Sunday, January 31, 2010

Photo Essay: Sledding in Grandin Village

Sleds await use at the top of the run.^

Same shot as above, different angle and orientation.^

Mom cradles the little one as she prepares to shoot down the hill.^

Little guy tries to squeeze in for his next run (you can see he's already a veteran by the snow on his clothes).^

It's a long, slow walk back up the long hill after a fast run down.^

Mom tries to keep up with her running little one, who's hardly winded after her run. Mom gets to carry the sled, though.^

The hill above the Memorial Bridge on Memorial Ave. in Raleigh Court was dotted with sledders late this afternoon.^

Little man, big sled, bigger fun (above) and this guy (right) shows he's a veteran of the downhill run.^

Snow brings out the best from the people of Raleigh Court who gather in numbers above the Memorial Ave. Bridge for some serious sledding.

Today, with bright azure skies, crisp, mid-30s temperatures and enthusiasm that can't be measured, sledders ganged up at the top for their long runs down the big slope and flocked around their parents on the bunny slope for the shorter run.

It is the neighborhood's own ski resort without the skis (and without the hefty price tag).

Coming Up Short on the Grandin at the Daily

Those eagerly awaiting (more than two weeks) for the local daily newspaper to weigh in on the recent unpleasantness at the Grandin Theatre got arts reporter Mike Allen's best shot this morning in his Sunday column. Day late, dollar short is what it used to be called, but we'll not quibble with the lateness, just the lack of original reporting.

This was a warmed-over re-hash of a smattering of what has taken place on Internet blogs (scroll back on this one if you're interested), a new petition drive and on Facebook. The 'net has fairly crackled with information, updates and calls to arms (and even defenses of the status quo on occasion). There was absolutely nothing new or revealing that I could see in Allen's piece. He had blogged very briefly about the dustup a couple of times in the past two weeks, but even that was almost completely non-revelatory (he ran the board chairman's lame explanation of what was going on most recently, but without comment or any other reporting and, frankly, behind my release of it hours before).

Let me mention here that Allen has done some good work in a lot of areas as a newspaper reporter in the past and that he is fully capable of doing the job here. He's also a guy who is interested and involved in the arts (good actor and writer for the stage), so I don't think this is something that bores him.

The Times will tell you that it couldn't do much here because none of the principles was talking and there's some value to that point of view. It is a value that the 'net snubs its nose at in allowing all parties equal access to its immediate communications capability. The daily newspaper serves a good journalistic purpose in that it jumps through the proper hoops on its stories. That does not always result in truth--God, do I have examples!--but it almost always results in fact. Almost always. The two are not necessarily synonymous.

What we got from the Internet reporting-cum-gossip-mongering was a picture of a dysfunctional elite operating order and a gaggle of upset supporters and patrons who didn't like what they saw and were ready to talk about it to anybody who'd listen. Over the past two weeks or so, I have listened to a lot of people, called a lot of people, reported what I could when it was on the record and I think a picture has evolved. Others have done similar work, much of it heated and emotional. I don't know what the result has been yet, except to unify the protesters, but I don't think it's over, either.

Adam Greenbaum, who runs movie theaters like the Grandin (independents) in Staunton and Charlottesville has expressed (to me in a pretty long conversation) his interest in either owning or running the Grandin. I gave him some contact info so he could talk to the people in charge. He has been looking for a place in Roanoke to open a theater for about a year and sees a possibility with the Grandin. The daily has not reported that at all and it is a potentially important element here.

Frankly, I think the 'net has outperformed the daily in this instance and it could well be a harbinger of what's coming.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Roanoke in the Quiet

Roanoke Valley Natural Foods Co-op in Grandin Village.^

Grandin Theatre and Grandin Village.^

Looking west on Campbell Avenue from the center of Roanoke City Market.^

City Market stalls with Norfolk Southern in background right.^

Center in the Square (and my pickup truck).^

202 Market St. Restaurant adorned with icicles.^

This is not an antique. I swear. It is a telephone. A working public telephone. A City Market anachronism.^

City Market, dead center.^

Wachovia Tower.^

Hotel Roanoke.^

Some of Susan Jennings' city artwork (nice, Susan).^

Clock at Wachovia Tower. I like this. It gives a small-town feel to the center of the urban area.^

Horses used to drink from the Dogmouth Fountain on City Market.^

I went downtown about noon today to get some shots in the snow, which was about eight inches at the time and still falling steadily.

I don't remember when the city felt so quiet. The roads were in good shape, relatively, but Roanokers are not keen on driving in falling snow, so I pretty much had it to myself, except for the occasional plow and some walkers.

It is a different view of the city than the one I get on an almost daily basis; one that is stark, lovely and, most of all, quiet. I like quiet. Roanoke in the quiet. Nice.

Putting the Levity Back in Football

For those of you bemoaning the lack of football today and tomorrow (bless its heart, the Pro Bowl all-star game counts for absolutely nothing), let's all settle back and have a little laugh at our favorite sport. My wife gave me The Bathroom Football Book for Christmas, which is why she's been asking on occasion, "Are you ever going to finish in there?"

Here's some of what it says:

"Statistics remind me of the guy who drowned in the river whose average depth was three feet." --Woody Hayes

"Gentlemen, it is better to have died a small boy than to fumble this football." --John Heisman

"On this team we are united in one common goal: to keep my job." --Lou Holtz

"If your work is not fired with enthusiasm, then you will be fired--with enthusiasm." John Mazur (ex-Patriots coach)

"The thing I like about football is that you don't have to take a shower to go to work." --John Hilgenberg (Bears center)

"Just remember the words of Patrick Henry: 'Kill me or let me live.'" --Bill Peterson (Florida State coach)

"We're like a cross-eyed discus thrower: we don't win many games, but we keep the crowd loose." --Bill Curry (ex-Kentucky coach)

"I'm really happy for ... the guys who've been around here for six or seven years, especially our seniors." --Bob Hoying (Ohio state quarterback)

"Our kicker only had one bad day last year: Saturday." Gary Darnell (ex-coach at Tennessee Tech)

"I had the air conditioning at my back." --Rusty Fricke (he had just kicked a 60-yard field goal indoors)

"That was instinct ... like running from the cops." --Marquis Weeks (Virginia player who had run a kickoff back 100 yards)

"I told the administration I'd win the Big 10 championship in two years if they'd let me do two things: spend all the money I wanted and cheat." --Lee Corso

"They didn't like my overhand delivery." --Bubba Smith (ex-lineman on being banned from bowling alleys)

"The really scary thing is that some of these people work for the government." --Joe Jacoby (on Redskins fans in pig costumes)

"Probably the Beatles' 'White Album.'" --Steve Largent (outstanding receiver on which record he'll cherish)

"After three failed marriages, I know what it's like to be replaced." --Terry Bradshaw (on a quarterback losing his job)

"They say two things happen when you get older. One is you forget things. I can't remember the other right now." --Marv Levy (at 80)

Friday, January 29, 2010

Grandin fix without the Grandin: 'Lovely Bones'

For those of you who don't have the Grandin Theatre's movie lineup in your life these days because of the recent ugly events there, have an alternative this weekend (snow permitting). Director Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones," based upon (and don't get too carried away with the thought that it will be faithful) Alice Sebold's bestseller about the death of a child and how it rips apart a family.

The often surreal movie version--with some startlingly good performances--is much more a murder mystery and it is framed with some truly magnificent photography. Think of the movie and the book as two different entities and you'll enjoy the movie far more because, for what it is, it's quite good.

At the center here is the death of Susie Salmon (played by Saoirse Ronan with a nice subtlety), a 14-year-old from a loving and happy family who is murdered by a creepy neighbor (Stanley Tucci, who played Julia Child's husband in "Julie and Julia" and is effective here, as well). While the book was a study in family dynamics in the time of extreme stress, this one turns into a good murder mystery.

Go see it. Get your Grandin fix without implying you approve of the recent actions there.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A look at the Negro Leagues at Roanoke College

The 1938 Homestead Grays featured home run king Josh Gibson (inside left, second row).

One of the most interesting of the 20th Century's race artifacts, baseball's Negro Leagues, will be the topic of a lecture and film Feb. 11 in celebration of Black History Month. “The Negro Baseball Leagues–An American Legacy” is scheduled Thursday, Feb. 11, 8 p.m. at Roanoke College’s Colket Center Wortmann Ballroom.

The lecturer is filmmaker Byron Motley, who will take a look at yet another piece of intriguing history you won’t find in many books. Negro League players—some of the best ever when you consider people like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron and many, many others—lived an entirely different life than their Major League brethren, often being assigned to “Negroes only” living and eating facilities while on the road and playing in secondary facilities, although their crowds were loud and raucous.

The leagues, of course, came about because African-Americans were banned from baseball from the early 20th Century (think "Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis," who also banned eight Black Sox--"Eight Men Out," a great movie--for life) until Robinson’s debut in the late 1940s. Colorful, interesting, exciting period in our bleak history of race relations. Or, more accurately in this case, non-relations.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

It's About the Past, the Present and the Future

Keith Ferrell (left) with W&L professor Doug Cumming at the reception.^

Here's Keith Ferrell's intensity and passion at yesterday's talk.^

We had a brisk finishing roundtable discussion at the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference yesterday, based on the question, "How will writers make money in the future?" There are several sides to this issue and the opinions--all valid in my view--conflict with each other pretty significantly and often dramatically.

My friend Keith Ferrell, whose resume is long and impressive, is one of those veteran writers who laments the decline of the long, thoughtful, intellectual essay in national magazines in favor of shorter, less hefty pieces. My business partner, Tom Field, while agreeing in principal with Keith, I think, sees what the public is demanding. Anne Clelland of Handshake 2.0 is a Web publisher who is also seeing the enthusiastic reception to shorter, more to the point pieces and was persuasive yesterday. (Anne's responses to all this can be found here and here. Anne has a lot to say and, as usual, it's good stuff.)

Keith puts his argument this way, "It is a funny (in every sense of the word) thing to have gotten the reputation of being a Cassandra when all I am really trying to say, and actually do say in all of my ’doom and gloom’ talks, is that we need to make sure that the immediacy and convenience and ’everybody into the pool’ attractions of the new media in all of its increasingly reductive forms and formats don’t cause us either to displace or forget the far longer and far more culturally vital importance and effectiveness of traditional writing; not just ink on paper, but language used by people who have learned and worked and struggled to master its use, arguments and, yes, points of view, presented carefully and in-depth, engagement with readers that lasts longer than the instant it takes to communicate (or give the impression of communicating) the “Wow factor” that is so important to the new media evangelists. [Note: "The previous sentence, containing an impressive argument is 155 words and one period.] Writing that has to be thought about, not just clicked on or through.

"Transitions shouldn’t mean abandoning traditions, particularly [traditions] that have served our species so well for so long. Not everything is meant to be read fast, and nearly nothing important is meant to be read fast, or can be.

"Of Time And The River [by Thomas Wolfe] (or Ernest Gaines, or a good in-depth investigative piece or feature) would be nothing as a tweet. I worked to ... point out that everyone who sets out to learn how to put words together in a serious way (even when writing humorously!) is part of this tradition, or can be, and they ignore or discard it at society’s peril, not just their own. That writing is a responsibility as well as a craft and profession ... I ... felt and feel that it’s important for young ... writers to hear something of the philosophy and history and industry that got us to here, before ’here’ becomes something completely different."

Tom Field talks of “the great divide in this vocation” and says, “There are some ‘woe is me’ individuals who express frustration and almost seem despondent about the difficulties in ‘making a living’ at this … and then there are the people who simply forge ahead with their passion, whether or not they make a living at it. I believe the attraction to Anne Clelland … is that she has a positive resolve to make it work and simply refuses to resign to the ‘poor state of the industry,’ if you will.

"The talk about who pays for what and where the money comes from is, to me, no different in this profession than any other. The remarks about the good old days when newspapers were held to a higher standard is hogwash, if you ask me. Do you think people migrate to blogs because they don’t care about objectivity and journalistic standards? They’re really not that gullible. These are simply different artistic formats—that’s it."

And Keith is right. It is important for young writers to know the history and philosophy and to emulate the parts of that history and philosophy that still work for a different audience, one that considers tweets something other than a series of intellectual grunts and belches. Keith knows--and guys my age know well--that things change dramatically over a career or a lifetime. A marvelous book from last year, Printer's Devil, talked of Mark Twain's intense interest in printing, which, says the author, changed more in Twain's lifetime than at any time before or since. That assertion, frankly, is bullshit. Printing and publishing changed more last week than it did in Twain's time.

Still, it's as important to recognize the importance of what was, as it is to stay attuned to the reality of the writing market and the reader of today and next week and next year. It's important to listen to Keith--even when he goes on 155 words in a sentence--because he knows what he's talking about. It's also vital to listen to people like Anne Clelland and Bonnie Cranmer and Tom Field. They understand what was, what is and what's coming. And, frankly, it's all important. And, more frankly,the conversation is nowhere near over.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Brief Report Card on the Writers Conference

Lawyer Dave Cohan (left) received a perfect score from students.^

Your favorite editor (lower right) talks to the packed house at the opening night session.^

I promised myself I'd make at least a quick attempt at a wrap-up of the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference, held at Hollins today, and I'll give it a shot through tired eyes and aching feet.

Here are some quick observations (after having absorbed the stack of critiques left by the students):
  • There were about 100 students, which was equal to last year's count.
  • For the second straight year, we will be able to give a Hollins Horizon student a scholarship (this year it's likely to be about $1,000). Elizabeth Jones is the recipient and she's a dandy.
  • The only real complaint I heard (to my face) all day was that there was too much to do. Same complaint as the past two years. (As you'll see below, there were others, but they weren't related to me in person.)
  • The most popular presenter at the conference (all "excellent" scores) was a lawyer. Gentry Locke Rakes & Moore's Dave Cohan's work was praised as useful, organized and marvelously delivered. NPR essayist Janis Jaquith missed a perfect score (and she had both a keynote address and a class to judge) by one vote. Her keynote address was consistently praised for its excellence. The single demerit: one student thought she talked too much about radio (her essay was "The Radio Essay"). High marks also went to Roanoke Times reporter Rex Bowman, Handshake 2.0 owner Anne Clelland, Hollins librarian Maryke Barber, W&L Journalism professor Doug Cumming and Hollins English professor Jeanne Larsen.
  • The four social media classes were heavily attended and generally liked. The persistent complaint was that there was too much Twitter discussion in the "Introduction" and that some of the information was simply too technical for beginners. Still, there was a great deal of interest and substantial praise (the crowd just loved Anne Clelland).
  • Those in attendance wanted snacks and other types of drinks besides beer, water and wine at the wine reception. They wanted other drinks besides coffee on Saturday and, again, wanted snacks.
  • There were a number of complaints about classes that were overfilled and the complainers wanted bigger rooms. One said the building was too cold. Several had issues with what they thought was a lack of technology (no overhead slides in the photo class, for example).
  • The most consistent request for additional classes was for more information on publishing and for some exhibitors.
From my perspective, the conference was quite good and the atmosphere supportive and almost electric. I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciate all of you who showed up.

If we have one next year--and that is still a question--we will try to have some exhibitors, bring in some different speakers (and some of the favorites from this session) and make it more user-friendly.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Hollins Adds a Leadership Alternative for Women

Abrina Schnurman-Cook talks to the assembled at the conference this a.m.^

Hollins University has added a new--and inexpensive--element to its Batten Leadership Program, which is designed to help produce the next generation of women leaders in the region. The program is called the Emerging Leaders Forum and it "profides an opportnity for women to learn more about leadership and improve their effectiveness in the workplace," according to program director Abrina Schnurman-Cook.

At a press conference announcing the program this morning at the Jefferson Club in Roanoke, Ed Murphy, CEO of Carilion, said, "There is little we can do that really matters, but leadership is one" of the few actions that count. Hollins President Nancy Gray said the program grew from the desire to train younger and less experienced women in leadership. The Batten Institute trains leaders who are generally higher in management than the target women of the Emerging Leaders Forum.

The cost of the program is $45 per session, which many of the business executives in the room agreed will help open the door for participation by companies strapped by the recession.

The initial session is scheduled April 10 and is titled "The Art of Networking" with author Paula Frazier directing. Those interested in more details should call Schnurman-Cook at 540-362-7488.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Big Read Roanoke Valley Kicks Off

Co-chairwomen Ann McCallum (above) and Lucy Lee at the press conference this morning^

The Big Read Roanoke Valley kicked off this morning at the Jefferson Center with considerable enthusiasm for its goal of getting a lot of people to read a single book. The book is Ernest Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying, which is being read people throughout the region. A number of events are scheduled to examine and celebrate the Big Read.

Valley Business FRONT is among its sponsors and I will be among those orchestrating one of nearly 20 events that will finish with a jazz poetry reading and recitation at Virginia Western Community College March 31.

Among the events are the showing of a movie based on the book, a number of readings from the books and several lectures, including "Anatomy of an Execution" by Roanoke College's Todd Peppers and Laura Anderson, who wrote a book by that title. My class, scheduled March 16 at 6:30 at the Blue Ridge Public Library, will be a writing workshop based on the book.

A complete list of events is here. I hope you'll take part.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The View from Perriello Land

Regardless of the stripe of your particular brand of politics, the following quotation from Rep. Tom Perriello, who represents a district in Western Virginia (some near Roanoke), should resonate. It has not resonated with Perriello's colleagues who seem far more distracted with the serious duty of keeping their jobs than with running the country. Perriello, in fact, is the only man in Congress that I can immediately say, without reservation, that I respect as a representative of the people. Here's his quote (from

"What people are upset about is a lack of leadership and a lack of solutions, not doing too much. There's certainly an omnipresence of risk aversion among politicians that prevents us from doing what's necessary. We need wartime consiglieres, not risk-averse politicians right now … We should stop worrying about protecting our own jobs, and start worrying about protecting the jobs of the American people."

Perriello won his first election in 2008 by 727 votes and is a Republican target this year.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Yes, You Can Still Register for the Writers Conference

A little clarification is needed on registration for the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference Friday and Saturday at Hollins University.

You can register all the way through the conference--any time. The only drawback to not registering by Jan. 18 is that if you register later, you will not get a lunch provided by the conference. Those have been ordered from the lunch gods and they don't take well to having their routine interrupted.

Still, you can do the entire conference for $50 (which is so absurdly cheap I'm sometimes embarrassed to tell rich people what we charge). Bring your lunch in your Superman lunch box and sit on the roundtable discussion in the big auditorium at noon, the one about self-publishing. You'll get the answers to a lot of questions I get all the time. Or, you can spend that hour and a half over in the Hollins lunch area talking to some of your new best friends, those you'll meet at the conference.

If you want to register or just get the entire story on the conference, go here (Registration, Presenters and Schedule are to the right).

Grandin Board's Decision Not Unexpected

UPDATE: 11:30 A.M.

Members of the Grandin Theatre Foundation board of directors met late yesterday afternoon and came to some conclusions in the firing of Jason Garnett.

Here's the official statement from the board:

"The executive committee ... [has] reviewed the situation and [is] in support of the decision to terminate Jason Garnett's employment with [the] Grandin Theatre. However, in addition, we are also in the process of reviewing our human resources policies and procedures. We will be workng with Jason to ensure that he is treated fairly and that any concerns he has (equipment pay, ec) are resolved fairly both in the eyes of the board's executive committee and Jason's."

Here's what else I know:
  • Kathy Chittum will remain as executive director.
  • Jason will not be re-hired.
  • Jason's contributions and some of his initiaives will be reviewed and where appropriate, retained (there is some special concern about the community filmmaker series and the midnight movies, apparently).
  • Chris Banta, a CPA with Brown Edwards & Company in Roanoke, is the new president of the board. His e-mail address is Please do not use the e-mail that was circulated earlier, since it is his work e-mail.
  • I got a call yesterday from a representative of the man who owns Vinegar Hill Theatre in Charlottesville (and other theaters, all independents similar to the Grandin), expressing interest in perhaps purchasing the Grandin. The representative wanted to know how to reach members of the board. I was driving at the time and did not have contact information with me, so I am waiting for a callback in order to pass that along.
Board members were deluged with intelligent, well-reasoned, well-written proposals (the best I read was by Erin Womack, a former assistant curator at the Taubman Museum of Art, who worked with both Kathy and Jason on a project and has some special insight). The problem in all this is that governing rules for boards of directors are strict and leave little room to maneuver. From what I can tell, Jason had considerable sympathy from board members (and a faction backed Kathy solidly, as well). I did not get the feeling that there was great enthusiasm for the outcome.

Banta says he will release a statement later (probably today) after the board has approved it and that the statement should provide a bit more explanation of what's next than we know. I hope, and have urged, that the board meet with representatives of the angered faction and will at the very least listen to concerns, express respect for those views and agree to continue discussions when there are issues.

I talked to Jason on the street yesterday and while I promised I would not make the details of our conversation public, I will say that he retains the Zen-like quality we have all come to know and respect from him. He will be fine. Frankly, I expect that eventually he will be even better off because he has so much creativity, energy and talent that has not been used at the Grandin. Remember what Pat Wilhelms did when she was fired by Mill Mountain Theatre and use that as guide in projecting for Jason. He ceases to be bound by a single gig now.

The Grandin remains a community treasure and a community resource, regardless of what bylaws or any other kinds of laws suggest. This is not about legality; it is about inclusiveness and continued support of an institution that many of us have supported with time, money and enthusiasm and hope to continue to support with all three. It is a matter of getting good answers to difficult questions and feeling that supporters have a say in the future.

Monday, January 18, 2010

It's Writers Conference Week: The Push Is On

This photo, taken by one of WDBJ7's cameramen this a.m. (at about 6 o-freakin'-clock) is affectionately titled "White Guys on TV"^

It's Writers Conference Week and the blitz is on. The Roanoke Regional Writers Conference III is this weekend at Hollins University and I've asked every one of our writer/teachers to blog about it, push it on Facebook, Twitter and any other social media platform they use.

I have two TV appearances today (one above with Bob Grebe's "Mornin'" segments on WDBJ7 in Roanoke here and another with Tab O'Neal's "Living in the Heart of Virginia" at noon today on WSET-TV in Lynchburg. We shot the WSET segment last week with keynote speaker Janis Jaquith). Those three segments--coming between a few minutes after 6 o'clock and finishing about 7--were about two minutes, 30 seconds each and you'd be surprised how much can be said in that brief amount of time. I was happy with it and happy with Bob's ability to steer the conversation.

Most of the area print media--daily paper, the weeklies, several magazines--have already printed materials about the conference and now it's up to social media to put the final push on. We're hoping for about 150 to 175 people and we have a cap of 200, which I don't expect to reach. We're somewhere over 100 now and writers tend to make decisions late, so I'm optimistic.

If you're interested in attending or even learning more about the conference, go here and follow the links to Presenters, Schedule and Registration on the right of the page. everything you know is right before you.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Please Don't Boycott the Grandin Theatre

I understand that there is a movement afoot to boycott the Grandin Theatre and I would like to strongly urge those of you considering that action to please re-consider. A boycott would do nobody any good and could seriously cripple an institution that we all love and that we all want to succeed.

There is a lot of work going on behind the scenes right now to try to make the Grandin a place we can again be proud of. Some smart, courageous and commited people--including board members--are doing some hard work in order to attempt to correct errors or perceptions and my guess is that if we are all patient and give this a few days, we will all be much happier with the outcome.

I would much rather see a few people writing letters to board members asking them to take a long, hard look at the issues and report on them in a timely and complete way. The Grandin remains a community institution with strong community support and we all need to be behind the healing that must come.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Protest at the Grandin Theatre

For all the anger that has swirled around the controversial Grandin Theatre firing of popular General Manager Jason Garnett this week, a well-behaved and even festive crowd of about 20 protesters showed up tonight in front of the theater.

A relatively quiet version of Buffalo Springfield's 1960s protest anthem "There's Something Happening Here" played in the background as protestors held signs high, some calling for the firing of the theater Executive Director Kathy Chittum, others simply pleading to "Save the Grandin."

It was a relatively self-conscious crowd of people who don't generally do this type of thing, fans of off-beat movies and "the arts" in general, the kids who wore black barets and black tights with capes in high school. But the point seemed to be getting across to the steady Saturday night crowd of patrons, many of whom knew nothing of the dust-up and seemed interested.

At the Coffee Pot, They're Still Lighting Up

My pal Robert Turcotte ran smack into Virginia’s new public smoking law last night and he’s not happy. What he actually ran into was the breaking of the law, overtly and massively at one of Roanoke’s oldest, most popular and now for sale roadhouse-dive-beer-joints, The Coffee Pot.

Here’s Robert’s report from a Facebook post that’s worth reading:

"I'm grumpy this morning. Although an abnormally irritable self from last night’s second-hand smoke exposure, I’m in truth touchy about the new non-smoking law . . . or rather, a lack of enforcement.

"Last night I visited the Coffee Pot with a friend, knowing the new law would allow us to hear the “Blue Grass Brothers” (a very professional touring group from these parts, btw), awakening the next day with a clear head, and without a pile of foul smelling clothes to launder. We walked past smokers in the bar. Given that the interior is practically one open area, we wondered aloud how the next room could be an isolated non-smoking area. After all, the law does say that areas must be physically separate, and with separate ventilation systems, true? Hmmm.

"The law also requires that we aren’t obliged to walk through the smoking area to get to our table. Something wasn’t right. We moved through an enthusiastic crowd as they listened and danced. We sat. Our eyes adjusted to the dim lighting. We became aware of a smoker here and there. My friend and I traded questioning looks. An ungainly young lady toting a restaurant sized condiments container emptied ash trays.

"At the band’s break, it was as though everyone in the place had lit two cigs each. Smoke breathers blew small clouds of blue air that combined in the room to form a thick haze, accented by the multi-colored stage lights. A quick trip to the pool room gave a bit of relief from the foul air.

"Having paid a cover charge, an urge to hear the band, and a reticence to ask for a cover charge refund combined to override good lessons learned over decades. We stayed. Friends wondered aloud about the situation. Did management somehow get a waiver? How did they do that? After all, it is a historical landmark!

"The Coffee Pot is on my path home, so I know regulars cars were parked outside on our recent snowy night. 'Pot Heads' (it’s actually printed on a sign behind the bar) are after all an avid bunch! So, did they appeal to the legislature and prevail (grin)? No. The realization sunk in - this restaurant was not only ignoring the new rules, but actually encouraged patrons by providing ash trays! This IS a blatant disregard of the new law.

"On the way out we asked staff about the smokers. We got an answer something like, 'Wellll, ya know there is a new law, but . . . I’m just here to work the door!,' as his body twitched in an odd, angular spasm of denial.

"I’ve looked forward to smoke free public buildings in Virginia since travel to other of our United States exposed me to the possibility. I hope soon we’ll learn to abide by the new guidelines. Until then, I’ll take my business elsewhere, Mr. Coffee Pot owner.

"There. I feel spiritually well again. I’m betting on an early morning nap will improve my physical self. I’m on the way to the couch for a de-grumping!"

Picketing of Grandin Scheduled Tonight

Beth Deel among protest leaders>

John Johnson is organizing a protest of the Grandin Theatre's firing of long-time employee Jason Garnett tonight at 7 p.m. in front of the theater. Those participating are asked to meet behind the Roanoke Valley Natural Foods Co-op at 6:45 p.m.

Beth Deel, who has been leading the the Internet protests against the firing, emphasizes in her e-mail that "this must be a civil, intelligent protest." She says signs should be in support of Jason Garnett and "nasty signs ... will not help the situation."

She also points out that "We should not persuade people to not buy tickets tonight, but if they ask why we are there we must use that as an opportunity to inform them of the situation ... We cannot be viewed as a rabble rousing group of trouble makers ... If we are a GO I will contact media prior."

I will caution that this demonstration should be peaceful, intelligent, supportive of the mission of the Grandin Theatre Foundation. This is a fragile time and the risk of losing the theater is very real. Behave yourselves.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Library of Virginia Recognizes Pearl Fu

The Library of Virginia in Richmond will feature an exhibit on the immigrants of Virginia beginning Jan. 28 and 10 immigrants will be profiled in the display. Among them—and one of only two who are still alive—is Pearl Fu, founder of Local Colors, of Roanoke.

The exhibition will run through August. The Library of Virginia was founded in 1823 and is one of the state’s oldest agencies. Peal Fu has lived in Roanoke for many years and has specialized in creating a positive high profile for immigrants. Her Local Colors grew from a weekend curiosity a few years ago to a major weekend attraction with occasional other festivals scattered about. She is the daughter of a general in Chaing Kai-shek, ruler of Nationalist China during and after World War II.

Here are the people who will be featured: Pocahontas;
  • Captain John Smith;
  • David Ross (early colonist from Scotland;
  • Sara Lucy Bagby (enslaved African-American woman who escaped to freedom in the north in 1861);
  • Anthony Rosenstock (German immigrant, Jewish, who owned and ran a large department store in Petersburg, late 19th and early 20th centuries);
  • Jozsef Estefan (born in Hungary, Estefan worked in the coal mines of southwest Virginia);
  • Antonio Sansone (Sicilian immigrant who ran a large fruit stand and grocery store in Norfolk in the 1910-20s);
  • Nick and Vasiliki (Bessie) Campas (Greek immigrants who ran a confectionery company in Norfolk, 1930s);
  • Pablo Cuevas (Cuban immigrant who was elected to Harrisonburg’s City Council, owns a small engineering firm, still lives in Harrisonburg);
  • Pearl Fu.

Grandin Board Must Take Charge in Dispute

Executive Director Kathy Chittum (right)>

I have been talking to people almost all day about the firing of Jason Garnett, former GM of the Grandin Theatre in Roanoke, and if I have come to any conclusion, it is that this is not an employee issue. It is about who's running the Grandin Theatre and who will run it in the future.

The board of directors of the Grandin Theatre Foundation, of which I was an early member, appears to have abdicated its responsibility and given pretty much free reign to Executive Director Kathy Chittum. The firing of Jason by Kathy is the equivalent of a CEO firing a CFO and that simply isn't done without the consent of the board of directors of whatever company is involved. At the very least, it would require executive committee approval.

Kathy apparently called this a "personnel matter" before the board and frustrated some of the newer members by refusing to discuss it further. That's where the board abdicated. It is either in charge--as it should be--or it is not and if it isn't, it has no purpose. At the point of Kathy's ludicrous statement, this ceased to be a personnel matter and became a matter of proper control.

It is a fairly common practice for executive directors--especially of non-profits--to gather influence over years as board members come and go and as institutional memory depleats. My guess is that's what has happened here. I have a list of members of the board and there's only one who served when I did--and he's coming back on the board after being off for a while.

Kathy is a strong personality who believes in her ability to run the theater. Jason is a thoroughly competent, knowledgeable and equally strong personality and it is not surprising that the two of them might have had clashes. It is not surprising that--in the tight financial atmosphere that surrounds them--there might be some harsh words.

Still, this should be a board issue. It is a difference that needs to be worked out to the benefit of the theater. The idea is to run a good theater and to keep it open and productive. I see the current clash as a serious threat to the Grandin's future. The margins are so slim there that if there is a loss of even a small percentage of supporters, the theater could be threatened with closing.

To that end, a solution must be found and it must be found by the board. I believe consultation with former board members, a thorough review of rules and by-laws and listening to the community are essential here. A sober, thoughtful review of this situation and the board's role in the future of the theater is absolutely essential if this is to be resolved in the theater's favor. And my thought is that the theater is far more important than the two players or the board. It is a community asset and the community must be involved.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A 'Creative Re-birth for the [Grandin] Theatre"

This young woman (above) is doing her homework and waiting for customers at the Grandin box office. Jason Garnett (right)^

The following is a note I received a little while ago from a Grandin employee who asked not to be named, for obvious reasons (see previous blog post):

"As a Grandin employee, I have experienced a little bit of both sides of the story. I believe that the theater will not be the same, and that change will be for the worse without Jason.

"The word is that midnight movies are already out the window, which is really a shame if its true. These events were, to my understanding, not huge moneymakers for the Grandin but great for bringing art and culture to the community and giving Roanoke a shot of flavor.

"I know who is rumored to have been trained as Jason's replacement, and I have a lot of respect for that person and think he would be good at managing other employees. But Jason did a lot more than managing employees, and I honestly think he is qualified/deserves to have the job of executive director. From my experience, that scenario would be a creative re-birth for the theater."

Grandin Boycott Being Organized Over Jason Garnett's Firing

I got this shot at the Grandin Road Christmas parade a couple of years ago. The title is, "Can I call you back?" That's a cell phone in the guy's hand.

There seems to be a tornado of protest brewing over the apparent firing of General Manager Jason Garnett by the Grandin Theatre in Roanoke. I have e-mailed Grandin Executive Director Kathy Chittum to get a confirmation on the firing, and she wrote back, "This is a personnel matter and I have no comment to make." Jason has not answered a photo call asking him what happened.

The 'Net, however, is alive with chatter about a boycott being arranged by Beth Deel, co-owner of MyScoper and UpupPeriscope in Roanoke and Beth Jones, a former Roanoke Times arts reporter and long-time Grandin supporter.

There is a 5 p.m. meeting of the board today and the firing is almost certain to come up. One insider, who asked not to be identified, said, the Grandin has "several new members and a new preesident, none of [whom] knows the history, the mission, the vision" of the Grandin or "the backstory of what has gone on there. A board member e-mailed me that "I agree with you! Jason is the real heart of theatre, and we don't want to, and can't afford to, lose him."

Many, including former owner Julie Hunsaker, are coming to Jason's defense and castigating the Grandin's management. Here's what Keri Sink-Tyler says, in reply to Beth Deel's announcement of the boycott on her Facebook page, "As a former employee and friend of Jason, I do know the whole story. Jason is passionate about film, and about the Grandin. He only wants what's best for the Grandin-and to make it a creative resource for the community that everyone can participate in [Jason is] the face of that place. He has put so much of himself into the Grandin, worked 60 hours a week making sure that everything ran smoothly, and trying to come up with ideas-only to have them constantly shot down."

Keri insists that Jason has been the victim of a campaign meant to get rid of him and writes that management has been involved in "shady things" and "is going to run that place into the ground." Management is "uncreative, awful to employees ... and awful with customers," according to the post.

Cory Dorathy writes, "Passion for people aside, the Grandin is a vital part of this community and if we turn our backs on it as an entity, then we turn our backs on the progress of this community."

Jason is not universally supported. Marcus Hodges writes, "I was boycotting the Grandin because of Jason's shitty treatment of other employees."

Julie Hunsaker, who owned the Grandin (1985-2002) before it was bought by the Grandin Theatre Foundation, wrote: "I always felt that Jason was the torch bearer for my original, beautiful and idealistic vision and mission for the Grandin. I am in mourning. I am weeping."

There's a lot more commentary on that page and, I suspect, a lot more to come. I don't know how much Kathy Chittum can say about the situation, but the longer she remains quiet, the more difficult this could become for her and the Grandin Board (of which I was once a member). This could be dangerous for Roanoke's alternative theater, which does not operate with generous margins, to begin with. My guess is that Jason has had a great deal to do with any success the Grandin has had over the years, something he's rarely been credited with, except among insiders who know his value. Frankly, I'm not sure the Grandin can afford to be without him. He's the very soul of the organization.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Getting Janis On (and Off) Television

Host Tab O'Neal (left), Janis Jaquith and moi this a.m.^

It was funny watching Janis Jaquith this morning on what I took to be her first TV appearance. She was almost giddy and was even more entertaining than usual. NPR essayist and newspaper columnist Janis is the keynote speaker for next week's Roanoke Regional Writers Conference (Jan. 22-23 at Hollins, read about it here; look to the right for details) and has written and spoken to large audiences for years.

But there seems to be something about TV that brings out this ... well ... uh ... something in people. We had sat for nearly an hour awaiting our turn among five segments of Tab O'Neal's "Living in the Heart of Virginia," which will air around mid-day Monday of next week.

We watched some lawyers talk about bankruptcy, a couple of musicians who do "pre-squaredance" tunes (I'm working on a novel with a squaredance McGuffin and talked to them for a bit), people from an eldercare facility and a physician discussing breast cancer before it was our turn.

It was a short segment, but Tab's been doing this for a while, so we got it all said, but I don't think Janis wanted to leave. You can hear more of what she has to say Friday night at the wine reception when she gives the keynote talk and then again the next day when she has a class on writing essays for radio. It's always a popular class and Janis is not only funny, she can flat write. You can register here.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Wishing Kiffin Well, Tennessee Football Better

OK, I'm going to say this and see if I can believe it:

Losing Lane Kiffin is not a disaster for the University of Tennessee's football team. It has the facilities, tradition, fan support, stadium and money to hire well.

I wouldn't count the Vols out before we even know who's coming in (Will Mushcamp of Texas, John Grudin, David Cutcliff of Duke, Petersen of Boise, Whittingham, Sarkisian, Bellotti, Mike Riley, Randy Edsall, Tom O'Brien, Paul Johnson, Mullen and a bunch of first-line offensive and defensive coordinators, pro and college--I won't even say Leach or Leavitt--all potentials given the level of the job).

We aren't even sure Kiffin can be successful over the long haul. He was barely over .500 at UT (losing at least three games he could have, maybe should have won) and his pro record is below .500. Southern Cal went through an entire litany of names before getting to Kiffin and they didn't want the job (good possibility of probation coming on).

You can't blame Kiffin and I don't. Southern California is home for him. The program is glamorous and is in Los Angeles, which some consider the center of the civilized universe (they're wrong; I lived near there and you can take my word for it). But he's gone and somebody else will take over with a lot of hope, a lot of ideas and a great deal of energy.

Right now it feels like a young and favored wife has walked out on us for a pretty-boy (and I can tell you I know exactly what that feels like). In a few weeks we may be feeling sorry for him and happy for ourselves (I know that feeling, too). Let's just wait and see. Tough, stomach-in-knots time for the Vol faithful right now, but remember, just four years ago Alabama's program looked like it had settled in at the bottom for good.

I wish Kiffin well. And I wish Vol Athletic Director Mike Hamilton a good night's sleep, because he has some work to do.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Basketball Quote of the Day

And you thought they were playing for money or girls or drugs or guns or ... well, something else. Here's the deal at the University of Tennessee today where an under-manned and over-matched basketball team beat No. 1 Kansas by eight points:

"We're just hungry -- ready to go back to the gym. We want to work until we have to scrape each other off the floor just so we can have a feeling like this again."

That was Renaldo Wooldridge, who scored 14 points. Wooldridge barely had a profile on the basketball floor before the last few days when four UT players were suspended on guns and drugs allegations. Wooldridge got to play today. A lot. And he liked it. It really is about the feeling, the rare exhilaration of over-achievement and doing something everybody says you can't. And the feeling is especially intense among those of us who are fans.

(Knoxville News-Sentinel photo.)