The Colonial Theatre Tea Garden

The beauty spot of downtown Richmond was, in 1921, the Tea Garden of the brand-new Colonial Theatre. Herein, we recreate the essence of elegance, joy and hauteur that was once found in Virginia's first real picture palace. Bathtub gin is available at the top of the grand ramps.

Friday, January 30, 2004

Pardon me as I take a quick break from the frenzy of end-o’-semester grading. This is a school-oriented blather, so anyone expecting warm fuzzies about old ladies, pink-flowered china and elegant department stores may wish to escape. Run, I beg you; there’s still time.

I’m not sure exactly when they came into being, but it must have been sometime in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, when IBM’s punchcard technology was still the cutting edge (dull though the edge might have been). And to me, they were the galling example of Uncaring Modern Education. They were impersonal; they were purely objective; they were a pain in the wannabe intellectual’s ass.

They were ScanTron sheets.

They came in a variety of irritating sizes and pastel shades. You could get the Standard Test Size, which allowed about 100 questions and was a goofily unwieldy four inches wide. You could get the Exam From Satan size, which allowed 200 questions and was full-page size. Or, for teachers so abysmally lazy that they couldn’t grade a fifteen-question multiple-haphazard-guess quiz by themselves, there was the special and almost cute QuizTron size, roughly analogous to an 3x5” index card (and, if I recall correctly, always printed in cheery hot pink).

I didn’t like ScanTron for a number of reasons. I hated its insistence on filling in the bubbles perfectly; I always envisioned that my jealously-hoarded knowledge would prove fruitless simply because a Stray Mark, as the sheet called them, might result in Incorrect Grading. Even more loathsome was the fact that ScanTron was synonymous with multiple choice, which I regarded as the test of losers. I revelled in essay questions, which allowed me to a) display my knowledge at its pissy, didactic best or b) couch my actual ignorance of the subject in such an array of flowery prose as to confuse even the brighter pedagogues of Frederick County.

But lo, the shoe hath migrated to the other foot. The name that once inspired sneering disdain now calls a beloved old friend. The very word “ScanTron”, which once had a cold, efficient ring to it, now seems quaint and endearing—anything employing the suffix “-tron” is now laughable, a relic of a time when anything elecTRONic was new and remarkable.

And most of all, it means that I don’t have to grade forty abysmal ninth grade multiple choice exams by hand. MINE is the power of the almighty ScanTron!!! MINE, I tell you! I might have to read that stack of essays, each one blissfully unaware of verb tense, but the task of the multiple choice grading is handed over to the sainted ScanTron machine.

And oh yes, brothers and sisters, I’m using that 200-question, Exam From Satan-size bubble sheet.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Oh, my. I’ve not been too good about this blog thing, lately. I understand that one is supposed to maintain regular entries and I’ve just not been doing that. Unfortunately, most of my work-free moments these days are given over to either drinks or sleep (sometimes simultaneously).

This past weekend, notable on my personal calendar for Lee-Jackson Day (nota bene: That was on Friday, and before all of you nasty little Yankees get your shorts in a bunch looking for racist reactionism, it was an institution WAY before Rev. King met his unfortunate end), I blew off a considerable amount of work and went to my favorite city for a little R&R.

I found the gracious Southern Capital more beautiful than ever, and yet I marvel at some of its idiosyncrasies. How is it that a city whose residential housing prices have skyrocketed still has a decrepit downtown? Why does Grace Street, with its elegant commercial facades, languish while the once workaday edifices of Carytown rake in the fruit of Mammon?

Still, I’ll take a thriving city with a slumbering downtown. Ten years ago, when I had the delightful privilege of living in Richmond, nobody wanted to live in Ginter Park, a pretty neighborhood in the North Side that was one of the earliest streetcar suburbs. These days, Ginter Park houses are selling over the asking price before they even hit the market. And then there’s the Fan, and Monument Avenue, always the city’s most stylish section. (I’ll not mention Windsor Farms, the ‘20s “exclusive” district, which has outpriced several millionaires.) Houses on The Avenue are relegated now to the kind of families that built them originally—i.e., those whose annual income compares to the annual gross income of Minnesota.

Natch, I didn’t spend the entire weekend looking at houses and neighborhoods. I also cruised through the newly-reopened train station, which nearly knocked me off of my feet. The 1901 station is a towering masterpiece. Richmond again has a real transit hub, despite the small inconvenience of Amtrak scheduling. The big French Renaissance Victorian Teutonic Italianate pile features a coldly elegant entry hall, a big marble stair up to the colonnaded main waiting room, and nifty side rooms with lovely marble fireplaces to take the chill out of a damp Richmond winter morning. I think that the most distinct problem with the station is that passengers, once there ensconced, might not wish to ever leave.

I certainly couldn’t spend a weekend in the Confederate Capital without visiting a few of its premiere watering holes. I hit Dot’s Back Inn, which is always homey and fun, and took a brief tour of a few downtown spots. How delightful to find friends in places all over the city—I’ve not lived there since 1993, and people still recognize me! Sunday night brought a perfect dinner at Davis & Main—the restaurant is named for its intersection, and further drinks at Shenanigan’s up in Bellevue.

Enough from me about the glories of Richmond. Go there yourselves, children; it’s one of the world’s loveliest cities. Nowhere else will you find climate, architecture, elegance, graciousness and gemutlichkeit wrapped into one self-effacing whole. When you alight at the Main Street Station, you will know that you’re in a different world; when you check in at the Hotel Jefferson, you’ll have become a part of it. By the time you see a movie at the Byrd and have drinks at Chiocca’s—you’ll be One Of Us.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

After my recent whining about the death of one of my favorite hotels, I suppose I’d better follow up with one success story. After all, does anyone really want to hear day after day about the death of beauty, honor, glory and tradition? Well, some of you nasty li’l Reds might, but I’m not listening to you.

When I was a tiny little Marylander, I was hauled down to the sainted land of the Old Dominion by my father. Dad had little use for the Holy City, to his eternal discredit, but loved the Tidewater and loved the Valley even more. (Those who are not from our world: the “Valley” is that of the Shenandoah River, and the most beautiful valley one might possibly imagine—and yes, I’ve seen the Loire, and in comparison, it’s crap.) Although Dad always wanted to go to Williamsburg to visit the scenes of his youthful debauchery, my mother, who had sense, wanted to visit Richmond, which is a stylish city and at that time still had fashionable department stores.

In Richmond we always stayed at either the Hotel John Marshall or the Hotel William Byrd. The “John” was the downtown “hotel du choix”, the “Byrd” was mostly just convenient to the train station.

When we visited, I couldn’t help but notice a gargantuan, smoky, ruined hulk at the corner of Franklin and Adams. It had burn marks from a fire. It had two hideous clock towers that looked as though Vlad Dracul himself had picked out the décor. And my father pointed out that “that old thing should have been torn down twenty years ago”. But, in my perverse way, I loved it. I told my father then that I would stay in that hotel one day.

God looks out for perverted people. The Hotel Jefferson, which always WAS the most beautiful hotel between the North Pole and Rio de Janeiro, reopened. Unfortunately, its newer sister, the John Marshall, is closed—one can no longer make a choice between “the John” and “the Jeff” in Richmond. Now, I’m not going to argue really, because for every hotel like the Jeff, there are about twenty Johns. I love the John, but let’s face it, you can’t tell the damned thing from the Lord Baltimore or the Mayflower or the Monticello or… well, you know.

Well, now the Jeff has been reopened for fifteen years now, more or less. And guess what else? The Main Street Station has reopened as well. So now I can actually leave Baltimore on the train, and realize one of my fondest dreams. This is a pretty boring dream, as these things go. All I ever wanted to do was to alight at that gigantic, grand Main Street station and descend the big brownstone stairs, redcap with trunks in tow and hail a cab.
“The Jeff, please!”

Saturday, January 03, 2004

I think that the harshest aspect of the death of a loved one is the knowledge that a particular part of your life is gone forever. Most feel this sadness at the loss of a person. I, who have never lost anyone particularly close—other than grandparents whom I barely knew and an acquaintance who ran afoul of enemy fire—tend to feel that sadness from landmarks and memories.

When the great department stores of Baltimore, Richmond and Washington closed, I took it personally. Those stores were friends, neighbors in our cities. Hutzler’s was a wonderful pal, a place where you met friends for lunch, a place that everyone knew. You didn’t worry about the latest fashions, because Hutzler’s told you what they were and sold them to you. Miller and Rhoads was the arbiter of etiquette and elegance. When those stores closed, I shed as many tears for them as I probably would for a human friend.

And then there are places that aren’t quite so familiar, but are even more important.

The Hotel Chamberlin is one of them.

*Here is an article from the Free Lance-Star that has pertinent photos and is itself informative:

The beautiful old Chamberlin opened her doors in 1928, replacing and older and clunkier Chamberlin that burned a few years earlier. In the aftermath of 9/11, the poor great lady seems to be gone forever—you see, her place of honor is plonk in the middle of Fort Monroe, at Old Point Comfort, Virginia.

This is one of the most perfect vantage points in the world. From the Chamberlin’s veranda, one can observe the serenity of the great Chesapeake Bay, watch the Hampton oyster fleet, keep an eye on barges headed up through the Hampton Roads to Richmond, and—most impressive of all—watch the mighty Atlantic Fleet of the United States Navy as it steams in and out of Norfolk across the Roads. All the while, you’re cooled with bay breezes and the Hotel’s superb cocktails. Unfortunately, the vantage point in question is also one that might be considered a terrorist target and so the Army has made it impossible for the Hotel’s tenure to linger.

There are, of course, more impressive resorts. The Cavalier in Virginia Beach is smaller but is actually on the ocean, rather than a sandy wash of the Bay. The Homestead out in Warm Springs is rather more grand, features lovely mountain views and naturally, its famous springs. The Greenbrier has it all down for snootiness.

The Chamberlin, though, was the Grand Hotel of my own glory days, and with its death a part of me dies as well. When I think of its beautiful dining room I think not only of the delicious Virginia and Maryland-style delicacies served therein, but of the Valentine’s Day dinner I spent there once with my then-sweetheart, and of the gigantic Stieff piano made in Baltimore especially for the hotel. I can’t picture the two-block long arcaded lobby without thinking of the countless hours I spent there waiting for friends, or the beginnings of dances, or cigarettes and drinks enjoyed there in leisurely fashion for no apparent reason. The low-ceiled and tiled pool—’28 vintage—and the nearby creaky game room, to which I once repaired with a onetime lover after a round of unmentionable activity for a game of…Q-Bert?!! And what of the Virginia Ballroom itself? I’m sure that I must have only ever attended six or seven balls there, but now it seems as though I was there every other weekend, decked out in my evening clothes and every dance a new cummerbund and tie from Berry-Burk up in Richmond—or, for a particularly elegant dance, full evening dress and the white pique that I borrowed from my roommate (and upon which I promptly spilled a staining, but delicious, julep).

Most delightful in memory is the winding verandah of the Chamberlin. Here, I truly held court. Whether in the aforementioned evening clothes or summer linen, I always ended up on the verandah. It was the charming place to take one’s Delta Gamma date. I remember sitting behind a potted palm (or something) with one DG sister wearing a pretty gas-blue taffeta dress—that was for one of my Senior fraternity dances; and walking down the verandah steps with another DG sister wearing blue lace who wanted to bond with the ducks in the water out front. (You know who you are!!) I remember sitting alone on the verandah with my gin-and-tonic, reading “The Arms of Krupp” and watching that famous Atlantic fleet, and I also remember interludes there with gentlemen of our Army who would be in awful trouble had anyone known what they’d been up to.

The Chamberlin was present for many of my happiest memories. It represented a way of life that was surely fading back then, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and is probably now dead and buried. No one wants a resort like the Chamberlin when flights to the Bahamas are cheap, and no one wants to have to wear seersucker suits to dinner. Fraternity and sorority dances grow ever less fashionable and Army officers who want liaisons can now do so readily without the cover of potted palms.

But it’s awfully hard to let go of something that you loved, and a time that you loved. I can survive, however unhappily, without Miller and Rhoads—but I’m not sure that I want to live in a world that doesn’t have a Hotel Chamberlin.

Everyone, cross your fingers some night, and hope for a reprieve, if not a revival, for the old place. Nothing would make me happier than to dust off the seersucker, put on white bucks and dance the night away in the Virginia Ballroom, with time out for juleps and a walk out on the verandah for one last time to wave at the Iowa as she sails out of port.

I wonder if Mike will ever forgive me for that ruined white vest?