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.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

All too clearly, I remember my high school auditorium. It was an unlovely thing created in 1976 with all of the goofy Day-Glo (TM) optimism of the era. Its walls were white-painted cinderblock, but its seats were alternating shades of orange, blue, and yellow. It had carpets of almost-Royal blue, and the two rear sections, which flanked the lighting/projection booth, could be shut off with giant folding doors to form "lecture halls," in the vague hope that any Frederick County high school teacher might decide to actually deliver an old-fashioned Lecture.

I received my Maryland High School Diploma on that stage--in the livid blue academic gown favored for Walkersville boys. I was also a star of the Glade Valley stage (well, there wasn't much competition) and trod the boards in stellar productions of Arsenic and Old Lace, Cheaper by the Dozen, Gypsy, and other hoary shows dusted off and deemed acceptable for the rural audience.

I also once sat in one of the vividly-hued seats and watched as two coffins were laid out on the stage.

It was, as I recall, a Friday evening. On any other Friday, the Walkersville kids would have all been "cruising the circuit" in Frederick; some of the more adventurous would be hanging out with the "bad" kids in the parking lot at the McDonalds on West Patrick street. Most would have wandered to one of the Frederick movie houses, and the really cool kids would have been at a beer bash in a field off of one of the back roads. (The Glade Valley, in 1985, was mostly back roads.)

Except for the slight inconvenience that two of our more popular 10th-grade students had, a couple of days before, died in a hideous and fiery car accident on Dublin road, just west of the town of Walkersville. The driver had just gotten his license a few days before. Twenty-two years later, I'm not sure if there was alcohol involved; the car and its occupants were so completely incinerated that there was no conclusive evidence one way or the other. Naturally, rumors abounded--many were graphic, some were damning. Either way, we had lost two friends and star football players.

Would the nightmare have played out differently, had the deceased not been popular athletes? Probably--when, a year later, another of my friends died in a car accident, there was very little public uproar and a very quiet Rosary and funeral that emphatically did NOT involve the high school auditorium. She was a very quiet young lady herself, had never been popular or--God save me for saying so--even vaguely pretty, so she was laid to rest without a carnival of mourning. Thankfully, out of human decency, Walkersville High did bring out the black crepe with which it has always hung its front doors whenever a student or faculty member dies.

These memories have come crashing back because of the discovery today, in Frederick, of a suicide and his four dead children. The school system has frantically pulled "grief counselors" into place. I am appalled.

People who are not Southern are usually confused by our habit of creating a "cult of death." When someone dies in the South, it is a big deal. Since the family is assumed to be in the pangs of grief, friends or distant relatives take over the proceedings; a funeral wreath is ordered with black crepe for the front door of the house. Those houses that still have a mechanical doorbell have the bell muffled. Clocks in the household are ceremoniously stopped at the hour of parting. I recall that, as a child, I found a clock in my grandfather's attic. It had been stopped at the hour of his mother's death in 1917 and had never run again; since I liked it so well it was cleaned up and presented to me yet--in 1978--as the clock was wound for the first time in sixty years, we prayed for my great-grandmother's repose.

The cult of death is not limited to the immediate family. If a Southern person dies, every friend, neighbor, business associate, rival, church member, passing friend, and possibly even the local streetcar conductor comes to call at the house and must bring food (since, naturally, the bereaved are so bereaved that they cannot manage to even feed themselves). When many years ago one of my Richmond friends died suddenly and unexpectedly, my first instinct was to march into the kitchen and start baking. One of my roommates--a Northerner, bless her soul--was shocked, believing that I was heartlessly thinking of my own dinner. I simply explained that "they will need food at a time like this and they're going to have to receive guests--they'll want ham biscuits." And thus, after years of turning out so-so biscuits, I made the lightest and flakiest biscuits that I've ever made.

Although people from the rest of the world find the Southern death cult a bit morbid and frightening, I think it takes a back seat in that regard to the more recent form of death obsession. The Southern death cult makes a big deal over a demise, but Southerners remain conscious of the inevitability of death. After all, only one thing in life is certain--its end. We mourn, we bake our butts off, we wear black crepe and black armbands--but death is certain.

The more recent approach, I believe, is ultimately more hurtful to the living. The black crepe and funeral wreaths might seem maudlin (they are), and I'm sure that the psychosocial set might perceive them as damaging to young minds, but they acknowledge the reality of death. The current philosophy seems bent on "counseling" those who have lost a parent, a sibling, a loved one, a friend, a neighbor, even the aforementioned streetcar conductor.

How foolish! Death is, regrettably but necessarily, an inevitable part of, and end to, life. The Southern death cult may make it rather more of a silent-movie spectacle than necessary, but death is still treated as an end. There is no counselling necessary; all of the necessary grief is spelled out in those endless ham biscuits and yard after yard of black crepe. By turning death into something that requires counselling and Conversation and analysis, we only make our own grip on reality more fragile.

Sadly, I can only look back at the two coffins onstage in Walkersville High's ugly auditorium, and wonder if the foolishness didn't start there. Might it not have been better if those two young men had been sent off from a quiet funeral, like anybody else? We may have, in fact, been more scarred by seeing those coffins onstage in an auditorium generally used for happy occasions. If something about death must be beaten to death--it should be the dough for good Maryland biscuits to bring to the family. Grief is natural, because death is natural. The more it is analyzed, the more it becomes unmanageable.

While the death of those four children in Frederick is shocking, I cannot help but think it will frighten their classmates even more to have "grief counselors" lurking in the hallways. We have coddled our children in far too many ways and for far too long. Stick with the ham biscuits and black crepe and let children understand that finality is, in fact, final.