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.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Laptops are exciting, aren't they? Oh, I know, you're all saying "But, they've been around for years now, and you yourself have had one for a couple of years--why is this new and exciting?" I'll tell you why, damnit. It's because it is now one hundred degrees in my house and the bar up the street is airconditioned. I can therefore do my work/surfing from the AC'd comfort of the bar without having to drip sweat on the keys.

Before getting on to the main point, I decided to give my Slinky a last chance to prove itself before I decide, once and for all, that Slinkies are useless. The stairs down to my basement are ridiculously steep, and the treads of the stairs are fairly shallow. I figured that this would give the Slinky a good chance. It wouldn't have to cover much horizontal ground, and its vertical drop should give it plenty of momentum. But no. Apparently, the Slinky only functions on ladders, or in the advertising dreams of the company shilling the thing. It did make it down three stairs--better than its usual ONE--but then stopped dead. I tried to help it out, emotionally; I rationalized that perhaps it didn't like the basement's humid atmosphere. Despite my best efforts, I was forced to remember that the Slinky is not an actual life form imbued with likes and dislikes. It just doesn't bloody well do what it's supposed to do.

On the list of things that do not do what they are supposed to do, let us add my car. I really cannot complain about the car. It has served me faithfully for about eight years now, and it was used when I bought it. It is, now, trying desperately to retire. Unfortunately, I cannot yet allow it to do so.

It was a rather nice car when it was new, but that was almost twelve years ago. It maintains its comfort level, but all sorts of stupid little dooflitchety things are going wrong with it. The cup holder broke; the climate control now does whatever the hell it wants to do instead of obeying the buttons that I press. I try to remind myself that the cars of my childhood did not have cupholders and barely had air-conditioning. At least the electric windows still work.

Sadly, the actual things that make a car all car-like are also starting to break down. The thing overheats if you look at it funny. I had a car like this years ago, but all you needed to do was set the vents to "heat," open the windows and let the engine cool itself. Since this one has an electronic climate control system which no longer obeys the order to "heat," that is lost. Also, its power steering system no longer wants to retain its vital fluid, so it makes Chewbacca-like noises unless I refill it every month or so. I now suspect that there is also something wrong with its electrical system, since last night it decided to destroy its battery after...oh, yeah, running the radio for six hours at the drive-in theatre. Supposedly, if you set the thing to "accessory," it will play somewhat indefinitely. Perhaps I should not listen to the nice drive-in people after all.

Much as I like this car, I reluctantly admit that its days are probably numbered. I've been aimlessly looking around at other cars, but I know that I'll end up with a dark blue Buick Century anyway.

Monday, May 16, 2011


But wait: before I go off on the wonderful world of rail travel, I do need to mention that one of my friends (who may or may not have been involved in the college Slinky experiments) pointed out that--the Slinky DID in fact descend ONE staircase at William and Mary. This particular staircase is the one that goes up to the organ loft in the College Chapel. It is a staircase in name only; it is in fact a beautifully-decorated ladder. OK, so Slinky is really snooty and particular; all it wants from you is a narrow, dangerous, shallow-treaded Colonial staircase. Fine. Slinky is trying to kill kids. I'm good with that.

Now, since I'd already talked about the joys of travel (at least, the joys of travel in my own outdated version of it), I thought I should discuss what it's like to be a living anachronism trying to travel in the modern world.

The only reason that I will ever willingly set foot on an airplane again is to go to Europe. The only reason for THAT is simple: there just aren't transatlantic liners anymore. Believe me, if the old Norddeutscher-Lloyd had even its sorriest, single-stack, one-class liner trudging between Baltimore and Bremen, I'd be on the damned thing. Even though she might be a century old and leaking like a colander, I'd trust the ancient "Koenigin Luise" much more than a giant airborne test tube.

I think that we have all become so immured to the concept of flight that we just don't see any other way. Lately, I've seen ads on Baltimore city buses for Southwest Airlines flights to New York.

Except the ads themselves tell you: you're not really going to New York, you're going to Newark.

Nothing against Newark. I've been there before (and was indecently propositioned in the main waiting room of the train station, too). It's a dump, but so is Baltimore. Here's my problem: If I'm going to pay $69 (yes, sixty-nine...) to go to Newark, I'll still have to get from Newark to New York itself. That's going to be either a fairly complex public-transit ride, or a very expensive cab ride, or...wait for it...


If I fly to Newark from Baltimore, I have to get to the Baltimore airport (20 minutes from home), get there an hour early (in case someone suspects me of blowing things up), fly for 45 minutes or so (assuming the flight is on-schedule), then get off the plane and get out of the airport (20 minutes), then get a cab into downtown Newark (20-30 minutes). Note that I said Newark, there; I'm not even talking about New York yet. So, what's our total time here? We're already pushing three hours. If I walk down the street and get on the train and go to Newark, it will take almost exactly the same time.

Now, here's the problem with train travel, much as I hate to admit it. It seems relatively obvious to those of us who travel exclusively by train that Amtrak doesn't really want our business. You'd think--wouldn't you?--that a mode of travel no longer stylish would be doing its damnedest to get people aboard. Amtrak seems to want to do anything BUT that.

On the trains themselves--well, there are still a few of the old '70s cars running. They're ugly (70s, remember?) and the seats are a bit sprung, but they're nicer than the new cars, which are barely a step above being rail-bound Yugos. I've seen nicer bathrooms in '30s gas stations than those on Amtrak's new cars. Dining car? Oh, please. You're lucky to get a "snack" car. Real dining cars now exist ONLY on VERY long distance trains. Even the Cardinal doesn't have one; though thankfully the Capitol Limited (once the pride of the Baltimore and Ohio RR) still does. I'll pause to give them some credit, here--the "City of New Orleans" still has not only a dining car, but boasts some New Orleans cuisine. If only the Capitol Limited and the Crescent would do the same! And, very few trains still have a lounge car. "Lounge Car" was an old railroad euphemism for BAR. Thankfully, again, the "Silver Meteor" (one of my favorite trains) still does. Even so, I can't smoke in it.

Perhaps worse are the stations. Almost every city of ANY size in the US once had a train station of which it was justly proud. Even Frederick had a pretty Italianate station built by the B&O in 1852. It might have been old, but it was beautiful (still is, but no longer served by rail). Amtrak often does not choose to use these. In Baltimore, it uses the Pennsylvania station, which is still beautiful, but probably only because it has no other valid option. In many cities, Amtrak has forsaken the big old downtown station in favor of a nasty little AmShack in the 'burbs. Richmond is a case in point. The city has two huge, beautiful stations; Amtrak prefers to use a station out in the burbs that is the size of my living room. I like my living room, but Richmond is far too large and important to have such a tiny station. A few years ago, the City revamped the lovely Main Street Station--my favorite--only to see it vastly underserved by Amtrak, which resents having to use it. In a few cases, Amtrak has used the TRACKS of the old station, but insists upon using a tiny facility next door. Pittsburgh's beautiful Penn Station is one of these; Washington was another. Washington, of course, is the US Capital, so it seems that Amtrak was finally shamed into using the real station again. Imagine all of those foreign dignitaries, when they saw the little shed: "DAS ist seine Hauptbahnhof????"

I still--and always will--love rail travel. There is a magic about it that I can't find in any other mode of conveyance. I love that I can get on the train in Baltimore, arrive in Richmond in a couple of hours, and have drinks on the way, which I surely can't do while driving. I love that when I'm able to take the Meteor, instead of a local hauler train, I can have drinks in a real lounge car. I also like meeting people on the train. I've met a LOT of fun people on trains. When William and Mary was in the Division II playoffs last fall, I had a really good time--when I boarded the train in Baltimore at 7AM, it was already full of W&M grads who had hung up signs in the windows that read WILLIAM AND MARY SPECIAL FULL STEAM AHEAD!!!! (I'm lucky that I was able to stumble off the train in Williamsburg.)

Even so, Amtrak could do a hell of a lot more to make people WANT to ride the train. I do because I hate driving and I hate flying. With very little additional effort, Amtrak could make its passenger trains a viable and desirable option, at least on the East coast.

I realize that only those who hate driving and flying will ever want to take the long-distance, cross-country trains again. But, even to those, I say: Yeah, it will take 18 hours to get to Chicago, but you could have a LOT of fun on the way. If that unofficial "William and Mary Special" is any indication, and I'm riding the Capitol Limited, by the time we got to Chicago, we'd have been partying for most of an entire day.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Of my many idiotic obsessions, one of the least reasonable is moist towelettes. Not Wet-Naps. You BUY those. I mean the delightfully-lemon-scented things that you get in tiny little foil wrappers at restaurants.

I hoard them.

No, really, I hoard them. Every time that I am gathered with friends and someone orders Buffalo wings, I wait until I believe that no one is looking and steal all of the little moist towelette packets.

I have no idea why I believe that anyone else is so desperate to have these things that they will mind my taking them; nor do I know why I can't just ask if I can have them. I have to steal them surreptitiously.

I've tried valiantly to explain why I like them so much. "They're great for cleaning off your computer screen," I'll tell people. "And they're great for cleaning overhead sheets!" In either case, marginally true, but a thin guise for the simple fact that I MUST HAVE MOIST TOWELETTES.

I think I've figured out why they fascinate me so much. God knows they're not really very useful for getting wing sauce or Old Bay off your hands, especially when--one hopes--the restaurant that handed them to you has a perfectly serviceable bathroom sink. I believe it's another Proustian Madeleine sort of thing.

When I was a kid you only EVER saw Moist Towelettes on trains and airplanes. They were part of the exotica of travelling. Elsewhere, you washed your hands like any normal person, but while en route, your cardboard sandwich (whether rail- or air-borne) came with a little lemon-smellin' alcohol wipe. It just became part of the cool magic of travelling.

I also love the magazines that Amtrak and the airlines put into the little pockets on the backs of seats. Of course, they always tell the reader about the wonderful things to do in various cities that they serve. Since I only ever go to about three or four other cities, I don't know why I find this so fascinating; if there's anything interesting to do in Richmond, DC, Baltimore and Philadelphia, I've already done it. Still, reading about it in Amtrak's magazine makes me feel cool: "Wow, I already knew about the Virginia Museum, but I bet all these other losers on this train didn't!!!"

Needless to say, I'm endlessly amused with barf bags. The laminated safety card is fun too, though in most cases, I think it should just say "In case of emergency: Bend over, place head between legs, kiss ass goodbye."

Fairly recently, a friend who once lived in Baltimore but now lives in Florida told me that I should just "fly down next weekend." Even though I know that air travel is now ridiculously cheap, that sort of gallivanting never occurs to me. I know--technically--that I could. I won't, though. I grew up in a world where flight was almost prohibitively expensive, long train trips were a major ordeal, and long drives the sort of major ordeal that you planned for months. The idea that I might just say "Oh, what the hell, I'll fly down to Florida this weekend" is right up there with "I know, let's create a perpetual motion machine over drinks tonight."

This is why I like these weird paper (and moist paper) ephemera of travel. They make me think of travel when it was still a very big deal to go as far as Roanoke, much less Florida; travel as something to anticipate and to be excited about, rather than travel as just a daily--and probably annoying--event.

I also just cleaned the computer screen. If my computer is as excited about the lemony freshness as I am, the next few posts may not make a lot of sense.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Having seen a couple of entries regarding iconic toys on, I figured I'd add my own take on some of them.

In a world where kids seem to increasingly only want things that are electronic in ways I can't fully imagine, the lifespan of some of these things is incredible. Now, with that said, I ponder a couple of other things: do the kids really want the latest game platform, or does Daddy want it? Also, some of these iconic 60s and 70s toys; do kids want them, or do their parents want them to have the toys because they wanted them in 1974?

Here goes, though:

Big Wheel. I was dying to have one. It was fun. You were at a weird angle to the street and a little plastic thingy on a spring made it sound like a motorbike. Kind of. Except that it was actually just a tricycle--a plastic tricycle at that, and by the time I got a Big Wheel, I could already ride a bike like a big kid, but like all the other kids in my neighborhood, I HAD to have a Big Wheel. I remember very sadly, though, that once I outgrew it, it lived in back of the house anyway and slowly faded from bright orange into a vague lip-glossy color. When I tried to ride it again out of childish nostalgia (when you're eight or nine, it's easy to be nostalgic for something that passed only two years before), the plastic cracked and it fell apart. Maryland winters 1, Big Wheel 0.

Silly Putty. What the hell was this stuff EVER good for? Oh yeah: lifting comics off the newspaper page. Except that they were then backwards, and after you did this a few times, the Silly Putty looked like a giant grey booger. You could not do anything else even vaguely entertaining with Silly Putty. It just stretched and looked like a big booger. I am aware that a lot of toys don't actually do anything--in fact, most of the best don't--but really, with a big booger there's only so much that imagination can do. I predict that in the near future, Silly Putty will be done. I'm not sure how it's lived this long, but as real print newspapers and therefore newsprint comics are dying a rapid death, the only purpose of this stupid crap will be obsolete. (NB: As a child, I was also dying to have Silly Putty, until I got some and shortly realized that the comics made a lot more sense on the page, where they weren't mirror image and weren't the consistency of mucus.)

Slinky. WTF, Slinky? How can you have betrayed me consistently for THIRTY FIVE DAMNED YEARS? As with the aforementioned icons-but-actually-crappy-toys, I was dying to have a Slinky as a kid. My parents (who also realized the foolishness of the Big Wheel and Silly Putty) didn't want to get one for me. My grandfather did, though, and I was so excited that I nearly peed. It had so much going for it, in theory. It descended stairs. It had a REALLY catchy TV commercial. And it descended stairs. Also, that's about all it did. And it DIDN'T EVEN DO IT. I don't know what kind of midget staircase the kids in the commercial had, but even the fairly modestly sized staircase of our suburban Baltimore house was more than the Slinkster could handle. It would get down one, maybe two, steps, and then just recoil itself and sit there glaring. It clearly resented having to fulfill its stair-descending typecast. It eventually got bent (probably from when I tried to MAKE it go down the steps) and disappeared in one of my Mom's cleaning frenzies.

Then, years later, as a college freshman, I re-entered the World of Slinky. One of my friends had one. A small group of us spent the day taking the slinky to various academic buildings, playing with it and trying it on stairs (which it obstinately still refused to descend properly). In a building with a two-story lobby and an open staircase, though, we discovered that you could stretch it out and make sine waves with it. It also made an awesome humming noise while doing this. (Please note: WE WERE ACTUALLY NOT HIGH WHILE DOING THIS.) I became enthralled with Slinkies all over again. Someone gave me a plastic one. Let me tell you: If a regular Slinky isn't worth a crap, a PLASTIC Slinky is about as useful as a carburetor on a walrus. Several years later, I got a real live Slinky again. After fifteen years of trying, it STILL won't go down the stairs.

Now, for a toy that's actually worth while: The Magic 8 Ball. I make major life decisions with this thing's assistance. Sure, it requires yes-or-no questions; most of its responses are positive, and "Ask Again Later" means that I will ask again in five seconds (it doesn't define how MUCH later). Does *blank* like me? Do I like *blank* or do I just think I do? Will I like *blank* when I'm sober? Should I buy stock in *blank-Corp*? Hey, as far as I can tell, the 8 Ball's advice is no worse than anybody else's.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Last weekend was Easter in Richmond, and what a nice time I had. (I realize that it was Easter everywhere, but I am not really concerned about the rest of the planet.)

I will now avoid talking about the parties and dances over the weekend, and the Easter Parade, because the Times-Dispatch is perfectly capable of handling that. I need to tell you all about my stay in one of Richmond's also-ran hotels.

The Massad House has been around since the '20s. I'm not quite sure what its original name was--it seems odd that a '20s hotel in Richmond would have had such an Arabian name--but I've never been able to find out much about the place because frankly, I never gave a damn. To the best of my knowledge, it has existed as a little tourist hotel on 4th street forever.

I never really intended to stay at the Massad House. I have always been secretly pleased that when most other cities have long forgotten such things, a little "tourist class" hotel still exists in downtown Richmond.

"Tourist class" hotels, in general, are a thing of the past. The name is--and was-- a bit of a misnomer, or probably a euphemism. These were the sort of hotels that never had grand ballrooms, usually didn't have a restaurant, and were fairly lucky that they even had elevators. Nonetheless, they were cheap and they flourished in every city of any size. Richmond herself had several of them. In the dying days of downtowns, most of them turned into flophouses--or, one of my favorite terms, "hot pillow joints."

I decided to stay at the Massad House because I just didn't feel like crashing on anybody's sofa, or blowing the cash for the grandeur of the Jefferson. I also categorically refuse to stay at one of the city's new hotels. And, the Massad House is cheap.

I've been walking or driving past the old place for years. The upper three floors still boast the '20s Tudor-ish architecture of its origin, but the first floor, as long as I can remember, flaunts an early '70s update. No worries really--this is now old enough to be historic in its own right.

When I checked in (the desk clerk couldn't have been nicer, but this IS Richmond) I noted the Super Seventies lobby decor. I was sorely tempted to hang out in the lobby for a bit, but since Tourist Class hotels don't have bars, I had to forego the temptation. The clerk pointed me toward the elevator.

It has been a good thirty years since I've seen an elevator like this in full function. It's just a regular wooden door, like any other room. You open the door, pull back the iron grille, and step in. There is enough room for you and your suitcase. When I mashed the button for "4" (the clerk told me that he'd given me Suite 401), the elevator crankily came to life. I got to see the other floors drifting past. (This was cool. Very few elevators like this still exist.) Unfortunately, the elevator, obviously annoyed at being called to life, climbed up to the fourth floor, took one look around and promptly went back downstairs. Maybe it was just trying to give me a good ride. Back on the first floor, another dude got onto the elevator. He told me that you just had to be nice to it. Apparently, the elevator knew him and respected him. He got it to take me to the fourth floor and, when I jumped out, it took him back to the third floor (where it seems that he lives).

Suite 401 is a far cry from the usual plushiness that I expect of Richmond hotels, but then I'm used to the Jefferson. It is, however, a suite, which is something I don't get from the Jefferson, because the Jefferson charges a cool thousand for a suite, and this was only ninety dollars.

It also features some of the most bizarre seventies furniture I've ever seen, very strange paintings, and windows that still open all the way. Why don't hotel windows open anymore? Well, most hotels have central air now (the Massad House does not) and they're afraid you'll fling yourself out of them. Should you want to off yourself in 20's tabloid-paper style, you can still do so at the Massad House.

Suite 401 contains a parlor (aforementioned 70s furniture), a bedroom (surprisingly comfortable bed, if crummy pillows) and one of the more bizarre bathrooms I have seen to date. The bathroom apparently had only a tub originally, but sometime between 1927 and now, someone decided that it needed a shower. The original tub was removed and a tub/shower was installed. Unfortunately, this seems to have required the construction of a strange bump-out in the wall, which means that the resulting tub is about four feet long, three feet wide, and six inches deep. The shower head, which has to span that bump-out, is nearly two feet wide. I don't quite get it, but it was highly amusing.

When I looked at "Trip Advisor" after the fact, I was somewhat disturbed to read all of the negative comments about the Massad House. After all, in my mind, nothing in Richmond can do any wrong at all. And there wasn't anything really wrong with the place.

People had commented that "it smells like smoke." Hey, folks, it's Virginia, we smoke here. "It's old." Well, you knew that going in, didn't you? "The elevator is scary." I thought the elevator was one of the cooler aspects of an already cool weekend. "The air conditioner didn't work." Mine did, although I didn't need it to, because the windows actually open and Richmond's air is probably nicer than wherever you came from in the first place.

I may not need to stay at the Massad House again, but I wouldn't mind. It wasn't perfect, but it WAS clean, and it DID have character. I could have spent the same amount of money for a totally sterile place in the suburbs which would have been much less convenient. I think that the people who don't like places like this are mostly just products of Mall Culture: they want everything to be brand-new and cookie-cutter style. This old hotel is still doing exactly what it was meant to do: provide decent and clean but not particularly luxurious accomodation.

Even if I never stay in the Massad House again, it's likely that I will show up once in a while to ride the elevator. I think that I finally made friends with it.