A street without grace
In 1959, 85 percent of all Richmond’s felony arrests occurred in the 800 and 900 blocks of Richmond’s West Grace Street. It’s not that “the strip” back then was such a dangerous place, but that the police looked more closely for crime there, what with all those beatniks, hippies, art students and weirdos that went to Richmond Professional Institute, the forerunner of VCU.
“The Fan and West Grace Street was the progressive underground of Richmond—it was like the circus,” said Richmond native and former RPI student Chuck Wrenn. “People would ride through just to look at the hippies. Rednecks would drive through and want to start fights.”
West Grace Street, from Laurel Street to Ryland Street, has persisted as a thorn in the side of RPI and VCU since that formative time. In 1977, an incoming group of freshman was told by an official from the VCU student affairs office to “just stay away” from Grace Street and its questionable denizens and sleazy temptations. Of course, that was nothing but a backhanded invitation to hang out there, and this writer almost flunked out his freshman year, thanks to science fiction triple features showing twice a week at the Biograph Theater, just out the back door of my 808 W. Franklin St. dorm.
The following Grace Street recollections are excerpts from the forthcoming book “Richmond independent Press: A History of the Underground Zine Scene,” by Dale M. Brumfield, published by History Press, August, 2013.
“The Village Restaurant was the gathering place,” VCU professor emeritus Dr. Edward H. Peeples said of the restaurant during the late 1950s at its former location on the southeast corner of Grace and Harrison Streets, explaining that all the special interests—including the communists, the leftists, the beats and the artists—blocked out their own little corners to pontificate on their pet causes. He added that there was also at that time a subculture of “button-down” Richmond News-Leader opinion editor James J. Kilpatrick “wannabes” who espoused white supremacy. “They stood around in their handsome attire and loafers and talked among themselves.”
“Richmond had a strong Beat community in the ‘50s,” said retired Fan District resident Bill Creekmur. “There also was a strong intellectual gay community that contributed to this whole scene, and the Village was a strong melting pot for this.”
“Of course, there are a multitude of phonies,” noted issue 4 of Peeples’ 1960 news sheet, The Ghost. “There are the giddy and the verbose who scream at the top of their voices ‘I am an artist!’ seven nights a week. The counterfeit poets, always ready to stick their latest ineffectiveness under your nose. And then the inevitable prostitutes, teenage hoods, winos and panhandlers.”
Not just the Village but also Richmond’s entire Fan District became a major player in the birth of its counterculture during this critical late 1950s to early 1960s period. Ed Steinberg’s Meadow Laundry at Grace and Harrison Streets (where the Village Restaurant is located today) displayed local artwork for the students, panhandlers and Beatniks to enjoy while they did their washing and folding.
The Lee Theater, located at 934 W. Grace St., experimented with a new concept in showing foreign films, adaptations of operas, ballets or art in any form, and it became known in the late 1950s as the “theater of fine art films,” or the “Lee Art” for short.
The resurrection was short-lived, as in 1962, the Lee again closed because, as the Richmond Times Dispatch lamented, “It is, indeed, a pity if, in a metropolitan area with more than 400,000 residents, there are not enough theater-goers to appreciate good films.”
Not to be held down, the Lee roared back in 1965 with X-rated films and adult-only midnight shows, contributing throughout the 1970s to the “seedy” reputation of that strip. Although the theater survived several raids and being hauled into courts on obscenity charges, it could not survive the VHS revolution and closed its doors for good in 1983. The former “Lee Art” is now the Grace Street Theater, disinfected and operated by the VCU theater department.
A few doors down and across the street from the Lee Theater, Sanford Ruben opened Sandor’s Book Store in 1960. Sandor’s sold not only magazines, RPI textbooks and art supplies, but had 25-cent dirty movie booths in the back. Also in the 900 block was Richmond’s only gay beer joint, Eton’s Inn. Eton’s, like the Village, became a hangout for Richmond’s artistic, gay and avant-garde communities. In fact, in 1967 RPI banned students from patronizing Eton’s.
“Back (in the early ‘60s), Eton’s was divided in thirds, with no walls,” said Bill Creekmur. “The first third was heterosexual, the second third was gay guys and the final third would be lesbians.” Today the former Eton’s houses the VCU PD.
Author Tom Robbins at this time wrote columns for the Proscript, the RPI school newspaper, titled “Robbins Nest” and “Walks on the Wild Side” that frequently described his experiences at Eton’s and West Grace Street. “West Grace Street takes on an insect quality in the spring,” he wrote. “People swarm over the front porches and over the front steps of every ‘Beat’ apartment house.”
The personalities of the 800 and 900 blocks of West Grace Street especially blossomed during the late ‘60s into the ‘70s. Following the lead of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, Howard Fisher opened Grant’s Tomb at 802 West Grace Street in early 1967, two doors down from the Richmond headquarters of the Confederate Angels motorcycle gang. Grant’s Tomb was a coffee shop with barrels for tables and a platform stage in the back and a one-room hippie paraphernalia store in the front. There were apartments upstairs.
Apparently the hybrid Beat and hippie presence of Grant’s Tomb and Grace Street in 1967 and ‘68 rubbed some more traditional locals the wrong way. “We got bricks tossed through the front window when we had a Ho Chi Minh poster hanging there,” said artist Mac McWilliams. “Once we were invaded by three rednecks, who started beating on Howard and breaking up the place. But there was a short hippie ex-marine who ran down from upstairs and plunged a pair of scissors into the main perp’s gut. They ran out.”
Police officers investigating the incident placed blame on Fisher, implying that the three “rednecks” had been lured into the place and then beaten without provocation. A second bust on May 25, 1968, for alleged narcotics trafficking yielded only some tea bags and mint leaves, which were confiscated.
On Feb. 11, 1972, the brand-new repertory Biograph Theater at 814 W. Grace St. opened with a champagne party and the 1966 Genevieve Bujold and Alan Bates comedy “King of Hearts.” Whereas the Lee Theater had defined and enhanced Grace Street and Richmond’s counterculture community in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, before it became an adults-only porn theater in 1965, the presence of the Biograph and its eclectic mix of offbeat film offerings helped define and enhance the countercultural VCU and Grace Street community throughout the ‘70s into the ‘80s.
The Biograph, however, encountered the same problems the Lee Theater had almost 20 years earlier: Richmond simply was not an art house film town. Foreign and art film packages, such as Luis Buñuel’s Oscar-nominated “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” performed wonderfully at the Georgetown Biograph but did poorly in Richmond. What boosted the theater’s finances, however, was pornography: 17 consecutive midnight weekends of the infamous 1972 porn film “Deep Throat” grossed more box office cash than eight weeks of Bergman and other foreign offerings. A subsequent showing of another first-run adult film, 1973’s “The Devil in Miss Jones,” grossed even more than “Deep Throat,” despite a legal injunction that stopped the film from being shown after several sellout screenings. As a prank, at the height of the legal proceedings, the Biograph screened a 1941 RKO potboiler titled “The Devil and Miss Jones” with a Disney short called “Beaver Valley” to an enormous and unsuspecting crowd, half of whom walked out. National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” program the next day compared the hoax to Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” radio program.
Chelf’s Drug Store and their popular 99-cent breakfast at Grace and Shafer Streets closed in 1977. McLeans Restaurant opened there, dishing out $3 Salisbury steak dinners with two-for-one double bourbons served in plasticware cups until 1983.
In the 1980s, despite their best efforts, VCU and Richmond were simply unable to clean up the strip to their satisfaction. Former Commonwealth Times executive editor Bill Pahnelas summed up the near-gentrification of the 900 block of West Grace in a 1982 ThroTTle Magazine article titled “Street Without Grace.” “The Wooden Plate (a restaurant) was shut up. The Village was fading fast. Sonny and Buddy, young Achilles and his Patroclus, swaggered their finely shaped butts (in designer jeans only) where they could intimate their most personal desires. A few hard-looking boys in leather jackets hung around outside the now-defunct Sandy’s watching the preppie tide roll in, mammon’s minions.”
“And what of the winos who find their natural habitat on Grace Street?” the story continued. “Are they an endangered species where fortune turns a favorable eye on the merchants of our beloved strip? Say yes and you smugly dismiss their human proclivity for adaptation. Say no and fork over 50 cents to the next wino you see. It is the contagion of slovenliness, a depletion of the human spirit, spent wads and dried-out orifices that brings them to the streets in search of Eucharistic joys, sacrificing the things of this world for the body and blood of their Lord, the grape.”
Dale Brumfield is a graduate student at VCU.