It is a Saturday evening in late March 1991, and we are in a small room for last-minute preparation. Art Buchwald walks in and says hello. He sits by himself at the far end of the conference table. Soon, he pulls out a cassette player and pops in Frère Jacques—but with “Art Buchwald” substituted as the key lyric.
He has said nothing. He is grinning, however. This is his favorite song, it will turn out. Or the original is. The parody was the work of Ralph Krueger the last time Buchwald spoke at The Richmond Forum.
Buchwald was a syndicated humor columnist back then, a print guy whose face and voice were rarely witnessed by audiences. Turns out he was one heck of a speaker, though, and a prince of a guy. We exchanged a couple notes later, and I would write a column on him when he died. I was a columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which is how I ended up on the panel of four asking audience questions that night for Buchwald and the other speaker, Andy Rooney, commentator on CBS’s 60 Minutes. I guess that’s how. I’m just glad I was asked.
Anyway, Krueger, the Forum president, who is also in the room, is planning to have the whole audience sing the “Art Buchwald” parody to Buchwald this night. And he’s got an East Side, West Side takeoff for Rooney.
Rooney shows up and sits down. Krueger is going over the format for us question askers. “I would assume I’m going to speak first,” Rooney interjects.
“He speaks first,” Krueger counters, nodding toward Buchwald.
“That’s wrong,” Rooney says.
It’s no joke. Rooney thinks he goes first because Buchwald is funnier. Buchwald says Rooney goes first because he, Buchwald, is straying from the topic of “Humor and the Press.” Krueger, used to getting his way as president of the Forum, doesn’t like it. “It wouldn’t make sense playing your song first,” he says to Rooney.
Ultimately, Krueger would give in. But there was this awkward moment when you had two of the funniest men in America in the same room.
And nobody was laughing.
So this was my introduction, not only the first time I was involved with The Forum, but the first time I had seen it, period.
What an introduction.
Move ahead two decades. Though I don’t think I had misbehaved, I was not invited back to The Forum professionally until February 2012. Bill Chapman, by then holding the duties Krueger had, gave me complete access as editor of Boomer magazine.
The speaker that evening was Quincy Jones.
Turns out it was hardly just an evening speech.
The day begins at seven in the morning, with equipment being moved into the theater. It will not end until well after midnight, when the post-program reception at a local hotel breaks up. In-between are myriad events, rehearsals, adjustments, flubs, moments of confusion, laughs, and cheers. (You can read about this day later in the book . . . when I necessarily refer to myself, awkwardly, in the third person.)
At the night-ending reception, Jones sits for pictures and snippets of conversation, a usual bonus for invited guests and corporate sponsors.
Three photos are taken of us. In two, Quincy Jones and I are holding wine glasses, and seem unclear as to what each other is saying . . . Make of that what you will. In the third, a posed shot of my wife and us, “Q” has one hand on Vicki’s shoulder and is using the other to point his thumb backward at me. I assume it was his usual thumbs-up gesture. But as I had been following the poor man around all day, it’s entirely possible Q was dispensing of me with a derisive “this guy” gesture. Who knows. I prefer not to think too much about it.
A great evening, either way.
Almost everyone who attends a program becomes a fan of The Richmond Forum and many, Vicki and I among them, become subscribers. Richmond is a middle-sized city, yet The Forum has gotten just about every major speaker over the years: presidents, world leaders, newsmakers, news reporters, entertainers, just plain interesting folks. And it has taken on every major issue: war, the economy, terrorism, cyber-terrorism, life, politics, race, music, space, science, diplomacy, football . . . Football?
How all this happened—and why it took, in essence, three tries over a half-century before a forum finally and completely succeeded—is as interesting a story as you might hope. This book, I need not tell you, was fascinating to work on. Not that it was easy. The Forum files themselves—from which this book takes its name in part—were a godsend because these people throw out nothing. Overall, there were thousands of pages of records (old ones in disarray, the 1960s freely intermingled with the 1980s) and seventy years of newspaper clippings here and elsewhere to go through, dozens of interviews to conduct, and the usual writing-rewriting-layout headaches of any big project. One issue, however, was more challenging still:
What to put in and what to leave out.
The Richmond Forum is, as Bill Chapman once said of just the blockbuster 2012–13 season alone, an embarrassment of riches. And The Richmond Forum is, as Ralph Krueger once said more off-handedly of the blockbuster 1990–91 season alone, not too shabby. (Historical footnote: Krueger added “but expensive as hell”) Great stories and photographs abound. In the end, we selected what we thought were the best—the most important, the most interesting, the most telling, the most unlikely, the funniest—realizing other selectors might have made other choices with just as much validity.
Not only will you learn who came (and who didn’t) and what they said onstage, but what had been going on at the Forum offices and the board meetings, what was going on backstage, even what was going on at the dinners and in the limousines and at the airports (Forum staff almost always picked up their famous speakers at the airport . . . almost). It was not always pretty, but what has emerged is nothing short of remarkable.
So welcome to the world in five nights a year.
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to The Richmond Forum.