by Style Weekly's Chris Dovi, puts most other public utterances to shame.

Wolf's actions in the face of potential arrest makes Style's May 30, 2007 cover article about her seem prescient. The Scott Elmquist photo of her wrapped in a flag drew the expected to-an-fro in the letters column. But if our own community's leaders won't stand up to authoritarian practices and policies, how can such honorable behavior be expected further up the political ladder?

Further, I'm going out on a limb, but I'm guessing Mr. Sanyika is an immigrant, or the son of recent immigrants, who may have come to this country to avoid such scenes as were enacted in City Hall on Friday.

In the old days, the wire machines rang bells to announce important news, these days, its instant update blogging that provides a bridge between the dead tree fiber media, and the other one that uses the DTFM as a way to provide "reporting" (with some exceptions).

Billion-eyed audience, there are other blogs giving diligence to this story; I hope it just doesn't get shrugs and chuckles from Mr. and Mrs. Murgatroyd. State and federal laws have been broken, and these are not small things.

Read more at Buttermilk & Molasses, where there are four, count'em, entries under September 23; also for Sept. 23, in the Near West End News; and the stalwart Save Richmond.

Sad thing is, Richmond indeed needs saving.

From itself.

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No, he really said that...

Lori Petty as Tank Girl, arriving just in time to clean up Richmond's
current political mess.

I didn't see it mentioned here in the Richmond Blog o' Blogs, so I thought this would be the appropriate place. This morning, the Governor-Mayor's Plenipotentiary was quoted in the newspaper saying that he'd told the Governor-Mayor that he expected a purge of School Board offices would have legal consequences. When the Plenipotentiary was asked why he chose to continue with this academic maneuvering, he said, "It's not my call. My responsibility is just to execute." And further pressed about who made the final decision to continue, he said, "I don't know how to answer that."

Excuse me. But what this sounds like the Plenipotentiary is saying is: I was only following orders.

Holy criminy. It's come to this. Look away, Richmond, Vee-ay, look away.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

.....About Last Night

Tragic-Comic Opera, the Seafarer by Paul Klee (1934) via

I doubt that when Paul Klee created this work that he could've imagined the metaphorical qualities fitting the political situation in Ruch'mun' Vee-ay. Here, the exquisite early autumn days have lapsed into late August soggy humidity and heat and I think the change of temperature--besides giving people sneezes and soar throats--has made RVA's political class go stupid. Illustrated here is the vainglorious giant fish slayer, as Hizzoner perceives of himself, poking in the eye with a sharp stick the School Board and anybody else who gets near his position of power.

The billion-eyed audience could care less about our municipal sturm und drang; however, I live here, and the events of Friday, September 21, 2007, reinforce my loving and loathing relationship with this, the city of my nativity. So in my tunnel of work, art, writing and Colonial Avenue I was unaware--and with a certain bliss that is often paired with ignorance--of the fracas at City Hall.

Assorted bloggers and bloggists have joined the howling, handwringing, and metaphorical wrenting of garments and pulling out of hair that accompanies these not infrequent city embarrassments. I in most cases agree with these befuddled and flabbergasted accountings of current events, so I don't devote much time to such topics at the Blue Raccoon. Most times, these days, politics whir above me like the sounds of cicadas along West of the Boulevard's bosky streets.

But this one, well, I can only provide some perspective.

Joy in the Streets

Before I knew any of this, I was at the New York Deli quaffing Legends and later finding my hips and knees shake and swerve to the inspired sounds of the House of Prayer brass band that visits Carytown, usually on Friday nights. More effective than any sermon, far more poetic than a corner exhortation by a sweaty-browed, hoarse-voiced zealot, these guys just make a joyful noise, including a version of Amazing Grace that had me singing like I hadn't since being in the Stockton Memorial Baptist choir. And never with such enthusiasm. Oh, billion-eyed audience, you'd have thought you were in New Orleans.

Unknown to me, across town the public celebration and unveiling of a reinvented portion of the River District/Shockoe a plaza was getting its ribbon-cutting. You can read of this here and here. I cannot speak to the feasibility or aesthetic quality of the space, I've not seen it, but if, like well-placed furniture, it ties together an otherwise fussy room, this sounds like a positive innovation within Richmond's cityscape.

While this design may be a good omen, the events which overshadowed it carry an internal sensation like this 1912 De Chirico painting, with the appropriate title, Enigma of the Hour.

Now, Richomnd's Governor-Mayor was in attendance and according to a news report, was seen "dancing with a blue glow stick around his head." Hey, I'm all in favor of elected officials getting into the spirit, but when contrasted with the train of events of this day and evening, his joyous behavior seemed more absurd than exuberant. Like, a kind of down-market Tony Soprano at a roisterous party while a hit was carried out against a cross-town rival.

A Few Easy Ways To Make Richmond Look Even More Ridiculous

From early afternoon, the Governor-Mayor's minions conducted a purge of City Hall. First , the Minister of Enlightenment declared that a "pattern of porn usage" had been uncovered throughout computers at City Hall. This followed a similar discovery by the city's internal fiscal coordinator that after hours, service and security personnel had run up thousands of dollars in calling phone sex lines. Which leads me to suggest, that while Virginia is for lovers, and visitors should live passionately, that Richmond's slogan should be "Me So Horny."

All City Council aides were instructed by the Governor-Mayor's plenipotentiary that they would need to set up interviews to determine if they could retain their jobs. Then, much later in the afternoon, the Minister of Enlightenment sends round an e-mail urging employees to scat and not come back until Monday morning. Police began to seal off the building although some members of Council and the School Board were permitted to enter.

Now, at this point, the Governor-Mayor was following the rule book for running a coup. Seize the communications, purge the dissenters, and make sure the constabulary is on your side. The Governor-Mayor and the School Board have been at loggerheads since day one, and matters haven't been made better by a group of private businesspeople (The Gang of 26) who want to return to an appointed School Board, rather than an elected one, a suggestion that was met--near as I can determine--by almost uniform apathy by all except for a few media and civitarian types. And bloggers.

The Governor-Mayor hasn't made any friends on the Board by insisting that they should move elsewhere, the pretext being they could save the city money by getting out of City Hall. And so, movers began packing up their offices from six floors of the Great Metal Waffle that is the sad example of the Richmond's City Hall. The School Board tried convening an emergency public meeting but neither the public nor media were allowed to attend, and police threatened journalists with arrest. The Board tried forming a rear-guard defense on the steps of City Hall, but all they could do was look impotent and flabbergasted. The Board commander couldn't persuade police to relent and allow the public in, which, last time I checked, is a Constitutional right. So the School Board members did what most city officials do when at a legal crossroads: they dispatched a runner to jostle awake Henry Marsh III.

Around midnight, a Richmond circuit court judge issued a temporary restraining order to prevent any more moving to be undertaken, and all the king's men had to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

It was like some kind of Gilbert and Sullivan (or the film Topsy-Turvy) meets banana republic government take-over. And to paraphrase James Branch Cabell, were it not so heart-breaking, it would be side-splitting.

And yet, overnight polling of Mr. and Mrs. Murgatroyd indicate that most television-watching Richmonders (who are probably in Henrico and Chesterfield counties) think it was a jolly good show, since all they care about is entertainment value, not actual functioning government.

What? No gun play?

So this morning I am preambulating past the new Tom & Jerry's ice cream store, when I see this headline: "Chaos erupts at City Hall -- Wilder alleges porn link to Pantele's computer--City evictsd school officials; police ban public from meeting."
So, no shots were fired, except cheap ones, and no harm done except to bruised egos and the backs of movers. A long-standing feud between Council President Pantele--really, almost all of Council-- and the Governor-Mayor has become ugly and personal, and now that the "porn" word has shown up in proximity to an elected official's name, my guess there'll be calls for prayer breakfasts, FBI investigations and televised hearings on QVC.

Billion-eyed audience, the political forecast for Richmond for the next several months is, I predict, storms with subpoena-sized law suits. The affronted School Board, the insulted President of Council, and heck, I think the whole city should engage in a class action suit against the Governor Mayor. Just for drama, you understand.

Frankly, I think there's only one savior possible for the City of Richmond, Virginia. And here she is:

Leeloo, from the Fifth Element, or, more to the point, in this version:

Yup, she swaggers into town, and all this unpleasantness will just go away in bloody ribbons because she's armed and fabulous. Can you not see it? She bursts into the Governor-Mayor's office, assumes a martial pose and announces, "Hey Gov, don't look now, but it's Milla Time."

But, more of her, anon.

What Price Democracy?

Meanwhile, on B-2 of the morning paper, Governor Tim Kaine was reported as having addressed the 2007 National Federation of Press Women and said that when his term expires in 2010, he may not seek another public office. He voiced concerns about seeking elective office, among them low voter turn out, public scrutiny, time away from family and the sheer expense of campaigning.

"The price of elections is high enough that it excludes an awful lot of good people who might otherwise run for public office. It may not be unconstitutional, but it has the same kind of effect."

A-men brother, a-men.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Mutation: Berlin
My prolonged absence was caused, first, by the general demands of life and work, then, the humble Blue Raccoon got flagged for some preposterous reason as a "spam" blog by Blogger, and there is no freaking way, no telephone 1-800 number to tell them I am not a spammer. I'm a muser. Big difference. I resent, as a personal affront, that there is not an actual person to whom I can register a complaint. Anyway, as the billion-eyed audience can see, now we're in the air.

So beyond my Interwebs annoyance, I was consumed by wistfulness for an international theater experience that originated out of Berlin, Germany, which sought during 2003- 2004 to bring together the numerous talents of theater throughout the world. This globe-girdling experiment was called Mutation.

The Mutation Project created performance events in Berlin, Buenos Aires, Lagos, Shanghai, and Richmond, Virginia.

Directed by Dirk Cieslak, Mutation's process relied upon Internet communications and based scenarios transferred to performance upon a category scheme built into a blog maintained by the project. I fell in love with Berlin, a beautiful wounded city like my own Richmond.

The collage above was in the Sophiensaele studio theater of the Lubricat company, and you can see the Firehouse Theatre in the second row, in the last image.

Images, taken by Amie and me. No Berlin is not sinking by the stern -- I don't know why this wouldn't load right. That's me with Bridget, flying the Firehouse flag; then Amie with Swiss performer Miriam Fiordeponti, whose stage presence ignited each of her scenes; and there she is--in motion--with Dirk, the guy who came up with this crazy Mutation idea.

Mutation came to Richmond due to the connection of architect and film location director Isaac Regelson to Richomnd-born performer Ami Garmon, who knew Dirk and Dirk wanted to represent a part of the United States that not everybody knew. Isaac acted in Mutation--his first ever time on a stage, and he acquitted himself quite well. Ami's taken her art throughout the United States and Europe.

This delightful young woman exhibiting her right to bare arms is Luz, an Argentinian, who was a production assistant for the massed Berlin mini-festival of all the productions from the individual Mutation sites, and the the final Mutation -- what we'd call call now -- "mash up."

This is Flaming June, actually, she's a very tired production assistant named Ulla. She's leaning on the shoulder of actress Bridget Gethins.

Save Our Planet. The sentiment is emblazoned on a preserved section of the Berlin Wall lining the Topography of Terror, which was the location of the SS headquarters and torture chambers.

During the Nazi era, the Prinz Albrechtstrasse offices weren't a secret, undisclosed location. The Gestapo's presence was listed in the tourist guidebooks of the period.

The view below shows some of the interpretive plaques that discuss in detail the cold machinery employed to murder, torture and otherwise exterminate millions of people, another surviving portion of the Berlin Mauer, and visible at top, one of the few surviving Nazi era buildings, which housed the offices of -- wait for it -- the Luftwaffe. Now its the administrative center for a bank. How weird must that be for the vice-presidents and secretaries. But in the tradition of European adaptive reuse, even this stoic remnant of the Hitler time can be made to work in peaceful life.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Because it's Tuesday, September 11, and we could all use some cheering up. Here, billion-eyed audience, is a big, beautiful, beaming Brooksie...via this amazing trove, brooksie.vintage.

And, further, I don't even know how I happened upoin this image, but it's from later in her short career -- God's Gift To Women, of 1931, memorable if only because it's a sound picture, and we get to hear Louise speak in that splendid, "Mid-Atlantic" stage-style that she possessed all her life--her enunication precise enough that, even in the silents, you can read her lips. [Thus solving the question if silent film actors knew what the interstitial cards said. Well, there were scripts; and Louise read hers].

There are some funny lines in this Frank Fay vehicle, and a multi-woman cat fight on a bed that includes a young Joan Blondell. The caption here could be: "Ms. Brooks, are you trying to seduce me?" As they said in that time, she's got gams. But of course, she had ample qualities beyond her stems, behind that smile, and within those big dark eyes.

By the by, here's an image of Joan Blondell, a publicity shot taken in the 1930s. Because of its color, and the discrete position of the chair, it all seems so contemporary. The pose has been copied and copied again, the most memorable one is the image of the notorious Christine Keeler, who brought down the Profumo government, immortalized in this 1963 Lewis Morley image. That particular photograph was appropriated in advertising for the 1989 film, Scandal.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Cheers! It's First Friday in Richmond, Vee-ay!

Not that it needs syllable of promotion from me, but in the public spirit of the Blue Raccoon, I try to give the billion-eyed audience a glimpse of life here.

I don't know these two women; they were participating in a First Friday probably five years ago, and I've always liked their smiles. This was when the Three Miles Gallery operated where Tarrant's Cafe is now, which was Tarrant's Drugstore for decades before. The clientel included the mayor and various city officials who'd drag chairs out to the sidewalk and engage in the fine Southern art of shooting the breeze. They called themselves, when so assembled, The Gutter Club. Whew. Did you get all that?

How's this for a pairing of Wild Enthusiasm and I've Seen Too Much Art? This again was at
Three Miles Gallery. At any rate, this is all part of Curated Culture's successful endeavor
to fill the streets of downtown Richmond with the catalyst being arts and culture. And it works.

With clear skies and fair weather predicted on this particular Friday, if past history is any guide, some 5,000ish and probably more people will amble and meander along old Broad and its tributary streets where they'll wander in and out of galleries, listen to live music and view other performances -- there's even a cabaret at TheatreIV tonight and the Art Cheerleaders will be out and about, selling baked goods. And this isn't even the official opening of the season; that comes on October 5.

Then, the River City Burners will swishing their censors and torches around, in front of Gallery 5. And there'll at the time accompanying this and assorted activity--again, this is October 5, " the world-class Richmond Symphony Brass Quintet and the grooves of the hottest band in Richmond - the No BS Brass Band!"

The Arts Walk has become so popular that now we have street preachers come to stand on the corners and harangue us for our sinfulness and remind us that red wine and cheese are markers on the stepping stones of eternal damnation. I've seen this guy in action several times, and for the life of me can't figure out if his dynamic vocal gyrations constitute performance art or if he's real. If the latter, it makes no real sense; but we are living on the an outer loop of the Bible Belt, and, well, we all know art-making is subversive and atheistic. Just ask all those Papist Renaissance artists who were named for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

If you'd like to watch writer Mark Holmberg mix it up with one of these sidewalk religionists, here it is.

And, oh, by the way. You can also gander at actual art made by actual aritists, and even buy some, and we wish that you would. This image comes from, and that's the 1708 Gallery. This month, Marilee Keys provides Nature a chance to present subtle expression, and demonstrates the best possible use for junkmail. You just need to go.

You may see shifty characters like these two below. That's me, left, and poet/raconteur Kelly Lane, right, one December Friday in 2005 of all years. I think this at Art6. Um, but by the lights, maybe its 1708. This picture was taken by Julia Bethel and was placed on the First Fridays image gallery roster. I don't quite have as big a double chin now.

And just because, this is the general area of the cockpit for First Friday action from an image of some months ago I first ran across on Richmond City Watch. Shame on me that I don't have the date. This is Brook Road, North Adams and Broad streets, on the Jackson Ward (north) side of Broad looking south. Note the stage getting set up at center. The turreted domed structure, 107 W. Broad St., was built at the Masonic Temple in 1888, Jackson Gott, architect. It's now the Renaissance Center, with party and reception venues and apartments and offices -- and a boxing ring in the basement. The big flatiron shaped structure at right is the Emrick Flats, which long ago housed a Chevrolet dealership and is today new residential.

If this looks like the kind of place you'd like to move into; well, you can. On this very night several refurbished buildings are conducting open houses, as is related by the Carver Jackson Ward News blog. These are Emrick Flats, Mother Herbert's Condos and Sanctuary Condos.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007


My colleague, comrade, and co-founder of the Firehouse Theatre Project, Carol Piersol, is among the 25 arts and cultural makers and creators as assessed by Style Weekly. I'm happy to say that I count a number of these folks as my acquaintances, and have seen, at one point or another, all of their work.

But Carol is the special one for me. Since Halloween Eve of 1992, when me, Bill Gordon, and Anna Senechal now Johnson, (and, to be honest, Jeff Clevenger who was there that first meeting and assisted with technical elements and acted in a slew of Firehouse shows), and we were soon thereafter joined by actors, director and writer Janet Wilson. We were founded on the cornerstone of Sanford Meisner and in as authentic an urban space as you can get: a century-old fire station.

Above is the Richmond Fire Department Station #10, circa 1944, future home of the Firehouse Theatre Project, 1609 W. Broad St. All buildings pictured remain though some in altered forms. The Firehouse lost its bell tower in the 1950s, deemed as unsafe by city building inspectors and removed. I think this was in response to Hurricane Hazel that roared through in October 1958 and took down some mighty church steeples. Wish we still had the tower though, we could've mounted a Klieg up there for our opening nights.

In the image below, you see the place in 2005, from the perspective of the wonderful Lowe's parking lot, where Firehouse patrons are allowed to park. That's architect William L. Bottomley's Stuart Circle Apartments building in the background. Go here, the down to the MAIR, and look in the 1600 block for a somewhat better view. I've always enjoyed how the housings and cupolas of its roof resemble an Italian hillside village.

On the left is the spire of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, which has an exquisite building. The metal facade of the Nationwide Insurance building obscures the pediment of what was an auto repair place, pictured above. 1607 W. Broad, on the other side, is the birthplace of Pleasant's Hardware, a Richmond commercial institution.

[That's Anna, foreground, in a recent production of A Body of Water, with the Company of Fools, in Hailey, Idaho, via their site.]

Carol and me are the remaining founders still associated with the theater and she's there just about every day. The Firehouse is her fourth child. And I was one of the midwives. The Firehouse and its turning 15 in 2008. That achievment is in no small measure a testimony to her role as he theater's artistic director. The FTP's steadfast commitment to producing contemporary theater pieces of the United States, encouraging and developing new work, and emphasizing the actor, is due to her clear vision of how the company should develop.

This gives me the opportunity to push our show opening on September 13, Noah Haidle's Mr. Marmalade. Its a twisted dark children's story that Shel Silverstein would appreciate. But it's not for children. Well, I guess that depends on your kid.

The cast features the incandescent Laine Satterfield, officious and brooding Andrew Boothby, wondrous Erin Thomas, the always excellent Larry Cook, and the surprising Billy Christopher Maupin.

Opening night may very well be sold out at this writing, but you've got until October 6 to see this wild play.

photo by Scott Elmquist

September 5, 2007

Sex, Drugs and High Ceilings

Carol Piersol

In 1993, when Richmond city began to look for a new firehouse, Carol Piersol and several of her acting classmates jumped on the opportunity to create a theater space already outfitted with the requisite high ceilings. Thus, the Firehouse Theatre was born, and Piersol’s been the artistic director ever since.

Piersol, 55, had been in Richmond since 1985, and knew immediately that the theater company she wanted to form would be different from any other in the area. Since its inception, the Firehouse has produced only contemporary American plays that have never been brought to Richmond.

“We’ve never tried to do something for the masses,” Piersol says. “We only want plays that are thought-provoking, on the edge. Our audience is growing, and I think that’s because we’ve stuck with our mission.”

In addition to producing its own full season, offering acting classes, an annual playwriting contest and the musical Firehouse Cabaret, the Firehouse opens its doors to poetry, film, assorted festivals and other theater companies, including the Yellow House films and Just Poetry Slam!

“We try to partner with companies to keep our rent down because we know how hard it is to get started,” Piersol says, “and the city was so generous to help us.”

The Firehouse has gained the trust of Richmond audiences, Piersol says: “Its notoriety has changed from, ‘Oh, I don’t want to see the stuff that they do, it’s going to be that avant-garde, inaccessible stuff that I’m not interested in.’

“The audience understands now that cutting edge doesn’t mean it has no value or will be of interest to only a small group,” Piersol says. “It’s become legitimate. If we approach nudity, drugs and profanity it’s not done gratuitously or for shock value, it’s got value as part of the play. A play can be thought-provoking, profound and highly entertaining at the same time.”

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The Secession Decession Decision:
Richmond’s Museum of the Confederacy to subdivide and vacate by 2011?

[Image: via]

Few of the billion-eyed audience that visits the Blue Raccoon may care, but in Ruch’-mun’ Vuh-jin-ya, headline-generating news this week that has nothing to do with dog fighting or NASCAR, but concerns our other fetish here, the Civil War. The story pertains to the possible breaking up of the nation’s largest collection of Southern Confederacy artifacts into three separate units to be housed at Virginia national battlefield parks, at Chancellorsville, Appomattox, and, maybe, Petersburg


" that later generations could seethe..."

In May 2007 I had the opportunity to visit the Memorial Hall Confederate Museum in New Orleans that is the second largest repository of Southern Civil War artifacts and ephemera. It’s convenient to the Ogden contemporary arts center, and the National World War II Museum, so Amie could drop me off to get loaded to the gills with history.

The museum is housed in a solemn Richardson Romanesque building designed for its specific purpose that opened in 1891, a year after Richmond’s Southern shrine started in the former White House of the Confederacy.

Touring the place is interesting because the original late 19th century display cases are still there, and the exhibition techniques are of the same period. Due to the age of moldering uniforms and fading cardes de visite, you can’t light them well, and for one who has had some back problems in the past, squatting down to read the typed caption cards can seem as though I’m practicing my yoga moves.

Among the unusual items was the uniform of P.G.T. Beauregard I’d not realized he was such a petite fellow. A photo of his wife showed her to have been a Creole hottie. Major General Franklin Gardner, in comparison, seems to have been a strapping, barrel-chested six footer.

In the back in an altar-like alcove was a Jefferson Davis trove; a top coat and hat, gloves, slippers, and a peculiar crown of thorns woven by the very hands of Pope Piux IX. This gift was given to Davis while incarcerated at Fortress Monroe, and its authenticity was attested to in a written affidavit by Cardinal Barnardo. The gift cheered Davis “when the malignants was taxed to the utmost to fabricate defamations to degrade me in the estimation of mankind.”

But of particular curiosity were the spurs and personal effects of a trooper from John Singleton Mosby’s command. The private’s name was Alexander Dimitry and he was slain on July 8, 1863, a week after the Battle of Gettysburg concluded. In 1867 Dimitry’s mortal remains were disinterred. By who isn’t stated, nor why.

The recounting of the this odd event was typed on a display card:

“His body and effects were found to be in an excellent state of preservation. Before reburial his boots and spurs were removed and preserved so that later generations could seethe [sic.] the equipment used by Mosby’s famous cavalry unit.”

The joined together “seethe” had been that way for a long while, uncorrected. I was standing there near Jeff Davis’ crown of thorns and under the dark arches and stained glass of the Memorial Hall, and I understood the mis-typed sentiment, and wondered if it didn’t reflect some people’s regard of this part of the nation’s history and how it is comemmorated and what that says about us, as a country, and as Southerners. There has for certain been a great deal of seething.


Death of Audacity

The Battle of Chancellorsville, via

At Chancellorsville, April 30-May 6, 1863, Robert E. Lee’s tatterdemalion but ferocious rebel Army of Northern Virginia of 60,000 confronted the 130,000 man Army of the Potomac commended at the time by the difficult and troubled Joseph P. Hooker. Lee working with dificult and troubled but brilliant Stonewall Jackson performed an unthinkable military maneuver by splitting the ANV in three before a superior force, surprising Hooker, and kicking him back across the Rappahannock River. The battle’s caldron claimed at least 30,000 men. One of them was Jackson himself, who was mortally injured when reconnoitering ahead of his lines at night on May 2, was shot and struck by North Carolina soldiers. Jackson’s death, whom some have argued provided Lee’s audacity, was a blow from which the army never recovered. Lee remarked that Jackson lost his left harm, and that he had lost his right.


A system

The proposed concept of a ‘system’ of Museum of the Confederacy exhibiton centers is the culmination of several years planning by the current museum administration and board. They concluded from a consultant’s study that due to the museum’s getting hemmed in by the expanding Virginia Commonwealth Health Systems and medical college campus that it was no longer practicable to operate where the museum couldn’t even be seen or accessed with ready ease.

The famous first line of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, an epic masterpiece of passion, scandal and betrayal is, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The sentiment goes for non-profit organizations, too, in particular one of a venerated historical lineage. Anna cannot be truthful, nor does she wish to exist in a lie, and thus, she cannot live with herself. She throws herself under a train.


Not Good Feng Shui

VCU’s growth cut off 12th Street; the route visitors to the White House took when President Jeffererson Finis Davis lived here in what was called—and is today-- the Court End neighborhood. The rude imposition of the street just isn’t good feng shui – and hides the Museum and the Confedederate White House. The latter, by the way, wasn't built specific for the purpose of housing the Southern President and his family. It was built in 1818 by a prosperous banker, and had passed through several hands. Davis rented the house from the Confederate government.

Temporary construction-related street closings, paired to parking challenges, haven’t helped the museum’s visitation rate which when rendered in a graph, resembles steep stairs leading to a cellar. During 1992-1993 visitation totaled 79,000 but by 2005-2006 the number dropped 35 percent, to 51,498.

One way to reopen Court End to the visiting public, as architectural historian Ed Slipek Jr. once suggested, is the demolition of the dilapidated city Safety, Health and Welfare Building that blocks East Clay Street between 9th and 10th streets. The redesign of that lot could provide parking and introduction for the entire Court End district, which includes the Valentine Richmond History Center, the John Marshall House and Monumental Church.

The problem is, the building which contains decrepit court rooms is in a legal limbo—Mayor L.Douglas Wilder wants to move judges to Manchester and VCU has expressed interest in the Public Safety building site to further expand the Virginia Biotechnology Center, according to news reports.


Missed Opportunties

MOC hasn’t in recent years acted with decisive authority about much of anything except issuing occasional trial balloons concerning the possible physical removal of the White House to somewhere else or moving the collection to Lexington, Va., where Lee was post-war president of the now Washington and Lee College, and where he’s buried. And now this brilliant idea.

The MOC hasn’t held a capital campaign in more than 20 years. Board members attempts to direct attention to this important aspect of running a non-profit gained little ground during the 1990s. Efforts to buy additional property or join with what what became the National Civil War Center now at the former Tredegar Iron Works site came to nothing.

Tredegar was a major Confederate weapons factory and is today a keystone in riverfront development. Now the Richmond National Battlefield Parks Visitor Center and the Civil War Center are located there.

The MOC wasn’t quite warm and cozy toward its Court End neighbors, either, the very people and institutions that could understand its plight.

If MOC board members had conducted a Southern barnstorming tour with a big vision and Powerpoint presentations, at Sons of Confederate Vetereans conventions, Civil War roundtable meetings, and interested history organizations, money could’ve been found. Instead, the MOC conducted expensive studies.


"My God, is the army dissolved?"

MOC’s holdings includes the frock coat and borrowed sword that Robert E. Lee wore to the Appomattox surrender; 13 of the 15 regimental flags carried by Pickett’s troops during their final assault during the third day at Gettysburg; 13,000 original images, negatives, and color transparencies; 31 oil-on-board paintings of Charleston Harbor by Conrad Wise Chapman, E.B.D. Julio’s iconic “The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson.” An appraisal a few years ago by Sotheby’s assessed the collection’s value at $100 million.

Richmond was the capitol of the Southern Confederacy. The city was chosen, it didn’t volunteer, and a vast hunk of the place burned in a Wagnerian final act. All this happened, and those who study the war, and tour its battlefields and come to this city to see the war's impact and after effects should have a central place to visit to see all sides of the story.

The MOC’s president and CEO Waite Rawls is quoted as saying, "We are taking the artifacts back to where they were made famous."

The Richmond Times-Dispatch further explains:

Plans call for the construction of an 8,000-square-foot museum at each site, with about 5,000 square feet of exhibit space. That adds up to 15,000 square feet of exhibit space -- more than twice the space the museum has now. Each museum will also house a gift shop, educational rooms and offices.

"The idea of combining artifacts with battlefields will bring new life to both," said Jim Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Preservation Trust. "It will provide visitors a glimpse into the stories of the war, which is the most defining conflict in American history."

The invaluable archives, library an administrative offices would remain in Richmond. But the concrete exhibiton center wouldn't be needed anymore; in this new plan, my guess is it'll be sold to VCU. What will happen with the White House? Perhaps like some Greek temple housed in the skylight-topped courtyard of a European museum, it will be covered over and protected from acid rain by a massive atrium attached to whatever replaces the former museum building.

The sesquicentennial of the Civil War is in 2011; so whatever the MOC does it has to get its act together and move fast. This isn’t something they’ve been good at during the past two decades. Now, though, they’ve put themselves into a corner, and have little choice.

To my mind, this is more like Sayler’s Creek than Chancellorsville. That event occurred just prior to Appomattox. On April 6 at Sayler’s Creek, nearly one fourth of the retreating Confederate army was cut off by Sheridan’s cavalry and elements of the II and VI Corps. Most surrendered, including a passel of Confederate generals, among them "Old Baldy," Richard S. Ewell.

When Lee witnessed the survivors streaming along the road, he exclaimed "My God, is the army dissolved?"


One True Son

Sometimes, I've had to try to explain how and why the Civil War has insinuatd itself into Richmond's psychological sinews. I can't come up with any better example than one Lucas Meredith Jr., whom I met in 1996.

Meredith was a florist in Petersburg, Va., who drive a '66 Thunderbird with boyish élan along winding Dinwiddie County roads, past farmers on tractors who waved at him as he passed. Its "Tin Can Soldiers" license plate referred to his World War II service on fast carriers in the South Pacific.

His father, Lucas Meredith Sr., was born in 1842, while his father was born around 1800. Lucas Meredith marched in the 3rd Virginia Infantry Regiment, Company C, and he fought with that unit in almost every major engagement with the Army of Northern Virginia. Meredith Jr. was told that his father carried the company flag up Cemetery Ridge during Pickett's assault on Gettysburg's third day. He was captured two years later, at the Battle of Five Forks, April 1, 1865, which was bungled in part because Pickett was away at a shad bake. Meredith's timing was good; the war had only a few days remaining. The soldier missed Appomattox, but was paroled and sent home.

He resumed farming, outlived two wives by whom he fathered nine children. Meredith's second wife, Fannie, was Lucas Jr.'s mother. He was her third and last child. His father at the time was 81 years old.

"We have a generation gap in my family," Meredith told me, with a big laugh.

Meredith Sr. attended many veteran's conventions. He returned to Gettysburg, perhaps to see the thing that did not kill him, and marvel. A picture of him was hung in the Gettysburg visitor's center. On Sunday afternoons, he'd take a jaunt down to Five Forks to visit friends and he'd never tire of regaling anybody who'd listen about his wartime adventures.

Lucas Jr. never thought much of being an actual son of an real Confederate veteran, or, how when you shook his hand, you held almost the entire history of the United States, and how his late lineage collapsed long generations into his palm. About 15 years earlier, they began making a fuss over him at conventions.

He took me along the swerving Dinwiddie County roads to see the remnants of the ragged old home place -- his father had owned slaves, which was unusual among Confederate subalterns, who were often dirt poor. We passed by old tumbling barns and lush fields and rolled bays of hale and craggy boulders reminiscent of the ones that appear in Civil War images, with the sharpshooter dead in a crevice.

We came to Rocky Run Church, which his father helped found. The old soldier rests there between the women who bore his children. The son told me, "I don't have strong feelings that come people have about the war. But I do have a tremendous amount of pride about what my father did and what he went through."


The President's Grandson

Then there's John Tyler's grandson.

John Tyler was President of the United States during 1841-1845, one of Virginia's seven sons who attained that position. You may also read and see more about him here.

He got there by a unexpected turn of events and for that reason was referred to by his foes as "His Accidency." Tyler was vice-president of another Virginia aristocrat, William Henry Harrison, who during his 1840 inaugural gave a two-hour speech while standing without cover in a steady rain. Two months later he died--the first President in U.S. history to decease while in office--making Tyler his successor.

The University of Virginia Miller Center history encapsulates his serio-comic presidency:

"Tyler firmly asserted that the Constitution gave him full and unqualified powers of office and had himself sworn in immediately as President, setting a critical precedent for an orderly transfer of power following a President's death. Fearing that he would alienate Harrison's supporters, Tyler decided to keep the dead President's entire cabinet even though several members were openly hostile to Tyler and resented his assumption of the office. After Tyler vetoed a bill to resurrect the Bank of the United States, his entire cabinet resigned in protest, with the exception of Secretary of State Webster, then in the midst of sensitive negotiations with Great Britain. During his second year in office, the Whigs, led by Henry Clay, expelled him from the party and tried to have him impeached. The Whigs had to settle for one of their committees passing a resolution of censure against the President.

In a bid for reelection, Tyler worked to annex Texas, against the wishes of abolitionists who feared that it would become another slave state. Tyler's Democratic rival, James Polk, blunted the issue by also endorsing Texas statehood. Tyler pushed ahead though, introducing Texas annexation to Congress as a joint resolution requiring only a majority vote of each chamber of Congress, thereby dodging the two-thirds majority required to ratify a treaty. This approach succeeded in achieving Texas's incorporation into the Union."

Tyler, in much straitened financial circumstances and an unapologetic but apparently fair owner of 70 slaves, returned to his family plantation with his second wife, Julia Gardiner Tyler. Gardiner was a New Yorker, and 23 years old when in 1844 she married President Tyler, 30 years her senior. He renamed the plantation "Sherwood Forest" to demonstrate how he'd become an outlaw to the Whig Party.

His family grew and he fathered his last of 15 children at 70.

Tyler became a leading Southern sectionalist and chaired the February 1861 Virginia Peace Convention that tried to forestall war, though when Lincoln called for volunteers from Virginia, Tyler became a secessionist. He was elected to serve in the Confederate Congreess. But, while at the Ballard Hotel in January 1862, he died, denounced by the North as a traitor.

Pearl, his last surviving child, died on June 30, 1947.

His grandson, Harrison Tyler, still resides with his family at Sherwood Forest, and, I've heard, plays a mean game of tennis.


It Wasn't Even Yesterday

There are numerous stories like this; and consider how all those Confederate veterans, still living and marching down Monument Avenue in the 1930s, those men and their views influenced their children and grandchildren. The Confederate widows lived even longer. Indeed, you could only start calling Richmond a post-Civil War town until after 1970, about the time of public school integration.

I remember learning more about my home city while traveling in Scotland and speaking with college professors, shop clerks and young people. There was at all levels a resentment of what the British conducted against the Scots 200 years ago and the Battle of Culloden didn't seem all that long ago. The more educated types had a cultivated, rueful regard for this kind of nostalgia, but in the working class and the youth--even biker gangs covering themselves in Gaelic regalia and tattoos--there was a pride found in that past that sounded quite familiar.

Yes, the American Civil War occurred long ago in terms of life, but in the view of memory and psychology, it wasn't even yesterday. Living through it into a shared future --there is the challenge--and how to interpret the past with responsible respect.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

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The 1958 Edsel: the stealth advertising campaign premiered 50 years ago this week.

"It's Like Riding On Air...Because You Are."

I was reminded by the Washington Post's Patrick Carlson that today marked the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of a massive public advertising campaign that tried to persuade the motorists of the United States who could afford them to buy an Edsel.

Billion-eyed audience, I possess an intimate awareness of the car, its makes, models and variations. The Edsel was not one of Ford Motor Company's better ideas. The failure in the calculation of today's dollars was almost $2 billion. That's billion with a "b." The Edsel established the benchmark of how marketing can fail. Big time.

I grew up on an Edsel farm in what was then the verdant virgin wilderness heart of Chesterfield County, Virginia. My dad accumulated, he says, just 13 of the hulking Detroit debacles, but, I remember them from my adolescent years as their number totaling at least 30. At least. The big rusting remnants of chrome-covered 1950s post-war cheap gas happy motoring circled our aluminum-sided shoe box on Shawonodassee Road like something out of a Roger Corman horror movie: Attack of the Killer Edsels.

There's a long story attached to the Edsel invasion of my youth. I wrote a novel based on the concept. (No, it ain't in hard covers. It's in my closet, the rightful place of all first-person first-time novels). What happened was, my Dad entered into an arrangement with Rich Uncle Kenneth (my mother's brother, who held a white collar management job and lived in Baltimore, hence, my understanding of him as possessing wealth). They were to procure, restore and sell Edsels. The idea was rather prescient; today, a cherry Edsel can fetch $100,000 on the rare car market.

Problem was, since Rich Uncle Kenneth lived in Baltimore, he didn't have a place where he could store the cars. So, they came to reside--for a solid decade--on Shawonodassee Road. They weren't stored in some pressurized garage. Just one even got a roof over it; and Rich Uncle Kenneth owned more than 50 percent of the vehicle: a 1958 Edsel Citation Convertible. She was a long, laquered black, chrome-resplendent beauty. I dreamt of driving her to school and making vicious love with whatever infatuation of mine of the week in the half-acre of back seat.

Dad and Rich Uncle Kenneth working as a dysfunctional team yanked Edsels from fallow fields, liberated them out of the garages of widows, rescued them from junkyards and one came to our yard from Charlottesville under its own power. This was the '58 convertible.
Once pulled next to the well house and underneath a simple corrugated metal roof it didn't budge. I tended upon that car with an acolyte's fervor. I took better care of that inert vehicle than I have of any one I've ever owned since. We're talking polishing, cleaning mildew of the upholstery, vacuuming, chasing woodland critters from underneath the seats. Dad drove a '60 Ranger--by which time the exasperated Ford designers had remade the car so it looked like a harmless Mercury.

The vulvaic front end of the '58 (left), and the
push-button transmission in the steering wheel

[Images: from jetset]

The '58s met the specifications of the Ford designers who wanted the car recognized from a "sixth story window." The name came at the end of an extensive and exhaustive focus group testing phase. Ford even hired poet Marianne Moore to generate names for the car. Her suggestions included Tercotinga, Utopian Turtletop, and, my person all-time favorite, Mongoose Civique. In the end, a FoMoCo executive chose Edsel to "honor" the deceased company president. Not even Edsel's widow thought the name appropriate for a mid-to-upper range market car.

The 1958 design included a front end with an oval chrome grille. When people at last saw it, they snickered. Critics derided the shape as resembling a toilet seat, an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon, an automotive executive on the verge making a pronouncement, and -- vulvaic.

[Image: Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita, 1961, via]

The motorists of the 1958 United States weren't prepared to meet a vulva at 55 miles per hour unless it was Swedish, and belonged to Anita Ekberg.

Their presence of these cars, whether the '58 Citation, the '59 Bermuda station wagon, the '60 two-door Pacer, helped define my alienated 1970s sub-suburban childhood. The Edsels surrounding my house like the Kollatz family was in a perpetual hostage stand-off shaped my character. My native curiosity transformed the cars into points of exploration; as secretive as caves, as fascinating as sunken galleons. I poked into the crannies of seats, emptied the glove compartments and pulled up floor rugs to see what they might hide. I was as excited about my discoveries as Jacques Cousteau retrieving Spanish doubloons from the muck in the ocean's bottom. I even hummed the theme song of his Undersea World series and specials -- sometimes narrated by Rod Serling and presented by Burlington.

[Image: The Marriage-Go-Round, via Wikipedia.]

My expeditions garnered various amounts of crusty change, Edsel owner manuals, Broadway Playbills (Marriage-Go-Round, Stop The World I Want To Get Off), laundry chits from exotic cities, and one grimy brassiere. That item was the first of its kinds to reach my fingers and its underwiring and hooks and straps a complicated mystery that I viewed with awe in the Spiegel catalogue whose models were always more exotic than those in Sears.) I tagged these finds with note cards describing which car I found them in, the date, and the weather that day. During numerous subsequent moves that box was lost though I still have the owners manuals.

The cars sat for so long because my Rich Uncle Kenneth wouldn't agree on a price with the numerous interested parties who wandered by or called. Dad spent numerous hours on long-distance phone calls as Rich Uncle Kenneth insisted these cars were classics, even unrestored.

Then, Chesterfield County passed an ordinance that required all vehicles in a yard to be registered. Rich Uncle figured, after all this time, they had to get rid of the cars for whatever price they could fetch.

The '58 Citation convertible was sold to a Prince Edward County official and he had it hauled away by a wrecker. I was reunited with the car many years later at an Edsel rally, but that's another story.

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