Wednesday, January 23, 2008

In Memoriam: Millie Jones

Posted by Bruce Miller
Our great friend Millie Jones died last weekend at age 64 after a long illness. If any single person is responsible for the turnaround of our Empire Theatre neighborhood, Millie Jones may well be that person.

From 1983 until 2003, Millie owned 322 W. Broad Street, a couple blocks west of the Empire. During most of those 20 years, the small business she founded and managed, Festival Flags, was one of the few thriving enterprises in what was otherwise a seemingly derelict commercial corridor. We joined her as urban pioneers in 1986 when Theatre IV purchased the historic Empire Theatre. Phil and I acquired and renovated the Marshall Street office building that houses most of our staff in 1990.

Today, the Empire Theatre District (or Arts District or President’s Row, depending on which moniker you prefer) is one of Richmond’s hottest neighborhoods, home to First Fridays and ten dazzling restaurants and hundreds of apartments within a two-block radius of our marquee. I know Millie must have been thrilled.

Millie was an accomplished seamstress and graphic designer. In 1971, she bought a piece of Scandinavian cloth, made it into a flag and flew it at her Fan District home to direct guests to a party. When friends and neighbors requested custom-made flags of their own, she started a small cottage industry in her basement. In 1975, she created an “It’s a Boy” flag to mark the birth of her son, Jonathan. When she did, she earned near-celebrity status as the national press from The Wall Street Journal to "Good Morning America" descended on Richmond to interview the “flag lady.”

It seems hard to believe now, but before Millie, no one hung commemorative or decorative flags beside their doorways. Her original idea soon developed a national following, and for decades, Festival Flags flourished. In recognition of her creating this national trend, Millie’s passing was covered this week by the Seattle Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and ABC News.

But it was Millie’s excitement about and dedication to downtown revitalization that made her our steadfast friend. She LOVED IT when we bought and restored the Empire. For years we’d see her three or four times a week. She was constantly walking up and down Broad—creating, leading and building the Old and Historic Broad Street Association, organizing us neighbors to lobby for the city’s attention, and doing whatever it took to get people interested in our little corner of downtown.

When her “It’s a Boy” son Jonathan came of age, Millie signed him up with us for a summer internship. Whenever graffiti scumbags defaced our historic buildings, Millie came running. She made sure that we removed the graffiti immediately, that the police investigated the crime with vigor, and that prosecutors sought serious punishment for the vandals if and when they were caught.

When we produced Stand-Up Tragedy in the Little Theatre, we hired a VCU art student to simulate graffiti all over the theatre’s interior walls, helping to set the scene for this urban drama. When Millie stopped by to see how everything was going, she stepped into the Little Theatre and immediately went ballistic. She swore she recognized the style of several of the “tags” that were spray-painted on our walls, and demanded to know the name of the person we had hired so that she could turn him over to the police.

We panicked. There was no way we were going to give up the name of the art student if doing so would get him into trouble. Prior to Millie’s recognition of his work, it had never occurred to us that he might be one of the ones who actually was vandalizing the neighborhood—much less a ring leader. So we met with Millie and the police, and they gave us permission to talk with the scenic artist personally without their involvement.

When we did, we soon found out that Millie was right. After learning that his work had been recognized, the art student confessed. We outlined for him all the costs that we and our downtown neighbors absorbed each month to remove the graffiti that he and his friends were creating. After hearing everything, he vowed never to deface a building again. He promised to talk with the other graffiti vandals, many of whom were his friends. In return, we pledged never to release his name—not even in the playbill. Not even in this blog.

For the next couple years, graffiti in our neighborhood decreased significantly. And it was all because of Millie Jones.

For her friendliness, her creativity, her passion and her care, we loved Millie. With affection and respect, we will be dedicating our summer production of Guys and Dolls to her memory. We will never forget her many contributions to our theatre and downtown Richmond.

--Bruce Miller

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Millie Jones was such a civic-minded woman. It was pure delight to read your story about her walking into the theater and seeing the graffiti on the walls. I'm sure she almost had a stroke. And as much as she hated graffiti, it's not surprising at all to hear that she allowed you to meet with the art student privately to take care of the problem. She was always as compassionate as she was committed to justice. Maybe that's because her husband is a judge.

We will miss Millie tremendously, and we look forward to attending "Guys and Dolls" this summer in her honor. She was so impressed by you two guys and the risks you took by moving into the Empire in the 80s when no one else would make that kind of investment in downtown. She'd be thrilled that you're dedicating a show to her. Thank you.