Wednesday, December 31, 2008

'A Soup Line for the Unemployed'

The line at the jobs fair was impressive and depressing>

What was intended to be a happy little jobs fair for young professionals at the Roanoke Civic Center yesterday turned out to be something altogether different: a virtual soup line for the unemployed, desperate for work.

These were not the peach-faced recent college grads for whom the fair was intended. They were line workers, ex-military people, mothers looking to supplement household income, older professionals "downsized," and a few from the target audience. I talked to a lot of people who sounded desperate and defeated, not hopeful as a job fair would implicate. Travis Kent, a former military guy who was filling out a random application, said, "It's hard out there right now." Young, fresh Heather Beckner, looking for "anything I can find," had just talked to Wachovia. I asked if she would be interested in trying ad sales and gave her a business card for FRONT.

Steve Haynie had just stopped by Orvis where HR Manager Marie Greer admitted, "We've just finished our busy season" and there aren't any jobs available right now, but she wants some applications for future reference. Steve took a form and walked off to fill it out. There's hope in the form if not in the reality.

When I got there, shortly before the doors opened at 9 a.m., there was a line from the door, running up the steps and out to the road in front of the exhibition hall. Impressive. Depressing.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Great TV Ad, Truly Lousy Restaurant

So now it's Red Lobster 3, Me 0 and that's game, set, match as far as I'm concerned. No more. I give up.

Three times I've sat in the waiting area at Red Lobster and three times I've wound up angry, anxious and fed up (though never fed). I have yet to take a bite of food at that lousy restaurant with the marvelous TV commercials, which have kept me coming back in spite of what is--at best--truly awful non-service from people who simply should not be working service.

Tonight my wife wanted to treat my son's family and me to a lobster dinner as an end-of-2008 treat and we were pumped, thinking of all those grilled lobsters, shrimp and scallops. But it wasn't to be. We arrived at the restaurant at 6:15 p.m., signed in to the waiting list (no smoking, please, I said, adding, "If I smell smoke, I projectile vomit" which always gets their attention) and sat down for a long winter's night.

The room cleared three times before I finally got up, went over to the desk and asked what was going on. The lady says, "You're a party of five and that's an odd size," which implied that we'd get seated when a five-seat table in the non-smoking area was open. That would roughly equate in raw likely-hood to George Bush being elected to something again.

The room cleared two more times (fill up, empty out, we're sitting) and my daughter-in-law, who's pretty aggressive, stormed over to the lady at the desk again and was told all those people--must have been 30--went to the smoking section. All of them. No further explanation. No ETA. No, "I'm sorry, but ..."

When Kara got back to the table, I said, "Let's just go. If we stay we've told them their behavior is OK and I don't want to do that" (I didn't sound as calm and reasonable as that simple quote implies, but simmering anger translates badly). So we left, and on the way out Kara said something smart to the lady, who replied with something smarter, to which Kara replied with a Bronx cheer. Not a happy experience, but when we got to Awful Arthur's, there was this bright, cheerful waitress waiting to make our evening shine again ...

The Ripple Effects of the Housing Problem

It's looking more and more like none of us is immune from the effects of the George Bush Mess and the New York Times has a piece this a.m. that exemplifies our dilemma. In the new age of divorce, the story says, "some divorcing couples are battling not to get the house." Indeed, some couples--showing every sign of an impending split--are riding out the storm by staying together in an uneasy economic pact. There's just no choice when their largest single investment can't be sold.

There are all kinds of ripple effects to this housing market. My son has had a house on the market in Roanoke for about 18 months with almost no prospect of selling it. He took a new job--a good job--in South Boston and moved just as the bottom fell out. I wonder now if he would have taken the job had the housing market been as it is today. I'm getting anecdotal evidence from the business community that hiring good people is suddenly more difficult because new workers don't want to move. That would mean selling the house.

Christina and I own our house, but that doesn't mean as much as it used to unless nothing changes in our lives in the future. And that's not likely.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Politics And Pepsi And O My

Obama (left, below), Pepsi (right), Oregon (above)

Call me irresponsible, but either I'm seeing things or the new diet, caffeine free Pepsi logo is astonishingly similar to a familiar political logo that has been getting a lot of exposure of late. Same can be said for the stylized Obama "O" and the University of Oregon "O", which I have on several ball caps. People are asking me where I got the Obama hats.

'It Wasn't Anybody's Fault'

New York Times columnist Stanley Fish (right), who calls himself a "grumpy old professor," but who is actually a funny, smart guy, has the kind of column today that those of us who have written columns for years want to write more frequently than we do. It's the "get even with the mega-corp column" and every time I have a service problem with a faceless voice on the end of a telephone line--one where I end up feeling de-humanized and humiliated--I want to write that column and get even. But I usually don't because it's a personal vendetta, albeit a righteous one that many in the reading public would appreciate. And, besides that, the mega-corp might be an advertiser in my magazine.

Still, stealing from Keith Olberman and naming AT&T the "Worst Company in the World" for a day must have felt good to Stanley and the column's worth reading if only for the rant value.

The problem with taking a chance by ranting in a column like this is in being wrong. I was ready to kill the local cable company recently on two different occasions. First, I got this huge bill for service that I had upgraded. On second look, the bill was right. In a fit of impulse buying, I had added a level of service that sounded necessary for a guy who deals with a lot of downloads of big files and it was expensive. I'd forgotten about it.

The second screamer was that my wireless cable service at the office was disconnecting just about every 20 minutes and if my office neighbors were not familiar with the expletive "shitgoddamnit" they became so. A call to the cable provider got the the answer I detest, regardless of who's saying it, "It's not my job." I was told that the cable company installs the cable and anything beyond that is up to me. So I called in my IT gal and she couldn't figure out what was wrong. I lived with the interrupted service for two weeks--cussing blue--until one day Alicia called and said, "I figured out what's wrong with your cable."

"Please tell me it's the cable company," I begged.

"Sorry," she said. "It's your phone; the signal is interrupting your computer service and I can fix it in a couple of minutes." OK, yes, I was relieved. To a degree. I wanted to rail against The Man and this robbed me, though. "It wasn't anybody's fault" is hardly the satisfying conclusion I had in mind.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Looming Cancer Danger of the Cell Phone

A few years ago, in the early development days of the cell phone--when they were still the size of a small toaster--my friend Ted Rappaport worried about the potential for cancer of the brain with the cell's radio waves.

At the time, Ted was an engineering professor at Virginia Tech and founder of the Mobile Portable Radio Group, the research arm that, in effect, gave us cellular technology as we know it. I was editor of the Blue Ridge Business Journal at the time and dubbed Ted "the Michael Jordan of cellular technology." He was and the king (he's at the University of Texas) and the cancer worry is still there.

On the way home from a little antiquing this afternoon, Christina and I heard on "The People's Pharmacy" one David Servan-Schreiber, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine who has lived with brain tumors for years. In his new book, Anticancer: A New Way of Life, he talks in depth about living in a way that minimizes risks of cancer.

One of those risks, he says, is cellular telephone use, despite what study after study has shown. Servan-Schreiber compares the potential damage from cell phones to that of cigarettes and he says there's another possible similarity: studies done on cell phone users have been taken over periods of about five years, not enough time to show damage. He says that if cigarette tests were done over periods of less than 10 years' use, there would be no damage shown. He believes that time will show cell phones are dangerous cancer-causing agents.

He also suggests ways to minimize the risks. Here are three:
  • Use an earpiece and keep the phone away from your head. The more distance between the phone and the head, the better for the head.
  • If you receive a call on your cell phone and it is possible, call back on a land line. Don't disconnect your land line for that very reason. Use it and use the cell only when absolutely necessary.
  • In low signal areas, avoid cell use because the phone boosts its power to compensate and could be more dangerous because of that.
I recognize this is another instance of the nanny shaking the finger of warning about something people like to do, but cancer is pretty serious business. Servan-Schreiber can tell you all about it.

Making Sense of the Gay Thing

Melissa Etheridge (left) and her wife, Tammy>

Frank Rich, in his New York Times column this a.m., followed the conventional left-leaning wisdom in criticizing Rev. Rick Warren as a primary inauguration participant, but singer Melissa Etheridge, an aggrieved party, took a line that I would consider evolved. She asked for understanding, forgiveness, tolerance and communication.

Warren, a man who has shown no Falwellian proclivity toward bigotry, made a stupid remark during the heat of California's Proposition 8 debate (which made gay marriage illegal), linking homosexuality to various sex crimes. He told Ms. Etheridge, when they met at Christmas prior to a concert in which both would participate, that he regretted what he said and that he believes no such thing.

My tendency here is to take Warren at his word and watch closely as he attempts to make ammends. That's what Ms. Etheridge, who is gay, married, with a child, is planning to do.

Here's some of what she says in a Huffington Post blog:

"We have the world's attention. We have the capability to create change ... but before we change minds we must change hearts. Sure, there are plenty of hateful people who will always hold on to their bigotry like a child to a blanket. But there are also good people out there, Christian and otherwise that are beginning to listen. They don't hate us, they fear change. Maybe in our anger, as we consider marches and boycotts, perhaps we can consider stretching out our hands. Maybe instead of marching on his church, we can show up en mass and volunteer for one of the many organizations affiliated with his church that work for HIV/AIDS causes all around the world."

Saturday, December 27, 2008

What Meds Are These People On?

A new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll gives us an interesting look at the American electorate as George Bush prepares to strut triumphantly away from the White House, his goal of destroying our way of living nearly complete.

Consider this:
  • 23 percent of those surveyed say they'll miss him (and not all of them are late-night commedians who've made a good living during the past eight years)
  • One third want Bush to remain active in public life (nobody suggested what he'd do, but cutting brush is my thought)
  • 20 percent say he inspires confidence (that would roughly equate to the number of end-of-timers in the population)
  • 17 percent agree he's a uniter, not a divider (he certainly united New Orleans, Democrats, immigrants, environmentalists, economists, gay people, fiscal conservatives, among others)
  • 27 percent approve of the job Bush did (which is a statement on our educational system)
Conclusion? Oh, I don't know, but I really like the London Daily Mirror headline from the day after the election, 2004: "How Can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?" That number seems to have shrunk.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Times and the Sox

In a world where ownership doesn't always follow logic, the New York Times owns a substantial stake in the Boston Red Sox and now, with the bottom falling out of daily newspapers, The Times may be looking to sell. The Times also owns the Boston Globe and one of the intriguing possibilities for this unloading of non-core assets would be the sale of the Sox and Globe to the same person, setting up a gigantic conflict of interest (as in the Chicago Tribune owning the Cubs).

The Wall Street Journal tells us that The Times' ownership share in the Red Sox is about $166 million (that's 17.6 percent ownership of the Sox' parent, New England Sports Ventures) and that the Globe has recently been valued at $20 million (two years ago when Jack Welch was interested, its value was placed at $550-$600 million). Apparently, The Times wants $300 million. It paid $75 million as part of the group buying The Sox holding company in 2002 (total cost $700 million).

While this wouldn't have mattered much in our our little piece of heaven before this year, we're now in the middle of it. The Red Sox is the new farmer for our little Class A farm team in the Carolina League, the Salem Red Sox. The conservative locals, I'm sure, had no idea The New York Times had a stake in their baseball team. Conway Twitty once owned the Salem baseball team and that was OK. But The New York Freakin' Times?!?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Little Honesty in Movie Advertising S'il Vous Plait

They call it "pre-feature content" and it's taking over the world. The movie world, anyway.

We just went to the 1:30 showing of "Valkyrie" and showed up 15 minutes early, thinking there might be a line on Christmas day. There wasn't, so we got to wait in the theater while commercials played on the screen. Canned stuff, though not really a loop. Annoying, but not to the level of fingernails on a blackboard. Not quite.

Then came 1:30. We'd been there 15 minutes and were ready to see Tom Cruise with an eyepatch. Not yet. More pre-feature content. We'd just seen a long ad for a television show and were treated to some Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola ads, a few previews and something about an "Assistant Manager Man" action figure ("Boring homelife sold separately"). It wasn't as exciting as it sounds, although the action figure had some distraction appeal.

By the time the "Flight of the Valkyrie" hit its first few strains and we'd seen Tom Cruise bleeding in the sand, it was 2 o'clock and I felt like the movie boys had just stolen 45 minutes of my life. And charged me for it. Senior matinee rate, but hey, it's still 5 bucks and the potential for me giving this movie five stars was significantly diminished by those who would steal my life right out from under me.

I want some honesty in advertising from the movie theaters: Don't say the movie starts at 1:30 when it starts at 2. Give me a choice. Let me skip Wal-Mart and Coke on my own (and I won't be forced to boycott both; I can do it because they suck, instead).

(This from Lori White: "I am SO in agreement with you on this one, Dan! It's killing me! And if you call and ask what time the movie actually starts, they tell you the listed time, not the time with all of the advertisements. Most of the crap is commercials that we're 'missing' as we fast-forward with Tivo and DVR. Umm ... hello we don't want to see you?")

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Who Could You Feed With All That Money?

OK, let's put this in perspective:

Yesterday the New York Yankees added another baseball player to its roster, bringing the total expenditure for four players signed recently to $800 million. Four players, $800 million. Got that?

So, what's that mean in real dollars for real people?

When Hurricane Katrina stranded about 75,000 people at the Houston Astrodome, the United Methodist Church of Texas raised $1 million to feed them for a week. That works out to 525,000 meals in seven days.

Take the $800 million and buy food for the masses and you get 420 million meals. The population of the United States is about 300 million. Mexico and Canada add another 141 million. So, basically, you can feed the U.S., Canada and most of Mexico for $800 million.

Make mine lobster.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Radio Channels the Nut Jobs ... Still

Brian Stelter, writing in today's NYTimes, notes that talk radio hosts--almost exclusively conservatives--are gearing up to clobber Barack Obama every time he opens his mouth, much as they did in establishing the genre at the beginning of the Clinton Administration.

That's scary on the surface, but some ominious economic numbers (other than Rush Limbaugh's new $400 million contract; that's him in the photo, spending some of the loot) loom on the horizon: network radio spending was down 3.5 percent in the first three quarters of 2007 and there has been "a downward trajectory for years." That's the Internet Effect, or the iPod Effect, or the Blackberry Effect, or something along those lines, one would suppose.

Says TV-turned-radio talker Joe Scarborough (a former congressman), “We have been in an era where you’ve had Rush Limbaugh, followed by a lot of conservative talk show hosts that lacked his talent and sense of humor. They decided that if they just read Republican talking points, they’d get a big audience. I think that world is coming to an end. You’re going to have to be entertaining like Limbaugh, but also allow people of all political stripes on the show.” Another talker worried that talk radio is appealing more to a niche audience (that would be the Hate Demographic) than to the Republican base. (Note: One would need to define "talent" and "sense of humor" as relates to Mr. Limbaugh. He's rich; he ain't funny.)

Still, the numbers tell the story: There are 2,064 talk radio stations in the country (of a total 10,000 commercial, 2,500 non-commercial) and there were 1,500 10 years ago. Forty have been added in the last year. That doesn't look like much of a downturn.

It's difficult at this point to determine what effect these bozos will have on a new administration that enters office facing disaster upon disaster amid the plunder and utter incompetence of the Bushies, who were enthusiastically supported by talk radio. I don't expect to hear Limbaugh taking credit for the mess, but we'll hear him howl and whine about the effort to turn around the ship of state, whose rudder seems to have sunk somewhere off the coast of Mauritania.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

As the Newspaper Press Turns ...

The Trouble in Paradise Newspapers Tour continues:
  • From the New Haven Independent (and a good bit of bad news about newspapers is coming from the niche competitors): "Sixteen area newspapers have bitten the dust, and 21 reporters and editors are out of jobs. Employees of the [small weekly newspapers owned by the New Haven] Journal Register Co. received that pre-Christmas surprise late Thursday afternoon ... 'It's like "Merry Fucking Christmas,' you know?" said one employee present at the meeting."
  • The Pittsburgh Business Times reports that the Post Gazette will offer about 200 unionized news employees buyouts. The Pittsburgh Newspaper Guild's president wrote that "the company ... needs to cut the budget a bit further and will be offering a similar voluntary separation agreement to the entire guild membership ... " and "... this is an effort to specifically avoid [layoffs] and, again, allow those who want to leave to do so with something to show for it."
  • The Rocky Mountain News reports that the Denver News Agency (which owns it and the Denver Post) has told six unions that they must agree to $20 million in concessions or face a more serious alternative.
  • Communication Leadership reports that the Los Angeles Times' "Web site revenue now exceeds its editorial payroll costs." Times Editor Russ Stanton concludes, "Big-city newspapers, the way we have known them, are not long for this world, as they're now configured."
  • The Mountain Express in Asheville, N.C., reports that the Gannett-owned Asheville Citizen-Times (where I started in 1964 as a copy boy) has laid off 16 news employees and is looking at cutting another 60 jobs when it closes its printing plant in January. Printing will move to the Greenville, S.C., News, another Gannett property. (When I was a kid, I stuffed papers with ad inserts in the C-T press room to make extra money. I was paid $5 a night as a sports department copy boy.) In a non-related item, the former C-T executive editor has sued the publisher for $15 million for a variety of perceived offenses, mostly "wrongful termination."

Saturday, December 20, 2008

In the Middle of It All, a TV Camera

Television changed it all today in Salem

It occurred to me today during the first TV timeout of the Division III national championship football game over in Salem that this was not the pure game I had loved for long. There was encroachment and it was not a good thing.

This is the bottom rung of college football: no scholarships, generally small colleges where the students were required to read before participating in extracurricular activities. The facilities are more high-school like and the crowds are considerably smaller.

But here we were watching that man in the red shirt standing on the field looking at his watch waiting to tell the teams that the TV commercials were finished and they could resume playing football. A little later, there was a break while officials in the press box reviewed video tape of a pass reception on the sideline to see if the receiver was out of bounds. Play stopped. Players milled around. Fans grumbled. This was unfamiliar territory. Video tape review, for heaven's sake. They do that at Ohio State, not here.

This had become something other than amateur football. It was TV entertainment. The game had begun at 11 a.m. to fill ESPN air time on a football bowl Saturday and, since this was the least important game to the network, it got the crap slot. There was no other reason for this game to be played in the morning. TV needed it and that was all the justification necessary. Feed the beast.

I've been watching Division III football with some degree of enthusiasm for a lot of years, but this wasn't what I was accustomed to. The field was artificial and painted. The crowd was large for this level, maybe 6,5oo people in a 10,000-seat stadium. There were six television cameras and the press box seemed to be full.

Here we had perennial title contenders Mt. Union College, a private school near Cleveland ($2,300 students, $30,000 a year tuition) playing the public University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (8,500 students, $11,000 tuition), in a small southern city many, many miles from home.

Some of the athletes took their first plane ride to get here. The woman sitting in front of us--her son a wide receiver for the UW-W Warhawks (we thought "Warthogs" at first, until she spelled it out for us)--had flown from her home in Chicago to Richmond, then she drove a rental car west about 150 miles to Salem for the game. "It was expensive," she said. "We'd better not lose." Many people had come on buses, some by car. A lot of people came from these distant and rural locations, all wearing purple--the primary color for both teams. Whitewater is 50 miles west of Milwaukee, pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

A lot of what went on was what it should have been. The football was competitive (Mt. Union winning by five points to take back the title UW-W had stolen last year; the son of the woman in front of us caught eight passes; she was pleased). We were entertained by the competition and the intensity. If you'd put these tesms in orange on one side and red on the other and called them Tennessee and Alabama, few would have known the difference.

But it was the upscale trappings that belied what Division III represents to me: athletes playing for the joy of it; college students taking a weekend for some recreation; parents screaming for their kids; students painting their naked torsos and donning purple fright wigs. Everybody having a good time. Not much money to be made.

The TV camera staring at us changed that.

Friday, December 19, 2008

It's Not Just Newspapers Laying Off

From various sources come the following bits of publishing (actually, not publishing) news:

  • Farrar, Straus & Giroux has laid off an estimated 15 people--several of them key players--because of slow book sales. Among those let go are an editor, an associate publisher who "kind of keeps the company together," and the head of production. (New York Observer)
  • Powell's Books in Portland (which has a great Web presence) is asking its employees to work fewer hours or take sabbaticals. Sales here are slow, too.
  • Amazon's UK division ( has come under heavy scrutiny by The Times of London which is reporting some sweatshop-like conditions at the $4 billion (worldwide) company. The Times reports that workers are required "to work a compulsory 10-hour overnight shift at the end of a five-day week," can be fired if they report in sick, have to meet packing quotas described as "ridiculous," and is requiring workers to put in seven days a week.
  • Meanwhile, in newspaper land: The Seattle Times, which has lost 500 employees in the last year, has asked 500 managers and nonunion employees to take a week of leave without pay because of increasing difficulty in making money. The employees can choose how to take off the five days, but it has to be done by February. (AP)

Historical Revisionism

The 'suggestion of an underlying theme of repressed homosexuality'

Wendell Jamieson, writing in today's New York Times, makes this startling admission:

"'It’s a Wonderful Life' is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation."

Never quite looked at it that way. I suspect Mr. Jamieson's version of Jean Shepherd's "A Christmas Story" (my particular favorite) would run something like this: "... the story of a completely dysfunctional family whose eldest child, Ralphie, is materially obsessed at Christmas, whose father is a foul-mouthed, violent, sexual deviant who takes out his anger on the furnace and brings into the house an obscene "major prize" lamp. The mother is a classic enabler and the youngest child, Randy, shows distinct signs of environmentlly-induced retardation. The only truly healthy and socially adjusted character in the film is the misunderstood block bully, Fargis, and his young "toady" friend. Of course, the scene where a boy is stuck to a metal pole with his tongue on a frigid day is the strongest kind of suggestion of an underlying theme of repressed homosexuality."

We won't even get into the obsession with death of Frosty the Snowman, the over-reaction to physical abnormality by the little reindeer with the bulbous red nose, and the sociopathic behavior of something called a grinch.

My lovely wife calls this an "existential meltdown," so I'll quote the Wicked Witch of the West: "I'm meeeeeeeeel-ting."

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Told You So

Ah, time for a bit of self-indulgent gloating. Heh, heh, heh. Tom Perriello was certified yesterday as the new U.S. congressman from the Fifth District, something we've been waiting to become official for nearly six weeks.

You will refer to the Oct. 21 session of this blog, which stated: "Tom Perriello would do well to send Al Weed a 'thank you' note ... Looks like Al softened up Goode (not to be confused with Good) and may have set him up for retirement."

On Oct. 24, I endorsed Periello with this: "Perriello, meanwhile, is a breath of fresh air, another Charlottesville area opponent for Goode who is a far better choice for the job." On Oct. 31, there was this: "When I was in Rocky Mount for a photo shoot the other day, I saw what I considered at the time to be the unthinkable: a pickup truck covered with anti-Goode sentiment. A large sign on the tailgate read, "Virgil Goode-Unpatriotic." And this: "It's looking increasingly like 5th District Congressman Virgil Goode is going down Tuesday."

Yesterday, Periello was confirmed in what may have been the most unlikely unseating of an entrenched Republican by a newcomer in years--certainly in 2008. Good for you, Southside. It's nice to be in the light again. And it's especially nice to see "good" spelled correctly again.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

And While Some Starve ...

In the upside down, inside-out world of journalism, tells us: "Journal Communications [the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel] disclosed last Friday that it's paying its former CFO $8,334 a month for up to 20 hours a month of consulting." So far so good. But get this: "It was reported today that the company, which eliminated 130 jobs in August, got rid of 39 more employees this month."

Meanwhile, reporter Jack Shafer, writing in Slate, offers up some theories about why print and electronic news organizations are so financially troubled these days and presents his theory: digital technology. He tells us that "the growth of Web advertising in its first 13 years eclipses that of both broadcast TV and cable TV in their first 13" He says that before the current recession, which has exacerbated the decline, "online advertising—a purely digital play—grew faster than advertising on any other new media technology ever recorded. Last year, Web-advertising revenues passed radio-advertising revenues for the first time."

He says newspapers still make money, "but nobody believes that newspapers will regain their lost ground after the recession recedes."

Of Once-Loved Children's Books

Gary Kamiya has a misty-eyed reminiscence of the importance of The Wind in the Willows on its 100th birthday today in Salon and that set me to thinking about my favorite children's book (other than my own Homer*, which you ought to be able to buy this coming spring/summer), The Velveteen Rabbit, written in 1922 by Margery Williams.

The Rabbit story came to life over Thanksgiving weekend when my granddaughter, Madeline, left her "Kittycat" (actually a small tiger) somewhere in our travels around Roanoke enjoying the holiday. Of course, she fell apart. Her mother replaced the cat, but I'm not sure that ever works. There's a tie between children that that one toy, that blanky, that wilted plant, that whatever-it-is-that-captures-her-fancy. I don't understand it and I suspect psychologists are stumped, too, but we all recognize it and know its validity.

I always loved--and identified with--the rough-looking, thoroughly worn Skinhorse, the child's former favorite in Rabbit, because its lesson about love is so thoroughly kind, human and proper. Either book would be a marvelous gift this Christmas for Madeline, especially if they come wrapped with a grandpa to read them.

* OK, the Homer reference is a shameless plug. I'm not above that.

(Blue Ridge Country magazine editor Cara Modisett responds:

"Well, I must respond with two related memories - first the favorite books from childhood - I loved "The Velveteen Rabbit," too, but C.S. Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia" shaped my imagination for years. My mother gave them to me, one by one, each new installation as I finished the last, so I could look forward to the story continuing like a Charles Dickens serial. Next to "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" was "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" - what a world. And I don't care what the publishers do with putting "The Magician's Nephew" in some too-logical chronological order - LWW still comes first.

"And my first and forever lost toy was a little stuffed koala bear that disappeared in the woods at Natural Chimneys Regional Park one weekend. I felt like I'd abandoned that little nameless grey plush companion and a replacement bear was comforting but indeed not the same. Hopefully some other child found him and gave him a good home.")

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

One More Thing Bush Could Have Fixed

Given the simple fact that George W. Bush has never gotten anything right, how in the world could I expect him to respond rationally in the shoe-throwing incident? The young Iraqi journalist, Muntader al-Zaidi (right), who threw a shoe at Bush during a news conference yesterday is now a national hero, given a medal by a Lybian official and roundly admired in the Arab world. In al-Zaidi's culture, the shoe represents something dirty and having one thrown at you is an insult equivalent to a good moon--maybe slightly worse, but not much.

It didn't have to be thus. Bush could simply have forgiven the man on the spot from the podium, asked that he be released, and sat for five minutes with him to see what was on his mind. Instead, we get a huge international incident, a new hero who will likely serve real jail time for being expaserated at the irrational behavior of a thoroughly irrational world "leader."

But could we possibly have expected anything less from Bush, whose term is--thank God--near its end? His destruction of our system, our constitution, our world will be with us for a very long time, but at least he'll be harmlessly cutting brush on his Texas spread, far from people and influence.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A Game That Changed Us

Neil Leifer's iconic winning TD photo

ESPN tonight broadcast a thoroughly engaging documentary/commentary about the 1959 NFL championship game, popularly called "The Greatest Game Ever Played" and, though the definition of "great" has to be clarified here, it certainly represented a turning point for in this country.

It was the game that made the NFL a television sport because of a combination of circumstances and elements, most prominently the overtime that resulted in the Baltimore Colts and Johnny Unitas beating the New York Giants (Sam Huff, Frank Gifford), 23-17. It was a game in which 17 future NFL Hall of Fame players and coaches took part. But it was basically sloppy football, full of fumbles, bad passes, missed tackles and dirt where grass should be (Yankee Stadium was, after all, a baseball field and this was late December after the grass was dead).

Still, the game produced a superstar in the unlikely Unitas, a guy who'd recently been playing semi-pro ball in Pittsburgh, because Unitas (who had the same haircut I wore at the time: a blond flattop) invented the two-minute drill--which led to the win--on the spot.

There was a lot of football in the game, but its significance was far more than the details of the game. The game became a social turning point of sorts, one that began the elevation of professional football to its place at the top of all American athletic ventures. At the time, pro football stood was a distant second to college football in popularity. Boxing, horse racing and baseball were more popular. Many of the men playing in this game earned $5,000 a year. The winner got $1,500. That's lunch money for a modern pro.

This broadcast proved the power of television, perhaps more than any other outcome. It was a precusor of TV's expanding influence. Soon to come: Nixon-Kennedy debates; the Civil Rights Movement; Vietnam; obese and passive young people glued to the box.

I don't know if it was a good thing or a bad thing. It was--as is so much television over time--an entertaining event, inflated far out of proportion, remembered for being better than it was. I've seen its equal as entertainment, as football, as social turning point many times. Still, it was a bookmark for a century, one that's easily recognizable.

One of the images that remains from that game is the attached photo of Alam Ameche scoring the winning touchdown. It was taken by 16-year-old Neil Leifer (later a Sports Illustrated photographer) who was on the sideline because he helped wheel some crippled veterans onto the field and he had his camera with him. It's a bit of serindipity that adds to the overall legend.

But I was a Redskins fan, so I didn't care who won. My 'Skins weren't much good, but man did they have some gorgeous uniforms, feather running down the middle of a deep burgundy helmet. I loved that.

Time to Codify the Fairness Doctrine

Ever wonder what happened to the late, lamented Fairness Doctrine, the federal regulation requiring broadcasters to treat issues with balance (though not necessarily "equal time," which was another proposition entirely)? Think Ronald Reagan, George Bush I, Robert Bork, Antonin Scalia and Reagan FCC Chairman Mark Fowler.

Each had a hand in eliminating or blocking the re-institution of the doctrine or parts of it between 1985 and 1991. It was pretty well killed in 1987 by Reagan-appointed FCC (4-0) and Reagan's veto threat later that year kept Congress from making fairness the law. People like Bork and Scalia, hard-case members of the federal bench in D.C., had nipped at it before then.

The elimination of the doctrine gave rise to Rush Limbaugh and a whole host of nutcases whose blather goes unchallenged by anything like rational human thought.

I'm not sure how Congress will react to bringing back the Fairness Doctrine--Democrats hold control of both houses and the presidential palace--considering how full a plate the Bush Administration is leaving (even as we speak, little Republicans are running around creating more destructive mischief). There are more crises per square foot sitting there awaiting attention than I can remember in my 62 years, and I've been paying attention.

My suggestion, however, is that codifying the Fairness Doctrine will effectively end the irrational, irresponsible reign of talk radio, an element of the rise of Bush II, The Official Worst President in History, that is vastly under-appreciated. Balancing--and not silencing--people like Limbaugh, making them responsible for what they say and giving those of us with opposing views a chance to respond to his distortions is fair and balanced.

Because I believe in free speech, even for morons, I would never even think of taking Limbaugh's or Hannity's or O'Reilly's microphone away. It's more about passing it around and including intelligence, rationality and reason in the conversation.

Irresistible Force vs. Immovable Object

My old pal Tom Cain sent me an opinion piece this a.m. assessing the Obama labor strategy and it set me to thinking about my own confused and contradictory feelings about the labor movement in the United States. It is a movement whose demise has helped decrease the number of people living in the middle class, but whose power over the years helped create a monster that's biting back in Detroit.

Like so many movements involving political power, labor got out of hand in the 1950s and 1960s and the backlash has all but destroyed both it and the good it did in bringing American workers out of indentured servitude and into the mainstream of our country's promise.

If you're familiar at all with the coal mining organizational efforts of the early part of the 20th Century, you know the pain and suffering those laborers endured for 30 years of attempts to organize (including a real shooting war with the U.S. government) before Roosevelt was elected president and recognized the movement. Then followed the overt corruption of the Teamsters, Jimmy Hoffa's rise and fall, unreasonable hourly rates for barely educated workers, pensions out of proportion, health care allowances that at first led the way, then became grotesque in their impact on what products cost.

Americans are a compassionate people who want workers to be treated not just fairly, but generously. I think that's a good approach. Generosity, however, can be taken out of proper proportion and when a gun is put to the giver's head, the generosity is less real, more resented. On the flip side of that are the capitalists whose entire raison d'etre is money/power, each amplifying the other, with no regard to how it is achieved.

Irresistible force vs. immovable object. On steroids. Both lose.

And that's what we're left with. Detroit is collapsing under the weight of its irresistible forces and immovable objects, neither of which wants to change. Neither of which has any teeth left in order to bite back. And congress--that body with the 13 percent approval rating--is working with a lame duck in the White House whose approval rating is one of the lowest in American history, to solve the dilemma. Sounds promising, huh?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Roanoke River Daybreak

Think that nasty old Roanoke River down around Wasena Park is ugly? This might give you a new perspective. I took it this a.m. as the mist was rising near the low-water dam. (Sorry I can't publish it bigger. The beauty is in the detail.)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

An Exciting New Theater Near Completion

Kenley Smith doesn't look much like a theater guy. Or a writer. Or much of anything else creative. He's even wearing a NASCAR-like jacket broadcasting his former business, Car Guys, which taught people how to drive like maniacs on race tracks before he sold it eight years ago. Executive driving nutcases.

But Kenley is, indeed, a theater guy. He is, at this very moment, building a new theater in the finest Shakespearian tradition, at 30 Campbell Ave. in downtown Roanoke, former home of one of the best places in the region to buy a pink and lavender zoot suit, New York Fashions.

Kenley has a master's degree in creative writing from Hollins and has taken a lot of courses in the master's program for the theater. Nevermind that he looks like a Civil War foot soldier--reminiscing 20 years after the cessation of hostilities. He uses that image to his benefit, often employing it onstage at Mill Mountain Theatre's Waldron Stage as part of the troupe for No Shame Theatre.

It was his run there with director Todd Ristau, a Hollins professor, creative director and inventor of No Shame (out in Iowa some years ago) that got him interested in theater. Todd's the creative director at Studio One (and he's teaching a class at the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference Jan. 23-24, if I'm allowed a plug here--and I am 'cause it's my blog). Kenley signed up for the master's program and Todd--the brilliant Ernie Zulia--became his mentors.

Kenley says Studio Roanoke will not be in competition with Mill Mountain Theatre or anybody else because it wants to put on edgy plays, adult plays, "stuff that's not family friendly." Mill Mountain Theatre's support has been soft of late and its plays have been pretty much the same tired fare: musicals with an occasional musical thrown in for diversity. Did I mention they do muscials?

Studio Roanoke will offer something different because its works won't only be challenging, they'll be new. Kenley plans to feature the work of students and new playwrights (himself included) and he hopes to interest some hotshot directors to visit here and put some of these plays on.

Kenley bought the building for $295,000 and hopes to keep his total investment below $500,000 ("that'd be good," he says). He will establish a non-profit 501(c)3 in order to quality for funding for some of the theater construction that will be necessary. He can't get any breaks on it if he's simply improving the building to make it more valuable, he says, but all the theater stuff will be portable and not tied to the building's costs.

Kenley wants to open in June or July for a full-length play, but there will be soft openings with readings when he gets a certificate of occupancy. He'll also hold theater classes in the building and it will be something of an arts community center.

Next door, meanwhile, in the old Woolworth's, my friend Bill Elliot is searching for something creative to do with that huge space. Any suggestions?

Of Pay and the Politician

Roanoke (Va.) Mayor David Bowers (pictured) has made a modest proposal that he and members of Roanoke City Council be paid mileage for driving their cars short distances. City employees are paid 58.5 cents a mile for any trips they take and council members are paid that rate for longer trips. The city is facing a budget shortfall and Bowers' proposal (which has almost no chance of passing) is probably insensitive at this moment.

But it's a good proposal. I see no logical reason that our representatives should be reimbursed in a lesser manner than public employees. I believe City Council members' salaries should also reflect that they are valued. Bowers earns $20,000 a year as mayor and the six other members of council are paid $18,000 each. That's a total of $146,000 a year. City Manager Darlene Burcham makes $173,658 and change. Sure, it's a consuming, full-time job for her, but the way David works the mayor's chair is hardly leisurely. The other council members work far more than $18,000 would compensate in any other position.

We have a tendency in the United States to both undervalue and underpay our representatives. Virginia's General Assembly pays $18,000 for state senators and $17,640 delegates and the governor earns $124,855. You can argue that those legislators are part-timers (like city council), but that's hardly the case. Many a representative on every level has seen his business suffer because he chooses to serve the public with full energy and time (and take all that harsh criticism). The governorship, of course, is a full-time position, paid nearly $50,000 less than our city manager and roughly $40,000 less than the school superintendent. Which job is more demanding, more important to the most people?

I don't know that paying politicians higher salaries will make them more honest. I do know that nowhere in our society has that ever been tried.

(Update: Turns out that the Lord Mayor has already been dipping into the proposed short-trip fund and he promises to pay back the $230 he's already billed the city. Mason Adams, a good reporter for The Roanoke Times who covers the city, spilled the beans on the red-faced mayor in the Dec. 13 edition.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Gunfest in Richmond

The Virginia State Crime Commission, after hearing its chairman, Dave Albo (R-Fairfax County) say, "This is not an effort for me to wimp out on a vote" wimped out on a vote on buying guns at gun shows yesterday. Alba said--and you can hear the sincerity dripping from him--"I like record checks at gun shows."

Albo, according to published reports, blamed the lack of a vote on a question of public notification about the hearing. Any excuse as relates to gun inaction is a good excuse for people like Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, who wore a gun to testify. It's a protection thing, don't you know. He said, "Evil is a tough thing to legislate out of this world. I wish you could do it, but you can't." Regulation of evil wasn't actually on the agenda of this hearing. It was about making a legislative recommendation on buying guns at gun shows, where regulation of sales to killers and nutcases is minimal--as it is in general.

Our own resident Cro-Magnon at the hearing, Morgan Griffith (R-Salem), said, in effect, that any legislation of this type has no chance in his General Assembly. He said the mass killings at Virginia Tech, an emotional hook on which to hang this argument, didn't have anything to do with buying guns at gun shows. And, though that observation is essentially sound as an argument, if argument is the goal, it doesn't address the concerns of those connected to the Tech shootings. "Your pain has no standing here," isn't much of a statement from a guy elected to serve.

The argument goes something like this: Gun shows don't kill people, regulation of guns kills people.

And so another round of General Assembly inaction begins in the Grand Old Commonwealth. Hold on to your barf bags and suspend good sense for a couple of months until these morons have had a chance not to act.

(Jack Landers of Keswick's reasoned reply [after receiving this, I made some slight alterations to the Griffith comments because Jack's right; hope that's fair; I'm still learning the blog game]:

With respect, there is a good case to be made for background checks on private person-to-person transactions at gun shows, but you have not made it.

What Morgan Griffith said was true. The Virginia Tech killings had nothing whatsoever to do with gun shows. It is interesting that you did not even make an effort to demonstrate how his words were incorrect. Rather, you just insulted him. I am no great fan of Mr. Griffith but you certainly make him appear very sympathetic to me here.

The Va. Tech invocations are disingenuous and irrelevant to the issue at hand. That is a demonstrable fact. Attempting to defend this nonsensical connection creates a straw man that is counterproductive to your aims. The argument then becomes one over the relevancy of the Virginia Tech shootings to checks at gun shows rather than simply the question of having checks the checks at all.

In other words, you are changing the subject from one you could be right about to one that you are easily proven wrong about. This is no way to change hearts and minds.)

Here's another excellent counter argument from a guy named Thomas Sowel:

For the uninformed who may stumble across There is no gun show loophole. The laws are exactly the same inside a gun show as they are outside a gun show and those laws already stipulate that it is a federal felony for a "prohibited person" to as much as TOUCH a firearm, let alone buy one, regardless of the venue.

There can be no rational dialog about this issue as long as one side insists upon mis-characterizing what the issue actually is.

How can we expect the anti-rights factions to honestly and in good faith attempt to reach acceptable compromises that address the concerns of all the stakeholders when they can't even be trusted to honestly portray what the issues are?

These proposals aren't about crime...if they were the proponents of them would be more interested in the reams of data that proves gun shows are statistically insignificant as a source of crime guns. These proposals aren't even about guns...many of the most virulent anti-gunners own guns themselves. This is about control, plain and simple.

"If people are free to do as they wish, they are almost certain not to do as we wish. That is why Utopian planners end up as despots, whether at the national level or at the level of the local 'redevelopment' agency.")

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Unbridled Joy of a Life Appreciated

My friend Janis Jaquith, who is one of the funniest people I know and one of the most natural comedic writers on earth, just had a cancer scare. She wrote about it in her Charlottesville-based column in a little alt-weekly, The Hook, and I want you to read it at this URL:

This is as delightfully touching a piece of philosophical self-discovery as I've ever read. I learned about the power of positive thinking in AA, but Janis' experience is ridiculously prescient, absurdly self-fulfilling. And it is written as only she can write it.

You've likely heard Janis reading her essays on NPR, with that heavy Boston accent and that matter-of-fact, life's-falling-apart-but-I-don't-mind delivery. When I introduce Janis--as I will next month at our Roanoke Regional Writers Conference at Hollins University Jan. 23-24 (, yes, that's a plug--I'll say that God had no right to put somebody like her among us. To begin with she's one of the prettiest people I've ever known. She's smart. She's funny. She's wise. She's a dang gorgeous Buddhist monk, for Christ's sake (uh, maybe not Christ's).

But, hey, God, thanks for sharing your joy with us in Janis.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Bowl Ticket Prices: You're Kidding, Right?

It's simply out of hand, especially when you consider that the country's nearly broke. Bowl tickets is the is the topic here and I'm simply astonished that something like the Eagle Bank Bowl in D.C., featuring Wake Forest and Navy--a couple of second-tier teams whose records barely make it into the winning category--is charging $77-$148 per ticket on StubHub.

Want a big bowl with quality teams? Try the Bowl Series title game between Oklahoma and Florida at a smart range of $1,485-$1,955 per ticket. Other examples of lower level bowls (who'd have a heck of a time drawing a crowd on home fields): Motor City (Central Michigan vs. TBA), $33-$145; New Orleans Bowl: $36-$225; Poinsettia (Mt. West vs. also-ran Pac 10) $50-$210; Humanitarian, which features the novelty of playing on Boise State's blue field--swear to God--(Nevada vs. Maryland), $23-$150; Liberty (ECU vs. Kentucky) $69-$963.

You'd think that given the economic conditions of the country some of these lower-level bowls (which shouldn't even be played under any circumstances, featuring, as they do teams with 6-6 or 7-5 records) would be selling tickets for $30 a go. Ain't doin' it. They seem to be settling for quarter-full stadia instead. For those of us considering games--say the Meineke Car Care Bowl within driving distance, Charlotte, at $76-$115--the response is "forget it, bub." We've been to the Car Care Bowl twice (when it was the "tire bowl" of some kind) and tickets actually cost less than the University of Virginia (which was in it both times) charged for regular-season home games. The crowds were big and we had a great time. (The drawing above is Panthers Stadium in Charlotte.)

These days, I'd be so mad about the cost of the tickets that I couldn't enjoy the games.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Bless Your Heart, Timothy Egan

Writing in today's NYTimes, Pulitzer Prize winner Timothy Egan (pictured), rails at all the non-writers who are getting big-check book contracts for producing crap and calling it literature (among them Barbara Bush's dog). It's a smashing read at

Among Mr. Egan's observations:

On Sarah Palin: "Anyone who abuses the English language on such a regular basis should not be paid to put words in print."

On great writers: "Ernest Hemingway said the most frightening thing he ever encountered was 'a blank sheet of paper'” and George Orwell called the act of writing a book “'a horrible, exhaustive struggle, like a long bout of painful illness.'”

Before Joe the Plumber writes a memoir, says Egan, he should read "Rick Reilly’s sports columns, Peggy Noonan’s speeches, or Jess Walter’s fiction. He should open Dostoevsky or Norman Maclean — for osmosis, if nothing else. He should study Frank McCourt on teaching or Annie Dillard on writing." Joe might want to read a little Timothy Egan, too.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Now Wait Just a Minute, Mr. Crowgey

Roanoke native Guy Crowgey (pictured) of the Richmond law firm of Crowgey & Grossman has a letter to the editor in the current Virginia Business that shows an astonishing lack of knowledge of his home area and a Richmond-centric view of the state that we are accustomed to around these parts. It just fried my liver.

Mr. Crowgey's letter complimented Virginia Business on an article "regarding growth and development in the Blacksburg area" written by Michelle Long as being "extremely well written and insightful." He calls himself a "weekend resident" of Southwest Virginia and believes "this area of the state is given short shrift" and blah, blah.

Michelle Long trained with us at the Blue Ridge Business Journal, which covered business in this region better than anybody else--daily, weekly or monthly--for 20 years until August 1 of this year (that's when I left to co-found Valley Business FRONT magazine and The Roanoke Times began exerting strong influence over the Journal, to its detriment). Michelle's reporting for us was exemplary and it remains so. We have other writers who are just as good, just as dedicated and who are knowledgeable of and very well connected in our region, their home.

Virginia Business has always treated this area of the state as an afterthought, as well it might, given that the population centers--and the advertising dollars--are in the east and north. But, then, the General Assembly has tried hard to ignore us, as well, considering us its country cousins. We're used to it and if we mind, we don't usually say so.

Fact is, though, that if you wanted comprehensive coverage of business in this area for those previous 20 years, the Blue Ridge Business Journal would have been the choice of the informed reader in this region. (I note that the current cover of VB has its first Business Person of the Year on the cover; that's something we were doing five years ago at the BJ and continue at VBFRONT--actually increasing it to a number of business awards in our December issue. Immitation is the sincerest form ... etc.)

We won a ton of awards at the BJ and in 2005 I won the Business Journalist of the Year award in the state. The featured speaker at that luncheon was the editor of Virginia Business. Talk about a Richmond faux pas. These days, there is no better business magazine in the state than the one former Journal GM Tom Field and I just started in October, Valley Business FRONT. It is bright, edgy, comprehensive and concentrates on the Roanoke and New River Valleys--the very areas Mr. Cowgey talks about.

Take a look and judge for yourself. Our entire magazine is online at and we even give you a little instrument to turn the pages (and we give you the page-turning sound as a bonus).

Thursday, December 4, 2008

TAP Losing Its Driving Force, Dick Robers

When Dick Robers retires from Total Action Against Poverty at the end of this month, there will be a huge void at one of the best run, most innovative non-profits in Virginia. In his six short years at TAP, Dick's use of his business background, creativity and inside wonkish knowledge of how business works best has turned this solid, but sleepy charity into a dynamic economic workhorse.

TAP has developed into a major real estate holder, among many other things, and because Dick helped create that division of an organization formed to help poor people, there has been more money for the core purpose during his years at TAP. Dick's always been an innovator (the "Smart Road" at Virginia Tech was his idea), but never more so than at TAP.

His grasp of "the deal" is sometimes spooky because it is thoroughly innovative. He uses the system as well as anyone I know and he fully understands where the government money (incentives, grants, tax credits and the like) is hiding.

I don't know why Dick's "retiring," but in a brief conversation today, I got the feeling it isn't something he wants to do. Dick's in his upper-end 60s (67, I think), so retirement is a reasonable option, but I have no thought that he will retire. He has more energy and more creativity than a 25-year-old (he was a high school football teammate of Roger Staubach's in Kentucky years ago, by way of dropping in a meaningless factoid).

"Retirement," I suspect, is more code word than reality. Dick loves TAP and I really don't think leaving it was in his plans until recently. We're scheduled to talk in the next few days and I'll know more then.

Dick is so good at his job with TAP (for which he was paid about $65,000 a year, a paltry amount considering what people in his position and with his talent for attracting money make in private industry) that we considered him strongly for our Executive of the Year/2008 at Valley Business FRONT. In any other year, he likely would have won, but we didn't pick him in our inaugural year partly because we wanted a person operating a business to win it and TAP--as well as it's run and as business-like as it is--simply isn't a business. (The winner was Carilion Health System head man Ed Murphy, a powerhouse in his own right.)

I honestly hope Dick's "retirement" is not a case of clashing personalities, of jealousy or anything else negative--as I suspect it might be. That would leave a bad taste following a marvelous tour of duty.

(Update: Dick is joining us at Valley Business FRONT as an advertising executive the first of the year.)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

And Now the Answer We've Awaited

The following (unedited) critique on my previous day's blog entry is from my friend and surrogate mother Betsy Gehman of Lynchburg, formerly of New York and Beverly Hills (you heard her voice in "Singin' in the Rain"; she was in early live national TV and was even a girl singer with a big band in the 1930s and 1940s). Betsy, one of the most perceptive and outspoken people I've ever known, knew the moguls and stars, the writers and producers and directors and stuntmen for many years and she has a good understanding of how Hollywood has worked for a very long time. She was even listed in one of the McCarthy-era "Red books." She's tough and blunt.

Here's her take:

"In the early days of the Virginia Film Commission those folks had the wit to send emissaries to Hollywood. There, one big party for lotsa producers and stars attracted enough good will to get some movies made [in Virginia]. Maybe even the Governor acted as host at the H'wood party (which, by the way, always takes place in Beverly Hills, where all those moguls actually live and party).

"Those were the days when rich movie-wise John Kluge was, I believe, helping to activate the film aspirations of the state. Maybe Sam Shepard and Sissy Spacek had a hand in the good will generated back then, since they were residents of C'ville, too.

"Anyway, it was all hugely successful. Mentions in Variety and Hollywood Reporter (the literature most closely perused by everyone who works in H'wood) were continual back then.

"The "buzz" worked. So what happened between then and now? Did everyone just forget how to do it? And I mean everyone. No one person can be that dumb.

"But go ahead, re-invent the wheel (or reel, if you prefer ).

"Y'rs, Betsy (former resident of Lotusland; haven't heard that expression since the 1950s! LOL)

"p.s. I'm sure Bootie Chewning is a dynamo and good at her job, but unless she's literally on fire, I think she might better be described as having 'flair', rather then 'flare'."

I mean, hell, none of us got out of that one alive. Except maybe Morgan Griffith.

(The attached photo is of Betsy, center, being visited backstage in 1953 at the Broadway play "Top Banana" by actor Farley Granger of "Strangers on a Train," Academy Award-winner and good friend, Shelley Winters--"A Patch of Blue" and "The Diary of Anne Frank," top left. The others are part of the play's cast.)

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Getting a Movie Made Here: Good Luck

My friend and sometime cousin Sharyn McCrumb, whose novels you may have read, is in a tizzy wanting to get the movie treatment of her book The Rosewood Casket made in Craig County. The book is set in a place much like Craig, but the producers of the movie are thinking economics and are looking for the best deal. So far, Virginia is charging into last place for deal-making. Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee are running a tight competition for the economic bonanza with Georgia--the least appropriate site--having the most money to offer.

Sharyn wants to change that and is forging ahead with some alliances here that could help her. Her first call was to me, asking if she should call Morgan Griffith, her General Assembly delegate. "Oh, Lord no!" I yelled in an e-mail. The best place for Morgan Griffith as regards your Rosewood Casket is in it, I advised. Don't let him get anywhere near an argument for you; he'll probably be on the other side, anyway. He's never been on the right side of anything. But, hey, that's just me. (I mentioned that Griffith is the clogged artery of state government. My wife countered that he is the "hard stool." I liked her metaphor better.)

I put her on to Bootie Chewning, the local representative for the film office and a dynamo who already has a film shooting in Craig County. Bootie was a cheerleader at Virginia Tech about 50 years ago and she's never lost that flair (if not flare). I'm calling a couple of (capable) local pols, as well, to see if they can help.

What's at stake is a heck of a lot more than some exposure on a 40-foot screen. This is a green deal and we're not talking environment. It's long green. The movie companies are followed by money blowing around like flies on spilled spaghetti. And a lot of it could land right here in this economy.

Sharyn says the Virginia Film Commission doesn't seem up to the job of landing the movie. "We've promised the Virginia Film Commission a chance to match other state incentives from their fund, but don't know if they can do it. Georgia has upped its incentive to a 30 percent" rebate on in-state spending and there is pressure to shoot there. Georgia, however, hasn't "been able to show us real, dense mountains." Meanwhile, North Carolina and Tennessee have15 percent offers (with mountains). Virginia offers nice scenery.

Here's "the word from Lotusland," says Sharyn (sharing an e-mail from one of the film execs):

"I'll wager your politicking will be immensely helpful. Belaureled local trumps Hollywood every time ... Muckety Mucks want to know how much money we'll be spending in state and I wish I could say. Best guess is anywhere from $5 million to $8 million ... In spite of what some state legislators [Morgan Griffith would be one] think these rebates aren't hand-outs to greedy moguls. We'll literally spend the entire rebate in-state on production elements (good for the state), which results in a more beautiful, more richly detailed, more emotionally nuanced movie (good for us)."

So, as Sharyn suggests, it's time to take to the streets. Get some wooden pitch forks and tiki torches, form a mob and get these film people to act now. I get to lead the first mile.

Monday, December 1, 2008

What Used To Be

Evie Slone, a planner with Hill Studio in Roanoke and the former head of the planning department for the city, was walking by our new office the other day and stopped to chat with me. Evie, who seems to know something personal about every old building in the historic district, said her mother, Ann, once worked in our office space.

She worked with Mademoiselle Beauty Salon as a manicurist. She was good enough to get top billing in the display ad for the shop, I'd guess from the Roanoke Times. Looked like a 1950s ad. Evie also sent this photo of the staff, her mom on the left (looks a bit like Evie, both pretty). Again, circa 1950s, probably early '50s from the look of the hairstyles. I'd say Evie likely hadn't been born yet.

When Evie went through the office that day, it was under considerable rehabilitation. The walls had all been moved or added and I'm sure the place looked nothing like it had when Evie visited her mother at work. But I could see a tear in the corner of Evie's eye as she stepped over lumber and covered her mouth against the dust. It was touching. And now the picture, which gives me a sense of what Evie was feeling.

This is from Evie: "My mother was raised in the coalfields of West Virginia and attended a small beauty school in Bluefield. She first practiced as a hairdresser at Hotel Roanoke, where she met my father, a hotel engineer. She opened a hair salon in downtown in the 1950s and I'm told was one of the best in town.

"She was especially talented in hair color, permanents and "up-dos." I remember, as a child, that she was on the edge of fashion in hair and dress and she attended dances, dying her hair to match her dress and accessorizing with unusual rhinestone jewelry. I remember pink hair and dress once and mint green hair and dress another.

"I'm sure a 1950s woman owning and operating her own business outside the home was unusual and I look back and wonder how she did it all. My father was supportive and helped with all three kids (born in 1952, '54 and '56).

"In the 1960s, she moved her salon to Williamson (flight to the 'burbs?) where my father built most of the furniture for it. I still have a 1950s Helene Curtis beehive dryer that works. She retired in the late 1960s and died in 1981."