The Forum Files The Stories Behind The Richmond Forum
For our 30th season, award-winning author Ray McAllister rummaged through decades of Forum files and artifacts, scoured meeting minutes, dug up dusty newspaper clippings, and conducted dozens of interviews with founders, subscribers, sponsors, and past Forum speakers. The result is The Forum Files, a first-ever compilation of the history and amazing behind-the-scenes stories of The Richmond Forum (and its two predecessor series, going back to 1934!) in a beautiful commemorative coffee table book—a must-have for all fans of The Forum and lovers of unique Richmond history!
Hardcover // 164 full-color pages // $20.00 inc. tax + S&H*
*To save S&H, you may also purchase The Forum Files at the offices of The Richmond Forum. We are located at 110 South 15th Street, Suite B. Normal office hours are 9 AM to 5 PM, Monday through Friday. If you plan to stop by our office, please call to ensure that somebody will be here. We have a small staff and there are times when we are all out at once for meetings or lunch.
To order The Forum Files, please call Debbie Mangolas at (804) 330-3993, ext. 1.
Many might be surprised to learn that the biggest names in the world have long journeyed to Richmond, Virginia—heads of state and titans of business, cultural icons and iconoclasts, newsmakers and newscasters, leading thinkers and A-list celebrities.
The reason: No other American city turns out in such numbers to see the most influential people in the world share their experiences, perspectives, and ideas live on stage . . . at The Richmond Forum.
The Forum has wowed audiences for three decades, but the tradition of a large and vibrant lecture series has been a unique part of Richmond’s culture and identity since the 19th century—and has inspired other cities to follow suit.
The Forum Files should be on the must-read list—and the coffee table—of anyone who loves The Forum, Richmond, or the inspiring pairing of big names and big ideas.
Here are just some of the fascinating behind-the-scenes stories contained within this lavishly illustrated book:
Former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev drove his Secret Service detail batty, repeatedly ordering his car stopped so he could jump out and meet ordinary Richmonders.
Famed director Steven Spielberg doesn’t accept speaking invitations—but he made an exception for a fascinating evening in Richmond.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu sneaked away privately before his speech—to visit the statue of his late friend, Arthur Ashe, Jr.
Baseball superstar Cal Ripken, Jr., meeting with three young players, couldn’t have known one fourteen-year-old would become a football superstar. That player, Russell Wilson, himself agreed to appear at The Forum twelve years later.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered both a foreign policy speech . . . and a surprise virtuoso piano performance.
B. B. King was expected to give a talk, instead, he let Lucille do most of the talking. He drew a standing ovation—and insisted on receiving his very large payment in cash.
The Forum Files should be on the must-read list—and the coffee table—of anyone who loves The Forum, Richmond, or the inspiring pairing of big names and big ideas. Purchase your copy now!
Ray McAllister, magazine editor and former newspaper columnist, is the author of four award-winning books on the North Carolina coast—Hatteras Island: Keeper of the Outer Banks, Ocracoke: The Pearl of the Outer Banks, Topsail Island: Mayberry by the Sea, and Wrightsville Beach: The Luminous Island. Formerly a columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he is now the editor of Boomer magazine.
Ray and his wife, Vicki, live in Richmond, Virginia.
Foreword By Bill Chapman, Executive Director
The Richmond Forum stage is hallowed ground.
For the last thirty years—or for forty-seven years, depending on how you count it (I’ll let the author explain that)—the biggest names in the world have traveled to Richmond, Virginia . . . to speak. And to do so on a stage so large that it can easily swallow the person who doesn’t bring his or her “A game.”
Before each speaker, unseen to them in the lights of the theater, but sensed deeply, is the largest and most respected lecture series audience in America. This stage and this audience are why names like Clinton, Bush, Blair, Thatcher, Gorbachev, Kissinger, Reagan, Rice, Bernanke, Tutu, Netanyahu, Bhutto, Cronkite, Brokaw, Spielberg, Redford, Winfrey, Goodall, Buchwald, Asimov, and hundreds more, have made the trip to Richmond over the years.
This season, 4,500 subscribers and sponsors from the Richmond Region (as well as Williamsburg, the Northern Neck, Fredericksburg, Northern Virginia, and points west) will attend each of five Forum evenings. Most of these folks have been with us for many seasons and in that time have spent a few enriching hours in the same room with some of the most fascinating, accomplished, and connected individuals in the world. And, most rare in 21st Century America, there is no separation between a Forum attendee seated in the theater and a Forum speaker: No glass of a television screen, no ink on paper, no sound bite, no reporting bias, and most importantly, no pundit telling anybody in our audience what they should think about what they have just seen and heard.
We ask each of our speakers to come to the theater in the afternoon for a sound check before the evening’s presentation. The sound engineers fit them with their headset microphones and we ask them to rattle off something of their choosing so audio levels can be set—some use the opportunity to walk through a portion of their intended remarks, others recite some poem learned long ago in school, and others carry on a conversation with me, sometimes lasting well after the point that the sound man is happy—we finally see him standing quietly to the side, waiting patiently to remove our mics.
Aside from the all-important technical preparations, I really want our speakers to see the theater. To step out onto that massive stage before the house is full and the lights are in their face. To see the giant backdrops—created especially for their presentation—that will frame their every word. To see where the very top row of the upper balcony is.
Nearly to the person, every speaker asks me the same incredulous question: “And all of these seats are going to be full tonight? That’s amazing.” In recent years, since the addition of our very successful Simulcast Room in the theater’s ballroom, I’ve been able to say, “Plus, 800 subscribers in the ballroom, and 100 students in our Student Room.” Heads shake in amazement.
The longstanding and hard-earned reputation of The Richmond Forum precedes it and makes it possible for us to fulfill the first part of our mission statement: “To bring the leaders from the world stage to our stage in Richmond.” The second half of our mission talks about why we do this: “To expand horizons, stimulate conversation, and inspire our community.”
Although those particular words were crafted in 2009 by our board of directors, the mission has been there for a long, long time, as you will learn in these pages.
This book started as something nice to do in honor of our thirtieth season. My pitch to author and Forum subscriber Ray McAllister was simple: We want to tell the story of The Richmond Forum (including the behind the scenes stories) and also show how The Forum fits into a long tradition of lecture circuit speaking in America.
Honestly, we didn’t realize what we were taking on in such a short period of time. The book had to be ready for our opening program in November. “The thirtieth season runs through April, doesn’t it?”, Ray kept asking as the project grew. And grew.
What started out as something “nice to do” quickly turned into something “important to do.” Ray has successfully uncovered the mostly-forgotten history of this organization and given us the gift of perspective that can only come from a long view, as well as a fuller understanding of who we are and how such an impressive public forum was born here in Richmond, and grew to be the largest in America. Ray’s ability to transform a thousand data points gathered from old files, notes, clippings, correspondence, and interviews into a beautifully written narrative is without compare.
I often note an interesting physiological phenomenon at our programs: When a Forum speaker has transfixed our audience, nobody is coughing. Nobody. If the speaker hasn’t captured the audience’s attention, you can hear coughing coming from every corner of the theater. Perhaps, I should have suggested that I do one of those testimonial quotes for the back of this book’s dust jacket: “I didn’t cough once while reading this! – Bill Chapman.”
On behalf of everybody in the Forum family, I thank Ray McAllister for his good work and dedication to this project.
Before turning you over to his book, however, a parting word from another.
In his 2008 book, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Pico Iyer wrote a wonderful passage about the obligation facing three high-profile speakers waiting to go on stage before a large audience:
“[Their] job now was to give this audience a human, living sense of contact that no audience could get from a screen (the crowd, after all, had been waiting for this day for months); and yet they had to leave behind them something that would outlast them, and maybe help people return to the clatter and commotion a little differently, in part by seeing how they could change the world by changing the way they looked at the world.”
The Richmond Forum
Preface By Ray McAllister, Author
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.
—Ray McAllister, Author