Saturday, January 22, 2011

Weirdness Plus: A History of ThroTTle Magazine: Issues #1 and #2

January and March, 1981

Volume 1, number 1 of ThroTTle magazine was printed January 14, 1981 in an edition of 1,000 copies then delivered by the six “employees” (Pahnelas, Blake, Brumfield, Sampson, Moore and Seneker) to various businesses around the fan, including Carriage House Book store, the Village Restaurant, Grace Place, Bohannons Records and Tapes, the Album Den, Jade Elephant, SanDors, Biograph Theater, Don’s Hot Nuts, and at various locations around VCU. They asked permission before dropping a couple hundred unknown tabloid magazines inside the foyers and on the newsstands of those businesses, and they were refused only in a couple locations: a seafood market in what later became the Safeway parking lot later in the year absolutely refused to let the magazine be left there, as did Sunny Day clothing store at Harrison and Grace (they relented with issue #2, however, and were reliable supporters and advertisers for years,).

Capital News Service, the mafia-like periodical procurement service that controlled delivery of just about every magazine in Richmond objected in several stores to ThroTTle’s presence in what they deemed “their” spaces on the book shelves, prompting some creative stocking changes, with most of the magazine being left inside doorways and in places other than the news racks. But that was OK – there was less chance ThroTTle would get buried or thrown out by Capital delivery goons, which really happened in a few bookshops, including SanDors.

Issue #1 was 8 pages of disjointed news, fiction, photography, satire and art. The cover was a grey mish-mash of that girl from the 1946 life Magazine, surrounded by Tiger Paw tires and a string of random numbers pasted on the bottom. Page 2 featured an excellent Tim Wright photo shot by him as he got drunk at Richmond airport waiting for his flight to leave, over a black vitals box, featuring an image of Dale Brumfield pressing his face on a Xerox machine, spreading his eye open.

Advances in photocopier technology at that time led to copy machines becoming artists tools, with “Xerox Art” shows popping up at the Anderson Gallery and the brand new 1708 Gallery, which at that time really was at 1708 East main Street.

Page 3 featured a fiction piece by Milton scholar Jack Moore called “Paradise Destroyed”, with a somewhat appropriate Ronnie Sampson illustration featuring Jesus elevating a piggy and a toaster.

The center truck contained 2 stories: a piece about 1980’s place in history by Commonwealth Times Managing Editor Dale Davis and Peter Blake’s fictionalized “Twisted Tots go Cruising”, about people going “cruising”, not “going crazy”, as described in the previous post.

Page 6 contained a Bill Pahnelas fiction (we hope) piece entitled “The Pizza Box”, about teenage boys despoiling a pizza box to impress their girlfriends. The wonderful primitive illustration on that page was drawn by a mysterious recluse named Kevin Giacobbe, a bank IT analyst by day and a Howard Finster-style artist by night. Kevin lived in an apartment in the west end that he shared with about 9 or 10 cats, and he became the subject of a centerspread feature in issue #2 called “Cats, Computers and Concrete”. Kevin drew an unforgettable mural in his untrained, whimsical style on the wall in the Commonwealth Times typesetting room that was admired for years until it was painted over in 1984.

Graphic Arts student (now Professional Graphic Artist) Nancy Martin labored for hours with Letraset press type to create the “Pleasure Abounds in the Eighties” illustration. She married Ronnie Sampson in 1984 and God bless them, they are still married today, and living in San Francisco.

Page 7 became the fun television page. The first installment of what became a regular feature for 6 issues of Dale’s “Tonight’s TV” appeared. The feature was a paste-up pain in the posterior: the typesetting equipment could not produce the tiny TV screen-shaped channel numbers, so they had to be photo-statted from the Richmond News-Leader’s “Green Section”, then cut out with an Exacto knife, waxed and pasted into place. The “Fight Robert Louis Stevenson” 7-day fling in Finland ad was created by Rob Sauder-Conrad. Local anarchist but nice guy Paul Mazzuca wrote the obituary for Marshal McLuhan, and local media writer D. Shone Kirkpatrick penned the dreamy “Watching Bad TV” piece. The creators saw a theme on this page, and they obviously ran with it.

Writer and Editor Susan Higginbotham talked about moving to New York endlessly in the office, at parties and probably at home by herself as she smoked one Virginia Slim after another, but returned to Richmond after an abortive attempt at living there, the bitter miasma of the big apple fouling her sensibilities. The back page featured a journal by her about her abortive attempt to move, live and work in New York City. “I am no longer a walking clichĂ©,” she lamented, “I am now an ex-New Yorker.” The chaotic drawing of a New York City street was drawn directly on the photo-blue grid sheet by Dale Brumfield.

In the far right bottom corner of the page a very light Brumfield character can be seen waving and saying “S’long”, scratched into the page negative with a child’s compass at the Herald Progress Newspaper before the plate was shot, just to fill a space.

ThroTTle was no reincarnation of the hard-hitting political Richmond Mercury; nor was it a newsy broadsheet like the old Chronicle and certainly not the Times-Dispatch or News Leader – ThroTTle was alone in its eccentric hodge-podge of arts, fiction and commentary, closer akin to VCU’s Richmond Arts Magazine and having more in common with its doddering ancient relatives Destiny, Rockets & Weenies and Decade of Fear, just blown up and expanded, now with 10 times the circulation of those one-shot predecessors. Each page reflected the tastes and strengths (and weaknesses) of the principal in charge of creating it.

The magazine was a success; every issue was picked up. Letters came in: “. . . enjoyed ThroTTle very much,” one said, “can’t wait for the next one.” “What the hell was that all about?” another befuddled reader asked, apparently not knowing what her roommate brought home from the Village CafĂ©.

And then it stopped

From January 15th (the day after ThroTTle hit the streets) and March 1 1981 nothing happened. Well, almost nothing. Most all the principals of the magazine got jobs, or continued their Spring semester of college. Peter worked for the Goochland Gazette, and Bill got a job doing paste-up and composition at the Richmond News-Leader, prompting many good-natured accusations of sleeping with the enemy. One day Bill just had to take an Exacto knife and cut the eyes out of a picture of Rev. A.P. Bailey, who was famous for writing a column called “Our Daily Bread” for almost 45 years without missing a single one. That one day only, Rev. Bailey had no eyes.

Bill’s living arrangements were always dubious. He had spent the better part of his senior year living in the closet in the Executive Editor’s office at 916 West Franklin and going to his parent’s house in the west end one or two days per week. The closet was a sweet arrangement: it was a large and roomy, lined with sofa cushions, with plenty of room to stretch out. Brumfield lived there for a week over spring break while he worked on Destiny.

As Executive editor Bill also taught an Open High English Lit class. On Monday mornings the 6 or 8 students would dutifully file into the Editor’s office and sit on the couch and chairs, waiting. Soon the closet door would open and Bill would step out, tell them to sit tight while he went to Hardees on Grace to get coffee, then he would return and start class.

One day his father told him “Bill, it’s time you moved,” to which Bill reportedly responded “But it’s raining outside.” By that time Bill had stepped down as Executive Editor of the CT, so he had to find a legitimate place to live since Steve Landes was Editor and didn’t want Bill living in the closet any more. Bill found a room at a boarding house at 2525 West Grace Street that shared a bathroom with 3 or 4 winos. Bill reportedly was awakened every morning at 4 AM by a coughing fit and choking clouds of cigarette smoke drifting from the bathroom into his room. But for a guy who professed a deep admiration for the works of Charles Bukowski the arrangement seemed to be a decent, although not very salubrious, fit.

Dale Brumfield and Ronnie Sampson started their final semesters in VCU’s Fine Arts departments, living off popsicles and potato chips at their crap-hole apartment at 1104 West Grace Street. Genny Seneker started the second half of her freshman year as a “drone” in the Mass Communications Department. All three of them continued to work at the Commonwealth Times, with Dale putting in 30-hour weeks while carrying 18 credit hours after he found out he was going to be a few credits shy of graduating on time because of a mistake made by his rocket scientist Painting and Printmaking instructor/advisor (name withheld grudgingly).

It was probably the strain of a weekly magazine, plus the course load and a diet consisting not just of popsicles and potato chips but Black Label beers and Chesterfield cigarettes that forced Dale down with a nasty bout of mononucleosis in late February, 1981. After fighting fatigue for a month, thinking he may have been poisoned by a sub at the “Up Top Sub Shop” on Grace Street (an employee put the lettuce and mayonnaise on the sub before nuking it in the microwave), Dale finally dragged his sorry ass down to Dr. John Call’s office on Stuart Circle.

“Congratulations-a, Mr. Brumfield,” Dr. Call said on the phone in his Lawrence Welk-like dialect when the blood work came back, “You have-a the kissing-a disease!”

Dr Call’s office . . .Yes ma’am . . . yes ma’am . . .growing stale, yes ma’am . . .”

Dale was forced to step down as Production Manager of the Commonwealth Times to focus on getting better so he could stay caught up in school. Ronnie Sampson took over as Production Manager, injecting new blood and a rejuvenated look and appeal to the magazine, which had grown stale under Brumfield’s mono-influenced lackluster direction (check out Ronnie's amazing "Mother Goose" coloring book cover in the March, 1981 issue). Dale still hung around, doing odd jobs and continuing his “Tidal Wave Comix”, whose narrative included his sickness (and the final cartoons at the end of the school year featured his “death” and a rogue’s gallery of who attended his funeral). Death, graduation – not too much difference between the two as far as he was concerned.

Then, around March 1, 1981 Peter Blake called the old crew back together in the CT’s Managing Editor office. “You guys want to do another ThroTTle?”

Damn right they do.

That week planning started on what was to become ThroTTle, volume 1, number 2. Peter convinced Bill and Mike Fuller to find a way to pay for it, with again himself as a major benefactor. With CT Executive Editor Steve Landes’ blessing, they were again able to use the CT typesetting, camera and layout equipment.

Stories came in and were edited, then typed into the AmText data processor and stored on an 8” floppy disk. After reaching its 64k capacity, the disk was popped out then put into the CompEdit phototypesetting system, an electro-mechanical behemoth with a 10” monochromatic screen that displayed only text. Typesetting commands vaguely resembling today’s HTML had to be embedded within the text to command the device how to set it: For example, a string of commands at the beginning of a new story might read <TF/TR/PS12/PL14/SL14.5/LL1900/cR/RR/ID2>, translated as Typeface Times Roman; Point Size 12; Primary leading (the space between the lines) 14 point; Secondary Leading (the space between the paragraphs) 14.5 points; Line Length 1900 picas (for three column layouts – 4 column layouts were 14 picas); Command regular type (no bold or italic); Ragged Right (non-justified) columns; indent first line 2 picas. Extra features, such as drop caps, boldface, etc required extra commands.

As creaky and ancient as it seemed, this system was light years ahead of the previous Mack Truck it replaced: the old machine’s screen was 1” high by 6” wide, and displayed only one line of type at a time. After the line scrolled left off the screen, it went to the typesetter – no corrections.

Type was set by the CompEdit by a laser light inside the cabinet that flashed one letter at a time at a very high speed through a stencil on a plastic wheel onto photo-sensitive paper after hitting <command send>. After typesetting, the operator hit <command advance feed>, which scrolled the paper up in a roll into a brown box, then <command cut> which snipped the paper off. The operator then carefully picked up the box (being careful not to unspool it and expose it, which would necessitate opening and resetting the text), walked it over and snapped the box into the developer and fed the galley through developer and fixer solutions. Once the completed galley came out it was carried into the production room and laid across the layout tables to allow it to dry. Once dry it was fed through a hot waxer (which waxed the back of the galley for layout), then trimmed with razor blades.

NOW it was ready for layout – unless if the fixer was no good, by the next day the type would be faded completely out and have to be re-set.

“Nan wants to cut our penises off.”

Issue #2 of ThroTTle was completed and sent to the printer March 10, 1981. A whopping 12 pages this time, with a cover featuring a minimalistic line drawing by Dale of one of his multi-armed cartoon creatures preparing to long-jump over a canyon of some sort. It made no sense and said nothing about the content inside.

Page 2 featured what later became an intermittent feature, that being printing found objects. Bill found a photograph in an alley between fifth and Main Streets in downtown Richmond of a young girl at the beach holding a float. In later years the magazine ran letters, notes, pictures and drawings found by staff members in and around the Richmond area.

Found object sidebar: in 1984 Dale found a note in the Shockoe Slip area from someone named “Nan”. “Nan” apparently met some dude down there and took him home with her. Her note to him was a brief, somewhat cheeky invitation for her to “sometime come over and show him her black dress and pearls routine”. Dale whited out the phone number but otherwise published the note as is.

A day or two after publication of that issue Dale went up to the ThroTTle office on Broad Street. Peter was there, entering a story for the next issue. “Nan called,” Peter announced with no elaboration, “she wants to cut our penises off.”

Turns out Nan’s boyfriend saw the note in the issue and recognized her distinctive signature. The problem was, the note was not written to him.

Page two also featured a surreal short story by Ronnie Sampson, who became ThroTTle’s gifted resident purveyor of strange Richmond. His short story “I just Sat There”, chronicling a few moments waiting in a bus station, was the first of many stories and interviews he wrote during that first year that covered in a whimsical way the mundane, forgotten and marginal. He had a gift for searching out and observing the un-seedy underbelly of Richmond, and his laid- back writing style lent itself perfectly to the almost dream-like subject matter. The accompanying photo for “I Just Sat There” was a strangely-cropped, unsettling picture of himself, taken as he sat in the bus station.

The “Powerful Urges Handbook” on page 2 was by Rob Sauder-Conrad. “You’ll SEE how to smoke three packs of cigarettes AT ONCE!” the ad trumpeted. “You’ll SEE how to drive a speedboat ON DRY LAND! You’ll SEE how to get boring people to shut up INSTANTLY BY JUST LOOKING AT THEM!”

After the vitals page 3, with another minimalist illo by Ronnie, pages 4 and 5 became “news” pages, following roughly the template the crew followed at the CT. Stories included a piece by Susan Higginbotham on the Virginia Senate finally formally approving the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote. Dale Davis conducted a brief interview with the Richmond News Leader’s editorial writer Ross Mackenzie. Jerry Lewis wrote a piece on the sudden popularity of cable Christian television, and Mark Plymale’s piece on House Bill 188, restricting alcohol consumption by those under 19 drew varied reactions by teens and VCU freshmen about this sudden roadblock to their beer purchasing.

Pages 6 and 7 featured an interview that set the standard for ThroTTle’s fixation on the most marginal and misunderstood Richmonders. Kevin Giacobbe – night shift bank IT guy, recluse, computer whiz, primitive artist and multiple (between 8 and 10) cat owner – talked with Bill and another eccentric Richmonder named Dale Vanderheyden (known for her thrift store party dresses and lunchbox purse) about his unusual lifestyle.

“Lots of people do things at night,” Kevin said, “Chinese people do things at night. Of course, it’s day to them. You see, that’s my big thing, I have Chinese hours. I’m exactly twelve hours out of synch with the United States of America. In fact, I’m waiting for some J. Edgar Hooverite to come along and nab me at any minute for working Chinese hours.”

(Kevin Sidebar #1: Peter, Bill and Dale (Brumfield) attended a weenie roast at Kevin’s apartment shortly after this interview. They had to eat outside; the inside of the apartment was overrun with cats and cat feces.)

(Kevin Sidebar #2: A few years later, when ThroTTle’s office was located upstairs at 7 East Broad Street, Dale received a phone call at 1:30 AM as he was finishing a layout at deadline. When he answered the phone a voice on the other end raised the hair on the back of his neck when it said “Greetings from another world”. It was Kevin.)

Pages 8 and 9 featured a double-page spread on the Pamunkey Indian reservation that nearly started a fist fight between the writer of the article, Jack Moore and the photographer, Tim Wright, marking ThroTTle’s first in-house controversy.

An “editorial explanation” at the beginning explained that “. . . Tim Wright, an ardent and emotional photographer, became absorbed by the Pamunkey’s solitude, independence and perseverance. Jack Moore, long-time student of American Indian culture, took a lighter, less consuming approach.”

The problem was that while Tim’s pictures were thoughtful and composed, Jack wrote his article in stereotype comic Indian dialect. “Sun bright as four white men seek village on river” his un-PC article started, probably to the horror of every empathetic Native American reader, “Twenty five mile or so from Richmond, white men drink king of beers, seek chief of Pamunkeys.”

Whatever Jack’s ultimate purpose was in writing this way, Tim was livid. A professional photographer who took his work seriously, his photos were sober documentations of what to him was a very serious situation for the Virginia Native Americans. He, and he feared the Pamunkeys themselves, would be extremely offended by the style, which Jack defended equally vigorously, stating it was his own observation and that the story was a satirical reflection on the white people’s perceptions of the Indians.

Peter stepped in offering a compromise: the story and pictures remained as they were submitted, and he would type the introduction explaining the disconnect between the two. The offer was grudgingly accepted, but this was the beginning of Tim Wright divorcing himself from ThroTTle, and his work was absent completely by the fourth or fifth issue.

Page 10 was the satire page (as if Jack’s Pamunkey article wasn’t satirical enough). Mark Plymale wrote a parody on popular music entitled “Rock and Roll Rag” and Brumfield’s Tonight’s TV completed the page. Highlights include the “Super Duper Dyna-Mutts/Fred Flintstone Easter Special” on channel 8 at 10 PM and “Let’s Masturbate” at 4:15 AM on channel 23.

Page 11 featured a free-standing drawing by ThroTTle’s artist extraordinaire Kelly Alder. Kelly showed up at the CT offices in early 1980 brandishing his model good looks and a briefcase full of the most amazing drawings ever seen. Dale – hoping that Kelly was not another of those CA&D college boys peddling a load of college “comix” – agreed to look at the portfolio and, astonished at what he saw, hired Kelly on the spot as an illustrator. Kelly became ThroTTle’s resident illustrator, and the relationship lasted for years, with Kelly working numerous positions through 1985, including Art Director and Comic page Editor.

Dale showed Kelly how much he appreciated his work by accidentally leaving the credit line off his drawing.

The back page of issue #2 contained an article about Willow Lawn shopping center’s 25th anniversary, penned by ThroTTle’s resident historian, Peter Blake, probably just after he kept Tim Wright from killing Jack. “The moderate budget Willow Lawn will survive,” Peter wrote, “. . . and it won’t sterilize your children’s children, like too many meanderings in a modern mall may. At age 25 Willow Lawn survives a way a 1957 Chevrolet survives. It is durable, flashless, and always a classic.” Photos from the 1957 opening graced the page.

ThroTTle Number 2 showed Richmond that the publishers were determined – ThroTTle was no pipsqueak upstart, it was serious business. Like a flock of killer ravens in a cheesy horror movie, the magazine was slowly organizing, breaking into sections and departments not yet clearly defined and going for the throat of Richmond. Quality writers and artists were becoming drawn to 916 West Franklin Street, eager to see what the hubbub was about and eager to become a part of it.

But the magazine needed money, and once again when issue #2 hit the streets there was no immediate plans to do another one, although Bill, Peter and Dale and the others knew in the back of their minds that something would be done in the near-future, but they did not know what. To help guide them, Peter suggested that Dale create a one-page flyer that was hand-inserted in all 1,000 copies, asking readers for advice, suggestions and story ideas (it also gave Dale a chance to give Kelly credit for his drawing). Acceleration for the Eighties (as well as the “martian institute of hardware”, the “technological wildlife foundation” and the “center for advanced instrumentation”, according to the vitals box on page 3) needed a benefactor, and the city of Richmond responded with. . . itself.

Coming next: “Hello, [business owner], how are you? My name is [insert your name] and I represent ThroTTle Magazine. For just pennies a day, you can tell ThroTTle’s diverse local readership about your business by purchasing one of our low-cost ads . . .”

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