Friday, April 15, 2011

Weirdness Plus: A History of ThroTTle Magazine: Issue #5

September-October, 1981

 ThroTTle Vol. 1 No. 5 (click on the pictures to make 'em big)

How has advertising affected the magazine . . .Obviously when we started [we] had some ideas of where we wanted to take the thing, and when we took on advertising it was a new situation where you’d have to worry about what the advertisers would accept and what the limits of good taste would be that the advertisers would buy into.”

-ThroTTle co-founder Bill Pahnelas, February, 1982 

Nothing changes a home-grown publication’s dynamic faster than paid advertising.

Bill was justified in the above quote for his concern regarding the limits of taste, but obviously the advertisers started buying into ThroTTle for what it was, not what they could make it, because issue #5 – only the 3rd issue that contained paid advertising – was completely sponsored by those advertisers. No more out-of-pocket expenditures, no more robbing the Commonwealth Times classified box, no more selling plasma to pay the printer and buy beer and cigarettes. By September of 1981 ThroTTle was off life support and completely paid by ad revenues – a major milestone, reached in record time. And, as a sweetener, the press run was upped to 4,000 spot-color copies.

The fact that the magazine achieved this milestone so quickly was a testament to both the organizational work ethic of the staff & contributors, the relevance the magazine capitalized on so quickly and the enthusiasm of the readership, proving without a doubt how empty the niche was that ThroTTle was filling – a niche emptied over 5 years previous when the Richmond Mercury folded (pun unintentional).

The founders also realized that contrary to the prevalent thinking of most underground publishing wannabes, independent “alternative” magazines like ThroTTle were not “beholden to no one”, but actually beholden to everyone, due to their dependence to thrive on both the writing and artistic communities and now for the first time to the advertising communities. The magazine was neither above nor below the reading and business populace – it WAS the reading and business populace, composed by them for them. Publishing in a bubble, and pissing away any regard to who you may be pissing off is a recipe for failure, and many predecessors to ThroTTle and many coming after ThroTTle have learned that fatal lesson. The trick is to learn to slap or pinch the hand that feeds you if the situation calls for it without actually biting it off, and ThroTTle learned quickly through trial and error and with the publishing smarts of the editors where that line was drawn.

With many magazines at that time advertising drove the content; with ThroTTle they had the luxury of content-driving the advertising – advertisers bought space because of the content. With this realization the founders knew they hit upon a winning formula and sought to exploit it. The editors also chafed at the “alternative” designation bandied about so haphazardly by Richmond’s more established media – a designation that in their eyes relegated them to second-banana status. They saw themselves alternative to no one, choosing instead to be considered their own media enterprise, free-standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the existing stalwarts. They knew that being considered “alternative” pigeonholed the magazine into a corner that they did not deserve to be in, and was a limiting factor in marketing to advertisers and the big name contributors they sought.

Weighing in at a fat and happy 16 pages, ThroTTle vol. 1 no. 5 contained 4-1/2 pages of ads: Slightly better than a 1:4 ratio, and testimony to the ultra-low overhead and uncompensated status of the “employees”. While no normal magazine could possibly survive with those ad-copy ratios, the only major bills that had to be paid at that time (in descending order) included the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star printing fee, the delivery truck + gas, and numerous smaller expenses related to supplies borrowed from the CT. Ever tight with the purse strings, Business Affairs Director Michael $ Fuller steadfastly refused to authorize any frivolous expenses (beer) and deposited any remaining monies in a checking account, opened at a local United Virginia Bank under the name Acceleration for the Eighties Inc.

Mike did spring for a post office box so hate mail calling Ron Smith an asshole would stop coming to Peter’s parents house. ThroTTle’s new address became PO Box 7122, Richmond, Virginia, 23221

The staff was positively giddy over its first full-page ad, bought by the Antiques and Oriental Rug Company at 3409 West Cary Street, although it required an incredibly complex red overlay, cut from rubylith to match the design of the provided illustration. 

Several larger ads were bought by business owners not nearly as “tight-assed” as claimed by several on-staff detractors. It wasn’t so much that they were so tight but they needed proof that ThroTTle was for real and wasn’t going to take their money and vanish. In fact, some of them were the ones who vanished when the bill came due.

And, as Michael $ Fuller demanded, this was strictly a “cash or check” business – there was to be no trading ad space for haircuts, discounts on clothing, oral sex or any other personal favors. Deviations from his norms would not be tolerated.

The infamous Hard Times beer joint on Cary Street pitched in with a 1/2-page, and several businesses chipped in with ¼ -page ads, including Wild Shirts, Liberty Tape, Benny’s, Shield’s Collectibles and a brand new alternative record store just opened in a former gas station in Carytown called Plan 9 records. Those purchasing the 1/8-page ads included the Biograph Theater, Petersburg’s Glass Eye, Gim Hay Chinese Restaurant (located in the former Kosmos 2000 building) and The Cellar Authority wine and beer seller, located in the bottom floor of the Up Top Sub Shop on Grace Street.

The Band Beex bought the very first Band Ad, setting a trend that would carry ThroTTle for years to come. Within a few more issues the magazine’s entire ad base would music related, both eventually to its success and ultimately to its detriment. Also with this issue a “house ad” for the first incarnation of ThroTTle T-shirts appeared, with the 100% cotton T’s selling for $4.50. Only 100 shirts were printed.

Dale Brumfield started drawing the insanely-detailed cover of issue #5 sometime in July. Obsessed with engraver-artist Albrecht Durer, he set out drawing a line-by-line parody of a Durer engraving, titling it “Der Eingang von Christus in die Village Café” (“Christ’s Entry into the Village café”). Starting at the top and working his way down, after about 200 hours he lost interest and short-cutted his way to the bottom. The result was technically proficient but as a sartorial Richmond joke it fell flat. He did much better a few years later with a similar drawing titled “The Martyrdom of St. Beauzeau” for Don Harrison’s Catharsis Magazine in Hampton.

Content-wise, issue #5 was a very curious hodge-podge of unrelated, almost incongruent subject matter but that appealed to almost any reader. Even though the magazine was separated into distinct sections (Facts, Centerpiece, Sports, Lively Arts and Last Blast) the articles meandered all over the spectrum. But at that point the magazine was still in search of a genre and supported content-wise almost 100% by unsolicited contributions. As mentioned previously, the editors were still more interested in giving voice to as many contributors as possible and less interested in streamlining the magazine into a specific niche – fearing it would limit those contributors.

The lead story after the mail page under “Facts” was a piece on the revitalization of Richmond’s Main Street Station and Farmer’s Market by Jerry Lewis, coupled with a short by Genny Seneker about a Minnesota couple who pedaled custom bikes from Oregon to Virginia. An uncredited short on the first Richmond “Artifacts” catalog rounded out the page. Opposite on page 5 was a Susan Higginbotham article on the death of the Washington Star newspaper, followed by a piece by Mark Plymale on the upcoming Virginia State Fair.

Pages 6 and 7 (still in the news section, mind you) were studies in opposites: Peter Blake visited a farm in Ohio for his summer vacation, and page 7 featured another of Ronnie Sampson’s vignettes on Richmond marginal and fading, this time focusing this issue on an Indian palm reader named Sister Graham who worked somewhere in Mechanicsville.

“Lot of times you like to stay here and lot of times you like to go away. Which you are going to go away.” Sister said as she studied Ronnie’s palm. “But that’s going to be in the future. But you are not going to go alone. You are going to go with someone.”

She was absolutely correct – several years later Ronnie and his wife Nancy Martin packed up and moved to San Francisco.

“You are going to be happy marriage in the future.”

Bingo again – Ronnie and Nancy have been married over 25 years.

Like the cover, The “Centerpiece” of this issue was technically OK, with an eye-catching layout, but composed of repugnant subject matter that certainly strained the limits of what potential advertisers may tolerate. The story was born that previous summer when Brumfield and Bill Pahnelas were buying Weidemann’s beer at the Cellar Authority. The guy working that day made a comment about how the business was located in the center of “Richmond’s Wine District”, a joke referring to the large number of winos inhabiting the block. Finding the comment especially hilarious after pounding down the Weidemann’s, Bill and Dale set out writing a long, graphic and seedy expose entitled “Extracts from the Anals [sic] of Grace Street: Richmond’s Wine District”.

Grace Street may have been an ugly thoroughfare, but even it did not deserve the treatment this story gave it, with its gleeful wallowing in the filthiest aspects of the strip and failing to capture the melancholy, almost poetic treatment Bill gave it in the previous issue (“Street Without Grace”, vol. 1, #4). Forgetting for a brief interlude that they were trying to become credible, they took a somewhat funny idea, then reached in its mouth and cut its throat – breaching those limits of good taste mentioned by Bill in the introductory quote. Blake hated the story (his body language said it all), but true to form he let it go in:

“Who could find fault with such impeccable tastes?” the story asks the reader and any potential Grace Street advertisers who were probably ready by the third or fourth paragraph to chuck ThroTTle in the trash. “Who may I ask can pass up the opportunity to snatch up a half-eaten cheeseburger from the Hardees dumpster, aged and flavored over 48 hours in a bed of rotting buns and moldy lettuce – or nibbling a burnt crust of a Pizza Inn specialty, or poking around for a Stuffy’s tidbit.”

Now imagine another 3,000 words just like this. It probably seemed funny on the Weidemann’s. Luckily the fallout was minimal, with one lady writing in that “In a city that tries its best to ignore alcoholism, this story was a slap in the face”. The writers could assure that concerned reader that it was not their intention to ignore Richmond’s alcoholism problem, but to embrace and revel in it.

The first ThroTTle/ Sports story (“Curve Balls and Straight Talk”) was written by Jack Moore (taking a break from ridiculing Christians and Pamunkey Indians) about Richmond Braves pitching coach and former Yankee Johnny Sain:

“Johnny Sain waves at one of the Toledo coaches, a likewise grey-haired man who politely waves back. ‘There’s ol’ . . . what’s his name . . . years back.’ He mumbles. His forehead wrinkles, as though he were trying to squeeze the name out of his skull.”

Dale Davis kicked off the revamped “Lively Arts” section with 6 movie reviews, including Raiders of the Lost Ark, Eye of the Needle and Endless Love, among other 1981 spectaculars. Page 12 was mostly ads, including a parody house ad of another Richmond magazine called Richmond Lifestyle.

“I can live without Richmond Lifestyle,” says Mecklenburg farmer Luke Dubber. “Matter of fact I think I will.” Also appearing on 12 was a review by Joseph Robertson of the John Kennedy Toole Pulitzer prize-winning classic “Confederacy of Dunces”. Two thumbs up.

Page 13 was the local music section, soon to become one of the most talked-about parts of the magazine. Written by Ron Smith under the moniker “Neon Ron” and titled “Cheap Thrills and Urban Decadence”, Ron turned his energies and encyclopedic knowledge of local bands and hallucinogenic pharmaceuticals to news and reviews of the Fall, 1981 Richmond music scene.

If Ron Smith’s music column belly-flopped into the magazine on a beer-soaked Slip n’ Slide then Clue’s column on page 14 traipsed in wearing a blazer and topsiders, pinky in the air, ready to skewer old Richmond with its upper crust yuks.

Clue really appeared out of nowhere, brought in to the magazine in the third person by Mike Fuller with no name and no documentation to back up its incredible inside peeks at Richmond’s wealthiest and most well-heeled glitterati. The column was astonishing: here was somebody who spoke with authority on every cotillion, every charity ball and every top-hat-and-tails cocktail event in town, dropping names faster than prom dresses at a Benedictine mixer. GA legislators, celebrities, CEOs and Locke Lane landlubbers could not escape the wandering eye and acid pen of Clue, who seemed to be in all places at once, mentally recording conversations, back room deals, marriage spats and corporate snits then spitting them back in the pages of this upstart magazine that was run by people who could barely afford to buy SanDors’ generic cigarettes:

“In late July, further up Main Street, eyes were rolling and tongues were wagging when another bastion of finance invested BIG in a feature film being co-produced by former Richmonder Barclay Lottimer in Hollywood. If Clue finds St. James a little stuffy, it finds main Street just a little to the left of Genghis Khan. Incidentally, Barclay’s brother is married to actress Kathy Crosby, daughter of Bing. She had her dubious moment in celluloid when she shot J.R. as Kristen on ‘Dallas’ – doing more for handguns than jilted headmistress Jean Harris and jazzy Nancy Reagan combined.”

The column was a hit, and started building a fan base that the founders could not envision. Never had a magazine picked up a more disjointed readership, from punk rockers eager to read what Neon Ron had to say about their last show at Benny’s, to artists eager for the arts coverage and illustrations, to “simply everyone” else who picked up “The ThroTTle” just to see if their name was dropped in Clue.

“Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you'll just rattle your jewelry.” (John Lennon)

Closing out vol. 1 no. 5 was the “Last Blast”, featuring another “Tonight’s TV” column by Brumfield and a standalone illustration by Richmond artist Phil Trumbo, who turned out to be one of the handiest contributors to have around. Phil lived on Grace Street less than a block from the ThroTTle office, and could be counted on late at night before deadline to fill any open spaces in the layouts with these wonderful drawings he had lying around. Phil was a long-time friend of the Richmond publishing scene, working on the Commonwealth Times in the early 1970s and as the cover artist for the short-lived “Fan Free Funnies” comic supplements in 1972 and ‘73. He may have been best known at the time as the co-creator of the at the time still unfinished movie “Futuropolis: the World’s Smallest Epic” and creator of a terrific Mr. Moe’s Sub Shop commercial he made with several other Richmond artists at the same time.

When issue #5 hit the streets (courtesy of a truck loaned out by Herb Crumley) and they were snatched up almost as soon as they were delivered the founders wondered just what was it they had created and where on earth was it all going to go? After all, ThroTTle was not founded to be a radical underground newspaper, calling for revolution, legalized pot, and end to a war or flaunting anti-obscenity laws – it simply was trying to fill a vacuum created by the monopoly established press (The Times Dispatch and the News-Leader) and give the (marginally) employed editors and staff a chance to continue the precedents they had created while students at VCU. They were just trying to have fun, after all, not change the world. It may have been the most low-key, long-range, under-the-table counterculture print revolution after devised.

"Lots of radicals will give you a very precise line about why their little newspaper was started and what needs it fulfills and most of that stuff is bull. You see, the point is they've got nothing to do and the prospect of holding a straight job is so dreary that they join 'the movement' and start hitting up people for money to live, on the premise that they're involved in critical social change blah blah blah."

-Ray Mungo, from his book on underground newspapers "Famous Long Ago"

Coming up next: Frank Zappa contributes to ThroTTle as it closes out its first year.

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